#DiversityinHigherEd – Confronting Microaggressions in the Classroom

As diversity in higher education becomes more of a focal point and a means to reflect on our own institutions and practices as academics, we will be re-posting material related to these issues on the first Thursday of every month (second Thursday this month). This post is borrowed from Conditionally Accepted.

3 Approaches for Confronting Microaggressions

By Tyrone Fleurizard

Phil Goodman — a pseudonym — has been teaching the psychology of prejudice for almost a decade. He has every lecture memorized and every punch line down. Throughout the semester, students explore the many ways prejudice manifests, interrogate prejudice research and, at the conclusion of the semester, develop ways to reduce prejudice in their own lives.

Goodman’s favorite lecture is on stereotypes. His reading for this particular lecture includes an experimental study from Stanford University social psychologist and 2014 MacArthur “Genius” fellow Jennifer Eberhardt and her colleagues. They sought to determine how stereotypic associations influence visual processing and attention. To do that, participants were primed with either black faces, white faces or no faces and then shown images on a computer screen of crime and noncrime objects that started fuzzy and became progressively clearer.

The researchers were testing reaction time, so participants were instructed to press a key as soon as they could make out the object. What they found was astonishing: participants took less time to identify a crime-relevant object when primed with black faces than with white faces. When primed with white faces, participants took longer to recognize dangerous objects — so much so that if in a real situation, they could have been in fatal danger. During the class discussion, one student eager to contribute began reciting the study’s methodology. When they described the primed faces, however, they referred to the white faces as “white” but the black faces as “colored.” After they finished, there was a long pause. Microaggressions like these happen all time.

Microaggressions are subtle, discriminatory actions and comments toward people of color that may be racist, sexist or ableist. The late Chester Pierce, emeritus professor at Harvard Medical School, first coined the term in the 1970s as “subtle, stunning, often automatic and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’” by offenders. These seemingly trivial slights have been shown to be related to negative health and academic outcomes for black students.

In a landmark paper, Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues at Columbia University described microaggressions as taking three forms: microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations. Microassaults are explicit verbal or nonverbal attacks meant to hurt someone, such as using racial epithets. Microinsults are verbal and nonverbal insults that often carry hidden meaning, including, “You’re pretty for a black woman” — the implication being that black women are not attractive. And microinvalidations invalidate the experiences and existence of the victim, such as, “I don’t see color. I see people for who they are.” While microassaults are typically conscious, microinsults and microinvalidations are often unconscious. That doesn’t excuse their use. It means we are not immune.

A challenge for education practitioners is how to effectively address such microaggressions in the classroom. While recognizing this is a delicate issue with no absolutely correct answer, I have three suggestions to attempt to address and reduce classroom microaggressions.

Use the syllabus to create the classroom culture. Faculty members and university regulations can often overlook the syllabus as a powerful tool for classroom socialization. Beyond outlining guidelines and policies à la carte, it’s an opportunity for professors to communicate to students the classroom culture in a meaningful way.

Specifically, language plays a critical role in syllabus design. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that a syllabus’s language influences students’ perceptions of the professor, including how approachable and motivated to teach they believed the professor to be. Design a syllabus that lets students, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, know that they are supported and that their existence, experiences and opinions are valid.

For example, a possible statement might be “I am committed to affirming the identities, realities and voices of all students, especially those from historically marginalized or underrepresented backgrounds. This course values the use of person-centered language and preferred gender pronouns, and respect for the experiences of others.”

Use microaffirmations. According to Mary Rowe, adjunct professor of negotiation and conflict management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, microaffirmations are “small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed.” She originated the term in 2008 when she was tasked with figuring out ways to improve the workplace for underrepresented MIT students, faculty members and staff members. She saw that the “little issues,” what she called microinequalities, could have destructive, long-term effects on an organization. She hypothesized that if microinequalities can have negative effects, then microaffirmations could have positive ones. She was right.

These small affirmations can be done by giving nonverbal cues, such as head nodding when students are speaking, giving credit to students by name, asking for students’ valued opinion and endorsing students’ ideas, among others. The effects of microaffirmations can be manifold. Not only do they affirm the identities of marginalized students, but, if used consistently, they may also be effective in reinforcing the classroom culture.

Address microaggressions when they happen. This is what Goodman did. After the student finished, he chose to address the microaggression by saying, “Before we leave, I want to point out what just happened. I don’t think you’re aware of what you said. What you said is an inappropriate term to refer to black people. I just want to make sure that you know that it’s not OK, and it’s hurtful. In the future, use person-centered language.” This can be the most challenging way to address microaggressions in the classroom, as doing so involves risk and responsibility. But, regardless of potential conflict, direct but empathetic discussion may be most effective in dealing with microaggressions.

The alternative — being passive — may communicate a lack of empathy and concern for the well-being of targets of microaggressions, in addition to communicating that denigration is normal. In one study, professors and students were given vignettes describing incidents of microaggression and asked whether a direct response to the microaggression was more effective than being passive. The researchers hypothesized that teachers would perceive direct responses as more effective than would students. But that isn’t what happened. While both teachers and students perceived direct responses as more effective, students did so at a higher rate than professors, suggesting that students may want their professors to confront microaggressions as they happen.

To support the most marginalized students, practitioners should make an effort to address the barriers associated with marginal identity. It’s hard to contribute and thrive in the classroom when your existence is invalidated and you are made to feel like a bit player. Acknowledgment that microaggressions aren’t so micro is key to creating an inclusive learning environment for all students.


Tyrone Fleurizard is a doctoral student in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. He is broadly interested in racial disparities in education. You can follow him on Twitter at @tyrone_af.



This post originally appeared in Conditionally Accepted, a column of Inside Higher Ed, on July 20, 2018.

#DiversityinHigherEd – RateMyProf Cancels Chili Pepper

As diversity in higher education becomes more of a focal point and a means to reflect on our own institutions and practices as academics, we will be re-posting material related to these issues on the first Thursday of every month. This post is borrowed from Inside Higher Ed.

Bye, Bye, Chili Pepper

By Colleen Flaherty

RIP, chili pepper.

RateMyProfessors.com confirmed last week that it is doing away with its most controversial teaching “quality” metric — “hotness,” as indicted by chili pepper icons — following a social media campaign against it.

Professors have long argued that Rate My Professors is less than scientific, pointing to the hotness rating as exhibit A. Numerous studies support that assertion. A 2017 analysis of millions of online ratings of professors found, for example, that scores varied with instructor gender, discipline and perceived “easiness,” and that professors rated as attractive had higher overall teaching scores.

Nevertheless, the chili pepper persisted — until last week, when BethAnn McLaughlin, an assistant professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University, tweeted at Rate My Professors, saying, “Life is hard enough for female professors. Your ‘chili pepper’ rating of our ‘hotness’ is obnoxious and utterly irrelevant to our teaching. Please remove it because #TimesUP and you need to do better.”

Thousands of other professors and students joined in, with some pushing for a boycott of the site until it ditched its Scoville scale for academics’ looks.

The campaign comes on the heels of a movement for female academics to include “Dr.” in their social media biographies and, of course, the larger Me Too moment. While many male academics have condemned the Rate My Professors hotness rating as demeaning and irrelevant to their work (they too are eligible for the rating), it’s been particularly loathed by women. That’s because study after study suggests that student evaluations of teaching in general are biased against women. Female professors and their supervisors also report that open-ended comments in end-of-term student evaluations too often disparage or otherwise focus on women’s appearances. With this kind of evidence mounting, the University of Southern California recently stopped using student evaluations of teaching in promotion decisions, in favor of a peer-review model. The University of Oregon‘s faculty also voted to end quantitative evaluations of teaching and replace them with a more holistic system.

Not everyone objects to the chili pepper. McLaughlin has taken heat on social media and via email from its apparent fans, some of it insulting. And some professors on the website’s annual “hottest” professors list (based on the peppers) have laughed off the title. But many academics involved in conversations about campus climate and the validity of student rating systems have criticized Rate My Professors as perpetuating and normalizing the worst aspects of both. And some academics say that Rate My Professors has real effects on classroom enrollment.

So just two days into McLaughlin’s campaign, and with little fanfare, Rate My Professors on Twitter said that it would remove all chili pepper ratings from its site, effective immediately.

Rate My Professors did equivocate a bit, saying that the chili pepper rating “is meant to reflect a dynamic/exciting teaching style,” despite clear evidence to the contrary on its social media accounts and elsewhere. Still, McLaughlin and others celebrated the move as another win for campus climate and, for female professors, in particular. In an essay on Edge for Scholars, a commentary website, McLaughlin wrote, “Today we had small but important victory in getting the folks at Rate My Professors to take down the chili peppers students use to evaluate professors’ ‘hotness.’”

Within 72 hours of “being called out by 14,000 academics and students,” she wrote, “they pulled a thorn from the side of women in education.” Referring to the website’s parent companies, she added, “I am grateful that MTV and Viacom recognized that telling students that evaluating professors based on their looks has aged poorly. In the age of #MeToo, #TimesUp and #MeTooSTEM, we know better, so we must do better.” (Representatives for MTV did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the elimination of the chili pepper.)

In her essay, McLaughlin offered more insight into what prompted her to criticize the “hotness” metric. She said she’s been “lost and angry” reading the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s new report on what she called “shameful numbers on the sexual harassment and isolation of women in academia. These were more than numbers to me. They were stories of [loss] and sadness. Stories of brokenness we have just started sharing outside of whispers.” McLaughlin is also part of a related effort to collect and a related effort to collect stories about sexual misconduct in the sciences.

In that moment, McLaughlin said, she realized that “the failure to respect women in academics was ingrained far too early in our young men.” And Rate My Professors “is one of the earliest opportunities for students to exert very public power over our careers and reputations. Giving us chili peppers is degrading.” Campus sexual assault remains a widespread problem, she added, as female academics “continue to strive to empower our students with a sense that a university education provides a chance to be judged on their creativity without fear for their safety.”

Put “simply,” McLaughlin added, “my single mother did not put my brother and me through college and graduate school for 25 years so that I could be measured by a vegetable.”

McLaughlin also applauded Rate My Professors for making “the right call,” and choosing “civility and kindness over snarky banter and retribution.”

She also asked readers to consider signing a petition to Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, to “stop lecturing us about sexual harassment and ostracize scientists who have been found guilty of sexually assaulting and harassing students and colleagues from our communities and the National Academy of Sciences. They have hurt too many and deserve no honors.” The academies have said they are looking into changing their current policies on this issue, but that any such change entails a two-year process.

McLaughlin also learned during her Twitter campaign that the Journal of Neuroscience has told authors to stop saying “Dear Sirs” when submitting articles. The journal’s editor in chief is Marina Picciotto, Charles B. G. Murphy Professor of Psychiatry and Professor in the Child Study Center of Neuroscience and of Pharmacology at Yale University.

This post originally appeared in Inside Higher Ed on July 2, 2018.

#DiversityinHigherEd – Tuition up, diversity down

As diversity in higher education becomes more of a focal point and a means to reflect on our own institutions and practices as academics, we will be re-posting material related to these issues on the first Thursday of every month. This post is borrowed from The Conversation.

When college tuition goes up, campus diversity goes down

By Drew Allen, Princeton University and Gregory C. Wolniak, New York University

As college tuition continues to rise at a staggering rate, people tend to worry about how much harder it becomes for students and families to pay for college.

As researchers who focus on higher education, we found a different reason to worry.

We examined tuition hikes at public four-year colleges and universities over a 14-year period. We wanted to see if tuition increases at public colleges and universities changed the racial and ethnic makeup of students on campus.

What we found is that for every $1,000 increase in tuition at four-year nonselective public universities, diversity among full-time students decreased by 4.5 percent.

In other words, as tuition goes up, diversity goes down. The end result is the nation’s colleges and universities become less reflective of the ethnic diversity of the United States as a whole.

How long does it take for tuition to rise by $1,000 at a given university? A $1,000 hike could happen over the course of only one or two years in some cases. Over the past decade tuition and fees rose by $2,690 at public four-year institutions.

Why diversity on campus matters

The fact that diversity drops when tuition rises at certain colleges and universities is a big deal. For starters, it means that more minorities might choose not to enroll in college and, therefore, forego the economic and social benefits of higher education.

But less diversity doesn’t just affect those who are priced out of higher education. It also affects students who are able to afford college.

A decade’s worth of research shows that more diversity on campus brings numerous benefits. These benefits include a richer intellectual environment that features a variety of different perspectives.

Across 1,800 empirical studies, there is a striking “consistency in the evidence regarding students’ engagement with diverse peers.” This is particularly the case in relation to students’ exposure to diversity, whether that exposure be in class, through student organizations or even informal campus encounters.

Examining the effects of tuition hikes

Our study looked at both diversity and tuition levels at approximately 600 public four-year colleges and universities, as well as 1,000 public two-year colleges from 1998 to 2012. Diversity was measured by a standardized measure of the likelihood that two students chosen from a college or university at random will differ in terms of race or ethnicity.

Taking all four-year institutions that we examined as a whole, we found minimal effects of tuition hikes on racial and ethnicity diversity.

But things changed when we focused specifically on the least-selective four-year institutions. These are institutions where the average test scores of incoming students indicate that they admit a wide range of students in terms of academic preparation and achievement.

At those those institutions, a $1,000 tuition hike would lead to a 4.5 percent drop in racial and ethnic diversity among first-time freshman. At two-year public colleges, the drop in diversity associated with a $1,000 tuition increase was smaller but still significant at 1.4 percent.

While our study did not directly track where students enrolled, these changes in diversity at public institutions suggest that some students are forgoing a college education altogether.


Ripple effects

We also uncovered intriguing evidence that tuition changes among private institutions within a 100-mile radius has the opposite – and a potentially larger – influence on student diversity at public institutions.

Specifically, what we found is that a 1 percent increase in average tuition and fees at nearby private four-year institutions is associated with a 3 percent increase in diversity among students at four-year public institutions. This suggests that not only could tuition hikes impact diversity at a given institution, but tuition increases at institutions down the street, or in a neighboring state, also affect diversity.

Paying more for less

As colleges come to grips with a rapidly changing landscape, tuition increases should be understood not only in terms of the bottom line, but also in terms of how they might change the overall composition of students on campus.

Whenever tuition rises – at least at nonselective four-year colleges – it not only means students will have to pay more for college. It also means they will have a lesser chance of attending college with someone from a different racial or ethnic background – and a less rich academic experience as a result.


Drew Allen, Executive Director, Initiative for Data Exploration and Analytics for Higher Ed, Princeton University and Gregory C. Wolniak, Director of the Center for Research on Higher Education Outcomes and Associate Clinical Professor of Higher Education, New York University

This post originally appeared in The Conversation on April 26, 2018.

The Conversation