Liberal Arts vs. Tech School

/ February 13, 2011/ Teaching/ 0 comments

I’ve been teaching writing and literature at Loyola University Chicago for the past few years, but I recently started teaching at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).  The change has been jolting.  Not only have I dealt with a different course and department (I’m teaching Jazz in American Culture in a humanities department), for me there have also been some other significant changes.

I had been used to teaching classes that were introductory and part of the core/general courses.  At IIT, the humanities classes are treated more as electives, and even though they are upper-division (300-level) courses, the attitude most students have toward humanities courses are that they are easy.  And for them, it may seem easy because they come to class, listen to a lecture, participate in class discussion, then go home to read another chapter, another short story, or to watch a film.  This kind of work is very different from their engineering or physics courses and may to them have the appearance of being easier.

This kind of expectation results in a little less respect automatically given the instructor of a humanities course.  Now I imagine the experience is quite different for a middle-aged male, but in combination with my appearance, I think my students have not received me as necessarily worthy of their attention and respect.  I had this problem at Loyola as well, but it’s definitely more pronounced here.  I have a lot of theories as to why, but I should emphasize that it’s never easy to tell.  I may have suspicions that turn out to not be true.

While at Loyola, I consistently taught female-majority classes, but my class at IIT is mostly male.  I’m not experiencing the change in gender demographics as simply more males being in the class, but rather the class has become more of a male space.  I’ve needed to change the way I react to certain kinds of body language, eye contact, voice inflection, and the comment content.  I should be clear that my new students are not hostile in any way, but the assumption that I am somehow less worthy of their automatic praise because this is a humanities course and because I look young and female has contributed to a class environment that can change suddenly from me telling them what they need to know to one or more of them suggesting what I should do to best enable them.  From a feminist perspective, these shifts in power dynamics can be very helpful, but from an instructor’s perspective it can mean the deterioration of classroom authority. 

Though I haven’t been teaching at IIT long, I’ve already begun to see how this different expectation of my student’s less than positive reaction has altered my teaching style.  In some ways it’s been difficult, but in most ways it has helped me be more careful in taking stock of how students are receiving my authority and then taking steps to make them feel comfortable with me as the authority in the class.  I find that my authority is best received in combination with more of the formal aspects of the course (i.e. grading and lecturing) instead of those aspects of the course I prefer (i.e. class discussion).

It may seem like regressive feminist pedagogy to rely on the more patriarchal forms of teaching, but my overall feminist pedagogy has not changed.  I am still about affirming all kinds of identities and learning styles, but I challenge them as well.  A white male who prefers lecture and tests needs to understand that I am an authority figure before he may be willing to give thoughtful criticism to the way I am asking him to think about race- and gender-related topics. And even though I am lecturing a lot more than I usually do, when I ask students such as him to work in groups to share their emerging views, the experience may be all the more memorable and effective because it took place in a classroom where they felt the information was authoritatively passed on to them.

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