WILLA v3 - 'Teaching Ain't No Joke': A Response

Volume 3
Fall 1994

"Teaching Ain't No Joke": A Response

Allison McCormack and Kathryn C. Lacey

Do you remember when MS magazine ran its column on "clicks"? Just in case you don't: A "click" was a not-so-minor epiphany that made us fully conscious of the extent to which women were devalued. The usual reaction to a "click" combined frustration and outrage. Well, "Teaching Ain't No Joke" (WILLA, Fall 1992) was more a thunderclap than a click for us and for many of the colleagues, both male and female, with whom we shared the article.

Lana Hartman Landon has beautifully defined a major problem for many female professors (and for many administrators too, probably) -- an academic version of "the problem that has no name." And Landon doesn't pass the buck to the system, society, the academy, or our male colleagues. Rather, she points out that too many women have assumed the role of the domestic engineers of the classroom, however unconsciously we may have done so. It's a tough pill to swallow that we cast ourselves into these parts that have become almost second nature for women in the academy. And, to make the pill even more bitter, we've done this to ourselves, social conditioning notwithstanding.

Let's first add to Landon's examples of situations in which women professors become, as she aptly puts it, "angels in the classroom."

For example, there are those independent reading seminars we've offered during the summer, effectively teaching a class of one, so that a student can graduate on schedule. And when we do this, we may often effectively compromise our own research. But the kids come first. Click.

Or there's the frequent neurotic insistence that students not be held in suspense about the fate of their work. Cruel to keep them anxious, we say, so due dates are carefully engineered so that material can be returned the next class period. The result? Students don't seem to notice, and we find ourselves wailing that classes "take [us] for granted." Sound familiar? Click.

Look, for instance, how much we women tend to want our students to feel that they can approach us to discuss their work, that we're available for one to one conferences. So we frequently turn from the computer screen or from the book we've set aside time to use in the library to answer a question or discuss a revision. And no, we're not talking about regularly scheduled office hours, either. We shouldn't be putting our work ahead of the kids, should we? (and isn't there a tendency to say MY kids?) That would be selfish, correct? After all, could our work be as important, perhaps, as their needs? Click.

Granted, this "student-centered" approach to teaching is given a great deal of lip-service these days. (Whether it is rewarded is another matter, of course). It works best when class size is minimal and the teacher's course load is small. In graduate school where the seeds are planted, it is possible to schedule those individual conferences with students twice a semester as well as to schedule in personal class and research time. Meeting the needs of the many and the self are better achieved in this controlled setting. After graduation, we pull full classes, overloaded with students, and the pressing task of meeting hundreds of needs simply overwhelms our own research and ambition.

Current pedagogy aside, the choice to be a nurturing professor is ultimately our own. We are consciously making decisions everyday that prioritize our students' work over ours. We frequently do this in courses that are not even new preparations. But is it really necessary for us to re-read and re-annotate the novel we've taught ten times? And, really, how labor-intensive are all the reading quizzes we prepare (a new one every semester, of course) and grade, to make certain the students keep up with the reading? Do we need to give one every class? We probably feel guilty if we don't: then, it is probably our fault if a student doesn't do the work, right? What about his/her own responsibility to be a student in the first place? Click.

Now, don't misunderstand. Most of us do not see ourselves as martyrs. Or, if we do, it's an unconscious view. Frankly, on the rare occasions when we come down hard in advocating for our right to be a scholar too, we frequently feel guilty for being selfish. And we hate feeling guilty. This statement is what makes this a gender issue, apparently. When men are non-nurturing, but effective teachers and prioritize their own careers, they are satisfied. Many women we know, however, who prioritize their careers and down-play their role in the classroom often feel great guilt over this decision as does any mother who "can't have it all." It is only recently that many of us realize to what extent we take on this nurturing role and what a tough burden it is to shake. (And how beneficial for students is it, really, to believe that since Mommy's there, they will be cared for? Are we refusing to let our kids grow up? Are we keeping them dependent?)

If you have ever functioned in an administrative capacity, you have probably realized that "administration ain't no joke," either. We women too often extend our families to include our colleagues, as well as our st dents. And when we have a family, we nurture it, correct?

Why? Why do so many of us do this? Of course teaching well is of paramount importance. So is being an ethical administrator who doesn't abuse what power she has. We don't want to feel the quilt of being derelict. Certainly when graduate students (of both sexes) take courses in the teaching of composition, they are encouraged to be nurturing and supporting of their classes. But is it accidental that composition and rhetoric is an area of the profession where women outnumber men? Probably not.

This all sounds dangerously like the idea that in order to feel good about ourselves, we go for what Landon cited as the "immediate value" inherent in the belief that good women are those who are good mothers, the nurturers, the selfless. We believe this is what we carry with us at some level. Even some women who consciously decide not to appear nurturing in the classroom, are ultimately perceived that way by students. Why? Perhaps because it is a conditioned belief that on some level, women will be mother figures, regardless of their individual behavior.

It occurred to us that, decades ago, the only women allowed to teach were single, young, and of course, virginal in demeanor and appearance, if not practice. One reason for this was to take advantage of their supposedly "untapped" nurturing instincts and to channel them into the classroom for the students' benefit. Perhaps it was here that women outside of family roles learned that the "immediately consumable" can feed into an under-nourished self-esteem. While the school boards and administrations have changed the criteria since, perhaps on some level, many of us have not changed our need to be savior, heroine, and angel. In any economy, the immediately consumable always feels immediately most useful. What's key in the whole issue is exposing our own choices, priorities, and comfort zones. We need to continue as Landon has and not blame culture and history but accept our own sense of agency. Dare we suggest that men often manage to teach extremely well and to be prolific scholars, too? What, perhaps, can we learn from them? Perhaps, we can learn to value ourselves as scholars. Perhaps, we can learn to find the same sense of urgency and responsibility for our own work as we direct toward our classrooms. And with the release of our guilt for not being what we can not be, we will finally -- hopefully -- stop hearing the click.

ALLISON McCORMACK is Associate Professor of English at Miami University in Ohio. Her primary research interest is studying Jane Austen from a new-historical perspective. KATHRYN C. LACEY is an Instructor of English at Miami University in Ohio. She published the title story in the anthology, The Answer, My Friend and Other Stories.
Copyright 1994, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation : McCormack, Allison, and Kathryn C. Lacey. (1994). "Teaching ain't no joke": A response. WILLA , Volume III, 28-29.