Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.
“Is it always like this?”
This question came from one of the three male students in my 50+ person literature class, almost ten years ago. I was a new, young PhD student and I was teaching an introductory literature course. The class, in the four years that I had taught it, never reached double-digits for male students in the class. So, yes, I answered, it was always like this.
I was proud of my classes. I taught at an R1 institution, one of the top in the country. That women were over-represented seemed like a nice problem to have. I knew there were plenty of men on campus, mostly in engineering and hard sciences. Most men simply weren’t interested in this course. I was young, naïve, and an admitted over-achiever. My role, I thought, was to simply be myself, teach well, and show my students the rich world of our national literature.
I’m older, wiser, married and the parent of two small children now. And I read about the young women in college apparently overachieving in the classroom while seemingly regressing outside of it. As put by Lisa Belkin, the author of the article, “In social settings and in relationships, men set the pace, made the rules and acted as they had in the days when women were still “less than.” It might as well have been the 1950s, but with skimpier clothing, fewer inhibitions and better birth control.” I also read thatmore than 30 percent of college students exhibit signs of eating disorder, while 91 percent of collegewomen admitted to dieting.
I recently came across a study, “Female Bodily Perfection and the Divided Self.” by Catherine G. Valentine. After studying three years of her female students’ journals, she came to the conclusion that:
…women’s moral identity incorporates definitions and feelings of self-constructed in relation to an abstract ideal of bodily perfection and perfectibility, which is produced and disseminated by electronic and print media. I submit that idealized images of female bodily perfection and messages of perfectibility exercise control over women’s lives by constructing a self that is distorted and divided against itself, self-policing and self-destructive”#
These journals were written between 1987 and 1990. The findings, however, haven’t seemed to change; women seem to be dividing themselves, in-class versus out of class. Students seem to be ok today with that disconnect but I’m not.
What is my role as a feminist role model for my current students?
I try to remember what I was like as an undergraduate. My wardrobe consisted of cargo pants and men’s shirts (thanks Kurt Cobain!). It didn’t seem to impact my dating life in any way. When I went out with friends, it was rarely to pick up; we wanted to hang out, drink, and dance. It wasn’t perfect, and nor were we, as each of us battled with our own set of body and relationship issues, but we always maintained control, were supportive of one another, and had a good time largely on our own terms.
That’s not what I see from or read about undergraduates today. Should we blame popular culture that sets the narrow standard for women and our self-worth? The proliferation of the “rape culture” thatexists on campuses? The rise of standardized tests that keep our students from thinking more critically about what messages they receive from the media? Or have we simply split ourselves in two, as described by the study, separating our brains and bodies from one another? And what difference can I make in all this?
I know that my role in front of my students is limited. On the surface, I exude traditional, conservative, sexist, and heteronormative values: I’m married, I have two kids, I make less money than my husband, and I teach gen-ed courses off the tenure-track. I dress professionally, behave responsibly, and yet try to provoke my students into thinking more critically about their lives. Unlike my first teaching experience, my classrooms are equal in gender distribution, and my job relies in no small part on my student evaluations. Talking more overtly about feminist issues is a sure way to lose half my class.
Free choice is often voiced, but what I wonder, based on the students’ own ambivalence, how much of this behavior is the student’s choice and how much of it is using choice as a reason to succumb to peer pressure? I’m not interested in “slut shaming” or “blaming the victim,” which is what often discussions of these issues devolve into. I am interested in creating a meaningful discussion and examination of these issues for my students. I’m still trying to figure out how to do it.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.