The Hippo and the Panda Talk Teaching
Hippo: Hey, Panda, did you see this study that says that students consistently give lower teaching evaluations to hippos than to pandas?
Panda: How do we know that’s true? I’m very sophisticated statistically, not to mention ridiculously cute due to the fact that I am a panda, and I can tell you that that study has a lot of flaws.
Hippo: But there are a lot of other studies like this, so can we just assume for the purposes of our conversation that it’s true?
Panda: Ok, let’s make that assumption. So maybe hippos get worse evaluations because hippos are just lousy teachers—maybe you all need to learn how to teach.
Hippo: But my teaching style is just like yours. And wouldn’t it be kind of weird if hippos were universally worse teachers than pandas? I think it’s just that students don’t like hippos as much as they like pandas. I mean, I’m not all furry and cute like you.
Panda: True. I am ridiculously cute.
Hippo: Ok, moving right along. Anyway, since students are biased against hippos, I think that my low teaching evaluations shouldn’t count against me in the tenure process, or at least, shouldn’t count against me as much.
Panda: That doesn’t make any sense. Why should it matter whether students aren’t learning from you because you mumble and don’t give good examples, or aren’t learning from you because they don’t like hippos? The fact is, they’re not learning, or at least, they don’t feel like they are. Don’t we want this school to have good teachers?
Hippo: Yes, but why should I bear the burden of their bigotry?
Panda: Bear! Hee hee hee.
Hippo: Could you be serious for a second? I don’t see why I should have to be punished for their bigotry. Shouldn’t they be the ones who carry the burden of having an irrational dislike for hippos?
Panda: Because you’re not as—
Hippo: Yes, fine, because I’m not as ridiculously cute as you.
Panda: That makes me a little uncomfortable, because I thought our purpose was to teach our students. Maybe in day-to-day life you shouldn’t have to carry the burden of other people’s bigotry, but here in school, we take on, or should take on, a lot of things for our students. I mean, it’s a general rule that I don’t clean up other people’s messes, but when my son is sick (and by the way, if you think I’m ridiculously cute, you should see my son! baby panda!), I clean up after him. That’s my role in the parent-baby panda relationship. And our role as teachers is to help our students learn.
Hippo: Yeah, that’s true, but I think one of the things we should help them learn is how to accept hippos as teachers and in other positions of authority.
Panda: That makes sense—I guess I’m not here just to teach my subject area, tree-scratching. So how could we help them learn to like hippos?
Hippo: Well, if not all students are biased, and if classes are graded on a curve, people who don’t learn well from hippos will get worse grades than other people when they take classes from hippos. The bad grade will essentially be a correction for the bias, one of the rare settings in which discrimination can be punished without any action on anyone’s part. The student suffers from his bias against hippos, but, if we weight evaluations properly, the hippo does not. But the discriminating student can eliminate his disadvantage in the class by listening better to hippos. In other words, the student can improve his grades by changing his behavior (i.e., his not-listening-to-hippos behavior). So we should let students know that many people are biased against hippos, so that a student who gets a bad grade from a hippo thinks, “Hmm, maybe I can learn better and improve my grade if I get rid of this irrational bias of mine and listen carefully to this hippo.” And perhaps the student can bring this attitude with him out into society at large.
Panda: That seems kind of optimistic. And it still makes me kind of uncomfortable, though I can’t figure out exactly why.
Hippo: Well, let me know. I’m going to go wallow in the mud.
Panda: Yeah, I’ll think about it. See you later. I’m going to go eat some bamboo in a placid manner.