Ask Professor Pedagogy: Gender & Teaching
Ask Professor Pedagogy is a twice monthly advice column written by Center for Teaching staff. One aspect of our mission is to cultivate dialogue about teaching and learning, so we welcome questions and concerns that arise in the classroom; particularly those from Vanderbilt faculty, students, and staff. If you have a question that you’d like Professor P to address, please send it to us.
Dear Professor P.,
After several years of TA’ing, I’ve noticed that students seem to have different expectations and interactions with me as a female TA than with my male colleagues. I have always tried to be fair and even-tempered with the students, but they seem to need more nurturing than I am comfortable providing. Do you have any advice on how female TA’s or professors can maximize their interactions with students without having to rely on stereotypical gender traits?
Neuroscientist, not a Nanny
Dear Not a Nanny,
You’re not alone! Female professors and TA’s often discuss their concerns that students may relate to them differently because of their gender. Ultimately, gender is part of your teaching personality and identity, whether you tend to emphasize or de-emphasize that aspect. While you may be aware that your gender influences classroom interactions during a course, you may not find proof of this until you read your student evaluations. And even if you suspect that your gender has something to do with a negative or positive student comment, student evaluations never explicitly articulate the link between perceived teaching effectiveness and gender.
Pedagogical research into gender roles and university teaching seems to have peaked in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, as females began tackling gender equality issues in all kinds of social contexts. Research in the last decade on instructor gender and teaching efficacy reveals a mixed bag of results. Some studies show that female professors are rated more highly than males, some show the opposite, and other studies report no differences (for a summary see Young et al., 2009). Another interesting study by Basow (2000) shows that, while the best professors were described as nurturing and knowledgeable regardless of gender, there are certain traits in female professors that seem to be weighted differently by male and female students. For example, male students weighted “approachability” more heavily in assessing the effectiveness of female professors, while female students weighted “helpfulness” more heavily.
That said, teaching is a social endeavor, and class/ university size, type of university, and demographics are additional factors that complexify students’ perceptions of teaching effectiveness. In order to maximize your teaching relationships with all of your students, you should strive to frequently assess not only how your students understand the course content, but also your role in their education. When appropriate, acknowledge gender issues in your class and invite discussion (i.e. “What does it mean to be a female scientist [or a male teacher educator] in 2012?” “What do you expect from your female professors? Your male professors?”). Note that the worst college teachers tend to be perceived as uncaring by students of both gender (Basow 2000), so try to achieve a safe environment of mutual respect and trust to maximize learning outcomes for all students.
Basow, Susan A. “Best and Worst Professors: Gender Patterns in Students’ Choices.” Sex Roles 43.5/6 (2000): 407-17.
Young, Suzanne, Leslie Rush, and Dale Shaw. “Evaluating Gender Bias in Ratings of University Instructors’ Effectiveness.” International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 3.2 (2009).