Gendered Language in Instructor Evaluations

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As Brooklyn College beckons you to fill out the end-of-the-semester instructor evaluations for the classes you’ve maybe already begun to push from your mind, first consider the impact your language holds as you may be unknowingly perpetuating negative stereotypes.

Recently a study was produced which complied linguistic data from the website Rate My Professor, comparing the language used within over 14 million reviews, categorizing how words were used based on the gender and discipline of the professor being reviewed.  

The data generated in the study was used to create an interactive chart, which allows the user to type in any word into the search bar to chart the prevalence of the word within Rate My Professor reviews.  The chart splits across gender and discipline: the x-axis gives how many times your term is used per million words of text (normalized against gender and field). You can access the chart here.

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The study revealed that stereotypical gendered language was often used to describe both sexes. And women more than men took a hit, as their reviews contained negative stereotypes often applied to women as a social group. Words like “smart,” “intellectual,” “scholar,” and “genius” were disproportionality used to describe male professors across all disciplines. While words like “emotional,” “caring,” “rude,” “shrill,” and “bossy” were used to describe female professors.

As we know these results do not reflect any true social realities, or sexual differences, but instead reveal the way social categories like gender can be repeatedly constructed through the language we use to differentiate behaviors and values. The language we choose can reveal an implicit idea we hold about a social group and that our very using it can perpetuate the marginality of these groups.

So, when you find yourself searching for the right adjectives to describe your professors this semester, maybe begin by questioning the relationship between your professor’s social group, race, and/or sexuality and how you tend to perceive them. As a species whose brain functions to rapidly categorize and make sweeping associations, we often reduce and misname the subjects who occupy groups outside of our own. We often become lazy with our descriptions: our female professors appear to us as especially “caring,” or “sensitive” because we (as individuals and as a culture) value her sensitivity more than we value her brilliance, or aggression.

More importantly, we should remember the power our language holds. Our words are never weightless, but they are always inherently political, affective and interacting with a rich history and latent future.

Don’t be lazy this year, but be precise, be honest, and check your bias.

-EC

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