GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Feminism’

Is “Feminist” A Sexist Word?

In Liminal Thinking on 2013/03/16 at 23:35
Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US. 

Whenever I teach an introductory lesson on “gender” in my first-year international affairs and international relations classes, I find myself prefacing my explanation of “feminism” with the familiar “Feminism is not about man-hating. Feminists are concerned with both men and women,” in order to fend off the usual hostile responses from both male and female students. However, it doesn’t wipe the smirk off many of student’s faces in the classroom; I still find myself feeling defensive and exasperated, particularly when combating the well-worn tropes against women in the military, gender quotas in electoral processes, or the idea that women aren’t fit to lead countries because of, well, emotions.

Studies of university students in the US (such as Zucker 2004) reveal that, while female students may espouse or support feminist ideals, they are cautious to refer to themselves as “feminists.” I’m not entirely surprised by this, as the term “feminism” has been treated as a dirty word or a “radical” identification by the American media.  I also have plenty of conservative students, but their discomfort with the word “feminist” seems to stem from a deep-seated belief that saying the word itself is the gateway drug to accepting liberal ideals with reckless abandon; I’m most concerned with the knee-jerk negative response to the word feminist among otherwise liberal (particularly women) students..

Recently a conversation with my brother got me thinking about the term in a different way. My brother, also a social scientist who’s pursuing his PhD, replied to a comment I made about gender inequalities in academia with “there’s no room in my academia for sexism.” That’s nice, I replied, but far from the reality of the situation–I jokingly quipped, “of course you think that; you’re a man.”

No, he replied, you’ve got it wrong. The word “feminist,” he argued, is itself sexist, and further divides women from men, which is counter to what you’re trying to achieve. Given that I know that my brother really does believe that women are equal to men, I decided to think carefully about his point.

Is the word “feminist”—with its root in “feminine” (or rather, the French féminisme)—a sexist term? I considered other “isms” that reflect exclusions: racism, classism, ageism, and ableism (and the list does go on…). Does feminism fit into these categories?

All of the “isms” mentioned here (e.g. racism) are based on subordination and domination. One who is a “racist” believes that his or her race is superior to another, and generally social systems and culture support that belief—as such, one does not need to be “racist” to live in a racist society. Indeed, one may live one’s entire life benefitting from such a society without ever having professed any racist belief at all. The same goes for class: while one might never personally think that the poor are somehow inferior, one may still benefit from a society where such class divisions are deemed normal or even necessary.

So, can feminism be exclusionary or represent a relationship of domination/subordination? Discussions about binaries aside, I don’t think so. For my brother, the crux of his argument rested on the intrinsic belief that the sexes are equal, and to make distinctions of inequality with words like “feminism” creates an inequality through the term’s (perceived) suggestion of exclusion (that is, an exclusion of men). But once one takes the domination/subordination tack, we can see that feminism, as a word, seeks to lift the “feminine” out of the subordinate position, and perhaps to unhinge the binary altogether. As bell hooks reminds us in “Feminism is for Everybody” (2000), men are harmed by patriarchy as much as women; feminism celebrates the liberation of men as well as women.

What we finally came to—and the point where I think most students get stuck—is that sticky question of “equality” and what that means. How do we decide when we are equal? My final argument to my brother: “well, we can all be equally shat upon.” Nobody wants that. What we do want is justice—and that, I think, is the meaning behind “feminism” and the identification as a “feminist”: if the meaning of “feminism” includes an understanding of justice, the subordinate position is denied, as is the dominant one (Sen 1999).

So, rather than approach the subject of gender with the negative “feminism doesn’t mean the exclusion of men,” I think I will begin my classes with this: “feminism is the demand for justice for everyone.” Perhaps that is an “ism” that will be less frightening.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Bad Female Academic: Putting Myself First?

In Lee's Posts on 2012/10/13 at 04:38
Lee Skallerup Bessette, writing from Morehead, Kentucky in the US.

I went to see a good female friend of mine this week. I was feeling pretty low about not hearing about a new job and the grind of the upcoming semester. We have both been traveling quite a bit (me more than her, but she just got back from a vacation) and have been busy. When all of the chaos surrounding my job application happened, there wasn’t really time to consult with my friends here where I live (nor did I want to announce it, in case I didn’t get an interview). We hadn’t really spoken about it yet.

When she asked me how I was doing, and I told her, I was surprised that she wasn’t very sympathetic. Didn’t I realize how lucky I was? Why didn’t I just accept my position and move on? Why couldn’t I find satisfaction in the health and success of my husband and children? Didn’t I realize that I was the author of my own misery? How dare I even consider breaking up my family for a job?

Sitting there, being attacked by a close friend, was not a good feeling. Doubt crept into my heart. Was I being selfish, greedy, insensitive? I couldn’t articulate why the job was so important to me, why I wanted to move up, why I couldn’t just be happy for my husband and children and learn to live with what I have. I agreed with her that we in part the author our own happiness, but I couldn’t remember why I wasn’t able to do that here. I felt ashamed, embarrassed, but also hurt. Hurt that my friend couldn’t recognize or understand why I was upset, or muster any sympathy for me.

Her lecture was well-meaning; basically, it was a slightly harsher version of, suck it up and make the best of it. I’ve heard that speech countless times here, in the comments of my blog posts. But I can’t help but wonder if my husband had applied for a better job if her reaction (or the reaction of the commentators) would be the same? Good for him, being ambitious, looking to be paid what he is worth, going to a place where his skills are utilized and appreciated. No matter that his wife and kids have are settled in jobs and schools, in the community, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! And, after all, a better job is better for the whole family. If he is unhappy in his current position, it’s important that he find something that suits him better, and we all need to support him in that goal.

Isn’t that what we say when men, husbands and fathers, who look to move up the ranks? That isn’t what I hear from a lot people when I tell them about my job dissatisfaction, my ambition, my plans for the future. My plans should be about making my husband and children happy, that their happiness must be the source my happiness. My job will never satisfy me, I will always be paid less, always underappreciated, so I’d better just accept it and make the best of it.

I just didn’t expect it from such a close female friend.

I’m still trying to make plans, to make the best of where we are right now. I need challenges, intellectual challenges, something that makes me feel like I’m moving forward instead of staying in the same place, like I’m building something meaningful. I want these things for myself, but I also know that having this will make me a better wife, a better mother. No one is going to give me these opportunities, and I know I am going to have to fight (unfortunately) to get them. But it’s a hard lesson to learn sometimes that the people we think we can rely on don’t actually think there is any reason to fight at all.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Leadership Lessons from Mudwoman

In Janine's Posts on 2012/09/25 at 04:23
Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

As we begin a new school year, I’m sure many of us are prompted to reflect on the challenges and opportunities ahead.  Perhaps you are taking on a new leadership role or confronting some other professional change which brings both anticipation and apprehension.  For those of you looking for answers or inspiration, might I suggest you turn to Joyce Carol Oates’ most recent novel Mudwoman?

Mudwoman tells the story of M.R. Neukirchen, a woman who has ascended the ranks of academia, overcoming tremendous personal obstacles, culminating in her being named the first female president of an unnamed Ivy League university, probably Princeton (long-renowned for its history of supporting and empowering women).  The novel has been reviewed by my University of Venus colleague Lee Skallerup over at her blog College Ready Writing, and in reading Lee’s piece, I was compelled to distill what I hope will be a few useful leadership lessons that resonated with me, especially as I reflect on my own first year as a department chair.
1.  Leadership requires you to look the part.  Invest in stylish shoes and a good haircut.

M.R., a philosopher, spent the earlier part of her academic career in braids.  Such frumpiness is not appropriate for a woman in her position of leadership, which seems to necessitate uncomfortable Italian shoes and expensive Manhattan haircuts.  Fortunately, M.R. has a peppy young woman assistant who knows about such things and is able to help her.  You might not have such a useful person in your life, but happily the Chronicle of Higher Education has devoted plenty of space to helping women leaders figure out how to dress (see here and here).

2.  To attain positions of leadership, you must be liked.

You might have a certain amount of willfulness, but learning to suppress it in favor of likability is a valuable strategy.  As Oates’ narrator (who seems to have a bit more insight into M.R. than the protagonist has herself, as well as a healthy sense of irony) says, “M.R. couldn’t bear for any employee–any member of her staff to feel uncomfortable in her presence…Her power over others was that they liked her.”  Be careful, though, because this strategy does have the potential to backfire; you might, for instance, go so far towards suppressing your willfulness in favor of likability that you hallucinate murdering one of your colleagues in your basement and dismembering his body.

3.  Always be someone that others can rely on both personally and professionally.

Make sure that people always know how to find you; it helps if you are never really anywhere other than your office or your sparsely furnished home, and even there if you spend most of your time in your bedroom or study hunched over a computer not eating or sleeping then you will always be available.  This availability extends to emotional availability as well:  “It was difficult for M.R. to betray weaknesses to her friends who looked to her for–uplift, encouragement, good cheer, optimism…”.   Always be strong, always be smiling, and if your stress starts to manifest itself in disturbing and itchy skin conditions, there’s always makeup.

4.  To reach the top of your profession, some personal sacrifices are necessary.

You might find yourself in the difficult position of telling your family that you don’t have time for them, or perhaps forgetting they exist altogether.  (This goes for your schizophrenic mother who tried to kill you by drowning you in mud when you were three years old as well as your perfectly pleasant adoptive parents who deep down really just wanted you to go to the local teacher’s college and stay in their podunk town forever but instead you had to act like you were better than everyone else and go to Cornell.)  You will definitely find yourself in the difficult position of turning down an assortment of unsuitable marriage proposals so you can remain in a dysfunctional long-distance affair for decades with an emotionally retarded astronomer who makes you feel like a wimp every time you think you might like to express some feelings.

5.  Women in leadership positions always have to work harder and better than anyone else, but it’s also good to just try to ignore the fact that you’re a woman altogether.

If you try to take controversial stances on issues facing our society, like war or the changing landscape of higher education, you might be considered naïve.  However, if you devote yourself to outdoing everyone in the kinds of invisible, unacknowledged, and usually unpaid service that allows universities to function and is often performed by women, you should be fine:  “M.R. exhibited a naïve willingness to be a good citizen…and so she was asked to chair committees, and to help organize conferences, and to advise students…Of course she was a workhorse—but an uncomplaining workhorse.”  Better to keep your head down, nose to the grindstone, etc.  Pretty soon you’ll forget you’re a woman at all, until you start having bizarre rape fantasies as punishment for your own nervous breakdown.  After all, “Not that femaleness was an issue, it was not.”

Finally, when all this better-faster-more completely devastates your emotional and mental well-being, you can always go home and be a caretaker to your aged father until you feel well enough to go back to your job at the start of the school year as though nothing had happened—after, of course, you narrowly escape an assault as you’re wandering around alone in an isolated state park.  Happy new semester.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Watching “Girls”: On HBO and On Campus

In Janni's Posts on 2012/09/17 at 20:58

Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

As a feminist educator, my academic and political training influences my popular culture consumption and my assessment of what I have consumed. “Girls,” a dramedy written and directed by Lena Dunham, who also stars in the HBO cable television series, is no different than any other popular culture artifact in that I do not have the ability to turn off my feminist educator lens. I read all the controversy regarding how the show was monochromatic with an all-white cast of lead actors, who have famous parents—ergo they all have race, class, and education privilege. The hating began early on for the series.

I watched the first season for multiple reasons, but primarily got sucked in when I read in different places that “Girls” was today’s young women’s “Sex and the City” (SATC). I was first aghast—nope, that is not correct–SATC pushed boundaries regarding women’s sexuality. Women wanted sex. Sure, the show wasn’t exactly diverse in terms of race, class, and sexuality, but it made up for some of this with its entertainment value. Wait, a minute…perhaps I should watch “Girls” I thought. I watched the series and at times laughed, cringed, and thought lots about my women students.

The more I thought about it–this comparison between “Girls” and SATC is not off base. The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) descriptor blurb about “Girls” states, “A comedy about the experiences of a group of girls in their early 20s.” The IMDB descriptor for SATC reads slightly different, “Four beautiful female New Yorkers gossip about their sex-lives (or lack thereof) and find new ways to deal with being a woman in the 90s.” Sure, the women in SATC are older, more established within their careers, but for all intents and purposes—there are similarities between the two shows. We see how girls, er women, are educated and told that they can have it all. You could be a Carrie or Hannah and be convinced that your writing reflects your generation. Your relationships are common—that is they are healthy, unhealthy, abusive or you might not have a relationship. Both series offer us a look into the lives of educated women, who have real moments that are cringe worthy.

Our four heroines: Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa are trying to find themselves—just as Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda were trying to do so. These eight women were all told that they could have it all and that they could be anything that they wanted; however, the series demonstrated that this is not easy. It is hard to interview for a job, to ask to get paid at your unpaid internship, to have a good, healthy sex life, and to find support from your family and fictive kin. Yes, these women seem clueless and narcissistic at times, but this is realistic. Your twenties is about finding yourself: career, love, life, and more.

Watching “Girls,” I often thought of my students in their twenties and what they have to look forward to after graduation. I am usually thinking of the average students who have not prepared well and have thin resumes. Is this their future? I do not see my students as misfits with low self-esteem, but I only see one aspect of them in their lives. Perhaps my students also feel like they are flailing, failing, and working hard and have few prospects. I know that many of them are scared about their futures, and this includes male students. I have to wonder that there are some grains of truth in “Girls” and that your average, white, middle-class girl nods her head as she watches an episode.

The tag line for the series is: “They are living the dream one mistake at a time,” but I wonder what I can do as an instructor, and as a mentor to help my women students be better prepared, and perhaps make less mistakes.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Emotional Labor

In Janni's Posts on 2012/05/18 at 00:57

Janni Aragon, writing from Victoria, British Columbia in Canada

I sat on a pedagogy round-table at the International Studies Association in March, and one of the speakers referred to the high cost of emotional labor for the Women’s Studies instructor. Many heads nodded around the room. I do think that emotional labor does not discriminate and that many women faculty, faculty of color and other marginalized groups put in more time with emotional labor. Anecdotally, I perform as much or more emotional labor in Political Science compared to my years in Women’s Studies, but this might be influenced by the fact that I am an Undergraduate Advisor. Now, I know that some readers will agree and a small number might comment, “Show me the data.” Well, there is a genre of higher education literature dedicated to women in academe and other groups noting this phenomena. I am certainly not the first or last to speak to emotional labor.

Last year my teaching observation date was slated for a lecture on violence against women. I had already given the class a trigger warning via email and verbally noted that the array of readings might trigger emotions from students. My colleagues sat at the back of the class, while I lead lecture and facilitated discussion. I ended the class about five minutes early and thanked everyone. The reason for ending the class early was that a student was in the back of the class quietly crying. We chatted and walked back to my office. I will say that I had the appropriate office numbers nearby so that I could give her the referral. This was not the first time in my teaching career that I’ve dealt with this issue and had to help a student in need.

I’ve accompanied students to the police department to report a sexual assault and listened to students explain that the readings or discussion in class triggered old memories for her or him. This is part of the emotional labor of the job. Granted for some students, it’s not issues of violence, but issues related to coming out, finances, a bad break up, eating disorders, and more. My degrees are not in mental health, so I know that it’s best if I listen and then make a referral. Here is the thing – I had never attended a professional development seminar about students and mental health until I was more than 10 years into my career! I am not qualified to help the students with the array of issues that they might have, but I can listen and then find the right person or office that can help them.

Now, thanks to my role as the Chair of the Academic Women’s Caucus, I sit on more committees than I care to count and I have had ample opportunity to go to workshops related to mental health, inclusive work environments, dealing with difficult situations, and other important issues. I do feel better prepared for these moments and here I am, mere months from celebrating my fifteenth year teaching. What I long for though, is more honest conversations about emotional labor in our work. I also want more training on how to deal with the weight of emotional labor, as it is a heavy burden to carry some days.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Sex, Stars, and Stripes

In Elizabeth's Posts on 2012/04/24 at 02:25

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe, writing from Evanston, Illinois in the US.

The Big Bang Theory and the Republican Primary have more in common than one might think. The comedy follows a Caltech particle physicist’s pathetic attempts to deal with the irrational world around him. The fictional physicist, Sheldon Cooper, is pure. He wishes only to understand the physical order of the universe without the messy passions that pollute other people’s lives. In Sheldon’s atheistic ideology, disorder replaces sin. Thus, disorderly passions prove repugnant rejections of the good life.

While I adore the program, I struggle with its depiction of academic women.  The men are laughable stereotypes too, but the women bother me more.  Rick Santorum’s opposition to contraception and a group of Republican governors’ affection for trans-vaginal ultrasounds has a lot to do with it.

Sheldon, the academic superstar, surpasses pure.  Pure implies that he has never sullied himself with sin, which is true.  However, Sheldon never suffered temptation in the first place.  His friends’ interest in “coitus” confounds him. Sheldon, like Santorum, wears a uniform.  Rather than sweater vests, Sheldon goes in for graphic tees.  Like Santorum, Sheldon rose from working class roots and loathes the educational institutions that make his rise possible.  Like Santorum, he fails to grasp why people reject him.  Santorum lost his Senate seat.  Naturally, he should dream bigger and run for president.  Sheldon got fired from his postdoc.  Surely, he will win over the Nobel Prize committee.

Not so the woman with whom he would like to create a subsequent generation if immaculate conception were possible.  Poor Amy Farrah Fowler, brilliant neuroscientist, lusts after Sheldon and the buxom blond across the hall.  Her boyfriend is asexual; she suffers acutely as an unsatisfied bisexual.  The joke is at her expense.  She wants to have sex with everyone, but no one finds her physically attractive.  They all respect her brain, but give her half the chance — say with government-subsidized contraception — and she might just live out every insane fantasy Rush Limbaugh harbors about the whorish inner desires of educated women.

Sheldon’s roommate, Leonard Hofstadter, suffers the enduring damage of his “Tiger Mother.” For this high-flying harridan, a postdoc at Caltech seems humdrum.  This female Ph.D. resents the children she bore.  Her insult-ridden mothering leaves him with low expectations when looking for affection among female physicists.  One wishes to use him for “coitus” on a semiannual basis.  The series begins when the uneducated but pneumatic Nebraskan, Penny, moves in across the hall.  She has a sexual past Sheldon and Santorum scorn, but the aspiring actress offers unconditional friendship.  Dr. Hofstadter falls head over high-energy in love.

Why does this make me think of trans-vaginal ultrasounds?  Because their premise assumes that if only the cute but dim, knocked-up girl understood what grew inside her, she would never want an abortion.  She would either get married or give her offspring to another woman with a wedding band safely on her hand.

This, I suppose, is what Calista Gingrich would have done had she not had access to contraception during her extramarital fling with Newt.  Oh wait.  Maybe she had the other problem.  She was a smart woman with access to contraception, which meant her unbridled libido lead men astray.

When I contemplate television’s or the Republican party’s fictional women, my own sense of reality becomes blurred.  I know that before the Victorian era portrayed women as revolted by “coitus” à la Dr. Cooper, centuries of Catholic clerics envisioned every woman as a dangerous Eve poised to drag her man and the world away from Eden.  Perhaps Santorum absorbed a bit too much medieval dogma when he moved toJustice Scalia’s parish.  His highly-educated wife, who bore him eight children, doesn’t seem that dangerous to me.  Then again, neither does Amy Farrah Fowler.  At least we can agree that Sheldon Cooper would make a marvelous monk.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed. 

Teachable Moments of Feminism

In Guest Blogger on 2012/01/07 at 01:32

Guest blogger, Melissa Sande, writing from Binghamton, New York, in the US. 

Teachable moments are sometimes incredibly ironic. Last week, when leading a discussion on feminist criticism for a literary theory class, I began by asking my students what questions they might pose when taking a feminist approach to a fictional text. I am often met with an awkward silence at the beginning of a lesson, and so, as usual, I waited next to the chalkboard for someone to respond rather than providing an answer for them. One of my male students finally said angrily, “I feel like you’re mocking us when you stand there waiting for an answer. You look sardonic.”

I was, of course, quite taken aback. I am certainly not mocking my students by waiting for them to answer. I like to think that I am making them articulate ideas about what they are learning in this class. In hindsight, I know now that this would have made an intriguing, albeit ironic, teaching moment: I simply ask what a feminist approach entails and a male student responds with frustration and calls me sardonic without further prompting. What does that reveal about the need to spend more time discussing the realization of these theories in practice, beyond their usefulness in approaching literature?

I told the student plainly, in front of the rest of the class, that the comment was irrelevant and somewhat rude, and that we needn’t consider it further, though now, I wish we had. I recalled, too, that when I taught the same class in a previous semester, reactions to feminism had been disagreeable then. The consensus that semester had been that feminism was something obvious that need not be taught alongside other types of theory, something most of the class rolled their eyes at and requested to ignore in the weekly discussion sections.

I relayed the story to a male colleague the next day, who has taught the theory class as well. He seemed less surprised by my student’s comments than I was, and when I questioned whether he is often met with resistance to a conversation about feminism also, he said, “Well, no,” and then asserted that he only hears of such troubles from female instructors because he suspected students have “less respect for women in that position of authority than they do men.”

This leads us to question whether we really have come “so far” with feminism. I often hear the argument that women in this country are now equal with men, and always treated so. Indeed, student reaction to reading Showalter or Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” is often met with the reaction, “this is outdated.” I have to disagree. Even more than the incident with my student, my colleague’s contention that female instructors get less respect from students generally is testament to this. Wasn’t it just this year that Michael Sanguinetti suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to remain safe?

I invoke this year’s SlutWalk alongside my teaching experience because not only do both events demonstrate that the problem of a strong aversion to feminism persists, but with each, a great deal of resistance to change exists as well. On my campus, SlutWalk was publicized, a small version was also organized, and I heard a great deal of male students mocking it and many of the fliers for it were torn down, drawn on, etc. As we try to draw attention to these issues, they are often oppressed. So I question how we can capture positive attention to an event like this and how we might, in higher education, get students to recognize that Rubin’s work is still pertinent, as are other founding works of feminist thought.

Attempting to explain to my student that his balking at my teaching style on a day when we were supposed to be learning feminism, and that he likely wouldn’t address a male professor in such an impolite way, would have been ironic, and probably would have further alienated him from the lesson as well. Is there actually a way to go about addressing it, and actually getting him to realize, without sounding like a martyr, or without having him dismiss me as a martyr and then, of course, the lesson as well? I think one of the biggest matters at hand for young women teaching at the college level now is precisely this one – and how, exactly, do we get the message through to our students and know that they’ve heard us?


Melissa Sande is a doctoral student in the department of English, General Literature and Rhetoric at Binghamton University, where she recently began work on her dissertation, titled: Decentering  Genealogies: Alterity, the Nation and Women’s Writing of the 1960s. She specializes in Caribbean literature and postcolonial theory and can be contacted at
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

When He Trumps She

In Liminal Thinking on 2011/11/17 at 09:49

Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.

I spent the day grading my midterms, never a fun task. Usually I get into a vague kind of automaton state; as I read for key phrases, look for definitions and the critical use of concepts, and references to key authors and guest speakers. Check, check, check, grade. But this time, I noticed a pattern that I’m sure I’ve seen before but just ignored. It is the gendered attribution that says so much about how students view “authority” (in the author sense) in academia.

My class covers a broad range of literature regarding globalization. We look at global inequalities, economic theories, human rights issues, women’s rights, international trafficking, and many other topics of global concern. The readings I assign are meant to give contending viewpoints, give more detail to my lectures and to teach students how to read academic writing. Importantly, I have intentionally assigned readings that are written by both male and female scholars — almost a 50/50 split.

And yet, in essay after essay, students refer to authors whom they have cited as “he.” With one exception: those authors that wrote specifically about women’s issues or discussed gender are always referred to as “she,” even when the author was male.

On the one hand, this is just sheer sloppiness, and I recognize that. But on the other, I think it speaks to how students perceive the authority of female writers in academia and in the classroom more generally. Are women only capable of writing from the perspective of gender, and male authors cover everything else?  Do students face a mental disconnect when they confront a woman writer or teacher who writes and teaches on “hard” issues, like traditional security and foreign policy?

In my own life as an academic, I have confronted these subtle prejudices time and again, and try to point them out to students as they occur. As a graduate student and a professor, I’ve taught both American Foreign Policy and Introduction to International Relations. American Foreign Policy tends to skew male in terms of class make-up. ROTC guys, particularly, love taking that class. What I noticed over the years was that the male students constantly challenged my lectures — usually after class, and usually when they were standing. I am five feet tall, on a good day, so it doesn’t take much to tower over me — and that was intentional.

The challenges were always of a technical sort, or on a point of historical record. But always, I noticed, with the presumed notion that I couldn’t possibly know what I was talking about (how in the world could I know anything the long and storied history of the V-22 Osprey, for example?). Even when I had revealed that I had grown up on military bases, gone to military schools, studied the military, lived the military, one student wrote in his evaluation “she claims to be from a military family, but she clearly doesn’t understand the military.” (My dad, a Marine vet of 24 years, got a chuckle out of that one.)

But this is not just an issue among male students — it is a deeply embedded bias. In the case of the essay writing, it wasn’t just the male students who automatically referred to authors by the “he” pronoun — both men and women made this slip into the “gender-neutral he.” They had clearly memorized last names and ideas, but not once questioned this slippage in their heads.

Is it important that students (or anyone, for that matter) know the sex of a writer? Perhaps not. But I think this is indicative of something larger and deserves a bit of attention.  Male scholars have, for too long, have been allowed to stand over their female peers, and I’m tired of watching it happen. Maybe in the next essay I’ll require they know first names as well.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.


Professing While Female

In Uncategorized on 2010/11/24 at 00:16

Afshan Jafar, writing from Connecticut in the USA

Where does professors’ authority in the classroom come from?

On one level the answer is simple: it comes from our mastery of our subject matter – it comes from our knowledge and training. In that sense, anybody with a Ph.D. who walks into a classroom should have authority. But we know that’s not the case. There are many professors who have to work very hard to establish themselves as authority figures. Some reasons for this have to do with personalities, level of confidence, and other personal attributes. But that doesn’t explain why, for certain groups of professors, their authority is not a “given” and it is not assumed. To believe that it is ignores the connection between individuals and their experience with (or lack of) privilege as members of particular groups. So, yes, we walk into the classroom as individuals who have mastery over our field, but a growing number of us also walk into the classroom as members of under-privileged and/or under-represented groups.

Consider the following examples: When I was in graduate school I once watched students by-pass a 50-something female professor who stood at the front of the classroom and go right to the 26-year-old male graduate TA; they all thought he was the professor. Another time, I was a TA for a class where on the first day of the semester, a student asked the young-looking female professor : “Do you even have a Ph.D.?” More recently, a colleague of mine co-taught a course with a male professor; students routinely referred to her as “Miss” but referred to him as “Professor”. Juxtapose these with another example from when I was a graduate student: I was a TA for a male professor who lost student assignments, lost his train of thought, lost his lecture notes, and lost his matching socks, but never lost his authority in the classroom! By that I mean that students never openly challenged him or his expertise or training, and never once did they think that he was not the one “in charge” (if they did they certainly never let on).

We could explain the above discrepancies by asking about each individual professor’s characteristics. But such a focus would only reveal part of the story. A focus on personal attributes alone would ignore one of the basic insights of social constructionism: Believing is seeing. That is, what we choose to see (how we understand reality) is a reflection of what we already believe to be true. Take the example of the male professor who fumbles and forgets things in class. Students are likely to see him as an example of the stereotypical “absent-minded professor”. Yet, the same behavior in a female professor and/ or faculty of color would likely be seen as evidence of them being unprofessional, or not being qualified for the job. A common perception regarding challenges to professor’s authority in the classroom seems to be that it reflects their own failures as a person, or that individuals somehow “bring this upon themselves” by not playing the role of the professor well enough. This, to me, is a very narrow way of approaching the issue of challenges in the classroom. It is tantamount to arguing that certain groups of people are much more likely to be “randomly selected” at the airport for additional-screening because of their own failure to somehow comport themselves as the ideal traveler. Or that an African American man’s higher likelihood of being pulled over while driving reflects his own failures as a driver. Sure, there are some travelers who act suspiciously, and some people who drive recklessly, but this approach fails to acknowledge that as a pattern certain groups of people are more likely to be screened at the airport, or pulled-over while driving.

We all try and bring our best practices, our most “professorial” personae to our classrooms, but we also bring a whole lot that we can’t leave behind. When you belong to a group of individuals who are under-represented in the academy (or within particular fields), and who have certain expectations and stereotypes attached to them, you quickly come to realize that even in the college classroom you may get pulled aside by students for “additional screening”.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Transnational Academic Feminism: The Case of Handwriting

In Guest Blogger on 2010/09/02 at 09:23

Guest blogger, Karin Sarsenov, writing from Lund, Sweden.

Summer is the blessed time for international conferencing, and for yours truly, this summer has been especially fruitful in this respect. At conferences, you are exposed to the difference between national and professional cultures ruling our interaction.

Compare, for instance, the Berlin Congress of the International Council for Central and East European Studies in 2005 with the same Congress held in Stockholm this year. In Berlin the organization was impeccable; the ceremonies were performed by people in smart clothes, speaking in smooth, well articulated language, preferably English and German. However, there was a striking absence of East European cultural performance, taking into account the large diaspora communities of Berlin. In Stockholm, on the other hand, Disa Håstad, former correspondent to Moscow, opened the congress in Russian, spurting erroneous case endings, without losing in intelligibility or the attention of the audience. The suits were not as well-ironed as in Berlin, but the performance of the mock choir “Red Army Boys” in helmets and caps with ear-flaps diverted our attention from this fact. Their pronunciation was as lacking as Mrs. Håstad’s, efficiently illustrating the problems facing students of area studies in general, and those faced with the Russian dark “L” in particular (imagine “Volga Volga” pronounced with an “L” as in “lip”).

The field of East European Studies is deeply rooted in the Cold War conflict, and has experienced an identity crisis in connection with its ending. The Stockholm congress took our fascination of foreign cultures as the point of departure, an admirable choice which demands courage, as any fascination is fraught with unscholarly excess and overestimation.

Another example of the difference between national scholarly cultures surfaced during a round table devoted to gender studies. A question from the audience concerned academic imperialism – the tendency of Western scholars to avoid reading or referring to “native” research, published in Russian, for instance, and the acceptance of this habit by peer reviewers and editors. In her response, one established Western historian agreed that Russian scholars often enjoy superior working conditions, having easy access to archives and a more profound linguistic training. She admitted specifically to having troubles reading Russian handwriting from the beginning of the twentieth century. This statement baffled the Russian participants – in their view, her statement equalled a confession of complete professional inadequacy. A historian should not only be able to read her grandmother’s handwriting, but she must also master documents in sixteenth century Gothic script, full of provincial peculiarities and influences from obscure dialects. As I am familiar with this particular Western scholar’s work, I knew that she masters Russian handwriting very well – why on earth did she then expose herself to suspicion?

I think the answer is to be found in the historical development of academic feminism. One of its aspects is its questioning of the competitive, aggressive interaction of a traditionally male dominated academic culture. At many feminist conferences and seminars, the atmosphere encourages you to praise the work of others and to question your own position; there is a striving towards understanding rather than victory in verbal combat. This atmosphere was what attracted me to academic feminism in the first place, and I think that this is the atmosphere which prompted the scholar’s statement regarding handwriting. In Russian academic feminism, on the other hand, no such questioning of masculine academic culture has occurred – here, feminism derives its energies from other sources. On the contrary, Russian feminists rely heavily on their verbal polemic efficiency to carve out space for their ideas. Here, any acknowledgement of lacking competence amounts to suicide.

What morale could we then extract from this story? I think feminist scholars must be frank about the competitiveness of the academia, and train their students in surviving in harsh conditions. Very few could allow themselves the luxury of self questioning, and students must be made aware of that. Nevertheless, I will continue to nurture the dream of friendly Platonic dialogue, aimed at widening our common horizons, without always having to think about greedily accumulating academic field-specific capital.

Karin Sarsenov is a research fellow in Russian literature at Lund University. She worked as an interpreter in Moscow while the Soviet Union was crumbling in 1990, then went there again in 1994 as a marital migrant, raising her first child. She defended her Ph.D. in 2001 and has worked at Lund University ever since, teaching, performing academic leadership, writing articles about Russia, literature and power relations. In 2003, she did her post doc at University of Pittsburgh.

This post was also published on Inside Higher Ed.