CONFESSIONS of A Womanist Professor

Article excerpt

CONFESSIONS Of A Womanist Professor.

During almost 14 years of teaching in higher education, many students have loved me.

It was three of my white, former students -- Todd, Jared and Karen -- who drove the rented van and lugged heavy boxes of books when I moved to Denver. They refused to accept any money for their trouble.

Laurie, an Irish former student and her two kids still miss me and call regularly just to check in. Angie, an African American former student, and Fiely, a Filipino former student, and their families accept me as an "adopted" sibling. Blonde Pam and blueeyed Tom even credit me with bringing them together when I put them in the same study group two years ago. They just sent me a fabulous wedding photo. I cried.

Many students, of all races and walks of life, have loved me but most students, particularly the whites, don't. When I did a two-year stint at Xavier University of Louisiana, teaching classes where all the students were African American, students gave me nearly perfect scores on their end-of-term evaluations. However, outside of that experience, teaching at predominantly white institutions, most of my white students, in many of my classes, resent me. I have the student evaluations to prove it.

`A Little Uncomfortable'

I confess that I have tried every teaching method, device, approach and strategy -- short of stripping and bribery -- to achieve higher numeric teaching evaluations. None of it works.

I am not alone. When I caucus with the few other African- American female professors I can find at conferences and in professional organizations, their experience is much the same, especially if they teach outside the hard sciences and address issues of multiculturalism. The same appears to be true for other women of color in academia, though I have observed the problem is more intense for African-American women.

I suspect that is the real problem at Kennesaw State College in Marietta, GA, where Black Issues In Higher Education reported last fall that white students of Black, Assistant Professor of Education Shirley Muller have urged administrators to make Muller change their grades. Last fall I spent two weeks substituting for an African American, female professor who had to take an emergency personal leave.

I was horrified to find that, though students in two of her classes either adored her or didn't care, students in her third class were hostile, bitter, full of complaints about their "low" grades and her too-difficult tests. Despite my protests, they insisted on "joking" about dismembering her and roasting her over a fire, or beating her up and throwing her body in a ditch.

Real, pervasive, escalating violence against women of color made their jokes seem less than innocent and made me more than a little uncomfortable.

Harsh Judgments

At a recent signing of his latest book, "Reflections of an Ardent Protester," New York University law professor Derrick Bell commented on the ease with which white students complain to Black professors. He said that while substituting for a white colleague at the Harvard Law School, white students wasted 10 minutes of class time complaining about the performance of their absent white professor. Even so, Dr. Bell agreed, when the professor is a woman of color, students are even more likely to feel it is their right to complain to us about any woes they have, whether they are related to the class or not -- to challenge our credentials to correct them in our fields of specialty and to complain about us to our supervisors.

Students' sense of privilege (and hostility) has a negative impact on the careers of the women of color who teach them. Though publications are usually the linchpin of faculty retention and tenure evaluations, university political or financial concerns often amplify the importance of student evaluations. Frequently white committees, sometimes including token, fully assimilated, or politically vulnerable colleagues of color, require extra proof that a woman of color is really cutting the mustard. …