Who receives abusive comments?
The study of 674 academics shows that in the early-2020s, 59 per cent of participants report receiving abusive comments in their student evaluations. Tables 2, 3, 4 and 5 demonstrate the rates of abuse across several demographic areas of academics working in the sector.
Tables 2, 3, 4 and 5 makes several points clear. The first is that abusive comments are much more common than previous studies have found or suggested. This on its own should not come as a surprise as Tucker (2014) highlights that large-scale studies of SET comments tend to rely on data-mining techniques usually built around keyword or phrase searches. It is, however, possible to be abusive without using words likely to be picked up via an automated system; an aspect made clear in this study where participants have provided examples of comments that they felt were abusive. It should also be noted that existing studies tend to focus on set time periods such as data collected over one teaching period or one year (Fan et al., 2019; Uttl & Smibert, 2017). In this study, I asked participants ‘Have you ever received comments that contained abusive, offensive, or derogatory words or phrasing?’ While 59% of participants answered ‘Yes’, I chose to not set a time period regarding whether or not the abuse occurred, for example, in the last teaching period or year, so as to gain an idea of the frequency of abuse. As the next sections explore, the participants’ survey responses discuss the regularity with which they receive abusive comments.
It would also be dismissive to suggest that the impact of abusive comments is directly related to volume or regularity of abuse. For example, 67% of participants who reported receiving abusive comments indicated that the stress or anxiety of receiving abusive comments, or how the comments and SET results were connected to promotion and career, impacted on their wellbeing. Additionally, as SETs and SET comments occur at the end of each teaching period, participants regularly discussed the subsequent wellbeing issues as being a cycle that saw anxiety grow in the weeks/months before SET data was released, and then could take an equally long (or longer) amount of time to subside following the results. Though 67% of participants identified SET comments as negatively affecting their wellbeing, wellbeing is not a standard or definitive term, and is one that can be somewhat defined by the participant’s own experiences (Tucker, 2014). However, 16% of participants stated that they had sought professional medical help due to work related stress, and highlighted that SET comments and data played a role in their stress.
That SET comments, and SETs more widely, contribute to wellbeing and mental health issues of academics is also somewhat expected, but SETs and SET comments can also impact on academic career progress and objectives. 52% of participants indicated that they had delayed promotion applications on at least one occasion due to unfavourable SET results and comments. Additionally, 30% of participants indicated SET results and comments had negatively impacted on their employment opportunities, or had been used by their faculty leaders as a reason to delay their promotion requests. In both examples, the academics to delay or be denied promotion due to SET results were in over 70% of circumstances women or marginalised academics.
In looking at the impact of SETs and SET comments on academics, it is often difficult to separate the two. Negative results are often paired with negative comments and one only exacerbates the negative impact of the other. Thus, though this is a paper primarily focused on comments in SETs, the wider impact of SETs on academic careers cannot be ignored or entirely set-aside in this discussion (Heffernan, 2020, 2021b, 2022. However, if we focus on what type of comments different demographics of academics receive, we see trends in the prejudice nature of SET results (Boring et al., 2016; Fan et al., 2019) be reflected in the tone of comments they receive.
Demographics and their relationship to abusive comments
Almost every piece of data generated in this study could itself be analysed by experts in each field. For example, scholars of gender theory, race, or disability theory could write journal articles or book chapters about what this study’s generated data can tell us about people from different marginalised backgrounds working in the ostensibly white, middle-class, privileged domain of the university. This paper is nonetheless about highlighting the type, and extent, of problems that student comments cause, why they (and SET results) do not provide a clear representation of course quality or teacher effectiveness, the extent to which they are abusive, and why they should be removed to spare staff from discrimination and wellbeing issues.
An examination of the most populous participant groups (white, straight, able-bodied academics identifying as men, and white, straight, able-bodied academics identifying as women) gives an overall indication of the volume and type of abuse different groups can receive. The amount of abuse, as is evident from Tables 2, 3, 4 and 5, is that white, straight, able-bodied men reported abuse at approximately 55%, and women at 63%. However, the type of abuse and how each group reacted to the comments was very different.
Of the 63 male participants who fit this demographic group, approximately one-third of the abusive comments related to the class being taught, for example:
Around one-third of the comments related to personal attacks, for example:
This lecturer is out of touch. They don’t understand the modern classroom.
If Dr (name) was a product that I had purchased at a retail store, I would have returned it by now and asked for my money back.
At the worst level (for this demographic), participants spoke of regular fat-shaming or comments on appearance. Several participants noted being called ‘gay’ or ‘faggot’, while another participant wrote of regularly being referred to via names such as ‘Ching Chong’ as students perceived him to be of Asian descent. These participants wrote of the comments as being largely inconsequential because they were attacking elements that did not exist (such as their heritage or sexual identity because the participants identified as straight, white men), however, they regularly reflected on the comments people from these groups must receive. However, one participant, who indicated their Jewish heritage was evident via their name, also wrote of ‘on occasion’ having antisemitic comments or swastikas drawn in their student feedback, and noted that this increased in the ‘wake of an attack on a nearby synagogue’. The participant spoke of these attacks being extremely confronting as they continue to receive regular attacks on them, their heritage, and their community.
Though 55% of white, straight, male participants indicated receiving abusive comments, these comments are on a spectrum. Remembering that the survey asked ‘Have you ever received comments that contained abusive, offensive, or derogatory words or phrasing?’, it is the participant’s choice to decide how they felt about the comments. Thus, some readers of this paper may view some of the above comments more as harsh critiques, but that is not how the participant interpreted the comment, and it is their interpretation that impacts on their wellbeing, mental health, and career and promotion aspirations.
The tone of abuse alters significantly when examining the comments straight, white, able-bodied women academics received. Across the 191 participants who fit the category, we again see some comments focus on the class, for example:
The class is bullshit, I shouldn’t have to study it.
[Name] is not a fair marker and gives better grades to people she likes [in a unit with a teaching team and blind marking].
However, while this type of comment made up around 30% of the comments men received, they made up less than 10% of the comments women received. By a significant margin of around 60%, a majority of the comments women receive are about their body, appearance, or age. Participants spoke at length of regularly receiving comments the reflect the tone of those below:
[Name] has a nice ass, I like to watch her walk around.
[Name] is too old to teach this class, give it to someone younger.
[Name] is going to die of a heart attack if she doesn’t do something about her weight problem; I’m just saying this for her own good because I’m genuinely concerned about people who are this overweight and don’t do anything about it, and people are afraid to say something to overweight people these days because they will get criticized and attacked for it, because fat people claim that it’s ‘body shaming,‘ so I’m doing it here because it’s anonymous.
[Name] is too fat to be a health lecturer.
In the worst category of abuse, participants spoke of receiving generally high-level abusive comments.
Comments including ‘[Name] is young and pretty’ are also mixed with. ‘[Name] is a slut’.
Lecturer is hot and should deliver classes topless to improve the student experience.
[Name] is a bitch.
[Name] is an ugly fat cow.
[Name] should be scared in a dark alley [if the student came across them].
[Name] dresses too revealing and is a cunt.
The above is only a short sample of the type of comments women academics receive. Remembering that 59% of participants said they received abusive student comments, around 90% of those comments for women academics were about appearance, included threats, and the tone of abuse was significantly different to that received by men. The tone of comment also alters what each participant group perceives as abuse. For example, several male participants spoke of having their qualifications questioned as being a form of abuse. In contrast, several women specifically identified having their qualifications questioned as not being abusive and in fact being a ‘best case scenario’ when compared to their usual comments of being ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’.
It is also necessary to consider the pushback that occurs from staff due to these comments. Zero male participants indicated that they had made attempts to have student comments (or the associated scores/results) removed from the system so that the comments were deleted and SET result scores not included in their class average. Conversely, around 10% of women academics wrote of unsuccessfully campaigning to have comments removed from the system and student’s associated satisfaction survey results removed. One could suggest that male academics never pursued this course of action because their SET results and comments are not as bad or abusive at the same rate as female participants, and so, the pressure to seek change is not as strong. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the wider toll that the abuse and lack of support can have on women academics.
One participant wrote in detail of the trauma and lack of support they received. In response to the SET question ‘What would improve the subject?’ one academic received the student comment ‘better looking gash’. The participant spoke of the difficulty of receiving this comment as an early career academic, but made clear that the lasting trauma came from then being reprimanded for the comment and having to explain the meaning of the comment to their supervisors. Following this, the participant attempted to have the student’s survey removed due to clear bias, but the request was rejected, the participant being told that a student could write the abusive comment but be fair in scoring the other questions.