Friday, December 13, 2019

Biases and natural experiments

I teach legal classes. I've done so in some capacity for almost a decade, so I've had a ton of teaching evaluations over the years. I just got done reading my teaching evaluations from this summer, mostly because I ask intuition when is a good time to read it, and if it isn't a good time I just wait until I get a confirmation that it is. So I had some time, caught up tonight on grading, and looked at them. Some were better than I thought they were going to be (my "boss" had emailed some concerns about them, which I responded to, but hadn't read the evaluations). I got like a 4.9/5 rating, which I don't know but guess is one of the highest out of all of the instructors at that particular institution. The other institution I knew at least one review was bad because when the boss emailed me, it said "the one is basically an outlier," so didn't worry. But there were actually two really negative reviews. One of them said "I don't know why she teaches here."

Of course I know that you can't please everyone and sometimes a teaching style that some people will like, others don't, etc. Some people want more assignments! They want me to be strict or to penalize them for things. I don't know, maybe they don't have a great internal locus of control and feel like they want me to police them, but I don't because it's their agency and they can use it to learn or not to learn.

But these two people for were really negative. One said "Frankly, I really don't see what she is doing teaching here." And: "Enough with the [review] games, stop being lazy and truly teach your students something." How often do these outliers happen? I find that there's either none, or about half the time there are 1-3 per class. And it's kind of an interesting social experiment, because they all take the same class. And the rest of them are saying things like the class is great and they love the review games, etc.

What is going on? Again it could be that some people don't like the format of the class or maybe they're jaded because I was giving them bad grades or because they learned things a different way and don't like my way (the practice of law is like music or art in that there are some basic rules of thumb to go by, but there's actually also a lot of discretion and "practice" in the discipline). Or maybe they don't like women or whatever. But you know what intuition thinks it is? Intuition thinks that some students google my name and see that I've written a book about being a diagnosed sociopath and they don't like that. And that knowledge colors their perspective of everything else they experience in the class. Suddenly I am lazy, not innovative for reviewing the material in a game show format.

Sometimes students will outright reference the book. Not surprisingly those evaluations almost always have a very poor view of the value of the class. My people know about the book and are still very supportive (one of the bosses did disability accommodation in a previous position and the other one is a baby boomer era gay woman, so I feel like they both get it better than your average person, and I'm lucky that way).

But even when evaluations don't explicitly mention the book, there can be weird comments like: "I felt that the instructor was ambivalent about our success and comprehension." That's a common one I see in conjunction with the comments about the book. I think they're trying to find a relevant reason to complain. It doesn't matter that I seem perfectly friendly and invested in their success, everything I do is seen through a lens of suspicion. Why did I choose to have them do group work? It must be because I'm lazy. That sort of thing. But interestingly students who don't seem to know about the book will mention that they loved the group work, etc.

You've probably heard the term "natural experiment". Like situations in life that just happen to have experimental qualities -- things like community programs that are decided randomly, e.g. based on a lottery system.

I guess my situation is not quite a natural experiment, because I'm sure it's not entirely random who decides to google me. I often think it's the people that especially like me and the class at first that are more prone to google me. But they all subsequently sit through the same class and come up with really different ideas about it. And with the people that know about the book, it seems to color their every subsequent interaction with me.

Have you ever taken those inherent biases tests? The ones that kind of play off your expectations, like the word yellow written in purple and you have to read yellow out loud? But for racism or for sexism? I feel like I am just as socialized as the next person to have inherent biases. Maybe it's seeing so many examples of bias or the way people's psychological make-up distorts their perceptions or seeing how normal deeply ingrained norms seem to the people I visit in my travels and how foreign they seem to me, but I'm basically a 3/10 for believing that I can rely on my own mental capacity to understand. I love to learn, but I just know that my understanding is so limited -- sometimes in really obvious ways like when I try to understand dark matter, and sometimes better like when I actually was able to understand how astronomers have predicted a ninth planet (not Pluto, which doesn't count, but a new planet we have never seen before based on the motion of other objects in our solar system). Also I think being in academia really jaded me in terms of relying on expert anything? Because I have met those people and they're just people. And like all other people they're like 7/10 driven by fear and self preservation. I see it in the sociopathy researchers who won't stick their neck out and go against the general tide and I see it in my students who take corporate jobs they hate and I see it in a million other ways in which people settle for something less than the truth that will set them free and their real life's purpose. 
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