Speaking Out of School

I’ve spent a lot of time these last few days talking with other academics about this NYT article by philosopher Carol Hay. Titled “Girlfriend, Mother, Professor?”, it decries the extra emotional work female faculty do as a consequence of students’ difficulty figuring out how to process women as professors and authority figures.

Many of these conversations went something like “Man, she’s strangely approving of the ancient Greek sex-with-boys approach to pedagogy, huh?” But the others suggested that Hay’s argument rings broadly true. There’s the YikYak problem. There’s the teaching evaluation disparity. And then there’s the Kleenex box Hay mentions, which many female academics keep on hand for the inevitable midterm tears.

Hay is correct that female faculty often bear the burden of providing emotional support to students. And that it’s a no-win situation. Falling behind on your research agenda due to time spent performing emotional labor results in penalties at tenure time. Declining to play the role of nurturer leads to punishment in your course evaluations.

But that’s not the whole story.

This isn’t simply a gender issue. Minority faculty members perform tremendous amounts of emotional work. For any student whose natural life cycle is not likely to include a phase as an middle-aged white man with elbow patches, seeing someone who looks like you in the professoriate is valuable. Developing a relationship with them is even more valuable. Faculty who come from under-represented communities know this. And even though they also know that being a role model and a support system for students will eat into their research productivity and may hurt their chances for tenure, many of them do it anyway. Because it’s important to them.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s ostensibly important to the schools, too. Almost every university and college in the U.S. has a publicly stated goal of increasing diversity in their student body. The emotional labor that female and minority (and particularly female minority) faculty perform is critical to this mission. It’s a rare 19 year old who doesn’t occasionally need a sympathetic adult ear. But for college kids who are the first of their family to go to college, who are working two jobs to stay there, or who are facing racism, sexism, or homophobia from fellow students, this need is even greater.

Emotional support from faculty can make the difference of keeping these students in school and ensuring that they succeed. But universities don’t seem to value this work, compounding the already higher rate of tenure denials among women and minorities. Which again, only makes the academy a whiter, more male place.

So maybe these schools aren’t that serious about being a welcoming environment for everyone, after all. If they were truly committed to diversity, they wouldn’t have policies that penalize labor that is disproportionately performed by female and minority faculty, and which disproportionately benefits female and minority students.

 

Kate Cronin-Furman

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