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.
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.
Just as disturbing is the time-efficient tendency to focus on numerical summaries rather than evaluate student written comments in context. Rarely will RTP committees acknowledge the research that says students judge white women and people of color more harshly than white male professors. Women of color may be judged the most harshly of all.
Peer Evaluations Preferred
Now that I am an adjunct professor, hired quarter-to-quarter without benefits or a contract, lower-than-average student evaluations may affect my ability to work at all. I always seek peer evaluations because when professors and professionals, who have almost all been white, have observed my class, they have given me superb ratings.
But white students give me relatively low numbers. If one reads the student comments, the reasons for the comparatively low ratings are clear. They dislike my classes and me because of "too much work," and because I touch upon ideas of race and feminism that, according to one white, female, former student from South Africa, "no one agrees with."
We all know the debate about the proliferation of grade inflation and bemoan passive students who want to be spoon-fed. However it is my observation that when my colleagues who are white, or even men of color, give students lots of work, the students may comment on it but still give them higher numbers than when evaluating a woman of color.
Over the past decade, I have reduced the number, complexity and length of assignments I require by two-thirds. However I still require some reading before the students show up and run a busy, interactive class that requires and counts quality class participation. I'd be bored to death if I had to just lecture for two to four hours at a time.
Struggling With the Issues
What is more important, research on learning styles shows that most students learn better, and retain more when they are actively involved.
Most students fail to see the benefits of this teaching style, though colleagues who have read the research admire it. I have a creeping suspicion that white students who are used to Black women working for them have a real, though perhaps unconscious, resentment to having to work for a Black woman who can affect their permanent record. On some level, it seems many white students think African-American women are better suited as their wet nurses, or scrubbing their toilets, rather than grading their college performance.
As a womanist professor, I don't know how I may avoid addressing the race and gender issues that anger so many students. Students who complain about having to think about race and gender issues in a class of mine that is not specifically about women or people of color always suffer from acute perceptual distortion.
For instance, in a newswriting class that meets 20 to 30 times, I will address racist and sexist language in one or two classes, as written in the syllabus. Yet, complaining students wail that I harped on race and gender issues in a class where they didn't think they should have to hear about it at all. I suggest that if students require a course title to warn them that they may have to think about how white women and people of color fit into the subject area, we should change all catalog course titles to specify that the course will only deal with the world-view of white males, such as "Writing News About White Men," or "White Males in Literature 101."
Regardless of what learning theory may say, the vast majority of students are often more interested in obtaining an A, by any means necessary, than they are in learning. When the obstacle between them and a 4.0 happens to be a woman of color, there may be murder in their eyes. Many professors know that no matter how warm their personalities or lively their teaching styles, the honeymoon is over when students receive their first grades.
As an adjunct, I am the only African American instructor in the School of Communication at what may be the most prestigious university in the region. Three out of 12 students, however, dropped my class because they were averaging B's instead of the A's they wanted. Those who stayed, resented that I "only" gave them partial credit when they made errors such as misspelling Israel or Yemen on a map quiz of the Middle East.
At Kennesaw State College, administrators responded to student complaints by assigning Muller a mentor. This effort to "help her" insinuates that she is doing something wrong and needs a supervisor of sorts to correct her. But every Black woman I know who is teaching at a predominantly white university struggles with how to best mediate her students' refusal to accept anything but the unmitigated praise they expect from a good mammy, er, I mean Black female professor.
If you add the burden of the Black, female college professor's teaching about things that the white and male students don't want to learn, such as multiculturalism (as in Muller's case) or feminism, the students' rage is likely to ignite. Most people believe that where there's smoke, there's fire. Complaints against a Black, female faculty member usually reinforce others' buried assumptions that women of color really never measure up to the standards of the academy.
As a result, Black, female professors are often shamed into silence when students complain about grades and a woman of color's right to do her job as teacher.
I continue to struggle with balancing students' demands that I mother them and stroke their egos, "or else," and my responsibility to the academy and my field of study to grant A's to only superior work. Other women of color in the academy do the same. The Chicano husband of a Chilean sociology professor has urged us both to "just give the white kids A's" and stop buying ourselves grief by insisting on the same respect our male and white colleagues get by virtue of their gender or race.
His suggestion always makes us uncomfortable. We know he is right, but we cannot yet bring ourselves to dole out the A's along with the grits and tortillas the students expect of us. (Yes, I know tortillas are not from my friend's country, Chile, but many of her students assume that because she is Latina she must eat tortillas every day.) My Chilean friend and I worry that weariness and a taste for tenure may one day outweigh our sense of professional integrity. Perhaps when that day comes we'll sell our grading souls for a little peace in, and piece of, employment.
Dr. E-K. Daufin, an autbor and adjunct professor at the University of Phoenix, Colorado Campus
Photo (E.K. Daufin)