Friday, January 26, 2007

What Younger Women Faculty Face

Many of you might know that young women professors have to adapt completely different strategies in the classroom than young men. Women faculty will often have stricter policies on attendance, when assignments are due, when a student can have access to her (i.e. email policies or strictly observed office hours), strictly observed caps on course enrollment, and very carefully worked out grading rubrics. If you put the syllabi of women faculty next to men's, the women's will be longer, more detailed, and probably include a great many pages devoted to policies and procedures. Maybe you haven't noticed this. Or, maybe you have and thought the women were far more uptight than their male counterparts.

What many people don't notice, including the colleagues of women faculty who are young and untenured (although tenure doesn't always solve the problem), is that these same women are physically and emotionally exhausted most of the time. Women faculty spend many more hours, on average, prepping for their classes. They also have to spend a great deal of time handling complaints from students that male faculty cannot even fathom. Why do women faculty have such strict policies? Why do they have grading rubrics that spell out with painstaking detail how they graded your work? Because women faculty get challenged on everything. Why do they spend hours prepping? Because if a woman walks into the classroom and doesn't appear to be an expert, which is proven by total mastery of the subject matter, the students will challenge her all semester.

I am writing this post because I have both been that exhausted female faculty member (insomnia, midsemester breakdown, two surgeries, depression) and I have seen how male faculty look with bewilderment upon the practies of female faculty. Several years ago, two of my friends decided to co-teach on a period of literature they both shared. The male faculty member remarked to me how blown away he was by how overprepared the female faculty was: typed lecture notes, texts marked up, etc. He said: "I just walk in and bullshit." Now, this guy is no idiot. He knows his stuff. And, his comment was sort of disengenous in that way. But, in another way it was very true. He probably did just walk in and bullshit (elegant, thoughtful bullshit that is). But, what he didn't realize was that he could and the students would still perceive him as an expert and worth listening to. He would still have command of the classroom, probably even more so than his overly prepared female colleague.

When younger female facutly aren't getting challenged on everything: i.e., when they scheduled tests, why so much work, why they grade so hard, or why they assign so much reading, they are, conversely, sought out for all sorts of nurturing. Students automatically assume that these women are waiting to drop everything to help them not only with their questions about how to do X, but about their personal lives. Many female faculty also get more easily roped into informal committee work that takes away their time. If you add all this up, it's not surprising why they are so damn stressed out. If they don't establish clear policies and guidelines, they get crushed.

While much of this has been studied and documented, especially since Larry Summer's famous speech, I think that daily people forget this reality. I am writing this today in part because I so regularly have conversations with untenured women about this and I wish that this problem was not only better recognized, but that their were institutional supports to protect younger faculty women from being so drained. Moreover, I should point out that this sort of stuff doesn't only happen to women, it happens to men with accents, and men and women of color. Without institutional recognition of the problem and support for these faculty, some might not make tenure or if they do, will have a hard time getting promoted. (And, I haven't even brought up how having children affects this whole process.)

Teaching is one of the best jobs out there, but if teachers aren't properly supported by colleagues and administration, it can become one of the hardest, most draining jobs around.