I Am All About Dismantling Systems of Patriarchal Authority, but Please Don’t Call Me “Hey.”
Student I have never seen before, gesturing toward the door next to mine: “Hey, um, do you know where she is?”
Student: “You don’t?”
Me: “I do not. Have you checked the schedule on her door?”
Student: “Yeah, it says she’s in class right now, but I went there and she’s not there.”
Me: “I don’t know then.”
Student, thrusting a sheet of paper at me: “Could you turn this in to her?”
Student, looking deeply wounded: “For real?”
Me: “Yes. She has a mailbox downstairs.”
Student: “Oh…” *wanders off*
I confess to you, Dear Readers, that my immediate response to this ridiculous scene was, WTF? That little cretin wanted me to submit his homework for him? I SPENT ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS ON A PH.D. FOR THIS?
Then I spent some time wallowing in elitist guilt, as you do.
Wallowing aside, I think there is an issue worth investigating here: Should we preserve some traditional power dynamics in the name of order, or should we bring down the wall and kick away the bricks? I do not have an authoritative persona, in general, and I allow students to “friend” me on Facebook, something many of my colleagues refuse. I also have read enough semiotics to have an awareness of the rhetoric of space, and I disapprove of the traditional undergraduate classroom that places all of the authority with me and away from students. I think about dismantling those power structures, creating a feminist classroom space and encouraging student voices, so I avoid standing at the podium and circle desks when possible.
But I wonder sometimes if my efforts to empower students deprive them of lessons about workplace relationships, which I think college also needs to provide. Will that student who tried to make me his courier leave college, take a job somewhere, and then call a supervisor “hey” one day? If he does, whose fault is that? I always confront hegemony with skepticism, and I hope my students do as well, and it’s not satisfying to sidestep the problem by saying that we are teaching them “respect.” Whence that respect? Respect for what, exactly, and why does the respect I show them differ from the respect they are expected to show me? No, the thorny problem remains: This is about my position in relation to theirs, about behaving deferentially before authority…and GOD that makes me so uncomfortable.
I really do try not to be a fancypants snob. I often remind my students that I know a lot more than most of them about Wordsworth, but they still know a lot more than I do about myriad other topics, that they consult me as an expert in a particular field, not as the font of all wisdom–and I believe what I’m saying there. I have no interest in receiving any bowing or scraping, nor do I feel I deserve such treatment. I don’t know how to define or articulate what I do want–which of course makes it difficult for students to know either. As someone raised in the American South, I instinctively defer to anyone older than I am, which makes no practical sense but doesn’t bother me as a thing in itself. Maybe that’s what I am seeking in these younger persons, just an acknowledgment of my position as an elder.
Oh–when I saw my neighbor later, I told her she might expect to hear about the stone bitch who rudely refused to accept one of her students’ wrinkled papers. She laughed and informed me that the reason Mr. For Real couldn’t find her in class was that he went to the room she teaches *his* class in, not the one listed on her door for the hour in question. Bless him.