Do Professors Penalize Conservative Students?


“There’s been a lot of talk lately about self-censorship on campus. According to one popular theory, conservative students censor themselves because they believe that if they state their true views, they will get a lower grade. This theory is true.”

But the belief is false.

So begins a very informative series of tweets by Jeffrey Sachs (Acadia) about the “myth of partisan grading,” which I repost below.

Adam Fuss, daguerreotype from the series, “My Ghost”

 

As regular readers know, I have often suggested that a somewhat similar phenomenon is true regarding professors, namely, that faculty self-censorship based on fear of negative repercussions for defending unpopular beliefs in their research or for explaining defenses of controversial positions in their classes is not justified. Perhaps Dr. Sachs will look over the evidence and tweet about that sometime soon.

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Edward Teach
Edward Teach
2 years ago

When evaluating whether to accept this specific evidence for these specific claims, I think it’s worth keeping in mind what our standards of evidence are in other debates when discussing bias or discrimination against other groups.

Compare: ‘We conducted one study giving CVs to job panels and found no evidence of discrimination against women/racial minorities in philosophy. Also this one study from 2005 found that women/minorities were not discriminated against in hiring after controlling for number of publications, also women minorities instructors are less ‘egalitarian’ in their marking as shown by this 2012 study. Therefore, the narrative that discrimination is having substantial effects on the gender/racial makeup of our discipline is unjustified. Sorry beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com, the plural of anecdote is not data.” Report

Paul
Paul
2 years ago

Interesting serial tweets. It would be even more interesting to see the argument written up in a peer-reviewed journal.
Report

William
William
Reply to  Paul
2 years ago

They cite their own paper in a peer-reviewed journal.Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
2 years ago

It’s worth looking at Lee Jussim’s response:

https://twitter.com/PsychRabble/status/1095393590480650241Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
2 years ago

Not having a foot in either ideological camp I initially gave the discrimination hypothesis a .5 credence. Reading Sachs’s criticism shifted that credence slightly down (only slightly because given the replication crisis in the social sciences I no longer see a handful of statistically significant results as strong evidence). However, reading this response by Jussim makes me think that the studies Sachs’s cites don’t bear that well on the hypothesis he is considering and thus my credence is back to .5. Report

A.
A.
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
2 years ago

wow – after reading the response it is honestly depressing to learn that studies quoted as evidence have almost no relation to any claim ever made about conservative bias. I find this depressing not just in this instance, but because I think it is representative of the way academics (and philosophers in particular) appeal to a study, with a righteous air of authority “look I”m using science” and then their word is taken as true without the study being checked for relevance or rigor. We need to start being skeptical of appeals to “studies.”Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  A.
2 years ago

Well, don’t take Jussim’s response as dispositive. Sachs responds, as do others, and their responses don’t look bad to me.

The lesson I took from the exchange is not that Jussim is right and Sachs is wrong, so much as: (1) if I really want to get to the bottom of this, I can’t just read a Twitter-thread; I’ve got to do a *lot* of work; and (2) if I read a Twitter thread and then come to a conclusion about things, I may be epistemically worse off than if I’d never read the Twitter thread at all!Report

A.
A.
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
2 years ago

Fair enough. But I don’t think any of my comments suggests taking “Jussim’s response as dispositive.” I think I was clear that my point is we should be concerned and skeptical of the appeal to studies, in any philosophical argument. I don’t have an opinion about conservative bias, or at least, not an opinion I really want to get into at the moment.Report

Pedro
Pedro
2 years ago

The first study specifically doesn’t seem very conclusive. Here’s the essay prompt:
“What does the Democratic party stand for? What are its major goals (regarding economic, social, and foreign policy)? Who are its major leaders? Who are its major constituencies/supporters?”

Here’s what the TAs were told about the study:
“The only information TAs were given about its purpose was that the study would ‘assess some of the factors that affect the scores that TAs assign undergraduate political science essays.'”

That is, there was little/no bias when the TAs graded an essay about a mostly neutral topic (plus, they knew more or less what the study was assessing). How much can we extrapolate from this? Not much. I suspect that when students complain about self-censorship, they don’t have in mind questions such as, “Who are the major leaders of the Democratic Party?”. Would the study be more informative if the essay was argumentative? Maybe. But here’s what the authors have to say in the discussion section of the paper:
“[A] different essay prompt might have altered the possibilities for affinity bias in grading. A more controversial prompt (e.g., “Are Democrats the party of special interests?” “Are Republicans the party of the rich?”)
might have elicited responses that more strongly engage partisan filtering. But we should also note that such experiments might lack external validity, as (in our experience) it is rare to find professors who would consider assigning such prompts”

Take your own conclusions.Report

Jamie
Jamie
Reply to  Pedro
2 years ago

I wouldn’t expect to see differences in student ideology to show up in the answer to “Who are its major leaders?”, but I would expect them to show up in the answer to “What does it stand for?” and maybe in the answers to the other questions, too.
Also, the authors did go to some trouble to mask what it was they were studying from the participant TAs. (For example, they asked the TAs to guess whether the essay was written by a man or a woman.)
Of course I agree that the study is hardly conclusive, but unlike JTD I find that my credence needle was moved significantly by the evidence that Sachs gives.Report

Edward Teach
Edward Teach
2 years ago

Some reasons I’m wary about drawing inferences from study 1:

There were 30 students, with TA’s from *one* political science course in one university. Hardly representative of humanities course generally.
The prompt was ‘What does the Democratic party stand for? What are its major goals (regarding economic, social, and foreign policy)? Who are its major leaders? Who are its major constituencies/supporters?’ This is not the kind of prompt people complaining about liberal bias against students would expect to generate bias against students.

Some reasons I’m wary about drawing inferences from study 2:
“This study focused on one entering cohort at a major public university in the United States (N = 5,534) *during the late 1990s*”
I thought political polarisation, which would seem to exacerbate and liberal bias, was more of a recent phenomenon?

Also, I’m not sure I’ve totally understood this, but the study’s conclusions seemed to focus on conservative students who continually took a number of HA courses across their whole degree. That comment that Sachs has highlighted about conservativism ‘exploding’ applied only to conservative students who took a large mixture of HA and HE courses. The authors openly note that this is a very small number of students. I can’t tell if their conclusions also apply to the many more conservative students taking only a few HA courses, if someone can please let me know.

Their description of conservatives also seems pretty loaded in a way that gives me pause:
“Conservatism is most commonly associated with support for capitalism and general opposition to equality of individual outcomes… Social dominance theorists have demonstrated that conservatism is connected to numerous HE beliefs, including racism… In other words, conservatism shares with other HE beliefs a support for group inequality and thus is generally considered an HE belief itself.”Report

JTD
JTD
2 years ago

What an awful medium to deliver an argument in! Reading the visually ugly presentation above was painful on my eyes. If you have an interesting argument to present please don’t present in as a bunch of short tweets. Write it up as a blog post and make it readable. Report

Ian
Ian
Reply to  JTD
2 years ago

The tweet-storm is the worst literary genre. Report

Paul
Paul
2 years ago

Sachs attacks a tiny part of a big problem.
Assume professors’ and TA’s grading of written exams and papers is politically impartial.
What remains at play is classroom performance under peer pressure. College-age peers certainly are not politically impartial. To the extent that class participation counts as a factor in grading,, conservatives” self censorship in discussion, seminar, and group assignments would remain as a serious liability for all but the most insincere. Report

Postdoc
Postdoc
2 years ago

Not a conservative, but I often disagree with some of my American colleagues regarding topics in the “grievance studies” areas, Black Lives Matter, and the like – generally speaking, I think they obsess about race and end up caring very little about socio-economic inequality, and thereby fail to address the actual issues. (With regard to police shootings, Adolph Reed is a well-known proponent of this kind of view).
Now, these views might not get you lower grades, but make no mistake: voicing such opinions will isolate you personally and professionally, in a community in which blind allegiance to progressive views *of a rather specific sort* is widespread.
This is especially true, in my experience, of people under 45, which is all the more worrying. I find myself very unconfortable talking politics with young American philosophers, whereas I’ve had more interesting and relaxed conversations with older academics. I think it’s a pity, as our views are in the end not so dramatically different.
But perhaps I am also just imagining everything and being paranoid, much like the students who self-censored?

An interesting case study, this time from within the progressive community. Take the recent debate over radical feminism vs. trans rights. Don’t you think it will be hard for those who publicly exposed themselves (twitter, blogs, etc.) to work with and be accepted by people who hold the opposite viewpoint, unless very strong personal bonds were present before and are still intact? The point of this example is to suggest that politically motivated holier-than-thou professional segregation is unfortunately a real threat, so much so that it is tearing communities apart from the inside. We better keep in mind that if we can’t manage to avoid it, our role and credibility as an intellectual community is over.
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Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

I’m not sure what to make of the argument, which sounds interesting but as yet not fully developed (how much cherry picking is involved?). But there is an a priori consideration here that hasn’t been mentioned. By just looking at the comments on Daily Nous, we can see that there are a great many academics who are considerably more conservative than they let on in class. This opens to us that there IS a great deal of grading bias in classrooms, but that it cuts both ways. Some conservative students may get HIGHER grades proceeding from bias. But liberal students will be less likely to notice this, because their professor will be less likely to vocally state the views that are motivating her bias.

Second, I would suggest that controlling for SAT scores doesn’t help us understand the phenomenon going on when black students are given lower grades. In my observation, black students disproportionately have to endure incompetent writing instructors in grade school and high school. I’ve very often encountered sharp-as-a-tack black undergraduates who simply have never been taught how to write fluently in an academic context. We might be able to control for that by looking EXCLUSIVELY at the grades on an SAT writing test (though those could still be impacted by the bias we are trying to study), but we cannot control for it by overall SAT scores.Report

GradGirl
GradGirl
2 years ago

My professors told me that I would receive a lower grade if I don’t conform to their favorite branch of inclusion-grammar. (using “s/he” in examples and so so)Report

Tim O'Keefe
2 years ago

Re: possible causes for black students receiving lower grades on average even when controlling for SAT scores. Whatever the explanation(s), this data gives further support for anonymous grading so that implicit or explicit biases don’t skew your evaluation of student work. (And even if you don’t have such biases, anonymous grading will help head off self-serving student suspicions that their low grades are due to your biases, rather than the poor quality of their work.)Report

Jon
Jon
2 years ago

I strenously object to someone live Tweeting a paper. Just link to the real paper and be done with it.Report

Jon
Jon
2 years ago

Also, I’ve never heard an argument that conservative *students* are penalized. What’s much more popularized is the theory that conservative *faculty* can’t get hired. Obviously that’s not the target of this analysis, but that’s probably a pretty critcal inquiry.Report

Tyson
Tyson
2 years ago

The empirical evidence cited above seems no better or WORSE than the empirical evidence reported here on Daily Nous for bias against conservatives (in this case, faculty):

http://dailynous.com/2018/04/10/philosophers-less-willing-hire/ .

Summary: Of the 159 academic philosophers surveyed by George Yancey, 34% indicated either a slight or strong unwillingness to hire an Evangelical, 23.5% against a Republican, 31.4% against an NRA member, 29.2% against a Mormon, 54.2% against a Fundamentalist. Compare that to only 1.3% indicating unwillingness to hire a Democrat, 4.6% against an ACLU member, 7.9% against an atheist, 3.9% against a Green Party member, 20.9% against a member of the Communist party. Read it for yourself.

Of course that was unwillingness to *hire* people from these groups. But is it all that implausible to think that, if philosophers are so unwilling to hire people from these groups, they may also be inclined to dock the grades of students from these groups? (Same goes for transgender students: 20% expressed unwillingness to hire members of that group.)Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
2 years ago

I have never even suspected this of happening to me, but then again I haven’t written very many papers in school (undergraduate or graduate) that were relevant to politics. There are places where I might expect to get that kind of treatment, say, in women and gender studies courses, but I imagine that conservatives would self-select out of them.
I have experienced political harassment by administrators, however. But I have been strongly advised not to discuss that episode until I am no longer at CU Boulder.

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Jason "In All Serious, This Study is a Joke" Brennan
Jason "In All Serious, This Study is a Joke" Brennan
2 years ago

The study design here is so bad that it qualifies as evidence of anti-conservative bias. Basically, it accuses conservatives of thinking that this kind of study instrument would illicit bias, and since only an idiot would think, it accuses conservatives of being idiots.Report

Jason "In All Serious, This Study is a Joke" Brennan
Jason "In All Serious, This Study is a Joke" Brennan

Crap, “elicit’ not “illicit”. Report

Peter Sagan
Peter Sagan
1 year ago

Hello, I am a conservative with two
College degrees one of which was earned at Binghamton which is one of New York’s most liberal leaning public institutions. While there I took a Women’s Studies course as an elective and was the only male in the class. Can you feel the terror? I was also, of course, the only conservative. So I decided to keep my views to myself because I needed the grade and because I didn’t want to be ceremonially torn to pieces and burned at the alter of patriarchy (whatever that means). . To make a long story short the class was one of my favorites. My professor was great to me and all the girls were really accepting. I got an A- despite the fact that I wrote a paper making the case that mainstream feminism was hijacked by radical feminism in the 1960’s. That hating men because fore important than empowering women. My professor was none-to-pleased and I received a lecture from her assistant. But my grade was not lowered. In another class I did witness an African American professor hand a paper back to an African American student with a grade of “B” on it even though it was hand written on one side of a sheet of lined paper. It should never have been accepted in the first place; not at the college level. So I have also seen bias as well. It just depends on the teacher.Report