Disappointments and responsibilities

20 April 2010

“This class is really different than I’d expected,” he’s saying to me during office hours.  He’s adjusting his baseball hat.

Great, I think.  Here we go.  He took a class on Sex and Gender in Contemporary Latin America and it’s, what, got too many women, gays, and Latinos in it?  Was it my joke about frat guys?  Was it that long conversation about “Y tu mamá también” last week?   “Is it the subject matter or the requirements?” I ask.

“Yeah, the subject matter.  I didn’t know it was going to be a class so much associated with Women’s Studies.”  He’s weighing the pros and cons of letting this matter drop, but he’s telling me this for a reason.

What is my responsibility here?  My policy has always been to hear them out, show myself to be an approachable professor — the approachability doesn’t seem to jibe with some students’ notions of an openly feminist professor, thereby getting under their skin.  But I find myself getting angry at the idea that a white male student feels no compunction in complaining that a Women’s Studies-related course makes him feel uncomfortable.  It should make you feel uncomfortable.  My job here is done, I imagine telling him.  Why don’t I tell him that?

“The thing about Women’s Studies classes is, well, it’s like that Courtney in our class,” he says, making one more stab at it.  “I mean, she seems like a nice girl, but she’s just all about women’s issues.”

He drops it at this point and focuses on making a play for a good grade, and even ponies up a little offering of “I really like your lectures.”  He’s not going to be a jerkoff, and neither am I — we’re locked in the dance of niceness.  When he leaves, I sit back, feel disappointed with myself on a variety of levels, and wonder what my responsibilities are.

I can talk a good talk about feminist pedagogy, but it’s a hard thing to make work in a classroom of 60 people.  So I mix some democratic conversation and self-directed learning with simply showing myself to be a feminist — modeling for them how I think through a knotty problem.  If I’m talking about films that simply highlight male prerogative, I talk through various kinds of responses and try to reason out a range of feminist responses to it.  It’s fun and hard and what I dreamt about doing as a grad student.  I see myself as speaking to them, against them, faster than they are, anticipating some of their ideas and offering more of them.  I am, frankly, surprised to find how much I like lecturing.

But in truth I don’t know what’s happening in that room.  Look at that photo of a typical lecture hall — they’re heavily institutionalized, dreary spaces, soporific.  I’ve got one of everyone in that room, from this frat boy to the 40-year-old bipolar lesbian who’s told me her life story about growing up Mormon.  Some of them just feel uncomfortable with all the women, gays, and Latinos on the syllabus.

So I never gave my student validation for his passive-aggressive comment, but I also didn’t challenge it, and I’m disappointed with myself — and it’s a disappointment that mixes with all the other senses of failure in teaching.  But last night I had a series of dreams in which, alternately:

  1. he told me he’d come out of the closet because of my class
  2. he was arrested for rape
  3. he started coming to office hours all the time to chat
  4. he openly challenged me in lecture

So there’s that.  My dream life has worked out a series of scenarios for him that only continue to wrestle with my disappointments and responsibilities.

3 Responses to “Disappointments and responsibilities”

  1. servetus Says:

    Geez. Do people in the natural sciences and math put up with this stuff? “I didn’t realize I was going to have to do all of this math in your calculus class.”

  2. didion Says:

    I imagine male students find other ways of complaining to their female professors about the workload or something. But I’m quite struck by the discomfort verging on anger from some male students about a class that has subject material covered from a woman’s point of view.

    I will say that if students are advancing these complaints in the 12th or 13th week of the semester, their goal is probably just a better grade.

  3. servetus Says:

    They have learned to manipulate the discourse about gender and race just like everyone else …

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