Saturday, September 6, 2008

"Can I ask you a private question?"

AFter the second lecture in developmental psychology, a tall male student waited for other students to disperse.

Student: "Can I ask you a private question?"

Me: "Ok, go ahead." Wrong. It depends on what it is.

Student: "Now -- I mean no disrepect, but, uh, Do you have children, or, you know, raise them?"

Me: "Uh, no. Why?" Wrong. That's none of your business because its not relevant to the class.

Student: "Oh. Well, I mean no disrepect, I just wanted to know since its the start of the semester, like, where you would be coming from in this class."

Me: "But, the class wouldn't be different if I had children. I guess I might include specific anecdotes about my kids, is that what you mean?"

Student: "I just wanted to know, if the class was going to be more about basic research, or more practical. I meant no disrespect."

The student had his answer and was ready to leave, but something was really wrong. I was upset. I wanted to understand.

Me: "But I wouldn't teach the class any differently if I had children, other than maybe I would include some anecdotes."

Student: "Look, I just wanted to know where you'd be coming from. And so now I understand that its going to be be focused more on science and research."

Me: "But I'm wondering why you thought that the class would be focused on research because I hadn't had children? Where did you get this idea from? Do other professors teach like that? "

Student: "I just wanted to know where you'd be coming from."

Me: "Right. So what's your background, you're not a psych major, right?"

Student: "I am a psych major."

The next class was occupying the room. "Ok, see you later." I walked out into the bright sunlight.

I was upset. What had just happened?

I told the anecdote minutes later to my colleague Dr. B, a developmental psychologist, who responded, "What, as soon as we have kids we just toss the research out the window and prattle on about our experiences?"

At home H had a different take: "What, he assumes that since you haven't had children you're not really able to teach about children? You have to resort to 'research'?"

I was upset because it had been a no-win question:

No, I haven't had children --> so this female professor doesn't have any real-world expertise, the class will just be the stuffy science that she has to describe to back up her statements.

Yes, I am raising (or have raised children) --> so its just going to be a bunch of sentimental stories about her own experiences, nothing based in science.

H: Don't let them ask these questions. It was sexist and a challenge to your authority. Don't think they are your friends. This is your service class. Teach it and get back to what you enjoy, working with individual students on research and teaching small classes.

But the real pain is my from my own sources. I didn't have children because I spent my 20s and 30s obtaining the scientific training to get and retain this very job.

1 comment:

Miss Conduct said...

Obviously, I wasn't there and didn't hear the tone and exact words of the student, but isn't a benign interpretation of his question possible? Perhaps he's neither anti-science nor sexist, but simply wanting to know if the class will be focused on science, basic research, and methodology--i.e., if the point of the class is "Here is how to be a developmental psychologist," or whether the science will be treated in a more applied fashion--i.e., if the point is "Here is how to be a good parent." Given that some psych classes, esp. the lower-level service classes, are focused more on the former and others on the latter, it seems like a reasonable question to me. Granted, he shouldn't have used your parental status as an opener, but I bet he's also had plenty of classes that are basically an intellectual framing of what's going on in the professor's life at the time (God knows I've had them in many disciplines) so you can't really blame him for generalizing from that experience.