Wanted: Prof Whisperer

A couple of remarks by Profacero here and olderwoman at scatterplot are coming together in my head with many such from over the years, to the effect that establishing authority in the classroom is a different challenge for women, race/ethnic minorities, and other stigmatized groups than for white men.

This is now an orthodoxy in the liberal academy, so like all orthodoxies I’m going to try to trouble it here. But it’s also true. It’s undeniable that since Columbus us white boys enjoy an entry privilege as authority figures, especially if we’re ruggedly handsome, brilliant, charismatic and naturally great-smelling like me. A big chunk of this is visually inherent as a function of habits of symbolic ranking and emotional identification. It’s also undeniable that for some fractions of our audiences only white men will do as authority figures, as the underbelly of this last election showed well enough.

It’s important for navigational purposes to understand where these structural reefs and shoals are, but agency at any particular moment is about where we can go, not about where we can’t. Dynamiting Scylla and Charybdis is a worthy project for special occasions but trying to do that daily will wear you out quick, which is one of the worst compounding effects of deprivileging. So in a practical, quotidian sense the question is how authority works under less-than-ideal conditions.

Here I think it’s helpful to come at the question a little bit sideways from the usual focus on qualifying privilege and disqualifying stigma. Things look pretty desperate from that standpoint. We see white guys living it up in the lap of esteemed luxury and ‘others’ struggling, and it looks like the single effective variable is whiteguyness. Looks like we’re stuck with the exhausting dynamite campaign. But wait – what do we do with all the white guys who struggle in the classroom? And what do we do with the race/ethnic/disabled/women/etc. who get in the classroom and kick some ass, without blowing up everything in sight or even breaking a sweat? Don’t we all know some of each of those? Maybe it’s possible to factor out the structural race/gender variable and get comparable positive and negative results across categorical populations! Jeepers, a playground for agency!

The problem with how these discussions go is that they tend to be informed by a lot of reciprocal ignorance and mythology. It’s well-established at this point that hetero white guys don’t know squat about what it’s like to be black/female/queer/etc. We drift around in a happy daze at the gravitic null-point of all social stratifications, unburdened and oblivious to the burdens of others. And relatively speaking, which is all I ever do, this is true. But as Goffman tells us at some length in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, it’s also relatively speaking false. The ideal, unspoiled, unstigmatized identity imagined by disgruntled white-guy voyeurs is a mythic construct not embodied by any real person (this is, for example, the founding joke of “American Dad”). Being a white guy helps a lot in some ways, but it looks better from outside than inside; and if you’ve never been one, you’ll have to take my word for that. We’re all vulnerable in big ways and small, Goffman says (Foucault agrees), and each social interaction is the opportunity for anxious and reciprocal attempts to deploy/negate strengths and conceal/discover weaknesses.

Students looking for an edge against a professor just bump on down the checklist until they find something that will work for them. Race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability make things easy, but it’s a poor strategic interactant who stops there. Nor is whiteguyness much help, after the moment of entry, when there are other white guys around to cancel that advantage out. We’re a dime a dozen, and when we think things are at stake we rip on each other something fierce. We know each others’ weaknesses. So when white guys succeed in the classroom, it’s helped us at first to be white guys but then it almost instantly hasn’t, and we’ve had to deploy some other strength. What is that?

As olderwoman perceptively noted, classroom success comes to those who “carry privilege, a presumption of competence and authority with them into the classroom.” This is the ‘other strength’ that intercepts the stigma game. She ascribes this to upper-class white men, but notice that what’s being described here is not categorical identity but what Bourdieu calls disposition: an acquired scheme of perception, thought and action. Now, categorical identity is still significant because the dispositions of competence and authority are native products of the rich white boy habitus, and are interactively recognized as such. The nature of white boy privilege is therefore a kind of symbolic capital that is enforced through symbolic violence or its threat. It is in this sense that olderwoman is entirely correct that “[p]eople whose status is unquestioned can afford to be Mr. Cool with students,” because the threat of symbolic violence is understood and gratitude for its forebearance is ritually extracted. And this dynamic is what allows symbolic capital to be converted to economic and social capital, in the form of access to careers, advancement, esteem. Thus structure is produced and reproduced in everyday relations.

If we let it. Here’s where I agree with Marx that our conscious human history has not started yet. The dynamic of dispositions and habitus I have described above does not take us very far past the pack behaviors of dogs. In this connection it’s fascinating to watch the Dog Whisperer. Like the Nanny with children and parents, Cesar Millan’s whole insight is that when subordinates are getting unruly it’s not a follower problem, it’s a leader problem. The show gets old quick because it’s always the same schtick – come into a house, find owners fretting about ‘problem’ dog, discover the dog’s just confused about who’s in charge, train owners how to be in charge. Bingo bongo. And the real problem quickly emerges: white, black, man, woman, straight, gay, lotsa lotsa people have no idea how to be in charge of themselves, let alone others, even just dogs!, and anxious yapping ensues.

Cesar teaches the acquirable big dog skills of authority and competence to folks who for one reason or another perceive, think and act like little dogs. That is, he backfills the dispositions that make white guys winners in the big everyone stigma game, and alpha white guys winners in the little white guy stigma game. There’s nothing magical or mysterious about it, either. “Cesar counsels people to calmly, assertively, and consistently give their dogs rules, boundaries, and limitations to establish themselves as solid pack leaders and to help correct and control unwanted behavior.” That’s what the Nanny says about dealing with kids too. That’s what Obama did in this last campaign.

Calm assertion; clear, consistent boundaries. Not grand gestures, not puffery, not loud yapping. Those say ‘not trusting my own authority and competence, overcompensating’. Not negotiation, pleading or resentful disengagement. Those say ‘power vacuum here, please fill it’. Cesar thinks everyone can learn this. I hope so, because I don’t think we get over these pack-power games and get to human together until we do. And until we do, all of those categorical accounts of why things aren’t going right for us, even when they’re true, are little more than theodicies.


  1. Actually, I didn’t say you need to be a white male to be a successful teacher. The topic of the discussion was preferences for first names versus titles and, more specifically your statement: “I’ll play along with anyone’s narrow cultural habits if that’s the only game they know how to play. When possible I like to be around folks who are more mindful and flexible.” I took exception to your (to my mind self-indulgent and narrow-minded) view that your preference for first names is broad minded while those who prefer titles are narrow minded, and gave examples of why people would prefer titles, calling attention specifically to the way in which the significance of the choice varies depending upon the sex/race/class etc of the teacher and the students. Of course, people of color and women can be much better teachers than white men, but the tactics they use to achieve classroom success are affected by who they are and what they bring with them into the classroom, just as yours are. If I may chide you just a bit, I’d even go so far as to say that flexible people realize there are a variety of different approaches to being a good teacher.

  2. Olderwoman, if you take another look I think you might see that I agreed with you, said so, and moved along to a slightly different issue from a slightly different angle. You’ve got your thread very well covered, which is why I started a different one.

    It would be stupid and destructive to say that only white males can be successful teachers, or conversely to say that only the default strategies of categorical subalternity can produce a transformative education. And you don’t strike me as either stupid or destructive. But I must admit that it’s much too early in our relationship for me to have any firm notion of what you are or are not, know or don’t know, so I’m projecting from very slim data.

    My compliments, though, on your instantly successful diagnosis of me as self-indulgent and narrow-minded. At least I do like to be around people who are mindful and flexible – must be I hope they’ll rub off on me! ;-)

  3. Carl, I should not have been so edgy. I was having fun with you, but since we don’t know each other, you could hardly be expected to get the joke. I probably should have begun by saying that I completely agree with the general thrust of your post, i.e. the need to get to a place of calm authority. And I absolutely agree that you can get to this place from a variety of starting points. You sound like someone who has thought a lot about teaching and I’ll bet does it well. The part I disagreed with was the characterization of what I’d said, and you seem to have this same tendency to misconstrue comments in your reply to my comment. I said “people of color CAN be much better teachers than white men,” not that they necessarily are. Of course White men can be great teachers. Nor did I say that anything that could possibly imply that “only the default strategies of categorical subalternity can produce a transformative education.” I have read some feminist theory in my day, so I think I know what that means, but it sure as heck isn’t my personal teaching strategy. In fact, my comment could reasonably be construed as saying pretty much the opposite, i.e. that there are a variety of different approaches to being a good teacher. What I actually believe is that you have to teach from who you are, you have to be comfortable in your own skin, and that you have to recognize the relation between yourself and the students. So, as you say, we agree in the main. I think I emphasize more than you do that different teaching contexts are different and require different approaches. Your comment on my post and your characterization of the debate over here seemed to me to be a little too ready to make snide assumptions about other people’s motives if they don’t adopt your strategies, and that’s why I gave you a little zing in my comment. It sounds like you took it in good humor.

  4. Many of my students insist on Dr. or Professor. They say that having someone they CAN legitimately call that around was their goal in coming to college, and they don’t want to waste the opportunity. They enjoy reminding themselves that they now talk in person to PhDs.

  5. I went straight through school, and thus was a pretty young grad student. I found myself, a relatively young, not entirely white, female instructor in classrooms dominated by white guys who were all going to get degrees in engineering or meteorology and make tons of money doing mysterious things for the government (or accu-weather). Yet,I never had any trouble establishing “authority” in the classroom. Some even commented on this. The fact is, I never come into a classroom and pound my fist on the table (literally or metaphorically) and demand that they submit to my authority. If I don’t assert this mysterious authority, they can’t challenge it, and we can all get on with the business of learning. I do take steps to demonstrate my authority regarding the subject, but I want them to join me in that place. The authority that is important to me isn’t over them (some of them think I have authority over their grade, but that is far more their responsibility than mine, and a grade isn’t a person).

  6. It’s not the students that don’t give authority to women – it’s the faculty and administrators. It has taken me *many* years to understand that the reason certain people are not treated like people is that the men are not capable of seeing them as such, and that *this* is why certain things go on that go on. You *have* to have, I have realized, a white husband on campus that the administration likes. If he’s not also at the university, they don’t see him, so he isn’t so helpful as a defender. If you are under 30 it’s OK because your professors function as your defenders and validators but otherwise you really, really need a white guy they know and like … not so that they will actually think you are a person, because they can’t do that, but so that they won’t dare behave in certain ways toward you!!!

  7. Very interesting post. As a younger grad student, very new to the teaching side of the academy with a very visible disability, I have had some challenges to my authority and certainly enjoyed reading this as “advice.” The ending about the dog whisperer rang true to my experiences.

    However, I wonder if I am misreading you or if you are denying the existence of white/male privilege because it is not a hard and fast causal rule and because there are other competing and sometimes overlapping oppressions?

    It doesn’t seem to be quite right to say that the existence of exceptions to the rule means that systems of oppression don’t exist (my working toward a PhD while having a disability doesn’t negate the fact that many people are denied this opportunity because of their disability).

    Also, I am not sure that a lack of any particular person that is stigma free means that stigmas don’t matter and the absence of stigma doesn’t confer very real advantages. I may be a power chair user and have a body size/shape that confers lots of stigma, but there are times in my life that I have become accutely aware of certain privileges I enjoy. Just the other day, I was talking to someone close to me who is gay about my new vanity license plate that says CRP PWR (= Crip Power). The discussion naturally evolved where I became aware of my heterosexual privilege in that I can wear my political commitments on my sleeve (or bumper) without fear of physical violence against my property or my person. Violence can be tied to ableism in certain ways, but I don’t think I need to be as worried about being assaulted as he would be with a Queer Power license plate.

    Am I misreading this post?

  8. Well, I now qualify my comment in #6 … realizing that it doesn’t work as a general theory in all the places & spaces I’ve worked, only in some … although I *will* say it is the situation that has been the hardest for me to decode.

    Not all my comments fit together on this but here’s another: certain *subjects* have more authority than others, no matter who is teaching them.
    rough position for professor: teaching interpretation
    rough position for professor: teaching skills that require expression at least for practice (example: writing and language skills)
    Both of these teaching situations involve transformation and cannot be accomplished without real engagement … which scares some kinds of students and they resist
    easy position for professor: teaching / transmitting information (it’s “information” so it has authority)

  9. Thank you all for stopping in to develop this thought while I was away. And away I go again for one more weekend, then I’ll try to hold up my end in more detail.

    @Olderwoman, I should not have been so ironic. I hope I look like I’m worth some closer attention; if so we can find our common ground, as Cero and I gradually have.

    @Kcwc, yes, that’s it exactly. Thank you!

    @PC, so nice to see you here! Your concerns are valid but ‘generic’, I’d say, in the sense that these are the sorts of simplifying errors many people fall into but I haven’t. Following Goffman, my point is not that anyone is stigma-free but precisely that we all participate in tangled relations of stigma in which we’re contextually one up, one down, or both. So I think we agree! I’ll just assert that for now and wave vaguely at the rest of my blog for support, especially the complex identity piece under Stuffed Voles. More when I get back.

    @Cero, you point nicely at these sorts of contingent stigmata, and their interactions with other situated social and psychological dynamics. Thanks.

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