Via Canada-Supporting Women in Geography, I found this article by Duke University Literature Professor Toril Moi, “Discussion or Aggression? Arrogance and Despair in Graduate School.” In it she writes about speech, authority, and power dynamics in the graduate seminar, specifically about the gendered nature of these dynamics:
Every year some female graduate students tell me that they feel overlooked, marginalized, silenced in some seminars. They paint a picture of classrooms where the alpha males—so-called “theory boys”—are encouraged to hold forth in impossibly obscure language, but where their own interventions elicit no response. These women, in short, say that they are not listened to, that they are not taken seriously, and that they get the impression that their perceptions of the matter at hand are of no interest to anyone else.
Such experiences tend to reproduce a particularly clichéd ideology in which theory and abstract thought are thought to belong to men and masculinity, and women are imagined to be the bearers of emotional, personal, practical concerns. In a system that grants far more symbolic capital, far more intellectual power, to abstract theorizing than to, say, concrete investigations of particular cases, these women lose out in the battle for symbolic capital. This is bad for their relationship to the field they love, and it is bad for their careers in and out of graduate school. This is sexism, and all this goes to show that sexist effects often arise from the interactions of people who have no sexist intentions at all.
But there is another side to this. Sometimes I have a conversation with someone who has been described to me as a theory boy. Then I invariably discover that the theory boy doesn’t at all sound like an intellectual terrorist. He is, simply, profoundly and passionately interested in ideas. He loves theory and precisely because he loves it, he has strong theoretical views.
Moi concludes that faculty play a critical role in encouraging dialogic conversation rather than monologic performance, and that “[s]ome of us—professors and graduate students—need to learn to stop being so touchy, vain and self-regarding, so that we can listen to well-founded criticism without becoming defensive. Others need to learn to become more assertive and how to stand their ground when their views come under pressure. We all need to care more about formulating our thought precisely and less about the impression we make on others.” But the point about faculty leadership is key, I think–it’s fun to engage in a lively discussion with passionate students, but we need to consider why some may not want to engage in the conversation, and how we can ensure that the ideas of those students get a full and fair hearing.
Moi’s article struck me as relevant because I’ve had a few interesting conversations recently that suggest that faculty play a role in perpetuating this division by using different language and different standards in evaluating their women versus men graduate students. First, a friend at another university remarked on the fact that one of the graduate students in her department is roundly praised as among the strongest and smartest graduate student in the program, but professors (including some from feminist scholars) also emphasized how they thought she needed to be more humble, to tone down her intellectual dominance, and to not think so highly of herself. Maybe this is true–no one likes an a$$hole, right?–but my friend thought it was potentially a very gendered reaction to this student’s sex and clear feminist perspective. Would a male student so highly rated be told to tone it down and to be more humble?
Then last week, I had a telephone conversation with a former student who has just finished her first year in a doctoral program, and she reported getting almost exactly the same message, but this time directly from the faculty she’s working with. This student has a Master’s degree already, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to them that she’s got some opinions about the kind of coursework that she wants to do or that she’s very adept at working with university faculty. My former student has remarked on how submissive and non-confrontational student culture is at her new uni compared to Baa Ram U., so there is also the issue of institutional culture to consider here. And yet, she is taken aback by the fact that her new proffies have understood her boldness and her confidence as a problem, at least initially. They’ve permitted her to take a stronger role in her curriculum, but several have commented to her that they didn’t know what to make of her until they got to know her a little better. It left me wondering: would a male graduate student with her exact record of achievement be met with such surprise that he had his own opinions and shared them with his professors?
(N.B.: I told her to get used to being called a pushy b!tch. It’s just what happens when you’re a woman with an opinion, so do what you need to do for your education and don’t let it hurt your feelings. I also told her that her program and her professors were commendably flexible when it counted, so she just needs to focus on her coursework and excel. I’m sure she’d appreciate any other advice the rest of you might have for her in the comments below.)
Now, these stories amount to N=2 and they leave me with more questions than answers, so I want to hear from the rest of you–graduate students and faculty alike: what have you seen and heard lately with respect to gender, graduate school, and the equitable or inequitable evaluation of men and women? What about race or sexuality, or other aspects of students’ identities? I’m teaching the introduction to graduate school course for our incoming Master’s students this fall, so I want to be extremely vigilant about evaluating all students fairly and equitably. I agree with Moi that faculty have a critically important role to play in creating classrooms and grad school environments that encourage vigorous open discussions where everyone’s ideas get a critical but fair hearing and every student is evaluated on the strength of hir work.
It’s fashionable to pretend that “the ivory tower” is a world apart from “the real world,” but faculty evaluations (formal or informal) have direct, material consequences for others: the way graduate students react to the contributions of other students can either inspire their peers to further study and achievement, or it can disillusion and discourage them. The way faculty evaluate first-year graduate students and react to their work inside and outside the classroom eventually will make it into letters of recommendation for further graduate study, for fellowships and prizes, and eventually for jobs.