One of the other women in my cohort, N, has been working to put together some kind of women's forum within our department that would provide a safe space for informal discussion between grad students and professors about how gender figures both in our scholarly works and in or day-to-day lives. I don't think that the academic culture of my university is such that there are glaring problems with the way women are treated (as cis- and hetero-identified, I won't venture to attest to the way the atmosphere seems for any queer or trans* members, but I haven't heard any complaints), but even in the absence of glaring misogyny the patriarchy is real and a thing whose assumptions need to be challenged, even if only on a small level, on a daily basis. And sometimes that gets exhausting, and it's useful to talk with other people -- professors and peers -- who are engaged in the same sort of daily grind. I don't have time in my schedule to head up this thing myself, but I told N that I don't mind at all taking on a second-in-command role and I'm excited to see where this goes.
At any rate, we had a sort of trial meeting for this potential forum today and my current romanticism professor, A, spoke about her own experience as a woman in graduate school, particularly in classroom situations; she brought up a few interesting situations and scenarios that got me thinking, and that I want to record.
-- She made what I think is an interesting point about the relationship between pedagogy and privilege. A is a cis, hetero married woman who is also a member of an ethnic minority. She said that, especially in undergraduate classrooms, she tries to keep her sexuality her own business -- to the extent that she refers to her husband exclusively as her "partner" in the presence of students, because she doesn't want to be a glaring example of her own privilege as part of one type of majority; let her students assume what they will. On the other hand, she's typically more open about her status as a member of an ethnic minority. I really appreciated this because I've been thinking for a while about how a) I want gender-neutral relational words to become more popular as a way of unsettling or at least making apparent the gendering of language itself, and b) I don't want to "be" my sexuality to my students -- I want to be myself, which includes sexuality but isn't only sexuality, and I certainly don't want my students to think that, because I do identify as a cis hetero woman, I am unsympathetic to the concerns of people with different identities.-- We talked a bit about strategies for dealing with everything from small daily doses of patriarchy to outright in-your-face misogyny, and A related a story about a man in her grad school cohort who often used literary theory as a crutch for making horrendously misogynist statements. When certain of A's profs did nothing about this, the female students took it upon themselves to create what A called an "alternative hierarchy of expertise": instead of responding with rage to this man's misogyny and the failure of their professors to correct it, A and her cohort developed methods for turning his misogynist contributions into starting-points from which to affirm the knowledge of the women in the room. For example, one of A's friends had read all of Foucault in the original French, so if Mr. Misogynist ever tried to use Foucault to make a point, A or a member of her cohort would redirect the conversation to that friend based on her position of superior knowledge; if he started to talk politics, other women would ask A for her input because she's well-read in 19th-c political thought. In some ways it is tiring to always have to deflect, but I like this strategy because while it does work by deflection, it redirects power rather than changing the subject.
-- Then A shared a story that made me angry. Yes, the other ones made me angry, but in this case, I felt like the response she described -- and with which she seemed to agree -- was utterly inadequate. Mr. Misogynist gave a fairly phallocentric presentation on a Dickens novel; one of A's cohort-mates asked him a question which called him out on his failure to mediate this view, bringing up a couple of examples in the novel that contradicted it; his response was to turn to the professor of the course and say to her, sarcastically, "I thought you only let in smart people."
When I heard this retold I literally shuddered. What kind of idiot thinks he has the right to say that? To interact with the professor instead of the peer who's asked the question, to dismiss her body of knowledge outright, and to do it to her face and in front of a colloquy of her peers?! If I had been that professor, my response would have been some variation on, "Apparently not, since we let you in. Now get out of my classroom and don't come back until you can respect the intellectual validity of your peers." In A's retelling, however, the professor responded calmly, did not kick the student out of the class, and instead told him that his comment wasn't contributing to any kind of pedagogy and that he shouldn't speak if he couldn't contribute something of value to others.
I understand that rage typically isn't the kind of thing you want to present in a classroom. I understand that more respect is accorded to professors -- male or female -- who can deftly handle a situation. But I promise you, if I were in a similar position, I would have been furious and I would have let some of that anger show by critiquing this student to his face, since he felt it was alright for him to do the same to his fellow student.