I’ve got a gray beard, a balding head, and an old person’s sartorial style—but I’ve embraced blending into student populations. For me, this isn’t simply about being cool or fitting in or feeling young. I consider it a pedagogical intervention: The idea is to challenge our collective understanding of what it means to be an intellectual, and to show that scholarly pursuits are not incompatible with the “everyday.”That prompts the staff at College Fix to get off the case for social distance.
Respect and professionalism, prof? I’ve got news for you: With your wardrobe choices, there are students who will automatically question you, your whiteness notwithstanding. Just because no one has complained doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened.But within the self-flagellation there's an anecdote that suggests offices of faculty development are missing an opportunity to do some real faculty development.
Did the students—either the legendarily political Berkeley crew or the less-progressive students who just were taking the course for a general-education requirement—ever challenge me, question why I was teaching the class, or simply resist my pedagogical approach? Never. Happened. Even though I lectured about genocide, enslavement, mass incarceration, and persistent white supremacy, students offered little resistance.That seemed to be a theme elsewhere those days. Consider A Black Female Professor Struggles With 'Going Mean'. Social distance matters, and carrying it off without seeming arrogant or uncaring is hard. Trust me, I worked on that and can't be sure I ever got it right.
This all changed, though, when a fellow graduate student—an African-American man—delivered a couple of guest lectures about the prison-industrial complex. After two mind-blowing and brilliant talks, I was excited to continue the conversation with the class. My students? Not so much. They lamented the guest lecturer’s “attitude.” They described him as “angry,” as “biased” and “sarcastic,” and as “different from me.” Several students seemed more interested in litigating his pedagogical choices than discussing the injustices of the American judicial system.
The behavior of the overly authoritative professor was a symptom of being devalued and disrespected by students and colleagues, I said. While unfortunate, I assured the student that such dynamics were part and parcel of the minority and female academic experience. My student then used her sociological imagination to describe how this woman’s place in history had probably played a significant role as well. She said, "Yeah, this woman started in the 1970s. It must have been really tough being a black professor then." I was satisfied with her use of the sociological imagination and ended the conversation by confirming the astuteness of her insight.There's plenty more, in a similar vein, summarized by John Rosenberg. The diversity-privilege-oppression nexus comes in for stick, and yet, in all the complaints, is the missed opportunity for faculty development.
I was truthful with the student about how being a black academic is an uphill battle (something I first saw while teaching in graduate school). Indeed, I almost made the decision during that first semester to "go mean" on my own students. I told her that I had felt I was at a crossroads—frustrated about being devalued by my colleagues and disrespected by my students. I had an internal conversation about whether I would continue to be my jovial self or purposefully be cold and differentiate myself from my students and colleagues. However, such behavior would be only a symptom of a larger problem that I was having as a minority female professor. And if I had decided to act coldly, I would merely be seen as "difficult" or as having an "attitude."
It's in the presentation, people. Former Vice President Al Gore, for example, comes off as condescending and sanctimonious most of the time. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been making extraordinary efforts to modulate her tone and sound reasonable on the stump, although lately her handlers must have coached her to dial up the strident again. Being firm without being nasty is an important part of saying no and upholding standards, which is what professors get paid to do, and getting the content across without coming off as sarcastic or angry or difficult ought to be what the experts in faculty development get paid to do.