my beautiful mommy?

Eszter Hargittai caused a little bit of a stir on Crooked Timber when she discussed the emotional division of labor between male and female professors.  She writes, for example,

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.

What set off Hargittai, and what further irritated her commentators was the way in which teacher/student interactions that we might call “mentoring” were reinterpreted as “mothering,” in either a positive or negative light (like this “gag” gift to a female colleague of Hargittai’s, which was supposed to seem playful, I think, but which ended up seeming simply odd)

On this question of mentoring-as-mothering, and whether it really is as deprofessionalizing as she claims, I think the anecdotes cut both ways, but I do think that a similar dynamic affects male teachers if they get perceived as “paternal” or “avuncular.”  And I don’t know if individuals have that much choice about how they might project authority to their students: if you really are a mother or a father, for example, are you not supposed to discuss this aspect of your life with your students and advisees?  Likewise, the age difference, or lack of age difference, between teacher and student has a huge impact on how one is received, but there isn’t much one can do about this besides dress “appropriately” for the occasion, however that gets defined.

But much of this debate seems to stem from our own discomfort with the emotional dimension of teaching and advising, and our unease with this unmanageable part of the jobs.



8 responses to “my beautiful mommy?

  1. DM, as I note in my comment to the CT thread, my post is not about whether professors should or should not be offering emotional support to students. See the comment for what I had intended to emphasize.

  2. Dave Mazella

    EH, thanks for visiting us. I think your clarifying comment to the CT thread appeared after I had initially posted, but I still don’t know whether I’m persuaded by this part of your initial post:

    “Maybe, just maybe, [the female prof would] 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”

    First of all, I don’t think that mentoring others’ research necessarily excludes this dimension of emotional support, but this question depends on how broadly we define “mentoring” and “emotional support” and “research.” And I certainly don’t think the mothering/mentoring component should overshadow one’s own research accomplishments, but I don’t think anyone is arguing that they should.

    We could say that reading the papers we receive on time and providing good feedback is not a form of touchy-feely “support,” but really an instance of “professionalism.” Unfortunately, the most “professional” attitude might be to leave those papers on the floor for a few days and finish the article/book/etc. we need to write first. So I think there are plenty of ethical tensions in the notion of professionalism that go unrecognized in the academy.

    Second, I think the sentence that set people off, whatever your intentions were, was the notion that “there is nothing wrong with being compassionate and caring, but it’s not what tends to be rewarded professionally in academia.” This to me seems like a strange way to describe compassion, or the reasons why we might want to behave in a caring manner.

    Finally, I think the problem here is not really about “caring and compassion,” but a notion of compulsory “caring and compassion” directed disproportionately towards female academics who have plenty of other things to do besides. In other words, the prescriptive “nurturing” role may very well feel like an extra level of informal obligation to female academics, which leaves them with even less time to do their (often impossible, often part-time, constantly interrupted) formal work. And that is indeed a problem. But I also think the language of professionalism only takes us so far.



  3. Without having read Hargittai’s piece or the discussion it spurred, I would like to throw in 2 cents from the perspective of a young, female professor who has been at times shocked by the kinds of things students feel compelled to share with me, mostly in the form of dual purpose excuse emails—on one level, the student excuses him/herself from class (thereby ceasing to be a student, for the moment) and on another level, the student shares extremely detailed personal information, begging a response that says, “Oh you poor thing, I really care about you as a person more than as a student, how can I help?” (Which I refuse to offer, coming off as a cold-hearted b—-, no doubt.) I think “mommy syndrome” might be a very good explanation of such emails, which I receive in DROVES each semester. But perhaps male profs are plagued by such things as well?

    Seriously, it has become such a problem that this semester I have added a clause to my attendance policy that says, “If I receive any emails explaining your absence from class with reference to your gastrointestinal system, your mother’s mental health, your roommate’s dead pet, or similar personal issues, I will mark you absent for an additional three days.”

  4. I hear this, too, from our female asst profs, though I get a certain amount of this behavior from both male and female students. (I, for better or worse, get read as “Dad” by students nowadays, which is no big deal)

    I also think this Mommy syndrome is specific to a certain population of middle class students, who are easy to recognize once you meet their moms and dads. Neediness and threats come in close succession from this group, no matter what their age.

    I think, though, that for my working class students these fantasies of dependence or protection don’t really operate. (Hargittai doesn’t seem to acknowledge the role of class in her discussion of (female) teacher’s roles, whether she’s talking about faculty or students)

    My older students go to work, deal with sick kids or parents, etc. etc., and that’s that. I don’t get the same sense of acting out from their issues, probably because other people are dependent on them. But these are the same people who may not make it through the semester, if something really drastic happens to them.


  5. Laura Rosenthal

    The gift itself is downright weird. As far as I can tell, the purpose of the book is to give to a child to explain why Mommy must pay thousands of dollars to hire a doctor to cut up and remold parts of her body that the patriarchy no longer finds attractive because YOU–yes, you, kiddo, receiver of this book–stretched and sucked them into unrecognizable form. But since the child would never have seen Mommy before he/she ravished her body, I’m not sure how the book is helping here. So the metaphor would be…this is what our disseration students do to our brains? Shouldn’t the advisor then be giving the book to the student to explain why she’s going to the beach rather than to her office to read another dissertation draft?

  6. Dave Mazella

    I honestly cannot understand the “message” behind such a gag gift. If I received such a gift, I’d feel like I was being stalked. Very icky stuff. That’s not even accounting for the ickiness of the book in the first place.


  7. Laura Rosenthal

    It’s hard for me to tell whether or not students do this more to women than to men, but I think–and this might be obvious–that they want to explain themselves because writing a paper on Defoe is very different from things they do in the rest of their lives. You can be going through an emotional trauma and still feed the cat or even muddle through your part-time job in food service or at the library, but writing that paper on Defoe calls on precisely the part of you that is not working well at the moment. At the same time, they want their teacher’s approval in a way that goes beyond any rational advantage of getting a ‘B’ rather than a ‘C.’ ( If they didn’t have this desire, probably most classrooms would be less interesting.) I used to think that my students were unusually traumatized and undoubtedly some of them make things up, but if in a class of 30 there are 3-4 students with major life problems (illness, addiction, death in the family, mental breakdown, medication side-effects), that’s probably around average for the population. In fact it’s probably below average and there are probably traumas going on that we don’t hear about.

    On excuses: In “Teacher Man,” Frank McCourt has a wonderful chapter in which he gets so tired of student excuses (so guys must get them too…) that he starts giving writing assignments in the form of various excuses–such as a note from Eve to God excusing herself from eating the apple, etc. So maybe we could harness this energy as well. New assignment: Robinson’s excuse to his father for disobedience; Clarissa’s excuse for leaving the gate open; Oroonoko’s grandfather’s explanation for lusting after Imoinda; Moll’s letters to various babies; Tom Jones…this one could take a while

  8. This seems correct to me, and seems to pinpoint the blind spot in Hargittai’s initial response:

    “At the same time, they want their teacher’s approval in a way that goes beyond any rational advantage of getting a ‘B’ rather than a ‘C.’ ( If they didn’t have this desire, probably most classrooms would be less interesting.)”

    EH seems to mistake her students’ general desire for approval for some kind of self-interested exploitation of her and her limited time. I’m sympathetic to the time constraint argument, esp. when it comes to stressed out part time or TA teachers, but I agree with you that a classroom full of students who lack this kind of investment in the teacher and her class makes for very boring discussions. I’ve read some descriptions of teaching at top-tier (as well as bottom-tier) places where this happens, but I think this gets us back into the anecdotes.

    And yes, excuses are a major source of verbal productivity and ingenuity for students. If only they devoted half the energy to the assignment that they directed towards the reasons for not completing it.