In the Fretful spirit of considering how our women professors looked to our undergraduate selves, I will begin with this assessment of classes from the beginning of my last term before graduating. I have replaced names with initials plus X (for females) or Y (for males).
Four classes: renaissance poetry, taught by Prof VY visiting from [Ivy 1]. Very friendly and fun, intrigued by and enthusiastic about [this area]. Fun to talk to, very receptive to student participation in class, even when our interpretations differ from his. Refreshing. Then 20th century lit from AX. In comparison with my other profs [this term], she suffers, particularly with a lecture class rather than a seminar. She was extremely nervous the first week or so; has calmed down now, but still is somewhat hesitant and disordered. Seems like she waits for you to tell her what she wants to hear; also just asks to hear general reactions, no specific questions. Third: women’s literature and feminist criticism, from NX, visiting from [Ivy 2]. VERY good. She’s really on top of lectures; it makes it difficult to talk in class, because by the time I’ve worked out what I want to say, she’s said it; if I have questions, she usually answers them in lecture. And finally, JY’s seminar in medieval narrative poetry. Wonderful. I have lots of grammar to study. I have tons of reading. I like the Renaissance class very much.
I’d had a seminar with AX in the previous term, which I had greatly enjoyed. One incident had marred that term: a couple of students habitually engaged in side chat to each other, in a room of about 10 people sitting in a circle. I found it very distracting, particularly since the class was conducted in a foreign language and hearing whispered English interfered with my ability to keep my mind in the less familiar language. AX generally ignored the whisperers, but one day I got fed up and told them off myself. They were startled to be taken to task by a peer, and did shut up. But after class, a graduate student from the country whose literature we were studying caught up with me in the ladies’ room and told me I should not have done that, that it was disrespectful. I failed to see how: the disrespect seemed my peers’, to me, but this woman thought if the prof could put up with it, I should too.
So I had past experience with AX. My impression was that she was simply very shy about speaking in front of groups. She always got better as the term wore on; she was fine in office hours; but in the first week of class, sitting up front, I could see her hands shaking. She had tenure, so it wasn’t to do with pre-tenure anxiety. I doubt it was a health condition, since the shakiness appeared at the beginning of term and then got better. But reading this casual assessment of her made me feel very self-conscious about my own classroom presentation, now. We are so visible.
AX was confident enough, though, to simply be herself, nerves and all, in front of her students. NX may also have been herself, but it was a very different self: simultaneously polished and abrasive, very organized, giving the impression that she would stand no nonsense and that if you had something to say it had better be an intelligent contribution. I kept getting B’s in her class, and later in the term I went to see her to ask how I could improve my grade. I don’t remember what she said (I didn’t write about this), but I think it might have had something to do with class participation, because I remember weeping in frustration and humiliation as I confessed that I kept trying to participate and by the time I got my comments formulated, she would already have said them herself because her lectures were so complete. In the end, I got an A in the class and I wept again, because I feared she thought I was brown-nosing when I truly did want to improve, not to be indulged.
I was studying both these women as potential models, since I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. I wanted to know what options I had for being a professor. AX was much easier to talk to. I really wanted to be like VY, who lived in a hotel in a funky neighborhood and once took a batch of us out to breakfast at his usual diner and then on a flea market expedition. But I could see that part of his ability to treat his students as he did came not just from being male, but from being a not-terribly-attractive man. His attractions all had to do with personality; he was not at all like Alison Lurie’s ridiculously handsome Fred Turner, whose looks “interfered with his teaching.” I was not sure how I was going to negotiate all the pitfalls of whose presence I was gradually becoming aware . . . but my commentary is already too long.