Mommy Issues and the War on Teaching Faculty

First of all, thank you to everyone who read, forwarded, and commented on “The Shelf Life of Total B.S.” I am awed and honored.

When I wrote my response to David C. Levy’s salvo against teaching faculty, I expected that its readership would be limited to the same dozen or so long-suffering friends who’d hung on for the last few entries. I had even thought of retiring the blog, and I might have done so were it not for the encouragement of these readers.

I would absolutely never have predicted that journalist Kaustuv Basu would call my office the next morning to interview me for an article in Inside Higher Education – my first thought was, “Do these people know what a nobody I am?” – nor that my blog entry would gain support from higher ed colleagues across the country, and certainly not that I would seem worthy of ridicule in Gawker.

The Gawker article, “College Professors Find Plenty of Time to Be Outraged About Being Called Not Busy,” was dwarfed by a photograph of a balding, disheveled white man evidently snoring in a recliner, cat by his side:

True? Untrue? It doesn’t matter. (Except to academia [=boring].) When it comes to winning these public debates, all that matters are the “optics” of the thing. From Inside Higher Ed:

Jill Kronstadt, an associate professor of English at Montgomery College, was in the middle of grading papers Sunday when she came across a Washington Post opinion piece questioning whether college professors work hard enough.

She was upset.

Kronstadt spent the next few hours writing a rebuttal to the piece

“I am so outraged about your piece insinuating that I do not have way too much work to do that I just stopped doing my little bit of work and spent hours crafting a response to you, because hey, I have the time for that,” is what I imagine her intro said.

Apart from author Hamilton Nolan’s not bothering to link to – or, it seems, even read – my response, and apart from the fact (which I emphasized to Basu several times when he interviewed me, but which he nevertheless misrepresented) that I finished grading and then wrote the blog, not the other way around, I find a much bigger and arguably more sinister message.

Since when does it show a poor work ethic to take a few hours on a Sunday to do something not strictly work related? The underlying assumption is that teaching faculty are not working hard enough unless they are working every single minute of every single day and weekend. On the other hand, Levy’s article argues, “The faculties of research universities are at the center of America’s progress in intellectual, technological and scientific pursuits, and there should be no quarrel with their financial rewards or schedules.”

Levy’s Ayn Rand-like contention that researchers and not teachers are central to national prosperity – carrying with it the idea of trickle-down prosperity rather than robust education for all – is arguable at best. In Levy’s formulation, researchers deserve unquestioned reverence, whereas teachers, teaching teachers, should be followed around with stopwatches. But why is the stereotype of Ivory Tower slackers so enduring?

In pondering this question, which Basu also posed to me in our interview, and to which I then had no answer, it occurred to me that there is another group of people who are disparaged and even hated unless they work incessantly, give infinitely, and sacrifice endlessly without crass hopes for things like compensation, appreciation, or societal supports. And, in the likely event that life is not 100% certifiably perfect, members of this group are the first ones assigned blame.

That’s right: mothers.

It so happens that Levy’s double standard falls along gender lines. According to a 2006 study, “AAUP Faculty Gender Equity Indicators,” full professors at doctorate-granting institutions – the faculty Levy singles out for particular reverence – are only 19.3% female even though women earn nearly 50% of doctoral degrees awarded. At community colleges, by contrast, women compose 50.8% of full time faculty and 51% of part time faculty.

The gender breakdown of K-12 teachers, however, dwarfs the disparities in higher education. A 2006 Harvard University report, “The Segregation of American Teachers,” states that women occupy 75% of the teaching positions in public schools. Based on these statistics, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to say that the word “teacher” conjures images of women, and the word “professor” elicits images of men. A 2000 article in Teaching Sociology (Oct 2000: 28.4) confirms this suspicion. Perhaps coincidentally, the public has assigned the majority of the blame for the higher education crisis to K-12 teachers, with undergraduate faculty making rapid gains, as documented in the oft-quoted book by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses.

In fact, many studies have documented gender bias in student evaluations of faculty. For example, one study conducted by researchers at Harvard University, Clemson University, and the University of Virginia found, “In biology and chemistry, male students tended to underrate their female teachers, but female students did not. In physics, both male and female students tended to underrate their female teachers.” An October 2008 article in Political Science & Politics, “All-Knowing or All-Nurturing? Student Expectations, Gender Roles, and Practical Suggestions for Women in the Classroom” (41:4) lists multiple studies showing gender bias and offers advice to female faculty for mitigating the effects of this bias on their own evaluations.

These many student evaluation and demographic studies seem to imply that systemic gender bias is a factor in perceptions of the value of teaching faculty. In my cursory, inexpert view, attacks on educators and educational institutions seem to be directly proportional to the percentage of women in these institutions. If students unconsciously expect their female professors to act like mothers, it seems plausible that the average unreflective, media-saturated member of the general public would impose his or her expectations of mothers onto teaching faculty as a group.

Gender bias could also explain how Levy’s unqualified endorsement of research over teaching faculty found publication despite a lack of factual and logical support. Men contribute to society; women nurture. Male faculty conduct important research; female faculty teach.

It is true that we have a higher education crisis. Enrollments have skyrocketed, particularly in community colleges like Montgomery College, and counties and states, who have lost revenue in the economic downturn, have underfunded education, and especially higher education. Consequently, the cost of education has been offloaded onto students in the form of increases to tuition, class size, and hiring of underpaid part time faculty (a population which, incidentally, tends to be balanced by gender).

Recently, we have seen the devaluation of women play out everywhere from Arizona’s legislative attacks on contraception and reproductive choice to Hilary Rosen’s spurious claim that Ann Romney never worked a day in her life. If students routinely perceive female faculty as less competent than males, is it wrong to wonder whether the public perceives female-dominated institutional roles to be less valuable than male-dominated ones? And, as we try to control education costs and improve outcomes, are we letting societal mommy issues obscure the real solutions?

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One thought on “Mommy Issues and the War on Teaching Faculty

  1. Pingback: Teaching load, itemized: part 1 « The Accidental Mathematician

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