Tuesday, November 18, 2008

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

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.


Anastasia said...

yes, sexism is rampant and it is roaming the halls, in all sorts and conditions of men and women. I'm currently fuming about the fact that my director has been fucking around with my life for three years under the perfect cover: Anastasia is taking a long time to finish because she has kids. that's right. blame my reproductive live, even if it isn't true. It makes me want to kill things.

Belle said...

Yep. Alive and well. Maybe even thriving. Same here. And as you say, damned irritating. Insidious. PITA.

I have a new colleague, who I like a lot. He's young, smart, sharp and funny. He has the habit of coming in and shaking hands. Nobody else does this. He doesn't do it with his male colleagues. Or the other woman in the dept.

I am confused.

Bardiac said...

Amen, Dr. C, Amen!

Terminal Degree said...

Yet another post that reminds me why I love your blog so much.

I've had a recent conversation over at my blog about male colleagues who are too touchy-feely. What's amazed me is that I've had a couple of comments that suggest it is MY job to react "nicely" so that I don't hurt the feelings of the guy with his hands on me. I fail to see why the burden of reacting "nicely" to inappropriate actions, and of communicating appropriate professional boundaries, have to rest on MY (female) shoulders.

phd me said...

Yes! As always, you have it exactly right. It is so freaking tiring to deal with such insidious sexism on a daily basis.

I was at a teaching workshop recently and the (male) presenter was having us brainstorm "issues we face with students". People were calling out their pet peeves - not doing the reading, rudeness in discussion - and he was nodding right along and writing them on the overhead. I offered "refusing to address me by my proper title" and the guy just stopped and stared at me with a blank expression. I clarified - "they call me Miss or Mrs instead of Dr or Prof Me" - and he sort of shook his head before writing it on the overhead. He honestly didn't get it.

It makes me want to beat my head against the wall.

Ann said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Dr. Crazy. I'm glad you had two happy events today!

Terminal degree raises an excellent pint, which is that all of the impositions you review here, and that she recounts from her personal experience, are turned into things we 1) not only have to deal with ourselves, without institutional support or even acknowledgement that there is a problem, and 2) we have to do so in a way that doesn't trouble anyone or hurt anyone's *feelings,* including the feelings of the agressor.

I say, embrace the rude. (I say this as a mantra to help me keep the faith and impose those boundaries myself.) I turned 40 this year and have discovered that it's wonderfully freeing. I'm finding it a lot easier not to care what anyone thinks about me, or if I might have hurt anyone's *feelings.*


jo(e) said...


JaneB said...

Oh yeah, so familiar. And it's my fault that they drop in for staples etc. because I'm 'too approachable'. Er... no... I'm downright snippy and sarcastic most of the time, but that's 'read' as kind of funny in a maternal sort of way... sigh.

Related, but only distantly - why is a male colleague who gets complaints from students about his poor, disorganised teaching 'clearly dedicated to his research'?? It doesn't necessarily follow...

Shannon said...

Delurking to say thanks so much for expressing what so many of us feel. My pet peeve is that it's assumed that I'm the department secretary - supplies, asking about others office hours, etc. - the whole nine yards. Our department office is at the end of a hall with 4 offices in it. The secretary is at the end of the hall. To get to her, students have to pass 2 male colleagues and me - the female. The majority of the time, they stop at my office to ask at which point I direct them to the end of the hall. This NEVER happens to my male colleagues. Minor annoyance if it's once a week or so, but at least 2-3 times a day, pain in my ass. I'm going to go with the advice of everyone else here though and embrace the rude me.

undine said...

After my massive blog rants about rudeness, I can't "embrace the rude," but this is all food for thought. I never stopped to consider whether gender has an effect on whether students stop by to ask for staples/pens/paper clips, etc. because I thought they did this with everyone, but now I want to see how much this happens.

BTW, I'd characterize some of the rudeness I've been ranting about as testing behavior that hasn't happened with my (male) predecessor.

crgilvr said...


The nameplate outside my door says "Director". Please stop interrupting me every 8.1 seconds so I can DO MY JOB.

Fifi Bluestocking said...

Right on, as usual, Dr Crazy. I get disturbed at least once a week for directions to various classrooms/offices. None of my male colleagues on my floor seem to have this problem.

Compson said...

Not too long ago, a man knocked on my (closed) office door during the lunch hour, and, when I answered (first mistake), asked me to explain T.S. Eliot to him.
I was so flabbergasted I didn't respond quite as pointedly as I might have, but I do remember referring to the fact that I usually get paid to do that.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks so much for all of your comments. I'm glad that my readers find this all as outrageous as I do :)

That said, I want to be clear that the problem as I've experienced it isn't only limited to male students (or male people in general)... I've experienced similar gendered expectations from female students as well (though rarely if ever from female colleagues/people in general, as I think one might expect, though perhaps I haven't gotten this as much from female colleagues/people in general also because I'm not a mother, which I do think adds a whole other layer).

I throw in that caveat because the point here isn't that one half of the population is clueless and awful and the other half is put upon. Instead, I'd argue that one of the reasons this is such a frequent occurrence for so many female faculty is because *many* people, regardless of their own subject positions, are complicit in casting female faculty in particular (typically subordinate) roles. I just thought that it was worthwhile to throw that into the mix.

The History Enthusiast said...

I am with you 100% on this, and I'm linking to your post!

The_Myth said...

Excellent commentary. I was practically shouting "Amen!" at every line. ;-)

I also appreciate your astute observation here:

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.

See, just as you noted in your last comment, it's not that men enact this behavior toward women, nor is it solely part of women's experience to be frequently treated rudely and accused of being rude for correctly interpellating in response.

I am male and "read as gay," as you say. One of the reasons I fled academia was because I had whole classrooms of students who were rude in the ways you describe. Not ironically, an older, male, [non-tenured/longtime contingent] prof also told me to "lighten up," which I found incredibly demeaning and insulting ...nor did it work! On course evals one term, I was described as "mean," "smug," and a "flaming homosexual" promoting a "homosexual agenda."

I mean, hey, smug I can live with, but some of the other things that appeared on the anonymous evals were going to be career killers if future employers got hold of them. How does one dispute an anonymous student who claims he was falsely accused of plagiarism? Depending on one's status in the institution, such claims are given a lot more credit than they should be. And if one is in a place rife with institutionalized racism, sexism, and homophobia, that credit is quickly used up.

I have long thought there is something deeper and more widespread than just the individual problems of sexism, racism, and homophobia [and others...I am sure there are cases where these tings happen vis-a-vis religion too]. It's something endemic rotting the soul of the academy, which should be one of the places where this sort of problematic behavior can be interrogated and rebuked.

Ann said...

RE: Undine's comments on rudeness. When I say at the end of my discussion of Dr. Crazy's comments here "Yes, my darlings: Embrace the rude. Be the rude! Live the rude," I'm not arguing that faculty should set out to be rude to students. What I mean about rudeness is that any boundary-setting by women faculty is read as "rude" by many students, not that it's inherently rude. So, I would say that "embrace the rude" is a recognition that women faculty can't win. We're either doormats/substitute Mommies, or we're rude. Me, I'd rather be rude.


Good Enough Woman said...

I think this is an especially pervasive problem at community colleges since most of us don't have PhDs, so we don't have a gender-neutral title to turn to.

When I started teaching (at around 28), I looked very young. Male students flirted; female students were too familiar. I couldn't use "Dr." to make a distinction, and "Miss" was weird because many of my students were older than me, and "Miss" tends to be an age-related title. So there seemed to be no "titles" for me to use that could easily get around using my first name. I didn't like using my first name because suddenly it seemed that I got 120 new best friends every semester, and students did not make clear role distinctions.

On the flip side, students had no trouble using "Mr." for male instructors, regardless of age. And, and soon as the men put on their ties, students did not act overly familiar with them. In truth, they probably didn't need the ties.

Strangely, and in a way that seems characteristically un-feminist, I was actually relieved when I got married because I had a title to use--"Mrs."--that was unrelated to age. Granted, it's also unrelated to my profession, but at least my students "get" the distinction, and it helps remind them that we have different roles.

Some of this has gotten easier to negotiate as I've gotten older. Students now see me as a "lady" rather than as a peer, so they aren't as familiar. It will also been strange when I do (God willing) finish the PhD because not many of my colleagues are PhDs, so it could be seen as pretentious for me to go by "Dr." or "Professor." I think most of the men go by "Mr." and the women tend to go by first names. I think everyone expects it to stay that way, regardless of the letters than come AFTER one's name.

Ligeia said...

I'm an English lecturer at San Francisco State University, and found your blog interesting for two primary reasons.
One, perhaps because the English Department here is run by women, one of whom is a butchy dyke, the sort of traditional, largely-unconsciously informed "male on top, women take the scraps" mentality is, at best, a vestigial remnant found only in the most old school appendages-- i.e., those uninspiring, tired, tenured men, all old, reading from yellowed and crinkled pages or minds, relegated to teaching one course a semester simply to respect the sacredness of tenure. Students, on average, respect instructors not for their gender but for the quality of their teaching; perhaps some still adhere to antiquated notions of male superiority, but in the Bay Area, those ideas find very narrow footholds, and are quickly dismantled by many faculty in many disciplines.

Also, about using titles like "Professor"-- I find it ridiculously vain to wish to be called "Professor." Ask yourself for what reason you desire this term of "respect." It can only be for you to wish for students to place themselves below you. The term connotes inequality; it demands that the person so labeled be placed conceptually above others without such a title. Is this how we want to present ourselves to students? Simply because we have accumulated more knowledge, or have made deeper connections about the world, or know the etymology of obscure Latinate words, or can recite entire sections from the Canterbury Tales-- do we want to say-- I am Professor, You are student? Let's build respect without placing ourselves above others. Let's build respect by how we act, by how we be, by how we teach. Using the term "professor" only separates ourselves from others. And last time I checked, we are a society in need of coalescence, not further fragmentation.

The History Enthusiast said...

In response to the previous commenter, isn't part of our job to separate ourselves from students by taking on a teaching role? I don't think that asking to be called "Professor" in any way implies that the instructor is a better person than their students, or that the instructor is at a point in their academic development where they no longer have anything to learn.

When we are outside academia, I am no better or worse than my students. We all deserve the same basic rights, etc. But when you enter the classroom, you (the instructor) are in that classroom because you have more education and professional training than your students. In the classroom we are not all equal; I know more about history than my students do, and frankly, if I were a student I would want a professor who knows their stuff and makes clear that they are in charge (although not in an obnoxious way, of course). If a student really wants a "teacher" who is on a completely equal footing, they should start a study group.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for stopping by! (I believe it's the first time you commented?) At any rate, I take your point about how the title separates us from our students, and how the title creates a hierarchy that is ultimately antithetical to what a lot of us really believe. When I taught as a grad student in he northeast, I did not insist on any sort of courtesy title, in part for that reason, in part because it was the culture of that institution to be more egalitarian than in my current institution.

When I moved to this institution, however, I found that informality on my part led to disrespect on students' parts. I think that this is in part regional, and I think your noting that this isn't your experience in the Bay Area is telling. I'm deep in the heart of conservative country, and my students come in actually SEEKING certain kinds of hierarchical structures and signals of those structures.

I also think that part of this is institutional. My institution, in its culture, is very conservative. Many gay faculty remain closeted or nearly so (even within the English Department!); faculty across the university use the title "professor" or "doctor," and nearly all administrators are men. In my department, all of the admins. are men, and there is not a single female full professor.

What I found, through experience, was that I needed to perform a certain kind of authority at the outset or they (the majority) wouldn't buy in AT ALL, which ultimately made it impossible to foster the kind of classroom environment in which they'd actually question hierarchies, challenge those formal institutions, and question how those institutions and hierarchies come into being and who they benefit. In embracing the title, it allowed me to reach the majority, and to make my classroom a place in which students explore the very questions that you ask in your comment as opposed to a place in which lack of respect (for me, for other students) ruled the day.

So theoretically? I totally agree with you. In practice? At my institution and in my region? I can't be the kind of teacher that I want to be to my students without compromising in this way. In a perfect world I'd be Firstname to my students. In this one, I'm Dr. Crazy.

Ligeia said...

I understand the difficulty of going by a first name. Some students, reared as they are in a U.S. educational system that equates greater knowledge with superiority, can't call me simply by my first name-- they muster a weak "Mr. Dan" when speaking with me. And many of my colleagues, despite not having terminal degrees, front to their students as professors, simply because they realize it will afford them a greater distance, and thus, at least superficially, a greater respect.

I have never taught in an institution as you describe, Dr. Crazy-- an appellation, believe me, that rolls off the tongue about as well as a fishhook. So I take your rationale to heart, knowing that being the only member of a congregation wearing a carnation when all others are wearing roses can be an extraordinarily difficult, if not seemingly impossible task.

And yet I wonder if the greater good wouldn't be achieved by taking the path with the most brambles. At the beginning of every semester I usually discuss for at least 30 minutes the reason I wish to go by my first name, and during this back and forth I am able to convince the vast majority of my students that titles are anything but efficacious in creating a more unified world. This discussion enables us to see that teachers needn't separate themselves in order to teach; rather, they must immerse themselves equally as learners; the strongest teaching occurs ONLY when an educator can see herself or himself as precisely the same as the student-- as someone in need of further education. Forget that you may know, as someone steeped in erudite theory, as someone who's read countless dense novels-- much more than any of those you presume to teach. Amazing pedagogy results from nothing but humility, from the deepest realization that your gifts are meant to be imparted, not passed DOWN.

So regardless of your situation, I'd say the primary aim should be to dissolve the barriers of inequality, to knock down the status quo perimeters that maintain distinctions of power. While often the easier way, upholding a structure that sees students as lesser than those who teach them is oppressive, and thus crippling.

And education, as its Latin roots indicate, should lead out. It should lead out not to a certain limit, but to limits beyond which a teacher could imagine. A teacher should, if she or he is magic, create students possible of teaching him or her. A teacher should create peers.

k8 said...

Dr. Crazy - I know exactly where you're coming from, having been a student near that region and teaching not too far away from that.

Ligeia - I have to say that in theory, I love liberatatory pedagogy. I love bell hooks, Freire, Shor, etc. I really do and I really wish this approach worked in all situations. Having said that, doing this sort of work during the course of one semester while trying to teach the content of the required course isn't always tenable. And even if I do openly profess such goals and ideas to my students, they still understand that their is a hierarchy. The instructor (regardless of title) assigns grades. There is a very real power dynamic.

My students use my first name, primarily because I don't care either way. (However, if I were at an institution such as Dr. Crazy's, I would use the title if it is part of the university culture.) Students still know that the power differential is in play. I engage with them in ways that demonstrate my interest in learning from them and I emphasize that we are all learning from one another (we can talk ZPD another day). The power differential is still there.

I've seen a lot of the types of behavior that others are documenting. I haven't experienced as many myself, but I've seen it happen to office-mates during student conferences and other interactions. I've been lucky. Sure, there has been the potential for this (especially with a few male students), but I tend to work past it quickly. I'm not sure why.

For me the problem isn't the power differentials in the classroom, it's the issue of respect. The students Dr. Crazy and others have mentioned aren't respecting their instructors. Respect isn't about being submissive to someone higher in hierarchy - it's about treating others humanely.


Karet said...

I agree with much of what has been said here, but I do think one problem with the issue of approriately addressing professors is that students simply do not know what is expected. I'm not offended when I get an email addressed to Mrs., but I do sign my reply "Professor" and expect that the NEXT email will address me that way. In graduate school, the norm was for us to address professors "Professor" until they signed an email by their first name or actually said in person, call me Mary or whatever. I think emails are a clue as to how students don't know how to address us; many have no greeting at all, or simply say "Hi," and then go on with the message. Some of this is of course the informality of email (which, certainly is even more informal for those under say age 30). In any case, I don't see any difference between students addressing male professors Mr. and me as Mrs. -- they are simply using the conventional terms (in my region anyway) and may not in fact know that I have a Ph.D., or what it means to be a "professor" rather than a "lecturer". These distinctions are lost on many (most?) undergrads.
Of course the issue of respect is most important, as others have said. I've neve been treated like a secretary (administrative assistant?) as some of you have, and that sounds downright awful. I have, however, been treated like an airheaded, uninformed scholar by a piggish male colleague at an annual review, which I took as more of an individual issue (his) than an institutional one. This was in a way more serious, because his dumb comments are on record in my tenure file.