Ok, so I've been all fired up about two recent posts over at Historiann, and I decided when I read the most recent today that I was going to contribute to the discussion with my own post over here. But before I launch into my tirade about sexism that still runs rampant in the halls of universities across these great United States (the ridiculous) that I should post the two things that made me ridiculously happy this afternoon (the sublime).
1. I met with BES, and we hashed out the thesis stuff, and it was a breakthrough sort of a meeting. I really do love that BES. She's so great. Of course, sometimes I think I think this because I see so much of myself in her, but after this afternoon's Come to Jesus I do think that things are back on track.
2. I rode the elevator up with a student that I didn't know, and as we were getting off the elevator, she asked: "Are you Dr. Crazy?" I replied, "Well, yes, I am." Anyway, it turns out that she and a bunch of her friends are signed up for my one class next semester, and she's wicked excited because I'm "exciting" (who knew?!?!) and because she's heard so many awesome things about me (also, who knew?!?!)! And they're all psyched that they can take this class with me! For Dr. Crazy is the professor of which legends are made! (Ok, maybe I exaggerate slightly, but that was the tone.) Hurray!
So the point of starting with this is first that I'm not some angry lady who does not appreciate the joys that this profession affords. Though, of course, we can question why I feel the need to assert that at the beginning of this post. But so on to the tirade.
Both of the posts to which I linked over at Historiann's deal with the ways in which students (not necessarily or even most often one's own students, either) challenge the professional boundaries of female professors. Now, those of us female professor types (and also profs of color and also those who "read" as gay) out there have probably experienced this in some fashion, whether it's a student refusing to address us appropriately, a student interrupting us when it is not our office hours and then acting as if we're in the wrong for expressing that we're busy and that now isn't the best time to talk, or other such mildly irritating things.
That's right: I said mildly irritating. Taken in isolation, these things are just mildly irritating. Say this happens to a professor once a semester, or even less frequently, like once a year or once every few years. In those cases, these would be merely mildly irritating episodes that just speak to the general trend of our culture becoming more informal, more rude, whatever. And it never fails: when a discussion like this gets going, there are always those who will say that the professor should lighten up, that it's just "these kids today," that all professors face similar situations.
I'm not going to refute that all professors do face similar things, nor will I refute that taken in isolation such occurences are really not that big of a deal. All professors do, and in isolation, such occurences are not that big of a deal.
The issue, I think, is less about each individual incident than about the many, many such incidents that such accounts as those in the two posts to which I linked represent. When this crap happens over and over again, at a certain point it becomes not just mildly irritating. And when you watch them happening to you, over and over again, while your male colleagues sit happily in their offices without the emails, the interruptions, and the challenges to one's professional status, yeah, it becomes something that pisses a person off.
Now, you might say, "well, all you lady professors are clearly just too sensitive!" This is often the tenor of the challenges that women professors get when they complain about these sorts of things. Our skins aren't thick enough; we take everything to "personally." My first response to such challenges would be that they in themselves express a certain kind of gendering of the woman professor. Because we have vaginas, we must be blowing things out of proportion. Clearly. My second response would be that the challengers, too, would lose their sense of perspective if they experienced this stuff not infrequently, but rather over and over and over again in each and every semester.
So the first issue is frequency.
The second issue is the fact that such challenges are nearly always subtle and insidious. It's never that a student is smacking me on the ass and calling me a bitch to my face. It's never that a student comes out and says, "well, Dr. Crazy, I don't think what you have to say means shit because you're a woman, and I don't respect women." Honestly, that would be a hell of a lot easier to deal with because it would be obvious to everybody.
But when I'm in a bank of offices nowhere near the department office, when on my door it says Dr. Firstname Crazy, and when I'm clearly grading in a closet-like office that could belong to no one but a faculty member, alongside male colleagues in other offices that also havetheir Dr. Firsname Colleague names on their doors who are doing the exact same thing, and I am without fail the person who is addressed "Do you have [a stapler, a paperclip, a pen, insert-office-supply-here]" yep, that gets tiresome. And when I direct them to the department office, a mere 50 feet away, and then I am treated as if I am rude, yeah, that gets old. And it certainly gets old when I correct a student nicely at first, and then more sternly, that I'm not "Miss" Crazy, but rather, "Dr. or Prof." Crazy, only to see that student just a short while later obsequiously "Doctoring" and "Professoring" a male colleague who doesn't have a motherfucking doctorate. And it gets even older when male colleagues will excuse the student not respecting what I'd wish to be called because "it's commonplace in some regions from which our students come to call women 'Miss'." And it gets awfully old when I'm clearing out people's jams in the printers and copiers in the workroom in the morning so that I can get my work done, as if my sex makes that part of the job requirements. And it gets old that the secretaries and student workers in my department will often call female faculty by their first names while they address male faculty by their courtesy titles. And it gets, you guessed it, old, to have to begin every semester with new students like a total hard-ass in order to get some modicum of respect, when my male colleagues can walk in with a tie and just be themselves.
What I'm describing here is not an occasional slip-up on the part of a clueless student (when this happens, and you correct the student, they learn quickly, I've found), nor occasional rudeness on the part of an asshole (assholes are assholes to everybody, and they never learn). I'm describing something that is, ultimately, institutionalized and invisible. And it affects my ability to perform well or to be evaluated positively in my job.
Example: Let's just take the office-supply-seeking student issue. One answer could be to shut my office door. Ok, but I'm in a department where the culture is to keep one's office door open. If I work with my door shut, I'm perceived as unavailable, uncollegial, and, potentially, untenurable. And so then there's the option of just "lightening up" and being the office supply lady. But of course, that then means that I become the office supply lady, and I'm not "professional" or "professorial" or whatever. And then there's the option, which is the one I use, of just keeping one's office really messy and directing people to the department office, and then the supply-seekers decide I'm unfriendly and rude. Whatever course of action I choose, I'm a woman first and a professor second. And yes, that gets really freaking old.
Now, I will say that the longer I've been in this job the easier this shit has gotten. I've learned how to perform my role in such a way that the frequency of these occurrences has lessened (though not tapered off completely), whether because students fear me or because the word on the street has told them what to expect of me. And also, I have gotten a thicker skin. I no longer fret so much when a student finds me rude, for example. I'm not sure that's actually a good thing: I think it just gives me license to actually be rude to students. But even though the frequency has lessened, it's not like I no longer face these things. And learning to deal with them has been an extra part of learning this job, one I wasn't trained to learn and one that has taken time that might better have been spent elsewhere.
Yes, everybody encounters rude students. Everybody encounters disrespectful students. Everybody encounters annoying things in their lives. I'm not saying that they don't. I'm just saying that when one dismisses gender as playing a role in this stuff that it expresses an unconscious privileging of one sex over the other at best and that it expresses misogyny at worst. And maybe that seems like a strong assertion, but it's one I'll stand behind.