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Gender in the classroom

February 21, 2010

The other morning I walked into my introductory International Relations class to see two signs that read: <— Male People / Female People —>

I knew this couldn’t be good.

And yep it was Gender Day! The one day of the term where professors pay lip service to feminism and allow us to read female authors, and perhaps even women of color (if we’re lucky.) And while I never enjoy gender days, finding myslef inevitably getting worked up about the sexist, homophobic, transphobic sentiments usually expressed only latently in classrooms, this day was particularly rough. First we were divided into “male people” and “female people” on different sides of the classroom (don’t ask me why he thought this terminology was best) and told our topic was “Does gender matter?” I know I’m preachy to the choir here, but seriously, the fact that we’re asked that question in the first place, and given the chance to say ‘no’ is indicative of the problem. J. Ann Tickner, a feminist we got to read today sums it up quite nicely:

It does indicate, how, all too often, claims of gender neutrality mask deeply embedded masculinist assumptions which can naturalize or hide gender differences and gender inequalities.

But we weren’t able to talk on this larger level. Instead we were stuck into a nature vs nurture conversation. The class came to some wimpy conclusion along the lines of ‘gender is a social construction, except when it’s biological, so it matters, maybe.’ It was a frustrating conversation, having that kind of schoolyard debate over whether girls or boys are better are sports, but now being applied to The Lord of the Flies and all of global politics. But what infuriated me most, was when our professor ended the conversation with a statement that while gender might matter in discussions of human nature, should we even be talking about human nature in global politics rather than larger structures?

Here, for the first time all term, I piped up. I talked about structural inequalities, systemic sexual violence, gendered experiences of war. I’m not going to say I was eloquent, but I think I kept up with the prof, who structures the class as a series of individual debates with him. I felt like he listened, and maybe even agreed with me. I ended the class by writing a note on my homework assignment about how the male/female divide of the classroom left out all manners of people outside the gender binary and also would force certain groups to either “out” themselves or deny their identities. I felt less frustrated at the end of class. We’d even spoked a bit about classroom dynamics, and one male student acknowledged how men in political science classes tend to be more aggressive about speaking up than women.

But nothing has changed. The same (white) men feel the need to speak for a large majority of class time. The same men are repeatedly asked to share their opinions. I hear about one or two opinions from women every class period, and have not been asked to speak in class since. We’ve read no more female authors, and the notion of gender has not been considered again. To be honest, most days I sit in the back and imagine how satisfying it would be to flick my pen at the guy in the front row who feels sure that his opinion is valuable over all others in the class, every. single. day. It’s annoying, and it’s demoralizing. These classroom dynamics reinforces my feelings that International Relations is an old white man’s field. A field that might not have room for me. I do believe in my intelligence and ability to navigate this field and this classroom as a woman, but I’m not always sure I have the energy.

So my question to you, is how do you deal with gender relations in the classroom? How do you change a so masculine space from the perspective of a student, or even from the perspective of a teacher? It seems to me that having more women in International Relations, particularly women ready to consider gender would be a huge benefit to the field. But how to encourage women to take these classes? How to change the dynamics so that masculinity is not the only thing valued? I’d love to hear what you think.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2010 3:46 PM

    I always tried to remedy the masculine dominance of the classroom by speaking up as much as possible. Even in high school, I noticed that the same two or three white guys monopolized every single classroom discussion, so whenever I was moderately confident about a topic (which was most of the time), I’d make sure I said something about it. In high school, and even in a few college classes, that meant I was the only girl who ever said anything.

    I don’t really know how it worked out, though, because I couldn’t exactly poll my fellow students about how they perceived gender dynamics in our classes. I think most people just thought I was arrogant and insufferable – which is probably true, heh. Teachers usually respected me for it, though (I was lucky enough to have very good teachers throughout college). I once had an argument with a section leader about a feminist interpretation of Antony and Cleopatra, and he encouraged me to write a paper about it, then gave me an A on the paper. I think I changed his mind on the issue.

  2. February 21, 2010 4:24 PM

    I am a woman in engineering. In undergrad, I had very low self confidence, and always assumed everyone else knew what was going on, and I was the dumbest there. I rarely asked or answered a question, and only in the smallest classes.

    As a PhD student in my 4th year, I have a lot of confidence in my knowledge and abilities. In class I often ask and answer questions. I agree with Lauren O, one thing you can do is participate as much as you are comfortable with.

    If you want more women in the field, you could: become a prof, stay in the profession, and/or create a group for girls/women at different levels of education (high school/undergrad) to introduce them into the field and keep them interested/supported.

    In my department, I have initiated and lead a student committee that created a code of conduct for grad students, to help students understand how to respect each other. It addresses the problems of racism and sexism, and directs students where to go for help if they have problems. I don’t know how that helps undergrads, but I’m hoping that it will help change the atmosphere for me and my peers.

  3. PrettyAmiable permalink
    February 21, 2010 7:41 PM


    I’m looking to do something like that at my grad school. Do you have any resources for that kind of thing? We’re also looking at developing an orientation program for all incoming grad students that addresses the biases that are prevalent in all classroom discussion.

    I’m a b-school feminist. EVERY conversation makes me want to gouge out my eyes.

  4. konkonsn permalink
    February 21, 2010 8:56 PM

    I a grad student who is a TA, so I get to play both sides of this argument. But I teach a required course (so even male and female) and am majoring in the humanities, so the dynamics are different.

    Professors need to read about how to lead discussions in a classroom. I’ve been specifically instructed not to let one student dominate a conversation; you learn to call on students who don’t speak up and to direct the flow of feedback in different ways (there are all kinds of studied techniques on this). I think professors who perhaps don’t keep up with this lit. on teaching or who want to teach just to hear themselves talk end up having the dominating students. It gets worse when it’s a male prof because women are socialized to let the man keep his ego in a conversation, so you don’t want to argue with the prof because then you lose.

    As a student who used to dominate conversations a lot, I’ve learned to pay attention to other students in the classroom. I arrive in class at least five minutes early (’cause I’m a time freak) and listen to people’s conversations or try to talk to people. Then when a prof asks for opinions, I might say, “Alice and I were just talking about that before class! What did you say again, Alice? You put it so much better than I could.” That can scare people, tho, and I try to limit it to my shy friends whom I know well or only if someone has a REALLY good opinion I think needs to be discussed.

    Generally I encourage other students before class by saying, “That’s a good point. You should bring that up in class today,” and then give them a look during the class when it’s time to talk if they seem hesitant about bringing it up. Or if we’re working as a group and someone doesn’t talk during class, I’ll say after class, “I was really hoping you’d bring that point up. You should definitely speak up more next time because you have really good ideas.”

  5. Broggly permalink
    February 21, 2010 9:05 PM

    As one of the guys who always spoke up in high school, I think that a more casual style of classroom discussion can help the problem. People like me become more willing to shut up and listen when they feel that they get to speak because they’re part of the group instead of getting to speak because the teacher chose them (which makes you feel like you have carte blanche to go on as long as you want).

    I haven’t had much experience with this in uni, simply because the sciences don’t have as much classroom discussion as the humanities do.

  6. February 22, 2010 1:40 PM

    I am a female undergraduate student. There tend to be more women in my field of studies–English and Political Science. Both majors use a lot of discussion, and understandably, political science discussion can get very heated. I speak up a lot in these discussions, often to point out the gendered aspects, both to point out the ways gender can impact politics, in the hopes that male students can learn, and to give other female students the solidarity we need to speak up. I’ve noticed after a woman speaks in class, other women feel more comfortable speaking up as well. It’s nice, to be able to hear from more than just the same straight, white guys over and over again.

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