Thursday, March 4, 2010

gender schmender, right?

when i began teaching, i was an undergrad working with middle school students in a summer program.  the authority i had to develop didn't really, in my mind, have anything to do with my gender.  girl or not, i just had to fake like i knew what i was doing or they would eat me alive.

(it's true of most middle school jobs--it didn't get any different when i became a full-time middle school teacher a few short years later.)

in fact, the most powerful, organic connections that i had with students seemed to happen with young men.  i communicated with them more easily and seemed to impress/win them over easier than i did with the young women. 

(this coincided with what i knew about girls, that we compete with each other far more than we like to admit. and we judge. i do not exclude myself from this, nor do i ignore the fact that it's a blanket stereotype.)

when i went back to school, and thus began teaching an older population, the distinctions between students based on gender seemed to fade away.  students were students--some of them brilliant, hard-working, and insightful and others distinctly annoying with a penchant for loud complaining. 

my authority issues then became more of a knowledge issue--the way that i convinced students that they should take me seriously was through my preparation and my knowledge base.  they knew enough to see through a snow job, and i took pride in the fact that i was prepared more often than i wasn't and that, as my career continued, my knowledge base continued to be enough to impress and maintain my intellectual authority.

of course, until this past year, i have taught exclusively in large university settings. these sorts of environments, for better or worse, weed out a certain facet of the population. many of those, for whatever reason (income, location, career aspirations, grades, etc.), are then funnelled into the community college system.

i began teaching at rural cc this past fall.  it wasn't until today that i realized what one of the primary conflicts i have there stems from.

until today, i didn't realize that most every day that i teach there, my authority is being challenged (often imperceptibly, but sometimes vocally) by the male students that i teach. 

even when i am giving them terrible grades and asking them to perform up to higher standards than they are accustomed, the female students seem to stick with me.  they show up, they do their work, they ask questions, they participate in activities, they engage with the process.  even when they are annoyed, enough that i can tell, they don't challenge me in class.  they may email me, they may do it behind the comfortable barrier of binary code, but they don't do it in person or in class.

the male students feel no such compunction. 

today, i was explaining a paper assignment, telling students that after they had the chance to work on the first portion of their paper in class today, they would submit a rough draft of the 1 page argument on the tuesday after spring break.  in theory, if they had worked quickly during class, they would have had nothing whatsoever to do before tuesday. i would have taken their draft as they had it and made comments. 

one of my male students, who always sits in the back (as all of them do) and often answers questions quickly and without much thought (i had a student just like this last semester, too), said "we get to write a paper during spring break? sweet." i took this to be a sarcastic comment and said, perhaps shortly and/or sharply "that's not what i said."

and he proceeded to act as though i had snapped his head off, saying "i just asked a question. sorry."  and then he continued to complain to his neighbors "man, i just asked a question." and then really didn't do anything for the rest of the class period.

i didn't respond to his complaints, feeling that he was painting me into the bad guy corner and assessing, in my mind, if i had done anything to deserve that. in no way did i think his comment was an actual question, nor do i think he intended it to be so.  i think he intended it to be exactly what i interpreted it to be--a snarky, veiled attempt to challenge what i was asking them to do.  when i called him out on it, when i stood up for what i said, the situation was turned around on me.

perhaps you think that i am overreacting. perhaps i am.  but as i was texting musicboy about what had transpired this morning, i realized that this kind of back-into-a-corner, challenging, disrespectful attitude is what i get from most of my male students.  i walk into every class hoping to find allies quickly, to find the pair of eyes that i can land on as i'm lecturing that will help me gauge how students are responding.  many of my male students seem to begin the course as these allies--they participate often, they answer questions, they seem engaged.  they are often the loudest voices in my rural cc classes. 

but those same male students, about halfway through the semester and regardless of their performance, seem to turn.  they stop offering respect and start challenging.  they behave as if they are too smart/cool/busy to be bothered by actually doing the activities that i ask them to do.  they group together, making jokes in the back of the class like a couple of 12 year olds, radiating a kind of holier-than-thou attitude that drives me nuts.

until today, i figured it was just part of the deal.  it's not as though i have never experienced a student disengaging before. it's not as if i haven't had classroom activities flop.  i have, and i do, and i recognize that gender doesn't really have anything to do with either of these things. 

i hadn't realized, at all, that gender could be PRECISELY what this is about.  i work in a rural community, a place where trucks and guns are common and where, though i hate to admit it, attitudes may be more...traditional?...than in a university community.  and here i am.  young woman, married, highly educated, who leans on intelligence and hard work as authority makers, not a demeanor of intimidation or formality.

it works everywhere else.  i'm not sure if it works there.  well, it works, but it leaves me open to consistent challenge from my male students, challenges that thus far i have dealt with by trying to be a better teacher.  i am on my game this semester. i have met the students where they are at, and still asked them to meet my standards.  i'm not sure how much better prepared or thoughtful i can be about my teaching.

i'm not sure what to do about this.  gender has always been an academic interest to me, but i've never experienced these issues in real life, in practice.  i don't know how to fight it. 

1 comment:

  1. i'm not suprised the cc boys are like that. it would make a very interesting paper on how gender effects teaching. i think you did exactly as you should have. he was trying to be snarky. i might have said the same thing about the paper, but definitely not to your face. i think boys are more confrontational towards a women who is above them, while girls tend to be more understanding and respectful because they know that could be them one day.