Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"You can call me 'Patrick...'

But if you're uncomfortable with this, 'Dr. Bahls' is fine."

These are the words with which I begin most classes on the first day of any given semester. They're uttered shortly after I rock on in wearing vividly patterned shorts, Chaco sandals, and a plain uncollared T-shirt.

To my more dressed-up and buttoned-down friends in management or accountancy departments, or to my colleagues from cognate math departments in more conservative universities, I look a caricature of liberal academic hippiedom, a stereotype of the left-leaning professor. My dress is casual, my manner with my students more casual still. I'm unconcerned with formal titles, encouraging my students to think of me more as an equal than as an expert. I'm laid-back, easy-going, and down-to-earth.

And I can get away with this because... it because I'm a straight white male?

I talked about this with new friends I met during a visit to Clemson University yesterday (shout-out, Nanette!): I've known for a long time now that a number of my equally-if-not-more-well-qualified female colleagues have a hard time dropping the word "doctor" from the phrase by which they ask their students to address them: the word is an extra layer of armor plate that protects them from charges of academic inadequacy. ("Of course she's qualified to teach this course, she's a doctor!") I've only recently begun to think about the privileges bestowed upon me by other markers of my sociological makeup.

In the "plus" column: male, straight, white, non-disabled, holder of an advanced (terminal) degree.

In the "minus" column: atheist, untenured, left-handed.

If it were a matter of toting up points to determine my net level of privilege and power, I'd probably come out ahead: my pluses are more numerous than my minuses, and generally exert more force. I'll never have to worry about going through my career being defined as a "white male mathematician," while some of my finest colleagues have had to put up with appellations like "one of the best female research mathematicians in the game." (Allan G. Johnson, in Privilege, power, and difference, p. 33: "People are tagged with other labels that point to the lowest-status group they belong to, as in "woman doctor" or "black writer," but never "white lawyer" or "male senator.")

What assumptions, fair or unfair, intended or unintended, privileging or oppressing, am I taking with me into the classroom?

For instance: having a septuagenarian student in one section of my calculus classes reminds me that I can't make generational assumptions, and even the laid-back level of discourse with which I often interact with students of more typical college age in an attempt to convey tricky technical ideas in a down-to-earth fashion might confer unearned advantages to them to the disadvantage of someone less familiar with today's slang and pop cultural references. This same highly fluid "code-switching" that I do in my classroom, which puts many (most?) students at ease, may also put up unintended obstacles for students whose first language is not English.

What about race? At a school like UNC Asheville (which is woefully undiverse from a racial point of view), it's easy to fall into normative assumptions about the ways in which people of various racial, national, and ethnic backgrounds perceive and receive new ideas and new information, even ideas and information as abstract and "objective" as those found in mathematics. Am I unwittingly privileging the vast majority of my calculus students, who are white, to the disadvantage of the meager few (no more than five or six out of sixty-five this semester) who are of color? Obviously I'd like to think that I'm not, but privileging assumptions are often subtle. What would such assumptions look like in the mathematics classroom?

More to come, certainly.

1 comment:

Erdrick said...

Well, according to some anonymous student on RateMyProfessor, I'm "excessively PC," so maybe I think about these things too much.

Gender is probably where I pay the most attention. I'm aware that women are underrepresented in mathematics and engineering, so I try not to privilege male students.

It's a tough line to walk, however. Do I cut short a great discussion of baseball statistics in my stats course because it privileges my male students? Or is that making a gendered assumption about my students' non-math interests?

What's easier is dealing with culture on graded assignments. I'm not going to assume any of my students know, say, how a baseball diamond is laid out if that knowledge is relevant to them solving a test question. I'll go ahead and explain in sufficient detail those aspects of culture (like the layout of a baseball diamond) relevant to the problems at hand.

It's my blind spots that worry me. As a white, male, American, there may be things I say or do that privilege white or male or American students in ways I don't see. I don't want race or gender or culture to get in the way of my students learning mathematics.