Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Evaluating Evaluations: Answering the Unasked Question

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Evaluating Evaluations: Answering the Unasked Question

Article excerpt

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, "Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: ... They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately ... [The unasked question is:] How does it feel to be a problem?"

Du Bois eloquently captures the essence of the problem--that is, the inability of Americans to speak frankly about racial tensions and conflicts in our country.

I have been a tenure-track professor of African-American literature and studies at two universities--a historically Black university in Louisiana and currently at a predominately White one in Arizona. Since I have been here, I have been dismayed by how little my students know about African-Americans. I was surprised to find that many students could not define lynching and were not familiar with the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many had not even met an African-American before going to college. During my first semester, I felt like I was teaching in another country and not just another state, but I navigated the situation as best I could.

Despite the challenges, I thought the semester had been pleasant for them and for me. But I was wrong. After reading my student evaluations, I wondered who the students were describing. Most described me as making them feel uncomfortable, as being unfriendly, and some said they were afraid to speak in class. Not one had a positive comment, except that l knew the subject matter very well. One student projected his/her feelings quite effectively.

"Tara seems to think that fear is good motivation for students to stay on top of coursework. She is very harsh to students who are not," the student wrote. "She seems to do her best to make us feel stupid, or at least ignorant (which many of us are)."

On one hand, the student says that I require them to actually work. On the other hand, the student recognizes his/her lack of knowledge about African-Americans and how this gap in the student's own understanding makes him/her feel.

What I infer from their comments is that my students' frustrations are two-fold. They are frustrated by an education system that has not properly acknowledged the experiences of people of African descent in this country, and they are frustrated by their own upbringing, which did not allow them to interact with the people they studied. …

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