Rose Stremlau, an assistant professor of history and American Indian studies at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, has a thoughtful piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry, subscription only) of that title, in which she discusses the disturbing fixation of both Palin’s ideological friends and foes on her body and sexuality. Talking about Palin’s appearance is a conversation that people prefer to have, because they can’t deal with the notion of a female body wielding political power. Reducing the bodies of women politicians both discursively and visually to various parts that can be approved of or disapproved of–like the photos here of Palin’s legs (above) and Hillary Clinton’s “cankles” (right)–is a means of diminishing the women themselves and public anxiety about women and authority in general. Stremlau can relate in a small way to this objectification because like most women faculty, she has received comments about her appearance and body in her student evaluations. She writes:
Since I began teaching at the college level 10 years ago, I have received a handful of teaching evaluations that included comments about my body. Recognizing the handwriting, I believe that all of those comments were written by male students who apparently appreciated a firm backside more than a tightly organized lecture. Interestingly, all of those students except one were young men with whom I had healthy classroom relationships. They were good students who participated in class and responded well to my feedback about their work. Did they think that they were complimenting me as a professional educator by approving me as a worthy potential sex partner?
Stremlau then goes on to raise an important professional issue:
The students’ inappropriate remarks concern me because the universities that I have worked for have policies requiring that those comments remain part of my professional record for evaluation purposes. In response to my questions about belittling comments in the past, I have been told that it is inappropriate for such remarks to be stricken from student evaluations or for those evaluations to be removed because doing so would violate the spirit of soliciting anonymous, fair student feedback.
Obviously, such policies were designed to prevent faculty members from purging negative comments about their teaching for fear that such feedback might jeopardize their tenure or promotion. At the same time, I know many female colleagues who also have received student evaluations containing observations about their bodies. What is honest or fair about having “nice ass” in my professional record as I am considered for professional advancement?
Great question. I’ve always thought that people who write comments like that in teaching evaluations impeach their own evaluations as well as raise questions about the value of student evaluations in general, questions I’m always happy to have raised because without peer evaluations I think they’re of highly dubious value and are prone to misuse and abuse. I must confess that I hadn’t thought about the effect that preserving those voices might have in continuing the objectification of women faculty in our own minds and in the minds of our colleagues who will read those comments. Perhaps like Palin and Clinton, we can look forward to smarmy comments about how desirable we are until we’re 45, and then after that we’ll be subjected to criticism about how hideous and unfashionable we are, and what disappointments we are to people looking for eye candy in the classroom rather than intellectual stimulation.
How do your universities and departmental colleagues deal with comments like these? I thank my lucky stars every day (well, almost) that I’ve landed in a department that views student evaluations skeptically unless there are consistent and persistent complaints. I’m going to assume that if you’re a woman, and/or if you’ve ever read a woman professor’s teaching evaluations, that you’re familiar with the issue here. Have you ever seen racism, ethnic bias, age bias, or comments about a faculty member’s supposed sexuality in student evaluations, either in your evaluations or in those of other faculty? How does your department deal with evidence of those kinds of biases or hostility in student evaluations? Should departments purge the evaluations with inappropriate comments, or should they preserve them? If they preserve them, should departments make a note in their tenure or annual review letters (the stuff that will be read by Deans and Provosts) about the inappropriate comments and the biases they reveal among students?
(Photos taken from brilliant posts by Melissa McEwan at Shakesville here and here. She did a wonderful job analyzing both verbal and visual evidence of the ways in which the women candidates were treated very differently from the men all year long.)