I had an incident in class this week which bothered me, but ultimately was kind of a non-event.
We were talking about militarism and sports, and some of my students were NOT happy. They did not like the implication that their precious sports could in any way be tainted. To be clear, I never made that claim. I made the observation that sports celebrated the military, then I asked whether that was propaganda, persuasion, or good marketing and let the class take the wheel.
One student claimed we should celebrate the military at sporting events because without the military there wouldn’t be sports. I needed him to clarify that, and he said “The military keeps us free and we have sports because we are free.” Putting aside the silliness of that statement, I asked, “then why don’t we celebrate the military at school? Couldn’t you make the same argument?” And I could see the anger welling up in some of my student’s eyes.
“We say the Pledge of Allegiance every day!” one student came back. “Right, but that’s why we started by differentiating between patriotism, nationalism, and militarism. The Pledge doesn’t celebrate the military. It’s just a promise to remain faithful to the Union,” I said.
All of this lead to a student audibly mumbling throughout class that I was full of crap, and lashing out at me for teaching from slides for part of class because I needed to read very specific points of data from them.
Now, this bothered me a lot. I thought about it all day. And the fact that I was going to see some of those same students in a different class the next day had me slightly anxious.
But the responses to that story were really telling.
You see, it’s a bothersome story, but it’s certainly not a unique one. I teach about white nationalism, misogyny, Black Lives Matter, threats to democracy from within, and all manner of controversial material. It is not all that uncommon for me to upset a student. It is not uncommon for me to have a visibly, or even audibly upset student in the class who very clearly has a problem with me or the material. I’ve had students be incredulous, dismissive, and even disruptive before. That’s fine. I know how to handle that. It comes with the territory.
But for some people, it doesn’t.
I told one friend and she said she would have been totally freaked out. I guess it was an awkward situation, but freaking out seems unnecessary. But it occurred to me if you aren’t used to this kind of behavior it probably does seem scary. That’s why I was surprised, because I know she tackles difficult topics in class.
But there are different kinds of difficult topics. There are interpersonal or organizational difficult topics, and then there are public and political ones. With public and political difficult topics people come with the assumption that aggression and spite are part of the game, because that’s what we see in the public. Think about what is modeled for us in politics. So when we address political topics in class, that’s the example students are bringing in to work with. Of course they lash out. Of course they are mean. Of course they behave in uncivil and inappropriate ways. They’ve been taught that’s what you do when discussing anything even remotely political.
So not only do people in my subdiscipline address more controversial topics than many of our colleagues, we court incivility every time we do.
The next person I told about this exchange had an even more surprising response.
Just in casual conversation I mentioned I had a bad exchange with some students in class to the head of my department, and he asked for the details. I spelled it all out for him, and he was shocked. He said something like that might fall under the “Guidelines for Dealing with Disruptive Students” and it’s not a bad thing to have a phone handy so when students get too out of line I could call the campus police. I laughed and said it wasn’t that bad but if things continued I’d think about it.
But as I thought about this exchange, I was just bewildered by that response. The students didn’t yell, didn’t throw things, and weren’t a threat. They were just uncivil and rude. That hardly merits a call to the campus cops.
What, I wondered, could make him think that was appropriate? How could he think disrespect merited the police?
And then it occurred to me: he’s a white man.
My guess is my story sounded awful because it was so foreign. Students don’t respond to him that way. If they’re mad at him, they generally keep it to themselves, or express it in private, not in front of the whole class. Students probably don’t lash out at him in public. They have a basic respect for him that, quite frankly, they lack for me.
Academic contrapower harassment (ACPH) occurs when someone with seemingly less power in an educational setting (e.g., a student) harasses someone more powerful (e.g., a professor). A representative sample of 289 professors from U.S. institutions of higher education described their worst incident with ACPH. Open-ended responses were coded using a keyword text analysis. Compared to the experiences of men faculty, women faculty reported that students were more likely to challenge their authority, argue or refuse to follow course policies, and exhibit disrespectful or disruptive behaviors. Although sexual harassment was uncommon, men faculty were more likely than women faculty to recount such incidents. Women faculty reported significantly more negative outcomes as a result of ACPH (e.g., anxiety, stress-related illness, difficulty concentrating, wanting to quit) than men faculty, and negative outcomes were most likely to result from ACPH involving intimidation, threats, or bullying from students.
University administrators also need to be made aware of gender differences in faculty experiences with ACPH. As predicted, we found significant gender differences in the amount and types of ACPH and concomitant negative consequences reported by faculty. Women faculty reported 55% more negative consequences as a result of their most serious experience of ACPH than men faculty; in fact, gender was the only significant predictor of more negative outcomes in a regression model including other faculty markers of sociocultural power (i.e., race, age, rank, tenure status, and having a doctorate). Women faculty also reported more extensive accounts of ACPH and somewhat more intimidation, threats and bullying from students than men faculty, and incidents containing ITBA were associated with more negative consequences. This is consistent with previous research; both Lampman et al. (2009) and Lampman (2012) reported that ACPH involving intimidation, threats, and bullying was rated as more distressing to both men and women faculty than other types of ACPH. Women faculty in the present study were also significantly more likely than men faculty to indicate that their students challenged their authority, integrity, and qualifications, contested their grading, or demanded acceptance of late work or makeup exams. Similarly, women faculty were significantly more likely to state that their worst incident of ACPH involved uncivil, rude, or disrespectful behaviors than men faculty (such as texting or web-surfing in class) and more disruptive behaviors like carrying on conversations or interrupting a professor during a lecture.
Now, am I saying that this incident happened BECAUSE I am a woman? No, absolutely not. But I am saying it is MORE LIKELY to happen to me because I am a woman.
This is just anecdotal, but many of the men in my life are often shocked by the stories of disrespect that I have come to think of as par for the course. I’m told “You shouldn’t put up with that!” or “I would never take that!” and all I can think is, “it’s cute that you think I have a choice in this.”
It’s hard to get people to understand the very different world that women inhabit from men.
But I’ve been told to my face that I’m not worth listening to because of my anatomy. That he’ll wait for a man to tell him what’s going on because no woman could possibly be a voice of authority.
I’ve been told I’d do better in class if I put on a skirt and some make-up and kept my mouth shut because men like quiet, attractive girls and my tendency to voice my opinion, regardless of its validity, was only hurting my cause because no man was going to approve of a woman who didn’t know how to present herself and didn’t know when to keep her thoughts to herself.
I grew up hearing constant comments from family about women’s figures and learning from an early age that a woman’s value was intimately linked to her waistline.
I got mixed and confused messages throughout childhood and adolescence because the institutions in my life told me that women should be subservient to their husbands, but I watched as my mother was the most consistent breadwinner and led our household through crisis after crisis. I learned from her that women are capable and multi-faceted, even as she remained faithful to a church that devalued her and her abilities and accomplishments.
So by the time I was entering the adult world I had a very confused idea of what it meant to be a woman, and how women work in the world. But I was very lucky to have a group of professors, pastors, and mentors who saw more in me than my pretty face or my figure. They heard my voice, not just saw my body. And not only did they hear my voice, they lifted it up.
So when I entered the world of academia, I had a foundation beneath me, which I discovered I would need. Students don’t see women as authorities, and very often neither to colleagues. Navigating sexual politics in the office is fraught, and addressing sexism in the academy often means managing fragile masculinity that puts not just relationships at risk, but careers.
The response to women in the academy has real consequences for the careers of women.
Maria Minor reports,
A substantial number of studies have revealed that female professors are held to higher standards than their male counterparts by students. Students steadily give lower teaching evaluations to women and people of color than white men, even when there are no differences in their quality and effectiveness in the classroom.
In 2019, Amani El-Alayli and her colleagues conducted two studies. In the first study, the team analyzed data from a survey of professors. They concluded that students make more standard work demands and requests for special favors to their female rather than male professors. The study further explored how students treat female professors, how they react to them when the professors stand their ground, and what kinds of students are particularly likely to treat female professors differently from male professors. They found that high academic achievement students were more likely to be irritated when a female professor denied a request and continued to insist upon the accommodation, even escalate it, until the students got their request fulfilled. However, with a male professor, students tended to take a denial and not act upon it. Students also perceived a refusal from a female professor as she didn’t like them. But, with a male professor, they were not concerned about him liking them.
Another interesting study conducted by Lillian McNeill and colleagues titled What’s in a Name: Exposing Gender Bias in Student Ratings of Teaching disguised the gender identity of some online instructors. This was done by giving some male instructors female names and vice versus. Then they compared the evaluation results before the gender was changed and after. Students rated the male identity significantly higher than the female identity, regardless of the instructor’s actual gender, demonstrating gender bias. For example, when the instructors posted grades after two days as a male, this was considered by students to be a 4.35 out of 5 levels of promptness. When the same two instructors posted grades simultaneously as a female, it was considered a 3.55 out of 5 levels of promptness. Students rated the perceived female instructors an average of 0.75 points lower on the fairness question, despite both instructors utilizing the same grading rubrics and there being no significant differences in the average grades of any of the groups. Both instructors demonstrated the same level of interpersonal interaction in their attempts to create a sense of immediacy in the online classroom. Yet, the perceived male instructor received higher ratings on all six interpersonal measures, three of them significantly. The researchers concluded that female instructors are expected to exhibit interpersonal traits and therefore are not rewarded when they do so, while male instructors are perceived as going above and beyond expectations when they show these same traits. In other words, students have higher interpersonal standards for their female instructors.
It would be nice if you could just blow these things off as ignorant students, but anybody in academia knows just how important those student evaluations are. Depending on your institution or your position, they can make or break your career.
And here’s the thing – we KNOW these methods of assessing instructors as bad. They are discriminatory against women AND People of Color. There is no way around the fact that these are unfair ways to measure a person’s performance.
But schools keep depending on them for hiring and promotion decisions.
Because institutions are systemically, thoroughly, and inherently sexist and racist. Because they are set up to favor white men and there is no real pay out for changing that. For all of their talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion, most colleges and universities don’t profit from making systemic, radical change, so change doesn’t happen.
So when we say we’re living in a man’s world – that’s not a metaphor or an exaggeration. We’re living in a world designed for men and curated to support and advance men. But the mechanisms of that are hidden behind the supposed liberal façade of academia.
Maybe that’s why stories of that kind of disrespect are so shocking to some people. The system is designed to protect some people from that kind of behavior. While the rest of us are just expected to learn how to deal with it.