Some time ago in a discussion of how to get high scores on student evaluations of our teaching, a friend who teaches in another department remarked that the easiest way she knew to boost student evaluations was to lose 20 lbs. I laughed but I have been thinking about how norms of various sorts affect student evaluations of teaching ability. Recently I read “They Are Weighted with Authority”: Fat Female Professors in Academic and Popular Cultures,” by Christina Fisanick (in the journal Feminist Teacher volume 17 number 3). I know that women often do worse on evaluations in contexts in which a male professor is expected. Women aren’t punished for being women if the students expect a female professor. But it hadn’t struck me until reading Fisanick’s paper that students might also expect their professors to be slim and that fat women might face additional burdens beyond gender.
Fisanick writes: “Many researchers (Lewis; Weber and Mitchell) have argued that the “normal professor body” shares the same characteristics of the “normal body” in society. Most depictions of the “normal professor body” are white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, able, heterosexual, and thin. Where did this image of the “normalprofessor body” originate? How does it affect students’, professors’, administrators’,
and society’s expectations of what a professor should be or should look like? In a series of experiments, Claudia Mitchell and Sandra Weber discovered that images of teachers in popular culture greatly influence students’ and teachers’ expectations of teachers…..
For fat women, it is vital not only to pass as an academic, but also to pass as a woman. According to Sheila Kishler Bennett, women are unfairly evaluated by students, colleagues, and administrators, especially when they fail to follow “gender appropriate expectations” (177–78). Such expectations as niceness, friendliness,
pleasantness, and approachability (Bartlett 196) can be viewed differently by women and minority faculty and by students whose cultures interpret femininity, teaching, and even professionalism in ways not anticipated by the dominant culture. Therefore, women who fail to occupy typical gender roles are in double jeopardy of failure in the academic workplace. Female professors especially vulnerable to this second level of passing are often those who further occupy “othered” subject positions, such as women of color, fat women, women who are disabled, and lesbians.”
In order to counter bias in promotion and tenure decisions Fisanick suggests that we expand the methods used to measure teaching excellence for example by including case studies, student focus groups, ongoing peer observations, teaching portfolios, and a critical examination of teaching materials, such as syllabi, handouts, and assignment sheets. Do your institutions do any of these things? What other strategies do you think might be useful? I also wonder if anyone has done a study of how BMI correlates with teaching evaluations.