The Ivory Tower’s Basement (A Female Perspective)

Professor X launched a tidal wave of commentary when he published an essay on his dispiriting adjunct experiences in The Atlantic in 2008.

I finally got around to reading the book this month and, for the most part, I found his sad story entirely comprehensible. There, but for the grace of a tenured position and a less hectic housing market, go I. I also experience shock at the sheer level of incomprehension my students display when asked to tackle basic concepts in the first year course (hint: not understanding what the words ‘Christian’ or “European’ signify is worrisome when you’re vaulting right out of the end of the Middle Ages in a Western Civ survey) but I freely admit that my work is never so challenging as that of an English instructor expected to remediate students who can’t write, period, in one or two college-credit courses.

It’s an interesting read, not just for academics. Caleb Crain’s NYT review suggests that this is, at its heart, a book about shame. I’d counter that almost every book about academia is, in one way or another.

My most visceral response to the book came Professor X related a story of a tenured professor who gave grades solely based on student improvement. This leads him to muse on the effect women have had on higher education:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 1975, 31 percent of college teachers were female; by 2009, the number had grown to 49.2 percent. There are more women teaching in college than ever, and it is quite possible that their presence, coupled with out discovery of the postmodern narrative, has had a feminizing effect on the collective unconscious of faculty thought. Strong winds of compassion blow across campus quads. Women are more empathetic than men, more giving, simply more bothered by anyone’s underdog status. Many of the female adjuncts I have spoken to seem blessed and cursed by feelings of maternity toward the students. Women think about their actions, and the consequences of their actions, in a deeper way than do men. Women may not be quite as inclined to sigh and, with a murmured “fuck it,” half-angry and half-miserable, possessed by the fatalism of someone throwing the first punch in a bar fight, mark an F in the grade book. (153)

Now, he doesn’t pursue this line of thought any further but, oh really? Did you see that? We have feminized the faculty and, oh no!, brought in with us the corrosive forces of empathy and maternalism. Professor X is hardly alone in this assumption, so I don’t want to tar him with a broad brush. He’s a symptom more than a cause (very much a symptom in his contingent faculty status stuck in impossible tasks of remediation). But it’s all part of the fear that female faculty lower standards at worst or simply subvert academia to warm, fuzzy and anti-intellectual ends at the best. (120 years on and we’re still dealing with the same damned fears as women academics did in the late Victorian era.)

I don’t feel like a mother to my students, but some treat me more like a mother, or a K-12 teacher, than tmy male colleagues. They speak of their personal problems to me. They empty my tissue box repeatedly over the course of the term in teary office visits. They address me as Miss or Ms. My male colleagues are Professor or Doctor. (This is hardly unusual. See Takiff, Sanchez & Stuart, “What’s In a Name? The Status Implications of Students’ Terms of Address for Male and Female Professors” Psychology of Women Quarterly 25:2 (2003), 134-145.)

Professor X earlier admitted that he inadvertently benefits from the assumption that a male instructor must be a professor, much as he protests the improper use of such a title by his students. Now, I don’t want to be petty enough to deny him that or to make much of an issue of forcing students to recognize the fine differentiation of faculty rank, but I think those of us who teach at university should all be mature enough to step back and see these assumptions and behaviours for what they are: a reflection of how deeply-rooted gender roles are in this culture.

Women faculty haven’t emasculated the academy but I think Professor X might be well-served to consider how much the concentration of women in adjunct positions has done to reduce the prestige of that position he and others once saw as more an admirable sideline for a non-university professional. And he might be surprised how many of us women faculty quite easily say “Fuck it” as we mark that F in the grade book if a student has failed to do the assigned work, even as we recognize that their failure might be part of a larger problem.


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