Folks are quick to denigrate the genre of straight, white, male professors, particularly of the History Department variety, and I have made a similar mistake with over-generalizations in the past that I think will be illuminating.
When I was in science fair back in the late 1990s (oh the horrors that were late ‘90s fashion), I liked to introduce my various asphalt-related topics (such as “Which Fine Aggregate Will Improve Asphalt Roads?”) by mocking the road construction process.
At the city, regional, and sate science fairs, I’d offer the following glib introduction to my presentation: “You know how you’re driving down the road, and you see all these ‘road closed’ signs, and you see a bunch of construction workers standing around looking at each other, and the road work seems to take years? I’m here to talk to you today about improving pavement structure.”
I’d follow this up immediately with a smiling, “Have a doughnut!” While this garnered many laughs, particularly from the Chicago-land judges, I vividly remember the last time I ever used this stand-up routine. I was talking to my last judge at state science fair, and he said “I am one of those guys. I am a construction worker. And I’ll take those doughnuts, thanks.” That shut me up faster than any other sort of rebuke could have done.
The same type of situation took place on one of the education panels I went to at a recent conference. The first two speakers used “old white male professors” as shorthand for “the issues of heteronormativity, patriarchy, ethnicity, and privilege in the classroom and society more broadly.”
The third speaker was—you may have seen this coming—an “old white dude.” He laughed it off and proceeded to demonstrate how his class strives to be inclusive, interactive, interdisciplinary, and culturally sensitive. I’m not trying to shut down a discussion of heteronormativity et al., but I am suggesting that we say what we mean, mean what we say, and choose our words as wisely as is possible under the present conditions.
It is great to hear that people are interested in talking about pedagogy, racism, privilege, and transformational aspects of learning environments. But I do think we should think carefully before we whitewash (pun intended!) all straight, white, male professors as “The Man” or “The Bad Guy.” I have learned a lot from many of “them,” particularly of the bespectacled, suspendered, elbow patched variety.
I certainly endorse and agitate for educational reform, but when we perpetuate a false dichotomy between “young, pro-diversity, multicultural” or otherwise “new and improved!” attitudes and “old white guys,” we risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
As just some examples, I know a guy with four daughters who is an ardent feminist in a male-dominated industry, and many of the finest professors I know are definitely old white dudes. I recognize that there are cultural, social, historical, political, and ethnic factors and implications behind the fact that I have even had classes with as many old white dudes as I have, but I don’t think their contributions to the world we live and learn in should be dismissed outright, even as a conveniently representative touchstone for larger societal problems.
In conclusion, question everything!
*hops off soap box*
UPDATE: I read a lot more tumblr now and I now realize that it was unnecessary to write this, but I’m leaving this here as I learn and grow so I can remember where I came from (and not so long ago, at that!).