Any number of recent books have accused academe of a liberal bias. There are now two websites (No Indoctrination at http://noindoctrination.org and Students for Academic Freedom at www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org) on which students can post accusations of bias. What’s missing from the literature is information on how students define bias. To remedy that omission, Craig Tollini (a sociologist) constructed a survey that asked students to indicate which of 26 behaviors they considered indicative of bias in the classroom. Items on the survey were drawn from two American Council of Trustees and Alumni reports that included descriptions of biased behavior, prior research, and the Students for Academic Freedom website. More than 230 students completed the online survey; the sample was representative of the university population at the institution.
More than 70 percent of the student respondents listed the following behaviors as conveying bias:
- The professor discusses only one side of a political or social issue. (75.4 percent)
- The professor gives lower grades (for an assignment or the course) to students whosupport a political or social position that he/she does not support. (73.7 percent)
- The professor gives lower grades (for an assignment or for the course) to students whocriticize a political or social position that he/she supports. (72.4 percent)
- The professor ignores students who raise alternative points of view about a political or social issue. (72.4 percent)
- The professor ignores students who question or criticize his/her position on a political or social issue. (72.0 percent)
- The professor encourages students to support a particular political party or candidate. (70.7 percent)
- More than 60 percent of this student cohort said the following behaviors did not convey bias:
- The professor assigns readings (including the textbook) that discuss political topics or social issues. (80.6 percent)
- The professor discusses political or social issues that are related to the class. (77.2 percent)
- The professor discusses controversial topics in class. (75.4 percent)
- The professor makes an argument that contradicts your beliefs. (66.4 percent)
- The professor makes positive statements about social institutions, like marriage, education, or religion. (60.8 percent)
There were also some interesting differences between students who listed themselves as conservative and those who labeled themselves liberal. For example, 72 percent of the conservative students thought bias was indicated when a professor made negative statements about a particular political party or candidate, compared with 46.6 percent of the liberal students who thought that was biased behavior. But liberal and conservative students agreed that bias has occurred when a professor ignores students who raise alternative points of view about a political or social issue.
The author admits that many of these findings are not surprising, but he does see value in having “direct empirical evidence … regarding how students define bias.” (p. 387). It is also important in this climate of concern about classroom bias to know that “these findings indicate that faculty members can engage in a wide array of behaviors, including contradicting students’ beliefs and discussion the government and social institutions, without being immediately labeled as biased by the majority of their students.” (p. 387)
The article contains all 26 items that were used on the survey. If you are wondering how your students define bias or if they might so label some of your behaviors, this article is a great resource.
Reference: Tollini, C. (2009). The behaviors that college students classify as political bias: Preliminary findings and implications. Teaching Sociology, 37 (October), 379-389.