I started my Ph.D. in the Humanities in the Fall of 2015. Riding out the energy from finishing my Master’s degree the previous term, I was ready to begin the long winded process of receiving the title of “doctor”.
Every Ph.D. student in my program receives a Teaching Assistantship (TAship). The TA’s assist in grading and examinations for full time courses, and they are also given designated tutorials to help students learn how to work with the material in their given class. Being a TA was a dream come true – I love grading and it was like an apprenticeship before I actually got to direct my own course one day.
Every year there are workshops at the beginning of the year for new TA’s to attend in order to learn the ins and outs of the classroom. During the first session (which had about 60 other keen Ph.D. students from several different departments), I was approached by an administrator. He was tall and thin with white hair and glasses. He asked for a private conversation, and then began whispering to me at a level where the rest of my peers in the immediate area could hear exactly what he said: “You are so young. Students tend to not respect younger women, so are you prepared to deal with the consequences of that?” My jaw dropped. My beet red face was throbbing with anxiety and anger. I was singled out. I was not scared of his warning, but more concerned with the reason why he would feel he needed to approach me before I had even entered a classroom.
When this administrator approached me, he set a very dangerous equation before me: (age)+(gender)+(authority) = disrespect from students. What was left unsaid? This could possibly lead to an ineffective classroom model for both me and my students. This is a bold assumption. This is “innocent” misogyny that seems to come from a place of care… but it doesn’t.
Fast forward to today.
My first year as a TA in the classroom wasn’t easy; the second year was better; and this year is the best so far. I teach full courses in the summer as an adjunct professor at another university. And you know what? I have never been disrespected by a student. My students are awesome. I have excellent attendance from my students. I have excellent evaluations. I feel good about my overall experience.
Further, I have witnessed that students who are held accountable to a mutual respectful relationship rise to that task. I am sure there are the outliers and that some professors (both women and men) have been disrespected in more ways than one in the classroom; however, it seems toxic to expect disrespect before class even starts.
That first conversation with the male administrator illuminated a problem that continues to be confirmed for me: male authority figures at my university judge me by my age and gender and not on my merit. While I may be expected to succeed, it is not surprising if I fail. I have been belittled by that one administrator, my program director (indirect), and the first professor who I worked for (who thought I was too young and unexperienced, and therefore useless. Might I point out that he read his lecture straight from the powerpoint….).
I am not really sure how to end this post. I think this ugly symptom of graduate school is problematic, but definitely not the end-all-be-all of my career or the very capable women around me. I am disappointed every time I have faced a male authority figure who sees my age and gender as a liability, but part of me just loves proving them wrong.
Let’s go ladies.
*PS: I also should add that the university that I teach at in the summer is amazing and gives me hope for equitable relationships in the academic workplace.