Professorial Bias: In the Classroom or in Your Head?

Glenn Ricketts

Professorial classroom bias is in the news again, courtesy of a recent piece by Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Education. Conservative critics, he observes, are forever carping about punitive left-leaning professors, who are hostile to the views of students on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. A lot of academics dispute such allegations, Jaschik says, and they’ve got the “studies to back them up.” I’d be interested to know what “studies” he’s referring to here, but unfortunately no information is provided.

 There is, however, the recent survey (requires subscription) conducted by Clemson communications professor Darren Linvill, who concludes that perceptions of professorial bias may reflect student predispositions rather than actual ideological imbalance in the classroom.    Based on a sampling of 261 students at an unnamed “land-grant university in the Southeast,” Linvill concluded that perceptions of bias seemed to come from students – whether politically on the right or the left – who were uncomfortable with challenges to their views, especially if their professors do the job right and play devil’s advocate. Many of them aren’t accustomed to this, and if the Socratic method affronts them, that’s a different thing than the existence of actual bias. Following interviews with those students in his sample who claimed to experience bias, Linvill was unable to find any evidence of the real thing. 

It was, instead, the perception of bias growing out of these students’ difficulty examining their views which constituted his most significant finding. Nevertheless, it’s the function of higher education to challenge students’ views, whatever they are, and professors would not be faithful to their calling if they failed in this central part of the educational process. There may be more than one way to do this, but Linvill – in Jaschik’s telling – isn’t about to stop engaging students’ ideas, since that’s what it’s all about.

My first reaction after reading Jaschik's piece was puzzlement that he even considered the survey newsworthy. Certainly if you’re looking for compelling empirical evidence about a topic that’s both intensely controversial and difficult to pinpoint, this study is exceedingly slim.  No reflection at all on the integrity of Linvill's work, but a sample of 261 students at a single state university just doesn’t do the trick for me. 

In any case, Jaschik appears to be the one reaching.  He leads off with a reference to the “conservative critics” who are always beefing about the prevalence of leftist ideological hegemony, then cites Linvill’s work as an apparent “Aha” moment that deflates such charges with hard empirical data.  A few others certainly saw it that way, as bloggers here and here did, along with the student editorial staff for the Daily Texan in this recent op ed

Recall that something similar happened on a much larger scale a couple of years ago with the publication of Closed Minds? Politics and Ideology in American Universities, by Smith, Mayer and Fritschler, which I reviewed here. As I noted, the book generated a merry media flurry, since - aha, once again - we had here a meticulous quantitative survey that refuted the hip-shot accusations of bias from those tenacious conservative critics. 

True, this was a book, and the sample was multidisciplinary, cross-institutional and much larger. My problem was with the methodology employed, since the authors simply asked their sample cohort of professors whether they thought that they themselves were biased. No, we aren’t they replied. There you are, the authors concluded.

Look, I’ve got nothing against the Socratic method - this the NAS, after all - and I cheerfully endorse the idea that a college education should compel students to engage ideas. I’ve always tried to do that in my own classes, and I can agree with Linvill’s observation that this doesn’t come easily for some students. I can also acknowledge that it may be impossible to measure "bias" with any precision, since only a mind reader or a fly on the wall is in a position to know exactly what goes on in any particular classroom setting.

But I have a very hard time believing that undergraduates who fervently support same-sex marriage, abortion-on-demand or publicly funded health care are challenged to anything like the extent that free marketers, critics of feminism or evangelical Christians are. Indeed, professorial hostility to the latter group was one of the most striking findings of this 2007 survey of faculty attitudes by the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish and Community Research. Scroll down to p. 15, where the authors record their astonishment at the depth of animosity manifested by a significant proportion of their survey subjects toward one of the largest demographic cohorts in the country. 

I’ve also yet to see a “conservative” equivalent of this course on ecology and scarcity at Penn State, of the “diversity” essay required by many college admissions offices, or this description of liberal ideological hegemony by a student journalist at Princeton. 

And while all of this may not be “data” in the strict sense, it still leaves me thinking that perceptions of ideological bias – from whatever source - reflect a good deal more than the fact that some students may be stiff-necked in clinging to their own ideas.

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