Group Identity (Part Three)

Not the best photo of me, but here I am during a presentation!

This is the third installment of a series of essays about the impact of group identity as practiced on college campuses (You can find Parts One and Two here). It is an expansion of a speech I gave back in 2007. In this installment, I will continue discussing some of the dangers of fixating on group identity, problems I saw playing out 15 years ago. And these problems have only increased since then.

The speech is rewritten in the indented sections, and I interrupt periodically with my current comments about what I wrote so long ago. I begin with some examples of people seeing themselves as part of a group rather than as individuals.

So here goes!

*****

In a meeting at the college where I teach English, a faculty member asked an administrator to put an end to the ongoing harassment of the faculty. 

This is an entire story in and of itself, which I won’t go into right now. But suffice it to say that administrators were targeting and harassing a group of faculty and attempting to push them out. They did this through, among other things, intimidation (hovering outside classrooms), baseless accusations (of 21 formal complaints and their subsequent investigations, not a single one was found to be valid) extended investigations (those investigations lasted up to 18 months), forced mediation (to resolve unnamed conflicts with the threat of termination). I should also point out that one of the classes I taught was a developmental English class that was two levels below freshman comp (English 101). The average reading level of this class was 4th to 7th grade. An administrator actually registered for that class and attended the entire semester. (I still can hardly believe this happened…)

The vice president of student services feigned complete ignorance of any harassment occurring at the college. The volatile situation at the college involved politicians, the Board of Trustees, the sheriff’s department, and off-campus activists, and parts of the controversy were even covered in local media. Yet this vice president couldn’t imagine why there might be a problem. Frustrated, the teacher finally said, “Do I need to spell it out for you?”

Jumping up, the administrator, appalled, immediately accused him of being racist. After all, he claimed, the faculty member had just said that Mexicans don’t know how to spell.

Of course, this teacher never said anything about anyone’s ability to spell. He was commenting on ability to understand. And he was talking about this one administrator’s inability to understand, not the entire Mexican “race.” That ended it right there. There would be no discussion or resolution to the conflicts occurring on campus.

What is the lesson? Do not explain. Just keep your mouth shut.

A probationary teacher’s evaluation committee noted some areas needing improvement. Rather than work to improve in those areas, the teacher filed a racial discrimination complaint, declaring the committee was racist. She assumed her evaluation was based on her group identity rather than on her individual performance. And only a person steeped in group identity theory could refuse to consider that any comments could have been about her as an individual. For in her eyes, she was not an individual.

What is the lesson? Do not evaluate when conducting an evaluation. Just keep quiet.

The only way to come out unscathed is to refrain from addressing each other at all. And when you cannot communicate, relationships are essentially destroyed. No camaraderie, no collegiality, no connections. 

As the vice chair of English, I served on hiring committees, I trained new hires, I scheduled classes, and I participated in evaluations. And before I earned my tenured position, I taught at many community colleges as an adjunct. So I have been involved in many evaluations, both as the evaluator and as the one evaluated. 

As mentioned earlier, our department hired three new instructors, nearly doubling the size of our full-time faculty. When evaluating two of them one semester, the committee unanimously decided to give one of them a “Needs to Improve” and the other a “Satisfactory, with areas to improve.” The instructor given the “Needs to Improve” filed a racial discrimination complaint against the five-person committee because she was a self-proclaimed Woman of Color, and the woman who received a “Satisfactory” evaluation was white.

In a discussion with a colleague, also a woman of color, about the racism claim, I told her that I had never even considered the color of either woman during the evaluation. She set me straight. She explained that where I went wrong was that I needed to acknowledge color in all my interactions. I pushed back. 

“I refuse to see everything through the lens of race,” I told her.

The problem with that attitude, she explained, was that even if I do not consider race, everyone else on campus prioritizes a person’s race in every interaction. So by ignoring that, I will find myself continually blindsided.

Today, we can see just how right she was. I never would have dreamed back then that being “colorblind,” by judging someone not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” would in 2022 be considered the height of racism. 

As a side note, the evaluation committee of a probationary tenure-track instructor, another woman of color, had some concerns about her. 

The process takes four years. So this will barely scratch the surface, but within her first two years, she had refused to teach to the course outline of record (which is filed with the state and required by law) and with a handful of other new instructors, declared themselves to have left their respective departments and created a brand new department, complete with handmade plaques that they posted outside their offices. 

As a point of information – obviously an instructor has zero authority to create a new department.  And by new department, I mean create an entire new department (I think they called themselves the American Cultures Department) that doesn’t exist on a single campus in the state. 

The creation of a new department is an excruciatingly long process with the state. And it is nearly impossible without the cooperation of the other colleges or universities that may be in the system. Personally, I went through the process to create a journalism discipline at my college. A discipline is a subunit of a department. And journalism was a disciple that already existed in the system. I was merely trying to get it approved at my particular college. It took nearly a year and lots of forms and tons of research to do so. I only point this out to explain just how insubordinate it was for a group of new, probationary instructors to simply declare their own department in such a way. 

During the evaluation, an administrator must be part of the committee, and the vice president of academic affairs served on this particular instructor’s committee. Also a woman of color, she was hired at the same time as the instructor, and the two had become friends. She also, oddly enough, supported the formation of the new illegal department.

Before calling in the instructor to the meeting when we would go over the evaluation, this VP objected to what each of the committee members had written on the official evaluation forms. 

She chastised us for including evaluative statements in our write up and explained that we were to only be recording our observations of the instructor from our classroom visits. Let me repeat. She said “Evaluations are merely observations.” Uh, ok?

Of course, I imagine today that these committees probably consist of only those who are the same color or gender or religion as the person being evaluated. How could a white instructor possibly understand, let alone evaluate, a black instructor?

Let’s look at how different types of relationships on campus are more specifically impacted by group identity.

We’ll start with the relationship between the faculty and administration. Faculty and administration have a historically difficult relationship to begin with. Even people outside of education are often aware of the conflict that typically arises between administrators and faculty. 

One reason is that they have very different roles. The faculty’s role is to impart knowledge, and the administrators’ role is to procure and distribute funding, often putting the two at cross-purposes.

To make matters worse, administrators are involved in evaluations, and it can be difficult for an administrator to judge whether or not a particular teacher is doing a good job in the classroom, partly because many college and university administrators have never taught. Or for argument’s sake, perhaps an administrator was once an English teacher. But does that qualify him or her to evaluate a biology professor? An accounting professor?

Certainly, such administrators are capable of evaluating whether or not a class is entertaining or holds their interest, but without experience in a particular subject, a half hour visit hardly informs them whether that teacher is imparting the content dictated by the course outline of record or how that half hour fits into the overall lesson plan of a semester. 

This is obviously a bigger problem than simply an administrator who is trying to protect a friend from a less-than-stellar evaluation. 

Administrators are busy. For most, conducting evaluations is not high on their list of priorities.  Part of the process involves classroom visits. Typically, the administrator (as well as the other committee members) asks the instructor which day is best to observe their class. Of course, that allows the instructor to create a specific lesson plan, one customized to impress the particular person visiting. It may or may not bear any resemblance to what occurs in the classroom on a day-to-day basis.

In 25 years of being evaluated, I cannot think of any time when someone stayed to observe me for an entire class meeting. That means the person observing never saw an entire lesson plan for a single day. And let me tell you, each class period is planned in whole, to exist as a complete lesson.

So how valuable and informative are these administrators’ (and additionally the other committee members’) class visits in determining the effectiveness of an instructor? Not very. 

What kind of useful feedback would they actually be able to provide? Very little. 

Administrators are not necessarily privy to information on an instructor’s achievements within a department. The chair and the vice chair would be the ones to provide feedback in that area. And most instructors, besides the department chairs, have little interaction with administrators, unless they go out of their way to do so.

But what can an administrator rely on? An evaluation of an instructor’s views on group identity. Read on…

But an easy way for the administration to wield power is to honor group identity. They can then threaten select faculty for insensitivity to a particular “group.” And that group can be arbitrarily defined to suit any particular administration’s ever shifting, relativist agenda.

The “groups” have expanded dramatically since 2007, thanks to intersectionality. And what is considered insensitive has become so broad that a whole class of people has become experts at wrestling out insensitivity in even the most innocuous of statements. It is impossible to keep up, which is precisely the point. We have all seen this play out in the public sphere today. A statement uttered by someone on one side of the political aisle can be repeated by someone on the other side, and suddenly the statement becomes offensive or even the ever-popular, racist. 

Teachers under such administrators live in constant fear that some student will run complaining to the campus compliance officer. This would be the administrative officer in charge of enforcing political correctness and ferreting out all racists on campus. And the compliance officer chomps at the bit to justify his position and ensure a renewed contract in a never-ending witch-hunt. This is where, for example, a Hispanic student who might be upset about a professor’s compliment on a black student’s skirt would be referred (see Part One).

Once the college created the position of the compliance officer (an administrator), is it any surprise that that person instantly became an integral part of the evaluation process? The compliance officer was required to attend all evaluation committee meetings to ensure…we complied. 

How can this possibly lead to a collegial, educationally-focused relationship with an administration?

The answer is that it can’t. The next installment will begin with the damage to faculty relationships with each other. 

(You can find Parts One and Two here.)

2 thoughts on “Group Identity (Part Three)

  1. Pingback: Group Identity (Part Four) – The Writing Life

  2. Pingback: Group Identity (Part Five) – The Writing Life

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