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I am a last year PhD math student in an university in USA-Canada.

The university I work in offers graduate students the option to teach first year calculus courses as a special kind of TA. The demand for this is high and not everyone gets a position for a given term. However, the department's policy is that everyone who passes a one-term course on teaching and wishes to teach can do it at least once before graduating.

So far so good.

The problem arises when it comes to wanting to teach a second time. It seems like whatever metric is being used to decide who gets the job heavily favours a specific ethnic group. This is, the vast majority of students who get to teach a second time are from a specific ethnic group, while people from other less represented groups seldom seem to get a second chance.

Clearly the department's argument for this is that these people get better teaching evaluations, but in part this is an echo chamber resulting in the exclusion of members of other less represented ethnic groups in the student body.

The two immediate problems that come to mind are:

  • Reducing the diversity of teachers for a very diverse base of students.

  • When it comes to job applications teaching experience can be a valuable asset. Access to it shouldn't depend on our ethnic background.

My (perhaps naive/biased/egotistical) conclusion is that the department's criteria is flawed and it should be modified in some way to reflect this in the future. My questions are:

  • Who should I talk about this first? I think the best idea is to talk with the person in charge of assigning the positions, who inherited the criteria from the previous person in the position.

  • How should I approach this person? I think this can be treated as a potential opportunity to improve the department, but I feel like I need to be careful on my approach so that no one feels threatened or accused of anything.

  • What should I expect? Let me be clear: I don't expect to get a teaching position since I'll be graduating soon, but I'd like this issue to stop and I'm willing to make some noise and bother some people if necessary.

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    Do you have sufficient proof? or is this just that those chosen the second time around are the "best of the bunch" at teaching, or have the matching knowledge or availability based on the courses they do? – Solar Mike Dec 14 '19 at 7:42
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    There is research supporting @user347489's comments. For a general introduction see The myth of merit and unconscious bias. Although that article is mainly about gender, the same issue can arise with ethnicity. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 14 '19 at 9:39
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    @PatriciaShanahan and specifically in the context of instructor assessments, here and here – Geoffrey Brent Dec 14 '19 at 10:24
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    It's a little surprising to hear in 2019 that someone is using course evaluations as the sole basis for teaching assignments. In addition to the well-known problems with bias, they don't correlate with teaching effectiveness, e.g.https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/09/21/new-study-could-be-another-nail-coffin-validity-student-evaluations-teaching – Elizabeth Henning Dec 14 '19 at 11:58
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    @user347489 That's wrong, students who are not white males also rate white males higher, because they have the same implicit biases that white males do. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 14 '19 at 14:42
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It's an interesting problem, and wanting a fairer representation is a noble goal. But the goal of fair representation does need to be balanced against another goal: giving students a good education. The first goal of having TAs is to help educate students, not to provide people a career stepping stone to the TAs.

The problem arises when it comes to wanting to teach a second time. It seems like whatever metric is being used to decide who gets the job heavily favours a specific ethnic group. This is, the vast majority of students who get to teach a second time are from a specific ethnic group, while people from other less represented groups seldom seem to get a second chance.

There's a lot of uncertainty here. If you want to successfully challenge your institution on the facts, you need more facts.

If you go to them and say "you seem to hire a lot of X", they can just say "well it may seem like that to you but we don't recognize ourselves in that feeling". If you come and say "group X is represented as 20% of first term TAs and 70% of second term TAs", it's a lot harder to turn you away at the doorstep.

But make sure you get your ethnic classifications right. For example, a pale ginger guy from Argentina with Spanish as a first language, would you classify him as Caucasian or Latino?

The other thing you need to know is what metric they actually use. If you try to argue that their decision-making process is flawed without knowing how they actually make their decisions, you're not going to achieve much.

How are TAs evaluated? Professors are typically evaluated at least partially on feedback forms. But I don't often see specific TA feedback forms. Do other departments/universities do it differently (and do they have a different/fairer ethnic spread)? Can you point to a best practice that your institition could adopt?

The article linked by @PatriciaShanahan points out the value of blind auditions. Once feedback from students has been acquired, how is it processed? To find that out you're going to have to talk to some insiders in your institution. I would recommend finding some progressive-minded professors and asking them if they can explain to you how the internal process actually works. Not accusing them: just asking to explain.

Clearly the department's argument for this is that these people get better teaching evaluations,

Sure.

but in part this is an echo chamber resulting in the exclusion of members of other less represented ethnic groups in the student body.

Well, maybe. What if this ethnic group really has a property that gives them an edge in teaching? For example, they speak the local language better than other ethnic groups (such as foreign exchange students). If, as a student, I have to rate two TAs and one is easier to understand, and therefore I learn more from that TA than from the other one, is it really unfair that the first one gets a better evaluation?

My (perhaps naive/biased/egotistical) conclusion is that the department's criteria is flawed and it should be modified in some way to reflect this in the future.

I think your conclusion is logically flawed. You don't like the outcome of the process, therefore you assume the process must be bad. But what if the process is okay, and the favored ethnic group really did have some advantage that makes them better TAs?

Are students better served by having the best TAs, or the fairest ethnic spread of TAs?

So yeah, your reasoning is noble, but naive. That said, a system which seems to produce ethnically biased outcomes should be viewed with suspicion. So you need to dig deeper into the causes, before you try to convince people to change it.

Who should I talk about this first? I think the best idea is to talk with the person in charge of assigning the positions, who inherited the criteria from the previous person in the position.

Asking them is a possibility. But I think I'd start with a progressive-minded professor who'd been there for a couple of years already. The professor would have some idea of what happens behind the scenes, but not be as directly challenged, and might become interested themselves. Could result in you gaining an ally for your cause.

How should I approach this person? I think this can be treated as a potential opportunity to improve the department, but I feel like I need to be careful on my approach so that no one feels threatened or accused of anything.

In the beginning I would focus on gaining information, not on insisting on change. You don't have strong enough evidence (yet). Ask how evaluations are done. Is there any broader analysis of evaluation results, that give you a picture of the ideal TA? For example, if students mention "good English" as an important criterion, you can look at your non-favored TAs and ask if there's a noticeable difference in their English.

Another question to ask is whether TAs receive any kind of training to prepare them for the job. Does the training match the evaluation criteria? Maybe the training doesn't contain something that already comes naturally to the favored ethnic group. So by evaluation time, they do fine on that criterion, but others struggle because nobody taught them.

What should I expect? Let me be clear: I don't expect to get a teaching position since I'll be graduating soon, but I'd like this issue to stop and I'm willing to make some noise and bother some people if necessary.

That's going to depend on a number of factors, such as how progressive your institution is/wants to be, and what the reasons are that this ethnic group seems to be doing better than the rest, and on how diplomatic you are/whether you manage to find the right allies.


TL;DR -

  • You need more facts about ethnic representation. Numbers.
  • You need to know more about how the evaluation is done, what is it testing and how.
  • You need to find out why other ethnic groups are being evaluated worse. Look for causes, don't just complain about bad people with biases.
  • You need allies on the inside.
  • Remember that the institution can always say "our primary goal is to give our students the best education, so we prioritize having the best TAs over having the most diverse TAs". And they're not entirely wrong. You need to find out why more ethnically diverse TAs are being rated as "not the best".
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    This answer is wrong and harmful. It is well known that students' teaching evaluations are biased on the basis of race. There is no need to gather more information about this. – Anonymous Physicist Dec 14 '19 at 12:46
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    @AnonymousPhysicist good luck trying to convince a department of anything with "it's well known that (...) therefore I didn't need to do any research myself". – ObscureOwl Dec 14 '19 at 13:24
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    For convincing an academic department, "Here are some references to peer reviewed papers showing X" should be effective. – Patricia Shanahan Dec 14 '19 at 14:08
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    @PatriciaShanahan the studies you linked are a lot more convincing than saying "it's well known". But they talk about a particular testing method and we don't know if this university uses that particular testing method. So if you want to achieve change, you do have to know what you're talking about. Furthermore, just saying the testing method is bad isn't sufficient to change a policy; you also have to show that it's actually causing a problem (i.e. have figures on the ethnic makeup of the TA corps). So I feel justified arguing for more investigation. – ObscureOwl Dec 14 '19 at 14:58
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    @JeffE Huh? A very obvious, natural, and realistic candidate property was proposed here. If fluency in the local language is stronger on average in Group A than in Group B, then TA's from Group A will, all else being equal and on average (AEEOA), be more effective than those in Group B, and thus, AEEOA, will receive higher evaluation on more or less any relevant metric, and thus members of Group A will, AEEOA, perform better in the re-hiring competition. Then the solution is probably to provide Group B with more language support, not change the assessment process. If students assess less... – Kevin Carlson Dec 15 '19 at 23:34
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In my view, the answer of ObscureOwl gives a good analysis and reaches a proper conclusion. The key point there, I think, was that the balance between goods needs to be properly defined. Providing the best education for students is one good. Providing a teaching experience for graduate students is also good.

But I think there is a deeper issue that requires an orthogonal approach. One of the reasons that, for example, "white male students" seem to favor "white male teachers" in evaluation is (leaving sexism aside), partly due to the fact that there is likely to be a close match in language and idiom and pronunciation, etc, between the student an the instructor. It isn't perfect, of course. One of my very worst course experiences was taught by a Swedish visiting professor (even whiter than I am) who spoke English only very poorly. The course was basically lecture-exam based and there were too many students for any effective communication. I shared a cultural/racial/gender background with the prof, but not language, or at least not accent.

So, my orthogonal suggestion is that you ask about the entire system of course delivery in a diverse environment. Is it appropriate or does it, at base, make assumptions about learning in that environment that may be invalid. In particular, people seem to have a hard time understanding those who have a different accent, even if they come from the same country (Brooklyn, vs Georgia). So, if I can't understand a lecture, how do I evaluate the lecturer? They may be wonderful in what and how they present, but I just can't grok the words.

But, this is primarily, I think, a case of lecture being overused in education. And especially situations in which a course is lecture combined with high risk exams and little continuous feedback to students is bad for everyone. Even small difficulties get magnified.

So, my advice is to try to start a conversation within the department about what constitutes effective education so that more people can do it effectively, both as a student and as an educator. It may have little to do with ethnic difference, and a lot to do with ineffective methodology in a diverse world.

And don't lose track of the fact that all beginners are pretty terrible at most everything. This is no different for educators than for olympics-aspiring swimmers. Find ways for the novice teachers to be effective while they learn to do better.

  • This is an interesting point, thanks for the perspective. I agree that active learning techniques are probably a good work around the possible barriers with the students. Funny thing is we have to take a term-long class on teaching before we're allowed to teach. Although it is an interesting course, teaching is probably a skill that needs to be trained while doing it and with the help of peers. – user347489 Dec 17 '19 at 18:59
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Don’t just analyze the problem - offer a solution.

Pointing fingers and telling people “you’re doing it wrong” is likely to be a lot more grating and put the people you’re talking to much more on the defensive (probably leading them to deny that there is any problem that even needs to be addressed) than if you were to frame your approach as a positive, constructive one where you make concrete, actionable suggestions for what kind of TA evaluation system will result in fairer outcomes. In fact, you don’t necessarily need to even say there is currently a problem with the system at all; a positively-focused approach where you say “I have some ideas for how to make the process better” may end up being the most effective one.

Speaking of making the process better, I really think you need to give this some significant thought before you try talking to anyone in authority. Even assuming that your premise is true (and I am agnostic about whether that’s the case or not), it’s a real head-scratcher to come up with good ways to measure teaching effectiveness, particularly ones that eliminate the sort of biases you and other people here have mentioned - this is a notorious problem that basically no one knows how to solve, which is why teaching evaluations are used as much as they are: even though they are a pretty noisy signal, they have the advantage of being something that can actually be measured. So I wonder, and I’m sure the people you’ll be talking to will be wondering: what would you use instead?

It’s also worth keeping in mind that some solutions to this problem of hidden biases that people come up with, notably affirmative action-type solutions that simply impose an artificial racial diversity that plays down the role of merit (or a best attempt at measuring it) are highly controversial, possibly illegal, and are seen by many people as being no less problematic than the original problem they are trying to address. So again, when you approach decision-makers at your department to discuss this issue, you would do well to show that you have given substantial thought to this issue, done some appropriate research, and come up with actionable, reasonable suggestions — preferably ones that stay away from any highly controversial, politicized approaches. That would be my advice at least. Anyway, good luck.

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    I believe you are describing "affirmative-action type solutions" incorrectly. Do you know of any recent examples where outright quotas are being used? The objective nowadays is usually to contextualize and compensate for known biases in how "merit" is measured. – Elizabeth Henning Dec 15 '19 at 1:37
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    @ElizabethHenning I didn’t use the word “quotas”. It’s my impression that some attempts at increasing diversity indeed play down the role of merit. But as I said, if there are other solutions that genuinely manage to reduce or eliminate biases in a way that results in a more accurate measurement of merit, OP (and you and anyone else) is welcome to propose them, and hopefully people at their department will consider those solutions with an open mind. – Dan Romik Dec 15 '19 at 5:03
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    even though they are a pretty noisy signal, they have the advantage of being something that can actually be measured — See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McNamara_fallacy and/or en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streetlight_effect – JeffE Dec 15 '19 at 15:05
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    @JeffE nice, but what we really need is for xkcd to do a proper job explaining these ideas. – Dan Romik Dec 15 '19 at 23:49
  • Thanks, @DanRomik. I don't think this addresses all of my questions (and I don't think you were aiming to do it), but +1 for the good advice! – user347489 Dec 17 '19 at 18:45

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