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Monday, March 10, 2014

White Male Classroom Privilege

This is an essay about code-switching as a college skill. It starts, though, with questions about privilege and clothing.

In a few minutes I am heading off to teach a class on Crusade and Jihad in the Middle Ages. We've just reached 1200 and I'll be asking the students to break into groups and tell them to design the perfect crusade, thinking about logistics, theology, politics, military strategy, and so forth.

I'll be wearing jeans and a comfortable grey shirt. I used to always wear "business casual" clothing - a button down shirt, nice slacks, comfortable shoes, often a sport coat (tweed yes, elbow patches no), and I did it on purpose. I wanted to put on my "professor" costume, to help students understand that in the classroom there was a kind of formality, to code-switch and model code-switching for them. Moreover, it just felt right.

But this year I am older and more tired, perhaps thanks to my wife's work travel schedule and the stress of finishing a book (on a 3:3 load, while chairing a major committee, and the demands of parenthood). I acquired most of my formal wardrobe while I was on the job market 7 years ago, and I've put on a bit of weight since then. Some of my formal shirts are fraying and I don't want to spend money on them. This year, it's mostly been jeans and comfortable shirts.

In Inside Higher Education over the last week, two competing essays have weighed in on formality in the classroom, focusing on dress, among other subjects. First came Katrina Gulliver. She writes:
I am not your friend; I am not “Miss.”
Is it just me, or are we witnessing an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates?
They’re all calling me by my first name. Is this happening in your classroom too?
She continues:
To add to the confusion, in most departments there is the species of (white) male professor, who wants to be seen as “cool” (you know the one, who shows up dressed like he’s come to mow the lawn), who invites all the youngsters to “call me Dave,” resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority. If you’re one of these guys: you are not helping the rest of us.
(For those who are going to slam me for being uptight, watch your privilege).
Will Miller retorted:
I am not your friend, but I do want students to feel comfortable approaching me. And I am not “Mr.” That would be my father.
Last week in this same space, Katrina Gulliver, made an argument regarding “an epidemic of familiarity among undergraduates” that directly implicated white male faculty for “resting safely in the comfort of assumed male authority.” I have witnessed this alleged epidemic in my very own classroom; and I have — much to the chagrin of Gulliver — done nothing to prevent it. Some, in fact, may even accuse me of silently fostering it.
Who I am is a white, male, millennial faculty member and college administrator who prefers creating a respectful environment in which my students are afforded the greatest opportunity for success without worrying about the same interaction in other classrooms. I have been known to occasionally teach in clothes that I could mow the lawn in and apparently a student or two have at some point said I was cool. . . . I strongly believe there is no need to rest on my apparent genetic laurels. I may be a white male, but this has nothing to do with why I am comfortable in a classroom. And more importantly, I think it has little to do with why students can respect me despite knowing my first name and using it if they feel so inclined. 
So let's deal with a few points first.

  1. Female professors have vastly more pressure placed on their physical appearance than male professors. In graduate school, I was shocked to discover that my female fellow TAs received comments - comments on their formal evaluation documents - on their clothing, makeup, hair, and general appearance. That has never happened to me. Moreover, I have heard men who receive the famed "chili pepper" on Rate My Professors (a site dying out with my students) crowing about it, because their students think they are hot. Women ... not so much. This puts financial pressure on women, but also emotional pressure to put on their armor before standing before the classroom. Which leads me to my next point.
  2. Men, especially but not exclusively white men, can tap in to deep wells of assumed authority if they want to. Women have their own wells, but they tend to be linked to mothers and elementary school teachers, rather than power in the adult world. This is what privilege looks like. I tap into it all the time. It's a shortcut for me - and you know, I sometimes need that shortcut. It's not fair. I'm not sure how NOT to tap into it. Putting on a suit and tie would only enhance it.
  3. I think Gulliver's assumption of motive - "wants to be cool" - is as unsupported as Miller's more preposterous statement that being a white male has "nothing to do" with why he is comfortable. OF COURSE it is part of why he is comfortable, although surely not only that. And of course some people want to be cool. I don't want my students to think I'm cool. I just like to get up, put on jeans, deal with my kids' breakfasts, get them to school, put on a coat, and go - not stop and re-dress myself in something more formal (or dress formally first, and have my kids spill on me). I do want my students to think I am smart, organized, engaged, interested, interesting, demanding, and so forth. My white maleness helps a lot with that.
Mostly, though, my white maleness affords me the room to make this choice. I can de-authorize myself anytime I want. I sit on tables. I tell self-effacing jokes (and the students actually laugh at one in three of them, a pretty good ratio). I didn't mind it when students started showing up at my band gigs because it wasn't going to be a threat to my classroom authority. Heck, it might even make me cool.

I've got all the advantages: white, straight, male, middle class academic parents, etc. You name a source of privilege, I've got pretty much got it.  It's a privilege that enables me to move easily in and out of formal modes. The question is what it means for me to take advantage of that privilege.

To me, answering that question requires thinking about my specific students. Many of them, first-generation students and first-generation Americans have trouble with formality. I don't especially care if my students are formal to me (there's that privilege), but I do think knowing how and when to be formal is a key life skill. On the academic side, formal writing is more precise writing, and I labor to guide my students beyond simple emotional reaction to texts. Formal reading is closer reading, rather than tl;dr skimming. I want them to write to me and address me as Professor Perry (I've surrendered Doctor, despite the Latin roots), so they understand that I - and that college - is not like highschool. They need to be able to follow directions.

That said, my students also need to know that professors are people you can ask for help, feel safe in expressing doubts and fears, pushing for comprehensible answers to questions, and generally engage with. We can't be distant intimidating towers of knowledge, whether we wear a tie or not, especially as white male authority figures. Are my first gen non-white students going to be more able to engage with me if I erect barriers between them and me based on speech and dress? Is that going to help them learn?

And so I code-switch. I try to model code-switching. I try to teach it as a skill, right along with textual analysis and thesis-driven essay writing. I do it explicitly. I talk about it. I take authority and I give it back, I point out I'm doing it, I ask to think about what it means.

And that, to me, is the ultimate lesson. Be intentional in your decisions about formality or lack thereof. Don't let the default win.