Friday, January 30, 2009

That's Me: "Asshole" to Students, "Honey" to Adjuncts

A few of you expressed interest in my "a student called me an asshole" story from last week, but I'll be honest, I wasn't actually going to tell the story. I was really taken aback when it happened, but after that, well, it had fallen off the radar as something I was interested in bothering to write about. But then, it came to mind again yesterday, and then I read this post over at On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, and it occurred to me that a post about forms of address (obviously loosely conceived) and respect might be worth doing on this snowy, snowy Friday.

First off, let me just note for the record that this will not be a rant about "my" students. "My" students, i.e., ones who actually enroll in my classes and stay enrolled in them, students who get to know me and who are on board with learning from me, and even those students who don't know me personally but who know me through their friends who have taken classes with me, now that I'm 5+ years into this job, address me with respect, and if I correct them when they call me the wrong thing, they take the not so subtle hint that they should call me what I prefer. (By "not so subtle hint" I mean that I tell them, "actually, you should call me Dr. Crazy" - so really it's a direct correction and not a hint and so it's not like I'm expecting them to "just know" what to call me. I should also note that even if I don't correct them, my name as I expect to be addressed is listed on my syllabus. I'm not keeping it a secret what I prefer to be called.) Moreover, this actually won't be a rant about students in general. The reason the "asshole" thing caught me so off guard is that the majority of students that I encounter at my university are a respectful bunch.

I should also note for the record that my university - though a couple of departments do buck this trend - tends to favor formal modes of address for those who teach. Non-terminal-degreed folks (whether part-time, full-time, or t-t) are called Mr. or Ms., terminal-degreed folks are called Professor or Dr. The culture of the university is not one of casual address, so expecting to be addressed formally is not the exception - it's the rule. (Aside: I've actually been thinking a lot about this lately now that we have an MA program in our department, as I don't think that graduate students should call me Dr. Crazy but rather should just call me Firstname, but so far this doesn't seem to be the assumption of all professors. Huh. It must have something to do about the level of formality that different profs experienced in their respective grad programs that they attended, or maybe just habit from having been addressed formally by undergrads all these years?) But so anyway, when my colleagues refer to me in the third person to students, they call me Dr. Crazy, and I call my colleagues Dr. Colleague when in conversation with students. In other words, "what to call professors" isn't really all that confusing at my institution. Indeed, it's pretty clear, both in terms of convention and in terms of students being directly told.

So. I have two anecdotes to relate to you - the first, in which a student deemed it appropriate to say I was being an "asshole"; the second, in which an adjunct called me "honey."

Anecdote #1

The Setting: The elevator in my building.

The Scenario: I had gone downstairs to purchase a pathetic sandwich for my lunch because I had not had the wherewithal to pack a lunch that day. I had little time before I taught, and I was returning to my office to scarf down said pathetic sandwich before teaching. I was not wearing a coat to hide my professional attire (for indeed, I actually was dressed like a professor that day, as opposed to wearing jeans or something). So after purchasing my sandwich, I got on the elevator to go up to the top floor, where my office is located. As the elevator hit the floor before mine, a bunch of students were waiting to get the elevator down. Note: these were able-bodied students who could have walked five feet and taken the stairs down. However, it is not uncommon for students to decide that this is too great an expense of energy, and they will choose instead to get on the elevator going up, go up the one floor, and then take the elevator back down. This is irritating, but whatever. So I'm in the elevator with two other people who are going to get off on the top floor, when approximately 600 people who really want to go down pile into the elevator. We reach the top floor. The doors open. None of the people who are going up to go down move.


Dr. Crazy (loudly, with irritation plain in her voice): Excuse me!

Pause, and then finally like three students move out of the way, while I, a colleague from another department, and a student, attempt to elbow our ways out of the elevator.

Dr. Crazy (annoyed): For the record, if you're going to go up to go down and there are other people in the elevator, it's common courtesy to move out of the way when you reach the top floor when the elevator door opens.

Note: I was still behind most of the students when I said this, so all they likely registered was that a female voice was chiding them for rude behavior.

Punk-ass Male Student (as I exited the elevator): "God, you don't have to be an asshole about it."

I just kept walking, but I did register that student's face, and I sincerely hope that someday he enrolls in a class with me.

Commentary: Now, first, let me acknowledge that I wasn't particularly patient in this episode, and in part this has to do with the fact that this isn't the first time I've experienced this problem, and on at least one occasion the students who piled in to go up to go down didn't bother to move and so I ended up having to ride down and then ride up again. So my level of patience has been tried previously, which they could not know. I'll also acknowledge that all the student registered was a female voice when first I spoke, and then, as I exited, that I wasn't gray-haired and authoritative looking. (It was so crowded that the student may not have registered my professorial dress.) So I suspect, though of course I have no way of knowing for certain, that the student wasn't responding to me as a "professor" but rather as an uppity female who had the audacity to stand up for herself and for her need to exit the elevator. But I suppose this was why I found the interchange so shocking: I'm used to being treated, by my students and by my colleagues, with a professional level of respect. My assertion of authority in the moment was colored by the fact that I was thinking of myself as a professor and not as an uppity female. The student's response was one that was seeing me as equal to or lesser than himself, as opposed to a person who has power (however limited) in the institutional hierarchy. I didn't respond to the asshole comment because I needed to eat my lunch, and I wasn't going to fight with a student about being disrespectful when I had things to do. In thinking about this episode later, I did note that it was interesting that the student said I was being an "asshole" rather than being a "bitch" or a "cunt" or some other gendered epithet, and I actually think that this has to do with the fact that the student was responding to me not as a Lady Professor. Indeed, typically students who would respond to me as a Lady Professor would call me "bitch," which strangely I think is a mark of my authority. In this case, I think the student thought I was being rude by calling out rude behavior, for being impatient, whatever. And maybe I was (except I totally don't think I was, if I'm honest).

So anyway, that is the story on that one. I found it irritating, but then I got over it. Ultimately, whatever. But so then yesterday, I had another interesting interchange that brought this earlier one back to mind.

Anecdote #2

The Setting: The department copy room.

The Scenario: I'm in there to make copies for my class, to staple some things, etc. An adjunct who is probably in his 60s is also in there, while I'm stapling the things I've copied, is attempting to copy some things for his class. Apparently, although xeroxing technology has been part of our world for the past 20 years, he still has not mastered it. Now, I'll note that I didn't look particularly professorial yesterday, as our world is a tundra and so I was wearing my warmest sweater, jeans, and boots. Does this make a difference in this setting? Could the adjunct have thought that I'm a student worker or something? I doubt it, as I'd been chatting with another tenured colleague about how I was making copies for my theory class immediately preceding what follows, and the adjunct was part of that conversation.

Adjunct (supersiliously): Honey, do you think you could help me with this [making my copies]?

Commentary: I gave him a brusque response that was helpful, but no, I did not make his copies for him, which is what I think he expected me to do. And yes, I was totally pissed off that the guy called me "honey" and also that he thought it was my job to help him with making freaking copies. (This is one of my axes that I cannot stop grinding, the fact that older male colleagues seem to think that by virtue of my youthful vagina I am an office worker, who can fix jams in the printers and copiers, who can show them how to use the machines, and who has nothing better to do with her time than to assist them in their clerical needs. I had enough of that when I was a temp, thank you very much.) With all of that being said, no, I didn't call him out on calling me "honey." I didn't have the time or the energy. And, dude, it's my job to educate my students, and not every yahoo who doesn't understand appropriate modes of address. (And, honestly, even if I was a student worker I would find the "honey" inappropriate - a simple "excuse me" with no address at all would have been fine, and even "miss" or "ma'am" since the guy doesn't know my name would have been respectful. "Honey" just has no place in the workplace.) So maybe I've got no leg to stand on because I didn't correct the guy, but I'm a girl who picks her battles, and that just wasn't a battle I was interested in having 10 minutes before class.


So, what links these two anecdotes? And what do these two seemingly isolated incidents have to do with proper modes of address for female faculty, or the names with which people in general choose to address women? What does this have to do with the identities that women are expected to inhabit in our culture generally? And what does any of this have to do with respect?

For me, what links these two tales is the fact that in both cases, I had an implicit expectation that I would be treated with a certain amount of respect based on my professional role, and yet the men with whom I interacted did not recognize me as inhabiting that professional role. Now, in both cases, one might argue that they were unaware of my professional role because of the circumstances: they didn't know me, my appearance and the context didn't necessarily manifest the professional role that I inhabit. But I think that this is in fact the salient point here: the default for how women are perceived (and by extension addressed) is not a position of authority or a position that commands respect, but rather it is a position in which one lacks authority and has to earn respect. Unless I display my professional role clearly - I'm wearing my professor costume, I'm standing in front of the class, I'm in my office - a good many people (especially men, though women, too) will "read" me as either a student or as an office worker. (Actually, even when I'm in my office, with its Dr. Crazy nameplate on the door, people sometimes assume I'm an office worker or student.)

Now some might say that my appearance is the main issue here, that because I don't "look my age" or "look like a professor" (whatever those things mean) that I don't get the same kind of respect from strangers. But I just don't buy that. I think it's no mistake that the images of "professor" that come up in google are without fail images of men (and not all old men either - see Dr. Isis's post to which I linked above), just as it's no mistake that the images that come up for "radical feminist" show women who are "white, middle-class or professional, loudmouthed, morbidly obese, middle-aged, and/or ridiculous."

I should also note that these are just two recent incidents: they are not the only incidents of this kind that I could recount. In the past 5 years, I've been addressed, at work, as sweetheart, babe, repeatedly as "Mrs." Crazy even after I explained that I should be called "Dr." Crazy, by my first name when I hadn't invited a person to call me by my first name and after repeated corrections about appropriate ways to address me. I've been called a bitch, a shrew, a cunt (though on evaluations, not to my face).

What I'm describing here is not stuff that happens to me every day with "my" students. "My" students typically are fantastic, they treat me with respect, if they accidentally screw up on what to call me, that's totally not a big deal, and I correct them, they take note of it, and we move on from there. I am not, ultimately, some power-hungry fishwife with a no tolerance policy for people who make mistakes, nor am I all about pretentiously lording my educational or professional status over others. What I'm describing is something that lies quietly beneath the surface except for when I'm blindsided by it. I go along thinking that I hold a position that commands respect - because of my education, because of my professional position, because of the hard work that I do - only to be reminded every now and again, when somebody names me in a certain way, that my default position is one that commands no respect at all.


PhDLadybug said...

What you described happened to me many times with male colleagues. I look like a student most of the time and people are surprised that I am a professor. What bothers me the most is the fact that they don't treat you with respect because you are a woman. If you were a man, they would think twice before saying anything.

It happened during a conference that in my panel we were only two presenters: a friend of mine (a woman) and me. The Professor (male) who introduced us didn't even mention one single academic thing about us but only that he was so pleased about being there with these two gracious women. I was so insulted I couldn't believe it did happen.....

Ann said...

Ugh. You (and PhDladybug) are spot on. The problem is not recognizing that you are faculty, although that's irritating. The problem is one of respect for women in general. You were an advocate for yourself, rather than a minion or assistant enabling men, so you're an "asshole."

Well, as you point out, there are worse things to be called. But this is in fact related to my "groundhog day" post you link to. If only the Whig narrative were true for women!

Susan said...

Even though I've passed my half century, so can't by any stretch of anyone's imagination look "young", I still make an effort to dress "professionally" to make sure no one makes those mistakes. But I think you are right, that the default expectations of women are service oriented. We don't carry authority naturally.

On the other hand, when the main copy machine on my office floor died on the first day of classes, you asked whoever was in the room whether it was working or not, and I'm always asking others (usually guys) how to fix it since I haven't learned yet. But we have a machine on the floor where all the faculty offices are, so the assumption actually is that we're all faculty in there.

As to the graduate student stuff: my advisor started first-naming us when we passed our qualifying exams.

Dr. Crazy said...

See, but that's the thing, Susan: we're professionals because we're professionals. We shouldn't have to prove it by wearing a certain outfit, or by looking a certain way. And at the end of the day, *we will never look like professors to strangers because professors look like men*. And that, to me, is screwed up.

I'll also say, respectfully, that there's a big difference between asking somebody if the copier is working than asking "honey" if she can "help me with this." I would bet money that not a one of my female colleagues, older or younger, would ever have done such a thing. Not that I'm above helping people, but they can have the courtesy of addressing me either by name or with some modicum of respect. Do you call the men in your department "honey" when you ask them to help you with the copier? I didn't think so. Finally, in my department, that's what we've got office staff for. They're seriously 30 feet away.

The thing is this: it's not that "women don't carry authority naturally." I'd argue that I *carry* authority quite naturally, even though I'm female. I suspect you do, too. If others don't *perceive* us as having authority, then that's got nothing to do with "nature" - it's got to do with misogyny.

canuck_grad said...

Obviously the "honey" was the worst part, but even without it, I think that it was the general-ness of the "can you help me with this" that was bad too - I think that's what suggests that he just wanted you to do it for him. If he had said "Do you know how to make double-sided copies" or "Can you show me how to load the paper" it would have seemed fine to me.

This isn't really related to the overall theme, but I know some women (receptions, store clerks) who call everyone, male or female, Hon or Honey - also very annoying. And one who calls everyone "Bud" - just weird.

Prof S said...

I've never had a student call me a name within my hearing range (which is quite good, by the way), not when I was teaching in public schools and not in colleges. I've perfected the freeze-stare so I use that for under-the-breath mutterings and it always works. Now I've had drivers on the road yell obscenities (not because I'm a bad driver but because that's just what they do) and even then, a freeze-stare at a stoplight works!

Now that I'm teaching all online classes, I've never had any issues of nasty emails. Oh some can get very irrate but never a bad word in an email. Probably because my course information page explicitly states that any inappropriate language in an email will result in automatic, non-negotiable, expulsion from the class with a final grade of F. It's worked for a decade and I've just never experienced name-calling either in person or in email.

With my long blonde hair, I've had a few try the "honey" or "sweetie" but I'm also damn near 6 ft tall (taller in certain shoes and boots) and all I have to do is look down (quite literally) my nose at any guy who says that. It's always worked very nicely.

Virginia S. Wood, PsyD said...

The issue is, as several writers have pointed out, not what we are wearing or otherwise advertising about our status. The point is that, had it been another man in the room (student or professor, the dude never would have addressed him as honey or sweetheart. And down here in the Sunny Souf he never would have used "asshole" either, as them's fightin' words in these parts.

The point is, male janitorial staff get more respect than females, be they other staff, students, administrators or faculty.Back before the flood, when we had consciousness-raising groups on my campus, we learned to substitute a male for the female in any incident (e.g., advertisement, interpersonal interaction, whatever) that was in doubt: Amazing how bizarre treatment we as females took for granted appeared when the target was dudely.

In short, I agree with those posters who caught that the point is that the default position for women is 'less than'.

Now. Can we do a post on what constitutes "professorial dress"? I've always wondered: Should I wear a suit and tie?

Susan said...

Sorry, Dr. C. I didn't mean to suggest that the "honey" stuff wasn't insulting, inappropriate, and sexist . . . I think what happens in our office is more or less what should happen.

And I also agree that we carry authority, but we are not perceived to carry authority. Not sure how to write that properly. I'm reminded of a discussion at Historiann's last fall about dress, and it's really clear that male faculty often dress far more casually than women for just this reason. I have a colleague who deliberately dresses down to minimize the authority stuff that happens "automatically" for a 6'3" guy.

Sue said...

As a veteran English prof, I have two pieces of good news. First, after a few years, a few grey hairs, a few more trips in the elevator, this stuff won't happen so much. Second (and even better), you won't care.

JaneB said...

You know what bugs me? When I'm in my (professorially untidy, heaped not just with books but with a couple of pieces of scientific equipment which are CLEARLY non-secretarial) office, and students still assume I must be a secretary (they are ALWAYS foreign students from non-European countries, interestingly enough).

Also, I guess my voice sounds pretty female and youngish - but I'm still really taken aback when I answer my own phone as 'Dr B' and am treated like a secretary, e.g. asked to put the caller through to DrB or to pass a message on to DrB.

It's nothing major, but it's another feather in the ton, you know?

Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

I'm still trying to wrap my mind around this post, since almost everything about how I present myself in the classrooom is aimed at minimizing my authority. I always request that they use my first name, I generally wear jeans, I even let them friend me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. I'm five feet tall, plump, and even though I'm 37, I still look young enough that people routinely think I'm an undergrad.

And still, so many of them are afraid to challenge or really engage with me. It usually takes me 'til halfway through the semester to really break that down. This varies of course depending on where I teach -- the students at Northwestern were far more willing to question me than the ones at Roosevelt, who were still more willing than the ones at UIC, who were still miles ahead of my students at U of Utah.

Sorry -- don't mean to dismiss the sexism inherent in the 'honey,' etc. But it's just fascinating to me that your preferences are so much further in the direction of formality and authority than mine are. I've been teaching for 10+ years now, and have never encountered any sense that my students don't respect me, either in person or on evaluations. Is that something about me, or my discipline, or the student populations I work with? Fascinating.

Colleagues, especially older male ones, are at times another matter altogether. Although very rarely even there.

cgb222 said...

I am a heterosexual male student, and I agree with your assessment: the students were rude not to move out of the way, you had a right to comment, and the student was doubly rude in making the retort.

My only concern is your wish for the student to enroll in a class of yours, which I can only hope was just uttered in irritation. Having just read a piece by Zizek on the universal and particular, (and public/private distinction in relation), I feel the only ethical response should you ever wish to get back at this individual would be to do so as a 'private' person rather than as Dr. Crazy. If I were to personally offend a professor, I would not mind at all if that person were to drag me aside privately and explain their concerns and express their displeasure. But I would be seriously cheesed off if they took out their frustration on me by giving me an undeserved bad mark on a course assignment (my 'public' presentation of myself) for a personal matter. It would be an abuse of the authority that you claim wasn't respected in the first place.

I recognize that feminism has seriously challenged the public/private distinction, but that work has led me to conclude that we must PRESERVE it, not collapse it: your experience in the elevator is a great reason why, as there should be no naturalized expectations concerning how 'professorial' should look, sound, or be embodied. Preserve the distinction, but emptied of all naturalized and socially expected roles and behaviors.

If we don't preserve it, then students would have a good reason not to respect professors' authority other than in classrooms or their offices, and nothing would prevent professors from just doling out 'C's regularly as a retribution for past personal affronts. I regularly go out for beer and philosophical debate with a couple of my profs and classmates on a Friday afternoon, and there is a sort of informal agreement that anything said in those conversations (especially after a few too many beer) is 'off the record': if that wasn't in place, no one would ever be honest in expressing their opinions, because they'd constantly be thinking "if I diagree with him or her on this point, will it cost me?"... and that would not be good.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the comment, cgb222. Yes, that was something that I wrote in irritation - though I will say that I would love to see the look on the student's face if they recognized me as a person they had called asshole on the first day of class. That said, life's too short to penalize students unfairly because they're rude, or whatever. And also to do so would be supremely unethical, and I do take the ethics of grading seriously, as I think most professors do.