In the dead days of winter, uplifting news

It’s the first week of February, and here in the part of Ontario where I live we have reached peak snow. The days are still pretty short; the nights are bitter cold and lit by moonlight reflections on snow banks that rise past my waist. The dog loves dragging me through the slick streets, my orange rubber boots skidding past unshoveled driveways as we careen into the darkness. She sticks her muzzle into every fresh drift; I wonder if I will ever feel warm again.


(Emma Jane: activist learner.)

In these depths of winter I always crave good news; this week, wish granted. Through my Tomorrow’s Professor feed came an article from Inside Higher Ed magazine celebrating the four American teachers crowned “professors of the year” for 2014. What’s so exciting about that? Three of the four – THREE of the four – winners are women.

Although we’d all like to think we live in a postfeminist moment, in which the gender wars are over and women have won, those of us who are both female and teachers know that when it comes to student reception and evaluation of our work, we are at a disadvantage. In the same way that our society at large encourages us to judge women harshly according to the catch-22 standards that shape that nebulous but longed-for identity, “femininity”, women teachers are judged by our students, by administrators, and by other unseen eyes all over campus all the time. Recently, the Feminist Philosophers blog posted a reflection on an article on this subject by Christina Fisanick; the article assesses research that examines how overweight female professors experience serious bias in student evaluations. But it’s not just “fat” women teachers who suffer the slings and arrows of prejudice, passed along to students of all shapes, sizes, and genders by normative social expectations. As Fisanick writes,

Many researchers (Lewis; Weber and Mitchell) have argued that the “normal professor body” shares the same characteristics of the “normal body” in society. Most depictions of the “normal professor body” are white, male, middle-class, middle-aged, able, heterosexual, and thin. Where did this image of the “normalprofessor body” originate? How does it affect students’, professors’, administrators’, and society’s expectations of what a professor should be or should look like?

I’ve been very fortunate in my career: I’ve learned to feel strong, capable, and empowered in my classrooms, and I’ve offered as much of that empowerment to my students as possible. I feel respected by them, and I respect them in turn. But I, too, have wondered more than once about the ways in which my, and my female colleagues’, genders “read” to our students in unconscious ways. For example: I’ve been up several times now for a prestigious student council teaching award at Western University, but have never won; I can’t help but notice, when I glance at the wall of winners in the library atrium, that the vast, vast majority of winners are (white) men, and it’s not uncommon for all the winners in a single year to be men. I really love and appreciate being liked and favoured by my students (who doesn’t?), but often when they tell me they rank me as a top teacher, they list only, or primarily, male colleagues as among their other favourites. (This in a department with a virtual gender dead heat: as many female full time faculty as male.) Although I know I’m a good teacher – I’m happy to keep doing what I’m doing and I will never stop trying to improve – I also know that I will never be worshipped and adored the way some of the iconoclastic men in my department are. There’s a gulf between us I cannot bridge.

So hearing that three of four top teaching award winners in the U.S. last year are women – and across both arts and science disciplines! – is extremely welcome news. Even better: as the Inside Higher Ed piece notes, these winners were chosen not because they offer stellar lecture performances or idol-worship ease, but because they make space for group learning, shared knowledge development, and – even better – “flexibility,” “play” and even chaos (chaos!) in the classroom, all in the service of helping students think not just highly of the teacher, but better for themselves.

Now, you might think: but that’s not unexpected. Isn’t the “flipped classroom” pretty much the teaching gold standard these days? Yes and no. For a lot of university instructors, lecturing – and lecturing a lot – is still where it’s at. Why? It’s how we learned. it’s what we know. if we’ve already written the lecture for classes past, it saves prep time in an increasingly packed work schedule. And if we are good lecturers who enjoy standing up and talking to a class of eager young people, well – it’s a no brainer.

And make no mistake: students LOVE lecturing. They love best the teachers who lecture best. They describe those teachers as intense, charismatic, funny, relatable – and what they are responding to when they say these things is the performance at the podium these teachers can turn on. I know it; I can do it too, and as a performance scholar I’m extremely well placed to understand the appeal to student audiences of the virtuosic performance of professorial smarts that is the essence of a great lecture. I’m a total drama queen, quite a ham, and a great lecturer myself as a consequence – but I hate doing it. It’s not demonstrably better at communicating information than other teaching methods, and there is now an abundance of research demonstrating the ways active learning methodologies support student engagement and intellectual growth beyond what traditional lecture formats alone can achieve. (Here is just one example from that research; note that this particular example is from the sciences, as are many on this topic.)

This makes the national success of a group of female teachers who eschew the podium performance all the more remarkable. When they embrace the chaos, turn the questions and the research challenges over to their students, and then challenge themselves to navigate the morass of stuff – some excellent; some truly enlightening; some atrocious – that comes back after 15 minutes or so of student-led group work: well, they are proving beyond a doubt how damn hard it is to teach really, really well in a way that works for and with students’ existing skills and intelligence, and in an effort to make those things stronger. These women are being celebrated for hard classroom graft, not the showy glories of centre stage. And this is a world that needs more hard-graft celebrating, especially of women.

I want to end by saying this: I know teachers who primarily lecture work hard; there are several outstanding teachers who love to lecture down the hall from me as I write this, and I love and respect how committed they are to their students. But theirs is not the only model of hard and committed university teaching labour – even though it remains the most visibly and typically celebrated kind. I’m just thrilled to report the gate has opened a bit wider, and some alt-iconoclast women have marched through the door.