Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Queering Academia, Part 2: The Commentary

On Monday, I wrote about how academia is a challenging place to be openly queer, and how a new study shows that students show some bias against openly gay and lesbian professors. As promised, today I'm going to look at the comments on two of the blog posts I found on the internet about the study. There are lots of them and not all of them are interesting to me. "This study is stupid," for instance, is not an argument I'm going to bother to engage with. Anyway. All comments are, of course, [sic.].

From Insider Higher Ed:
Brian: What I am concerned with is the very concern with the notion of "bias". Isn't it better that we teach from who we are; our academic training; AND our life experiences? To even consider the notion of bias as relevant seems to me to fly in the face the feminist and queer pedagogies that have encouraged an inclusion of self in the classroom; the personal is not only political but also pedagogical. After having read this article, I thought SO WHAT? Students should come to university to not only learn from texts but also be exposed to many, many, many ways of viewing the world offered through their professors' perspectives.
Yes. This is excellent and also true. There is literally no way to be completely neutral all the time. Even if we just gave kids a list of facts to memorize (robbing any humanities class of its ability to exist), the inclusion or exclusion of facts would be entirely based on the agenda, outlook, and so on. What I think is really important about the history of education might not be important to other people. I mean, obviously, or there would be more than half a handful of us writing about queer history of education.

BAW: Why is a professor's sexual orientation any of a students' business?
I mean, it isn't, is the short answer. It's no one's business. But some of us have made it our business, because we believe that being openly gay in academia means making the environment safer for our queer students and colleagues. The more we can demonstrate that queer people are just folks, no big deal, the better we'll all be in the long run, I think. Of course, this is a choice that I make for myself, and not a choice I think anyone else needs to make if they're not comfortable with it. And this also does not mean that anyone is "shoving her sexual orientation down anyone's throat" or anything similarly graphic and inaccurate.

V E McLure: Be a single woman with short hair some time. Believe it or not, those were the two reasons I was "accused" of being a lesbian. Yeah, it happens. If you don't believe women are judged, and yes, I do mean judged, in the worst possible way, by a different standard, come live in our world some time. My male colleagues make comments in the classroom that would get me fired in about a nanosecond. What the students think is funny from them they would regard as "bitchy," "judgemental," "sexist," "racist," you name it, from a woman. 
I have had comments on my evaluations that have dealt with my clothes, my hair style, in other words, just about any and everything except my teaching, other than to say that I'm a bitch because I don't take late work. My male colleagues don't either, by the way. 

It is a double-standard world. I have no doubt at all that students will look at a syllabus and percieve bias of some sort based on the gender, sexual orientation, race, heck, on the height, age, hair style or eye color of the professor. Stereotyping is alive and well - and flourishing. The only people who doubt it are the ones who are not directly affected by it.
I don't love her use of "accused," even with the scare quotes, but I hear what she's getting at (and the student(s) may have meant it as an accusation). This is in response to people arguing that bias is probably not really happening, and she is calling them out on that. It's to be expected that we'll be judged on external factors, of course. I think this points to a need for a follow-up study that engages with complex questions of how students perceive a professors' sexual orientation/gender presentation and how that affects their feelings about the professor. This would be harder to do, of course, because you'd have to look at students in an actual classroom, and for it to really be meaningful, you'd have to track their reactions and feelings over the course of the semester.

Michael Dumas: Interestingly, I just taught about LGBT issues last night in a doctoral class on diversity in education. The course is taught by two instructors, both African American, one straight-identified female, and one gay male (me). If this year's student evaluations are similar to last year's, I fully expect to see one or two students complain that "too much time" was spent on gay issues, even though the LGBT content is--coincidentally-- only about 1/10 of the subject matter covered. I also can expect similarly critical comments about how much time was spent on race and African Americans, even though both instructors are conscious about including other populations in readings, media and examples. I don't want to comment on methodological rigor of the study without reading it, but I can say that it is consistent with my experience, and that of a whole range of LGBT, women and people of color in the academy. And yes, negative and untruthful course evaluations can hurt one in the tenure and promotion process.

Now, as for the question raised above about why a professor would reveal her or his sexual orientation, the study states that sexual orientation was indicated in the autobiographical statement given to research participants. It did NOT say that instructors listed their sexual identity on the syllabus itself! And yes, students do talk amongst themselves about who their professors are as people; they see photos on our desks; they know about our involvement in various advocacy groups on campus; and, importantly, they make assumptions based on gender performance (length of hair, style of dress, speaking voice). So it is entirely reasonable that a student would be aware of, or at least presume, specific sexual identities.
This is my favorite comment, because he says "gender performance." He's right, as is the previous commenter, that students consider the humanity of their professors. He's also right that negative reviews from students hurt a professor's career - as they should, if the professor is a bad teacher. But I could imagine universities using reviews from students that were negative because of the modern homonegative reasons the study talks about (things like blaming their dislike of a professor on things other than sexual orientation, even if that's not really what's going on), it's another layer of modern homonegativity. "It's not that you're gay, it's that the students gave you bad reviews. Not because you're gay, but because you're politically biased." Again, as though there is such a thing as objectivity. Further, this guy is a gay man who is talking about gay issues, at least in part, which in my experience is that much harder.

And now, to Autostraddle comments, which are less academic but just as interesting:

Sweet: I really wish people would pay attention to these studies and not suggest that racism or homophobia don’t exist (in circumstances when it is not blatant). This just reinforces the fact that people need to be conscious of, and conscious in considering, their privilege. I go to a liberal Ivy and the number of times I’ve heard stuff like, “why isn’t there a white culture organization” or “why don’t be have a straight students alliance” is beyond not funny. I want to shout, “That’s what THIS WHOLE PLACE is!”
Heh. Right. I remember those conversations about white privilege in college. And, um, grad school. Some people grow out of it, some people don't. Part of what I try to do in my classroom is address this head-on.

Merin: I’m gay and I teach college students and I am not in the closet at work. I’m thinking about handing this article out to my students after a few weeks of class this fall. I am teaching a class on race and ethnicity and it could be good for a week in which we read stuff about modern racism to see how these ideas can extend to other marginalized social groups. Could make for an interesting discussion.
This is an interesting thought. Maybe I'll do it at the end of the semester, if I remember to. Thoughts from the crowd? Would you do this?

And finally, from our very own blog, Desi has this to say:
Specifically in a college of education, assimilation would be a great disservice. I don't want pre-service teachers to be "protected" from reality. I support making pre-service teachers uncomfortable--how else can they be prepared to work with the realities of the students in their classrooms? (Clearly, I'm basing my comment here on assimilation as an option--not as survival, as it would be in some cases.)
This is so dead-on. I know Desi, and I already know how smart she is, so I am not in the least surprised. But all teachers will have queer students, no matter where they teach. My friend Nic, who is not an educator in the traditional sense, but has sure as hell educated me, says that she thinks all teachers should see all students as queer, and I completely agree. If we worry about how to prepare mostly-white, female, middle-class, Protestant teachers to effectively teach students who are mostly not those things, we also need to be preparing teachers to deal with queer kids. And having queer teacher educators is important to that. I'm not a teacher educator, but maybe I will be someday, and maybe you already are. What are your thoughts on Desi's idea?

Anyway, I'm certainly a believer in the idea that we do want to indoctrinate the youth. I do want my students to learn about queerness, the historical contributions of queer educators, and the ways in which queer teachers have been persecuted. Everyone has to figure out their own relationship to teaching these issues, how comfortable they are with being out, and how they are out. I want to reiterate that these are intensely personal decisions, so do what makes you feel most comfortable or happy or whatever. But the fact is, we can't ignore the fact that students do perceive their gay and lesbian professors differently, and I would like to see more studies looking at this issue.

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