Breaking down race, age and gender biases in the collegiate classroom

Dr. Ana M. Martínez Alemán spoke at the Peurto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center on Wednesday, April 12 about breaking down the bias problems that plague America's higher education system. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

Dr. Ana M. Martínez Alemán spoke at the Peurto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center on Wednesday, April 12 about breaking down the bias problems that plague America's higher education system. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

Professor of the Higher Education Department at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education Dr. Ana M. Martínez Alemán came to the University of Connecticut’s Puerto Rican and Latin American Cultural Center Wednesday afternoon to speak about breaking down the bias problems that plague America’s higher education system from a student-to-professor perspective.

“The big question is: Does race, age and gender effect learning at higher education institutions? The answer is, it does,” Dr. Martínez Alemán began.

Dr. Martínez Alemán has been studying and analyzing racism and sexism for many years and derives her perceptions of higher education classrooms from statistics gathered from institutions. She remarked that for most of the 20th century, getting this information about collegiate educators was extremely difficult without actually being in the classroom, whereas the K-12 systems were very good at getting the data and responding in a constructive fashion.

She extrapolated on a huge variety of topics outside of gender and race, making a clear distinction of race vs. ethnicity and gender vs. sex, all with unique effects on perceptions of educators from students. This data shows that men are less likely to come under scrutiny as educators than women, regardless of their race.

“As a male of color in a heavily academic environment, the fact that statistically, my gender will trump any preconceived notions about my race and that this is reflected by the Student Evaluation of Teachers surveys really surprised me,” Neag School of Education Doctorate student Robert Cotto said. “As a future educator, I really appreciate the focus Dr. Martínez Alemán gave to building trust as a means of preventing academic and social frustrations that can lead to prejudice thinking.”

The pedagogy of these institutions and schools is one of the key problems. The art and the science of teaching leaves a lot of room for error on the professorship level and much of this is caused by a repetition in teaching methods that is simply passed down to future educators.

“In recent years, K-12 has done a great job of breaking down the objectives of education; exploring and improving on ways to get there where as higher education has fallen short. There are still classes students are taking that have one midterm and one final, which we have known for some time, is not a good way to evaluate learning,” Dr. Martínez Alemán said.

“I have been at UConn for over four years now and it is really wonderful to see these kinds of conversations happening. There is a real need to create space for faculty and students to discuss their experience and how to improve it, together,” second-year Learning and Leadership and Educational Policy Doctorate student Monique Golden said. “Professors often don’t understand that every student that shows up is going to have certain thoughts about the professor in the classroom but the bottom line to fix all this is respect from both sides.”

The talk concluded with a brief opportunity for students in the room to talk with all the established higher education professionals about their thoughts on the matter. One student asked what could be done at the student level to alleviate these statistical biases and prejudice when it comes to interacting and perceiving their professors from a strictly academic perspective.

“That is a great question but the answer is very complicated, in part because the education profession is so cloistered and sheltered, unlike other public service professions. Because of this, students cannot understand the teaching side of the matter because they have almost no knowledge of what that is like. All teachers were once students but most students have never been teachers,” Dr. Martínez Alemán responded. “Additionally, despite parents best efforts over however many years, a huge aspect of these attitudes come from the student’s peers. Students have the ability to talk about these kinds of problems and experiences and level with their classmates about professors when they become academically frustrated, and to remind them of the academic context of their judgments and grievances. A chance to say ‘hey dude, talking about people like that is not ok.’”


Dan Wood is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at daniel.wood@uconn.edu.