Male Student, Female Professor

Many people are inclined to assume that, when they hear about an aggressive or abusive employer or supervisor, they are hearing about a male.

There seem to be two reasons for this assumption.  The first reason is that, in my own experience and for many others, the stereotype of the aggressive male has often turned out to be true.  The other reason is that the ways in which it is false are not always recognized and acknowledged.

The assumption seems to be, more specifically, that powerful males are more inclined to mistreat people than are powerful females.  Over the centuries, it has been easy to assume this in a world in which (a) the powerful people have tended to be male and (b) powerful females have often had to be on their best behavior, so as to preclude excuses to cut them down.  These thoughts raise the prospect that — in environments in which powerful females become numerous, accepted, and thus less constrained to behave appropriately — they too will tend to corroborate Lord Acton’s adage about the corrupting influence of power.

This post provides a brief look at some experiences I had, along these lines, with one professor in the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation (HPER, now known as the School of Public Health) at Indiana University (IU).  This post joins a series of posts that collectively discuss the process by which IU terminated my years of work toward a PhD in parks & recreation.

This series is structured in reverse chronological sequence.  That is, the immediately preceding post in this series describes how my doctoral advisor vanished in summer 2010.  Between 2007 and 2010, I was not on the Bloomington campus; my pursuit of the PhD in parks & rec was in limbo.  But now, in this post, we step back in time to the 2006-2007 academic year, when I was trying to finish my coursework for that PhD.

A Solitary Man

The HPER professor under discussion here was named Kathleen Gilbert.  I sought out Kathleen before I even enrolled at IU.  I had come across some of her publications and had felt that we shared certain interests.  We had a number of positive conversations and email exchanges over a period of about two years.  Now, in autumn 2006, I was looking forward to an opportunity to work further with her in my graduate study.

On this basis, I signed up for two courses with Kathleen in fall 2006.  One was an independent study.  As the semester went on, I had great ambitions for that study, and therefore arranged with her to take an Incomplete, so that I could work on it after final exams.  The other course was a seminar in which only six or seven students were enrolled.  (One of the original seven seemed to be having difficulties, and may have dropped out.)

Along with those coursework commitments, I also chose Kathleen’s field (human development & family studies) as my doctoral minor, and I named her as minor advisor in my PhD program.  In short, I trusted Kathleen, and I made quite an investment in her.

So the semester began; and in her seminar, some interesting developments started to unfold.  In an email on October 20, 2006, I alerted her to an apparent problem.  From early in the semester, she had been expecting the seven of us (that is, the students in that seminar) to collaborate.  Unfortunately, that was not happening.  Given my history of good communication with Kathleen, it seemed appropriate to notify her of the situation.  An excerpt from my email may convey a sense of what I told her at that point:

[M]y classmates seemed to have inordinate difficulties in communicating with one another. . . . These difficulties first came to my attention when we were sharing materials online.  I was surprised at the seeming simplicity of some e-mail messages that were deemed confusing. . . . [In a later development,] it is not that the persons who had suggested [that we collaborate online] were not able to communicate well when they did go online; it is, rather, that they did not even reach the point of going online.  I don’t think we have had more than two or three postings, total, in that group.  Nor did other collaboration possibilities pan out over the past eight weeks.

If I were teaching a graduate seminar, I think I would find it disturbing to be informed that an entire class of my graduate students was displaying collaborative ineptitude, when collaboration was a central, express expectation for the course.  And yet, in a surprising departure from her normal pattern, Kathleen did not reply to this email.  Needless to say, I was not thinking that any of my remarks would apply to Kathleen herself — that she would suffer from the sorts of communication and collaboration difficulties cited in my email, for instance, or that she would take personally my expressions of unease about the group.

The group dysfunctionality continued.  Kathleen continued to admonish us about it, and yet to tolerate it.  At the same time, an unpleasant undertone began to build, in her communications to me.

I was the only male taking that course.  I had not expected that this would be a problem.  But on December 4, shortly before we were all expected to participate in a group presentation that would count as our final exam — a presentation for which the group was, as always, chaotic — I engaged in an exchange of emails with Kathleen.  This exchange prompted me to make a more forthright statement of my experience of the learning environment in that course:

Hi, Kathleen …

Thank you for your quick response. . . .

I invite your consideration of a scenario.  I wonder how your response [to my previous message] would be reviewed, by a relatively disinterested observer, if you were a male professor, responding to the selfsame message, sent by the sole female in your class.  I think the conclusion would be that you have endorsed inappropriate conduct by “the guys.” . . .

[M]y objection was that my classmates took pains to avoid involving me in an important decision . . . . I objected, moreover, that after making decisions without even an attempt to involve me, they misrepresented the result to you as something in which I was, in fact, a party.  I also indicated that I am disadvantaged by their refusal to communicate on these matters days or weeks ago, which is what both you and I have been encouraging them to do. . . .

The sum picture – the remarkable gap between what I wrote to you, and what you did with it – makes me ask whether you are indulging some preexisting hostility toward me, or perhaps toward something I represent to you.  I have been hesitant to acknowledge a pattern of hostility, but at this point the concern begins to appear justified. . . .

This is not to say that you do not mean well for me.  I think you do.  But I need to let you know, at this point, that along with your good intentions, some unpleasant messages are filtering in.  I would have communicated with you about them in a more incremental fashion, but recent attempts at communication have met with discouraging responses.  Consider, for example, my friendly e-mail message about topics for a paper – and your responsive gibe, in front of classmates, about my “trip down Memory Lane.” . . .

Kathleen, this class has been very unusual for me.  I normally participate freely in discussions.  I have not felt welcome to do so in this class.  Tonight’s communications provide another chapter in that.  There has been a pattern of belittling me when I make intelligent observations that are appropriate for the situation at hand.

Again, I was the one who came up with the idea of presentations for Wednesday’s class. . . . I have been the most communicative and available member of this class.  Yet your response paints me as a whiner who was out of touch – on concerns that I had not even raised . . . .

Perhaps your response will make me conclude that, again, I have erred in trying to communicate with you about this class.  I can only hope you can appreciate that such an effort implies a lot of faith, on my part, in your ability to understand my perspective, should you decide to do so.

It is evidently rare that a graduate student would try to communicate honestly, in this manner, with a professor who is in a position of power over him/her.  The opportunities for abuse of that power are simply too great. . . .

The adage I hear sometimes is, Speak truth to power.  I do feel I have attempted to communicate with you.  I will take some blame for doing so imperfectly.  I think I will always have a great deal to learn about communicating hard truths (or soft impressions, for that matter) with just the right touch.

In other words, I hope this message does not seem offensive to you.  I do not intend it as such.  But ultimately I have to stand up for myself.  Your response tonight disappointed and offended me, and I am providing an explanation that may finally rectify my previous hesitation to defend myself more forcefully.  I hope this effort can set the stage for a great future relationship; but in any event I am not interested in being put down any more.

Regards,

Ray

I do appreciate that face-to-face meetings are often more effective than email.  There is something to be said, on the other hand, for documenting matters when they reach a certain point.  Either way, the situation is, ultimately, that a student was presenting a perception of unequal gender-based treatment.

As suggested in the message, it did seem appropriate to consider how the situation would have been handled if I had been a female student in a male-led course.  Many men have been blindsided, over the years, by gender-based complaints that have caught them by surprise.  Many, I suspect, would wish that their complaining female students had tried to communicate with them as I tried to communicate with Kathleen, before trotting off to file formal complaints with some other person or entity.  In an era when male students are struggling and outnumbered within the increasingly female university, it seemed reasonable for a future educator, such as I am, to address these matters directly.

The real question, in other words, was not whether I surprised or offended Kathleen.  The real question was how she, in her role as my professor and mentor, would respond to my complaint — whether she would see it as an opportunity and would make constructive use of it.  Would she engage in private self-critique and in dialogue with the complainant, as we have so often expected our most Neanderthal males to do?  Would she seize the opportunity to treat the group’s dysfunctionality, and our varying roles within it, as a ready-made case study in human development?

This time, Kathleen did reply.  Her email said this:

I’ve read through your message and I’m offended by the tone, whether or not you intend that to be the result. Your final paragraph is an attempt to soften it, but it’s basically as offensive as you’d hoped it wouldn’t be. . . .

Although you have indicated an interest in continuing to work with me, if you feel that it is too awkward and that you would be better served by someone else acting as your minor rep on your course plan and supervising your independent courses, feel free to find someone else. . . .

Regardless of all of this, you and the other students in the class have only until Wednesday to pull this together. . . .

Actually, I did not feel that my final paragraph, in particular, was an attempt to soften anything.  I had been direct, but I had not been brutal.  There were softening notes throughout the message.  Regardless, it is surprising that she thought her feelings of being offended were a key issue.  That was not the focus of my message.  My message was primarily about the learning environment that I, the student, was experiencing.  Nonetheless, I tried to address her concern:

Hi, Kathleen …

Thank you for that reply.  I appreciate your frankness and, as always, your promptness in replying, as well as the balanced nature of your reply.

I cannot say precisely what in my message offended you.  I hope you know that I had no desire to offend.  The best I can understand the matter, at present, is that I have expressed my perspective, and that it contains unpleasant information.  But I realize that this may not aptly describe the situation as you see it.

I hope to learn, from this experience, whether I would have been better advised to speak up more affirmatively as each instance occurred.  It did not seem you were receptive to that, but I may have been wrong in that appraisal, and in any case perhaps I should not have let that deter me.  There was a certain inertia on my part, which I would normally think is good, but maybe it wasn’t.  I am not sure about such things – not at all.

I don’t have any desire to switch to another professor for my minor, though I appreciate the offer. . . . I continue to believe that I chose the right person.  Of course, the offer goes in the other direction too:  if you would rather be done with me, I would feel like I should try to make some other arrangement – though, again, that would not be my preference.

If you are willing – and you need not be, and you also need not express any position on it now – I would like to have a face-to-face conversation with you about these matters sometime after the semester’s end.  I am sincere in saying that I have much to learn from these experiences.

Have a good Monday.

Ray

As it turned out, my attempts at a cordial resolution were in vain.  I wound up having to do a separate paper.  That is, Kathleen facilitated my further separation from the group.  The concerns I had expressed about fairness in the group process were essentially disregarded.

Retaliation

It developed that Kathleen was not interested in any face-to-face meeting with me.  To the contrary, on December 20, she surprised me with an email to Ruth Russell, the chair of my qualifying committee, stating that she was resigning as my minor advisor.  So evidently it was not, after all, a question of whether I was uncomfortable with her.

So now I had to find a replacement for Kathleen as my minor advisor.  I don’t know if she told stories about me to any other professors in her department, or to anyone else in the university.  I do know that none of those whom I contacted within her department were willing to take her place as my minor advisor.  She seems to have realized that this would be the situation; her December 20 email stated that I might need to search outside the school of HPER to find someone to take her place.

Without a minor advisor in her field, I could not have a minor in that field.  In other words, Kathleen’s decision — made without any attempt at consultation with me, and with, as far as I could tell, no effort to find a replacement for herself — essentially terminated my minor field of study.  I lost the time and the coursework that I had already committed to that minor.  My program of studies and my graduation would be delayed; the work I had done in her field would no longer apply toward my degree.

There’s more.  As noted above, Kathleen had also committed herself to read and grade my independent study paper.  Her December 20 email indicated, however, that she was now reneging on that commitment.  In effect, the professor was dropping out of the student’s course.  And IU let her do that.  So I was going to have to start over from scratch on that too:  finding a professor whose expertise was relevant to me; meeting with him/her to discuss the project; and so forth — with, again, Kathleen’s stated impression that I might not be able to replace her within the school of my major and minor fields.

As noted above, Kathleen and I had agreed that I could take an Incomplete for that independent study paper, so as to work on it after the semester’s end.  At this point, since my human development minor was now dead, I did not need the credits in that field; and since I did not have anyone to write the paper for anyway, it made no sense to spend weeks writing it.  There were other papers that I could be writing, if it came to that; but at this point it was not even clear what kinds of courses would be needed for a substitute minor field.  In short, this paper was almost certainly going to be tangential to my program of study.

Unfortunately, Kathleen had yet another nasty surprise for me.  She said she had “resigned” from further involvement with that independent study course.  So it seemed that she was out of the picture.  But then — what’s this? — she claimed that she still retained the right to decide whether I could drop the course.  And, in fact, she refused to let me do so.  In other words, she forced me to remain enrolled in an independent study course that she, herself, had completely bailed out of.

Perhaps even more surprising, IU supported Kathleen in this too.  IU’s rule, on the books since 1952, says that “the student should be given the opportunity to withdraw from the course” if the dean and the instructor agree that “it is impractical for the student to complete the course.”  It was certainly impractical to complete the course when the instructor had resigned.  At that point, it was the dean’s call.  And yet Dean Wilkerson concluded that, somehow, the course could continue without its professor.

So I had an Incomplete.  That, too, was interesting.  According to the rules, an Incomplete was supposed to expire — it was supposed to become an F after one year.  But mine didn’t expire.  To this present day, my IU transcript still shows an Incomplete for that course.  How could that happen?  Dean Wilkerson said it was because I got a special kind of Incomplete:  not an I, but rather an IX.  But that’s not what my transcript says.  I have not yet found any rules governing any such thing as an IX.  I don’t know whether that means that Dean Wilkerson was inventing tales, or why IU’s Academic Handbook would fail to mention it along with the other grades that students can receive.

And anyway, why would Dean Wilkerson and/or Kathleen Gilbert give me a kind of Incomplete that would stay incomplete forever?  Someone told me that students would not be allowed to graduate with an Incomplete on their transcripts.  I don’t know whether that rule (if indeed it was a rule) would have played a role in the thinking of Kathleen and/or Dean Wilkerson.

So there were a number of confusing and seemingly unnecessary consequences.  Kathleen and IU weren’t explaining these apparently radical departures from standard procedure.  I have never heard of a student’s minor field, or an independent study, being handled in these ways.  Based on the information I received from Kathleen, as summarized above, it all seemed to stem from her hurt feelings.  I think she would have felt obligated to try to grade my paper fairly, and apparently she was unwilling or unable to do that — but why run me through a bureaucratic rigmarole?

One theory would be that it was malicious — that Kathleen was punishing me for speaking frankly about her discriminatory behavior.  With or without malice, the reality I faced was not that of a university culture opposed to gender-based discrimination.  As a male student at IU, I was fair game.  So I could not expect, and did not get, support and resolution consistent with the rules.

Promotion of the Perpetrator

So far, in this post, I have been telling a mere horror story about how a professor, be it a male or a female, can be tempted to abuse power, possibly for the most trivial reasons, once s/he becomes comfortably ensconced in a position in which others depend upon him/her to be fair and reasonable.  I have been telling a horror story about a female professor in particular, underscoring that this is not a solely male phenomenon.

There was, however, an additional dimension.  As it turns out, Kathleen was subsequently promoted to replace Dean Wilkerson as executive associate dean of HPER.  Was she promoted despite a history of similar encounters with students, or was I a special case for her?  We cannot say.  Public universities tend to prevent students and the public from gaining access to this sort of information.  Did Kathleen enjoy latitude to mistreat students — me, in particular — because, even then, she already had the backing of the person(s) who would later promote her, or was the Wild West environment of HPER such that any professor could behave thus?

Kathleen’s promotion did not appear to be good news for me.  I had experienced repeated instances in which Dean Wilkerson had seemed to bend the rules against me.  Now I had reason to be concerned that Kathleen would continue in that vein — and that, as a dean, she would enjoy enhanced power to engage in further acts to my detriment.  For example, to allude to odd developments described in other posts, would Dean Gilbert have influence over a professor’s retirement benefits or tenure promotion?  And why did Kathleen take no action to correct obvious irregularities in the handling of my qualifying paper, even after I wrote to request her assistance in that?

Kathleen’s prior behavior and new position certainly put her in a position of inviting questions about her activities and intentions where I was concerned.  On the other hand, I don’t want to blame the wrong person.  The next post in this series identifies other people whose behavior likewise invited questions related to my quals paper.

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