Herr Professor Daddy? I didn’t think so.

by Eszter Hargittai on August 19, 2008

I love my MommyAnyone who thinks male and female professors are treated equally by students is clueless. Just recently I came across a couple of examples that are very illustrative of this point. A friend of mine told me that her undergraduate advisees gave her a photo of themselves in a picture frame that says: “I love my Mommy”. (Apologies for the pathetic illustration accompanying this post, but given the time I put into it, I’m posting it.) Then just a few days later, I came across the following note on Twitter:

A friend of mine just bought this (as a gag) for her diss. director http://bit.ly/11LSdW.

Yes, click on the link. I’ll tell you where it leads, but you’ll appreciate it better if you see the image. The link is to a children’s book called “My Beautiful Mommy”. Raise your hand if you’re a male professor and students have given you similar gifts “as a gag”. No one? Shocking.

I can see the comments already: “If female profs are more caring then what’s wrong with students expressing their appreciation for that?”

First of all, students demand much more emotional work from female professors than they do of male profs. If the women don’t provide it, they are often viewed as cold bitchy profs that don’t care about students. Although I don’t know of any systematic studies of what types of topics students bring up during interactions with professors by gender, I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that female profs get approached much more by students wanting to talk about life issues than male profs. (More generally speaking, there is literature on how gender influences teaching evaluations, here are some older references.)

Second, there are plenty of ways to express appreciation that don’t involve putting the female prof in a mothering role, a role that certainly isn’t emphasizing her academic strengths and credentials. As my friend noted, a gift of this sort makes her feel as though her only contribution to the students’ success was in shepherding them through their projects and not in providing intellectual stimulation, helping them professionally, or contributing to the creation of new well-trained researchers. Maybe, just maybe, she’d like to be recognized for her intellectual contributions and the part of mentoring that involves the research aspects of her job. And while it would be neat if mothering was equated with all of those things, don’t kid yourself. Of course there is nothing wrong with being compassionate and caring, but it’s not what tends to be rewarded professionally in academia.

{ 80 comments }

1

anonforareason 08.19.08 at 2:36 pm

Completely agree with all that. I assumed the book was, itself, a gag, though, until I realised it was a cruel joke.

My guess is that some older male professors do get some emotional work demanded of them, if they give the right kinds of cues, which probably include manifesting a lack of sexual interest in the female students, and a certain kind of emotional openness to male students. I’d also guess that this doesn’t get discussed much. I’m speaking from experience.

2

aaron_m 08.19.08 at 2:37 pm

Weird presents; I would agree that they are reflecting gender norms and seriously confusing a mentor and authority figure with the only other “women’s role” they are accustomed to identifying with these characteristics. On top of that they are infantilizing themselves as well!

However I would be careful with the empirical claim that female profs/advisors more often have to field ‘life issues’/ do emotional work. I am a male and would say that for the majority of my students these things come up, which was a bit of a surprise for me.

3

Peter 08.19.08 at 2:51 pm

I’m pretty sure that I get significantly more requests for help on life issues than my female colleagues. On the other hand, I also a) am significantly younger than the bulk of my female colleagues and b) ride the bus to work, where I see a great many students on a regular basis — both of which make me more accessible. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence is worth… well, not too much.

4

Martin 08.19.08 at 3:00 pm

In junior high school I once, in a Freudian slip, addressed my science teacher (whom I liked and whose class I was quite into) as “Mom.”

5

Henry (not the famous one) 08.19.08 at 3:02 pm

It strikes me that this is only a step away from the old days, in which students developed crushes on female teachers (while expressing hero worship for male teachers). While I am years away from the academy, I would guess that the active disapproval of sexual relations between teachers and students (aimed more at male professors, I know) may have diverted this adolescent gush in a different direction.

6

dfreelon 08.19.08 at 3:08 pm

For many students, it may be that the specific case “mother” is simply an extraordinarily salient archetype that frames the general category “female authority figure.” Lack of familiarity with other variants of this category may be to blame; childhood upbringing could turn out to be a predictive factor.

As a grad student myself, I’m mystified and a little creeped out by the sentiment—sure, I’ve always thought of my faculty advisers as mentors and colleagues, but parents? That’s taking things a bit too far IMO . . .

7

notsneaky 08.19.08 at 3:09 pm

Male teachers are more of a “uncle” or if they’re old “grandpa”.

“As my friend noted, a gift of this sort makes her feel as though her only contribution to the students’ success was in shepherding them through their projects and not in providing intellectual stimulation, helping them professionally, or contributing to the creation of new well-trained researchers.”

On the other hand this sounds like your friend’s problem, not necessarily her students’. Your friend seems to think that being a “mother” is somehow incompatible with “providing intellectual stimulation, etc.”. Not the mom I know.

8

richard 08.19.08 at 3:25 pm

Hands up all on this board who think of Eszter as a mother figure.

I agree it’s weird and unsettling. I concede (without data) it may be gender-assymmetric. Beyond that, I’m not sure what it means. Maybe the undergrads are getting less excited about being independent members of society and are trying to extend their childhoods? Maybe all their parents are divorced and they hardly see their fathers any more? Maybe for them “daddy” is the dialectical partner of “bitch,” and that’s why you don’t see those cards? Who knows what “mommy” means to them anyway? I see Urban Dictionary offers:
2) Used as a adjective for a female who is superior to someone; used by females to infer superior status over another, particularly a male.
Mommyyyy, can I go out and play?

I’m your mommy, boy, respect this shit.
Tutelary!

9

Phil 08.19.08 at 3:25 pm

This may be a female/female dynamic, more than a student/female professor dynamic.

I doubt if male students treat female professors in the same way they treat male professors, but I would also doubt that is primarily because male students expect emotional support from female professors in a way they don’t expect from male professors. Instead, it is probably because they simply don’t see women as authority figures in the way they see men. I would bet that few of the students involved in the “I love my mommy” picture frame were men, or if they were, I would doubt if they were the ones who came up with the idea.

10

andthenyoufall 08.19.08 at 3:37 pm

Many universities plow resources into getting female students and female professors to develop personal rapports as a way to make women feel comfortable in the academy (or something), and many female professors treat this as one of the more satisfying parts of their jobs, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise when female students expect emotional relationships with their female professors.

In n=1 land, my girlfriend always referred to my advisor as my “[academic field] daddy”, but she meant it more in the daddy/bitch sense that Richard alludes to than in the paternal sense.

11

Nick Valvo 08.19.08 at 3:39 pm

I don’t think this does anything to invalidate the point you’re making (which I believe to be correct), but you and your friend seem to have missed the joke. My Beautiful Mommy is a book supposed to aid children with coping with the violence to their psyches associated with their parents’ cosmetic surgery. It got a little press. I think this changes things a bit.

12

Steve LaBonne 08.19.08 at 3:58 pm

Hmm. Isn’t your thesis adviser your “Doktorvater” auf Deutsch?
(Disclaimer- not intended as a serious comment!)

13

Dan Simon 08.19.08 at 4:09 pm

Thanks for the anecdote, Eszter. Next time my co-blogger starts ranting about academia’s rampant favoritism towards women in hiring, promotion and pay, and whining that political correctness stifles all criticism of this state of affairs while affording women academics carte blanche to complain bitterly about their miserable condition in what must be one of the cushiest, most coddled jobs in the world, I’ll remind him that after all, sometimes women must suffer the scourge of filial affection from students. That oughta shut him up.

14

bicycle Hussein paladin 08.19.08 at 4:18 pm

I’m willing to bet that #1 is dead on with the point that male professors who send the right signals will also be looked to for emotional support, and that any particular reasons why this doesn’t happen more in certain contexts is not talked about a whole lot, though I’m sure all of this varies considerably across disciplines, departments, &c., as well.

IMO the more interesting issue raised by this post is whether a female professor who doesn’t signal such openness typically suffers more disapproval than a male professor who doesn’t. I would bet this also varies a lot across disciplines.

15

Qb 08.19.08 at 5:28 pm

Just to add a piece to the puzzle: I remember a few grad students in my department referring to the chair of their program as ‘daddy.’ It was weird.

16

fjm 08.19.08 at 5:32 pm

I get the emotional stuff, but I also get bottles of whisky. Single malt [g].

17

Walt 08.19.08 at 5:38 pm

Wow, Dan Simon still whines like a baby after all these years. We had high hopes it was just a phase, but I guess it’s a permanent condition.

18

mollymooly 08.19.08 at 6:13 pm

I assume you mean “professor” in the US sense of “anybody on the faculty”. I don’t think British professors have as much personal interaction with undergraduate students as their junior colleagues do.

19

Sebastian 08.19.08 at 6:15 pm

First – I think this is a very interesting point and I would not doubt that female and male advisors/professors are treated differently.

That said, I think the “Doktorvater” – which is indeed how advisor is always referred to in German – is not as irrelevant as #12 seems to think it is.
It indicates that advisors are actually traditionally seen as father figures and I think such relationships are not uncommon – hence the “daddy” really doesn’t seem so unlikely as some of the posts above indicate.
But this is where things start getting complicated. Is “mommy” really just the female counterpart of “daddy” (Which is how Thomas Ertmans seems to use it when he refers to Theda Skocpol as his Doktormutter in the preface to Birth of Leviathan) or does it carry an entirely different set of connotations (along the lines of father= teacher, authority figure; mother=who you run to crying).
This may actually be different from one person to another – for me, personally, I agree with notsneaky that for me “mom” entails very much both authority and intellectual stimulation. (still wouldn’t refer to my advisor as mommy, though)

20

david 08.19.08 at 6:34 pm

I would reiterate Nick’s point at #11 that you seem to have missed the joke with My Beautiful Mommy. Also, I don’t know enough about the context of “I love my mommy” to understand what the joke was supposed to be, but I’m willing to give the students the benefit of the doubt about knowing the difference between their female professors and their mommies. This could be a generation gap issue. For example, when I was in college, I would have thought it was funny to get my best friend a birthday card which said it was for “my special grandson,” or something like that. I’m not saying this actually would have been funny–just that this is probably the sort of humor the students in your friend’s class were making a (failed) attempt at.

21

ess 08.19.08 at 6:52 pm

As a male professor, I can say that this is entirely consistent with what I’ve observed. Sure, some male profs get approached, but not at all as often as female ones. It’s also not a function of the female prof’s greater openness. I know lots of them who are very private people, yet get approached constantly by female and male students, alike.

22

SusanC 08.19.08 at 7:02 pm

I think there is something about the relationship between PhD students and their supervisor that’s a bit like that between an (adult) child and their parent. I notice it when the supervisor is male, as well.

Undegraduates are different. In undergraduate teaching, you have more students, you see less of them and the relationship doesn’t continue for as long (PhD candidates submitting after 3 years – we live in hope!). The relationship is qualitatively different.

An additional complication for female advisors with female students is when the student is pregnant. (PhD students are, after all, often at a suitable age for starting a family, and university maternity leave is better than a lot of employers).

23

Dan Simon 08.19.08 at 7:09 pm

Wow, Dan Simon still whines like a baby after all these years.

Actually, it’s my co-blogger who’s whining, not me. And you’d never dare say anything so belittling about it if he were a woman, you sexist pig.

24

aaron_m 08.19.08 at 7:12 pm

“An additional complication for female advisors with female students is when the student is pregnant.”

Not sure what this is suggesting but I fear I am not going to like it…

25

ingrid robeyns 08.19.08 at 7:48 pm

Urgh. Wouldn’t it cross their mind that these presents may not be entirely appropriate or appreciated? Luckily I’ve never seen something like that here. I’ve given and received books, CDs, wine and chocolates – all nice things imho.

I think there is something about the relationship between PhD students and their supervisor that’s a bit like that between an (adult) child and their parent. I notice it when the supervisor is male, as well.

I didn’t feel that way with my supervisor, and haven’t felt that way with my PhD students. Admittedly the relationship is very different from that with undergrads – there is, for example, lots more mentoring and coaching – but what would make it similar to a parent-child relation? In fact, I think it would not be a smart idea to start behaving like a parent towards your PhD students.

And, what aaron_m said.

26

andrew 08.19.08 at 7:50 pm

In our pedagogy classes in my PhD program, our professors blatantly tell us that female adjuncts and female TAs will be treated differently than their male counterparts. This runs the gamut from inappropriate comments to lack of respect in the classroom, judging their sartorial choices and being more willing to question their judgment/expertise on class material that goes beyond a critical spirit.

Having sat in on female colleagues’ classes, our instructors were entirely correct.

27

Seamus 08.19.08 at 8:31 pm

as a grad student, i’ve frequently been dismayed and disturbed by the tendency of my colleagues, male and female, to look to their faculty as surrogate parents. maybe it’s because i didn’t head into grad school right after college, maybe it’s my personality, or maybe something else entirely, but i’ve never really thought of my grad profs (or undergrad, now that i think of it) as anything other than professors: people who had thought about subject x a hell of a lot more than me, are probably smarter than me, and are willing to engage me in something resembling a conversation between equals. i’ve seen male and female students look to their professors as surrogate parents, older siblings, etc., and thought, ‘that’s kinda pathetic’. what tends to anger me, though, is when that sort of behavior gets rewarded, which i’ve seen happen (not consistently, but a few times is enough to be frustrating). the reasons for rewarding it i understand — it’s nice to be turned to as a guide in someone’s academic growth, etc. but enough of the profs i’ve seen reward this behavior have led me to believe what they really want is sycophants (which we all do, on some level). that’s not an indictment of the professors or the students, necessarily. more of an irritation at human nature, i suppose.

anyway, this leads me to my second point, which is a wondering-out-loud moment of the particular professors in question here. my department has 9 women and 12 men. of the women i’ve had contact with, there is one i would refer and have referred to as the mother of the department, not in any intended disparaging way, but because she has taken on a maternal role for many students, male and female, and a matronal role for guiding the department through the periodic conflicts. of the female professors i’ve had contact with (6 of them in all), i wouldn’t call any of them maternal figures for anyone. 2 are, not indifferent or cold, but professional and very private; 2 are more like older sisters if anything (again, just by personal engagement, not by respect or perceived lack of their skills); one is hardly around; and the aforementioned ‘mother’. the reason i bring this up is that i know most students in my department feel comfortable talking about ‘life stuff’ with the ‘mother’ than with the others, but i wonder how much that always has to do with her. i’ve been in her office a few times to talk about papers, academia, etc., and she brings up her kids, her family. none of which i mind at all, as her daughter is very cute and interesting, but it does break the barrier where i will talk about my family in a situation where i otherwise wouldn’t have. it makes me feel more comfortable with her, and i guess she with me, but it also changes the dynamic of the relationship. (many of the male [and at least one of the other female] professors have kids about the ‘mother’s’ age and they come into the department, are babysat by students, etc., but they don’t bring their family life up in office meetings, at least not as easily as the ‘mother’.) none of this is to excuse those god-awful gifts (which you would think a student who had worked with those profs would know better than to give), but i wonder if the professors who received them had, over the course of years of working with their students, perhaps taken on a maternal role without even realizing it?

finally, again since i took a number of years away from school, it definitely seems to me that undergraduate life is infantilized (numerous examples, but none that wouldn’t give me and my department away) from even the years i was an undergrad, when i was specifically told i was being infantilized. perhaps this infantilization creep is bleeding into grad life, the quintessentially solace for those who ‘don’t want to grow up’, as my brother likes to tell me?

28

F 08.19.08 at 8:57 pm

I freely admit that women face many challenges in the academy, but I’m with #20 (and #2, strangely): There’s always a bit of a parent-child relationship to any supervisory situation, though it’s usually quite minor. In graduate school this is orders of magnitude more present because of the inordinate power that graduate advisors hold over their students, the vastly greater amount of time they spend together, and the fact that the advisor is now the student’s primary source of information and advice about what they will do with their lives. I, like aaron_m, was quite surprised by how often it occurs amongst my students.

29

Jessica Wilson 08.19.08 at 9:16 pm

I have to admit that as I get a bit older, and not having any children of my own, I do tend to think of my students (especially the undergrads) as my “kids”. Nor do I especially mind being thought of in a momish fashion… most of the moms (and dads) I know are super-human. That said, there may well be a bit more expectation (or perhaps just hope) that female advisors will play a nurturing role… poor little lambs, who can blame them?

30

Matthew Kuzma 08.19.08 at 9:20 pm

Agreed and, I might say, pretty obvious. Having just spent a week travelling with friends, leaving my girlfriend at home I can say there are some pretty obvious differences between how men interact with men versus how they interact with women, and I hear the same goes for the other two permutations.

This is a situation where I feel like the discussion of equality comes dangerously close to discussions of sameness. Men and women are different and you have to expect they’ll be treated differently. It’s very easy for a man expressing too much intimacy to come off as creepy and its very easy for a woman expressing too much authority or anger to come off as bitchy or whiny. Is that fair? Probably not. Should it be that way? Maybe. Given the genetic and biological differences between the two sexes, I wouldn’t be surprised if certain behaviors that we see as unfair are actually a part of what got humanity as far as we’ve come, a necessary precondition of our evolution to this point.

31

engels 08.19.08 at 9:21 pm

On behalf of the world’s billions of powerless, oppressed men I’d like to thank Comandante Simon for carrying on the revolutionary struggle against female oppression on our behalf. ¡Venceremos!

32

Mordy 08.19.08 at 9:33 pm

This is just anecdotal, but your post is anecdotal too. My thesis adviser is a woman and tho she provides me with plenty of intellectual stimulation, I wouldn’t dream of buying her a “mommy” book. We have a traditional student/professor relationship. And though we are friendly, I certainly wouldn’t go to her for emotional nourishment. Maybe the difference is that I have a wife.

33

Jacob Christensen 08.19.08 at 9:40 pm

As a (male) non-parent I will just note that there was a strong (informal) norm at my previous employer for male and female staff to share parental leave equally, which meant that students were just as likely to meet the message “on parental leave” on the door to a male PhD-student’s/assistant/associate professor’s office as on the door to a female (etc)’s office. So this would call for a systematic comparison of US and Swedish universities – what role do social values and policies (paternal leave) with special regard to the take-up of partental leave play for students’ relations to instructors/faculty?

I will also note that the offspring of Chris Bertram (“Son #1″), Kieran Healy (if I remember correctly) and John Quiggin (un-bearded) has appeared in various contexts.

Does any of the remaining male Timberites feel robbed of Crooked Daddy status?

34

aaron_m 08.19.08 at 9:42 pm

Matthew I am soooooo interested to hear how women being unfairly perceived as bitchy or whiny is ‘part of what got humanity as far as we’ve come, a necessary precondition of our evolution to this point.’

35

engels 08.19.08 at 9:58 pm

Back on the savannah a neolithic hunter who didn’t have the ‘women-are-bitchy-and-whiny’ gene would end up being cajoled into sweeping the cave and changing the cave-baby’s furskins when a real cave man would be out doing things with tools and killing wildebeest and clearly his tribe would soon become extinct…

36

F 08.19.08 at 10:00 pm

Also, I should note that the bitch/little girl Catch-22 for women in all supervisory positions is quite real. It’s unfair and it’s something that will take a major sea change in the way we view authority to change it, so I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon.

37

abb1 08.19.08 at 10:12 pm

Undergrads are very young people, they are children, why not cut them some slack? If they are outta line, just explain it to them.

38

eudoxis 08.19.08 at 10:31 pm

“…putting the female prof in a mothering role, a role that certainly isn’t emphasizing her academic strengths and credentials.”

Surely, it doesn’t diminish them! Attaching something emotional to the teacher-student diad should only help learning.

39

lemuel pitkin 08.19.08 at 11:57 pm

36-

Oh come on. 30 years ago there wouldn’t even have *been* any female advisors for grad students to call Mommy. Compared with the change in geneder relations over the past generation or two, an end to this particular double standard is a very small additional step.

40

Witt 08.20.08 at 12:33 am

Seamus’s experience: maybe it’s because i didn’t head into grad school right after college, maybe it’s my personality, or maybe something else entirely, but i’ve never really thought of my grad profs (or undergrad, now that i think of it) as anything other than professors: people who had thought about subject x a hell of a lot more than me, are probably smarter than me, and are willing to engage me in something resembling a conversation between equals.

exactly describes my undergrad experience. I would have been horrified to think of my instructors as parental figures, and I was all of 17 when I started. Probably that is partially because of being a private person, but in general I did not look for, expect, or want parenting or nurturing from them. My classmates who did seemed to be doing so as a manipulative tactic at least as often as anything else.

I’ve read and heard enough here and elsewhere not to doubt that many professors are swamped with emotional demands and assumptions by students. I also don’t doubt that (broadly speaking) it differs by the professor’s gender. Given the coldhearted/mommy dichotomy, I wonder what the effective ways are to combat it, for women. All I can think of is to be publicly explict, right from the beginning in every class, about not being willing to do it. I am quite sure that would earn the coldhearted moniker in a heartbeat, though.

41

Witt 08.20.08 at 12:37 am

Undergrads are very young people, they are children

This point is in dispute, I believe. Certainly I would dispute it.

It’s odd to see how in loco parentis has changed. When my mother was in college, the college changed the sheets for male students, and collected and laundered the sheets of female students (they had to strip the beds themselves). That level of babysitting sounds insane to me. Yet when you look at the issues of crime on campus or alcohol usage, it seems more extreme today.

42

Colin Danby 08.20.08 at 1:44 am

Eszter is entirely right. Certainly every advisor-advisee relation is different and people have considerable room to shape it in different ways, but that’s part of the underlying point: it’s because of the leeway, and the fact that the advisor has to bring the advisee’s work up to standards that the advisee may not fully understand at the start, that the relationship is in certain ways constantly under renegotiation. Being a man gives you more ability to set boundaries, more ways to be firm at key junctures, to ask for more work. Some of the Mommy stuff noted above, in addition to its overall creepiness, looks like emotional blackmail.

43

vivian 08.20.08 at 2:26 am

What a fascinating counterpoint to Harry’s thread below. Wouldn’t it be nice if: (1) professors weren’t expected to be HR lackeys and/or admissions committee lackeys, but rather teachers, mentors and original researchers? and (2) we didn’t automatically assume that nurturing is purely about bodily/emotional needs, rather than, say, creating a safe space for trying out ideas and arguments without being judged on them? Because the second is really very important in teaching people of any age, and I can name several excellent professors who did this, while remaining rude and unsupportive outside the classroom. Both sides of this caricature – mommy loves me, supports me, gives good grades b/c I’m a good person; daddy is cold, judgmental, unforgiving, but earning his respect is everything – are remarkably incompatible with what the job actually requires, and with what actual professors do. It serves no one.

Eszter’s friend’s students may well have meant something like”you’re the one person we trust to judge us on our accomplishments, not our mistakes”, and not “we feel like we could ask you to wash our laundry.” (or not.) If this anonymous professor assumes that “mother” is derogatory, negating her more intellectual/professional qualities, then how is HER mother going to feel if she hears this story? That this crap exists means none of us get to be Gricean, there are too many reasonable ways to take it as insulting.

44

Chris 08.20.08 at 3:17 am

Vivian’s above comment is right on. Couldn’t agree more. Why assume that emotional rapport and intellectual/professional respect must be mutually exclusive? Admittedly, it’s not easy to find the right balance when combining the two; but it can — and ideally ought to — be done, no matter whether the people involved are female or male. Instead of castigating students who seek emotional support in female professors, we should bemoan the fact that they don’t feel comfortable seeking it in their male teachers, and think what can be done to change that.

45

Keith 08.20.08 at 5:11 am

Well, you will have heard of projection, and so having young male undergraduates think that their hot TA or assistant professor qualifies as a “mommy” figure can’t be really all that surprising.
And, the body image issues that we all deal with day to day are such that a fat balding man still feels secure in his sexuality while even truly hot 20-something women question their attractiveness is the real issue, not a silly book about cosmetic surgery.

46

EJ 08.20.08 at 5:30 am

I never heard any of this mommy rhetoric when I was an undergrad (which, other than a few one-off lecturing gigs over the years, is as far as my college experience extended), but I’ve recently noticed it cropping up between women in my field, where one is a recent college grad and the other has some career experience. For most people these days, their immediate post-collegiate career is much more stressful and disorienting than their undergrad experience; I think grad school is probably the same way.

This post made me think about why, when I was younger, I found I overall preferred to work for women, not that I didn’t have some great male bosses (my field is one where you tend to move around a lot, so you experience a lot of different supervisors). I think in some ways it was because I’d be more comfortable discussing interpersonal and emotional issues which might affect my work, without being judged as weak or unreliable. I’m male, BTW, and as everyone knows there are still strong social taboos about guys discussing emotional subjects with each other.

I suspect that in many fields graduate students get intellectual stimulation from a wide circle of people, not just their advisors. So perhaps they place more importance on the emotional support that their advisor can give. Perhaps rather than judging this sentiment as unprofessional, one should ask why male professors can’t be more nurturing and emotionally supportive.

47

Bloix 08.20.08 at 5:36 am

Eszter, forgive me for giving advice that you may be all-too-obvious – but as for students approaching with “life issues,” you may want to familiarize yourself with the mental health services your school provides and be ready to recommend them to your students who need them.

48

magistra 08.20.08 at 7:40 am

I had almost all female tutors and supervisors all through my academic career, but thinking about it now, there was only one with whom I had a vaguely ‘mother-daughter’ relationship. And that was for my PhD, when I was a mature married student, not when I was a shy 18 year old doing my BA. Other than the very differing personalities of the women concerned, there were two key diferences. One was that I was at my academically most vulnerable doing the PhD (as opposed to emotionally vulnerable generally). It’s when you’re really worrying about whether you’re good enough to hack it that nuturing is so important. I remember at an early stage of my PhD my supervisor talking to me after we’d heard a conference paper and saying ‘your question at the end was a good one’ and that care and interest was a significant moral boost.

The second thing is that my PhD supervisor was very explicitly a feminist. And feminism, particular the feminist historical tradition, has a strong emphasis both on honouring foremothers and on educating ‘daughters’ in positive ways. So I think an educational ‘mother-daughter’ model is very often inherent in the way feminist scholars see their relationship towards female students.

49

James Wimberley 08.20.08 at 7:45 am

What’s wrong with saying that teaching is a form of nurturing and thus inevitably fitting a feminine stereotype? The problem surely is that male teachers are more likely to reject this and spend their time on real men’s work like research and management.

50

Tristan McLeay 08.20.08 at 9:52 am

I’ve treated my female lecturers and tutors differently from my male ones, and I think that’s inevitable and that there’s nothing wrong with it. A case that might be somewhat similar to the ones you’ve described is that my supervisor for my final-year undergrad computer science (group) project, we gave her a teddy bear at the end of the year in thanks. She’d let us know a lot about her, including that she liked teddy bears. I doubt we ever would’ve bought a teddy bear for a male in the same role, but I doubt we ever would’ve known
Then again, for my final-year undergrad psychology (group) project (with largely the same group — I did a Cognitive Science/Computer Science double degree), our supervisor was again female. I forget how we thanked her, but it was much less personal. She was a lot older than our comp. sci. tutor or any of us, so a guy liked them.

Then again, for my final-year undergrad psychology (group) project (with largely the same group — I did a Cognitive Science/Computer Science double degree), our supervisor was again female. I forget how we thanked her, but it was much less personal. She was a lot older than our comp. sci. tutor or any of us, so it would’ve been hard to relate to her as a friend. As it was, she was more like a boss. I think that worked to our (or at least, my) and her disadvantage both. Then again again, one mother is quite enough for me, thanks.

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Ginger Yellow 08.20.08 at 10:35 am

What Witt said. I was horrified when I started reading this post. I’ve calmed down a bit now, but it still strikes me as really creepy, both in a broad gender politics sense and in the specific personal case.

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Sam C 08.20.08 at 10:38 am

Just to add to the anecdote pile: I’m a male academic, and my students – especially female undergraduates – fairly often approach me for non-academic support. I don’t mind this, since I feel fatherly fond of them, I want to help, and I have some experience of mental health issues as patient and as carer.

The wider issue for me, here, is the tension between professional and personal which is built into the student-teacher relationship: on the one hand, I fill a bureaucratic role in which my main purpose is to credential my students; on the other, I have Socratic commitments to being a certain sort of friend to them (perhaps not the sort of friend they’d go out drinking with). My job would be easier in many ways if I stuck to the professional bit, but it’d also be much less worthwhile. My worry is that as student-teacher ratios get worse and worse (in the UK), the Socratic part of the job is going to become less and less possible.

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Fats Durston 08.20.08 at 12:16 pm

Yet another anecdote:

The wife (Dr. Durston), in three years teaching at a small college where everybody knows everybody, had students come to her for pregnancies, disability issues, an abortion, and a patriarchal family that was offering no support so that it would force their daughter to return home (this one had a somewhat happy ending from our perspective).

Me, in the same time, with about half the number of students (and less authority), only had office tears when it came to grades and plagiarism. I did however get to have conversations about film studies, what it was like to return to school after flunking out the first go round, and the dreams of a death-metal* head, who hoped one day to reach the promised land of Scandinavia.

*Apologies to probable mis-labeling here: the distinctions of metal sub-genres do not seem worth the effort to my ears.

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Z 08.20.08 at 12:55 pm

ll I can think of is to be publicly explict, right from the beginning in every class, about not being willing to do it.

From experience, I know that I have to send explicit signals that though I am willing to give academic and career support, I am not willing to give its emotional counterpart. Apparently, some students thought that I was cold-hearter. I don’t know if that would be more of an issue if I were a woman.

Some PhD. advisers actually encourage parent/children framing of their relations with their students. Friends of mine were invited to a diner at their advisers house, and they asked them if they would accept to mark their heights with a line of paint where all their “other” children had. In France, as in Germany, advisers are also regularly called “père” or “mère”, but I never heard “papa” or “maman” .

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Mr Mom 08.20.08 at 12:56 pm

On the bright side, both men and woman can at least manipulate the deep seated oedipal prejudices of these kids. Women can pretend to give a damn about their feelings for instant evaluation points. Men can pretend to be toughasses for the same bonus.

Try being an effeminate man. You can’t play either mommy or daddy, and it shows up very clearly in His Majesty the Baby’s evaluation comments.

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Ginger Yellow 08.20.08 at 1:50 pm

“Some PhD. advisers actually encourage parent/children framing of their relations with their students. Friends of mine were invited to a diner at their advisers house, and they asked them if they would accept to mark their heights with a line of paint where all their “other” children had. In France, as in Germany, advisers are also regularly called “père” or “mère”, but I never heard “papa” or “maman” .!”

OK, now I’m horrified again.

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Tracy W 08.20.08 at 1:51 pm

I’m with those who think it’s odd that your female professor friend thought that the role of Mum excluded “providing intellectual stimulation, helping them professionally, or contributing to the creation of new well-trained researchers.”

I wonder what your friend’s own mother was like? Perhaps she was expert in a field that had nothing to offer your friend on a professional level?

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SusanC 08.20.08 at 1:54 pm

Maybe it’s more about community. A PhD student is a candiate for being accepted into a community, with a community’s ties of mutual obligation, shared ethical standards, and acceptance of bizarre quasi-religious beliefs (e.g. whatever theories are current in your discipline).

In (for example) a Church group, you can ask a fellow congregationist for slightly more than just answers to questions of doctrine or biblical knowledge. To the extent that an academic community really is a community, you can ask things that go a little beyond the strict subject matter. But not too far, and don’t forget that obligations are mutual.

To compare it to the parent-child relation perhaps puts it a bit too strongly – you certainly can’t ask your supervisor to do your laundry for you, for example. (As an adult, you shouldn’t be asking your real mom that, either).

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SusanC 08.20.08 at 3:29 pm

In psychology we’d talk about “transference” – the patient’s feelings for their parent(s) being projected onto the therapist. The therapist can be aware of this process without encouraging it too much. Therapists also tend to be careful about counter-transference – being careful not to project their own issues onto the patient. Probably something similar can said for supervising PhD students (esp. wrt counter-transference).

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lemuel pitkin 08.20.08 at 4:00 pm

The therapist can be aware of this process without encouraging it too much.

A lot of therapists would say, on the contrary, that transference is essential is the therapy is going to have any value. Expertise is fine but the real value of the therapist is allowing you to experience various emotions that you’re not nortmally consicous of, in a setting where you can be.

I’m not sure this translates into the classroom but I’m not sure it doesn’t — a certain emotional attachment to the instructor is probably vital to the learning process for at least some students. There seems to be a larger issue here of whether we expect (or want!) people to be rational liberal monads, with emotional attachements limited to a few prescribed settings.

Which raises the question touched on by Susan at 54 — what is the positive model of the teacher-student relationship we’re opposing to the creepy Mommy stuff? Is it a purely professional, arms-length relationship like you would have with a lawyer or plumber or grocery-store clerk? Or is some kind of deeper personal connection in fact necessary or desirable?

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novakant 08.20.08 at 5:44 pm

what is the positive model of the teacher-student relationship we’re opposing to the creepy Mommy stuff? Is it a purely professional, arms-length relationship like you would have with a lawyer or plumber or grocery-store clerk?

I think that academic teachers have a duty to help out with “life-issues”and in many cases there is no strict boundary between those and academic or intellectual issues, especially in the humanities. Of course there are boundaries that need to be observed, but they are easily set by the way a teacher conducts him/herself. And if a student shows signs of real mental problems he/she should be referred to people more experienced in dealing with them. But most problems are somewhere in between and its part of a teaching academic’s job to deal with them as best he/she can. If they cannot or won’t do that, they simply shouldn’t teach and should instead join some research institute or think tank.

As for lawyers, a friend of mine, who has his a small law firm, told me that a not insignificant part of his job is giving emotional support to his clients: generally they feel that they have been wronged very strongly and view their lawyer as a knight in shining armour, who will set things right. A lot of time is spent not going over the case in a rational and constructive manner, but rather by the client going on about the terrible injustice he has suffered.

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min 08.20.08 at 5:48 pm

I wish there were more discussion of this. I’m the nurturing type. I do push my students intellectually and I think they appreciate that as well. I don’t think my good evaluations are all about the personal relationship aspect of my teaching. However, I do know that the fact that I had a lot of experience with younger people prior to teaching and I genuinely care about and respond to their emotional needs, their fears, insecurities, personal struggles and so on makes a difference in my reputation as a teacher. I think this would be appreciated by students coming from a male professor but it would be above and beyond what they expect. I’d be a hero. As a woman professor who is kind and caring, I’m behaving according to what they feel entitled to expect from a woman.

The times when I’ve been distracted by my own research and whatnot and not been able to make it clear that my criticisms are accompanied by the willingness to help students or I forgot to couch any criticism in a great deal of reassurance I’ve ended up with students who were angry in ways that were very disconcerting. With some male students, I had this strange feeling I’d emasculated them by pointing out any flaws in their papers. Usually, I don’t wish I were a man but there have been times when teaching that it just seems like it would be so much easier to be a man.

I know that some women professors don’t have this experience but in my experience I do what I’ve learned to do in every setting, which is to present my authority and intelligence in a way that is acceptable within a sexist context. Men automatically get a level of respect that woman have to do much more to earn.

I would be amazed if no gender bias were discovered in student evaluations. One very brilliant female professor in my department who is not nurturing has been described to me by students as ‘arrogant.’ Some of them resent her tremendously. I have a hard time imagining a male professor like her being so described or being so resented.

There are these woman who have this knack of somehow rising above these dynamics and it feels like that is the challenge for women–to do that. I’d say those are the woman who rise to the top of my field. For some of us though, this is simply not something we are good at.

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Righteous Bubba 08.20.08 at 5:48 pm

As for lawyers, a friend of mine, who has his a small law firm, told me that a not insignificant part of his job is giving emotional support to his clients: generally they feel that they have been wronged very strongly and view their lawyer as a knight in shining armour, who will set things right.

Teachers who take on the job of shop steward might find their co-workers as clutchy and needy as their students.

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noen 08.20.08 at 7:48 pm

Is this just a reflection of the infantilization rampant in the general culture? Or is that merely my perception due my aging decrepitude. It seems to me that children these days are more… dysfunctional. Sexual relations seem to be more shallow, parents if they were present at all are either abusive or smothering. If that is true then it would seem to me that feeling emotionally dependent (transference) on the first stable authority figure to come along in your life is to be expected.

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lemuel pitkin 08.20.08 at 9:29 pm

I think that academic teachers have a duty to help out with “life-issues”and in many cases there is no strict boundary between those and academic or intellectual issues, especially in the humanities.

I tend to think so too — but who cares what I think? God willing, I’ll never see the inside of a classroom again. I’m very curious, tho, what Ezster (and other CTers who work in academia) thinks of this question. Is the problem just the specific gender-based assumptions here, or is it more generally the expectation that students will have/want personal, emotional connections with their teachers?

(The bit about lawyers is well-taken. Emotional work is part of lots of jobs that don’t, on paper, call for it. But teaching does seem to be toward the more-emotional-work end of the continuum.)

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Righteous Bubba 08.20.08 at 9:56 pm

But teaching does seem to be toward the more-emotional-work end of the continuum.

Teaching what? Are student/teacher relationships creepier in the philosophy department or the entomology department? God help me, I want to know.

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noen 08.21.08 at 12:12 am

I would think there is quite a difference between the emotion work a lawyer might be asked to do, in say a divorce, or the kind a TA might be asked to do and the relationship between a student and her mentor. The expectations are different. I have a friend who is a TA in the Dept. of Dendrochronology and pursing her PHD there. Her relationship with her students is different than her relationship with her advisor. She had a student come to her in some distress because he is failing the class. And my friend might fail him. She sent him to the U’s counseling services. That’s markedly different than when she went to her advisor because she needed more time to work on her thesis because she is seeing a therapist. Not to mention that the University has made an investment in her and she has demonstrated her ability. She is quite bright. So I guess there is an incentive on their part to make sure she succeeds.

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vivian 08.21.08 at 12:24 am

Novakant, I have a good friend with a small law practice who says the same thing, that he does the most good for the clients by listening to them, and that makes the paperwork parts of the job worthwhile for him.

I did once mention to my (undergrad) advisor that he was sort of an intellectual ‘father’ to me, (having truly given good advice, support, ideas and generally being interested in my ill-formed ideas.) He blandly said “Oh, is that the role I get in your psychodrama?” I replied that Freud only gave us about four template roles , which reminded him of a great book I should read… etc. (wonderful advisor, a real mensch. Died much too young.)

However, I was as likely to nurture my professors as seek reassurance from them. Frex, bought one a bike helmet when he didn’t wear one. (He still didn’t wear it.)

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bigcitylib 08.21.08 at 1:57 am

Wow! In some jobs you have to worry about getting shot at or burned in a fire. As a college prof., its breaking into cold sweats at night over the thought you might get an inappropriate gift the next morning!

Toughen up, people, there’s kids starving in Namibia!

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Helen 08.21.08 at 2:01 am

Some of the commenters here seem to think that the only issue here is of female academics being perceived as nurturing. Maybe people are in a hurry and haven’t clicked on the link to the second example. How can anyone not see a problem with “My Beautiful Mommy”? Unless it was an in-joke between teacher and student (and even then, hmmm) it has overtones of the teacher needs to get cosmetic surgery.

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magistra 08.21.08 at 7:29 am

Unless it was an in-joke between teacher and student (and even then, hmmm) it has overtones of the teacher needs to get cosmetic surgery.

I’d say it is most likely to be an in-joke. The book looks like a particularly crass example of commodification of women, the superficiality of some contemporary US culture etc, the sort of topics that many academics would have discussed in lectures. For a student to give this book then would be a way to say: ‘Look, here’s a particularly clear example of the problems you’re pointing out, let’s laugh at it together’. That would be along the lines of giving someone who lectured on religion and culture a bit of Jesus kitsch or a plastic saint.

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Tracy W 08.21.08 at 8:24 am

How can anyone not see a problem with “My Beautiful Mommy”?

Well it was stated in the Twitter thing that it was a gag gift. Presumably there’s some private joke behind it. Perhaps the diss. director has openly had cosmetic surgery.

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Eszter Hargittai 08.21.08 at 12:20 pm

Although I haven’t been responding, I have been reading the comments. There are lots of interesting notes here, but overall I feel like most people missed the main point I was trying to make. If you go back and read my post, it is not about whether faculty should or should not be offering emotional support or mentoring beyond what is strictly research-related.

My post’s main intended point was that based on plenty of anecdotal evidence, women are, more often than their male colleagues, seen primarily in the role of nurturer rather than that of intellectual mentor while men don’t face this either/or distinction. This goes along with the general idea that women mainly tend to be seen in one of three ways: nurturer (mommy), sexualized, or a bitch. Where’s the room for the authority figure or the intellectual?

Phil’s comment above is a good example of precisely what I meant to point out is the problem, but a point he seems to be using to dismiss my claim about differences that are a concern [added emphasis mine]: I doubt if male students treat female professors in the same way they treat male professors, but I would also doubt that is primarily because male students expect emotional support from female professors in a way they don’t expect from male professors. Instead, it is probably because they simply don’t see women as authority figures in the way they see men. THAT was precisely my point. Female academics are approached differently than their male colleagues in terms of their potential role. They are not thought of primarily as the authority figure who has the ability to guide the intellectual conversations of their classrooms or their disciplines. I rest my case.

Also, just to be clear, I don’t doubt that there are plenty of male profs who are sought out for and do provide emotional guidance. That’s not the point: the point is that this aspect of their contribution to student development doesn’t overshadow all other aspects of their contributions as it is much likely to do with women.

Sebastian raises a good point about whether “mommy” is really the equivalent of “daddy”. (I struggled with the title of this post and given this point, it may not work so well.)

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aaron_m 08.21.08 at 12:58 pm

” Presumably there’s some private joke behind it. Perhaps the diss. director has openly had cosmetic surgery.”

Ha ha ha ha ha ha…. I still don’t get it :(

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vivian 08.22.08 at 12:31 am

Some commenters are probably missing your point, yes (and we’re all thinking “not me!”). Some are pointing out that “thank you for doing something caring, which is rare in academia” is not necessarily “the only thing I credit you with doing is caring.” From what we know here, it’s not necessarily denying her authority. Although you’ve got good judgment and have fuller information, so I’d probably agree with you if I knew what you knew. If, say, these were students who generally didn’t listen to her except for emotional support, etc. But since so many professors love to say “I’m not here to hold your hand” with that dismissive sneer, the rare bit of validation is worth rewarding.

Did your friend have a chance to say “Thanks for an interesting gift. You know, it could be taken several different ways; which one did you intend?” or “what made you think of that original thank-you gift?” I might not have the nerve, but it seems like it could be done politely and nonconfrontationally.

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Eszter Hargittai 08.22.08 at 1:12 am

Vivian, interesting suggestions for possible responses. I purposefully held back on bringing up the question of how one would respond in such a situation, thinking it could make for a whole separate post (especially with a bit larger context). I like your suggestions, as you say, they’re non-confrontational, which I think is important here.

On a completely different note, I’d like to point out that you managed to do something I was striving for all day (but then had to leave my machine to go out to dinner): you wrote comment number #25,000 on CT!

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Righteous Bubba 08.22.08 at 3:52 pm

I shit you not: woke up from a dream in which I was moving to a new place. For some reason I had asked around for a dumb terminal to connect to something, and I got a beautiful package, and inside was some kind of superterminal that looked like an Arp Odyssey but with a screen. Who sent me the package? Eszter Hargittai (although my dream-circuitry couldn’t spell her last name properly).

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vivian 08.23.08 at 1:16 am

Um, oops? (I guess it would be really inappropriate to say thanks for this original and unexpected gift, hunh.)

neat.

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Eszter Hargittai 08.23.08 at 1:42 am

RB, interesting, glad I showed up as being helpful. Do you remember the spelling?:) Don’t tell me, all a’s.

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Righteous Bubba 08.23.08 at 3:09 am

Do you remember the spelling?:)

Ezter Hartigay. Thanks for being her mother: she gave me the gadgetiest gadget a boy could have hoped for.

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