Posted on April 29, 2021

The Overlooked Minefield

Chavella T. Pittman, Inside Higher Ed, April 16, 2021

It has become a fashionable trend to talk about supporting Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) faculty members. {snip} While colleges and universities often look first to improving the campus climate or enhancing opportunities for cluster hiring, some of the biggest obstacles for retaining BIPOC occur in an area that is often overlooked: teaching.

{snip} BIPOC women faculty members suffer from what’s happening inside the classroom, in interactions with colleagues about teaching and after their classes in reviews for tenure and promotion. Teaching is a veritable minefield that is taking its toll on BIPOC women faculty and, if left unaddressed by institutions, has retention consequences.


Students behaving aggressively in the classroom also play a role in derailing tenure. White students disproportionately challenge the authority of BIPOC women and are twice as likely to inappropriately question them when being taught about social justice issues (e.g., systemic racism). Eric Grollman notes that “There are scholars who’ve been attacked for what they teach in the classroom” and that these experiences are not “anecdotal” or “isolated” incidents. They are unfortunately common features for these women, as evidenced by the research on their raced and gendered classroom experiences. Unfortunately, as Saida Grundy elaborates in her article “A history of white violence tells us attacks on black academics are not ending (I know because it happened to me),” BIPOC women are alert to the fact they could be next to be attacked.

Colleagues can also behave aggressively toward and interfere with the tenure of BIPOC women when it comes to teaching. These women’s transformative teaching is often in conflict with their white male colleagues’ more traditional (e.g., lecture) approaches to pedagogy. When BIPOC faculty teach about inclusive topics like race, white colleagues can antagonistically label it as marginal and illegitimate knowledge. Many BIPOC women faculty have told me of white colleagues, chairs and deans who constantly and intensely pressure them to revert to lecture-only teaching that focuses on the white male “classics.”

In a public letter, Michelle Gibbs describes such unchecked hostilities as reasons she left her institution: “There are not enough white faculty and administrators willing to publicly teach white students how to hold themselves accountable for their racist behavior in the classroom. This unpaid emotional labor is often left to Black and Brown faculty who recognize it, feel it, and (all alone) are left to call it out. It is exhausting work and doesn’t win us any favors with colleagues and administrators.” She isn’t alone. Undue stress results in other BIPOC women exiting higher education institutions, too. And for those who stay, such discrimination wreaks havoc on their publication productivity.


Colleges and universities often contribute to the demise of BIPOC faculty retention by using student evaluations in incredibly incorrect ways in reviews. For starters, many misuse the student evaluation data by using the mean score, focusing on outlier comments and comparing faculty to one another. Additionally, many improperly use the student evaluations as the primary or only measurement of teaching quality. Those practices don’t adhere to the general guidance about interpreting such data and evaluating teaching, and they result in inaccurate conclusions about teaching quality in reviews.

Arriving at unfounded conclusions about teaching quality is problematic for “normal” contexts. Yet it is even more problematic when reviewing the teaching of BIPOC women. Instead of presenting a sound view of teaching quality, these practices amplify the raced and gendered biases frequently found in student evaluations. And then colleagues, chairs and deans turn around and use these inaccurate and unsupported claims of poor teaching quality to deny the tenure and promotion of BIPOC women.