Higher Education

I Am All About Dismantling Systems of Patriarchal Authority, but Please Don’t Call Me “Hey.”

required-readingHere’s a real conversation I had this morning as I was standing just inside my office door:

Student I have never seen before, gesturing toward the door next to mine: “Hey, um, do you know where she is?”

Me: “No.”

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?”

Me: “NO.”

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.

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RR: March 12, 2013



DrShell is an Associate Professor of English at a small liberal arts college. She teaches world literature, composition, popular culture, and speculative fiction and serves as faculty sponsor for the Secular Student Alliance. DrShell lives in tame suburbia with her husband and son and a pack of rescued pets, where she spends a lot of time running, taking Body Pump classes, and thinking about getting another tattoo.


  1. March 12, 2013 at 6:32 pm —

    I’ve been dealing with this issue with my daughter since she was small. Growing up in the midwest my parents did not have a particular demand for respect beyond don’t be rude to your parents and listen to what they say and don’t lie.

    I now live in the South and deal with the fact that my ex and his family demand my daughter respect them by calling them Sir or Ma’am, most especially when she’s done something they deem wrong. I absolutely hate that tradition. Most of the time their demands are bogus and their punishments are for things that are so ridiculous I’m surprised I have rolled my eyes out of my head by now.

    Sadly I can’t expect her to rock the boat to satisfy my outrage, and I’m not on speaking terms with anyone from that family, so getting them to cease won’t happen. Instead I’ve simply been telling her that if it’s someone who will get angry if she doesn’t say sir or ma’am to, then do that, but otherwise she simply needs to be polite.

    I think being polite is more important that show of respect that’s usually done out of fear, not true respect. I can’t change a culture, but I can make sure my daughter knows it’s better to think instead of blindly following tradition.

  2. March 12, 2013 at 8:03 pm —

    I am still a bit thrown when students address me as “sir,” especially having come from a less formal undergraduate institution where no one would even have considered calling the professors “sir” or “ma’am” (or worse, “Doctor”). I do have a couple of theories, though, which I think apply to the dynamic in this situation.

    “Um, hey” sounds very strongly like the student in question was himself uneasy about addressing or acknowledging the power differential, or was perhaps even unsure of what kind of power was in play. How is the office space in your department organised? There are departmental offices with all kinds of mixes between faculty, adjuncts, post-docs, TAs, admins, graduate students, etc. This can be all the more confusing when office spaces are shared. As an aside, our adjuncts by and large share offices with student TAs and not faculty (in a different building no less), and this fact is not lost on students. Of course, if your name and rank are on the door there’s a bit less of an excuse, but even then (unless there is a clear departmental norm) we don’t know how the student has been taught to address this differential in his home department or with your neighbour.

    I also think email culture has eroded much of the formality and deference in teacher-student interactions, and not in the good kind of anti-patriarchal way, but in the bad kind of lack of professional respect way. Because students now feel entitled to send us any question that pops into their mind, they start to feel that way about other aspects of their relationship with us. Note that he expected his professor to be available to him even when there was no reason to expect her to be (and ample reason not to). If he was trying to give her something, why not come to her during office hours or make an appointment? Probably for the same reason that, when I teach 300 student theatre lectures, I get one student at office hours about every three weeks but literally thousands of emails.

    Note also that his first reaction upon failing to find her is not to carefully read her schedule, but to impose on you to solve his problem. This is exactly like when students email questions that are clearly answered on the course syllabus or FAQ (or both). I’m willing to cut him slack on the mailbox issue only because my own department’s mail situation is so complex I actually have to write an explanation section on my syllabi to explain to students how it works (long story short, our department’s reception is behind a locked security door on the seventh floor in a different building from my office, which itself has no mail slot or box but is in the same building as the department’s mail room, which is locked but has a special unlabeled slot in the door for all student assignments for all instructors but no other mail).

    But yes. I think email culture is at least partially to blame. That’s my two cents.

  3. March 13, 2013 at 12:12 am —

    I never thought of that–it makes sense.
    We don’t have adjuncts with offices; I think we only have a couple of adjuncts at all, teaching some peripheral classes. We’re such a small college (fewer than 900 students right now) that it’s really unlikely that anyone wouldn’t recognize a professor. It’s possible, of course, especially if the kid is a freshman. We are a baccalaureate school, so no grad students or TAs either.
    Your mail room description is hilarious, lol. Ours is wide open in the division office, where really anyone could walk in off the street and steal my textbook flyers and advisee report slips.

  4. […] of you may remember DrShell touching on this subject a year ago, when her own encounter with a student who seemed genuinely unable to address […]

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