Wednesday, January 31, 2007

On Being Challenged

Ok, so yesterday I said I wanted to write a post responding to the posts to which I linked (and I'm not doing it again because I'm lazy), but somehow I couldn't organize my thoughts enough in order to write anything that made sense. To summarize what other people said, Aspazia began the conversation by talking about the ways in which younger female faculty are challenged - quite literally, by students and by colleagues - in ways that male faculty don't face, and while many women said the equivalent of, "Sing it to me, Sister!" others responded with, "Hey, I'm oppressed, too! What do you mean women have it rough?" or "While it is true that women have it rough, I too have it rough even though I look like I'm part of a group that doesn't." (For a great recap of the discussion, check out this post over at Blogher.)

Now, I feel like I've posted about this issue before - maybe on this blog or maybe on my previous blog - I don't know. But there ARE very real ways in which younger female faculty are "challenged" beyond their male counterparts. While it's true that all faculty members face challenges, students are, in my experience, much more likely to back down in the face of a male prof's authority. Or, conversely, students are much less likely to dismiss a male prof's authority if the male prof exhibits some flexibility or is, I don't know, nice or kind to students. I think that this is fairly standard stuff. But the reason that I want to write about it again (because how could I not have written about this even though a quick search makes it seem like I haven't?) is because I hate the way that discussions like this often end up being about measuring pain or oppression or victimization by the cold, hard world that is the academy or whatever.

This is not to say that this profession doesn't have many victims. Not at all. But I hate it when a discussion about equity in one specific area is perverted into a discussion about the ways in which people from other identity categories have it bad, too, which then serves to invalidate or to obscure the original discussion. This happens all the time in discussions in my discipline specifically because of the horrible job market. Everybody has a tale of woe, and so it's very difficult to separate out anything from that. It's very easy to dismiss this kind of discussion because there's always a counter: "But what about adjuncts? They have it worse than you, oh woman on the tenure-track. Or what about women of color? How can you, white girl who's had it so easy, claim to have problems? Or what about people who are younger/older, gay, who have to care for children or elderly parents or who are married and can't live with their significant others- " blah blah fucking blah.

I'm not trying to dismiss the experiences of those groups (in spite of the blah blah fucking blah above) but at the same time, when the discussion takes this turn, it basically stops all discussions cold. So I think there's value in limiting the discussion, if only because I'm much more interested in trying to come up with strategies for change rather than in measuring pain or difficulty or whatever it is we're measuring when we start comparing one group's (or person's) experience to another's.

Ok, so now that I've gotten that off my chest, what do I think about the issue at hand - the unique challenges that women faculty face when they're on the tenure track?

First, I'd say that while the challenges themselves are not necessarily unique (difficult students, challenges to authority, issues with evaluations, being sucked into more service than perhaps is appropriate), the ways in which women must face these challenges and attempt to handle them are. And if we're going to have this conversation, we've also (I think) got to discuss the way that discipline and/or subspecialty within a discipline factors into these issues.

As I see it, the circumstances that affect me (and I'm only going to talk about me here, as I know most about my experiences in this context) in dealing with life on the tenure-track are as follows:

English, as a discipline, is perceived as being sort of warm and fuzzy, and students often think that there is no "objective" measure of merit.
This comes into play particularly in classes that are for non-majors, whether we're talking about writing classes or classes or literature classes that fill general education requirements, the "service" classes of my discipline. Whereas students who enter a math or science class accept that there are "right" answers, students who enter an English class often think that their "experience" of a text or their "interpretation" of an assignment trumps everything else. Thus, if a faculty member (male or female) doesn't set up clear expectations, he or she will be in for trouble. That said, what counts as "clarity" is gendered in our culture. Students will often expect a female faculty member to provide step-by-step instructions in a way that they do not expect male faculty members to do. If one compares syllabi or assignments between male and female faculty members, one can often see this difference manifested. I have male colleagues whose syllabi are incredibly brief, whose assignments consist of a prompt and little else. Students do not give them low evaluations for clarity nor do they give them low evaluations for preparation of material. Moreover, students seem to accept that if they need further clarification that it is their responsibility to seek it from the male faculty member. In contrast, students may receive mountains of paper explaining things from female faculty members, but nevertheless, they will complain that the expectations were not "clear." One might argue that the mountains of paper in fact obscure clarity. But if the female faculty member does not provide those, then she has no recourse when the student does not meet the expectation and then challenges her policies. It's a catch-22.

Moreover, in these classes a lot of what we're teaching is that one's opinion, if it is not rooted in the text, does not have authority. This goes against what students seem to learn throughout their K-12 education and what students see in popular culture about how to evaluate texts (think Oprah's book club). And so students will often enter, say, my intro to lit course with the attitude that all opinions about a literary text count equally, and that they are as equipped to judge a text's merit as somebody, say, with a PhD. They enter my male colleague's classes with the same attitude. That said, some students think that because I'm a woman I do not have the authority to challenge them in the classroom. They perceive any challenges that I do make to their claims as without authority and as without foundation because of expectations that they have about me based on gender. For this reason, I've learned to consider gender as I approach challenging my students about their ideas, to conform to certain kinds of gender expectations even as I challenge them.

Area of specialization does make a difference.
I do notice a distinct difference between how students in general education type classes respond to me and in how my upper-level students respond to me, and I don't think that this is purely based on the fact that the students are more mature. I think that subject matter plays a key role in my ability to exude and to exert authority in my classes. The upper level courses that I teach are in my field of specialization, which is a somewhat "masculine" (read: difficult) field. It is very difficult to reduce one's readings of these texts to "identifying" with one character or another or to any sort of personal satisfaction that one might feel at the end of a reading assignment. (In fact, there is often no sense of satisfaction provided by the narratives of things that I teach, which students often find frustrating.) Because the texts tend to be so seemingly impenetrable, students characterize me as "the subject who knows" in my upper level courses, and they are much more willing to accept my authority in other areas because of that. In contrast, in most of my lower-level classes (with one exception), in which I often teach more accessible texts, students are much less likely to grant me the same kind of authority.

Department and local culture is also a factor.

While it is true that English is a feminized discipline and that there are generally more female than male professors in most departments, all of my department leadership (and most of the tenured professors, and I think, if I'm not mistaken, all of the full professors in the department) are male. This sends a message to students that women are kind of subordinate professors, helper professors, who don't really count. Moreover, this area is very conservative, so most students (male and female) themselves embody very traditional gender roles and have very traditional expectations for how women and men should behave and what kinds of roles that women and men should play. This means that they respond to me in certain ways that I don't think students in other localities or at other universities would.

So how have I dealt with all of this?
Well, part of how I've dealt with it, which may seem counterintuitive, is to relax a little bit about the authority stuff. I run my class the way I run it - take it or leave it - and I don't worry so much anymore about keeping up an authoritative front. If students are going to respond to me as a woman first - let them - I just need to make sure that they realize that it won't make one bit of difference in terms of how well or poorly they do in my courses. The second thing is that I nip all challenges to my classroom administration in the bud. Immediately. In class. If a student shows up late, I call them out on it right then - I don't keep them after class and gently mention it to them so as to keep their pride intact. If students are talking while I'm presenting material, I stop, and I stare at them until they shut up. After the first two weeks, these things stop happening. I also am very vocal about issues I face in my classroom with my higher-ups, which I think helps in that I get their support from the get-go and if things come up later, they are less likely to affect how my higher-ups perceive me.

There are other things, but this post is going on too long and I need to stop blogging and start my day. I suppose the ultimate point, however, is that dealing with this crap is an ongoing process. I think (or hope) that things will improve once I get tenure, once I look a little older, or once I get a wedding ring on my finger (for with that ring - and with children - does come a certain kind of authority that I do not have, at least at this institution). The thing for me, though, is not to get bogged down in thinking about these issues, because doing so drives one crazy. And that has gotten easier, especially as I've taught so much in the past three years that I've got prep down to a science and running a class is like riding a bike. (In some ways I think that this is the biggest benefit of the 4/4 - much less time to agonize about abstract things like "authority" or to worry about preparation or overpreparation.)

So I hope this post contributes positively to the ongoing discussion. Though I really do apologize for how long the thing is - I didn't think I had so much to say!


gwinne said...

Dr. Crazy, I really appreciate this post. I have to say as an untenured female faculty member who teaches creative writing I find the point about "subjectivity" really central. I'm placed in the odd position of both needing to assert authority over subject matter that is inherently understood to be "subjective" and then being criticized for exerting that authority in terms of my critiques of student writing. My evaluations, though mostly positive, demonstrate this problem pretty systematically. One will describe me as cold and unapproachable and then next will say I'm the easiest person to talk to and they appreciate the informality of my class. So I take an attitude much like yours: come prepared, do what I do, and know that no matter what I do someone will find fault with it and someone will love it. I also think institutional context plays into these issues--I've taught both at R1 and SLAC--and though my general pedagogy is the same, I've needed to make some adjustments in demeanor.

Anonymous said...

this is interesting...I'm thinking discipline has much to do with how I've experienced these issues. I've always known that local/dept culture was part of it, but I hadn't given a lot of specific consideration to discipline until reading this.

k8 said...

I have no answers, just commiseration. I think about this a lot (not obsessively, though). I love using the stop-n-stare. I think my use of it is based on my memory of my mother's habit of speaking more softly when we were being disciplined - it forced my siblings and I to lean in and pay attention. I've used that technique as a grad student in seminars. It works fairly well.

I always fret about assignment instructions, too. I provide fairly explicit instructions to cover my bases in case I am challenged later (female + TA = very little power). What I find interesting, is that when I work in our writing center, students often come in with those short assignments/prompts. These students are always asking us to explain to them what they are being asked to do b/c they don't feel comfortable asking the professor. I haven't paid attention to instructor gender in these cases (and I don't always know), but I think that I will pay more attention from now on.

life_of_a_fool said...

I think another factor is confidence and how one displays (or doesn't display) fear/anxiety/lack of confidence. I'm challenged more when I am more nervous. When I first started teaching, I was absolutely terrified -- and I think students could sense this (though they didn't realize that's what it was -- they usually think it's meanness. So maybe perceived hostility also translates into challenges).

When I am more comfortable, I am more able to be relaxed, as you talk about, about authority, etc. I don't worry if I don't know the answer to something, or if something goes wrong. Some people (maybe gendered, maybe just personality) are more able to hide/manage their nerves, which I imagine would translate into fewer authority challenges.

Mamasan said...

"Life" beat me to the punch on this one. I am appalled at some of the power struggles many of my female colleagues have to deal with in the classroom--struggles that I and other female colleagues never have. I used to think it was just good luck on my part, but after 5 years of teaching I think that I just have a certain "don't fuck with me" vibe that my students pick up on. Sounds like you have that vibe, too. I do agree, though, that men tend to be seen as "real" professors, while women are just those writing or lit teachers. I admit to having that attitude myself when I was an undergraduate. That's a problem that is far more deep-seeded than academia, though. Men as authority figures, women as nurturers, that sort of thing.

Tenured Radical said...

A quick response to a great post: since I observe untenured colleagues in history and American studies, and also read teaching evaluations of the same people, there are real issues about how similar classroom styles are often perceived differently depending on gender (and I would say these differences can disappear with age, because women acquire authority with age.)

Men Women

Forceful Rude
Knowledgeble Only allows her point of
Lively discussion Could control class better
Strict Off-putting
Hard grader Discouraged me
Knew his stuff Didn't care what we

This is not always true, of course, and men do suffer from invidious comparison (like the remarkable number of sexist comments directed at gay men which often raise questions about whether the evaluation is valid at all, whereas the same sexist comments when directed at a woman are bracketed, and when directed at a straight man, are considered one of the signs of true classroom mastery.)


Anonymous said...

the thing is, I think I pull off a certain confidence in myself without embodying anything like "don't fuck with me." I'm more like...."come talk to me." If my assignments are vague--and I'm the poster child for giving very short and open-ended prompts--they come and ask for clarification and we all roll merrily along. no challenges to my authority intended and none taken. in part, this is all a luxury I have at the moment, not having something like a 4-4 to carry. who knows how I'd adapt to that situation. I'm only adding this because I don't think (as usual) that developing a hard edge is the only option here.

to put some content to disciplinary differences, I think religion profs, male or female, are often perceived as challenging in a general sense, not because the material is hard (though it can be difficult) but because of the assumption we're scary and subversive and out to steal the faith of unsuspecting young conservatives.

if I challenge them intellectually, they're either going to join the bandwagon and trash the traditions of their youth or they are going to clam up. Either way, they're expecting it at some level. that makes a world of difference.

I haven't noticed that gender has much of an impact on that in religion. There's more I could say but at this point, it might be time for my own post :)