Saturday, December 12, 2009

From Emily: Female Authority in the Classroom cont.

This is a post I just wrote for my personal blog, but I thought I'd share it here too:

Sometimes I grow so used to talking about gender amongst my like-minded friends that I forget how foreign some of my ideas will seem to those who oppose the premises that drive feminism. I forget that as soon as I mention the word "feminist," or explain that "gender" is by definition only culturally derived, the people I am speaking to will assume everything I say and do goes back to my hatred of men and my firm belief that men are out to get me. And then they will interpret everything - yes, everything - I say, through that lens.

Today I had some friends over from my home ward (if you're not LDS, what I mean is that they're from the same congregation I attend back in New Hampshire). One of my friends, Meghan, is dating a boy whose name I am sad to say I do not remember. He is a chemical engineering student, and the first time I met him, he offended me by explaining that English is a useless subject for him. He informed me of this immediately after I had learned that he was signed up for a class that I am team-teaching with a professor next semester.

Well, I should have kept my mouth shut, but I'm in the middle of some heavy revisions on a paper about the male returned missionary phenomenon at BYU, and how that affects power dynamics in sections of first year writing, when they're taught by young, female, grad students. I've been reading through You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen, a psychologist who explains a lot of male-female miscommunication with the concept that men see relationships in terms of hierarchy and women in terms of intimacy. While I take issue with Tannen's readiness to generalize these patterns, these patterns provide a helpful explanation behind the seemingly bizarre classroom dynamics I've encountered with my students.

I brought this topic up at the Ward Reunion because I was curious what the two men present (my sister's husband and Meghan's boyfriend) had to say about the idea of seeing relationships as hierarchies. And the way Meghan's boyfriend responded backed up everything I've been theorizing, along with everything Tannen argues. As soon as I mentioned gender, I saw Meghan reach over, and pat her boyfriend's knee. I started feeling a little apprehensive. But being me, I went ahead with the conversation anyway.

His response? He made a few different points, and I'd like to put them in list form, just because they're easier to process that way:

1. "I had a grad student for my 150 teacher after my mission, and I had no problem with a peer teaching me. We called her by her first name, and sure she was grading me, but we were still peers, and I liked it."

2. "It's fine [in reference to me team-teaching his 316 class]. I took one of my engineering classes early, so I'm the TA for people who are my peers or even my TAs in other classes. So I'm used to having peers teaching me."

I then pointed out that I have my students call me Ms./ Miss and then my last name. And his responses changed a bit.

3. "Well, I'm older than you. If I were in your class and you wanted me to call you Miss, that wouldn't seem right since we're peers."

I then said, "well, none of my students are older than me right now. What if you were 21, straight off the mission?"

4. "We'd still be peers. You're a grad student, not a professor, and if I knew my teacher wasn't really a professor and was trying to be authoritative anyway, that'd bother me. That might be your problem. I can see why that would bother some of your students."

Me: My students are not my academic peers

Him: Yes, they are. You've taken some more classes, but you're still peers.

Me: Not in that setting we're not.

Him: Yes, you are.

Me: Your responses have backed up everything I've found in my research. This is amazing!! [ overly excited, to try to remove any tension, with my childlike enthusiasm].

My sister's husband: I'm comfortable with accepting that even if in a different setting a 150 teacher isn't more advanced than me, they have more expertise than their students in that setting. I'm very comfortable with that as a student, regardless of their age, etc.

At first I just wanted to cry over how frustrating the whole conversation was, because I meet this kind of resistance to feminist-informed ideas everywhere I go. Sometimes it makes it hard for me to tell whether my logic is flawed, or whether I'm simply up against anti-feminism. But if I apply Deborah Tannen's research and theories, here's how I can interpret the struggle that played out in that scene: as a woman, I'm not thinking in terms of hierarchy, where I'm above my students, or better than them because I'm their teacher. I'm thinking in terms of the kind of respect that I deserve in the specific teacher-student relationship we have. So I maintain "I'm not your peer," by dressing professionally, asking them to call me Ms.____, and maintaining a professional distance. I do this to maintain the appropriate distance.

As men, however, they see that in any other context, I'd be their peer. We're both students, we're about the same age, and we're both in a church where we could easily be ward members together. In fact, they could receive church callings that put them in stewardship over me. If they see relationships in hierarchy, then by refusing to act like a peer, I am telling them that I think they're lower than me. That seems like a falsehood to them, so they resist it and act up in ways designed to return me to their status level. The more polite students try to come up to my level, while the seemingly rude students try to drag me down to theirs.

As a woman who is very much steeped in female perspective, I perceive their behavior as an attack on me as a person and on our comraderie as teacher and student. I see their rejections of my authority over them in this area as evidence that they don't respect me as a person, or as an expert. When the students try to join me at my level, however, I see them as validating the relationship of reciprocated respect that I want to have between myself and students. They do their assignments on time, are kind to me, and maybe even take the time to say "hi, how are you?" and get to know me as a friend. I still maintain a bit of a distance there, but I appreciate what I see as a gesture to deepen the personal connection between teacher and student. But perhaps their main goal is to make sure I am no longer their superior.

Also, now that I think back on it, the male students most likely to even the score through diligence and politeness are the students whose work I praise and grade highly. By scoring their work high, I express admiration for them as students instead of highlighting my position above them in a hierarchy. In fact, the rude responses I've received from male students have usually come when my position above them in a hierarchy was highlighted through a low grade or my refusal to budge on one of my policies. While they might not like being lower on a hierarchy in general, they'll especially bristle if I remind them of their position, when they see no evidence that I have a right to be above them in that hierarchy.

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