It’s that time of year again: the magical time when my 10 page undergraduate research proposal deadline is enough to cause a health scare among the geriatric population of mid-Missouri. As the semester comes to a close, my office is typically filled with both undergrads and grads coming to tell me a plethora of problems and stories. Many times, these problems preface a request for an extension of some sort. Can I please have an extra week? An extra day? An extra 20 minutes?
Some of the problems that appear at my office door are to be expected: a replication file can’t be found, an inter-library loan book hasn’t come in, the Hausman test doesn’t work. Other times, students come to my office with questions and stories that really do shock me: I’ve had students tell me about weekends in jail and their reproductive health. I’ve had students provide information that I would be hesitant to tell my significant-other and would never dream of telling my parents. Although some of these stories are probably laughable attempts to get an extension on a test or assignment, I also know that many of these stories are very real and, on a human level, I’m glad the student is sharing with me. Even if it won’t result in an extension to the assignment, I can be a sounding board and can refer the student to services that may help.
On a professional level, my office hours seem to be filled with these stories far more frequently than my male colleagues. As my former colleague and down-the-hall neighbor Sam Bell reported:
“while I was in my office having to explain to students that zombies are fictional, I was thankful to not have the trail of tears that led to your office…”
That’s right: my office was a trail of tears. And, I don’t think it was because I was difficult – I think it was because I was seen as caring and open to discuss issues with students. This seems consistent with a larger trend on gendered differences in academia. As Marcia Bellas reported in a 1999 review article in the The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science:
“different socialization experiences” and /or “conformity to organizational and work role standards and expectations” … “can create pressures for female professors, in particular, not only to perform enthusiastically but to exhibit friendly, caring behaviors, and they appear to be more likely to do so” (99).
Again, I actually really enjoy this part of my job and, on days when I’ve had students talk to me about their problems, I am more than willing to get up an extra hour early the next day to ensure I still get my research done. My “rant of the week” comes from the fact that listening to student problems matters very little for my professional compensation. Bellas (1999) says this well:
“The extent to which professors should listen to their students’ personal problems is less at issue than the consequences of gender differences in professors’ behaviors and the toll women’s behavior may take on their emotions and time when they expend so much of both on activities that are little recognized or financially rewarded.” (101).
I don’t know if there is an easy answer to this but I hope it becomes part of our larger discussion on women in political science. My work in the classroom extends far beyond the classroom. And, some of that work may be doled out differently simply because of my gender and perceptions students make about my openness to listen to their stories. I consider it part of my job, even knowing it won’t be compensated. One of my colleagues in the field, Susan Allen at the University of Mississippi, had a wonderful take on this issue that I’d like to close this post with. There are many times in undergrad where a professor like Susan mattered for me:
“I’ve never thought of coming to a professor’s office as an act of religious penance, but something seems to happen when students step across the threshold of my office. There’s nothing special about the office – it looks just like all the others on the third floor of Deupree Hall. There’s no grid or lattice separating my desk from the chairs on the other side. Yet, students often find it a safe place for their confessions.
At first, I thought perhaps there was something about me. Maybe being young when I started made me the cool professor to whom you could say things like “I got my girlfriend pregnant and now I’ve ruined my life!” (Really, you’ve ruined your life?!?). As I got a little older, I wondered if I’d inherited my mom’s eternal maternal charm, and that students felt safe telling me about the pressing issues of their days – “I just broke up the guy I sit beside in your class and we’d been together for two and a half years. Now I’m a mess.” (You dated him?!?) or their more serious struggles with eating disorders, parental pressures, or mental health issues.
In the ten years that I’ve been teaching (Has it really been THAT long?!?), I’ve realized that this is something that many, or perhaps most, female faculty deal with much more frequently than their male counterparts. Whether it’s the perception of a safe space or a more compassionate presence, women are more likely to hear and more likely to listen to the confessions of their students. My male counterparts tell me that they always shut it down before it starts. Over time, I’ve realized that I can do that too, but I’m never sure if that’s for the best.
I almost never hand out Hail Marys or Our Fathers at the end, no matter how tempting. But sometimes I do pray for them.”