Confession #35784: “Why do all the calculus profs suck?? You either get grad students… or foreign profs with really strong accents.” This was one of the few ‘confessions’ about professors’ foreign accents made on U of T Confessions, a Facebook page followed by more than 34,000 people.
During their studies, students at U of T may come across professors or TAs with noticeable accents. A glance at anonymous commentary websites, such as U of T Confessions or ratemyprofessors.com, reveals that students have given negative reviews of their professors largely for having thick accents.
Professors have noted that accents can affect one’s perception of another’s intelligence. U of T linguistics professor Naomi Nagy recalled the story of another professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). When that professor asked the class to quote participants as part of an assignment, she instructed the class to “clean up” the interviewee’s language to prevent them from sounding “dumb.”
According to U of T behavioural economics professor Robert Gazzale, “a lot of it has to do with… what represents competence in that discipline.” For example, he noted that it would not be uncommon for an English literature professor with a British accent to be perceived as competent, whereas an instructor with an Asian accent may be discredited.
While accents may be a factor in judgments of competence, Nagy said that these biases may have less to do with how someone speaks and more to do with how they look.
In particular, Nagy referenced a 1992 study. One group of students was assigned to listen to an audio recording of a TA speaking in English while they looked at a picture of a European woman. Another set of students listened to the same recording but looked at a picture of an Asian woman. A subsequent comprehension test revealed that students who were shown the picture of the Asian woman performed worse than those who saw the European woman. This study indicated that students understood less when they were listening to a person whom they expected to have an accent.
The implications of such studies, where internal prejudices affect students’ performance, are not well known. Gazzale hypothesized that in the 1992 study, students adjusted their learning efforts based on their expectation of the quality of instruction they were receiving.
Thus, the problem is double-edged: not only can ‘foreign-looking’ instructors be perceived as less competent, but students may also perform worse as a result of their adjusted performances based on their expectations of lecture quality.
Gazzale added that this is similar to the approachability versus competency trade-off. “Trying to be more [approachable to] students might have a desirable effect [in] that students [feel] more comfortable around you, [which] might help on the student evaluations. But on the other hand, the potential risk is a loss of perceived competence and authority.”
This trade-off varies across age and gender. “As an older white guy, I wear jeans to class,” said Gazzale, explaining how this does not decrease his authoritative presence. “I realize this is a luxury I have with my grey hair.”
“Students make up their mind instantaneously after [the] first view of their professor,” said Nagy. She cited a study in which, after watching a five-second silent clip of a professor, students were asked to give an evaluation of the professor. Even at the end of the semester, these evaluations remained unchanged.
Nagy has conducted some informal experiments herself using the university’s course evaluation system. Nagy admitted that she would receive better evaluations when she wore her hair longer. She hypothesized that this may have been because students perceived long hair as “more feminine” and associated it with being “nicer and more helpful.”
What does it take to overcome bias from first impressions, whether formed from accents or appearances? According to Gazzale, awareness of the bias might be effective, but the bias may still be dependent on other factors. For example, even students who acknowledge that such a bias exists may not recognize that they themselves are being prejudiced.
Gazzale believes that demonstrating to students that they have indeed learned something after the first lecture may help them reassess their perceived competence of the professor. He added that student evaluations are highly informative, especially for large classes, assuming that the biases have a consistent effect every year.
Editor’s Note (March 17): A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Naomi Nagy was recounting her own experience at OISE. Nagy was recounting the experience of another professor.