Alexandra (AJ) Gold earned her PhD in English at Boston University in 2018. She currently teaches as a Preceptor in the Harvard College Writing Program. Follow her on Twitter @agold258 or check out her website.
It’s no secret that women ― and especially younger women, women of color, disabled women and transwomen (let alone people who are nonbinary)― have it harder in the academy than men. Numerous studies have confirmed that women do worse on student evaluations, are asked to perform more service, and are published less frequently than male peers. A cursory search for “young female academic” yields headlines like “It’s a Dangerous Business, Being a Female Professor” and “Female Academics Pay a Heavy Baby Penalty.” See also: #MeTooPhD.
I’ve written about this before, offering advice on how young women graduate students and early career scholars might address some of these issues on our own terms by embracing our authority. And I recognize that my recommendations there and here are limited in accordance to my privileges. Recently, however, I’ve also been thinking about how some of the ostensible pitfalls of being a young women in academia might also pose important opportunities. This was borne of a conversation I was having with several other young scholars, men and women alike, at a conference last fall. Hearing a man’s perspective was illuminating, as I learned that some of the things I’ve viewed as an undue burden on academic women might, from another vantage, present unique occasions for deeper engagement. This seems especially true when it comes to developing student-teacher relationships.
Let me be extremely clear: I’m not suggesting that we women scholars should simply change our mindsets and all the problems we face will simply disappear. That’s wishful thinking, at best, and dangerously misguided thinking, at worst. Many of the most pressing problems we face (sexual harassment, maternity politics) can and will only be addressed through real systemic change and a seismic shift in cultural mores. I hope that those changes come sooner than later. In their immediate absence, however, I do think there are some ways that young women can harness their position in the classroom toward positive ends ― and two, among others, have been especially important to me.
Women Teachers Disproportionately Perform “Care Work”/Emotional Labor
As Myrna Green points out, women and especially women of color are often disproportionately tasked with performing care work for students. I can relate. I’ve had several students, all women, cry in my office or tutoring sessions. I don’t think I’m especially mean; I do think, though, that students feel more comfortable crying in front of me because I’m young and female (read: “understanding,” “empathetic,” “relatable,” etc.). This past semester, I was having a routine paper conference with one of my students and I could see her struggling to fight back tears. Eventually, she couldn’t. Like many of the first-years I work with, she was overwhelmed not just with my class ― which often asks students to rethink their most engrained writing assumptions ― but with her commitment to athletics, courseload, homesickness and more. I tried to respond with compassion: I made her a cup of tea, listened to her concerns, and allowed her to recompose herself before she left. I know that some (many) of these actions carry implicitly gendered connotations. I could feel myself falling into the trap of “Girlfriend, Mother, Professor” that Carol Hay has so vividly described. But where Hay suggests that we should check our tendency to fall into these “roles” and there are important reasons to do so, I often find myself embracing them.
I think back to my first year in graduate school and immediately recall two distinct occasions where I was on the verge of tears in women professor’s offices ― not because of them, but because I, too, felt completely overwhelmed and perhaps unconsciously and unfairly sensed that they would be compassionate (and I deeply respected both). I didn’t cry; I willed myself not to for fear of seeming weak, or being embarrassed, or being taken less seriously. What if I had?
No, I don’t want to be or feel obligated to console students when they come to my office. It can be deeply uncomfortable and awkward. There are times when they need to take responsibility for themselves and their work, and I make that clear. But I also find these “care” moments rewarding, and it’s one of the reasons I love working with first-year students who are often struggling the most. I believe they allow me to connect with students in a deeper way than I might otherwise and, more importantly, to develop their trust. And if I can develop their trust on this personal level, might that extend to their academic pursuits as well? If I can let them know that I am unequivocally in their corner, will they be inspired, in turn, to work harder or to take more creative and academic risks? If I, most simply, respond in a way that shows them that they are allowed to be vulnerable, will they be more inclined to reach out and seek help when need be?
I’ll say it again: I’m not paid and should not be expected to perform emotional labor/care work. But, because I am young women, I will often be asked to do just that. Rather than working against it, it’s become a personal priority (I stress personal) to make my office a space where students feel comfortable if they need to cry, if they need to talk or open up to someone, or if they want to know that someone on campus cares. If that means I’m sometimes put in a position that a male colleague isn’t, then so be it. I state on my syllabus that I’m not a counselor and I can’t offer professional assistance, but I will do everything in my power to get students the help and resources they deserve. I take that seriously; it starts with me.
Women (Teachers) Are Disproportionately Judged on Appearance
Academic women are judged for their appearance more than men. When we stand in front of the classroom, attend conferences, or go on interviews what we wear and how we act are judged differently than male counterparts. We know this, and it’s true in most professional settings. (See, for instance, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). Once more, however, I’ve also begun to see and deliberately take this as an opportunity.
I’m a young cishet woman who presents in a traditionally “feminine” manner: I have long hair, I often wear makeup on days I teach, I like clothes and favor dresses and skirts over pants. I think I look pretty good and it makes me feel more authoritative. Sometimes it’s merely symptomatic of my high-functioning depression: if I look put together, they won’t know I’m falling apart. Whatever my reasons, I dress up ― and it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
In my first year teaching, I was debriefing with students about the course on the last day. During the discussion, a student said that one of the best parts of the class was my outfits. Perhaps I should’ve been appalled or offended, but I wasn’t ― I was flattered, especially because the student went on to discuss other substantive things about the class. I also didn’t give it much second thought; we just moved on. I’ve since had other such encounters, but I’ve begun to respond in a different way than I did my first year.
I was recently talking to another student who said that she loved my outfits and was interested in fashion. This time, however, I really capitalized on the remark as an opportunity for discussion. I talked about how much I actually think about what I wear and what message it sends; we discussed the way women, especially professional women, are always judged unfairly on the basis of their appearance. I also told her that I do not view my appearance as incompatible with my capabilities, and that I firmly believe it’s ok to care about “superficial” things like dress and “heady” intellectual topics (and how dubious that binary is in the first place). I directed her to one one of my favorite essays on this topic by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She seemed validated and even relieved, and I quickly realized that because of my visibility in the classroom I have a unique opportunity to amplify the messages I wanted to send about appearance and even to make it a conscious part of my teaching practice. I’m not suggesting that all women should dress in traditionally feminine ways, but I am suggesting that it can be powerful and meaningful to students if they see women in the classroom dressing how they choose (rather than to meet some arbitrary social standard). Students notice. You might even consider making it a point to be transparent about your appearance and turn it into a conversation when and if the topic arises (and maybe even if it doesn’t). For instance, I might raise it as an example when my current class reads Lili Loofbourouw’s excellent essay on “The Male Glance” or when we discuss Laura Mulvey’s “The Male Gaze.” As I’ve come to recognize: if my clothes are going to send a message anyway, I might as well make them really speak.
There are certainly other ways that young women academics might find opportunities in potential pitfalls, especially in the classroom. Patrick, for instance, wrote last month about making the most of your student evaluations. As he notes, the student evaluation system is deeply flawed, especially when it comes to gender and race, but we might all do well to approach them with a healthy grain of salt and take from them what’s valuable and leave the rest. It’s sound advice. We might also take it further and use student evaluations as an opportunity to talk, again, about gender biases and to be explicit and transparent about those inequalities, arming students with the information to make more informed evaluative decisions. But perhaps most important: this, along with the other things I’ve mentioned, need not be exclusive to women. Many of the things that I’ve detailed are things that all professors might do to actively work toward greater equality in our classrooms and foster more meaningful student relationships. This is, no doubt, an ongoing, collective effort that requires our most concerted attention.
But until equality is fully realized and despite the fact that, as a contingent faculty member, my future in the academy often feels distressingly uncertain and even impossible, I am determined to make the most of my time in the classroom while I can. Youth and gender be damned.
How do you capitalize on your position in the classroom as a graduate student or early career scholar? How do you deal with gender/racial/and other biases? Let us know in the comments!
[Image by Flickr user Jason Hargrove and used under a Creative Commons license.]