Sexism in the classroom

The first university class I ever taught, there was this guy. He would sit with his arms crossed, not taking any notes. He’d bore holes into me with his laser beam eyes, trying to throw me off my game. At first, I couldn’t figure him out. I was only 27, a few measly years older than my students. I was, quite honestly, terrified. And he knew it. And he loved it. He would challenge almost everything I said, especially if what I said had to do with pointing out anything to do with gender.

Flash forward to today. I’m teaching creative writing and it’s only my second time doing it. There’s this guy, broody, tall with dark eyes. He’s a good writer and he knows it. He also knows I’m nervous. He sits forward on his desk and glares at me. He checks his phone and leaves the room while I’m talking only to return with his unblinking animosity.

“Why are you glaring at me?” I ask him. “It makes me feel like you don’t like me.”

“I don’t,” he says.

So, this will be a short entry because I’m honestly busy (not just busy in the way we always say we’re busy, as if it’s a virtue, this busy-ness). What is going on here?

Yesterday, I was talking to a couple male colleagues in the lunchroom. They both said that even though they scored great on “rate-my-teacher” that they never looked at the site.

“I don’t score all that great,” I said.

Now to be fair, I know both these guys work their asses off, but so do I. I care about my students, give them supportive and honest feedback. I meet with them. I prepare for my classes. And I know some male colleagues who do none of these things, and whose students still love them.

When I told these male colleagues that I thought maybe women were judged more harshly than men, they both looked skeptical. But there is some pretty clear evidence that this is true.

For example, take a look at the recent article in Time in which a group of trans-men compare their experiences as women before they transitioned to their experiences as men. They describe the increased authority that they are given at work, the ease with which their work is praised, and the alarming comments that they hear other men make about women when they don’t think one is around. In general, the article implies that women are treated worse and that this is unfair, but near the end entertains the idea that having increased testosterone makes a person better at decision-making, which seems to confirm this antiquated idea that men (or people with more testosterone) make better decisions than women (who suffer from their hormonal imbalances).

An example of how this translates in the classroom comes from a Dutch study which shows that women are judged more harshly by students and that this negatively impacts women’s rate of promotion compared to that of their male colleagues. An even more compelling example comes from a 2014 study which asked students to evaluate the teachers of online courses. When the students perceived that the teacher was male, they gave him high ratings. When the same teacher pretended to be female, “she” received much harsher reviews. Perhaps just having a pronoun with an “s” increases your testosterone and charismatic decisiveness–who knows?

None of this, of course, surprises us, but what I’d like to hear some discussion of is our strategies for resilience.  In the Trump era, we are seeing more and more of this shit. But what fascinates me is my own response to it. I know it’s horseshit but still feel hurt–I want to hide, I feel shame. Please woked-up ladies and enlightened gentlemen, I need your insight here. Why do we roll over? What are the alternatives to rolling over? And what is the best response to this constant micro-aggression and belittling?

2 thoughts on “Sexism in the classroom”

  1. Reminds me of a recent article about a film festival that did “gender blind” reviews of films and ended up having 50% female submissions (way up from any other festival). Apparently the practice was pulled from some symphony auditions which take place behind curtains to avoid evaluator bias. If only there was a way to just blindfold all the bros out there with unchecked misogyny…and/or just more validation for women in the work place who put up with this bullshit! Thanks for sharing your experience and lots of love,
    Little brother

    1. The most surprising thing is that women are complicit in it as well. It’s often female students who police the gender of their classmates through various shaming techniques.

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