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.