Gender Trouble.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011 § 1 Comment

The NY Times (which is actually doing me a favor by cutting off my supply access to their articles come 28 March, since mainlining the lede does tend to get in the way of studying) had this article on gender, the professoriat, and the academy yesterday.  I have a lot of things to say about this, but the for today I’ll leave it at this: I am so grateful that I was raised, academically, by fierce, feminist women.  At Unicorn University, where I went to undergrad, the majority of my professors were women, and I was lucky to be surrounded by so many women who were honest-to-goodness role models in every sense of the word.

I’m lucky here, too, though I experience the gender politics a little differently (more — much more — on this later).  One of the professors on my committee, The Absolute Professor, was one of the first women hired into this department.  I wish I could sit down with her and just chat some day about what it’s been like for her to be in the academy for the past 30 years — what’s changed; what hasn’t.  Maybe The Absolute Professor isn’t exactly a heart-to-heart kind of person, but she’s certainly not without compassion and empathy (she has this uncanny ability to dish out the best advice, even if you didn’t know you needed it).  When I started here, I was terrified of her.  But now it’s more like a healthy fear of god.  And I adore her.  Even as I fear her wrath.  I can sort of get a sense for what it’s been like for her through the ways she mentors me.  She’s tough — boy is she ever tough — but she’s also wry and insightful.  In my first year teaching here, she gave me some of the best teaching advice I’ll ever get.  I was TA’ing a class that was — how to say this politely? — problematic at best.  I was responsible for two weekly discussion sections (out of 6 total in the course), in which attendance was optional on a weekly basis.  And we had to teach parallel “mini-courses” within the sections.  And the class was neither chronological nor thematic.  Where was I?  Oh, right: The Absolute Professor.  I went to her one day early in that semester for tips on how to establish some sense of structure and normalcy in a sections that were — almost by design — unstable: how to make students want to come, how to convince them that they really should come prepared, how to make section worth their time and mine.  But I also had this problem: there were these two students — male — in one of my classes that seemed to be challenging me on everything.  And, of course, mostly through references to the History Channel — references that in general had nothing at all to do with what we were talking about.  I figured there were several things at play: age (I was definitely on the young-ish side of things), the usual early-semester boundary-testing, the fact that people act out when they don’t have structure, and, yes, gender.  So I asked The Absolute Professor what to do.

She dispensed her wisdom thusly: “Ethel Louise, you will encounter misogyny in your career.  And you need to be on the look out for it, whether it’s directed at you or your students.  But first you have to figure out exactly what’s going on.  Pay careful attention.  Because what might be going on is that these students are boys.  Boys with no social skills who don’t know how to interact with their instructors or their peers in this kind of setting.  Boys who are awkward and actually just need to be socialized.  Who need to be shown how this is done.  And maybe messed with a little.” (This actually ended up being the case.  More on that another time.)

She paused.

“But if you’re sure it’s misogyny — you must crush them.”

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