11 December 2005

She Helped Me A Lot

Dr. Crazy had an interesting post the other day which has generated some conversation about terms of address between professors and students, and persona in e-mail and in class. It's got me thinking a bit about a sort of creepy moment in my last class period. A (male) student was doing a poster presentation on the history of some obscene terms (a project that appears about every other year--usually in this course someone wants to write about the history of slang, and on and off people are interested in the history of obscenity. The topic is actually a pretty interesting one and totally appropriate for the course). The presentation was OK; I've not read the paper yet but it sounds like the only really substantive research he did was in a book I recommended to him, and the rest of his work was on the web (I may be wrong here, but if his research was stronger it wasn't coming out in the presentation). Part of the poster had a list of phrases for sex, and as part of his presentation he ran through them, which generated a fair bit of giggling. Not the world's greatest use of presentation time, but ok. Then he said "She [i.e., me] helped me a lot." This led to more giggles from the group of (presumably straight) men who had sat together on one side of the room all term. "Not in a hands on way," the student said, "but with this book she told me about." I felt my cheeks vaguely flushing, although the moment passed quickly and then other students did have some good questions to ask about etymology and the social history of language taboos.

But still, the moment felt weird. It's the only time in the classroom I thought students were having a slightly sexual moment of humor remotely involving me. And in a weird way, what bothers me more is the student's phrasing: She helped me a lot. It's the last week of classes, and he's not using my name.

The conversation at Dr. Crazy's, which was started on another topic, has included some discussion of the importance of formality. I have gotten more formal as a professor as I've moved on in my career--I still believe passionately in a decentered classroom, but I have found as a woman the title of Dr. or Professor often helps me gain or keep authority (which I can then deploy to decenter things). It also helps convey to students that I have a PhD (which not all their teachers do) and I want them to know I spend time studying and researching and learning things in my discipline. I put Dr. Granola on my syllabus, but I tell students that they can call me Dr. Granola, or Crunchy, but not Mrs. Granola. With my first-year students, in a small thematic community that developed a pretty informal ethos very quickly, I started signing my e-mails Dr. G. and that became a form of address (one student calls me Crunchy, which is fine, but all the rest call me Dr. Granola or Dr. G.) In my upper level class, I verbally delivered the same message, but tended to sign my e-mails "Crunchy Granola" which elides the what-should-you-call-me question (although most students have called me "Professor Granola" or Dr. Granola with the occasional Crunchy mixed in. And really, they have been a respectful group all term long.

But it bugged me, the anonynimtiy of She helped me a lot. On the last day of classes, with a student I've had a couple of conferences with, answered questions about the upcoming teacher liscensing exam, I just felt like I deserved more. And the laughter associated with the (totally unintended) comment about my help just made it all feel creepy.

So I'm trying to decide whether I'm incredibly insightful or incredibly oversensitive.


Lauren said...

Hmmm. Sounds like a situation in which everyone is bound to feel self-conscious, and for good reasons. Maybe the student wrote in HIS blog, "I can't believe I forgot Professor Granola's NAME when I went to acknowledge that she helped me!"

On the other hand,it's very hard for me to get into the head of an undergraduate male who did a paper on the history of the "f" word.

Piece of Work said...

I think it's odd, too, that he used "she" and not your name. I wonder why? Possibly just some sort of slip, caused by the embarrasing topic, I guess.

Susoz said...

Without having been there or knowing anyone involved, it sounds to me like a classic case of male objectification - you were stripped of your status and personal identity and turned into a 'she' in the context of a discussion about sexual words.

jo(e) said...

In work situations, it's very common for employees to refer to the boss always as "he" or "she" and never by name. I don't know why or how this came about, but I've seen it over and over again. That seems to be the way the student was using the pronoun.

susan said...

This was just one passing weird moment in a class, and your very different comments have me thinking that some different cultural scripts were simultaneously invoked and clashing: I think the student really was trying to tell the class that I offered valuable assistance, and he was also trying to highlight that there was some scholarship involved. So in that sense, he wanted to access the linguistic/language history and scholarship and acknowledge my professional expertise. I think the students were all generally enjoying a little venture into some ordinarily taboo-in-school territory, and as this was the last night of class it is a natural time for a little goofiness to creep in. But there was a gendered nature to the goofiness and I think the men who particularly enjoyed it were also a little self-conscious about it (this angle got reinforced later in the class when a woman did a presentation on the language of romance that also drew on straight iconography from a more fluffy and traditionally feminine point of view). And there was the slip into totally stereotypical straight boy humor which objectified women, plus the boss/worker relationship which at my commuter school is often an analogue for professor/student relations. The moment felt so weird to me precisely b/c these things all swirled around together, and then-poof!- we moved on to another student, another discussion, and things got back to normal. or normal after weird, which feels a little different.

Arwen said...

I feel for both of you - I'm the kind of person who references everyone as he and she because I forget everyone's names continuously. Even my kids'. On the other hand, the giggling probably was gendered/tittlating - I'm not sure how we're going to get away from the opposite sexes as mentors & lovers thing. It's a real issue b/c it.
BTW: I was browsing around your site and noted you're a Quaker? Or at least had a Quaker wedding. That's exciting to me, I'm also a (non-programmed) Quake, who did a silent worship portion of my wedding.
Also, I tagged you on a "weird things my kids do" meme, should you like to participate.

Arwen said...

It's a real issue b/c it means women are sexualized even while working... Ahem.

susan said...

Welcome, Arwen! And I'm thinking about the weird things meme and will get that up in the coming days.

Yes, I'm Quaker, although the question of What We Are is currently rather confused and vexing. I became a Quaker in college and in the 12 years since moving here have been drifting more into Jewish study and practice. It's a sort of weird story but it all fits together for me.

But we had a lovely Quaker wedding: so many people spoke that I can't really call it silent worship, but it was unprogrammed. (When I first moved here, I visited a programmed Quaker meeting and it was, um, culture shock. Never went back.) Did you have a wedding certificate, too? I love reading all the names on our certificate. We had a naming celebration for Curious Girl that included a naming certificate that we had everyone present sign, modelled on our wedding certificate.

Arwen said...

My mom has the Quaker certificate, but we were actually married by a wedding commissioner so our certificate is the traditional sort. We had Quaker (un)silence introduced by my mom - you're right, there's a lot of talking at a meeting for commitment, or for a funeral - but our wedding wasn't overseen by the meeting. I'm far away from my meeting.

I think Quakerism in general supports more than one type of practise, since in seeking, you can find a different way to worship that fits. You can also be a practising something-else and a Quaker, it seems. I remember a Jewish Quaker at NeeKauNis who taught us all songs and dance: a welcome addition to me.

I think a naming is a great idea. A welcome, in an anabaptist way.