Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Former Students

So I saw BES this weekend, and she told me a funny little story. Ok, so once upon a time, BES was a new major, and she was in a class with a student who was about to graduate. He was odious to her. Just odious. To her and to the rest of the class, but to BES in particular. BES had yet to encounter me as an instructor, and thus her naturally enthusiastic spirits had yet to be dampened by the harsh criticism of Dr. Crazy. (Never fear, she retains her enthusiasm, only now she understands that enthusiasm is not all that matters in academic work.) And so she hated with a fiery passion this Odious Nemesis, who looked upon her and her enthusiasm with hipster derision.

So last year, as BES was finishing up her thesis, we were hanging out and I was giving her feedback, and the conversation turned and she told me about her hideous class with Odious Nemesis, and her description jarred something in my head, and I exclaimed, "OMG! BES, are you talking about One of My Best Students Ever?" Indeed, she was. (I may have posted about this before, but I can't easily find the link, so bear with the repetition if this is sounding familiar to you. I promise, this isn't just me being repetitive. Scroll down a paragraph or so if you don't feel like reading the recap.)

Now, I have no doubt believing that OMBSE was indeed, odious when she encountered him. He was the sort of student who, well, let's just say that he took himself a bit seriously and he was indeed very, very bright, and let's just say he wasn't one of those bright, generous students, but rather of the sort who lacked generosity. I suspect that he would describe his demeanor as something along the lines of "I don't suffer fools gladly." And yes, some of his pompous assholery had to do with gender privilege, and some of it had to do with arrogance, and some of it was just that he can really be insufferable. BUT. He was a student who did indeed rise to the occasion in my classes, going above and beyond in his efforts to please and to turn in excellent work. And he took three classes with me, and with direction, he was not a jerk in my classes. (He was also the sort of student who needed to be kept on a bit of a short leash or he'd take advantage of other students' weaknesses in class discussion. My sense is that the instructor of the course that he had with BES did not keep him in check, and that he was disrespectful not only to the other students but also to the instructor, at least from BES's report. To be fair, I never experienced any disrespect from him when he was my student.)

But so anyway, BES hated him, and when she told me her tale of woe about him, I was sort of shocked. How could two of my best ever students hate each other with a hate so pure and true? But likely they'd never see one another again, and I'd not heard from this student in a year, and so that was where it was left.


Recently, BES was out with some friends for a night of 20-something revelry. And a friend of hers shows up with his "new friend" OMBSE in tow. BES's friend introduces him to her, and her jaw dropped. She knew him. He was the Odious Nemesis. And as the night began, he exhibited many of his more odious qualities (they were out playing trivia, and well, he's the sort of guy who will argue with a whole table about their hideous lack of knowledge of all things.) But as the night went on, and when trivia was over, he apparently acted like a normal person. Indeed, he was even sort of cool and nice. And so he and BES got to talking, and the subject of Dr. Crazy came up.

Aside: I hate it when I suspect (or know) that students of mine are comparing notes about me. What are they saying? Would I be mortified if I knew?

Anyway. So at a certain point, during their discussion of me, he said something that does indeed mortify me. Apparently, the conversation was going on as normal, and he prefaced the mortifying remark with how I was one of the best professors ever, yadda yadda yadda, "but sometimes when Dr. Crazy would read passages in class, it was, like, sexy."

Ewwwwwww!!!!!! NOOOOO!!!!!! STOP THE MADNESS!!!!! Now, of course BES told me this because she's my friend and because she knew I would be totally freaked out, and it amuses her to freak me out, as it should for we are pals. And also I know it is unreasonable that I would have any sort of extreme reaction , because a) I do read some sexy things aloud in my classes because that's what we're studying, and b) because it's entirely normal, within a classroom situation, for there to be a little transference in the student-professor relationship. I intellectually get that it's not really anything to do with me, for I was once upon a time on the other side of that dyad.

And it's not like I don't have suspicions about the fact that students in real time sometimes do this - they're the ones who hang around over-long standing in my office door during office hours, often accompanied by blushing and shifting their weight from one foot to the other for they've been there so long but they won't sit down, when they've got no reason to be there, for one example, or the boys (no female student has ever done this) who want me to read their poetry when I don't actually specialize in teaching, or write (as far as they know), poetry, for another. I suppose why it weirds me out to hear this long after this student is gone is because I so do not think, when I'm in the moment of teaching, that I do, will, or can produce this response. Because issues of gender and sexuality are so central to my intellectual work, I've become somewhat desensitized to those things when I present them in a classroom or research situation. In my head, it's all part of the work that I do. It's compartmentalized. It's not a sexual thing at all. And I'm a person who maintains professional boundaries, even with students with whom I'm friendly. So when the "sexy" thing comes up, it always makes me feel like, "Oh my god! Did I go too far? Did I unconsciously overstep some boundary?" Even though I know I did no such thing in reality, if that makes sense.

(To be fair, this problem has also come up in research settings. This isn't just a student thing, where people are all, "Dr. Crazy talks about the sexy stuff," and while it's not so much an issue for me now that I'm professionally established, research-wise, it was something that caused me no small amount of discomfort when I was a grad student or an undergrad. The thing is, I'm seriously like a Victorian Miss when it comes to my actual self - I get affronted when a stranger approaches me in a bar, for Chrissakes! I want a freaking letter of introduction and references before you talk to me! - but I just so happen to specialize in things that don't necessarily communicate that.)

But so anyway, whatever. Apparently, as the night went on with BES and OMBSE, and as OMBSE got drunker, he totally started hitting on her and trying to Make a Move at the end of the night, if you get what I'm saying, and she rebuffed him. Which for her was like this totally triumphant moment, for indeed, he was the Odious Nemesis of years gone by, who now was all "I'm drunk and I think you're dreamy." I think we've all had that moment one time or another, and to reject that Odious Nemesis is sweet, sweet revenge. Yay, BES!

But so anyway, to conclude with some navel-gazing: I really think that part of the reason I've been able to get away with teaching the explicit things that I teach at this particular institution in this particular part of the country, especially before tenure though now this is not such an issue, is because I'm young for a professor, straight, and female. If I were older, if I were gay, or if I were a man, or some combination of these, I think that I'd be perceived by students (or by people across the university) as a threat. If male colleagues of mine read some of the stuff I read aloud in class, in the way that I read these things, I think that it would very easily make students uncomfortable (I think wrongly, as the point isn't who's doing the reading but rather what's in the text). I think that if I were older woman , or if I were a woman but out and gay, that students might interpret my reading of some of the stuff that I read aloud as "aggressive" or "inappropriate." In many ways, I know that I trade on the fact that I'm a youngish, straight lady. Because as a youngish, straight lady, I'm completely harmless, right? And while I still have gotten some small number of ridiculously misogynistic course evaluations over the years, I do believe that I get fewer of those, even with the content that I teach, because I inhabit the non-threatening identity that I inhabit. So it's not that I'm unaware of the identity that I perform, and the ways in which I use it in the classroom. I think the thing is, at the end of the day, that I do sometimes forget that by using that identity in order to deliver content that I think is important, I sometimes may invite a certain kind of response that I don't consciously perceive as appropriate or even an option, if that makes sense.

And finally, dude, I really do think that the way that I read may be the center of the problem. Being a good reader is a good thing, surely, and I wouldn't and won't read aloud any differently than I do, as it does really get students to understand the literature in a deeper way. Hell, the way that I read aloud helps me to understand the literature in a deeper way. But perhaps I need to be more aware of the fact that if you read things in the way that I read them that it gives off a certain impression that may be, well, sexy, even if that's not the point.


Feminist Avatar said...

Historically, who was doing the reading was quite often the problem. There is a whole literature about the paranoia surrounding servants and the working class reading - and it wasn't even about the texts they were reading. It was about reading itself and its radical potential. The power is in the relationship between reader, text and audience imo.

JaneB said...

I'd be interested to know how you think you will handle this as you transition into being, well, an older woman (which will hopefully happen, the alternative being worse! :-) ). I'm now in my early 40s (gah!) and have noticed a bit of a shift whereby some students begin to behave more as if I'm 'Mom', but as a scientist in a non-human field, it's easy to divorce the person from the content. Just wondered if you had any thoughts?

PhysioProf said...

I suspect that this kind of reaction has little to do with the actual content of what you are talking about/reading in class. Students have been romanticizing professors since time immemorial, particularly those whose professorial style is charismatic (which your blog writing leads me to believe yours is). This is one of the many reasons why it is absolutely despicable for professors to engage in any sorts of romantic liaisons with their students.

When I was a grad student, I was known as a "firebrand" (i.e., insufferable douchebag). Fortunately, I have mellowed substantially over the years--particularly during my post-doctoral training--and am now a pretty easygoing d00d!

FrauTech said...

So true about women (esp. young) not seen as aggressive or as a threat. I've used that mostly to my advantage in corporate america, so those with a slight bias against women are sometimes actually easier to deal with than their more intelligent colleagues who realize that i might be as much a competitor as the dudes. And JaneB brings up a concern of mine; the transition from being a young woman (non-threatening, but having the advantage of youth and/or beauty and so tolerated and assisted) to an older woman who may have other advantages, but new disadvantages to contend with. Our society doesn't play nice with older women.

I was just thinking of the age dynamic when seeing a bunch of pictures of Madonna with the usual snarky, internet comments. Seems like every picture of her recently comments on how "disgusting" her arm muscles are, or how "gross" it is for a woman her age to be wearing what she is in performances. Obviously we're all entitled to what we think is beautiful or not, but despite all the disgusting old men still doing rock and roll (and yes many remove clothing) who often don't even TRY to still look appealing...I'm not saying they are venerated, but you don't see the same amount of snark. It's disappointing.

Susan said...

As an older woman (mid-50s, but I think I look younger) I was thinking JaneB's thought. But I've found as I've aged I get a certain amount of respect due to age, but I'm still seen as a little non-threatening. And of course students don't see me as sexy :)

Janice said...

Another who's long been in the non-threatening camp. Except when I expect them to read something aloud in class, themselves. That remains very threatening, whichever prof it comes from!

Hooray for BES and her triumph over perceived ON. That will be a moment she long treasures, I expect.

Doctor Pion said...

I love your blog.

I can see those students outside your office, lurking shyly, and what a story you can tell!