Minority prof./minority student dynamics

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Visiting ass't prof.:
I've both heard a lot about and experienced the power dynamics in a classroom involving faculty of color vis a vis a predominantly white student body. As faculty of color, we often find ourselves working against implicit assumptions of authority being white, male, middle class, heterosexual, and able-bodied. White students, who may come from majority white towns, often are not accustomed to seeing a person of color in a position of authority, and this undoubtedly affects the ways in which faculty of color, particularly women, negotiate the classroom.

I'd like to hear some stories about power dynamics playing out between faculty of color and students of color and how students of color can often be difficult challenges to our authority in the ways that white students can be. A colleague tells me that he often gets students of color in his ethnic studies course who don't do the reading and are resentful when he expects them to do so because "they are already ethnic." As a woman of color, I often find that the male students from my racial group see me as a mother figure rather than as a professor. I am currently dealing with a frustrating situation involving a woman student from my racial group who wants to pal around with me like I'm big sis or something like that.

Does anyone else out there have similar experiences?

First, let me just say that your message is so timely! I just had this discussion with some co-workers the other day. I, too, am female and a minority.  So far, I've only been exposed to teaching in large, Northeastern US, metropolitan areas. In these areas, particularly in New York City, it has been my experience that the white students don't really seem to have an issue with me, it's the students of color that do. Now, this is not to label all students of color as combative and disruptive. My experience where I am currently teaching reflects and supports this. I now teach at an all-female college, where all the women in my classes are members of some minority group and things could not be progressing better. These are intelligent young ladies who do what they're asked, but also go above and beyond the call of duty. I don't have to do much hand holding here. In turn, they ask for personal attention and, because our classes are so small (in one class I have 12 students), I am able to provide it.

However, I think I can completely understand what you're expressing about the minority students wanting you to perform in a position of a mother figure. I have not really had the experience of the female students wanting to play the role of a friend, but I have had male students (in the past) to go as far as asking me out on a date.  

The particular group of minority students that I did have during the spring 2004 semester in NYC decided they didn't like me because I wouldn't let them get away with turning in pooly developed, lackluster work. I often wondered if I were a white man (or white woman for that matter) would I be questioned with such disdain and vigor? When I called them on it, or would return their work with lengthy comments meant to assist them, they always saw it as a criticism (personal attack), even when I explained (in depth) the work and the way I require it to be done will prepare them for the work world that awaits them and that's what I was most concerned with preparing them for.  

At the conclusion of the semester, a white student came to me in confidence and told me these particular (minority) students were planning a petition against me. When I pressed further, she didn't seem to know all the details. She did, however, inform me that the students involved were ones who she assumed were failing the course due to their own less than stellar performance.

The way I handled it was to type up a short essay question and hand it out on the last day of class. I instructed them to "write at least two paragraphs, explaining the grade (A, A-, B+, etc.) you believe you've earned this semester and why. Elements to consider (and address in your response) before you begin writing should reflect on your overall performance, quality of the work you've done (i.e., did you do your work the night before, with little preparation and low quality, did you follow ALL directions, etc.), whether or not you've participated adequately in class discussion, whether you used class time wisely and your attendance and/or tardiness to class. Now, being completely honest with yourself, write your response below."

After they completed their essays they wanted to know why I had them participate in this exercise and I told them that this was my proof in the event they decided to move ahead with their "petition" and that the department chair was already aware of what was transpiring. In addition, many of the students were really honest with themselves and admitted their poor judgement in studying, asking questions for clarification, etc. It hurts to look in the mirror and see things that aren't so good about ourselves.

To conclude, I guess you would think that a female, minority professor at a largely white institution would slowly be accepted, but I think there are personal assumptions that abound within both races (and among ethnicities) about what a "professor" is supposed to look like. My current students often joke around with me, but they also know that there's a time and a place for laughter, but while we're engaging in chapter discussion or any other class-related activity, that's time for serious dialogue and analysis. Because I also teach communication courses, we've had the discussion about perception of people before they can even express themselves and how to ask questions to either nullify or validate those predisposed assumptions. I always use myself, teaching on the first day of school and the resulting shock on students' faces as the example.

I also think it depends on how you begin and manage your first day in class with the students each semester. You have to come across as firm, yet human and then let up as the semester progresses. I am not so far removed from being a student so I know many of the issues that are facing my current students. I hope your posing opens up a flooding of the gates (if you will); this dialogue is plenty overdue.

White Female:
I also have students who challenge my authority and want me to be a pseudo-mother instead of a teacher. I wish I could remember where I read some stats that show college students expect female profs to be "easy graders" and "friendly" and are upset if their expectations are not met -- expectations they do not hold for male profs. Could it be a hangover from grade school, where most of their teachers are women? As more men teach in elementary school and kindergarten, will this change?

(I'm sure the minority dynamic affects the mix, but I'm wondering if gender is a more potent factor in authority issues.)

I think being a female does factor in, but it's a double weight to carry to be both minority and female. Here you have two groups that have been disenfranchised in some form or another in this country. I agree with you, for some students perhaps it is the gender issue that's the primary factor, but I really have to hesitate to suggest some of my experiences were based on gender alone. Maybe the current situation with more men teaching in the primary grades will help re-develop many of the attitudes and beliefs we hold. However, higher education still seems to be male-dominated, and I don't really see that changing anytime soon.

Visiting ass't prof.:
I'm just agreeing with SL here. Even though White Female is right about women of all racial categories facing sexism in the academy, people of color of all genders face hurdles in a profession in which we are not adequately represented. The example I provided in my original post involved a male colleague who faces challenges to his authority from non-white and white students alike.

I have anecdotal evidence from other male friends in the profession who similarly deal with these issues, and it is particularly pronounced when it comes from a member of your own racial group. Even though I think White Female's points make sense, I don't want to derail the original discussion by diverting it towards a conversation on sexism in the academy. If someone wants to start another thread on women professors (of all racial categories) and sexism, that is fine.


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