Classroom bias can be a self-fulfilling prophecy

Lauren Franklin

Perhaps it is a result of our evolution as social creatures, or perhaps the root is more recent, such as the emergence of the social media that we use to advertise ourselves to the world. Whatever the origin, we young adults are intensely and acutely aware of our image as seen by others. Furthermore, we are aware of the images our peers try to put forth, and we use those images to judge and stereotype, all the while feeling judged and stereotyped ourselves. This type of stereotyping has real impacts on intellectual discourse in our University community.

Here is a practical example: A few days ago, I was sitting in a class about the Middle East during a class discussion about Lebanon and Israel. I had studied abroad in Israel, so I answered some questions about its demographics and policies.  While doing so, I worried my classmates might be thinking I was staunchly “pro-Israel,” which would imply being “anti-Palestine” (for the record, I am neither of those). After some reflection, I realized that I was stereotyping my classmates as people who would perceive me as biased in the same way as I thought they might have been stereotyping me.

According to a 2009 study, about 50 percent of students answered in a survey that they perceived bias in their university classrooms, and about 25 percent of students reported that they felt they were targets of some kind of bias, such as stereotyping. This bias may be overt, or it may be subtle. About 22 percent of students who reported that they were targets of bias said that the bias was overt. Studies show that students who are of ethnic and racial minorities experience more subtle bias, as well as LGBTQ students and female students. However, students may form prejudices even based on other students’ appearances, clothing and perceived social groups.  

So what does this mean for intellectual discourse?  The prejudices that students may form can include assumptions about another student’s perceived wealth, political leanings or intelligence and can potentially lead to a breakdown in intellectual discourse. Students may ignore or even verbally harass their classmates.  

Na’ama Pat-el of the Middle Eastern studies department teaches courses about the Bible, which one might assume would be a hotspot for bias. However, according to Dr. Pat-el, except in very rare instances, she has not encountered any overt bias between students in her classroom. This could suggest that although students may feel some bias, this bias may not always exist.  

Returning to the example of my personal experience, I had not actually encountered any prejudice from other students. Intellectual discourse, at least in this circumstance, is only threatened by our attempt to maintain a perfectly manicured self-image. I was so anxious about what my classmates would think of me that I stopped participating in the class discussion, and that action was the true threat to intellectual discourse, not the bias about which I had originally worried.

However, bias is not always imagined. Biology senior Rathi Kannan describes some of the biases she has encountered in her years at UT. For example, Kannan discusses how well-dressed girls in her science classes are often thought of by students, and even some professors, as less intelligent than their classmates. Kannan says that there is an attitude in the sciences that girls should be less “girly.” “What does that even mean?” Kannan asks. “No one ever tells men, ‘Don’t be so male.’”

In cases such as the one Kannan describes, bias is real and stigmas persist. So the question of how to separate real from imagined bias remains. I do not have an outright answer to this question, but a key to its answer may be the act of introspection. We must ask ourselves regularly what assumptions we are making about our peers. Not only can questions like these help us perceive real bias in the classroom (and free ourselves from the imaginary), but it can also reduce the amount of bias we facilitate.

Franklin is a Plan II, linguistics and Middle Eastern languages and cultures senior from Sugar Land.