Thursday, June 3, 2010

undergraduate diaries

After reading Flavia's post on student evaluations, I've been thinking a bit about professors, and how my undergraduate-self perceived them, and how gender figured into those perceptions.

Fortunately, I have a primary source: for the last half-semester of my junior year and most of my senior year, I kept a journal of my adventures in applying to grad school. Well, actually it ended up being a journal of lots of other things as well; I've just been reading about the ins and outs of office politics at my summer job, and I've learned that I dressed as Huey Long's wife (???) for Halloween in 1997 -- but mostly, it focused on academic matters, loosely defined.

Anyway, it's interesting, and a bit disturbing, to read over what I thought about these issues as an undergraduate. I reproduce a passage -- slightly edited to eliminate identifying information, but I've left the language (and the Victorianesque passion for underlining) intact. The context is that I'm commisserating with a friend over her thesis defense, which she passed with high honors, but only after being put through the wringer by a female history professor.

This leads us into a discussion of why young female profs are such bitches. Okay, that's probably the wrong word for [the professor in question], but they do act like they have something to prove. And they dress impeccably, which I know I'll never be able to do. But I think you have to, if you're a woman, to have any hope of getting a job. It does seem like they've all got this generic persona (tough, ultraprofessional, stylish, and brilliant) while men have a lot more freedom to be themselves ... I guess Prof. M--- is living proof that you can go your own way and not feel like you have to cut people's throats all the time; but then she has tenure. (And it's impossible not to take her seriously when you've seen her teach.) It's so unfair. I wish I'd been born a guy. (I keep thinking that, although I've had many terrific female teachers in my life, the ones I've wanted to be like have all been men.)

(Prof. M. was the department hippie, whom I mentioned briefly in my comments at Flavia's. She was awesome, even though she was so gloriously disorganized that I had to sit in her office and address the envelopes myself while she printed out my rec letters for grad school, hours before the deadline.)

Anyway, one of the things I found interesting about this passage was the weird tension between feminism and misogyny. At twenty, I was evidently aware of double standards in the academy and the ways they affected female professors' self-presentation -- yet at the same time, my student-self is clearly buying into some of those gendered expectations and stereotypes. I doubt very much that I would have labeled a tough line of questioning at a thesis defense "bitchy" or "cutthroat" if it came from a man. And the whole rant is bound up in all sorts of anxieties about my own self-presentation, and whether I could ever live up to the profession's unwritten expectations and codes. I don't know what to make of it.

On a lighter note, here's my younger self on the topic of pretentious-assed literary societies:

The Phoenix Society held a poetry reading at the coffeehouse last night -- I was not in attendance, although their fliers urged me to "come here the poetic stylings of several savants, and feel free to throw in your own spiced verse." Idiot savants, apparently, given the spelling. Anyway, I'm not sure any of my poetry could be described as "spiced" -- what are you supposed to do, grate nutmeg into it?


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Between this and Ink's posting of letters she wrote at various stages of education, I'm sensing a meme building.

Flavia said...

This is a great post.

I'm terrified of reading my old journals, but although I'm sure they contain very few reflections on my professors, male or female, or on the profession as a whole, I know for a fact that they're filled with similar anxieties about self-presentation, as well as a similar mix of misogyny and nascent feminism. I spent YEARS hating the demands that were placed upon women's appearances--but more because I hated how I looked and felt unable to compete in that particular marketplace than because I fully understood or was prepared to overturn the double standard at work. (And, obviously, I haven't.)

And like yours, my old journals also contain very explicit expressions of my wish that I'd been born a guy.

Anonymous said...

Tha's a slightly bizarre coincidence. I've kept an online journal in a private forum for a long time now, and much of its content, about now-lost loves mainly, I find very painful to read, not least because I was such a pretentious idiot (and seem to have been far more popular as a result, too). I resolved recently to cull most of it and take all that history out of view, but it's run through with academic observations from when I was just falling in love with my material that I was pondering reposting some of. So whatever it is you people have caught, it apparently made it across the Atlantic.

undine said...

This is a great post. Although I didn't keep a journal, I don't remember thinking about my professors more in terms of brilliant and awesome--or not--than in terms of gender. (This sounds a little like Stephen Colbert's claim that he "doesn't see race," but it's true.)

On the other hand, the one professor I recall as flaky and capricious was a female prof. Does that mean that she really was, or that (more likely) I had gendered expectations of how professors ought to behave?

undine said...

Sorry--that should be "I remember thinking about them," not "I don't remember thinking about them."

Anonymous said...

At least it sounds like you HAD female profs. As a chem major, none of the profs I had as an undergrad(that I can remember--even for english, history or culture)were female. In chem I ran into the opposite issue-women were expected to dress like sexless creatures. If you dressed nicely, you were clearly a secretary.