Monday, August 10, 2009

A Thing about Students and Gender

My friendship with BES has made me privy to all sorts of intrigues and details that I never would have known had we not become friends. Nothing untoward or that I shouldn't know about current students of mine, but interesting stuff nonetheless. I thought of this particular one as I read the comment thread to Historiann's current post, though it's totally a tangent and not actually related to what Historiann was writing about or what her readers commented. See, when BES and I were hanging out a while back, she noted that she'd taken a class in which she absolutely hated one of her classmates. As we were talking about it, I realized that I thought I knew who she was talking about. So I asked her, and she confirmed it: the Hated Classmate was my student, much in the way that BES became my student. (He was about a year ahead of her, so they never had a class with me together.) When it became clear that my Favorite Student from the Time before BES was the nemesis of BES, I was surprised. I'd always thought that the students who entered into the Circle of Crazy's Influence would just naturally get along. I mean, they are the best and the brightest and the coolest, after all - how could they not?

But what became apparent to me from BES's narrative was that this is not the case. And actually, some other intel that I gathered from her about another student confirmed that it's not the case. See, while it's true that students who are my students do often bond in response to their experiences with me, it's also true that they often end up in hyper-competitive relationships with one another, particularly when the students involved are divided by gender. In other words, my female student superstars tend to collect themselves into supportive and productive collectives, in which they like one another, read each others' drafts, and generally gain a lot through their interaction. When my male student superstars enter the mix, apparently it doesn't work in the same way. They either pester my female students with untoward advances (or wax poetic about crushes on me - as IF!) or they compete with the female students and deride them, acting as if the female students aren't really their equals. As you might imagine, this pisses my female students off. And rightly so, I might add.

I wonder at the fact that I didn't recognize this dynamic on my own - that I needed to hear it from BES before I saw it. To some extent, I believe that my cluelessness comes from my own socialization through graduate school. When I was an undergraduate, I think I responded in much the way my female undergraduates now respond to this shit. In very real ways, I became inured in graduate school to the whole cock-blocking, pissing contest dynamic of my interactions with my male peers, and I came to the point where I decided that I'd rather find a way to engage with those cock-blocking, pissing contest dudes, because they were wicked smart, than to hate them for their lame ways. I think this may be why I don't see it when my male students do the same stuff - I see it as par for the course with teh boyz, now, because I'm jaded and cynical. The problem is, my female students haven't gone through the gauntlet that I went through in grad school. They don't see it as dumb boy behavior: they see it as hostile and awful and sexist. (And, seriously, it is hostile and awful and sexist. I just found a way to deal with it, because I had to or I would have collapsed under the weight of trying to reject it.)

The problem is, I don't actively instruct my female students in what this bullshit is. Instead, I just meander along, assuming that because I can see through it - tracing it to the intellectual insecurity and to the socialization into modern masculinity - that my female students see it, too. And further, I don't instruct my male students about how this way of being is totally fucked up and also unnecessary and unproductive. I go along assuming that all of my students, male and female, "get it," which they totally do not.

All of this has me thinking about how I can actively work to stop this dynamic. I want all of my students - and most especially my students - to forge strong and productive relationships. I want them to realize the value of collaboration and conversation. I don't want them to take each other down in an attempt to build themselves up. I don't want them to compete for recognition. I most especially do not want for students to stop listening to one another and to dismiss one another when they could be learning from one another.


Anonymous said...

I still hate them for their lame ways and will not engage it.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

One of the nice things about being at such a small place is that I don't see as much of this. Of course, part of it is because many of my students can't be bothered to be competitive, which pisses me off in a lot of ways. But even so, most of my male students are less willing to work with others than the women are. My first year, there was a good, solid core of female majors, and everybody's work was better. Now the older students are all men, and they mostly put a damper on everybody.

life_of_a_fool said...

The dynamic that I've experienced is, I think, a little different than this, but please if you figure out a solution to this:

**I don't want them to compete for recognition. I most especially do not want for students to stop listening to one another and to dismiss one another when they could be learning from one another.**

Please post it here.

Ann said...

This is a really interesting post and dynamic. I think you should intervene when you see anyone behaving in ways that are destructive of the community of students you want to support. You'll be doing everyone a favor, especially the offenders, who if they listen to you, won't end up being "that guy" in grad school everyone knows is overcompensating because he's insecure.

I will say that it's not a strictly gendered thing. Maybe it's because I went to a women's college, but I and the other advisee to the same advisor never, ever got along or appreciated one another. I didn't set out to be competitive with this person, but because she was such a jerk to me, I've taken great pleasure in the fact that I've done much better than she has professionally (she too is a professional historian.) It's not pretty, but there it is.

Terry said...

The power dynamic in graduate school is certainly different then the one that exists in your current situation. What a fantastic opportunity you have to educate the male students who clearly look up to you as an advisor and mentor.

As a male in graduate school, I myself am tired of the regular pissing-contests that make up most aspects of masculine culture. I would encourage you to challenge the actions of these students. As an educator, I think it is your responsibility, particularly if it is harming other students of yours.

Susan said...

You know, part of it is you don't see stuff because it happens, as it were, off stage. That said, if you find a way to intervene in the behavior of young men, do tell. Fame and fortune will await. I promise.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I'm thinking about this again, and have to say that I'm so glad that I went to a place with guaranteed funding.

As an undergrad, I was part of a group of very competitive students, but with one exception (male, as it happens, and almost the only male in our group), the competition served to encourage all of us to do well, and it was more of the 'which of us is going to get the highest 'A'' type. Even when I was chosen (in the sense of 'told) to hang out with the grad students and come to all the functions they were supposed to go to, none of my undergrad friends seemed to take it amiss. Or maybe I was too clueless to see it -- a good friend of mine, now a very reputable historian, said back then that I was good at politics because I was pretty much oblivious to them and was just nice to everybody!

In grad school, there was no competition for funding, so little pressure there. And I had a very bad first year -- almost lost my funding. And there *was* a ton of competition between the Americanists, and I think the modernists in general. But again, I was part of a small group that crossed sub-disciplinary lines (a little), and was mostly supportive. We regularly mentored each other, read drafts of each other's work, talked about teaching strategies and how to get through Professor X's seminars ...

Thinking back, I realise that there were not so many women in that group, and that we were awfully dismissive of some people in the program -- generally the ones who provided us with a lot of wtf? moments in seminar. But overall, I was surrounded by people who were really supportive and who taught me to be supportive and collegial.

Maybe it's worth it to remind our students at all levels that there's a good chance that their rivals may end up being colleagues they might need in the future?