CONFESSIONS OF A FEMINIST SCHOLAR
Since I began graduate school in a heavily male-dominated literature department, I have learned a lot. I’ve been singled out and advised on how to dress, been lectured to about former female students who deigned to reproduce while in graduate school, had dirty laundry publicly aired, and have sat through countless sessions of gratuitous sexually explicit in-class bloviating from male colleagues. The graduate school let slide a sexual harassment incident that happened in another department. According to departmental anecdote, all of my female professors are crazy, lazy, sexually deviants, misogynists, pill-poppers, and/or opposed to working with female graduate students. Almost without exception, they are married and childless. By contrast, the male professors are veritable rock stars with children and ex-wives scattered around the globe, forgiven for the very sins for which their female colleagues are crucified.
In the wider field, Colin McGinn, a formerly celebrated philosopher and professor at the University of Miami, resigned from his position due to sexual harassment complaints from several students. McGinn defended himself by arguing that the students simply did not understand language as well as he did. As Jennifer Saul’s Salon article, a piece provoked by McGinn’s actions and which detailed her experiences both as a female philosopher and administrator of the blog Being a Woman in Philosophy, began to circulate widely, I noticed the online conversation begin to shift. My male colleagues posted and re-posted articles about how to support their female peers, and through this blog, women philosophers suddenly had a popular forum in which to air and articulate their grievances.
Unfortunately, since I wrote the first draft of this article two months ago, the infamous report by the American Philosophical Association’s Committee on the Status of Women (which addressed sexual harassment within University of Colorado Boulder’s philosophy department) was released, leading to the removal of the department chair and suspension of graduate admissions for at least the next year. The allegations of pervasive sexual harassment by male faculty and students would, I imagine, come as a shock to those outside the academy. The Internet took up the plight of the female graduate student as a cause célèbre, begging the question: What do you call the elephant that tramples philosophers’ armchairs while they calmly stand around discussing it?
There is something about graduate school that brings culturally institutionalized gender disparities into relief; perhaps it is the competitive atmosphere in which advancement hinges on one’s ability to speak first and loudest, perhaps it is the acceptance of mental illness as occupational hazard, or perhaps it is the tendency to forgive the brilliant thinker for his bullying. Or maybe this is just the way professional life works, and sexism simply seems exacerbated in grad school because it affects people who study social inequality and is perpetuated by those who should know better.
Scholarship is still a man’s world, which often doesn’t take kindly to women. This is particularly perplexing in my field, which focuses on the marginalized and oppressed. Scholars working in the field of literature are increasingly skeptical of narratives of authority, specifically those grand political, historical, religious, and colonial narratives that foreclose difference and discontinuity. Women’s voices have carved out a space in literature; female characters are often able to perceive difference and conflict without insisting on resolution. These traits stand in stark contrast to a rigorous scientific, masculine approach that simply writes over the incommensurable. And yet, the female voice in scholarship remains marginal. The problem is that a more feminist approach to literature tends to be drowned out because it cannot assert itself in the language of authority. If she wants to do men’s work, the female academic has to affect the language of authority or yell into the wind.
Women’s work, on the other hand, is teaching. And it is as a teacher that I most fully understand my gender as a problem.
Teaching, an academic requirement that I must fulfill as a graduate student, muddles the already fraught question of authority that seems to accost me at every stage of my professional and educational development. In order to teach effectively, I must assert my authority, though doing so feels alien and contradicts my values. By conforming to a more traditionally masculine position, I may be implicitly disavowing the value of my own voice. My students need to see me in a position of authority in order to challenge their perceptions of women, but adopting such a dominant position in the classroom could undercut my students’ license to develop their own critical perspectives.
For me, authority is still a problem. Students usually call me Ms. or Professor; I don’t correct them, even though after experiencing major awkwardness with honorifics as an undergraduate, I always swore that I would be clearer with my own students about such formalities. When the time came, I thought it too risky to immediately undercut my position by supplying a first name but didn’t feel I merited a title, so I let them squirm.
My colleagues and professors had me concerned about authority—worried that as someone who looked like my students’ “big sister,” I might court a coup d’état. I was told for my own sake to dress professionally, to write up a sternly-worded, bulletproof syllabus with no-wiggle-room late policies and several challenges to show students who was boss.
As it turns out, I have experienced almost no disciplinary problems. My students are perfectly respectful and inexplicably intimidated by me; they do their work every week and don’t obviously resent me for teaching poetry or talking about feminism. My impediments have instead been psychological—I’ve felt paranoid about being dismissed and unsure about my own authority. This is not to say that teachers don’t experience significant pushback from students on the basis of their gender—I’m certain this is rampant. But based on my experience as a student and now a teacher, I can say that the classroom dynamic for me is more psychoanalytical and political than it is empirical. Certainly I am impeded as a woman, but these impediments have not come from this particular group of students. In front of the classroom, it quickly becomes clear that I have internalized something from elsewhere that has led to my anxiety and sense of inferiority. When I have had problems with my students, it was because I back-peddled, conceded, and second-guessed myself as a result of innocent questioning from them. Perhaps this is a result of watching my female teachers conduct a class with the same caution and uncertainty. Maybe it’s because I’ve never gotten used to defending feminism in classroom debates, or the way my behavior, attire, and opinions are subject to constant scrutiny from my colleagues and professors, or the many times my female professors have deferred to aggressive students.
During a pre-professorial pedagogy workshop in which I was forced to mock teach, the one critique I received was that I did that “terrible thing that female academics do,” which was to be too tentative and deferential. Cut out phrases like I think/feel/believe, the evaluator told me. Phrases like I’m sorry. All of the women at the workshop suffered from this.
Somehow, I must unconsciously have internalized this behaviour from all the women I admire who have, over the years, stood in front of me and professed ignorance and anxiety, from all the men who have done the opposite, and from anyone who neglected to call me out on this behaviour when I was an undergraduate. My self-doubt festered, unaddressed, until it became a character trait. Now, as an instructor standing in front of impressionable students I feel a responsibility not to continue this negative cycle.
As I mentioned, contemporary literary scholars have come to associate the female voice, as exemplified in literature, with a more intuitive, embodied approach to understanding, which would allow for contradiction and multiple perspectives without the need for synthesis and resolution (as, in a small victory for all concerned, my students writing about Molly Bloom attest). The female voice in literature has made room for the I think. This is in contrast to discourses of authority in non-theoretical sciences and traditional philosophy, validated by the ability to argue most persuasively and bolstered by a spirit of competition in which the winning narrative would foreclose other perspectives. In the humanities, at least, there seems to be consensus that the former approach to understanding is as legitimate as a more rational, forceful, scientific one.
Problematically, however, the approach associated with the feminine proceeds through something other than authority and, in spite of what are often the good intentions of students and professors, is easily drowned out. My students of all genders demand quantifiable feedback—precise instructions on how they could ensure their papers would earn A’s, and SparkNote explanations of texts. They want to apply their business models and scientific theories to literature, rather than listening to the polyphony of the text. They want to close, rather than open interpretation.
In front of a classroom full of teenagers raised on Twilight, not yet exposed to Judith Butler—many of whom have bought into the doctrine of our post-sexist culture that I too had to be disabused of—I have become particularly aware of the problem of my pedagogical approach. Should I take up the rigorous, authoritative style that would address my quantitatively minded students, thereby denying them the non-foreclosing feminine approach that comes more naturally to me and which would challenge them? Should I entertain questions and outlandish ideas, and grade students with a soft hand, as is my wont, or overcompensate so they do not see me as a sucker? Is it more important that they view me—a young woman—as competent, or that I challenge them with a less conventional teaching style and risk having them write me off?
Teaching, if done responsibly, is about self-sacrifice and, to a certain extent, self-effacement, which is largely what makes it women’s work. For graduate students and academics, teaching means sacrificing coveted free time and our own work. It is also often a question of withholding our opinions in order to avoid indoctrinating students. The problem is that the type of behaviour the teacher models also impacts students. If I defer from stating my opinion, won’t my female students adopt a similar approach? Do I give them license to opine or assert my own thoughts in order to model the behaviour I would like to solicit from them? If my entire teaching philosophy revolves around self-sacrifice, how can I teach them to assert themselves?
This leads to a series of quandaries: If it is precisely this self-effacement that defines women’s work, am I doing a disservice by attempting to weed this behavior out of my students? By denying the value of their more tentative positions, am I implicitly avowing authority? How can I best ensure that these students have a voice, whatever volume it may be? If the only way to be heard, as a woman, is to affect the voice of authority, won’t the female approach be forever silent? It is at this juncture that I locate one of the many paradoxes of teaching: When I disavow the kind of authoritative reading that works to erase difference and contradiction in a text, am I simultaneously erasing my own authority as a voice of difference? My inclination toward self-erasure in the classroom is very likely the result of a society constructed to keep women marginalized. But how do we contend with a symptom of oppression through which we define ourselves? How do we best represent this paradox to our students?
As a teacher, I think constantly about the precedent I am setting with respect to those insidious little affects and actions that my students probably don’t even see—my tendency to drive at unanswerable questions; my push to find a kernel of truth in their answers when it’s clear they have missed the mark; the guilt I experience when I grade them and the responsibility I feel for their poor work; my constant self-doubt and susceptibility to bullying.
Every time I stand in front of the classroom, I am acutely conscious of performing my gender inadvertently—of adopting certain tics, probably as a result of social conditioning and of editing myself so as to avoid being dismissed as an archetype. What can I teach them, after all, if they’ve written me off as a bleeding heart feminist? Every time I try to talk about feminist theory or even sexual assault on campus, I become self-conscious. Visions of a ratemyprofessor.com profile emerge and I imagine a slew of comments dismissing me for being hysterical and obsessed with women’s issues (realistically, I rarely mention the subject, even though I should be obsessing over such things).
It is not approval that I am after, but the ability to teach effectively, which requires that I not become a joke. If I am dismissed in this way (as you will recall, virtually all of the female professors I esteem have been), I will have failed my students and my responsibility as a feminist. I must, then, either take on an ill-fitting authority that would contradict many of my principles or face the misogyny and dismissal that would accompany a less aggressive approach. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier for people to dismiss you when you are predisposed to begin every statement with an apology, and end by trailing off. These are tendencies I am trying to curb in myself, for the sake of those on whom I have influence and to whom I have a responsibility.
The responsible teacher’s time, research, personal comfort, political ideals, and self-confidence can become collateral damage in her quest to challenge her students—likewise, the teacher’s predispositions and socially conditioned personality, if she is to prove effective. Teaching is still women’s work because we sacrifice ourselves so that things might be better for our students than they are for us. For now, my female students still begin sentences by apologizing, professing ignorance, and undermining what they are about to say. Meanwhile, I feel panicked when I talk about gender issues in class and second-guess every decision I make as a teacher.
I’m not even sure whether pointing out these gendered affectations that insidiously propagate stereotypes and disparities is helpful or not. Taking stock of my own has done little but make me sheepish for failing to overcome my social conditioning and feeding into a stereotype of weakness or timidity. My own female professors have tended either to humiliate their students for such behaviour, to ignore it, or to be harsher and less tolerant with their female students in what I can only assume is some sort of misplaced self-hatred manifesting as misogyny—none of which has done much for me. What has helped, I think, is being able to talk about the conflicts I’ve outlined—to talk at all. The small contingent of women in my department are fiercely and indiscriminately supportive of each other; we comprise a strange community based on oral traditions of wisdom passed from cohort to cohort and made up of pseudo-therapists taking anxious first-time teachers under our wings. Perhaps what we still need is forums of our own—non-competitive, non-quantitative places where we can speak how we want. If we are predisposed to self-sacrifice, perhaps we need to be more conscious of sacrificing for each other—of raising up other women’s voices through our own self-erasure. If women give one another the chance to speak when no one else will, perhaps some of our voices will come through. And as teachers, engaged in women’s work, we are uniquely poised to do precisely this.
My inaugural statement today—the first of a new semester in which I am again a student and teacher—was self-undermining. I don’t yet feel confident enough to be in front of a classroom when I still, apparently, cannot even express an opinion, but here I am. And the thing with teaching is that it’s always a paradox—always composed of uncertainties, guilt, competing interests; there is no absolute, determinative way to approach it and perhaps it is for these reasons that teaching is women’s work: because it necessitates an ability to engage with paradox and provides us with a platform from which to speak and cultivate new ways of understanding. Our struggle as teachers and students, as teachers for our students, and as women in general, is to occupy a position from which we can speak truly. As for my position, I’m still figuring out the parameters. This woman’s work is ongoing. ♦