Opinion: “Unbiased” bias: How professors can perpetuate classroom bias without knowing it

Everywhere in the U.S., bias incidents occur on campuses during lectures and class discussions. These bias incidents have become more and more newsworthy as our political climate remains tense. However, it is quite surprising to see so many bias incidents originating from faculty, as well as being reported on social media and the news for their interjections of bias in the classroom. Despite clear evidence of these incidents, there is little that institutions can do to respond to these events, as many professors are tenured or protected from disciplinary action — especially if their actions are “insignificant” in impact. While our American university systems — including our institution — strive to create adults that are trained academically as well as intellectually, there seems to be an issue with ideological bias in the classroom.

UW Tacoma defines a bias incident as discriminatory acts towards “age, ancestry, color, disability, gender identity or expression, genetic information, HIV/AIDS status, military status, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, or veteran status.” And although the university provides a bias form to report incidences, it is stated on the form that not all submissions will be answered. Even more curious is the list of incident types, most of which constitute physical actions such as verbal or physical harassment, graffiti and property damage. However, specific things like political or ideological bias are missing from the list. Nonviolent bias on the part of professors when they teach or discuss certain topics may take a backseat to more immediate or violent acts. Nonetheless, this bias reporting system seems to have flaws in its ability to report educational bias, although it still serves an important function to protect students when harassment or violent incidents occur.

I set out to find what experiences students have had with biased professors or faculty and other classroom biases.

Aly Smith, a senior at UW Tacoma, explained she was understanding of her professors beliefs.

“Professors forewarn to sensitive subjects and offer a safe space to discuss feelings of indifference or disagreement,” said Smith.

However, junior Oscar Trinidad felt differently. He described that he saw political bias or biased discussions arising in classes that didn’t even focus on politics.

“[Even though] the university and its professors state that they fight bias, they contradict themselves constantly,” said Trinidad.

Trinidad also saw other conservatives or libertarians refusing to speak up, instead going along with what a professor was saying in order to avoid unnecessary attention. Brian Sinden, a senior at UW Tacoma shared the same feelings.

“The feeling is that if you have a dissenting opinion, you feel ostracized,” said Sinden “But I don’t care.”

The experiences and sentiments of these students are not uncommon. These attitudes are reflected by many students across almost all major educational institutions, with many feeling that institutions have become very one-sided in their political or personal interpretations of academic material. This becomes a problem, as academic institutions can become borderline indoctrinating in the way they present information, and students can be pressured into appealing to their professor’s views to speak up in class. This teacher-to-student transfer of bias is reflected in larger occurrences on campus, such as professors joining student-lead activism, degrading or humiliating other points of view or — the most problematic of them all — pretending to be unbiased while teaching in a way that is blatantly or subliminally biased.

I have personally encountered this last form of classroom bias the most, not only in this institution but in other educational institutions as well, and — much like a tick — it appears to be the most difficult of biases to remove. The “non-bias bias” can allow a teacher to teach or use materials that are biased in their political or cultural lenses, but the labeling of the material or instruction as “unbiased” deceives students into thinking that the material is such.

In an example from my personal experience, an instructor was describing different types of activism, and while they stated that the basic concepts of activism could be applied to any political stance, the examples presented were supportive of their own views. In the defense of the instructor, they were specific in stating that the tenants of activism could be applied to any political cause and that their material shouldn’t imply a bias, but the material presented could have been more diverse in its political scope. Other examples include when multiple professors vented their opinions on a presidential candidate — before and after the last major election — even at times when the topic of politics was unrelated to in-class discussion or in a manner that assumed much of the class held similar political stances. One of my professors even lengthened exam time the day after the election due to the stress or distraction it caused students! Even as a liberal myself (albeit a classical liberal), these professors’ interjections seemed to be unnecessary to the learning environment and counterintuitive to any further discussion on the topic.

If anything, the only thing I would ask of my instructors is to stop pretending that a campus or classroom is inherently unbiased. No discussion about social issues or politics can be free of bias, and striving for objectivity — while a lofty and enchanting goal — is terribly difficult in the social environment we commonly find ourselves in. Rather, I ask of any professor reading this to just be upfront about your beliefs or potential biases. You’re as biased as I am, and that says a lot coming from the person who defended a person’s right to own Howitzers or small scale nuclear warheads (in humor). By being upfront, you not only hold yourself accountable for bias in the classroom, but you can help start a dialogue about classroom bias and its impact on students and faculty alike. Not to mention, you can still hold integrity and a position of mediation that allows instructors to be both thoughtful and successful. And although you may think that being upfront about these issues may make a student less cooperative or open to new ideas, it will still get even the stubbornest of students to discuss their ideas and open their mind to others. Just because academia finds an opinion uncouth doesn’t always mean they have the final say. It is up to students and faculty to foster a space where ideas can be discussed without fear of significant repercussion or peer pressure.