Teaching While Black

If race is a construct, gender is a construct, and teaching is a performative act, where and how do I exist in the classroom as a real black woman?

"I am expected to woo students even as I try to fend them off; I am supposed to control them even as I am supposed to manipulate them into loving me. Still I am aware of the paradox of my power over these students. I am aware of my role, my place in an institution that is larger than myself, whose power I wield even as I am powerless, whose shield of respectability shelters me even as I am disrespected." - Patricia Williams. The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Mad Law Professor

This is part three in a series by Dr. Matthew. See Part 1 and Part 2 at her blog.
On the first day of class one semester a male student called me Mrs. Matthews. It was the very beginning of the school year, and I’d been on sabbatical the previous winter, which meant I had eight full months to work on two big projects—an anthology about race and tenure in the humanities and my book about the history of the novel and its intersections with 19th-century medical and conduct discourse. It also meant I had had no interactions with students, even in passing. I live in Brooklyn but teach in New Jersey, so when I’m away from school I’m really away from school. The only student I had interacted with was the graduate student helping me with background research for the introduction to the race and tenure anthology. This is probably why, when I heard “Mrs. Matthews,” I replied without thinking, “Everything about that is wrong.”

I’m funny about people misspelling my last name. I think if it were, say, “Pryzbylewski” I wouldn’t get upset about it. That’s a hard name to spell, but “Matthew” is easy. Yet people add an “s” on the end all the time—telemarketers, doctors, Verizon, restaurant hostesses, and students. In the classroom, I can tell myself that I get persnickety about it because I’m teaching my students to pay attention to details, but I suspect I’m just funny about my name. And, when I’m at school, I’m funny about my title. Outside of work I rarely use it. In fact, when people ask me what I do for a living I just tell them I teach instead of saying I’m a university professor. But at school I assume that, like my male colleagues, students will refer to me as Dr. or Professor instead of Miss or Mrs. Depending on my mood or the time of the semester, I am either good-natured or sarcastic about this mistake. Early in the term I might say, “I may be large and contain multitudes but I am also singular, so please note there is no “s” at the end of my name,” or I try to keep it simple by saying “that’s Matthew two t’s no s.” When students (and when the mistake is made it’s almost always a male student making the mistake) call me Miss or Mrs., I’m neither good-natured nor sarcastic. That’s a mistake of a different kind. I try not to be too aggressive scary-feminist about the whole thing, but I’m quick to point out the error. Neither of these are high on my list of the problems of a tenured academic, but a recent comment on a student evaluation reminds of how being read as “black” by students has shaped my teaching, for better or ill.

When I said, “everything about that is wrong,” I don’t think I sounded mad or mean, but I hadn’t yet put on my black lady professor persona for the first day of class, so I wasn’t focused on making students comfortable. Normally, I try to break the ice with some wry or witty comment. If it’s the start of a new school year I joke that I’m dressed in all black to mourn the passing of summer. It’s so important to set the right tone on the very first day of class, and being too direct with one student can put everyone on edge. I have to be approachable but not a pushover, cordial but not overly friendly, competent to be sure but not so confident as to come across as arrogant. That semester, I got lucky. The student seemed chagrined but otherwise fine (he went on to do well in the course), the rest of the class barely seemed to notice, and I didn’t give it a second thought until a different student teased me about it at the end of the school year, in an entirely different class.

It was at the break during a long evening course. With the end of the term in sight and a group of exceptionally sharp students, we were all feeling a bit playful. Students don’t tease me very often, so I was tickled and amused by the exchange between a few young women of color as they made fun of me. They talked about their first impressions. Apparently, I don’t walk so much as stride into the classroom. I was compared to Holland Taylor’s character from Legally Blonde. And then a student recounted my “everything about that is wrong” moment from earlier in the year. I was surprised she remembered it at all and then stunned at her performance of it, of me: She repeated what I said while swiveling her neck and snapping her fingers. You know, how black women do on television and in movies.

You probably haven’t met me, but trust me when I say I didn’t say it that way. Let me be clear: I don’t mean that’s not how I remember saying it. I mean that’s not how I said it because I don’t talk that way. And I don’t mean I don’t talk that way in the classroom or at work or when I am around white people. I mean I’ve never been able to pull the sassy-black-girl-neck-swiveling-thing off. I’ll confess I’ve tried a time or two, and it’s been awkward for everyone. In grad school, late after a party when we’d all been drinking a black woman marveled, “Wow, so you really talk this way all the time, don’t you?” Last year, I tried to add “grown-ass woman” to my vocabulary until my oldest friend told me what no one else would: It just made me sound like a valley girl.

My student’s performance of the sassy me was meant as a compliment and in a mode she wanted to emulate in spirit if not in style. We were having fun, and I liked her too much to ruin her enjoyment of my “sassiness,” my “fierceness,” my “no-you-din’t-ness,” but it stayed with me and had me wondering about that space between what I perform (however badly) in the classroom and what is projected onto me and how those are inevitably racialized by both me and my students. Recently a student wrote, “She is the SHIT! Know DAT!” on the back of one of my evaluations, and, after laughing aloud in my office, I had to wonder what about my teaching of 19th-century British literature invites this interpretation of me.

I put a lot of effort into making the literature I teach (mostly classes in 19th century British fiction, Romantic literature and culture, and theory) accessible without diluting it. Mostly I do this by poking fun of the writers on our syllabus. Shelley’s “I fall upon the thorns of Life! I bleed!” is rendered in the style of Captain James T. Kirk. Willoughby’s “I had always been expensive” speech to Elinor in Sense and Sensibility gets the Ladies Man treatment. I unleash a lot of rage at Victor Frankenstein. My playfulness is not just a pedagogical strategy I’ve developed to invite students to actively engage with texts they often find daunting and too far away from their own interests, but a way to make myself more accessible — by which I mean less threatening. Because it seems I am terrifying. At least once a semester I hear from someone that I am “intimidating” and/or “scary.” I’m also “hard” and “demanding.” I know this is not simply about race or gender; no matter how hard I try, I will always be perceived as much younger than I am in a way that goes beyond black don’t crack. I don’t know how high my standards are and how much of that description is based on what is expected of me and how much of it is based on the wiggle room I have as a woman of color occupying a space designed for and by white men. I just know I have to manage it.

These are strategies I had to learn along the way because, as Lucille Clifton says so perfectly:

I had no model.

born in Babylon

both non-white and woman

I only had one female professor (a white woman) as an undergraduate, and so my earliest teaching role models were bearded white men. I attended a private liberal arts college where students sat around seminar tables or in cafés or at our professor’s houses. The standards were high. I still remember my American literature professor writing on my first (truly terrible and riddled with typos) essay for his American Literature class, “Ms. Matthew, you do us both a disservice by turning in work of such poor quality.” I was mortified, worked harder, and rewrote just to prove to myself that I could do better. I was certainly an over-entitled, arrogant undergraduate but it never crossed my mind to challenge my professors in the classroom (nevermind that my senior seminar paper was titled “On Being a Black Woman, Forced to Read Like a White Man; or, Why I Love Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God”). When I finally had students of my own, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t be equally demanding. Over the years, even in response to criticism and hearing that I’m a bitch, I haven’t lowered the bar, but I have had to learn what of the bearded white male professors I am allowed to use and what I am not.

I might be the only woman in America over 40 who makes a concerted effort to “age” herself in professional spaces. I’ve learned that my youthfulness works against me. I start by talking about how long I’ve been teaching. I talk about my areas of specialization. I “share” the book projects I’m working on. I make it a point to say when I’m presenting papers at conferences. I don’t assign my essays, but I let students know they exist. I perform being a scholar because all too often I am not automatically afforded the respect that comes with being a professor. In the public imagination, the one that produces college students who combine gross consumerism with a narrow view of black women, I am the most unlikely of things — not a mammy or a nanny, the secretary, or a member of the custodial staff, but their professor.

See Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought and Patricia Williams’s The Alchemy of Race and Rights: Diary of a Mad Law Professor for the best writing on this.

There have been low points, but the benefit of being a tenure-track professor in a department that values teaching meant that I could learn with and from colleagues how to navigate and even play with obstacles (or minefields) in the classroom. Being a tenured professor provides me with an array of institutional security that I don’t always recognize until something like a recent comment on my blog reminds me that my authority and institutional security accrue over time. A reader writes:

If you think it’s bad for tenure track professors, try being a lecturer…I have been there seven years and have endured every sort of slight one can imagine. Going into a classroom in such a climate is grueling. I get low scores on my student evaluations and high scores on my peer evaluations. How do you explain that? I can’t wait to retire.

She is pointing to the reality for most faculty of color. As an adjunct, as someone who is among the contingent ranks, she’s probably only teaching general education courses that are required by her institution. This means she doesn’t have students who want to take the courses she’s teaching, she can’t bond with students and work with them over time, and she has little space to change the course based on her own experience in it. Worse, she probably doesn’t have much time to really reflect on the gap between her teaching and peer evaluations.

There’s this stereotype of tenured faculty giving up and reading from yellowed notes (or in this age recycling powerpoint presentations). That’s not me or, frankly, anyone I know, since most faculty focus much of their energy on teaching. Tenure allowed me to suss out the difference between the anxiety I cause (I set a high bar in a subject that is daunting to students) and the anxiety I spark (I am a black woman setting that high bar). I’ve also learned that being black in the classroom gives me a certain license. I’m not cool, hip, or sassy, but I have a certain kind of complicated cultural cache. I can bring in Jay-Z for the first day of intro to theory and then move to Barthes and then move to Austen and then move to Sedgewick. Appiah and Miley Cyrus can sit comfortably on my syllabus. I get to mediate between the “high” and the “low” without worrying about my credibility. In fact, I wonder if it seems as if I’m keepin’ it real, even when it’s not always clear what real is. Jay-Z, the Ladies Man, and Captain Kirk are all reference points I’ve added in response to my students, and I think my classes are the better for it. But I wonder if I’m not just feeding into some kind of stereotype, if they think that’s the “real” cultural me who is sassy and swivels her neck when no one else is watching. If race is a construct, and gender is a construct, and teaching can be a performative act, and authority is a fluid thing that passes back and forth between student and teacher, where and how do I exist in the classroom as a real black woman?

The “She is the shit! Know Dat!” comment has been a continuing source of amusement and puzzlement. And, on the first day of class, it popped up unexpectedly as a way to try connect with the students in my university’s required First-Year Writing course.  I haven’t taught it in at least five years, and it’s almost entirely composed of non-majors. We’re working out the best ways to read and write analytically about literature, and, to get the students ready for the work of the semester, I asked them to think about what they were like when they were at their best, in their favorite class, with the best teacher they’d ever had. I was surprised to hear myself say, “By the way, that last bit, the part about the best teacher? That might be me because, apparently, I am the shit.”