Monday, January 03, 2005

Gender in the classroom

Part 1 of what will probably be an ongoing series....

I find myself facing an unusual situation, for the second time: I will be teaching a class with no female students.

Now, in my field there are very few women to begin with, and thus most of the classes I teach have very few women. (The one notable exception being the "computing for non-majors" class I taught, where the class was 80% women. That was an interesting experience for me....but that warrants its own post.) And I've certainly been on the other side: one of a few female students in a class full of males, typically with a male prof. I don't necessarily like this state of events, but it's the way things are. So, whether you're a female prof or a student, you develop ways of dealing with this. As a student, I coped by forming support/study groups, either with the other women in the class or with my male friends. As a prof, I cope by trying to make my classroom as comfortable and inclusive as possible. There's a certain tenuous balance, but it mostly works.

The dynamics are completely different when you are the only woman in the room, AND you are the one in the position of power. I am usually pretty confident in my teaching, and I try to project this confidence to the students. But teaching a class of all male students really threw me for a loop. What changed? Well, first, I had this insane idea that I could never be wrong or let on that I did not know the answer to something. I am usually not afraid to say "I don't know the answer to that. Why don't you google it and get back to the class?" or "That's interesting. Why don't we explore that further in the next class?" Instead, I found myself making up answers much more often if I wasn't sure of the actual answer. I don't mean that I made stuff up out of thin air.....I did try to come up with a logical-seeming answer based on whatever we were talking about. But still, this is not a healthy way to behave.

The second thing that changed was that, oddly enough, I never mentioned gender in the context of the course. This, of course, is highly unusual for me; I bring up women and their contributions to computing as much as I possibly can. But again, I had this insane idea that I could not draw any more attention to the fact that I was different, and by not mentioning gender (until the last day of class, when it came up a few times) I thought I could do this.

I knew that neither of these ideas were healthy. But the experience was just so weird for me that these became, in a sense, my defense mechanisms for coping with the weirdness of the situation.

When I have female students in my class, even though there is a power differential, I feel like I at least have people that are on my side. We're connected by gender, if nothing else. This gives me a certain level of comfort. I never really realized that until my "comfort zone" was gone from my classroom.

I wonder if anyone's ever studied this?


Ianqui said...

I'm not in the relevant field, but I'm sure someone has studied gender and classroom dynamics.

It's interesting that you discuss that you felt you always had to know the answer. My husband--also a scientist--is always shocked when I tell him that I admitted I didn't know something, either in my classroom or in a research-related situation. He really believes that he can't show weakness. I guess I can see why you feel that way in a classroom full of men.

Do you think they take you less seriously than they would a male professor?

Jane said...

There's always the danger of not being taken seriously. I do definitely feel like I have to "prove myself" in ways that my male colleagues do not, and worry about how I present myself in a way that my male colleagues do not. For instance, I dress up for class way more than my colleagues do. I also have a pretty strong classroom personality: it's very no-nonsense. But I'm constantly thinking about what I say and how it's going to come across to the students: will it make me look weak?

In most cases, I think students are just not used to seeing a woman who knows a lot about computing. But after the first class or so, they pretty much accept that I know what I'm doing; they get over their preconceptions pretty quickly. But there are always those students who just don't get it. And these are the ones who will wait for you to show any kind of weakness in order to prove their point that in fact, you are a moron. :)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

That's a really interesting post - thanks for writing it. I've never had an all male classroom (usually the other way around, b/c I teach some women's history classes), but I do have one class I teach (on a war) that tends to be almost all men. I don't know if this has to do with the difference in field (there are plenty of women teaching history), or whether it's a function of the students I teach (very traditionally aged), but the issue I usually encounter with male students is their need to show off - they're not so much trying to challenge me as to impress me (which can get awfully tedious!). I actually initially feel more challenged by some of the female students, if they initially don't seem to think I'm "cool" enough or something. (This probably says a lot more about my own insecurities than something else...)