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I teach math classes and I was speaking with the assistant chair of my department about a student who claimed that I was rude and put my students down when lecturing. (I'm a Ph.D. student.) This particular student was seeking a letter recommending tuition for my class be refunded (she dropped out) but I told the assistant chair that I do sometimes get comments like these in my evaluations. I know that I never intend to put anyone down when students ask questions in class, and I also know there are also students who feel that I'm a good instructor and like dealing with me. I get both of these types of comments in my evaluations (I'd say my evals on the whole are fine to good).

I don't want anyone to feel like I talk down to them or put them down and I mentioned this to the assistant chair. (She has only seen me lecture once and said I did a good job that one time.) She asked me to think about the gender/ethnicity of the students that say I'm "rude" or "put them down", and whether there is a pattern where female/minority students who are considered "underprivileged" in mathematics may respond differently to my style of instruction than white male or Asian-heritage students. (There is research to back this up.)

I don't have any hard data to check this for me personally but this hypothesis seems plausible. With most students I say that I'm generally direct; I try not to put the student down but I will tell them that they are incorrect and explain why. How should I adapt to make sure that "underprivileged" students don't feel put down or belittled in my class?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jun 19 at 2:44
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First I want to say that my answer does not depend on your gender and race, which I consider irrelevant. I will answer the question in two parts, one relevant to any field, one to mathematics. I suggest changing your title to something like: "How can I show respect to students from different backgrounds?"

General Answer

Understand that your students have had different experiences, which will affect how they perceive your and others' behavior. For example, the phrase "Can I help you?" may be perceived positively by someone who is used to others' wanting to help them, but it may be perceived negatively by someone who has had that phrase used toward them in a hostile manner (e.g., by a retail worker who follows them around to make sure they don't shoplift). I would encourage you not to think that the former student is rational and the latter student is irrational. Everyone generalizes based on past experiences. I encourage you to attend any diversity training offered at your institution or read about microaggressions, phrases that might be innocently meant but negatively experienced.

Be aware that everyone, including you, has unconscious biases, picked up from the cultures you've lived on. You should be aware that most elementary school teachers, regardless of gender, call on male students more often than female students. You may find it interesting to take an Implicit Association Test, although you should be careful making inferences from it.

Encourage students to give you feedback about how to improve your teaching, especially this aspect. We have the option of adding our own questions to course evaluations. I added to mine:

What could the instructor do differently or keep doing to make the course feel inclusive to students with a variety of backgrounds, learning styles, and mental or physical abilities? This would be a good place to mention any micro-aggressions.

Mathematics

This goes beyond what you asked, but I encourage you to learn about stereotype threat, a well-documented effect in which evocation of stereotypes affects students' performance on tests and other high-stake assignments. For example:

Spencer, Steele, and Diane Quinn, PhD, also found that merely telling women that a math test does not show gender differences improved their test performance. The researchers gave a math test to men and women after telling half the women that the test had shown gender differences, and telling the rest that it found none. When test administrators told women that that tests showed no gender differences, the women performed equal to men. Those who were told the test showed gender differences did significantly worse than men, just like women who were told nothing about the test. This experiment was conducted with women who were top performers in math, just as the experiments on race were conducted with strong, motivated students.

Read articles about inclusive pedagogy, especially as applied to college-level mathematics. I have been told that active learning techniques benefit all students but disproportionately those from underrepresented backgrounds.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Jun 19 at 2:44
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Many universities have some campus-wide office, whose responsibilities include advising graduate students on their teaching. If yours does, I would suggest making an appointment and raising your concerns there.

This would allow them to get into the specifics, ask you questions, and allow them to address your particular situation. They have probably seen similar situations before, and could likely offer helpful advice.

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If you haven't already done this, see if you can get one of your classes filmed so that you can watch yourself. Maybe you can see some patterns about how your behavior varies with different people, or spot something you're doing that some people might consider derogatory.

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