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Old 03-21-2008, 12:24 AM   #1
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Study: Political Bias in the College Classroom

Do politics really tilt classrooms?

By Stacy Teicher Khadaroo
The Christian Science Monitor, March 21, 2008

For April Kelly-Woessner and her husband, Matthew Woessner, political issues don't break neatly into "red" and "blue" in everyday conversation. Both of them are political scientists. And they're registered in different parties. But the Woessners, who each teach at the college level in Pennsylvania, say they're better at their jobs because of that dynamic. And together they're working on pioneering research that explores the question: How do students' and professors' politics affect the classroom?

It's an area ripe for facts. Too often, the research duo says, conservatives rely on exaggerated anecdotes to paint campuses as chock-full of liberal bias, while liberals are dismissive of what might be legitimate concerns. Their studies aren't meant to provide ammunition for one side or the other. Instead, they hope to remove the cloud of rhetoric and to inform the debate--and the academic climate--with data.
Political leanings do make a difference, but sometimes in subtle ways, the researchers found. Students feel less comfortable and give their professors lower ratings if they believe them to hold political views different from their own. But variables, such as the professor's level of caring and objectivity, can moderate the situation.

Mr. Woessner teaches at Penn State Harrisburg, and Ms. Kelly-Woessner at Elizabethtown College. After the 9/11 attacks, "the classroom environment became very politicized," she says. In discussions about war and antiterrorism measures, "you saw students really taking sides...and you had to wonder to what extent your views on that were influencing your class."
To get beyond their own experience, they surveyed the students of 30 professors around the United States. In nearly 1400 responses, students rated their professors and themselves on ideological and partisan scales. They also addressed how much they liked the course and the professor and how much they learned. "This is probably empirically one of the best studies I've seen on this topic," says John Ishiyama, editor in chief of the Journal of Political Science Education, which will be publishing the Woessners' most recent peer-reviewed article in September.

Students who saw their professor as having a similar political disposition to their own reported that they learned more. But several explanations for that are possible. It could be that students who disagree with their professor's views follow a natural tendency to avoid or discredit information in the class. "But it's also possible," Kelly-Woessner says, "that rather than affecting real learning, you're merely affecting students' confidence in their learning." Those who are frequently challenged may learn a lot but lose confidence in the process. That's important, she says, because "people who are confident that they understand politics are much more likely to participate." Professors commonly play "devil's advocate" to push students to back up their arguments, and debates make for lively classes, but this suggests the need to take care that some students don't shut down in response.

No correlation was found between students' partisan difference with professors and their sense of being graded fairly. "That was very striking...[because] one of the arguments about liberal faculty has been that somehow they're punishing conservative students," Mr. Ishiyama says. Professors, on the other hand, may have cause for concern if their prospects for tenure are tied strongly to student evaluations. The greater the ideological or partisan differences that students perceive with their professor, the lower their evaluation of him or her. Students aren't always objective, so "if students say, 'I feel like the professor was biased,' you can't really take that at face value," says Anne Colby, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The Woessners' next study will measure how students' ideological views change over time and how that relates to professors' actual ideological and partisan affiliations.
Their first research article on this topic, which the above article is based on, ran in the journal Political Science & Politics back in 2006, and is available online: My Professor is a Partisan Hack: How Perceptions of a Professor's Political Views Affect Student Course Evaluations (.pdf). They also presented a somewhat related research paper late last year, also available online, entitled Left Pipeline: Why Conservatives Don't Get Doctorates (.pdf). Some interesting excerpts from the latter:
When attempting to explain the dominance of the political left among college faculty, one must grapple with the dearth of conservatives in the academic pipeline. Every year, self-identified liberals apply to Ph.D. programs in far greater numbers than do conservatives. However, the reasons for this ideological imbalance are far from clear. Those on the political right tend to regard academia’s liberal slant as evidence of discrimination against conservatives. By contrast, those on the political left may conclude that their overrepresentation in the academy is due to superior intelligence and abilities.

...The specific data used in our analysis is from a 2004 survey of 15,569 college seniors, attending 149 US colleges, as well as the same students’ responses to a survey taken at the beginning of their college career...We consider whether liberals and conservatives differ in four measures, each of which has the potential to influence educational aspirations and career goals: satisfaction with the college experience, academic performance, relationships with faculty, and personal goals and values.
[Satisfaction with the college experience]

...Conservatives and those on the far right actually report a slightly higher satisfaction with college (3.29) than do liberals and those on the far left (3.21). Accordingly, the measures of college to explain the ideological imbalance among Ph.D.s. Also, our data suggests that conservative students, as a whole, do not feel victimized in the liberal academy. This is not to say that they do not experience some hostility in individual courses or among certain disciplines. However, it appears that, if discrimination does occur, it does not profoundly affect their overall assessments of the college experience.
[Academic performance]

...Variations in reported grades do not vary as a function of conservatism, but rather as a function of moderation. Moderates consistently report lower grades than do their liberal and conservative counterparts. Concerned that less intelligent students might have self-identified as moderates, simply because they did not comprehend the ideological classifications used in the survey question, we reclassified the respondents based on their answers to a battery of political questions included near the end of the student survey. We found that students who take objectively moderate positions on important political issues do earn lower grades than their ideological classmates do. Of the approximately 700 students on either edge of the ideological spectrum, students on the far left enjoy a grade advantage of two-tenths of a point over students on the far right. Of the 8000 students who identify themselves as merely liberal or conservative, their reported college grades are effectively identical. Taken together, students who identify as either liberal or far left do enjoy a slight advantage over students who see themselves as conservative or far right. However, this three one-hundredths of a point difference hardly explains the abundance of liberals who seek doctoral degrees. Furthermore, in light of the fact that the more scholastically challenged moderates pursue doctoral degrees in higher numbers than their conservative is clear that academic performance does not explain the shortage of conservatives in graduate school.
[Relationships with faculty]

...When placed in a statistical model alongside measures of each student’s ideology, sex, general assessment of college, grades, and various measures of personal goals, only three of the
faculty-student relationship variables turn out to be important: being a guest in a professor’s home, having opportunities to work on research projects, and meeting with the professor outside of class...In each case, students on the political left enjoy a small advantage over students on the political right.
Somewhat surprisingly, the measure of students’ visits to professors’ homes shows the least evidence of ideological bias. Consistent with earlier findings, moderates are the least likely to have been the guests of their instructors. Overall, the liberals and conservatives report almost the same propensity to visit their professors’ homes. However, while those on the far right do report a somewhat higher visitation rate than mere conservatives, the rate falls well short of those who identify themselves as being on the far left. Among strong ideologues, those on the left do appear to have better relationships with faculty. Although the survey responses are not dramatically different, the remaining two measurements provide further indication that ideological factors may genuinely inhibit the student-faculty relationship. Whereas moderates are the least likely to visit a professor’s home, conservatives are the least likely to meet with a professor outside of class or office hours. When it comes to conducting research—a pivotal experience for any undergraduate seriously considering a doctoral program—those on the far right come in dead last. Although the difference in scores is still relatively small, since the opportunity to conduct research is a relatively important predictor of interest in a doctoral degree, this distinction probably matters...To the extent that these relationships are correlated with a desire to pursue a doctoral degree, this advantage probably contributes to the shortage of conservatives interested in pursuing a Ph.D. However, judging from its relatively small influence on the statistical model, the liberal advantage in faculty-student mentoring cannot possibly account for all of the observed difference in educational ambitions between liberals and conservatives.
[Personal goals and values]

...[W]e compared student preferences on four issues associated with pursing a Ph.D. The first factor, the importance given to raising a family, is a useful predictor of educational goals, since pursing a doctorate usually involves postponing a family (or at least children) for four to six years. Statistically, those who see a family as a priority are less likely to express an interest in pursuing a doctorate. The second factor, the importance of writing original works, provides some indication of a student’s desire to work in a creative environment. Students who indicate that writing original works is a priority are typically more interested in getting a Ph.D. The third factor, being well off financially, is an important predictor of seeking a doctorate for a number of reasons. The most prized Ph.D. students live a materially modest existence, enjoying university support for tuition, books, and a humble monthly stipend. However, many doctoral students spend their graduate years slowing descending into a mountain of debt. While the salaries associated with Ph.D. graduates may be attractive, the road to graduation is long and financially burdensome. Not surprisingly, students who place a high priority on being well off financially are less likely to express an interest in attaining a doctoral degree. The fourth factor, developing a meaningful philosophy of life, captures a segment of the student population that seems particularly enamored with the intellectual exercises so often associated with academics. Not surprisingly, students who place a premium on developing a meaningful life philosophy are more interested in pursuing a Ph.D. than their more practically oriented counterparts. The final factor, a desire to make a theoretical contribution to science, reveals a student’s interest in research, which is the factor most closely associated with a desire to seek a Ph.D. ...Unlike the previous figures, where the measurements hardly varied when moving from the far left to the far right, all but one of the personal priority measures indicate relatively sharp differences between liberals and conservatives. More significantly, all of the differences in the same direction, discouraging conservatives from pursuing a doctoral degree. Conservatives are simultaneously more family oriented, less interested in writing original works, more focused on financial success, less interested in developing a meaningful philosophy of life, and less interested in making a theoretical contribution to science. It seems that, overall, the personal priorities of those on the left are more compatible with pursing a Ph.D. Combined, these personal preferences seem to have a greater impact on conservatives’ educational aspirations than any other factors in the statistical model. The overall importance of money and family, combine with a tendency to seek out practical, professionally oriented degrees does suggest one important consequence of the findings. For many students, these underlying values are not likely to be the consequence of their collegiate experience, but rather, reflect differences between liberals and conservatives that occur as the result of early socialization and/or innate personality differences.
This tends to be one of those topics that everyone loves to run their mouth about, but on which very little structured research has been done (particularly concerning the students' experience), so I think it's great that this academic couple are researching it and hope more scholars will follow their lead. They both teach American politics, which is probably the field where this issue resonates most strongly.

Do any of the above findings jibe with your own experience? What would or do you most want and expect from your professors in terms of their managing and participating in classroom discussions where political ideologies are a factor? Should universities aim to change their hiring and tenuring priorities in an attempt to attract more prospective conservative faculty (perhaps along the lines of what's suggested by the 'Personal goals and values' findings above?), and if so, what do you think the results and benefits might be?

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Old 03-21-2008, 05:05 AM   #2
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Personally, I could easier determine the political leanings of my high school teachers than I could my college professors. I would assume that at least one of my college professors was left, but the course was clearly titled "Marxism in Cinema", lol. Perhaps there was a tilt in the material I was assigned, but political philosophy was not particularly evident in the political classes I took--nor English or philosophy or history or science. I can be obtuse that way sometimes though, but I suspect if it was blatant one direction or the other, I wouldn't be taking that class again.

If I were back in school, I think I would want the same. I cannot imagine many circumstances where knowing my professor's personal political philosophy would benefit my education (although it might benefit my grades as I would know which way to slant my discussion and my papers). On the other hand, if the college were offering classes where ideology was germane , I think it is important to offer the student the widest range of views. If a college seeks diversity in students, which they should, they should offer diversity in faculty. The students may gravitate, but the options would be there.

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Old 03-21-2008, 08:15 AM   #3
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I did an undergrad in a highly technical science program and I have no idea what the political views of 99% of my professors were. We didn't discuss current political events and so there was no opportunity to ascertain their views.

I find that law school is a place where the ratio is somewhat minimized because the business/corporate law profs tend to be extremely right wing in at least their economic views. And yes, you hear about it in every lecture. It never particularly bothered me - I'd probably tune out when they started pontificating. My grades in their classes were certainly never affected by my refusal to parrot their opinions back to them on an exam or in a paper. I did just as well there as in my other courses.

As for why conservatives don't go into academia - among my own friends, those who are self-described conservatives (I don't know any social ones, just economic ones) seem to all collectively hold the view that they'd rather be caught dead than be a poor academic after all this money they (read: their parents) have invested into their education.
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Old 03-21-2008, 08:54 AM   #4
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As for why conservatives don't go into academia - among my own friends, those who are self-described conservatives (I don't know any social ones, just economic ones) seem to all collectively hold the view that they'd rather be caught dead than be a poor academic after all this money they (read: their parents) have invested into their education.
Nail on the head.
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Old 03-21-2008, 09:01 AM   #5
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It's interesting, some of my professors feel it's more fair to us to let us know their views outright, others feel it's more fair to keep their views to themselves.

I've had a apretty even number of liberal and conservative professors, most of the time their views haven't bothered me even if I disagree...and actually I think those who share my views have been tougher on me and push me more (for my own good).
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Old 03-21-2008, 09:21 AM   #6
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I think it really depends on what kind of conservative you are... As anitram and MadelynIris pointed out economic conservatives aren't going to enter academia for one reason, but social conservatives aren't going to enter for entirely different reason. Higher education won't often coincide with social conservatism. Most social conservative views will be disproven by history, sociology, logic, etc...

So I always have a hard time when people say higer education has a liberal 'bias'. It's not a bias, economically you can teach conservative means, socially you can't the two will conflict.
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Old 03-23-2008, 07:10 PM   #7
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^ I think it's probably true that many socially conservative academics would feel more at home at a college whose mission specifically includes some intellectual commitment to 'socially conservative ideas,' such as Notre Dame for example. And it's often speculated that the traditional emphasis (at least in the humanities) on critical thinking, learning to examine a situation from multiple perspectives, and having to reconcile theories with data tends to discourage the sort of 'black and white,' clear-cut-questions-of-principle type thinking that (according to this view) is more strongly associated with social conservatism.

However, I also think you have to take into account the commitment *most* academics, regardless of their own stances, really do feel towards the ideal of preparing their students to make their own highly informed decisions, not passively imbibing theirs--and I'd point to the Woessners' finding that student respondents believed they were graded fairly regardless of ideological differences with their professors as one manifestation of that. The professor I studied Marx under in grad school was probably the most conservative professor I ever had--socially, economically and militarily--and while it was apparent enough that he disagreed profoundly with both Marxist economic theory and Marxist theories of society, it was even more apparent that his top priority was ensuring that his students really understood the material, were able to properly situate Marx in his historical and intellectual context, and grasped the influence of his ideas on subsequent major thinkers in a variety of fields. Likewise, most professors will be far more pleased to receive a thoughtful, well-argued, well-structured paper making a case they personally disagree with than a rote, sloppy, poorly supported paper that happens to reflect their own stances. So there's a kind of deep respect for the tradition and aims of scholarship in its own right there, above and beyond the fact that academics have opinions and leanings just like anyone else, and the significance of that shouldn't be overlooked. It's not as simple as learned expertise = assumed right to pontificate.

I always advise students who strongly feel that one of their professors is regularly straying into self-indulgent-partisan-rants territory, wasting class time needlessly flapping his or her jaws on his/her own political pet peeves, etc., to make sure to comment on that in some detail when filling out their course evaluations. Department chairs really do read those things and they really do discuss them with professors, and if they're seeing a pattern of such complaints, it's most unlikely that they'll blow it off.

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