Why I Teach in #HigherEd

My last post talks about what to do in these long summer days.  Usually I take the second half of May kind of easy.  I have a few deadlines coming up, but they’re easily managed.  This post comes from one of my most favorite activities in May–checking my Instructor Evaluation scores and reading the student comments.  No, really!!  I love reading the comments, even the ones that tell me I gave them too much reading and that my class isn’t as important as the ones for their majors.

Most of the comments that come from my students are good.  This isn’t to brag, by any means, but just to say that comments don’t bring any dread to my day.  Some sample good ones from this semester:

“Thoroughly enjoyed being in this class because of the instructor!”

[In mentioning strengths and weaknesses of the course]: “Dr. Sheppard is a huge strength!”

“Dr. Sheppard not only has a passion for the material she presents to the class, but also a passion for teaching students.”

These comments outweigh–by a large margin–the negative comments.  I have no doubt that this is true for most of us who are instructors.  If it isn’t, we should seriously reconsider our chosen vocation.  However, we do get the negative comments, don’t we?  And even though they are few and far between, they tend to speak over the majority of the positive comments.

There are some who critique my teaching–I need to fact check X about a subject or I need to be more clear when lecturing.  There are some who critique my administration of the course–I need to put grades on blackboard or I should let them know just how much reading there will be.  These are legitimate criticisms and I try to take them into consideration to make my teaching and the courses I teach better.  But then, and we all go through this, there are those who thought the class just didn’t live up to what they wanted it to be.  They’re the ones who signed up for a History of Science class, expecting to learn about science but instead learned about–gasp!!–history.  Even worse, they had to learn about WOMEN.

I got this comment, verbatim, this semester:

“Well the course is called “History of Science” but somehow Dr. Sheppard always found a way to make it about women in science. In one particular week, we had just as many assignments about women’s issues in science as we did about Charles Darwin. Class discussions always seemed to be geared towards talking about how women were treated in science throughout history and today. Several weeks out of the semester featured assignments purely about women’s contributions no matter what the topic of the week was. It’s my understanding that “Women in Science” is actually its own class so I did not like that so much of time in this class was spent on the same subject matter. During one lecture Dr. Sheppard brought in pictures of a body lubrication used for marathon runners and showed us how the “for her” version of the product cost more than the regular version. I don’t know what this has to do with “history of science” but it felt like a huge waste of my time.* At another instance the topic of discussion somehow shifted to women in the gaming industry. Dr. Sheppard claimed that women have to deal with constant abuse in online gaming. A student commented that a lot of people have to put up with abuse in online gaming. Dr. Sheppard proceeded to tell him that because he was an 18-24, middle class, white male he really has no idea what women have to put up with. This seemed wildly inappropriate to me and I was actually surprised she even said that.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten a negative comment in this vein of complaint.  The quote above is one example of many I could pull from past semesters.  One student once told me that he’d never before seen such “hyperfeminism” in a course and he hoped he’d never have to again.  Another once said “She should just teach about Marie Curie and then move on to the rest of the history of science.”  And this is all not to mention the suggestions that I wear “lower cut shirts” to improve the course, or that a student would “have no problem bending Dr. Sheppard over her desk anytime.”

But I digress.

As I am at a small engineering university, most of my students are men.  In this course, there were 5 women and 24 men.  Odds are, a man wrote this complaint.  But, even though I tend to get lower overall evaluation scores in this course (my area of expertise) than any other, I don’t get frustrated by these scores or comments anymore, and I’ll tell you why.  The above comment is the number 1 reason I teach what I do to the students I teach.  They have learned their entire lives that women are marginal, and they don’t like to be told any different.  In any history, in any industry, in any field, they learn that women are the Other, the one who doesn’t matter.  When I tell them explicitly that this is what they think, then explicitly try to change that viewpoint, they explicitly don’t like me.  My goal is to get them to understand that women should be discussed as much, if not more than, Charles Darwin.  Marie Curie isn’t the only woman worth talking about and that for every Marie Curie, Mary Somerville, or Caroline Herschel, there are 100 women who haven’t been given a voice.  That they should have a voice and that that voice matters is the point I try to get across.

My point missed the mark with this particular student, which is too bad.  But my hope is that 6 months or 6 years down the road, this student might encounter a woman in their workplace, or their life, whose experience they might see a little differently because of what they learned from me in my class.

So I’ll continue to take these comments for what they are–criticisms that I wasn’t clear enough in my point that women are part of history, that women are part of the present day world and workforce, and that women have a voice that is equally as valid as a man’s.  These comments are why I teach, and why I will continue to teach all about women in a history of science class.**

*To give a little context to the student’s complaints about the Body Glide and the online gaming–we were talking about gendered technology and how certain products may be geared toward women and men in different ways.  We were also talking about simply being a woman in technology (such as Gamergate) and how that can be a dangerous road, hence the discussion of online abuse.

**On a side note, but it is quite important, for the Fall semester I was slated to teach a Women in Science seminar.  After advertising and pushing the course, it didn’t make with only had 4 students in it.  We cancelled that class and opened a second section of history of science, which, as of right now, has 10 students in it.  Don’t worry–they’ll learn ALL about women in science.

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5 Responses to Why I Teach in #HigherEd

  1. A very enlightening post. Thanks for giving us a glimpse into the feedback you receive. I’m glad you’re going to keep teaching the course as planned. Keep working to broaden students’ perspectives, Dr. Kate!

  2. Kathleen Sheppard says:

    Thank you, Andy! I’m planning another post about some feedback soon!

  3. harngroup says:

    Reblogged this on HARN Weblog and commented:
    Ah yes ‘hyperfeminism’,I remember that accusation – and yet strangely they don’t notice hypermasculinity.

  4. John Stewart says:

    Did you see the post from Missed History on complaints that they talk too much about women. I was struck (shout out to our alma mater) by how much people overestimate the coverage given to women. http://www.missedinhistory.com/blog/our-final-answer-on-too-many-women/

    • Kathleen Sheppard says:

      I had not! Thank you for including the link. I’m also struck by this and I like how they include a link to an NPR article about overestimating talk about women. Thanks, John!

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