Between the Bitch and the Pushover, or, How to Teach Like a Woman

6 Sep

Home after a long first day of the academic year and settled in my butterscotch armchair with a confirmed case of back to school brain.

My head is swimming with questions and fears for the coming semester:
1.  What happened to summer?
2. How is my schedule going to fit attending lecture,  staff meetings, teaching section,  office hours, workshops, guest speakers, union meetings, grad student committees, prelims reading, conference papers, advisor meetings, etc.?
3.  I’m supposed to prepare for prelims and do all the other things?
4.  Are my cats going to remember me when I come home after 14 hour days?
5. Is this the year someone realizes I don’t belong here?!
6. This is the semester I get really organized – right?
7. Seriously, what happened to summer?

More than any of these oh so critical issues (especially 1 and 7), though, I’ve spent much of my time recently considering issues of gender, feminist ethics, and the classroom.  It may be that, now that I’m comfortable and settled as a graduate student instructor (GSI) here, I can spend more time on pedagogical concerns.  Or perhaps it is my new role as a mentor to this years’ first time History GSIs.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had in the last week about establishing authority in the classroom and all manner of related concerns.  Unsurprisingly (though unfortunately), this fear of chaotic undergrad rule of the discussion section is expressed almost entirely by women – surely a striking commentary on their experiences in the academy.   The most common advice we mentors have received from our mentors and advisors over the years (the very advice that I found myself passing along to the newbies)  feeds into traditional, heteronormative notions of the academy.  I am left with a nagging unease about the information I related to the new class of GSIs, even as I acknowledge it is in all likelihood the path of least resistance to a smooth semester.   Dress professionally (read: traditionally, and without exposed cleavage), always stand, emphasize your experience, play the part, and of course, be forceful and strict, but smile.  That last part is key.  We may as well have said, “find that tenuous middle ground between bitch and pushover.”   We may have been giving this advice to all of our mentees but considering the make-up of new GSIs concerned about issues of authority (and given the reality of our classrooms), we might as well have been speaking only to the women.   Feminist cringe moment number 1. Further, the very discussion of “establishing authority” is problematic.  Graduate students occupy a unique position in the university system and we do have to be realistic about the ways undergrads can manipulate the system to their advantage.  And, we are instructors, charged with educating and grading students.  But something in my feminist core shudders at discussions of authority in the classroom (feminist cringe moment number 2).

I fear I lack the eloquence to adequately articulate my discomfort with this rhetoric, or to explain clearly how I personally navigate that thin middle ground in my own classroom to the best of my ability.  What I want to express here is the extreme frustration I’ve been feeling these last days in having to pay so much attention to considerations of gendered privilege (as well as all of the other areas of privilege that demand attention) in the classroom and anti-feminist pedagogical practices even as so many of us are committed feminist activists and scholars.   I don’t have many answers here (sorry, mentees), but I want to begin considering more fully how we maintain (and indeed cultivate) a feminist ethic in the halls and classrooms of traditional disciplines and institutions.  Maybe some of you can get at these issues more fully than I seem able to here (I’ll choose to blame summer brain for my lack of clarity) – please share your thoughts.


4 Responses to “Between the Bitch and the Pushover, or, How to Teach Like a Woman”

  1. Lady Historian September 6, 2011 at 7:45 pm #

    The discussion of “appropriate” teaching clothes leaves me in a feminist quandary as well. On one hand, teaching is my job and I should dress like I’m going to work. Like it or not, people get cues about how to treat us from how we present ourselves and that includes our sartorial choices. On the other hand, I think undergrad boys need to learn the life lesson that there can be cleavage present in the room and that doesn’t absolve them of the responsibility to pay attention and treat the cleavage-haver with respect. I worry, too, about personal safety issues. If I dress in a way that accentuates my womanly features (even if it’s fully work-appropriate), do I increase my chances of dealing with harassment or intimidation? And what is my responsibility for modeling “appropriate” attire for the young women in my classes? The answer, I’ve decided, is to dress in a way that is comfortable for me and assume that I’ll have authority by virtue of being the person giving the grades. I might sing another tune at the end of the semester though.

  2. kimbrulée September 6, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

    I think the issue of women establishing “authority” in the classroom is a symptom of something much larger than their experiences in the academy. I think it has more to do with the ways women have internalized the idea that they can never be an authority figure, even in instances where many others (in this case, undergrads) will unquestioningly accept women in that role. (I don’t blame women as individuals for this, but rather the ubiquitous discourse on appropriate gender roles.) On the one hand, I never faced “unruly” students in the classroom and the few students who ever complained about grades accepted my final word. On the other, one of the most common critiques in my evaluations was that I should have been more confident. Rather than attempting to encourage women to act a particular “authoritative” part, maybe more emphasis should be placed on projecting confidence? This might then open up a space to discuss why women are more likely to think that their authority would be questioned or why/whether women exhibit “impostor syndrome” more than men. And it could potentially move away from problematic emphases on dress. Honestly, how can we get our students to challenge the limitations of gender roles if we dress the way that we think they will find “appropriate” for our gender? This isn’t to say that women shouldn’t dress like traditional, professional women (whatever that may mean, skirts and dresses?) if that’s what makes them feel comfortable. But it is to say that we should recognize (and our students should recognize) that there’s more than one way for women to be comfortable, confident teachers.

    On this note about authority, dress, and perception, I’m honestly curious whether a woman has ever been critiqued for her appearance in the classroom. Do we put far more stock into how we present ourselves than our students do? I’ve only encountered one case where someone I knew was critiqued for dressing “inappropriately” while teaching: a student complained to the department head because the instructor (a guy) wore flip-flops to class. In that case, I agree with the student – the classroom is not a space where flip-flops could be construed as professional. Now, whether the student had to complain about it to the department head is another issue entirely.

  3. chelsea September 7, 2011 at 8:16 am #

    I’m glad to see comment here. I think much of it does come down to what we feel most comfortable with – whatever makes me feel most “me,” and thus boost my confidence, as you suggest, Kim. While needing to be professional, I suppose I’m struggling with the energy it seems women need to (or feel they need to) put into considerations of appearance. I’ve heard of many situations in which this has been an issue for women in the classroom, in the form of innuendo, harassment, intimidation, etc. Once this has happened, how can you enter a class without thinking of it? But of course, these situations really have nothing to do with the female instructor. It’s the male students who feel they have license use gender harassment as a weapon in the classroom that are the problem, which clearly has nothing to do how a woman presents herself. And this brings us back around to issues of authority… I get the feeling I’m chasing a chicken or the egg situation here.

  4. AP September 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    I’ve never understood why the various departments don’t offer training forums in which to really dig into the gendered features of this stuff.

    Why should you as the GSM even be in the position of pretending that this advice is “for everyone” when you’re wrestling inwardly with the knowledge that it’s primarily needed for women?

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