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    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Cultivating Authority as a Female Grad Student

Gender inequalities in graduate school manifest themselves in many ways, including an imbalance in authority over your students, your decisions, and your work.

January 30, 2018

Alexandra (AJ) Gold is a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at Boston University. Follow her on Twitter @agold258 or check out her website.

“You write with too much authority.”

I received this feedback on a piece I’d submitted to a journal in my field. Like anyone who has internalized the “publish or perish” mentality, I often send out what I believe are interesting and polished manuscripts only to receive curt, confusing, or unhelpful reader reports in return (and many productive ones, too). Peer review horror stories abound. Yet no other comment has had such a lasting effect.

Did I push too hard against a few scholars and a common narrative? Was my prose overblown? If anything, I typically employ too much qualifying language. I was desperate to get to the bottom of the critique, but I didn’t know where to locate it. And as I continued to think about it, I couldn’t shake one nagging idea: was it because I was writing about an author’s feminist perspective and the reader assumed – or knew – I was a woman?

I can’t say for sure and, perhaps, this is a bold thing to wonder aloud. For what it’s worth, the same paper was accepted elsewhere, which might at least allay doubts about its quality. I can say, too, that with time I’ve come to appreciate and even delight in the fact that this critique was leveled at an essay on Adrienne Rich – feminist poet and critic extraordinaire. “You must write, and read, as if your life depended on it,” Rich once proclaimed. “To write as if your life depended on it,” she elaborates, “is to write across the chalkboard, putting up there in public words you have dredged, sieved up from dreams, from behind screen memories, out of silence…No, it’s not too much.” If there were ever a demand for anyone – and for women, in particular – to write with authority, this is it. No, it is not too much.

The history of women being denied authority in their professional and personal lives is long. This, of course, goes doubly for women of color, queer women, and others whose identities stand at the juncture of several intersections. In a moving article from September 2017, Nicole Krauss summarizes: “Young men purchase authority on credit for which they are preapproved. But if you are a woman, even now, no one will guarantee you.” In hindsight, Krauss’s discussion of uneven authority is especially prescient, given that the next few months unleashed a deluge of stories about sexual harassment and power imbalances that were not merely institutionalized but willfully ignored or sanctioned.

Academia is not exempt. A recent survey compiled by Karen Kelsky proves just how deep sexual harassment runs. But structural inequalities of authority in the academy go well beyond this singular issue. There are also inherent power imbalances between graduate students and advisors, for instance, or between tenure-track and adjunct faculty. When it comes to gender inequalities, the examples are myriad. Women are more likely than men to perform university service. Women are less likely to speak up in class and more likely to apologize for their statements. Women are more likely to be pressured to add authors to papers and are underrepresented in academic journals. Women do worse on student evaluations than male counterparts, and their evaluations focus more frequently on their appearance and personality than on their intellect. All-male panels are pervasive.

While each issue merits more attention, they together point to the fraught issue of women’s authority on the page, in the lab, and in the classroom – which is, at best, suspect, and at worst, intolerable. I need not relay how punitive claiming authority can be for women. For women in graduate school, the stakes are even higher, as we have no titles, secure positions, and sometimes no secure funding to draw on. As supportive as individual professors or departments may be, we are still structurally beholden to advisors and PIs, institutions, and even our students with little recourse, further divesting us of authority and power. I was recently reminded of this when my officemate conveyed her shock at being asked out by a male student. I could relate. A student actually had the audacity to ask me twice. We are not alone.  

How, then, can we cultivate authority as female graduate students? I’ll offer some suggestions, but I hope others will weigh in:

1. Use a title in the classroom, not your first name. Have your students call you Professor, Ms., Mx. – whatever you deem appropriate– and correct them when they do not. I know this will be controversial, but it’s a small step that goes a long way. Making students address you formally is not mutually exclusive from acting kindly and fairly, being lenient when circumstances demand, or identifying with them. Your students are not friends or peers, position yourself accordingly. If you’re still unconvinced, read Dr. Carrie Preston’s excellent piece on the matter.

2. Dress the part. A female professor I admire offered this advice. Yes, it is superficial, but dressing up sends a visual message that you take your work seriously and asks students to take you seriously in turn. Optics matter. Dressing up is also psychologically effective. Think of it as a sartorial “power pose” or even a costume, if that helps – after all, isn’t teaching a performance? Leave the jeans and sweatshirts for non-teaching days. Dress as you would to attend a conference or interview. This is not a suggestion to dress according to proscriptive gender roles; it is a suggestion to avoid dressing like an undergrad.

3. Make a class contract. This was another piece of advice from a female professor. Instead of just giving students a syllabus on the first day of class, give them a “contract” or come up with one together. Lay out what you expect from students – being on time, bringing required material, keeping an open mind, etc. – and what they can expect from you – responding to papers in a reasonable timeframe, giving everyone a chance to speak, email and classroom etiquette. Authority is not lording over students’ heads, it’s also about mutuality and clearly delineated expectations. The contract creates an environment of respect.

4. Signal boost. Adopt this “amplification” strategy from the Obama White House. Staffers banded together to make sure female voices were heard by repeating good points female employees made in meetings and crediting them by name. Do this in your courses and labs, at conferences, or on social media. Do this through written citations. This goes for men, too: act as allies for the women in your cohorts or on your panels – amplify their voices.

5. Create a network. Develop a network of women within your department, institution, the profession at large, and outside the field as well. Rely on friends, co-workers, and mentors: vent to them, help them, and seek their help. Let them remind you of your authority and celebrate your accomplishments and vice versa. Read Heather’s great post on this issue for more insight.

6. Say no. I don’t mean saying “no” to opportunities or extra work, though that’s part of it. I mean have the courage not to back down when others challenge or misrepresent your ideas. I was at a conference last summer and saw a powerful example of this. A female professor gave a talk on her subject and another professor in the audience began a question by paraphrasing her argument back to her. In doing so, however, he had misrepresented the position, and she responded in kind, saying “that is not what I am arguing” or “that is not my point.” She refused to yield. She was not aggressive or defensive. She was gracious and open-minded and she stuck to her convictions. The lesson? Own your work. You are not obligated to accept everyone’s suggestions. Be courteous, but don’t concede simply to be polite or accommodating.

How do you cultivate authority as a graduate student? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Perzon Seo and used under the Creative Commons License.]


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