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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.

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