“Ladies, keep your legs crossed and your minds opened,” wrote a 58 year old undergraduate student who works in college admissions and recruitment in an online post in my sociology class. She said the economy was being destroyed by welfare mothers who have more babies for more welfare with many different men and that society would be “much better if ladies kept their legs crossed.”
This student had been making statements like this throughout the semester, ignoring my feedback and requests to apply the readings and dive in deeper. She presented as if her administrator position would give her a free pass. The day I read this comment, I had been grading papers and posts for what seemed like an eternity, and I was exhausted. I also was obsessed with the fact that I could not buy a house because my debt (all student loans) to income ratio is too high even though I have been teaching for almost 20 years. Getting my degrees was no walk in the park, and that is an understatement. There were a number of single mothers in the class and I made it clear I was one, too. What a thing for her to write.
And here we were almost at the end of the semester and once again, the student still had not examined the clichés she presented as truth. All semester, her posts contained simplistic one liners like, “Success is UP TO YOU.” “Education is the way out of poverty.” “Hard work ALWAYS pays off,” thinking she could skate by without thinking more critically about where those ideas come from and who benefits. I encouraged her to consider the sexism and classism in her comment and asked her to evaluate how her post might be viewed if she substituted her statements with race instead of class.
Where did you learn these stereotypes? I asked. “Currently, people are free to be as classist as they want since class is not a protected category under the law,” I wrote, and suggested she consider the role the larger economic structure plays in creating certain kinds of oppression. I also pointed out that ironically her comment did not reflect an open mind at all, in fact, the exact opposite. Finally, I mentioned that her statement was not factually correct, according to the research and text had she only opened her readings.
The next morning, I re-thought my response to her and added a longer passionate response to the class with more questions about the stereotype of the “welfare mother” and other issues related to classism and economic inequality. Even if I could not get her to think critically, I was going to create a teachable moment for all, so I threw a number of tangents into my response and spent a long time writing it. I encouraged students to google “corporate welfare” and to respond. I posted the link, From Graduate School to Welfare: The PhD Now Comes with Food Stamps.
I typically connect very well with my students and while we do have bumpy moments along the way, I see this as part of the process. In the end, students often tell me how much they learned and will say things like they are more awake as a result of taking classes like mine. I often do things on purpose to shake students up. I moved on.
Until I opened my email. The student was furious with my responses, and told me that she had reported me to the Dean and she had consulted with others who she worked with in administration to learn how to file a formal complaint against me. She demanded, “I better be graded fairly,” and said she was giving her opinion in the name of free speech. “The last time I looked, I lived in America, land of free speech, not China,” she wrote. Her email had a threatening tone.
OK. Nonplussed, I contacted the Dean to alert her of the situation. I assumed the Dean would agree that racism, sexism, and classism should be challenged and that students should be using readings and research to support their arguments, not just their conditioned opinions.
The Dean indeed had some things to say but supporting anti-oppression was not on the agenda.
First, she said she agreed with the student, “The student is right. When I taught in the inner city, I saw many women on welfare who dressed in diamonds and gold, who had no shame about being on assistance, and regularly told me things like, I will have another baby for more welfare.” She went on to say that there are generations of people abusing welfare and the system; and many people move from state to state to get more welfare.
The Dean said that the student was traumatized to the point where she almost dropped out of the college, which upset me. I would never, ever want to traumatize a student. There is a fundamental difference, though, between being traumatized and challenged/shaken up. I truly believe that the student did not like her ideology questioned and had a vested interest in maintaining a particular stance. How could she do her job if she did not? She could not even be bothered to do her readings. Instead of talking with me, she turned on me. It was easier than doing her work.
The Dean told me she herself had to stop reading my posts, as my writing “stunned her” and made her “sick to her stomach.” She also noted the student offered practical and helpful advice to other female students in the class –women should keep their legs crossed, “it is great advice,” she said. Whoa. I spared her my feminist sociological critique and bit my tongue. Ouch.
This sick feeling caused the Dean to launch an “investigation” into my other online classes from past years and after the investigation, she concluded I was guilty of “verbal assault,” and found other “problems” as well, and said I had to sign a piece of paper that agreed I verbally assaulted the student which would go in my permanent record in order to keep my job.
She also said she had received many complaints about me in addition to this student’s complaint; apparently many students in this course had accused me of being an “elitist.” I have never been called an elitist in my life–just the opposite, as a matter of fact. This worried and upset me. I would not want students to experience me this way, so I thought about it deeply. Was I burned out? Had I been teaching so long I was losing sight of how I presented? Was my anger about being exploited for years on end causing me to lose perspective? I was shocked and saddened that my students felt this way about me and I wanted to learn what I was doing wrong. I asked for copies of the letters of the complaints she allegedly received, so I could do some serious self-examination. I sent her piles of thank you notes I have from students I saved on my computer, wonderful letters, which remind me why I teach.
But, the Dean said she could not produce any of the letters of complaints, even after I suggested she might take the names of the students off or wait until the end of the semester when the grades are in. I asked her why I had so many thank you letters from students in the same class, and in general, if I am such an abusive elitist teacher?
She said, “One bad comment negates all the good comments.”
I could not help but think again how poorly I was paid for this drama which was sucking my energy dry; as usual, I was working very hard and pouring my whole heart and soul into my teaching. Now, I had to deal with this on top of the scraps they pay me. Talk about economic inequality, and classism and irony on a number of levels. Here we go again, I thought. This is yet another college that pays me and other part time instructors $2,400.00 for the semester, while cramming tons of students into the classes, making around $90,000 in tuition off of the students while encouraging them not to think. And how many of my students will have a hard time finding good paying meaningful work in the end? How many of them will be stuck with a lot of debt, just like me and many others who believed in the so called dream of higher education? The least I can do along the way is help students think sociologically and critically.
It has taken me a great long time to finish this blog piece because writing it has been very painful for me. I have had many ethical questions and needed time to self-reflect. I teach because I love it and it is my hope that through dialogue, we grow and change. I hope to create a lively but safe and sacred space in the classroom where we can openly discuss ideas without reprisal. It is one thing to have a student who is learning to unlearn make classist comments. One of the main goals of higher education is to re-think our taken for granted assumptions of the world. But, it is absolutely chilling to hear the Dean reiterate this same ignorance, even though a part of me is not surprised. Rocky moments are ideally “teachable moments.” That is where the beauty is in teaching and learning. Or should be. Apparently, though, re-thinking oppressive language and thinking critically is “sickening” to the powers that be.
I am sickened as well. As I leave this corporate university, I am reminded again I am a cog in the wheel; just like other workers barely making it; part time teachers have no rights, voice, power, job security, real retirement, and health insurance. We are not really “teachers,” we are cheap, disposable labor and we are expected to tow the party line. We are used to help the university make more profit and to help administrators’ live very well. In the meantime, many of us struggle with meeting our basic human needs, just like other low-income workers. I am left once again with many questions and concerns about the role of higher education in today’s culture. How can we deconstruct classism or talk about it without negative sanctions? How can we teach without being in fear of losing our jobs on a daily basis? I am ashamed to admit that I do not even dare use my real name in this blog, in the event of more retribution. If I continue to speak, I will be without any work at all and rendered homeless. I am almost there as it is. But, I feel like a coward and maybe I am. This is not why I went into sociology, into teaching. What kind of academic culture are we creating if students aren’t challenged and faculty are silenced and afraid? I have been teaching for almost 20 years, and I feel the death of my younger spirit more every year. I was not scared to speak, back then. I am now.
Ladies, keep your legs closed indeed. Hard work and higher education will get you places, all right. Now, why didn’t I think of that?
My deep appreciation and thanks to Julie Withers, for your solidarity and feedback. You helped me think more deeply about this piece and you have the courage to use your real name, you are a true inspiration! And a special thank you to the RCC for all the support over the years and for reminding me not to internalize oppressive dynamics, and thank you to Betsy, for the constant ongoing encouragement and for “getting it.”