Monday, January 29, 2007

Mental Trip Wires, or, A Challenging Letter to Write

Over at Aspazia's place, there's a good discussion of some of the issues that younger female faculty often face in terms of classroom control, respect from students, and the like. It strikes me as taking a little too much for granted – as a young male professor, I was challenged all the time – but the basic gist of it seems right.

Gender sometimes becomes relevant in unexpected ways.

A colleague of mine – a smart, ambitious woman in her thirties – asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for a doctoral program. I was glad to do it; I'm sure she'll do well in the program, and it would fit her desired career path nicely. She's also one of my favorite people here, and it's nice to be able to help good people do constructive things.

Then I tried to write the letter.

Within the first paragraph, I could see that this would be harder than I anticipated. I started by describing her as 'driven,' then as 'dedicated,' then as 'ambitious,' and then realized that those words, applied to a woman you haven't met, are the usual code for 'castrating bitch.' She isn't a castrating bitch at all – if she were, I wouldn't have agreed to write the letter – but it's harder than I thought to find words to praise her strengths without setting off stupid gendered trip wires.

(Eventually, I settled on 'whirlwind' and 'rising star,' figuring that neither was especially gendered and the two in combination captured her fairly well.)

Letters of recommendation are pretty stylized to begin with. They're kind of creepy, in the sense that they're supposed to blend personal knowledge, professional judgment, and sales. Certain topics are off-limits, or extremely dangerous, and different readers read letters differently. (For example, I'm immediately turned off by quantitative statements, like “Beelzebub is among the five best graduate students I've seen in my twenty-two years.” It smacks of false precision, or what I like to call 'bullshit.') I've also noticed that the levels of puffery vary from culture to culture, so letters from overseas have to be read differently than letters from America (by Americans). I'm not a fan of the genre, as I've written before, but I'm not going to refuse to help a friend take a positive step just because of that.

Gender is one source of stupid trip wires; age is another.

Since I'm a couple of standard deviations younger than the median age of my faculty (literally – I did the math), I've endured my share of condescension from the more senior folk. Sometimes it's relatively harmless, as in passing mentions of deans from the 70's followed by “that was before your time.” Sometimes it's to my face. I've been told, to my face, that “you're too inexperienced for this job,” “you'll realize these things as you get older,” and “you remind my of my son.” (I get the last one a lot.) One of my chairs made a habit of calling me “kid” until I reminded her who appoints whom.

Sometimes, though, it goes way over the line. Every so often, somebody goes off her meds long enough to fire off a single-space five-page poison pen memo, cc'ing everybody from the President of the college on down, accusing me of everything short of the JFK assassination. (Every time this has happened, it came out of the blue – it has never followed a conversation or a discernible event.) In any rational organization, that kind of unhinged insubordination would result in summary termination. But since these folks have tenure, I have to let them vent and try to maintain order while swallowing more pride than is healthy.

Learning to swallow pride, to refrain from hitting back, is one of the hardest parts of this job. And that's where the sort of groupthink bias against difference catches you. You get provoked, and provoked, and provoked, but that's all invisible; react, and it's held against you. The extra burden on somebody who represents some sort of threatening difference is in not being threatening, even when anybody else in the same position would be more than forgiven for lashing out.

At least with age, I have the relative luxury of knowing that the threat of difference will fade over time – for example, I'm already ten years older than I was just ten years ago! With other categories, there's no guarantee that the double standard will fade. Aspazia does a nice job of outlining some of the defenses she uses against those standards. Most of them boil down to variations on 'taking the high road.' It's ethically admirable, it often works, and there's a great deal to be said for it. But sometimes taking the high road is exhausting. Real diversity, the kind that prevents groupthink from taking over, can save folks branded as 'different' a lot of emotional energy, and let them focus on work. I could have written the letter a lot faster if I didn't have to dance around gender stereotypes. And my colleague could probably get a lot more done if she didn't constantly have to reassure everyone around her that she didn't represent the Fall of Western Civilization. Biases like these are luxuries of an unhurried time. There's no time for that now. We have work to do.