Wednesday, July 14, 2010

When Students are Homophobic

This happens about once a year, even here in blue-state land.

A student shows up to complain that his professor is gay, and that s/he is “trying to convert everybody.” When I ask for specifics, the student quickly shifts gears to clarify that “I don't care what you do at home, but you shouldn't wave it around in my face.” Seeing a complete lack of response, the student then asserts victimhood, alleging that the professor won't give a fair shake to students who don't agree with her.

I've tried a number of different responses over the years, with varying degrees of success.

There's the basic “well, you know, we don't discriminate. If you have a concern with the professor, you should talk to her directly.” There's a certain legal clarity to that, but it doesn't seem to defuse the anger. Since it essentially replaces one accusation with another, it doesn't do much to build trust.

Then there's the “Columbo” approach. “Help me understand. How, exactly, is she trying to convert you?” This works a little better, since frequently “efforts to convert” amount to little more than “acknowledging the existence of gay people in the historical record.” When I've allowed students to try to piece together a bill of particulars, I've seen them slowly retreat in embarrassment when they realize that there's really nothing there. Sometimes it's nothing more than a short haircut on a woman. (I'm also struck at how frequently the accusations are false, but that's another post altogether.)

Once I even decided to roll with the absurdity to see what would happen. “What solution do you propose? Should I write a note to the professor asking her to stop being gay? Would that help?” The student's eyes were the size of dinner plates for a moment before he backed down, even laughing a little at himself. In retrospect, this approach probably assumed a little more common cultural ground than was wise, and I haven't tried it again, but it worked pretty well the one time I used it. I don't recommend it, given the potential for ruinous misunderstanding, but it made a hell of a teachable moment.

Lately I've been experimenting with the “put it in writing” approach. It's only fair, I explain, that a professor being complained about has the right to respond. Please write out your complaint, being as specific as possible, and we'll go from there. So far nobody has actually taken me up on that.

As silly as the complaints are, though, they inadvertently raise a real issue. Most of our discrimination procedures and policies are based on the idea that bias occurs between peers, or from the top down. Those are both real, of course, and they need to be addressed. But bias from the bottom up exists in a weird nether zone.

At some level, of course, students have always complained about professors, and always will. There's a certain degree of gossip and static that simply goes with the job, and a certain thickness of skin that any authority figure – in the classroom, the professor is clearly the authority figure – has to have. The student grapevine is real, and inevitable, and even healthy to some degree. But to me, there's a difference between students in a class blowing off steam together and a student complaining to a dean. The former is a cost of doing business, but the latter is serious.

In my cultural studies days, I learned that discrimination was really about power. But in these cases, the bias is among the disempowered. That doesn't make it any less real, but it does put many of our policies in an odd light.

I've read that student bias frequently surfaces in course evaluations, where students will punish non-traditional gender performance. Alpha males and nurturing females do well; nurturing males and alpha females get punished. But this is both more specific and more severe than that. There's a difference between 'liking someone a little less than someone else' and 'going to her boss to get her fired.'

(For the record, no, nobody gets called on the carpet here for 'suspicion of gayness.' I recognize that there may be regional variation in this.)

It has also occurred to me to wonder if I get more of these complaints since I look 'safe' -- a straightlaced, short-haired white guy. There's no real way of knowing, but I've been discomforted by some of the assumptions the complainers exhibited when they tried to bond with me.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or do you have a suggestion for) a more graceful way to handle the next student who takes grave offense at a visibly (or apparently) gay professor?