I am not the kind of person who feels uncomfortable about confrontations. I don’t go looking for them, but I don’t shrink from them either. When students inappropriately challenge me in class I usually deal with them without too much of a hassle. Yes, I feel annoyed when it happens. And my first thought usually is, would he (it is most often a male student) be doing this or saying this if I were a white man? But then things settle down and I can almost forget that I am a young female faculty of color. Almost.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how my experiences in the classroom differ from a male professor’s. I’ve spent a lot of time discussing it with other academics, with friends, and with my husband, at home. I’ve talked about students’ reluctance to see me as an authority figure in the classroom, or in my fields of expertise. I’ve discussed students’ apparent need to see me as “nice” and maternal. What I hadn’t given too much thought to until recently was the body – my body. In retrospect, it seems odd that I neglected to think as deeply about this as I am forced to do now.
I am forced to do so now because of a recent experience. I was teaching one of my mid-level courses last semester. The first assignment for the class was a reflection paper on students’ socialization experiences within their own families. Usually students write about unsurprising things: the toys they played with, the clothes they wore, the sports and extra-curricular activities they took part in, etc. But last semester, one of my male students turned in a paper which read like a trashy memoir of sexual exploits. The inappropriateness of the paper’s content was matched only by the crudeness of its language. When I confronted him, he refused to acknowledge any wrong-doing and insisted instead on questioning his grade on that paper for the rest of the semester, over the summer, and now in the fall. He spent most of the rest of our class meetings last semester with his arms crossed and eyes locked on me. Sometimes he would stay back in his seat, still with his arms crossed, eyes still fixed on me, while the classroom emptied and I packed up my things. The fact that he is a lacrosse player is a significant detail. On my campus (and apparently some others too according to urbandictionary.com) they are known as “lax bros”- and they engage in behavior that epitomizes college life for at least some male athletes – partying hard, drinking, and acting aggressively.
Right after my confrontation with this student about his first paper, I shot my usual line to my husband, who is also an academic: “this would never happen to you!” And then I realized there were other things that were happening that I doubt happen to him or other male faculty. Based on the content of the student’s paper, and his behavior towards me, it was very clear that he saw me not as a professor but as a sexualized, “exotic” woman. I became acutely aware of my body language and my clothes. I found myself often quickly checking the buttons on my shirt during class to make sure they were all buttoned. I felt awkward turning around to write something at length on the board. I found myself limiting my physicality in other ways, like not sitting on top of the desk as I often do during discussion sessions. I started scheduling students back to back during office hours, if he wanted to meet with me, just so there would be a crowd of students outside my door when he was inside my office. And I made sure that I wasn’t the last person to leave the classroom. I understand that male professors are sometimes viewed sexually by their students. But I think the consequences of that are very different. I wonder if male professors have to worry about being the last person to leave the classroom, if they wonder what kind of predicament the next bad grade they give out is going to land them in.
And so here’s the enduring difference between the experience of a male professor and a female professor: our bodies. Some of my male students will always see me as “just” a woman and treat me accordingly. And for the first time since I started teaching, I shudder at the thought of what that could potentially mean.
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