Saturday, June 26, 2010

In Praise of Professor V.

Flavia and The Fretful Porpentine have recently led some terrific discussion threads about how often students describe female professors as "intimidating" when those professors are behaving pretty much the way their male colleagues do. The conversation starts here in Flavia's comments section, gets picked up by FP here and carries back to Flavia's blog here, with this coda by The Little Professor. A lot of great feminist academic bloggers chime in on the comment threads, drawing on their experiences both as students and as teachers. It's worth a read.

I have less directly to add to the discussion, being large, loud, male. I've never been called intimidating on a student evaluation, for the perverse reason that I look like the academic authority figure the students have been trained to expect. If I use a bunch of words the student doesn't understand, they take that as a sign of my intelligence. If a woman under forty uses the same words to a similar student in a similar classroom, the response is too often "She's trying to make us feel stupid," or even, bizarrely, "She thinks she knows sooo much more than the rest of us!" Yes, that's right; there's a certain percentage of college students, of both genders, who feel that a professor who doesn't conceal the fact that she has a Ph.D. is just being a jerk about it.

This problem only became plain to me in graduate school, as I watched my female colleagues wrestling with challenges that I never had to. I did not see this problem when I was an undergraduate because I didn't know any junior faculty who were women; all my woman teachers were full professors, and very accomplished ones at that. (I did know graduate-students TAs of both genders, who fell everywhere along the spectrum of classroom authority and skill.) This is a reversal of the normal experience: women in the academy skew young and junior, and twenty years ago that skew was much more pronounced than it is today. But the only assistant professors I met in college were men; the women were all remote authority figures encountered in large lecture halls. I never doubted their authority. My relationship with them was simple. They talked, and I wrote down what they said.

The first teacher in the first class meeting on my first day of college was an eminent figure whom I'll call Professor V. (And if that nickname seems too easily-decoded to readers who are academics, well, it's not like "Doctor Cleveland" is serious cryptography either.) The class was a large year-long survey that was one of the gateways into my major, and Professor V. was just taking it over for the first time. I've thought a lot over the years about the way the younger male faculty I met as an undergraduate have influenced my own teaching. They were the obvious role models, both because they were men and because it was early in their careers. I still speak with their classroom inflections sometimes and use techniques that I first saw them using. But it's only in the last six or eight months I've been thinking about Professor V.'s influence on my teaching, and begun to realize just how far it extends.

So, on that first Monday morning of first semester, Professor V. talked, I wrote down what she said, and I carefully noted what to read by Wednesday. Then two startling things happened.

First, when Professor V. ended her lecture, my classmates applauded her.

I'm sure I started to applaud, too. I was a first-year-first-day undergrad, and still navigating college with the old monkey-see-monkey-do-on-the-half-beat strategy. If a couple hundred of my classmates were doing something and it wasn't obviously depraved or immoral, I imitated them. Then the second startling thing happened:

Professor V. told us not to applaud her.

She held up her hand and said, not lecturing any more, "No, please don't do that. I'm not a performer, and this is not a performance." She said a bit more which I've lost to time but the general sense was that academic discussion was not theater, and her relationship to us was about academic conversation, not acting. Even more instructive than the words was her tone of voice, which was actually conversational; she wasn't just pronouncing a rule. She was addressing us as junior peers, and explaining her reasoning. It was the pedagogy of respect. (When my students feel I explain too much of the reasoning behind my syllabi, they can thank Professor V.)

One lesson I internalized at that moment, without fully grasping it yet, was: Professor V. is too big to need her ego stroked. Getting applause from undergraduates is something a small-timer craves, but the serious players, like Professor V., are above that petty nonsense. It was a pretty good lesson, then and now.

Professor V. also smoothly demonstrated how to use self-deprecation as a sign of confidence, a way to admit her human failings even as she bolstered her authority. On the first day, talking about the fact that the survey covered a lot of material that she didn't usually work on, she said, "This morning, as I was preparing for class, I realized I don't know when the Jews were expelled from England! Then I realized, I don't know why the Jews were expelled from England!" We laughed, she became a warmer classroom presence, and her authority in the room grew. It was another subliminal lesson: Professor V. is too big to front. She doesn't have fake knowing everything.

If I was looking at a specifically female style of academic authority, I had no idea. It was simply authority to me, plain and simple. And if I'd seen an eminent male professor behave differently, I'd just assume he was doing it wrong. Ten years earlier, Professor V. simply wouldn't, couldn't have been at that lectern in that room at that school. Twenty-odd years later, it's still too rare for women to fill those roles. But in that room, in the presence of V.'s powerful mind, it was impossible to imagine things being any other way.

I had no idea of the struggles that V. had overcome to get to that place, or of the number of eminent intellectual men, including old faculty at that very school, who had openly threatened or prophesied the end of her career. I only began to hear those stories, some of which are breathtaking, a decade later. And I had no idea how very big a deal V. was within her discipline. I only began to realize that after my year as her student was over. I didn't fully grasp how important she was until I had become a professor myself. But I clearly remember standing at a news stand near campus a year or two later, and opening a national magazine to see Professor V.'s picture inside. The caption called her the best professor in her field in America.

She hadn't told us anything about her own achievements. Of course not. That was for us to figure out on our own, if we were going to figure it out. She hadn't needed to throw her full weight around with the kids. She'd had as much authority as she needed. I took that as a lesson, too, when I started to teach. There's no reason to stand around showing off your credentials.

I did understand, somehow, that Professor V. was a very senior player in her department, and viewed her decision to take over the huge gateway class for new majors as intellectual noblesse oblige. Surely, V. would have derived more personal satisfaction from teaching two small advanced classes directly related to her research instead of spending half her teaching time breaking things down into simple lessons for the newbies. But I took her decision to spend half of her time doing just that to be intellectual leadership, and it continues to shape my understanding of how senior colleagues should exert such leadership. I took away the lesson that the heavy hitters make sure the important jobs are done right, and the lesson that getting undergraduate education right was one of the important jobs. I still believe in those lessons. It never occurred to me that V. might have been saddled with the job by her male peers, and looking back I don't believe that she was. It is not my impression that V. can be pushed around.

Neither did I think about the pattern in which more women are forced into teaching elementary courses while equally-qualified men get the advanced students to themselves, because studying with Professor V. simply didn't feel like that. What she was teaching did not feel elementary, but elemental. She was defining what was essential to the discipline, telling us This is where we begin. These are the essential tools, and this how we first learn to use them.

Only in retrospect did I realize that Professor V. might be interested in promoting a particular vision of the profession, or that the way she was teaching us was part of larger debates about the discipline and its future. Professor V. is a methodological traditionalist, who uses time-honored tools in brilliant and subtle ways. If V. were a chef, she would be a master of classical French cuisine, capable of creating dazzling meals that nonetheless straight come from the heart of the tradition. Her results aren't old-fashioned, but her techniques are classic; one of the secrets of V.'s hard-won success is that she is a better guardian of the classical tradition than any of the old boys who tried stopping her. They simply didn't have V.'s chops, and she pretty much embodies the tradition they tried to preserve through imitation. V. isn't so much part of the old guard as she's one of the Old Masters herself.

I suspect now that one of Professor V.'s goals was to make more of us into classical practitioners like herself, and perhaps to steer us away from newer methodologies. Maybe I'm wrong about that, but I think that V. was good at long-term strategies. The career she'd already had by then, the twenty-five or thirty years from "Gentlemen Only" to "Best Professor in America," was a testament to the long view.

But if making us into professionals in her image was really one of her goals, she both failed with me and succeeded. I am not at all sure what Professor V. would make of my first book, but some of the books on my bedside shelf are there because of her. I was never going to be a strict traditionalist; I was always, always going to run off and cook some newer fusion cuisine. But if I would never limit myself to only the tools that suffice for V., I would also never do without them. (I may not cook many of the old recipes, but I believe in certain fundamental kitchen skills. There is a way to prepare a chicken or reduce a sauce, no matter what you're cooking.) I still believe in the tools that V. taught us as essential: a beginner's set, to be supplemented with others that V. herself might proscribe, but never, ever to be abandoned. I teach those tools to my own undergraduates, because she persuaded me that they are indispensable. And perhaps there is the mark of the great teacher: to shape your students even as they become someone very much unlike you.

I didn't see my female professors struggling for authority when I was an undergrad. I didn't have the normal experience for my generation. Oddly, in a very traditional and sometimes backward-looking place, I got a glimpse of the future. Professor V. and her unimpeachable authority showed me the way every university could be someday, and the way all the best ones will.

cross-posted at dagblog


Renaissance Girl said...

This is a lovely post, and it left me with a bit of envy. I have always wished I could have taken a class from V., and I'm delighted to learn what the experience was like for you.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it, RG. Friends of mine who've taken more advanced courses with V., and gotten to know her personally, sing her praises, too.