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"...another reason I'm intrigued with the hanged of Salem, especially the women, is that a number of them aroused suspicion in the first place because they were financially independent, or sharp-tongued, or kept to themselves. In other words, they were killed off for the same sort of life I live right now but with longer skirts and fewer cable channels." Sarah Vowell, The partly cloudy patriot.


When will I feel like an adult?

I was walking to class yesterday and I saw a female professor who looked to be my age, or maybe a little older. She looked like an adult. There was no doubt that she inhabited the adult role, had authority, and that she was in charge. How do you become that?

In the Chronicle of Higher ed this week there was an article or first person thing about the need to teach remedial social skills to our undergrads. The author lamented that his students don't say hello to him when they come in, they text and email during class, yawn without covering their mouths, make disrespectful comments, etc. He noted it is even worse for young teachers and for high school teachers (and I think there was some implication that it is even harder for females).

I think part of my issue is that I don't feel adult enough and like enough of an authority to challenge these behaviors when they arise. Part of this is me as a person, part of it is my status as a non-PhD, and part of it is my adjunct status. I don't feel like I have the right or ability to tackle problem behaviors, and I resent being put into the position of having to. I don't want to have to confront the student falling asleep in class, I don't want to confront students coming late or leaving early, I don't want to have to call attention to cell phone usage, etc. And to some extent I do - but I'm a bit indirect and backhanded about it. If a student who came in late asks me a question, I lament, "It's too bad you [came in late, left early, skipped class] because we discussed that yesterday." Or I write on their paper, "I'm getting concerned about your grade because you seem to not be coming to class or when you do, you come late or leave early - and participation is a significant part of your grade."

Yesterday in class, I taught about the development of prejudice. I took a social psychological approach to this because there is a lot of good research in the area, and because I believe that taking that approach is the best way to really tackle prejudice. This is because it examines how it is that we ALL develop prejudicial beliefs, how we all create stereotypes, and how we are all affected by these beliefs. It normalizes the cognitive processes involved in the development of prejudice (please note, I am not saying "racism" or "sexism" simply prejudice and stereotypes), and makes distinct the cognitions and what you do with them. It proposes that under certain conditions (we are tired, stressed, short on time) we use heuristics (cognitive shortcuts) to process information, and that is when we are most likely to rely on stereotypes to process stimuli. An example I gave was if one is alone in a dark alley and someone is coming toward you, are you likely to really think about that person, and consider that they might not actually be out to hurt you and that if you have some sort of stereotype about them, that it might be based on erroneous or prejudicial beliefs? No, you are likely to use a shortcut and determine quickly whether or not that person represents some image that seems dangerous to you.

I note that these cognitive processes are not good or bad - it is what we do with them that is good or bad. We all have these processes, but when we refuse to consider alternate hypotheses or remain rigid with these thought processes and refuse to allow discomfirming evidence to enter into our thoughts, then that is a problem.

The reason I take this approach is that I believe, as I have argued previously, that in order to reduce racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., we (white people, americans, people with any kind of power or privilege) need to accept that we all have prejudicial beliefs, and that those are changeable. By seeing prejudice as a continuum rather than as simply BAD and WRONG allows us to actually change our beliefs and our culture. If we can understand something and imagine it, we can actually change and prevent it. I believe that if I work to understand the development of prejudice and understand my own prejuicial beliefs and how they came about, I have more power to actually change my own belief structures and to affect larger change.

As long as I resist this and see only BAD people as having prejudices, then I am unlikely to ever be able to look at my own beliefs and will ultimately be unable to change them.

So, I was teaching this yesterday, and my student who: a) called Oprah a cow; and b) has said sexist things about me had a huge angry outburst in which he yelled that what I was teaching was ridiculous, that this was not why he came to college and that he ought not have to spend tuition money to learn this stuff. Another student joined in and told me that I was reifying sterotypes and prejudices by teaching this.

At my core, I know I am not - but seriously, all I wanted to do was to walk right out of the class and quit.

I should have confronted the manner in which they voiced their discontent - because it is fine to disagree, but it is not okay to talk to me that way. Instead, I reasserted my points (we all have prejudices - even preferring strawberry to vanilla is a prejudice - what is problematic is what we do with them and how inflexible they are, not the fact that they exist) and then moved on. But I was so shaken.

And frankly, the student above is clearly sexist - and he is starting to really frustrate at least one woman student because of these assertions of his - and so I think he in particular really needs to look at his belief system.

It's interesting - every time I teach, I get a lot of praise from students for how I teach issues of racism and sexism, and the fact that I work really hard to incorporate issues of race and gender into my curriculum - I have been told that I am one of few profs (oops, instructors) who actually does this. Yet, things like this dampen my desire to continue to do so. It seems far safer and easier to just avoid the whole issue. Maybe if I were more of an adult, I wouldn't fear these kinds of responses and could deal with them more effectively.


At 4:08 PM, Blogger k8 said...

Sounds like they don't understand the difference between prejudice and discrimination. I think the way you explained prejudice makes sense - some of the students just didn't get it. I suspect it is in part because so many people use those terms interchangeably, when perhaps they shouldn't. I teach writing and sometimes literature, so I normally attack the issue semanitically.

I read the Chronicle article, too. I totally get what you're saying. At the university I taught at before attending my phd institution (where I am now), I would get some of this from the younger students. I really grew to love teaching evening classes because they contained more adults/nontrad students and they didn't pull this crap. I don't get it as much now, but I occassionally run into students who don't think they need to respect TAs and will actually call us (collectively) stupid. I look younger than I am, so they often think I am close to their age. Anyway, from prior experiences, I've learned to inhabit the drill sargent role when necessary. I hate it, I hate being that way, but occassionally a get a group that needs a more assertive approach to authority. When it's cooler out, I where 'power' boots to help me feel the role. I've definitely learned to dress for power. Of course, as a teenager I thought that Machiavelli's The Prince was the perfect guide to high school, so that probably says something about me.

Sorry that got so long and rambly! BTW, I'll take both ice cream flavors:-)

At 7:24 PM, Anonymous New Kid on the Hallway said...

I wonder when I'm going to look like/feel like an adult, too! But then my mother, in her 70s, has said she still doesn't know what she's going to do when she grows up. It's weird, b/c this whole possibly leaving academia thing makes me feel both old and young - young because yet again I don't have a solid career plan, and old, because hell, I'm 37, don't you think I should be settled in something by now???

Ahem, rant about me over. Sorry!

I will say that it has always sounded to me like you have very disrespectful students. Oy. I don't think it's un-adult not to want to cope with those kinds of responses.

At 7:32 PM, Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

He sucks -- can we vote him off the island yet? :).

Some people diplay their own imaturity by keying in on the 'soft spots' of others. This guy seems to have your number and is probably poking at every insecure spot you have just because he can. That makes him a jerk, on top of whatever racist and sexist attitudes he has.

It used to help me to remeber that the students are there because they don't have degrees that you have. You have the perspective on the class they need in order to really understand it.

It also might help to realize that you are probably teaching 95% of them quite well, and that the loud-mouth is just that... a loudmouth bore whose antics make the rest of the class irritated.

If/when you are feeling brave, ask the class for feedback. One way is open-ended questions... what is going well, what isn't going well? What do you understand, what would you change etc? Perhaps mixing in a question aimed at classmate behavior would be telling as well. The key to this exercise is to aggregate the responses and report back to the class. Perhaps also you'll have amo with the jerk when his classmates cite him as an irritation, not someone who is clever.

If you'd like more info, find some stuff by Stephen Brookfield. He's a prof at the U of St. Thomas in St. Paul and has developed the open question response technique as a classroom assessment tool. I've seen him speak a couple of times and what he says seems to make some sense.

At 9:09 PM, Blogger AAYOR said...

It sounds to me like you and I teach this material the same way, and like you (I'm sure), I've gotten really positive feedback from student who for once understand how personal biases develop (e.g. our brains are lazy and prefer shortcuts over complex processing whenever possible), and how this translates into broader social issues. It sucks that you have to deal with haters....

I'm sorry that you have kind of a crap class this semester... and that really is what it sounds like to me. BUT, in every crap class there are students who really do get it, and really do need you in spite of the haters. Keep your chin up!

At 4:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In terms of poor behaviour, I can assure you that at least 90% of the class is hoping that you will crack the whip on these dumb asses. I'm an undergrad and I can't stand people who do the things you're complaining about. However, I usually leave it to the instructor to adjudicate because, quite frankly, I don't want the grief that comes along with arguing with them. Challenging an angry, yet "misguided" student is just not worth it for me (I get soooo upset & will think about the encounter for weeks), so I tend to rely on the prof to put that student in their place. From what you've said, you're not completely comfortable doing that yet. If it helps, perhaps you could see yourself as protecting the rights of us other students who are sick & tired of students who refuse to open their minds, or seek only to challenge authority figures. I assure you that just becuase no one speaks up, that doesn't mean that no one is thinking it, and wishing they were brave enough to speak up. Because, honestly, somedays I just want to scream.... And I pay to go to these classes :)
I hope that you manage to find a happy place within teaching, or at least a student who recognizes your awesomeness because everything else that I've read demonstrates that you'd make an excellent teacher (if that's the path you choose to follow)!! PS. Karma will eventually come around to kick these people in the asses. Hang in there!


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