Friday, December 4, 2009

From Emily: The Gender Spotlight and the Classroom

Why have Erica and I have fallen off the face of the planet recently? Two words: term papers. They have arisen as suddenly as we should have expected from the beginning of the semester, and yet boy can they be consuming! One of my term papers, however, relates to our ongoing gendered discussions, so I want to briefly introduce some of those ideas.

I'm currently a grad student at BYU, and along with taking classes, etc. I am teaching first year writing. All new instructors take a composition pedagogy class, which is where this term paper comes in. For my term paper, I decided to look at an issue I'm passionate about, but where I'd also like to find a solution.

The issue I've chosen is the "gender spotlight" (as a male friend put it) that often inconveniences female teachers. Students often don't treat female teachers with the same level of respect as male teachers, and in my classroom I found that my female students showed me much more respect than some of my male students. Female students never criticize my policies in front of the entire class, or speak to me with a rudely sarcastic tone, or deliberately and repeatedly call me by my first name, even when I've asked the class to call me Ms._______ (sorry, not revealing my last name). If a female student doesn't like her grade, she'll usually come and ask me how to make her writing better in the future, whereas a male student will get annoyed and think I've graded him unfairly.

There are exceptions to this, of course. But as I've been writing this paper, I've honed in on something that's unique to BYU: the male returned missionary. If you're unfamiliar with LDS culture, here's a brief breakdown: for men in the LDS church, it's considered an obligation to spend two years as a volunteer missionary, provided the man's health doesn't prevent him from going. Usually men go when they're nineteen and then come back when they're twenty-one. While they're on their missions, they don't date. They spend all of their time assigned in pairs with other male missionaries, which builds a strong bond between all the male missionaries but also saturates them with male communication. In terms of leadership, they answer to a male mission president, in addition to local male church leaders. When women serve missions, they usually go when they're 21 or older. But within the mission, the leadership positions missionaries are called to, where they're in a position of authority over other missionaries, are always held by male missionaries. Which means that some returning missionaries may be used to having authority and stewardship over women who are a couple years older than them, without having answered directly to a female authority figure for two years.

I'm not saying it's wrong that the LDS church has such a high percentage of male leadership, but there are certainly some repercussions. In BYU's case, what this translates into is an environment where men who take first year writing (FYW) after the mission are at least 21, while many of the graduate instructors are women in their early- and mid- twenties. Sometimes recently returned male RMs have no recent experience answering to a female authority figure, let alone one so close to their age. They may not even have spent much time working with women as colleagues, since male and female missionaries don't spend a ton of time together. While I don't want my students to tremble in awe when I walk in the room, they do need to show me respect in basic ways, such as not texting in class (especially not when they're sitting in the front row!), not demanding that I "frickin'" do anything, and recognizing the fact that at the end of the day I do indeed determine the grade their work has earned.

As luck would have it, I happen to have an unusual number of male RM students, which creates very unique classroom dynamics. I'd say about half of them are very respectful, a quarter are rude, and another quarter skirt the line. What is interesting to me is that the ones who are most respectful still treat me more like a peer. Which I don't mind at all - I think that's great. I think it's possible to be respectful but also feel comfortable and friendly. These students do their work on time, they earn good grades as a result of doing their work well and on time, and on the occasion that something goes wrong (printer meltdowns, etc.) they don't demand that I make concessions for them. They recognize that there are consequences to everything, even if they also request a little mercy. There's a huge difference between "I'm so sorry I missed my conference slot. Is there any way I can make it up?" versus, "I had a mandatory meeting for x campus organization, so I would hope I'll still get credit for the conference." Especially when no documentation is ever provided, excusing the student because of x obligation.

In my term paper, I focus on trying to find solutions for the male RMs who seem uncomfortable with female authority, but I think there are many other important questions about gender and power relations in the classroom. For one, I've been fascinated by how my name factors into power relations. The male students who are straight out of high school, and all the female students, call me Ms.____. The male RMs usually avoid calling me anything at all. They simply don't address me in emails or in class, though one student will in a half-joking tone call me "teacher." A couple of the male RMs have a habit of trying to call me by my first name, but whenever they want something and need to be on my good side, they'll switch back and call me Ms._____. I can't help but wonder if it's a conscious decision.

I could speculate on why they do these things forever, but the truth is that I can't read their minds. All I know is that my term paper is still calling my name. There's a ton more I could write on this topic, but you really don't want to hear all of that. One amusing bit is how confused some of my colleagues have been as I've tried to use the term "cisgendered" in my paper. Even though I explain in the paper what that means, some of them have such a polarized conception of gender to begin with that it's unthinkable to even define a school of thought where gender is polarized. The thought that some see gender as more of a continuum is simply unthinkable. Interesting how language and our grasp of concepts interact, huh?

If anyone has similar, different, contradictory experiences, etc. I'd love to hear them.

1 comment:

  1. I really can't say I'm that impressed or driven to go to BYU given how you've described these supposed members and returned missionaries at that act. I don't expect perfection out of anyone and realize that not everyone does things in the Church because they really want to or have good intentions, and so I try not to hold them to that standard. But at the same time, I feel like these are basic things that even high-schoolers can abide by better than some of these RMs. It's quite irritating. I can only imagine how it must have been for you.