Blog 53

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image – Adrian A Smith (adriansmith.ca)

Social Inequality and Teaching in the Academy

We live in an unequal world; these inequalities do not stop at the university classroom door.

In this five-part series, I consider some ways unjust inequalities are (re)produced in the classroom. These inequalities affect the pedagogical relationship. Moreover, critically investigating them matters if the university is to be a site for challenging, not reproducing, social inequalities.

Elaine Coburn, Glendon

Part IV: As Professors, We are Not All Equal Before Our Students

Disciplinary canons frequently emphasize the special, expert authority of white, male academics from Ivy League universities, excluding many other voices (Parts I and II). The point is not that the former voices do not matter; only that they should not matter as exclusively as they do. Yet, it is no easy task to challenge established disciplinary canons and even less, to challenge the basis for disciplinary distinctions themselves (see Part III). Here, I expand on the argument that canonical innovation is especially difficult for precarious academics and professors working from relatively dominated social locations.

Notably, my pedagogical experiences, as a white, straight able-bodied woman, contrast with those of many colleagues. I have never been accused of being a “bitter disabled person” for exposing the disabling relations and infrastructures of everyday life. When we analyse racist and colonial social relationships in the classroom, white students do not accuse me of making them “feel bad”, a charge leveled against an Indigenous colleague. I do not have to manage the everyday strain of hiding my sexuality, in an effort to avoid the (plausible) hostility of many students, socialized into a heteronormative world.

Such realities may be critically deconstructed in the classroom. No amount of critical deconstruction, however, moots the actual relations of inequality around dis/ability, race and sexuality that facilitate my pedagogical relations with students in the classroom.

In particular, students may be reluctant to recognize the competence and expertise of professors whose bodies do not align with traditional (white, male, straight, able-bodied) representations of authority.

Professor Himani Bannerji  (1995), for instance, found herself systematically overlooked by students when co-teaching a course with a white male colleague, as if – as a brown, immigrant woman — she could not be taken seriously as an authority in the university classroom.

Catherine O. Fox (2013) writes about being a non-gender-conforming, openly lesbian professor in the classroom. She suggests that her presence is especially problematic, for some students, insofar as she rejects women’s supposedly natural, maternal caring and nurturing role. Following Andrea Greenbaum (2002), Fox observes:

“female professors who resist taking on a maternal role in the classroom often are evaluated poorly in student evaluations as well in annual professional review documents and promotion and tenure processes. Women are granted a certain degree of authority in the classroom to the extent that we espouse ‘legitimate’ roles; those who challenge the norm are left bearing the negative consequences…”

In other cases, students may challenge professors whose pedagogical content transgresses dominant disciplinary boundaries or whose teaching style is rooted in ways of knowing outside of dominant, male-centered Western traditions.

The late Roxana Ng was subject to a formal complaint by a student for daring to assign feminist readings in a course on racism; he further complained that he felt “completely marginalized” in her classroom as a white male (1993).  As Ng remarks, ostensibly, such student challenges are not about her person but her pedagogical content and style.  Consequently:

“(t)he advice administrators and colleagues have given me concerning these incidents generally revolves around contents and styles: perhaps I can tone down my lectures somewhat; change to less controversial materials; acquire more teaching techniques; prepare better….”

Yet, Ng challenges this advice, arguing:

“As I continued to analyze how gender, race, and class relations operate dynamically in interactional settings, however, I realized that what I experienced has less to do with my competence as a teacher than with who I am” (p.190).

If these illustrations are anecdotal and suggestive, systematic empirical evidence is supportive, including experimental research that demonstrates that identical course materials are evaluated as worse and professors evaluated as less competent by students when the professors are women or sexual and racial minorities (eg., Kamenetz 2016; Badheshi, Madera and Hebl 2010; Russ, Simmonds and Hunt 2002).

In short, professors may be subject to unrecognized racism, sexism, homophobia and more, because student challenges do not take the form of directly racist, sexist and homophobic remarks. Moreover, it is often assumed that because professors evaluate students, they exercise power over them and therefore bear responsibility for improving difficult pedagogical relationships. Yet if classrooms are part of and not separate from an unequal world, a more realistic approach might require thinking through ways of supporting racialized, women, Indigenous and disabled colleagues in university classrooms, as well as outside them.

The other four parts of this series have been or will be published on the following dates:

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