Gender and performance in grad school

Via Canada-Supporting Women in Geography, I found this article by Duke University Literature Professor Toril Moi, “Discussion or Aggression? Arrogance and Despair in Graduate School.”  In it she writes about speech, authority, and power dynamics in the graduate seminar, specifically about the gendered nature of these dynamics:

Every year some female graduate students tell me that they feel overlooked, marginalized, silenced in some seminars. They paint a picture of classrooms where the alpha males—so-called “theory boys”—are encouraged to hold forth in impossibly obscure language, but where their own interventions elicit no response. These women, in short, say that they are not listened to, that they are not taken seriously, and that they get the impression that their perceptions of the matter at hand are of no interest to anyone else. 

Such experiences tend to reproduce a particularly clichéd ideology in which theory and abstract thought are thought to belong to men and masculinity, and women are imagined to be the bearers of emotional, personal, practical concerns. In a system that grants far more symbolic capital, far more intellectual power, to abstract theorizing than to, say, concrete investigations of particular cases, these women lose out in the battle for symbolic capital. This is bad for their relationship to the field they love, and it is bad for their careers in and out of graduate school. This is sexism, and all this goes to show that sexist effects often arise from the interactions of people who have no sexist intentions at all.

But there is another side to this. Sometimes I have a conversation with someone who has been described to me as a theory boy. Then I invariably discover that the theory boy doesn’t at all sound like an intellectual terrorist. He is, simply, profoundly and passionately interested in ideas. He loves theory and precisely because he loves it, he has strong theoretical views.

Moi concludes that faculty play a critical role in encouraging dialogic conversation rather than monologic performance, and that “[s]ome of us—professors and graduate students—need to learn to stop being so touchy, vain and self-regarding, so that we can listen to well-founded criticism without becoming defensive. Others need to learn to become more assertive and how to stand their ground when their views come under pressure. We all need to care more about formulating our thought precisely and less about the impression we make on others.”  But the point about faculty leadership is key, I think–it’s fun to engage in a lively discussion with passionate students, but we need to consider why some may not want to engage in the conversation, and how we can ensure that the ideas of those students get a full and fair hearing.

Moi’s article struck me as relevant because I’ve had a few interesting conversations recently that suggest that faculty play a role in perpetuating this division by using different language and different standards in evaluating their women versus men graduate students.  First, a friend at another university remarked on the fact that one of the graduate students in her department is roundly praised as among the strongest and smartest graduate student in the program, but professors (including some from feminist scholars) also emphasized how they thought she needed to be more humble, to tone down her intellectual dominance, and to not think so highly of herself.  Maybe this is true–no one likes an a$$hole, right?–but my friend thought it was potentially a very gendered reaction to this student’s sex and clear feminist perspective.  Would a male student so highly rated be told to tone it down and to be more humble?   

Then last week, I had a telephone conversation with a former student who has just finished her first year in a doctoral program, and she reported getting almost exactly the same message, but this time directly from the faculty she’s working with.  This student has a Master’s degree already, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to them that she’s got some opinions about the kind of coursework that she wants to do or that she’s very adept at working with university faculty.  My former student has remarked on how submissive and non-confrontational student culture is at her new uni compared to Baa Ram U., so there is also the issue of institutional culture to consider here.  And yet, she is taken aback by the fact that her new proffies have understood her boldness and her confidence as a problem, at least initially.  They’ve permitted her to take a stronger role in her curriculum, but several have commented to her that they didn’t know what to make of her until they got to know her a little better.  It left me wondering:  would a male graduate student with her exact record of achievement be met with such surprise that he had his own opinions and shared them with his professors?

(N.B.:  I told her to get used to being called a pushy b!tchIt’s just what happens when you’re a woman with an opinion, so do what you need to do for your education and don’t let it hurt your feelings.  I also told her that her program and her professors were commendably flexible when it counted, so she just needs to focus on her coursework and excel.  I’m sure she’d appreciate any other advice the rest of you might have for her in the comments below.)

Now, these stories amount to N=2 and they leave me with more questions than answers, so I want to hear from the rest of you–graduate students and faculty alike:  what have you seen and heard lately with respect to gender, graduate school, and the equitable or inequitable evaluation of men and women?  What about race or sexuality, or other aspects of students’ identities?  I’m teaching the introduction to graduate school course for our incoming Master’s students this fall, so I want to be extremely vigilant about evaluating all students fairly and equitably.  I agree with Moi that faculty have a critically important role to play in creating classrooms and grad school environments that encourage vigorous open discussions where everyone’s ideas get a critical but fair hearing and every student is evaluated on the strength of hir work. 

It’s fashionable to pretend that “the ivory tower” is a world apart from “the real world,” but faculty evaluations (formal or informal) have direct, material consequences for others:  the way graduate students react to the contributions of other students can either inspire their peers to further study and achievement, or it can disillusion and discourage them.  The way faculty evaluate first-year graduate students and react to their work inside and outside the classroom eventually will make it into letters of recommendation for further graduate study, for fellowships and prizes, and eventually for jobs.

48 thoughts on “Gender and performance in grad school

  1. Is it possible that the “theory boy” Moi talks to is deferential to her status as a tenured faculty member in a one on one conversation, and thus not interrupting her, dismissing her, etc?

    It was common in my experience that unless a faculty member was proactive, male students would consistently interrupt female students, not respond to our comments, etc. It was rare to have a seminar where we actually discussed. All too often, it was a roundtable of one- ups-manship and disconnected comments.

    One time, the female students in a seminar got together and agreed that we would interrupt male students who interrupted a female student and redirect back to the female who’d been talking, and that we’d respond to each other’s comment, at least by acknowledging it. It was a huge effort, but at the midpoint, someone overheard the professor (who enabled the male students’ assholery) remark how amazingly good the discussion was in class that day. (But alas, we didn’t sustain it.)


  2. I had a slightly different experience in grad school. I did my PhD in Spanish, so the students were from Latin America, Spain and the United States, as you would imagine. The Latin American students, specially the ones from Argentina (like me), Mexico and Colombia, were very opinionated. We had all done undergraduate studies in our native countries, and there, you stress your opinion in class, you argue, etc. Then, when class is done, you all go to drink a beer. It’s not a sign of aggression for anybody.

    So, back to grad school. One day, after a class, a professor approached a few of us (the Latin Americans), male and female, and said that he understood and really appreciated our contribution to the class, but that more than one American student (never got the gender(s)) had complained that we shut down the discussion because we were so loud and aggressive. In my opinion, that wasn’t at all the case, we all welcomed to the discussion whoever wanted to say something, and always listened politely and addressed those person’s comment. But a lot of Americans apparently felt intimidated by that.

    That didn’t shut me down, by the way. I just felt that Americans were weirdly controversy-averse.


  3. Maybe the Yanquis were afraid that you firey Latin@s would pull out your knives if they dared to disagree?(/kidding!) I think you’re probably right that most U.S. American academic types are pretty controversy-averse.

    More seriously: I can certainly see how native-English speaking U.S. American students would (reasonably, perhaps) be intimidated by native-Spanish speaking Latin Americans in the context of a Spanish Ph.D. program. Perhaps their command of the language wasn’t what it should have been, or they were afraid of missing the nuances and subtlelties available to native Spanish speakers. But that’s not a problem that you or the professor could solve, IMHO.

    I think Bardiac’s interpretation about power and rank has a lot of merit. Love that story about your grad seminar–too bad you couldn’t sustain it, but it strikes me that it would be incredibly draining to try to manage the conversation so aggressively. Your professor sounds more that a little clueless!

    I think a lot of grad seminars are like AA baseball: it’s basically batting practice. There’s not much defensive/collaborative play going on. But that’s the job of the professor, or at least that’s what I always thought my role is–to try to weave together student reactions and get them to talk to each other rather than just pop rhetorical fungos to impress each other/me/etc.

    (OK, enough with the baseball analogies.)


  4. This is very intriguing, and I’ll be interested to see how the comments develop. I feel like I need some more time to think, but two comments immediately come to mind.

    The first is a long-ago memory from my first semester in grad. school, when all incoming students had to take a historiography seminar. It was co-taught be two older faculty members, one male and one female. Having come from a small-class-discussion-oriented SLAC, I was used to verbal sparring and brainstorming, and comfortable speaking up. At one point early in the semester, I ended up pressing a particular point of view, with some heat, against a male student. I walked out of the classroom feeling good about the discussion, that I had defended my POV well etc.

    Then the male prof. of the class came up to me in the hallway and said something like, “It’s good that you’re not afraid to speak up, but you were getting a little hysterical there, don’t you think?” I was flabbergasted — I hadn’t felt emotionally upset by the conversation, or “hysterical,” I’d just been pressing a point I believed in! Moreover, I was well aware of the gendered history of the word “hysterical,” and felt so humiliated that he would say that. Indeed, I was so stunned, I couldn’t even respond, but just stuttered something incoherent and walked away. You can bet I thought twice before pursuing a line of argument again after that.

    Second, though, and sort of taking the opposite tack: I am disturbed to learn that the female students at this institution feel so easily intimidated by “theory” (whatever that means — it can become a catchall.) History is *not* just presenting and ordering evidence: it involves formulating a critical argument with some content that is abstracted from the pure data. If I heard a description of first-year graduate students being afraid to engage with, or discuss theory, and instead preferring to focus on facts and narratives, but WITHOUT the gendered dimension — INO, just as a comment on first-years — my immediate reaction would be: Welcome to grad. school — this isn’t undergrad anymore. If you are uncomfortable moving into the new territory of method, theory, and critical analysis, then maybe you don’t have what it takes to be a professional historian. Grow up and get over it.

    That sounds harsh, but I think it’s really true. Perhaps women students are themselves acculturated by the traditional stereotype you note — that theory is for boys, not girls — and they feel intimidated about wading in. But, I would contend, *all* grad. students in history need to learn some “theory.” Later in life, they may decide to engage with different theories and methods, or to be more or less conscious in how they use it, what kinds of idioms they write within, etc. But they need to come to terms with it at some point.


  5. I’m a female Ph.D. candidate in English from a respectable (but not prestigious) state school on the east coast, and was told on multiple occasions by male colleagues that I was too intimidating/confrontational/aggressive in graduate seminars, though frankly, I didn’t think I was confrontational or aggressive enough. (Perhaps they were intimidated because I’m one of the few “out” feminists in the program?) I’ve also been told by the graduate director that I’m not modest enough about my professional accomplishments because I emailed the dean (a major scholar in my area, and a close friend of my adviser) directly to tell hir that I had an article accepted by a major journal in the field. (The dean was delighted with the publication, and introduced me to the journal’s editor at a conference later that year.) This same graduate director sent around a congratulatory email to the entire department when a male colleague published a book review in a middling journal. (Not that I’m bitter.)

    As my wonderful adviser says to all of her students, “There is no room for feminine modesty in the shark tank of academia.”


  6. I’ll offer a pre-history baseline account that may make it possible to measure how far things have NOT changed:
    a first-year seminar that happened probably about the time Gloria Steinem and her cohorts were raising funds to launch Ms. Magazine. It was run by the grad. chair of the department, briefly my advisor, and we met in his big office around his seminar table. He carried a huge pipe and lit it with a terrifying blow-torch device that allowed him to slip behind clouds of smoke for effect on occasion. Invariably, as we gathered, his grad. student girlfriend came by to take his dollar and cross the way to “Dallas Hall” to bring him a cup of coffee. She had, by legend, started there while “we were still in high school!!!” which seemed amazingly weird to us at the time, although it would not have been demographically that unusual for an ABD, then or even now. He without exception called the eight or so male acolytes “Mr.” so-and-so, and the two women (who were not, I think from the same discipline, but were graduate students in cognate fields) by their first names. He was otherwise not ostentatiously more patronizing to to them than to the rest of us, but whether for that reason or for the disciplinary reasons, or otherwise, they were I think notably less verbal, or at least less interventionist, in seminar. (Oh, yeah, maybe it was his mixing up and transposing of their two first names every time he addressed them, this is slowly coming back now…).

    “Theory” at that time was something that graduate school chieftans embossed on the hides of naif first year students who had been attracted to the field by “all the interesting stuff that happened in the past,” rather than carried up from the courts below. We were a fairly rebellious group, pushing to get past “all this social science stuff” and on to the “real history” that gleamed on the syllabus, always weeks and weeks down from where we were. When the challenges got too shrill out came the pipe torch and up went the shroud of smoke. At one point he said “o.k., fine,” tore several pages off the syllabus in a hailstorm of bouncing paper clips, and said we’ll start next week with [some just-published hot history book]. Even that stunt was, I was convinced, part of the lion tamer shtick he used, and I’m pretty sure it was all but planned out. How any of this played out gender-wise or long-duree I can’t say, because less than a year later they broke the news to us that the academic ship was going down, job-wise, and I never heard that *any* of these people ever made it to the tenure track in what was then condescendingly known as a “traditional” history career. (One guy did make it big in a very non-cognate academic field, but that’s another story). I do think the pushback that we offered on the question of allowing what then passed for “theory” to mechanically shape or dictate inquiry had a meaningful impact on how I approached the craft over time.

    Theory/non-theory and gender may or may not intersect in patterned ways as an empirical matter in the test tubes of the seminars we’ve attended, but I’m not sure it’s an inscribed set of binaries. There’s room for debate(s) about how much of it is relevant, at what stages and in what sequences, and how useful a tool of inquiry it is. And there can be vigorous and robust seminar discussions quite apart from obscurantist invocations of trendy auteurs who happen to have caught various peoples’ fancies. But of course what gets valued from the head of the table will always shape that equation.


  7. I’m a talker with strong opinions. Oddly, my older white male colleagues don’t have a problem with it (they call me “spunky” and think I’m adorable), but some of my female and minority colleagues have, not naming any names, generally complained about “white men” and “people in my sub-field” silencing them and talking too much at meetings, seminars, and so on. So at meetings I try to be deferential and ask them what *they* think, or point out when one has a hand raised (which only one person does– nobody else raises hands at meetings). I keep my mouth shut at talks for their subfield, but refuse to be silenced at talks for my subfield.

    So I have sympathies for both arguments from personal experience. I wish folks would speak up if they have something to say, and if the culture is to not raise hands, then just say your bit without waiting to be called on. But I’m also annoyed that folks seem to try to silence me, and I may be imagining things, but I do think I get the silencing complaints a bit more than the white males who talk more than I do. (In fact, one of said white males came into my office last year to talk about concerns he had that we wouldn’t be allowed to hire in my subfield if I kept asking hard questions at jobtalks!) It irritates me. I’d be perfectly happy to just not go to meetings or talks that aren’t in my area of interest, but you know, trying to be a good citizen.


  8. “Maybe the Yanquis were afraid that you firey Latin@s would pull out your knives if they dared to disagree?(/kidding!)” That’s one stereotype that I love and I’ve never done anything to disprove. If Americans think I’m intimidating because of my fierce Latina blood, then it’s great. I’m also 5′ 10 and 185 pounds, which helps a lot. On the other hand, it probably also explains my pathetic romantic life for most of my grad studies.

    Getting serious: You are probably right about the language issue, but don’t go into a PhD program in Spanish if you can’t handle it. I still haven’t figured it out completely how the dynamics of power work, but there are probable a lot of issues in play. I work at a mostly undergraduate institution, and although I’m a no-bullshit, cut the crap kind of professor, I always get great evaluations. I do play up intentionally the “Hispanic” stereotype a little, and it works (although my skin is white). On the other hand, my institution has a real problem retaining African-American female professors. They do hire them, but they leave after a year of two, after having clashed with students who disrespects them.

    Regarding grad seminars, I think the professor has to know how to handle a discussion. But probably everybody would benefit from getting past the idea that a heated discussion means aggression. It doesn’t, in my opinion, as long as the other part engages in condescending, sexist and/or dismissive language.

    Completely off-track: Historiann, if you ever get tired of your field and want to venture into other realms, you might want to take a look at gender and politics in Argentina throughout the presidency of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, our current president (who is running for re-election, by the way). It’s fascinating in every realm. Sexist attacks she received (mostly based on the fact that she likes expensive outfits), how she used her own widowhood (her husband and former president died a year ago) to her own political benefit, climbing in the approval ratings polls, her own complex personality, etc.


  9. I find this discussion fascinating. In my graduate program I was part of a theory reading group that was exclusively women (though not on purpose – none of the men in the department ever felt like taking us up on the open invitation). It definitely showed in class that those of us who were getting together and talking about theory together were more confident sharing those ideas (and in conference papers, etc).

    With regards to cultural differences – I’m in a foreign language field, and a non-native speaker of the language I study. I’ve encountered a lot of resistance from native speakers towards me having opinions about things, because *obviously* I can’t actually know, because I’m not X. (An argument that I’m sure we’ve all heard in many different aspects of our lives.) Where some people feel intimidated and discouraged by those attitudes, it’s had the opposite effect on me – I push my arguments. That said, I’m also a woman who managed to pick up very masculine speech patterns as a child – because damn it, I’m smart and well-spoken, and what I have to say is just as important as the rest of them.

    Then again, I’m an out feminist – so people trying to tell me to be hysterical, or that that rape joke was just a joke get an earful from me – now. I’m lucky that while I was still figuring those things out for myself I was not often put into that position. So now, I try to be the kind of person who doesn’t take that crap, and explains why that crap is problematic – and with any luck, this helps other people who might not have felt comfortable articulating their objections. I also encourage my friends and colleagues to avoid the modesty trap (which wrappedupinbooks mentions).


  10. I second Bardiac’s first comment re Moi not realizing what some of these theory boys are like. I was in graduate school ages ago but tenured women faculty then were the big defenders of these guys — who through no fault of their own also got most of the fellowships, the best letters of recommendation, the jobs, and so on. I was also told, then but even more as an assistant professor, that to survive I should be very meek.

    I don’t work in as fancy a school now, and we’re also Southern, and we’re not overrun with rude Ivy League types as were the schools I was at in California, so overt aggression is not valued from anyone including men. The institution itself is more sexist than any I’ve seen but we don’t do to students what is described in this post and thread, and I am amazed but should not be surprised to see that it is still going on exactly as I experienced it.


  11. I think Z brings up an important point, which is the role played by funding, fellowships, letters of rec., etc. I think this, too, is part of the equation: in a competitive economy of prestige, where one is competing for rankings that lead, directly, to material rewards (funding), one needs to pick up on the cues one is being sent about the behaviors that are expected of one. The main reason why I became more cautious (though not completely silenced) after being accused of being “hysterical” is because I realized that, however unjust I felt the characterization was, it was one that would hurt me deeply if I allowed it to persist. As I mentioned, this was in the context of a required class for all incoming grad. students, and it was widely known that everyone would be ranked at the end of it. We all had to get recommendations for funding for the next year, and given the structural constraints of course loads, etc., everyone was going to get a letter from the profs. of this class. So, there was quite a lot at stake.

    Of course, those who already had guaranteed multi-year funding packages (I did not) were less constrained by these circumstances and did not have to micro-manage their reputations quite as carefully. OF course, as I later discovered that, of the 5 such funding packages used as recruitment tools every year, had gone to male students for the previous 4 years.


  12. @SpanishProf, there are some native speakers I shut up all the time. I don’t teach in a prestigious program, as you will see. The forms of behavior I do not tolerate include the following:

    1) ALL: holding forth on “mi pais.” On this I picked up a technique from Hugo Achugar, don’t let people present on their own country, make them read something new.

    2) MEN: having an argument in a bar the night before over a theory point and then trying to use the class as a way to get support for your side over your friend’s.

    3) WOMEN: bringing food instead of reading, and thus trying to convert the seminar into what one of the French students jokingly calls “la merienda literaria” [the literary snack].

    4) ALL: mumbling, misspelling, and overuse of regional slang. Many native speakers mumble when they are not sure the content of what they are saying will be valuable. This is a technique to get me to rephrase / restate what they have said for the other students (sometimes including native speakers from other areas). In the process, I have to clean up their ideas … so that puts me in the position of having to say, “is this what you mean?” And then they can say “oh yes, that is exactly what I meant, you said it better” … so they get to be mega lazy and also take up a lot of class time with only one comment.

    5) ALL: repetition as theory points of what is actually warmed over patriotic history (see point 1).

    My other department is English and some English graduate students want to commit more or less the same sins; I don’t allow that from them, either.


  13. I’m really fascinated by the linked article and this discussion. It’s only in the past year that I’ve begun to carefully think about the implicit hierarchy in the types of research conducted in my field and its connection to gender. I have grown up in the values reflected in this hierarchy, swallowing it whole, and therefore I’ve always been a woman who valued masculine work. I do social science research and my content discipline of origin is math. Within my field, I’ve valued the work that is more mathematical than the work that is more social. Similarly, the theory people are seen as doing more serious, intellectually interesting work than the practical people. People who study learning are more serious than people who study teaching. And so on. So I’ve situated myself as a mathy, theoretical person who studies learning, and people have then told me that my papers read as if they’d been written by a man.

    Then I took a position in a multidisciplinary department in which some people are far more theoretical than I could ever be. By the nature of my subfield, I work with data. In the broader scope of my department, working with data is seen as non-theoretical. Getting grants is not valued, because grant-funded work is inherently empirical, and thus not properly theoretical. So suddenly I’m viewed as the practical person, not the intellectually interesting, high-minded theoretical person. In fact during my first year an older male professor who is a Big Name came into my office and kindly offered to read my work, as long as it was theoretical, since he doesn’t deal with piddly data-driven stuff. The message seemed clear. As recently as a couple of months ago, somebody in a faculty meeting openly attacked the work that my subfield does, and described our work as a group as insignificant in contrast to the work the rest of the department does in addressing deep overarching theoretical questions.

    Why didn’t I connect this to gender before now? I’ve been working towards tenure in a department that obviously values a particular type of work, so I’ve made some shifts in research that I wouldn’t have made without hearing these messages. I mean, the people who find empirical work shallow will be voting on my case in 3 months. I’ve been contemplating the idea of doing a talk at some point about the implicit hierarchy of perceived rigor and seriousness, its connections to gender, and how that can influence a person’s research trajectory. Probably a talk to save until after tenure.


  14. My thoughts on this are a bit half-baked, but here goes.

    First, to Squadrato’s point about the necessity of grad students to grapple with “theory”/critical analysis: I think historians are particularly bad at this, and I think undergrad often prepares students poorly for this. My sense, from speaking with a professor or two about this, is that students are coming into grad school with a less solid base in social theory than they used to. Some still do, but as more people come from schools other than the Ivies or SLACs, (and in particular, come straight from undergrad, as I did) the expected canon of theorists breaks down. So in addition to whatever gender issues there might be, there are class ones as well.

    Which leads me to my larger point. I was virtually silent for almost two years of seminars. It was chronic. But it had little to do with being a woman. I was underprepared for grad school, and didn’t realize it until it was too late. I was petrified of saying the wrong thing. I hadn’t figured out how to read through the material quickly and effectively enough. I realized my analysis wasn’t as astute as it should be. And so I only spoke when I felt a decent measure of confidence about my opinion.

    It had nothing to do with being a woman in a male-dominated environment b/c in my spare time, I was spending more time talking with my male colleagues in the less pressured settings of dinner, the grad lounge, coffee etc., and somehow, intellectually, these men respected me. (Yes, I know it’s dangerous to make these assumptions, but a few always made a point to invite me to various invite-only coffees or dinners with guests whose work touched on the outskirts of mine. And one of them created a dissertation group and invited me and another woman, who was much more outspoken than me, to join him and another guy.) Once I was finally in seminars that had any relevance to my subject, which wasn’t until well into my 2nd year, I was more confident and slightly more outspoken. And I sat in on a graduate class this past year at a different institution and could barely shut up. I also had a strange experience in which I realized that many of my female colleagues felt strange talking to male colleagues about work, lest it be viewed as flirting. They also had this bizarre feeling that male students (as a whole, not certain individuals) were getting all of this one-on-one buddy bonding time over cards or basketball or something with male junior faculty members, something which didn’t exist except for a select few men. It was not nearly as widespread as they made out.

    Part of my hangup was me and my reluctance to make a fool of myself. Part of that was my oversized consciousness of being one of the few black academics anywhere I go, and not wanting to be seen as the dumb black academic, or the evidence of affirmative action gone wrong. But part of that was failed mentoring, absent advising, and a program whose welcome lack of competitiveness–all students funded the same, very few students ever kicked out–allowed students who needed an extra boost to flounder.

    Part of it was also the result of my not getting the culture. I grew up working class/immigrant/African-American background. I was raised to be exceedingly polite. I am almost incapable of calling professors by their first name, even when they ask or demand it. In short, I was raised with the strict understanding that you do not take up too much space in the world, and you do not brag about your accomplishments. So when it came to branching out and meeting other faculty, I wouldn’t unless I had a clear reason. I find networking incredibly difficult. Per the rules in my head, it’s rude to corner people and demand their time. Or to cold-call them via email. I struggle enormously with those things. I expect that my work will speak for itself, and even though I know it won’t, I still think it should.

    What I find interesting is that one of my male colleagues shares these hangups (although he’s better about it) because he’s from the same background. We could never show up to office hours each week with nothing to say just because.

    Anyway, I’ve gone on too long. Long story short, there is a class dimension to this dynamic as well.


  15. Thank you for this post. There’s a lot to say.

    I’m a grad student in the sciences at an ivy league university. The inequities are shocking. Let’s not kid ourselves– universities are bastions of conservative values.

    As a woman involved in campus politics and a vocal seminar participant, I have been called aggressive and uptight (pitched as advice, of course!). Men who act similarly are lauded.

    I also find that undergraduates act on gender. In my department female TAs and professors are asked to change grades /much/ more often than men are.

    One of the first things my advisor told me when I started grad school was that having children in grad school was an awful idea. He has never said this to a male student.

    When I’ve shown interest in switching tracks, a number of professors have responded with: “Are you banking on being a spousal hire?” (Note: I am a stronger candidate than my partner).

    A friend, who has subsequently left grad school, was once asked by her advisor what man she was cheating off of. She was the only woman in her department.

    The most successful and prolific female professors on campus are often referred to as “cold,” “severe,” and “bossy.”


  16. The problem, then, is not the intellectual passions of the theory boys, but the women’s sense that they are not given the same freedom and the same encouragement as the theory boys to express their intellectual passions.

    Bingo. Anytime you have a class where one group feels excluded or individuals are criticized for doing what other individuals are doing, you have a serious problem. (I’d say to the professor that you’ve effed up.)

    I recently read Babcock and Laschever’s “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide” which reiterates how much of a minefield it is for women to navigate the social expectations of gendered behaviour. Doing the same thing as men gets very different responses, we know this. Women observe this far too many times: “I said something and there was silence. A man restated the exact same observation and there was universal support.”

    When I was taking classes during my doctoral studies, I took to bringing handiwork to class to stitch on during the breaks. I found that such material disarmed people sufficiently that I could participate in the discussion freely and nobody took it amiss the way that some did during my M.A. year.

    These days, I teach the methods class to our M.A. students and I try to demystify the practices of assertion, listening and responding as a skill-set that’s honed highly but also is in their control should they enter a seminar or conference at some date where problems arise. Along with techniques of historical analysis, we need to arm our students, male and female, with the wisdom to know that it’s not them when someone else pulls stupid, sexist bullshit moves.


  17. This is a fascinating thread.
    My two cents comes from the perspective of a Ph.D. student in Theatre and Performance Studies. Interestingly (and fortunately) I have never felt silenced in seminar for any reason, my gender among them, nor have I perceived any fellow female students’ discrimination in class on the basis of their gender. My department, however, is pretty unusual in that the MA and PhD are not only research degrees but practical degrees as well (not all theater dept’s operate this way). The vast majority of us not only interact daily as fellow TAs, classmates, and researchers, but every night in rehearsal, as we work on shows together in various capacities. I myself am a choreographer and last spring worked with several colleagues: one was the co-director, one the lighting designer, one the sound designer, and one an actress on just one of the three shows I worked on in a single term. Not only do we work with each other, but we work closely with the graduate faculty on productions as well.

    I’m not sure if I can articulate exactly what this element of my program does for the dynamic in the department, but I think it does a lot towards foregrounding an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation for the work that everyone brings to the table, both inside and outside the classroom. The idea that no single voice is more important than another pervades the seminar environment. I’m not saying the department is perfect, or that this is feasible for other disciplines. However, there is something about recognizing group contributions and working towards collaborative goals that has resonated in productive and very positive ways for me in seminar. Moreover, getting to know my classmates outside of class through production work has made me (and, I think, them) very comfortable expressing dissenting views in class. We understand that seminar is seminar. It’s the place to hash it out.


  18. Pingback: Prof Toril Moi on “Theory Boys” | Canada-Supporting Women in Geography

  19. “[A] program whose welcome lack of competitiveness–all students funded the same, very few students ever kicked out–allowed students who needed an extra boost to flounder.” Damn, that sounds familiar! But I don’t want to hijack this thread, and as a current grad student, I don’t feel I can respond anecdotally as many former grad students have done upthread, though I’ve been following the discussion with fascination. So I’m going to limit myself to this comment: I’ve noticed several times, since moving from my big-city Canadian grad MA program to my Midwestern American doctoral program that the seminars “down here” are much quieter, less confrontational…and sometimes therefore more boring. I attributed this partially to a much more deferential culture than in Canada (even the cashiers and waiters call everyone “sir,” or “ma’am,” which is hardly heard in Canada outside the military). I’d also noticed down here a culture with much more defined and less flexible gender roles, but it wasn’t until reading this thread today that I connected the two observations…which gives me a lot to think about.


  20. I never really experienced this until I took a course in my department with majority enrollment of grad students from outside the department. I had never really felt silenced in a course before this one, in which male grad students from poli sci/philosophy backgrounds were allowed to railroad over others (all women) in the class with more literary/anthro theory backgrounds. The class was pitched to be interdisciplinary, which is great and why I took it, but the professor actively engaged and requested long opinions from the poli sci/philosophy grads only. That the theory then discussed wasn’t referenced in our readings, wasn’t assigned in the course, or required background for the course didn’t seem to matter, although when female grads tried to bring in literary and anthro theory, we were dismissed as bringing theory with no bearing on the material. So I guess my point is that even for grad students who are willing to engage with theory, even willing to learn new theory, a seminar experience can be silencing when it does not even provide the tools for everyone to get on the same footing.


  21. One of the best things I ever saw in an early graduate seminar was one male classmate interrupt another male classmate who simply refused to stop talking. So, we had both of them talking at the same time for more than a minute. I have actually used that tactic since then, it disarms people. Especially my mother in law!

    Anyway, anecdote time. My second year of graduate school was really hard because the incoming class of first years had three very difficult personalities out of a class of five. One of them was triply a minority and very, very confident and aggressive. Obnoxiously, a friend started to tally hir comments in class and s/he was talking something like 30% of the time in a class of 15+ students. To make matters worse, s/he wasn’t getting corrected when they were wrong, and s/he was wrong often. (One particular session always stands out when s/he misread the phrase “it can be” as “it is” and argued that it only COULD be for long periods of time. This was enabled by the fact that we would get conversation to move on and then the next time s/he spoke up s/he would say, “getting back to the topic, the author said it is.”) A PhD student complained in office hours, got rebuffed and dropped the course. I complained in office hours (not specifically) and was told “I don’t want to silence anyone.”

    As a result of this one seminar, another first year (while, male, privileged) graduate student began to call bullshit and was essentially black balled from the program despite excellent work. (His work wasn’t as good as he thought it was, though.) And, the student in question did not get a good education. Eventually, we realized s/he was super smart but too used to being the only smart person in a room. And, obviously s/he had learned to vocally defend their abilities. But the faculty didn’t step in and s/he didn’t learn to think critically, even though they were presumably capable of it. And it took the rest of us almost a year to recreate a supportive seminar environment inside the program (this was partly because of the other two difficult personalities that year).

    I am, to this day, mystified by how some of the faculty saw this student. What did I miss? I’m sure I missed something. I’m also interested in how such a majority of the graduate students, who were very diverse, could all agree about this student. I even *liked* hir and hung out socially with hir quite a bit.

    The next year, my adviser introduced a tally system for commenting in her hard theory class. This was an attempt to balance out the discussion. Her idea was to force some of us to talk, since up until then her opinion had been that we needed to push back more. Instead, she was told to stop by the chair because the difficult student intervened and said s/he was being silenced. I’ve never talked to my adviser about this, because I never talked to her about other students. It was the chair that told me about it, in a different context.

    (There are at least two kinds of theory boys. There are the kinds that just love theory and want to talk to everyone about it. And, there are the kind that use it to dismiss others’ ideas and works without seeming to engage in it.)

    In my experience, the individuals most likely to talk over others’ ideas, not make room in discussions, and otherwise dominate graduate programs/seminars are often the most loud, verbal, and vocal in defending their behavior. I’m sure my account above just reads as sour grapes. This makes internet discussions especially one sided.

    Now that I’m a professor, I understand that this is a major classroom management issue. I had a problem student in my graduate class this fall, and struggled with it all semester. Her absenteeism probably saved the class.


  22. @frogprincess, way upthread, yes.

    Also re “theory” — I’m from Comp Lit, which means having mega language skills and being able to be all theory all the time regardless of gender. What irritates me is that people seem to think you can “learn theory” in a one semester intro and then “apply it” for the rest of your life.


  23. Wini’s comment raises another question for me: how does the gender of the faculty member running the seminar affect the dominance/silencing of grad students in seminars? In my experience, the only two truly terrible seminars I’ve had have been when grad students (of both genders) have been allowed to dominate/misdirect the conversation, silencing the rest of the room, because the female professor wouldn’t intervene. The rest of the grad students tried a few times to alter the conversation back to the material and away from the speaker’s personal anecdote/misunderstanding of the material (sometimes the speaker clearly hadn’t even read it), but when the prof keeps calling on the dominating speaker, there’s only so much that can be done, and within a few weeks the rest of us stopped trying to intervene.


  24. Canuck, my experience is that it’s harder to control *undergraduate* courses as a female faculty member. The two awful seminars I had as a graduate student were run by men. One was just being lazy in a somewhat out of field course he was giving. The other was a new asst prof, very good, but new and dealing with a bunch o’ grad students who had basically as much education as he did, really; he was intimidated.


  25. Ooh! I must tell an anecdote too! My adviser was rather conflict-averse. In a well-mixed class, this style was not an issue. In a class with a problem student, holy shit.

    It was a small seminar, maybe 7 students. One of whom was a major pain–he would hijack the discussion away from Adviser. He wrote things on the board, to “help” our discussion. He dominated every conversation with ridiculously boring misreadings.

    One day he came after me about an observation I had made about the text, and I mean, came. after. me. Interrupting, challenging, scoffing. It felt … pedagogical, like he was trying to “teach me.” The condescension was appalling. I was furious.

    So I decided to confront him. I found him in the student lounge, sat down, and said, “look, you are not my teacher. I do not appreciate being treated as if I am your student. Do not do that to me ever again.”

    And his eyes filled with TEARS! Real man-tears! I reached out and touched his arm in a gesture of conciliation, about which I was ashamed, later, because I couldn’t figure out why I was touching him. Then I realized that I had done it because I was mortified that the tears would spill and I would be responsible for making a grown man cry. A grown man who had bullied ME!


  26. My experience in grad school was not one of being silenced as a woman. My cohort had a lot of silent men which perhaps made the women talk more. But I entered graduate school very comfortable in academic settings, far more comfortable in classrooms than other social settings. I think this was a direct outgrowth of positive educational experiences early on, attending a SLAC in which you had to speak, and growing up in a Jewish religious and intellectual milieu in which argument was highly prized, often just for argument’s sake (taking apart a tractate of Talmud, for example).

    I have to confess a certain impatience with several smart female grad student peers who never talked — from my perspective and as a result of my background, not talking was akin to being selfish, to not contributing to other people’s learning. I want to be clear that I didn’t see them as selfish but had been primed to think of not talking as selfish. This is certainly a radically different viewpoint than other cultures implant, especially in women, and I understand the factors that lead people to feel and be silenced. Nevertheless, it makes me think more than gender is at work when women don’t talk. In some cases, it may be men intentionally or unintentionally shutting women down, but each individual brings particular experiences and understandings to the table that affect participation and validation.

    That said, the women in my program were by far the more participatory in department workshops and events. Indeed, getting men to show up to something that didn’t expressly relate to their work (or didn’t include a good friend presenting) was always challenging. In contrast, the women showed up — to talks, to workshops, to colloquia, to social functions. As a result, the men-who-talked-in-seminars were just as, may more, selfish from my perspective because they refused to partake of the larger intellectual give-and-take unless they perceived a clear benefit. In this regard, women were just more supportive and had a more capacious view of how they could benefit from indirectly-related scholarship.


  27. In my own experience, I have found race and individual personality to be far greater determinants of attitudes and ways professors treat and evaluate students. As a person of color student, I have sat silently while an entire group of white students (male and female) has talked on and on without giving the rest of us a moment to get a word in edgewise. Of course, this is a broad generalization, and I think you have to tread carefully with a conversation like this. The individual personality is often just as important even if it’s obviously molded and cultivated by a number of externals. Many of the above comments, in different words, seem to suggest similarly.


  28. My doctoral classes were all majority-female, so this played out along personality lines more than anything. Like Rachel, I was frustrated at times with the silence of certain classmates. I’ve come to understand a bit better that people process differently and have varying levels of communicative anxiety, but add that aversion to controversy to the mix and it sure made it hard to keep the ball in the air. I suppose that speaks to Moi’s point about the role of faculty- leaving this to the students creates an additional layer of unnecessary stress.

    I think your advice to your former student was spot-on.


  29. In engineering classes it’s rare to have opinions or personalities be particularly relevant (either you do the math or you don’t…)

    I’ve broken out of engineering to participate in seminar-style classes in philosophy and in law; in both cases I was fairly out of my depth, so didn’t tend to shift into speak-my-mind mode until later in the class. It helped that the law professor was a woman, and she liked to ask me out of the blue what I thought of various things (presumably both to help me feel part of the class, but also to show all the law students a non-legal perspective). She was quite willing to shut down avenues of discussion that were either poorly reasoned positions, or were in some way personal attacks (although the latter were exceedingly rare).

    In the philosophy seminar, I remember more instances of male students liking to pontificate — one was madly in love with Kant and always brought things back to him somehow, the other (a history student) simply tended to segue into areas I didn’t see the connection to. However, the professor, while giving them time to talk about their particular interests, was really good about ensuring equal time for the very different range of opinions in the room. Whether you were saying something in line with his personal stance or not, he smiled, said it was really interesting, and asked for class participation in carrying the discussion onwards — while somehow still managing to keep it roughly topical.

    In short, it really came down to a willingness to appropriately control the discussion. Both professors had teaching styles well-suited to the class, and managed the classroom beautifully. I’m taking a couple other seminars in the geography department next year, and fingers crossed that they manage to be equally well led. (Or, if they’re not, that I’ve got the maturity and experience to stand up for myself. I wouldn’t have been able to ten years ago, but I feel more capable now!)


  30. This is one of those situations where it’s hard to make generalizations. It really is all about the teacher. At the SLAC I attended, everybody talked, sometimes quite passionately, but respectfully. When I got to grad school, me and a woman from a SLAC, and a guy from a small uni that may as well have been a slack (that was good at lacrosse and is known for producing pre-meds) dominated the required 1st year courses. Most of the other folks were from big state schools. But in the smaller seminars, the other folks spoke up a lot more. In part, because of different teaching styles of instructors and in part because they realized we weren’t scary people or trying to score points when we said things like “I disagree with you because…” Most of them had never been directly disagreed with in a course and found it shocking. They thought we were trying to win class, I can’t speak for other folks, but I always used class as a place to try out ideas, so I wanted people to disagree with me, so that I wouldn’t screw up my papers. (Leading to: the purpose of class discussion is to be wrong) My assumption was that everyone there acted in good faith in similar ways. It was not a valid assumption. But if a professor makes it clear that that is the case and nurtures that, it becomes the case for everybody in the room and the “theory boys” tone it down and everybody else steps up. And nobody’s fellowships are harmed or promoted except on the value of their actual work. And while I’m wishing I’d like a pony.


  31. I teach a seminar as an adjunct in the area I practice and in the rare cases when issues like this arise I always find it difficult to determine whether a particular student is being passionate about arguing her or his position and when that tips over to the student being obnoxious. Male students are far more inclined to loudly and confidently express their opinion and try to dominate class even at times when it is clear they have not really thought through the material very carefully. Curtailing that is not too difficult as I don’t hesitate to cut that off.

    However, last year for the first time a woman in the class acted in a similar fashion and I found it more difficult to address the issue. It differed in that she really was always well prepared and had interesting things to say. However, her tone when disagreeing with other students was often dismissive and needlessly sarcastic. I did wonder whether I would have the same reaction if it was a guy and so I was hesitant to talk to her about it. I finally spoke to her outside of class and the conversation went okay, if not great.


  32. This discussion has had me thinking fairly hard about my own experiances and actions as a grad student. I’m between a masters program and a doctoral program so this might change once I arrive at the place with ivy covered gothic buildings.

    My masters program was at what I considered a fairly small state university (but probably only because my undergrad was from a massive state university). My seminars almost always had about 15 people in the class and usually about a third of the class carried the weight of discussion. Another third would talk often enough but wouldn’t fill silences. A third couldn’t be made to talk if you put a gun to their head. With a few exceptions (including myself) women fell into catagory two.

    I talk and have the same attitude about it that Western Dave describes. Discussion is how you understand ideas. Occasionally I would take a position i didn’t entirely support myself becuase it was a direct challenge to another students arguement. But this wasn’t out of malace but to keep discussion going and to make the other student think through the holes in what they were saying.

    My professors I think had mixed feelings about me. I was capable of shutting up, but it was difficult for me. But I’m vocal and aggressive and i”m pretty sure there are some from my grad program who thought me a bitch. On the other hand I also had professors thank me for keeping the discussion going.

    I’m slightly afraid of the transition to an ivy league large history department. But that’s entirely tied into my larger impostor syndrome.


  33. One of the most important things I have to deal with when new trainees join my lab is making sure that they internalize the non-negotiable expectation that they will engage critically with *everything* in their environment: their experiments, the published literature, oral presentations of data, and–most importantly–shitte that I and others in the lab say to them.

    Some personality types have massive difficulty separating criticism of ideas from criticism of a person. At times I am forced to explain to people that objective physical reality doesn’t give a single flying fucke about anyone’s “feelings”, and that we simply have no choice but to strive for and achieve unstinting critical rigor in our scientific discourse.


  34. I find this discussion really interesting for several reasons. First, as someone who will finish her PhD (please, please, please!) in the next year, I never thought about whether or not gender played a role in my academic experience. I never let it, so I didn’t think it was an issue, I suppose. Call me naive, if you want. My own participation in seminars was affected, at first, by my lack of confidence in myself, not because I’m a girl. Once I got over the confidence part, mostly by realizing that other students were actually talking out of their behinds, I was fine.

    Then I heard from a friend in the department that another PhD student (we’ll call him Slacker) made some fairly rude comments about myself and another female friend (we’ll call her Pushy2) in the department. The gist of it boiled down to him calling us “pushy grabbers” because we work in the office for a centre of study for the area we work on. The pay is minimal, but that’s not the point, really, although it helps. More importantly, it means we do things like organize colloquiums and conferences, network with scholars in our area of study, and also publish a yearly journal for which we are the assistant editors. Evidently, though, this bothers Slacker because, first of all, he is not working in the office and doesn’t get to build his cv the same way that Pushy2 and I have been able to do. It never occurred to him, however, that his performance as book review editor for the journal was so appallingly poor that my supervisor would never think to give him more responsibility. Clearly, Slacker is faultless and we, the evil girls, are to blame. This is also despite the fact that Pushy2 is leaving the office after the summer and Slacker, being the slacker that he is, did not even apply for her position. That’s not fair, I suppose, it’s not as if writing a dissertation is not enough to handle, but I’m too angry to be fair right now.

    Slacker is even more upset because the centre has begun publishing books every other year and Pushy2 and I are co-editing the most recent book, along with a big-name professor in the department. This isn’t something we are doing as part of our responsibilities for the office, but this is something another friend of mine (we’ll call him Favorite because he is definitely my supervisor’s favorite student ever and I constantly try to live up to his standards) started when a conference he organized was so successful that they decided to publish longer versions of the talks. Naturally, I wanted to publish a book, too. What grad student wouldn’t want that opportunity? So, I approached my supervisor with the idea and, as he’s also the director of the centre I work for, we got funding from the centre to do it. The professor who is co-editing the book is Pushy2’s supervisor and wanted her working on the book, too. Pushy2 is also my closest friend in the department, so I obviously wanted her in on the book, too. If Slacker had expressed interest in the book in any way (he didn’t even submit a proposal for it when his hagiographical research on the country the three of us study would have been perfect for a book on identity), he would have been included, but he preferred to sit back and whine.

    The point of this way too long story is, yes, I suppose we are “pushy grabbers”, although I would prefer to think of myself as “motivated”, not as a “grabber”. But, was The Favorite considered a “pushy grabber”, since really he was the one who started all of this? No, he was not. I suspect it’s because we are girls that we are labeled “pushy” because that’s not how we are supposed to act, right?


  35. So YES faculty play a critical role in fostering climates where a range of different types of learners and speakers can feel comfortable participating. Without going into a draw-out history of my experiences in grad school coursework, I’ll say that the bottom line is that far too few faculty think about this. Many are either oblivious or think so highly of their excellent self-awareness about gender and feminism that they neglect to observe and engage critically with their own modeling of behavior and pedagogy.

    But this is a symptom of a larger problem. Far too few professors who lead graduate level courses actually think its worth their while to read and think critically about pedagogy. I wonder, When was the last time the leader of a grad seminar picked up an article NOT by a historian about this sort of thing? But undergrad teaching isn’t the only thing that suffers when professors don’t take time for pedagogy, and most professors in my experience think FAR MORE about pedagogy in undergrad environments than at the graduate level! There is a lot of great undergrad teaching that occurs. But at the graduate level all of the concern with establishing clear expectations, ground rules, modeling that we bring to undergrad teaching seems to fly out the window!

    I sometimes feel that professors teaching graduate level seminars come to the table with this implicit unexamined assumption that we are comfortable performing as fully-formed scholars. And that if we aren’t comfortable, we better get there fast or else our future is doomed. Trial by fire. One of the conversations I had with colleagues about sexism concerned the experience that quieter and more traditionally feminine women have had with professors who seemed to pass over them. These women came to grad school quiet and hesitant, were largely ignored, and as one of my friends said “Professor X seemed to suddenly discover IN THE COURSE of my PRELIMS exam that I was smart. He did not conceal his surprise.”

    I have had to learn to fight my shyness, my desire to be liked at all costs, my unwillingness to be speculative, my extreme sensitivity to criticism and rejection. I’ve tried to craft a professional gender performance that is somewhere between assertive and confident but respectful and reserved. Ahh…the perennial tight-rope walk of modern femininity in all its forms!

    Great post. Thanks for keeping the conversation about this alive!


  36. A great post. I’ve had to read it twice and come back to comment. I’d just like to say a couple of things that might be relevant to the larger theme of the thread:

    First, I agree with squadratomagico, SpanishProf, Z and others, that one should not give wallflowers a pass in seminar. If you are not contributing in a seminar, you are freeloading on the ideas of others.

    Second, that said, I don’t think we should discount the role active listening. I had a conversation with an old comrade from grad school when we were at a conference a few years back. On the last day we were chatting and she gave the most incisive overview and critique of the papers I had heard all weekend. Her ideas about what was going on were way more interesting than most of the comments made in the workshops. I was surprised she hadn’t bought up these points in the workshops. She responded that it took her awhile to think about things and formulate them into a response. She was ‘thinking on her feet’ while the workshop was happening, she just wasn’t giving a glib statement for the sake of commenting.

    Since that conversation, I have rethought my ideas about class participation. I try harder to slow down and take time to evaluate the quality of the contribution rather than the quantity. I’ve also realized that there are times when its my responsibility as the instructor to lead the class so that a lot of different people contribute, not just the extroverts. It takes time to think critically. It takes even more time to say something intelligently.


  37. Matt, I think that’s a really important point: It does take time to process new and complex ideas, and sometimes the quieter students are actually “working harder” than the talkative ones, who sometimes are just trying to score points. Ideally, I think the solution is to foster a classroom atmosphere of a particular kind that is dedicated to collective brainstorming — allowing ideas to emerge through discussion and refinement, rather than expecting students to formulate fully-formed pearls of wisdom before they speak. Certainly, my most memorable learning experiences in classrooms, or at conferences and seminars, have been produced by that sort of atmosphere.

    However, with all the other complications of competition for prestige and funding; of some persons who feel uncomfortable talking for a variety of reasons, or who even are afraid of new ideas; of class and entitlement to speak and demand time for one’s ideas as they form — this sort of “provisionalism” (to coin a word) is difficult to foster.

    It may also be a cultural or regional issue. Having lived in four distinct regions of the US — both coasts, midwest, deep south — my sense is that disagreement, debate, even mere opinion-stating (without disagreeing with someone else) vary widely in social acceptability.


  38. “Theory boy” was in one of my first grad seminars. He had read all of Derrida as an undergrad and loved to hold forth in seminar about shit that I couldn’t even begin to decipher. I hated that guy back then, but we’re actually friends now. He’s chilled out quite a bit and offers gracious feedback on my chapters in writing group. So sometimes those dudes chill out.

    That said, one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a female prof who described coming into grad school and hearing people name drop “big theorists” left and right, which intimidated the shit out of her. So she got to reading those “big theorists” in her spare time and figured out that many of them didn’t know what they were talking about. Since taking her advice to simply start becoming conversant on topics that are germane to my field, I’ve been able to school some seminar-dominating assholes on the precise definition of commodity fetishism and the nature of the postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment.

    As uncomfortable and unfair as grad school can feel for female students, particularly the quiet, introverted ones (which is my natural bent; I’ve just learned how to become a ball buster in order to get things done), it is vitally important not to shut down. Yes, you are going to have to work harder than some of your male colleagues to be heard, but being invisible in grad school is far worse than being labelled “pushy.”


  39. Just to echo what Matt L and Squadrato are saying: the other aspect to my comment paralysis is that I am a slower thinker, and so my mind was working during seminar, even if I wasn’t participating. I also had some moments in which I spoke to colleagues after class and felt like I had things to say that I hadn’t said in seminar, in large part b/c it took me a while to develop my ideas. A few years into my program, I had a conversation with a male colleague in which his read of the situation was that I didn’t feel obligated to fill dead air, whereas he got nervous if nobody spoke, and felt it was his responsibility to keep things going. He was impressed that I was freed of such obligations. (In fairness, I took several classes with him that were about material relevant to my work. So when I did speak in those classes, I had something useful to say, whereas in other classes I was up a creek.)

    As for professors, I had many who punished me for my lack of participation. And, fair enough. But I had one professor, in English actually, so even less of my wheelhouse, who told me that she always felt as though I was engaged, even if I wasn’t talking, and she didn’t penalize me for participation. I also sat in on a graduate class at another university this past year, where the professor started class by saying that he designed the syllabus so that students could demonstrate a variety of skills, in case they weren’t able to shine through participation. I think, as a result, people felt more empowered to speak. There were several women in the class who I felt would have been intimidated in seminars in my home department who were allowed to thrive in his seminars. He always acknowledged their comments, whether they were truly insightful or not, made them a point of conversation, as opposed to a throwaway comment that gets in the way of a discussion with the boyz. I was very impressed, and he provided a model for me.

    So I think active listening is an underrated and undervalued skill, but at the same time, those of us who tend to active listening need to be pushed to articulate our thoughts on the spot. Both are important skills.


  40. Reading this fascinating thread I’ve been wondering if any of it might look different if we disaggregated the word “seminar?” We’ve been using it so far pretty fungibly as a term for any small class at the graduate level that involves discussion or participation. It may vary by discipline or subdiscipline, but in History there are typically reading seminars (sometimes called colloquia) which involve common readings and group criticism or analysis throughout the term of the course. And research seminars, which sometimes have abbreviated common reading stretches but then shift to the presentation by the members of research results, work in progress, mini-drafts, or whatever, and the criticism or analysis of that. While the inclination to be a “theory boy” would presumably remain constant as a function of temperament, habit, approach to the process, or whatever, often there can be different results when games are played on different surfaces. The obligation to “present” might offer a greater chance to shape or structure an entire session–but a lesser opportunity to dominate it–than in other formats, if only because of the transactional process built into the format. Or, people who have been trained to “slay” every absent author on a syllabus might react differently to having the creator sitting at the same table. I don’t have any considered observations about this phenomenon ready to hand. I just thought I’d pose it as a possible different angle on the ethnography of the “seminar.”


  41. I am so mad that I’m coming to this post so late and that I missed all the conversation. Maybe next week I’ll post a lengthier response at my place, but I will say that in literary studies, particularly if one works on literature after 1900, I think part of what graduate school does for students of both sexes is to acculturate them into talking about literature through theory. So to some extent, I think that crying that the theory boys are dominating things is missing the point: the point is that students need to figure out how to be part of that conversation.

    So here’s the thing: in my evaluation after my first year in my Ph.D. program, the DGS wrote that I was “a pleasure to have in class.” Reading between the lines, I was being given a miss congeniality award but I wasn’t setting anybody’s world on fire intellectually. What I did was work even harder so people would stop regarding me as pleasing and start thinking about me as an intellectual force. What I didn’t do? Whine that the theory boys were dominating everything. Instead I became a theory boy.


  42. Dr. Crazy–yes. I agree–and I think that’s part of Moi’s point, although she wants the “theory boys” to listen and engage with other people’s contributions, too.

    Just as it’s the easy way out to try to intimidate or bluster your way through grad school by name-dropping poststructuralist theorists, it’s also a cop-out NOT to engage with those ideas and figure out how they may (or may not) be useful to you.


  43. Great thread. On the topic of class participation, active listening, processing ideas, and the meaning(s) of “voice”, I just wanted to throw out a quick book recommendation for those interested in classroom pedagogy: Mary Reda’s “Between Speaking and Silence: A Study of Quiet Students.” It helped me think about what I value in a classroom as an instructor and facilitator, and also helped clarify some feelings I had about my own participation in schooling arenas.


  44. Pingback: It’s time to get inspirational | The Naked Darwin

  45. Pingback: Grad school confidential: back by popular demand! | Historiann

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