7(Special Issue), April 1990, pages 45-52

Taking Women Professors Seriously:
Female Authority in the Computerized Classroom

E. Laurie George

New York Institute of Technology

The title of this article alludes to a now classic essay on feminist pedagogy, Adrienne Rich's (1979) "Taking women students seriously." Based on a talk that Rich gave eleven years ago to the New Jersey College and University Coalition on Women's Education, the essay exhorts the female teachers in Rich's audience to take both themselves and their female students seriously. For only by taking themselves seriously, Rich says, will they think better. Only by taking themselves seriously will they write better. Only that way will they excel in their courses. And only then, having begun to subvert the patriarchal attitudes that prey upon their confidence within the academy, can they best fight the forces that fuel prejudice, hatred, and violence outside the academy.

Rich goes on to support her contentions by recounting her personal experiences as a student and teacher. She remembers, for example, falling prey herself to cultural conditioning during the mid-1940s when, having just been accepted into Radcliffe, she too readily dismissed the rigorous high school training she had received by an intelligent, though under-degreed and spinsterish female faculty member. When she realized that thereafter she would have only "great men" as teachers, she "congratulat[ed]" herself:

From 1947 to 1951, when I graduated, I never saw a single woman on a lecture platform, or in front of a class, except when a woman graduate student gave a paper on a special topic. The "great men" talked of other "great men," of the nature of Man, the history of Mankind, the future of Man; and never again was I to experience, from a teacher, the kind of prodding, the insistence that my best could be even better, that I had known in high school. Women students were simply not taken very seriously. Harvard's message to women was an elite mystification, we were, of course, part of Mankind; we were special, achieving women, or we would not have been there; but of course our real goal was to marry--if possible, a Harvard graduate (p. 238).

Cultural stereotypes took an even stronger hold on the minds of the students at City College of New York and at Douglass College, where Rich taught intermittently during the late-sixties until the mid-seventies. As diverse as these two student bodies were, the racial and ethnic urban poor of City College and the upper-middle class women of Douglass College, as minority groups in a white, patriarchal society, they shared the collective and culturally-imbued sense of themselves as passive, second-rate, and powerless--a self-perception commonly known to display itself in behaviors of apathy, bitterness, or belligerence.

Since Rich delivered this talk much, of course, has changed. Not only have there been more than a few female Ph.D.'s lecturing to undergraduate and graduate students on subjects of historical interest to both genders, but also the proliferation of feminist pedagogical studies has made it de rigueur for male and female instructors alike to come out from behind the lecterns to engage students in less formally structured, less hierarchical, modes of teaching in the classroom. [1] Furthermore, technological developments in the computer industry have helped to reinforce democratic, collaborative, and cooperative goals shared by theorists and practitioners of feminist pedagogy.

I myself, for example, am fortunate enough to teach my first-year composition course in a state-of-the-art computerized classroom that could easily be used for the set of one of those IBM television commercials in which ex-cast members of M-A-S-H sell the wonders of the IBM workplace. Specifically, my students sit in padded, cobalt-blue chairs, at 3-foot-squared oak desks, within which are nestled networked IBM and Commodore PCs, many complete with color monitors. Peering through their ray- repellent plexiglass desk tops, my students can, with simple strokes of their enhanced keyboards, load up MICROSOFT WORD, WORD PERFECT, or, when in need of some help from fellow classmates, the network program REALTIME WRITER, always feeling free to ask that I, seated at my no less posh "teacherdesk," electronically answer their calls for aid via my video switcher.

In the computer lab, too, with its less traditional classroom decor, I (and other female teachers) have a much better chance at being taken seriously, and, hence, of teaching effectively. For one thing, the stereotype of the schoolmarm does not lend itself easily to this contemporary setting. The democratic principles of feminist pedagogy are also fostered by student work spaces, for they are much more ample than those in the traditional classrooms, indicating a professional respect for the students' authority. And, though not in my lab classroom, the desk arrangement is often different from the rigid row structure of traditional classrooms. Dimmed lighting, used to cut the glare on the plexiglass screens, further allows students to focus on their work, to forget the artificial setting of the traditional classroom, one which many find bogus, unreal, unrelated to the world outside the classroom.

The dimmed lighting also allows me to be perceived as less intimidating as I walk from desk to desk, a practice essential to counteracting the image of me as a mere technocrat or, worse yet, an Orwellian, video-switching monitor. And the physical movement, my coming to students rather than they to me, affords them some respect that they are unused to, making for a democratic balance of power upheld by feminist pedagogy. This practice of privately consulting each student as others write independently reinforces to the entire class that a communal activity need not be equated with rigid repetition of boring drills, just as it proves that there is room for individuality and even privacy within group work.

Finally, my ability to help students with not only word problems, but also with word processing/computer problems (unlike those in the IBM commercials, our machines do malfunction) affords me more of my students' esteem, for they find me capable of solving what they perceive to be "hard" (scientific and masculine) technical problems, not just "soft" (humanistic and feminine) language puzzles.

On a less positive note, I must also point out that computer labs do not solve all problems with female authority, and, in fact, create some. These have to do with the regressive social and political changes in the years since Rich published "Taking women students seriously." If in 1979 Rich hoped for a revival of the intellectually active, politically progressive spirit of the 1960s, what she discovered after Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980 (the year I began teaching) was a return to the intellectually stagnant, politically conservative (and sometimes reactionary) ideology of the 1950s. Indeed, as one of my colleagues recently pointed out to me, it is no wonder that Reagan's personal ideology has taken the strongest hold yet on some of our current students, who exhibit his worst traits--mental laziness, political apathy, bigoted attitudes, and cliched verbal expression--since he, having been elected when our first-year students were nine or ten years old, has been the most popular national hero they have ever known.

Unlike Reagan, however, my students do not have the luxury of physically or mentally retreating from society when, as T. S. Eliot said, reality becomes too hard to bear: they sense that the state-of-the-art technology providing their comfortable and efficient work stations is just a different branch of technology producing the stockpiled nuclear warheads or the plentiful, semiautomatic weapons that at least one of my students collects as a hobby; they are disturbed by the fact that in the classroom we sit some fifteen miles from the spot where in the spring of 1989 a so-called "wilding" wolf-pack group of angry, male, teenaged minorities descended on a white woman, considered by many the most common target of racial hatred; they know in detail the stories of four local, recent female strangulations (and, I should add, sometimes tend to blame the victims for engaging in so-called "kinky sex" or for leaving the protection of their homes after dark); and though they are shocked by the news stories about spoiled and drug-addicted teenagers who reach for butcher knives when their parents force them to go on family vacations or their mothers threaten to kick them out of the house, they share with Patty and Michael Reagan a certain degree of bitterness about less celebrated but still imperfect suburban family lifestyles, more than a few of which would meet with Ozzie and Harriet's disapproval.

These are the students who, according to current news reports and particularly a 1987 nationwide Gallup poll, are to learn from me not just logic, but morality, ethics and fundamentally decent public behavior because parents and churches are apparently unable or unwilling to shoulder the responsibility anymore (Hand, p. 53). And I am the one who, according to some theories of feminist pedagogy, is to carry out my charge not by mimicking the role of the authoritarian patriarch, dictating norms of behavior, or intimidating students into meeting standards, but rather by adopting the role of the resource person/facilitator/nurturing mother figure (Culley & Portuges, 1985). I need to welcome challenges to my ideas in the hope that I may empower the apathetic, the embittered and the belligerent student, each of whom is imprisoned in different ways by patriarchal norms. [2]

Now considering my former summation of the cultural forces at work on the minds of all young adults in our time, and adding to it the knowledge that the students in my technological college are predominantly male and that many have taken to heart the cultural stereotype of themselves as brash New Yorkers, readers can understand my hesitation to adopt the role of nurturing mother. When I begin to critique their writing, I have no idea what particular tension a given male student could be experiencing with his mother, girlfriend, or women in general.

Yet the printed transcripts from both my and my colleagues' networked discussions in our computerized classrooms indicate that such tensions are great. The transcripts also convince me that for all of its technological power, no computer alone can break the cultural ideologies that keep harnessed the minds of my students when they leave the outside world and enter the computerized classroom. There, I believe, is the place where the teacher, particularly the female teacher, is most challenged and must think seriously about the pedagogical techniques she employs. For there, I've found, is the place where what Marshall Kremers (1989) calls "fooling around," where students interact playfully and creatively, can easily degenerate into what I will call "wilding around," where the combination of unbridled bigotry and heady power produce exchanges less interactive than "interinsultive." [3]

Allow me to be specific. When, as in Marshall Kremers' remedial writing class, student Sue sends to all screens a message such as, "Let's get some beers for today's class," and student Ed pipes in, "Hey, Teach, how's your sex life?" I will agree that the class is still basically fooling around. But when a bit later Bill, Dan, Tony and Nick (all of them male) join the discussion, the interaction turns downright misogynistic (Kremers, 1988, p. 72):

Bill:Your girlfriend is good. I know.
Dan:She is like your mother.
Tony:Your mother gives out coupons.
Nick:Your mom's like a door knob--everyone gets a turn.
Teacher:Someone comment on how the dialogue is going.
Jane:I think this is a sick bunch of students.

Jane, I think, is right, and in this exchange she resists the impulse to join the crudity. Perhaps her correctly sizing up the conversation as "sick" results from her gender conditioning, her feeling culturally bound to uphold a civil code of conduct. But Janes have their moments on the local area network, too, such as when I brought up the subject of Tawana Brawley (the young, black New Yorker who claimed that a group of white men assaulted her) and eight class members of mixed genders but one race responded promptly, simultaneously, and emphatically: "Tawana Brawley is a nigger."

My overall point here is that, as numerous theorists of collaborative and feminist pedagogy concur, students who have been culturally programmed and disempowered for so long have a great deal of trouble knowing what to do with power once it is given to them. [4] When they receive it, they do not readily take it seriously, just as they do not readily take language seriously. The consequence, however, is most serious--for without intervention from the teacher (and particularly from the female teacher, who, no matter what else, is an emblem of cultural victimization) students can and will go wilding on computerized networks. This behavior, in effect, destroys a basic premise of even conventional pedagogy, which is to call into question behavior out there in the world beyond the classroom. Instead, it perpetuates the patriarchal tyranny that in subtle yet sinister ways preys upon human minds, thereby de-civilizing society.

For these reasons, I have become as a female teacher in the computerized classroom more demanding, more exacting, more insistent that students take themselves, take me, and take the power of language electronically conveyed or not--seriously. I have seen, as Adrienne Rich (1973/1979) points out in "Teaching language in open admissions," that students can transform the "tool" of language into a "weapon," (p. 68) and I agree with her and other feminist pedagogists that if we are to change student attitudes toward themselves, ourselves, and the workings of society as a whole, we must claim the authority to use all of our powers in the classroom.

If that means that I must at times use my authority in ways that do not fit nicely with notions of nurturance and that indeed could be criticized as less feminist than masculinist (e.g., by demanding as I do that students scrutinize their impulses to make racist comments or by insisting that they read aloud their parts in printed transcripts, giving embarrassing voice to biases that seemed not very serious when they appeared silently on the screen), I will accept the challenge. For if I am to "ride the beast" that Marshall Kremers and, before him, Trent Batson (1988) speak of, and if I am to use my journey to explore new territory in computers and composition, I must also keep in mind that the beast, harnessed by patriarchal norms it cannot see, will make abrupt and sometimes brutal turns. If it is my responsibility to lead us to a safe destination where someday we might unbridle ourselves--and I do believe that is my responsibility--then I must keep us on course by taking seriously my authority to control those reins.

  1. See, for example, Margo Culley and Catherine Portuges (1985); Dale Spender (1981); and the special 1987 double issue on feminist pedagogy in Women's Studies Quarterly.
  2. About a related issue concerning a trend that equates writing teachers to psychoanalysts, Ann Murphy (1989) warns: "Composition teachers are often untenured, part-time faculty--many of them women--whose relationship to their institution is fragile at best. A pedagogical model which asks them both to take on additional responsibilities as Lacanian analysts, and potentially to endanger their jobs by deconstructing their classrooms, is either naive or insensitive" (p.181).
  3. About this issue, one of Murphy's points is particularly worth bearing in mind: "I can certainly imagine (and indeed have taught in) classrooms in which a teacher's primary and urgent goal is, in fact, to 'unsettle the complacency and conceptual identities of the student' (Jay, p. 790). But students in a Basic Writing class often arrive already so shattered and destabilized by the social and political system that the Lacanian message of a 'necessarily divided' and unsatisfied self (Brooke, p. 689) may simply render speaking and writing impossible. Teaching which helps these students acknowledge and express such divisions can be enormously valuable, but a process which seeks further to decenter them strikes me as dangerous" (p. 180).
  4. See, for example, Culley and Portuges (1985); Rich (1973/1979); Bruffee (1984); and Dolan (1988), who writes that "women--or men--who have never felt empowered, whether by parents or teachers or mentors, cannot be expected to know how to handle this commodity, as hot and alien as some radioactive substance. No one wakes up in the morning and naturally knows what to do, or what not to do, with power--how to avoid addiction to it, how to protect it, how to give it away" (p. 23).


Batson, T. (1988, April). Ex cathedra: The "pulpit model" of teaching and computer networks. Paper presented at the University of Chicago's Twelfth National Institute on Issues in Teaching and Learning. Chicago, Illinois.

Brooke, R. (1987, October). Lacan, transference, and writing instruction. College English, 49, 679-691.

Bruffee, K. (1984). Collaborative learning and the 'conversation of mankind.' College English, 46, 635-652.

Culley, M. & Portuges, C. (Eds.) (1985). Gendered subjects: The dynamics of feminist teaching. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Dolan, M. (1988, June 26). When feminism failed. New York Times Magazine, sec. 6, p. 20, 23 & 66.

Hand, D. (1989, April 9). Morality lessons? Hear! Hear! New York Times, sec. A, p. 54.

Jay, G. (1987, November). The subject of pedagogy: Lessons in psychoanalysis and politics. College English, 40, 785- 800.

Kremers, M. (1988). Adams Sherman Hill meets ENFI. Computers and Composition, 5(3), 70-77.

Kremers, M. (1989, May). Riding the beast in the computer lab: The need for a new assessment of authority. Paper presented at the 5th Computers and Writing Conference, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Murphy, A. (1989). Transference and resistance in the basic writing classroom: problematics and praxis. College English, 40, 175-187.

Rich, A. (1979). Teaching language in open admissions (1972). In On lies, secrets, and silence: Selected prose 1966-1978 (p. 51-68). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published in 1973.)

Rich, A. (1979). Taking women students seriously (1978). In On lies, secrets, and silence: Selected prose 1966-1978 (p. 237-245). New York: W. W. Norton.

Spender, D. (Ed.). (1981). Men's studies modified: The impact of feminism on the academic disciplines. New York: Pergament Press.

Women's Studies Quarterly. (1987, fall/winter) 15.