Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Virtual Faculty Lounge

Have recently been catching up with more-wired colleagues and discovering the numbers of educators out there in the blogosphere. A lot of interesting insight out there--not least, confirmation that some of the trends/syndromes we notice Around Here also crop up Out There. But on a very preliminary run, there are two things I notice:

  • A lot of the edubloggers are pre-tenure, working their butts off as adjunct, visiting, or assistant professors. There seem to be fewer post-tenure people. Don't know why that is.
  • A lot of the edubloggers use their anonymized sites at least in part in order to vent a lot of anger at students. I certainly don't blame them: adjunct/visiting/assistant status means that everybody else, from undergrads to grads to junior colleagues to senior colleagues to upper administration, feels they can impose. And they carry large loads, of disinterested students, and that's massively wearing.
But I wonder if there might be another factor operating here. Certainly my female colleagues have spoken of having to use a very different classroom manner than I seem to have to. Are these edubloggers getting dumped on, and venting in response, because many of the edubloggers I'm reading are female, and lower-status, and thus get dumped on much more?

[update 2.13.06: Scott Kaufman's data confirms this.]

Probably a massively gender-oblivious comment on my part. But I ask because I mostly don't dislike my students. They occasionally irritate me, but mostly I like them. And if I don't like them, I'm at least amused by them.

Hmmm....need to get my head out of the sand a bit.

[added 12.13.05 2330 by Professor Spouse]:

Whether we like it or not, gender makes a huge difference in classroom discipline AND the amount of ridiculous crap students will try to pull. One of the reasons for this has to do with perceptions of authority, and what fosters authority can be completely different for male instructors than for female.

First of all, sadly, no matter whether it should be true or not, I believe it is simply not possible for a 5’2” woman (me) to have the same kind of physically authoritative and challenging effect on a young testosterone-ridden undergraduate male that a 6’5” male with a commanding voice can have. I am no expert on gender issues or socialization, but frankly I think this is hard-wired cave-man stuff. The latter punches very primal “rival who might kill me” buttons, and the former seems kind of like Mom. Not that Mom has no authority – she does, but it’s a very different authority from the Alpha Male, and it’s an authority that after a certain age is regularly circumvented with a whole bag of manipulative tricks.

The difference in accepted social behaviors between genders is also a huge factor. One of the most obvious examples of this seems to occur in students’ perceptions of identical behavior in male and female professors. Male teachers who are strict, good class disciplinarians, abide by the rules and boundaries they set in their syllabi, and inflict consequences for student irresponsibility are often described as “tough” or “demanding,” whereas I have repeatedly heard students describe analogous female teachers as being “mean” or a “bitch.” In our culture, the socialization, and hence expected behavior, of women requires us to accommodate, commiserate, forgive, and compromise. If we do not, we invite the very disrespect that we are trying to discourage by being “tough,” and the disrespect actually comes from our refusal to conform to the expected social norms. To add insult to injury, female students can sometimes be even worse culprits in this department than male students – if they have to spend so much time accommodating, commiserating, forgiving, and compromising, then they expect female Professor So-and-So to bloody well do the same.

Male and female students also exhibit very different patterns of trying to “get around” a professor. In my experience, undergraduate male students who are trying to avoid the consequences of their own bad decisions or irresponsibility usually just call upon some combination of lame excuses, obvious lies, and retroactive sicknesses, and then sit back and see what they can get away with. (I had a stomachache three weeks ago and therefore couldn’t do the 40-minute exam that was available on the class website for 9 solid days.) If they don’t get what they want, they will persist, usually by repeating the same excuse multiple times. Female students, on the other hand, tend to write long involved emails, trying to appeal to the female professor’s emotions, and pleading technical / computer imbecility, emotional meltdowns, vague “family problems,” and grueling, incompatible work schedules – in other words, the kinds of things that they think will elicit the expected reaction that has been socialized into them: that the female professor will commiserate with them, forgive whatever ridiculous irresponsibility they’ve exhibited, accommodate to the consequences of their bad decisions, and usually compromise on a grade issue. If they don’t get their way, they will also persist, but in a different way, often ramping up the emotional tenor of the phone calls and e-mails to a degree that is almost embarrassing. My conversations with male colleagues over the years would suggest that most of these same female students would never in a million years engage in this same style of communication with a male professor, or persist to this degree.

I myself certainly don’t have the answers for any of these issues. So far the formula I have tried to use with students of all genders is this:
1) model the same behavior you expect from them,
2) treat them all with equal respect,
3) don’t answer every addle-brained e-mail that comes over the transom;
4) insist on consequences;
5) always speak authoritatively about your subject, and
6) make it so abundantly clear that you know so much more than they do, that you scare the crap out of them (and the respect *into* them.)

As for hating or disliking them– sure, we get angry at them sometimes. And sometimes their complete lack of responsibility and sense of consequence is extremely frustrating. But it’s very important to keep a sense of humor about it, too.

And frankly, I think that people who find themselves consistently hating their students should find another line of work.

1 comment:

Nathan Futrell said...

That's a very cool perspective, well written too! I hear many of the same comments from my wife, after she comes home from teaching lower socio-economic high school students. Granted, it's highschool and much maturing can occur between then and college, but she received LOTS of junk from male college students when she taught as an assitant teacher here at Tech. The disrespect that students (and our society) have for authority is quite startling. It's a sad thing, really.

Good topic/post.