“What they want to know is whether we belong in the classroom”: An excerpt from Picture a Professor

West Virginia University Press is pleased to announce the publication of Picture a Professor, the latest book in our series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. This excerpt is from the introduction by volume editor Jessamyn Neuhaus.

Look! Up at the lectern!

Is it a teacher? Is it an educator? No, it’s . . . Super Professor!

More charismatic than a Hollywood heartthrob! Able to win over the most reluctant, resistant student with a single quip or impactful PowerPoint slide!

During class, Super Professor delivers Oscar-worthy performances, scribbling formulas theatrically on a chalkboard or eloquently reciting lyric poetry to entranced students agog at the expertise on display. Super Professor always lectures brilliantly and entertainingly, effortlessly elucidating the most obscure subject. Students hang on Super Professor’s every spellbinding word, laughing at each joke and painlessly absorbing difficult academic material simply by listening to Super Professor talk about it. Students are routinely so overcome by admiration for Super Professor’s lectures that they spontaneously burst into applause.

Super Professor appears over and over again on our TV and movie screens, quite wrongly depicting learning as a purely top-down activity whereby knowledge is simply poured into students’ heads by an irrefutable expert. He’s also usually an able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual White man. In this way, popular culture reflects and reinforces the myriad of political, social, and cultural discourses that gender intellectual authority as male and support what Resmaa Menakem terms “white-body supremacy” by racializing knowledge and expertise as White. Socialized and enculturated by this imagery, all too often, Super Professor is who we think of when we picture a professor.

Every single person teaching a college class in any subject or modality must contend in some way with the narrowly defined, limited/limiting expectations of how a college professor should act in the classroom, what they should look like, and what identity markers they should embody. Anyone who doesn’t manifest those traits—before saying a single word or interacting in any way with students—will not meet certain conscious and unconscious student expectations. And expectations shape learning. Moreover, biases about professors impact students’ ability to connect and build rapport with instructors and to fully engage in the course material. Picture a Professor takes as its starting point that the “socially imagined professor,” as contributor Rebecca Scott terms it in her chapter, impedes effective teaching and learning.

Assumptions about what professors “look like” directly contribute to what sociologist Roxanna Harlow identifies as “disparate teaching realities.” White women, women faculty of color, faculty with physical disabilities, non-binary faculty, and all Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) faculty must navigate different intersectional mazes of racial, gender, and other biases about embodied identity on an exhausting daily basis. Scholar of higher education Nichole Margarita Garcia explains that no matter what their intention, when students, colleagues, administrators, staff, or random strangers tell her “you don’t look like a professor,” the phrase is a verbal assault on her expertise and her academic authority. It’s a manifestation of racial hierarchies and systemic inequities in higher education, including white-body supremacy, because anyone who doesn’t “look like” a professor is “presumed incompetent,” in the unforgettable words of that trailblazing edited collection and its 2020 follow-up volume.

“Before we even open our mouths,” as contributors Jacinta Yanders and Ashley JoEtta write in their chapter, students question the very presence of any instructor who doesn’t conform to the professor stereotype. Similarly, in their chapter about teaching as blind/seeing impaired professors, contributors Sheri Wells-Jensen, Emily K. Michael, and Mona Minkara summarize this deep-seated student skepticism: “What they want to know is whether we belong in the classroom.” Importantly, such implicit or even explicit questioning, and instructors’ subsequent feeling of “unbelonging,” as contributor Jesica Siham Fernández terms it in her chapter, is never restricted just to the classroom. Ableism, sexism, ageism, racism, homophobia and heterosexism, transphobia, classism, and other systemic inequities are baked into all aspects of academia—inequities that are further exacerbated by higher education’s exploitative contingent and non-tenure-track employment practices.

A wide range of scholarly books and articles, research studies, memoirs, and social media extensively documents these inequities and shows how prejudices manifest in different scholarly disciplines in different ways, such as additional biases against all women faculty in the STEM fields. The sexism and racism of academic systems are particularly evident when it comes to student evaluations of teaching and the disproportionate power these evaluations hold over professional teaching careers. However, published scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) and popular advice about college classroom management, learning assessment, and other teaching stratagems frequently fails to adequately address or even acknowledge this simple truth: embodied identity matters to college teaching and learning. As I’ve argued elsewhere, disparate teaching conditions are one of the very first realities of teaching and learning both in person and online that every SoTL book, article, and Chronicle of Higher Education advice column should acknowledge.

SoTL needs to much more thoroughly and methodically grapple with all the ways that society and academia’s systemic inequities and hierarchies traverse our individual classrooms and to better address the “implicit professor theory” described in contributor Reba Wissner’s chapter. As contributor Chavella T. Pittman states in her chapter, “It is impossible to understand the best teaching practices without understanding their intersection with the bodies that are doing the teaching and learning.” More scholars of teaching and learning need to offer actionable pedagogical approaches that recognize the significance of embodied identity and propose real-life teaching strategies—tools, means, activities, methods, and processes—for empowering a true plurality of professors in their teaching practices. This is the aim of Picture a Professor.

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