The Teaching Paradox

Women who teach English and other languages are more satisfied with classroom work than other aspects of their jobs, but report shame over pride in areas other than research, survey finds.
December 29, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- A new survey of faculty members in English and foreign languages will challenge some assumptions about how and why women and men do not get promoted at the same levels or feel the same satisfaction in academe.

The Modern Language Association has yet to release its “associate professor survey,” which, its name notwithstanding, included both associate and full professors. But professors involved in the report, due out soon, revealed some of the key findings Sunday at the MLA’s annual meeting:

  • On every measure of job satisfaction, men are more satisfied than women in English and foreign languages.
  • The only area where women are overwhelmingly very satisfied (although still not at the same level as men) is their autonomy in the classroom.
  • Women spend an average of 1.5 hours more per week than do men on grading student work.
  • Men work an average of 2 hours more per week on research.
  • It takes women longer than men to earn the promotion from associate to full professor, the gap larger in foreign languages than in English.
  • Contrary to other reports and anecdotal evidence, male and female faculty members do not report differing levels of service requirements, although both men and women feel that these obligations are increasing.

The survey and a report on the results are being prepared by the MLA's Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, and several of that panel's members shared their thoughts on the implications of the findings.

Sara Poor, an associate professor of German at Princeton University, noted that in addition to the statistical information, the report quotes from free responses submitted by many of the women who responded to the survey. These quotes suggest that professors "love their jobs" but "struggle to meet the various demands they face." She said that there was a "bittersweet quality" to many of the female respondents' answers.

Many women reported feeling hostility from many of their colleagues and a lack of support in research, even as many departments value it over teaching. This raises the potentially troubling question, she said, of whether women value teaching for the "magic" of the classroom or because "teaching can be a kind of refuge" in that the classroom is the place where women (and men) have the most control over their professional decisions.

Elizabeth Zanichkowsky, a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Waukesha -- one of the two-year campuses in the university system -- noted that the MLA survey had relatively few responses from two-year institutions, but suggested that the issue may play out in some different ways in that sector -- which, she noted, educates an increasing number of undergraduates.

She noted that the many women who teach at community colleges are effectively cut off from active research careers either because their course loads make it impossible to devote the time to research, because tenure and promotion committees won't value it, or because they lack time -- even in the summer -- to visit archives or to write. (She noted that she was using a more traditional definition of research here, and said that many community colleges encourage research on pedagogy.)

Thus many women at community colleges -- where in many cases they may find more hospitable environments than at research universities -- not only earn less than those at four-year institutions but often "lack intellectual food," she said. "Book ideas become journal article ideas become conference paper ideas become ... thoughts," she said.

Joycelyn K. Moody, the Sue E. Denman Distinguished Chair in American Literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said that what most troubled her about the responses was that women reported feeling shame about their interest and success in teaching. Women should be feeling pride in their success as teachers, she said, but are "perceiving themselves as performing below expectations," because they aren't doing more research.

It's time to "dismantle those institutional values," Moody said, so that the shame disappears.

Moody also said that the survey results will show how some discussions that have been going on for years in higher education have missed a key element: gender. She noted that Ernest L. Boyer's Scholarship Reconsidered in 1990 "paid no particular respect to gender," even as it called for shifting the reward system in higher education to value research on teaching and to see curricular work as contributing to scholarship. To talk about "free floating anxiety" about the relative value of scholarship vs. teaching, without considering gender, she said, missed a key point.

The MLA's forthcoming survey, she added, shows that there are "intersections of shame and gender and power" that need attention.

One audience member suggested, to much support from those present, that one solution to these problems would be to eliminate faculty rank (while keeping tenure). Without the full professor promotion looming ahead, she said, departments might be better able to focus on the strengths and interests of members and not impose one, research-oriented model. "What's the point of rank?" she asked, adding that it is "a vertical, oppressive, competitive, invidious structure."


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