The Inherent Sexism of Low Expectations

by Robert Moorehead

The fall semester started just a week ago, and after class today a student nervously asked me if we could talk in private. We waited for a few students to grab their bags and head out the door, and then he apologized, saying that he had heard rumors from other students and he wanted to know if they were true.

He then explained that some students were saying that it would be hard for men in my classes to get good grades because I give women higher grades. I recognized the concern as one that a student had previously shared, when I asked for anonymous feedback from students. I explained that there was no basis for the concern, and the nervous student standing in front of me visibly relaxed and exhaled deeply.

I described the concern and the response that I had previously shared with the class—that if you looked at a few students’ scores, and saw that some men received low scores on their essays and some women received higher scores, you might think you’d found a pattern. But if you expanded your sample and looked at more essays, you’d find men’s essays that got high scores and women’s essays that got low scores. The pattern would disappear. Also, more women might get A’s simply because there are more women in the class. More women also get B’s, C’s, and F’s (our university doesn’t use the D grade), again because there are more women taking the class.

The student was especially concerned because there were more women than men in our class today, as if women were flocking to my classes and men were running away. But in my 13 years of teaching sociology, every class I’ve ever taught, except one, has had more women than men. Our major also has more women students than men, so do the math.

I thanked the student for his candor and willingness to talk about something so sensitive in his first conversation with me. I also told him I looked forward to him submitting great work in the class. Then, on the way home, I realized that this wasn’t about me.

The rumor is a veiled critique of women students. It sees some women getting higher scores and asks how that is possible, as if women’s academic success required explanation. It claims that women’s success must only come because women are receiving an unfair advantage. Without that advantage, the natural order would return as men’s scores rise and women’s fall. After this ‘aha’ moment, I felt guilty for not seeing this earlier.

Student rumors, like all rumors, tend to spiral outward and transform into more and more dramatic tales. But this case shows us that we need to move beyond being surprised by those tales to question the assumptions that drive them.

By the way, I also detailed to the student the steps I take to try to make the grading of student work as fair as possible. Before grading the essays, I read all of them once. I then re-read them and grade them. Next, I re-grade the first few essays to make sure I was applying the same standards to the first essays as to the ones I graded later. I take my work seriously, respecting the time and effort that students put into their academic work.

I also acknowledge that, as a human being, I’m not free of bias. None of us are. But if we’re trying to explain a low grade by claiming that other students must have received an unfair advantage, then we might want to ask why we think those students didn’t really earn their grades. We also might be open to the possibility that our own work might not be as good as we thought.

I’ll share this story with my classes, more to share a teachable moment than to dispel the rumors. I don’t know who first shared the concern, nor do I know who’s passing on the rumor. Nor do I care. Each class is a new opportunity for students to learn and grow. If I couldn’t let go of issues like this, then I shouldn’t be teaching. Whether some students believe it or not, nothing makes their professors happier than to see them succeed. Isn’t that why we teach?

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One thought on “The Inherent Sexism of Low Expectations

  1. I really enjoy reading your blog! Bias when grading is a concern for instructions too in addition to students’. I usually tell students just to put IDs and not their names when they submit their papers to decrease my bias based on their gender, their participation in discussions, and other factors.

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