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Coming out in the classroom: Surprising results for character survey

image of a desk in a classroom at Illinois State University

When Illinois State University’s Mark Olson and Eros DeSouza decided to replicate a 2002 survey of an instructor’s credibility and character, they thought they might see something different.

The original study was conducted by former graduate student Travis Russ under the guidance of Steve Hunt and Cheri Simonds, both professors in the School of Communication. An instructor gave the exact same talk on cultural competency, with the only change being references to either an opposite-sex or a same-sex partner.

“In the study published in 2002, they found that despite identical presentations, the gay speaker was significantly evaluated as less competent and having less character,” said Olson, a professor of social work, who reconstructed the survey last year with DeSouza, a professor of psychology.

At the time the 2002 study was conducted, the Town of Normal was considering adding sexual orientation as a protected class, noted Simonds. “Many people in the community were arguing that there was no need for protection. As a supervisor of graduate teaching assistants, my experiences told a different story,” she said.

“It’s almost a disconnect between the intellectual and emotional reaction. The subtle, emotional biases are still there.”

For the updated survey, this time it was Olson who gave the talks. “Over the course of the presentation, I would make three references to my wife, Eileen. In the experimental conditions, I would make three references to my life partner, Alan,” said Olson.

Students would then be given evaluations and asked to rank the professor on areas of character and competence—such as impressions of reliability, being informed, honesty, expertise, intelligence, and selfishness.

“What we found surprised us,” said Olson.

Although the study found no difference in terms of competence, there was a distinct drop in character rankings for the presentation where a life partner was mentioned. “The straight speaker was more likely to be seen as more virtuous, more honest, more pleasant, and more unselfish,” said Olson.

The results show a lapse between what students know and what they feel, said Olson. “It’s almost a disconnect between the intellectual and emotional reaction. The subtle, emotional biases are still there.”

“The assumption that this is no longer an issue is false.”

One of the original members of the study agreed. “The fact that Mark and Eros’ findings show that bias still exists in the classroom is troubling and demonstrates that coming out in the classroom may still be an occupational hazard,” said Hunt. Simonds said she also found the results “disheartening,” and noted “it certainly serves to support the argument that homosexual individuals still need protection from attitudinal discrimination.”

DeSouza and Olson presented their findings as a poster at the Council on Social Work Education Conference, and immediately gained attention. “I was surprised by the reaction, and how many people were interested,” said Olson, who added that colleagues from across the U.S. expressed a similar concern for their higher education faculty.

The two hope the work will give higher education institutions insight into the fact that a bias still exists. “In this day and age, we see the legal changes, and we see the cultural changes, so we may assume that this is not an issue. But there is still a question of the impact of a professor or instructor coming out in the classroom,” said Olson. “The assumption that this is no longer an issue is false.”

 

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