Teaching While Facing Gender Biases
Dear Bonni, Do you have tips on how to spark curiosity for students who are in classes not in their major when I am female and most of my students are male engineers? I find it hard to get them to engage with me because of their preconceptions, and sometimes I feel like I have to prove myself to get their respect? —Faculty member struggling to engage with students
When I first started teaching, I experienced what I will politely call “friction” in relating well to some of the male students. One was candid with me in saying that he had not experienced women in his life who were as direct and confident as I seemed to be. He was more accustomed to women being nurturing and passive in how they presented themselves.
We all work in contexts where biases exist and persist. Our intersectional identities can exasperate those challenges. Faculty of color, for example, report far greater instances of having to navigate gender identity and racial discrimination in their teaching. It is important to begin by naming these biases before determining how we may then exist and persist within our own identities.
My colleague Sylvia Kane, director of Vanguard University’s graduate education program, shared on a recent episode of my Teaching in Higher Ed podcast about having co-workers and students mistake her for someone who was there to clean the spaces and places, not to teach in them. On another episode, Terri Jett, faculty director of the Hub for Black Affairs and Community Engagement and professor of political science at Butler University, revealed the ways students expected her to soften how she spoke about some of her areas of expertise. Jett spoke in the interview about the ways in which course evaluations contained biases and were not always helpful in informing her teaching approaches.
In bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress, she reveals how white students often expect Black women to play the role of caretaker in their roles as professors. She writes of remaining diligent and patient in her pursuit of establishing new norms in the classroom:
“In my professorial role I had to surrender my need for immediate affirmation of successful teaching (even though some reward is immediate) and accept that students may not appreciate the value of a certain standpoint or process straightaway.”
While being aware of the ways gender and other forms of bias impact students’ perceptions of us, as teachers we do need to be cautious not to exasperate the challenges. In Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, Claude Steel describes the threat that exists when we inadvertently are hindered by the fears that we might be perceived according to the stereotypes about our gender, race or other parts of our identities. The hopeful side of Steele’s research is that the ways in which people are limited by stereotype threat can be lessened.
I have found it helpful to focus less on me and my identity in the college classroom and more on the students and igniting their imaginations.
I have found it helpful to focus less on me and my identity in the college classroom and more on the students and igniting their imaginations. I focus more now on learners’ discovery, finding content that relates to their interests and contexts, and allowing them to bring their full identities into the learning environment. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes about shifting the focus to the learners: “So, one of my teaching strategies is to redirect their attention away from my voice to one another’s voices.”
This kind of a cultural shift takes time, and it often results in some resistance. “To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to share the desire to encourage excitement, was to transgress,” warns hooks. Students can become accustomed to what Paulo Freire called the banking model of education. This is the idea of professors making “deposits” of knowledge into students’ minds and then later asking them to regurgitate the information without critical thought. In fact, most of higher education has ingrained a more transactional relationship between students and faculty, and much of that is by design and hooks argues that faculty can reinforce more mechanistic ways of being together in learning. “During my twenty years of teaching, I have witnessed a grave sense of dis-ease among professors (irrespective of their politics) when students want us to see them as whole human beings with complex lives and experiences rather than simply as seekers after compartmentalized bits of knowledge,” she writes.
Recognize that having a more-engaged classroom requires students to do some occasional unlearning. When you ask a question, allow for the long, sometimes-awkward pauses that can be required before someone decides to take the risk of potentially being wrong or otherwise looking foolish. You won’t have to wait that long each time, but you will have to build up a pattern of students recognizing that you are not asking questions rhetorically.
Shift the focus away from proving yourself and into providing opportunities for the students to bring their full identities, interests and contexts into the class. Maria Andersen, CEO of Coursetune and adjunct professor, structures her classes to contain the same pattern each week. Andersen told me in a recent podcast interview how she uses graphs and charts to allow students to explore topics that are most interesting to them. Hoping to put more emphasis on critical thinking, Andersen prompts students to consider about each graph:
- What does the graph mean?
- Are there any inconsistencies on the axes? (large jumps in years, for example)
- What questions do you have now that you’ve seen this graph?
- What bothers you about the graph?
- What would you want to see added to the graph?
By redirecting learners’ attention to discovery, we keep the focus on learning and less on having to prove ourselves.
The biases you perceive can and often do exist. However, keeping our attention on such dynamics can be counterproductive. Instead, focus on helping students grow beyond the limits of the stereotypes they have subscribed to about others and into learning more about themselves and the world around them.
Consider keeping a folder where you store words of encouragement from past students. These messages can be a healing balm for those times when you get discouraged by what you are facing. They will also help you recognize that you are able to reach students and have a profound impact in their lives.