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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Teaching While Woman

I was fairly naïve my first few semesters teaching and thought that I would just be myself in the classroom and I would earn the class’s respect (or "R-S-P-E-C-T"). I’m naturally averse to hierarchy and formality and wanted to run a democratic classroom. I didn’t want to impose draconian rules or shame my students into submission—I worked hard to know the materials and offer it in a way that they would learn it—without having to force them to pay attention by forbidding laptops or cold-calling. The result: my first few semesters were disasters.  It turns out that they didn’t automatically see me as an authority and a few loud talkers began to dominate my “democratic” classroom. There was also rampant disrespect and eye rolling. I called on a student once who wouldn’t take the lollipop out of his mouth to answer my questions, which he did in a very dismissive way. (I should mention that my 1L classes were predominantly male at BYU).

I knew things weren’t going well so I asked for advice. It turns out this was happening to a lot of my young, female colleagues. This may also happen to some men, but I just didn’t talk to any who could relate. So below is a short list of advice I received and ideas I came up with. The main thing is that I had to get more confident and some of that came naturally, but there are also ways to fake it till you make it.

Before you trust my opinion, rest assured that things have changed a lot. My classroom is under control and my classes are rated well. I even get comments such as this: “Baradaran is the teacher I am most scared of/need to be most prepared for, etc.” Now, this may reveal an overcorrection, but it’s better than total anarchy and disregard.

  1.  You have to assert that you are the alpha dog right away. This advice came from a young Harvard Business School professor who was also a woman of color.  Let me elaborate. Within the first two weeks of each class, without exception so far, there will be one or two challengers to your authority. The challengers will say something like this (usually with an aggressive tone and stance): “You say ____, but doesn’t the case actually say ____?” “I don’t agree with that, isn’t ____a better explanation?” The class will go silent as they recognize this as a small insurgency. You must shut this down. You must do it quickly, painfully, and effectively. But here’s the catch: you have to do it with a smile on your face. You cannot appear threatened or defensive. You need not spare the feelings of the aggressor, but need to convince the class that you are the one who knocks. You only have to do it a few times at most. And then the rest of the class goes smoothly. Even the challenger who was forced into submission comes around and ends up respecting and even liking you.
  2. Don’t underestimate the importance of body language. A more senior colleague came to one of my earlier classes and she said that when I lectured, I stood away from the podium and used my hands, but when I was asked questions, I stood behind the podium, appearing to retreat. Now, I make sure to spread my arms, put them on my hips, and stand tall. If I am ever challenged, I force myself to assume a power stance. Seems hokey, but it works!
  3. Be strict. I hate being strict. I’m a permissive parent who was raised by permissive parents. (While my husband has been out of town, I overheard my 6-yr old tell a friend: "my mom is not good at consequences.") But in the classroom, I can’t tolerate tardiness, unpreparedness, etc. I need to be good at consequences. I think this applies to everyone, but it took me a while to learn this lesson.
  4. Be Kind. Not just because there’s a double standard that women in positions of power must also be likeable. But because you can’t get people to respect you if you don’t respect them. My 1Ls come to class nervous and afraid and I try to be careful with them. I generally stay focused during the lecture, but stay around after class to answer questions and make an effort to know my students and help them out when I can. As opposed to the above, this is not something you can fake. You must actually care about your students or they will see through you.

Let me also say what I do not do: Some of the advice I got was to dress in dark colors and pant suits with minimal jewelry, etc. Essentially, try to tamper down the femininity. I have not and will not do that—the truth is that the J.Crew catalogue is my sirens song and I feel and look silly in pantsuits. I dress professionally and appropriately, but I sometimes wear bright colors or patterns, dresses and jewelry.

I was also told to leave my family life and personal interests out of class. I don’t do that. I inherited a lot of notes from colleagues filled with sports hypos. I changed all those to things I know—dealings with my kids, celebrities I’m interested in, other trivialities that are no more trivial than sports, but where I feel like I’m not faking.

These are just a few things I have learned in the last four years.  I’m still new at this so I would love to hear any advice you all have for me or others just starting out.

Posted by MehrsaBaradaran on March 11, 2014 at 10:00 AM | Permalink


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Posted by: Rocky | Sep 6, 2019 2:59:07 AM

Hey, how have you been? I have recently started teaching at the Y and came across your article. I don't think the undergraduates are quite as bold and challenging as the law students, but this is great advice. I seem to get all the disrespect outside the classroom, for whatever reason. I guess I need to work on that more. Anyway, I hope you and Jared and the girls are all well.
Lacey Gunter

Posted by: Lacey Gunter | Mar 24, 2014 2:27:04 AM

Chiming in late to join the chorus of thanks to Mehrsa! Thanks also to many commenters for some insightful observations and for sharing their own tips and experiences. Allow me to add another one or two "variables" that I experienced, when I first started in the US legal academy.

I'm not only a WOC, I'm also not an American. I wasn't a newbie professor; I had experience teaching law school but just not in the USA. I experienced much of what Mehrsa did, and not just from male but also from female students- white and American in all cases. I agree with much of the advice on this thread, which seems to me to largely revolve around taking - and seeming to be in - control of your classroom, and projecting confidence in your right to be there as well as your abilities and knowledge.

One observation I had was that I did NOT experience this challenge to my authority in previous academic appointments, which included stints in other (non-American but English-speaking) law schools. I thought that one reason might have been certain cultural assumptions that my American students might have had about foreign (though native English-speaking) professors, which may have been exacerbated by the fact that the school was in a non-urban location and as such did not attract a large proportion of students who may have had greater experience with minorities and foreigners.

One other thing I wanted to add was also my experience with my fellow faculty members. While several who had lived and/or worked either abroad or in large cities treated me no differently from other new colleagues, a number - liberal, actually, if that matters - were pretty condescending and I don't think ever adjusted well to having a colleague who was so very different in origin and experience from them.

Posted by: anonwoc | Mar 17, 2014 3:10:37 AM

First, I must expel a small rant:

I'm shaking my head, the head that's attached to a woman's body. I'm gobsmacked that anyone, no matter their gender or ethnic or cultural background or sexual persuasion or body weight and shape or personal style or manicuring preference, would have ever imagined that being a subject matter expert was all it took to become an effective teacher.

As human beings (and especially as teachers) every communication we deliver and every persuasion we attempt is received by others through the vessels that are our bodies, styles, genders, body shapes, accents, voice pitch and modulation, personalities and, if you're of that persuasion, ineffable things that make us US. Through life, each of us is an actor delivering our lines, hoping that our lines will be heard, understood and accepted in ways close to what we intended.

In seeing the awed interest in this subject, I also wonder: Do women who grow up to become law school professors -- or fifth grade teachers, for that matter -- typically not have siblings? Did they not attend junior high school? Did they never date or watch "Mean Girls" or play a team sport or, for that matter, watch how their favorite teachers in high school and in college taught? How do they not know this most basic stuff about negotiating one's personal power in groups? Do they have zero street cred? Did they JYA in Atlanta?

If so, here are some other things you might wish to note:

1. Look your students in the eye before you begin to speak to them and for 6-8 seconds after you begin speaking to them.
2. Never cry or tear up in public.
3. Think of 15 different graceful ways to avoid saying, "I'm sorry, but ...."
4. Take a step or two toward someone after they have have challenged you, but don't invade their personal space.
5. When someone raises their voice toward you, lower your own voice. And speak more slowly than them and more slowly than you were speaking before.
6. Learn to use silence powerfully. Do not always leap to make a quick response. You need the time to think about what you want to say. And your other students need to time to really HEAR what the challenger just said.
7. Become accomplished at performance art faces and poses -- the no-affect face, the slightly amused face, the agreeing face, the pitying face, the approving face, and many others. Know what elements best communicate those reactions and poses to a variety of cultures (because your students are from diverse backgrounds).
8. Don't ever lose your cool in public. Imagine the behaviors or situations that would make you do so, and practice how you should respond more appropriately instead.
9. When someone asks a question, hold their eye for no more than 10 seconds and then turn your gaze and your body toward the other class members while you begin to convert your answer into something the whole class would find relevant, because it's their class, too. This also keeps the challengers from monopolizing your attention (that's what they really want -- your attention).
10. At some point you will have one or more students who make you batshit crazy. Seek serious, situational coaching.

And here's an extra one nobody seems to want to hear: Yes, your clothes, hair style, and other elements of your personal style contribute significantly to your personal brand. There are uniforms in some industries, corporations, professions, jobs, cultures. If your style is very different from the typical uniform of your situation, just know that you will be communicating, teaching and working THROUGH those differences. Your choice, of course. But your choice may have consequences you won't like.

There are books written on these issues. Google "classroom management" and "dealing with difficult students." The best references deal with K-12 students. College teaching presents the same kinds of challenges.

Best wishes to us all.

Posted by: Veteran teacher | Mar 13, 2014 6:19:04 PM

An excellent blog post! I have shared this with many of my colleagues.

Posted by: Michael Higdon | Mar 13, 2014 1:41:48 PM

During my first years teaching, I certainly experienced the kind of things described in this post. Black students would sometimes mention that their white sections mates treated me differently than they did the other professors who taught the section. 

Of course people sometimes have poor self- assessments. It is also the case that people often seek to discredit the stories of people of color who report on negative experiences we have as we attempt to negotiate life in a society dominated by whites.

But, as Holmes wrote, "Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked." 

Posted by: AG-R | Mar 12, 2014 9:14:21 PM

Interesting post and comments. I can't say that I have ever experienced a "challenge" to my authority in my classroom in China (except for students coming late to class - maybe that's a form of passive aggression?). If anything, I wish the students were more assertive and willing to argue with me. But obviously, law attracts a lot of type A personalities, and the author here suggests some useful ways to deal with them - advice that is particularly helpful for any new teacher, whether male or female.

Posted by: Douglas Levene | Mar 12, 2014 7:35:52 PM

I agree with MJ: critically examining the degree, contours, and nature of the problem, free from ideologically sacred premises (which, unfortunately, are viewed as "common sense" among many in the academy) does not suggest the conclusion that there is no problem at all.

Posted by: Anonolicious | Mar 12, 2014 6:55:24 PM

Really, Justin Pidot? First, no need to tell me that male privilege exists. I'm a female professor, and besides that, male privilege should be obvious to any sane person.

More importantly, my original comment - and others like it - that "question" the author's "ability to understand the dynamics of her own classroom" does not go to Baradaran's point. Let's hope we can all question anyone's self-assessment and academic arguments without undermining their power as women or people of color. I'm not interested in being silence by you or told I can't question what is obviously debatable. It can't be that no one can question women's self-assessments without being anti-woman or unaware of sexism.

Lots of people make poor self-assessments or misdiagnose the dynamics around them. It's why we have a giant therapy industry, life coach industry, and self-help industry. I make misjudgments about myself and my surroundings all the time, because I am human. It's why I also seek feedback from co-workers, my partner, and others. It's why student evaluations are often useful. Like all humans, I occasionally project my own issues and problems onto situations I'm in, and it's occasionally helpful to be made aware of that.

Lots of professors are terrible teachers and misread their own classrooms (I'm speaking generally, not of the author) - they abuse students, bore students, use antiquated methods of teaching based on fear and intimidation, perpetuate sexism, etc. Justin, I'm sure you'll be shocked to hear that many of these less-than-stellar teachers misjudge their own classroom dynamics. And yes, in fact, they might do well to take feedback from those on the outside. And yes, all professors - including this precious author who you infer one must not question - might be doing something wrong. Let's just assume that every professional does something wrong and is less than perfect.

The author seems to have reflected on her "shutting down" of students in the comments and is confident that it is not abusive or stifling of classroom discussion. For that, I am grateful. That doesn't mean she's automatically "correct" or that to question her is to undermine all women of color professors. Further, while I give the author the benefit of any doubt with how she handles "shutting down" students (especially given her note in the comments), let's consider that there certainly is a possibility that some students aren't trying to inappropriately harass or haze her and that instead her own issues and insecurities are being projected into the situation. Again, this may not be the case at all. But it makes us all better professors to at least consider it before "shutting down" someone.

Posted by: MJ | Mar 12, 2014 5:05:09 PM

Having been in your property law class my 1L year while you were still teaching at BYU, I'm sad to hear that you felt your classes at BYU were disasters. Things must have seemed to go a lot better from my side of the room.

That said, I'm more inclined to believe the real problem is better explained by the basic premise that Carissa brought up: you're teaching in law school, and let's face it, in law schools and throughout the legal profession, there's no shortage of people who are "overly cocky" and arrogant. Now, it's probably true that you'll more likely find these characteristics among male students, and it's also probably true that those types of arrogant students are more likely to act the way they do in a woman professor's class.

However, I think we shouldn't necessarily conclude they do so BECAUSE the professor is a woman and they have chauvinist attitudes. During my years in law school, I have been around a lot of cocky and pompous people, and I've learned that jerks will be jerks to anyone, so long as they think they can pull it off and make themselves look superior. With those types of individuals, I definitely don't mind professors taking the time to assert themselves and put those people in their place - heaven knows they need it.

On the other hand, I hope that none of these adjustments you or other professors make come at the expense of the kind of qualities that make the "rest of us" respect you. To quote what you've said, "you can’t get people to respect you if you don’t respect them." However, I think it's equally important to understand that people more easily respect those who respect themselves. When I was in your class, part of why I learned to respect you and be confident in you as a professor came from being able to tell that you were confident in your own qualifications, skills and accomplishments (as well you should be).

So, as BC has said, hopefully it can go a long way to let the class know how you know you're qualified and competent and continue to show them that you're confident in your own ability throughout the class. Doing this doesn't necessarily require being an overly mean or strict professor. There is a way to be a kind law professor AND an effective law professor. We shouldn't buy into thinking that the two are mutually exclusive.

Posted by: Blake Treu | Mar 12, 2014 4:29:31 PM

Great post Professor Baradaran. I would just like to weigh in as a former student of Professor Baradaran's at BYU Law. I am familiar with Professor Baradaran's teaching style and also with the kinds of problems she is referring to in her post. Professor Baradaran does not shut down honest, academic challenges or questions in class. I had Professor Baradaran in her second year of teaching, and my class had no problems raising thoughtful questions in class or disagreeing with her. We were intimidated by her and the subject material, but not too scared to disagree with her. In fact, most of us consider her a friend and a mentor now. The type of challenge she is referring to are challenges intended to belittle, demean or embarrass the professor. The experiences she had were undoubtedly due to her youth and inexperience (as many young male professors have pointed out), but were also greatly exacerbated by her gender and race. When Professor Baradaran first started teaching, there were students who commented that she was not qualified for the position and only got the position because she was a WOC. Although that does not reflect the attitude of most BYU students, unfortunately those students were particularly vocal that year. And as to Mark's comment, I transferred to one of the Ivy-ish schools he mentioned after my first year and have never heard comments like that here--the lack of diversity at BYU is relevant. By the time she taught my class, Professor Baradaran had mastered the techniques in this article and commanded the respect of the room--but her point is that for her to get there, it was an intentional, uphill battle made more difficult by her WOC status. I never saw the same kind of challenges to male professors' authority while I was there. She's not imagining these challenges to her authority as a WOC and she's definitely not terrorizing students. All law students, especially those at BYU, benefit by being taught and led by women of color and I hope to see more of them at the podium.

Posted by: Caitlin | Mar 12, 2014 2:51:53 PM

Spot on. It's outstanding you allowed others to learn from your experience.

It's called, "bearing". It's not a gender thing, or lack of one. My younger sister has bearing, another sister, not. She was an Air Force flight nurse, who after a decade transferred her presidential commission to the US Public Health Service. PHS detailed her to the US Bureau of Prisons. Captain 'Sis' exudes bearing. Madeline Albright radiates bearing. One can quickly learn bearing across campus at ROTC Military Science 101 or thereabouts. Our professor Grandfather radiated bearing quipping his mantra, "never let them see you smile until Thanksgiving and you'll have a good year." We trust that you are having a very good year.

Posted by: John | Mar 12, 2014 1:53:49 PM

Mehrsa, thank you for sharing your experience and starting this absolutely crucial dialogue. I’m finding your post and the ensuing discussion incredibly compelling; both have led me to reflect on my own experience as a new teacher and contemplate how and why it has differed from yours. (One explanation is whiteness; another is that I have so far only taught smaller, upper-level classes; others may include school environment, subjects taught, teaching style, and pure dumb luck.)

I think the advice you and others have shared is valid and important, and I don’t want to undermine it in any way—before I started teaching I feared precisely the experience you describe. I just want to offer a counterpoint for those other new and aspiring junior faculty members who may be reading.

The experience described here is more common than it should be, but is not universal for young female professors. I was given similar advice—to start out very strict, etc.—by men. I was given different advice from other young women professors, who suggested I be true to my personality and the teaching style that comes most naturally (in my case: friendly, informal, discussion- and hypo-oriented, soft-Socratic). For me, for whatever combination of reasons, it has simply worked. I haven’t received disrespectful comments or had my authority challenged in class. Again, there may be myriad reasons why I have been lucky in this regard, including several varieties of privilege, but I want to make the point to those who are new to teaching that the approach discussed here is not necessary for all, and might not be for them.

Posted by: alex roberts | Mar 12, 2014 1:21:47 PM


First, many thanks for this very compelling post. I learned a lot reading it.

The comments that made me saddest were the ones that discussed the need to hide our womanhood. More than half of law students these days are women. Wouldn't it be great if, as female law professors, we could overtly take pride in our gender and our professional success?

I started teaching when I had a nine month-old and was pregnant with #2. Therefore, in the 14 years I've been teaching, I've seen it as part of my job to be very transparent about the challenges of being a working parent with a law degree. It seems especially important and valuable to be a role model of sorts to female students, who, for biological reasons, will be having to make important decisions about family and career within the decade after they graduate (for most). I don't doubt that we could help young men work through some of these challenges, too.

And yet being authentic about who we are does seem to subject us to challenges with students that are hard to explain and especially hard to handle. And I'm white. You have helped me understand here some of the even more difficult challenges that female professors of color face.

Thank you.

Posted by: Lisa McElroy | Mar 12, 2014 12:18:53 PM

I agree with Paul G. that male privilege does indeed exist. I have had numerous students who treat me (6'1" white male) with complete respect and my female colleagues with utter disrespect, despite most of us having very similar demeanors in the classroom (softer socratic, generally relaxed and collegial, open to questions and discussion, etc.). So there is absolute truth to the dichotomy Mehrsa discusses.

Although, again, I agree completely with the "presumption of competence" that many *but not all* men enjoy, I think one of the things that some of the non-academics/students commenting find frustrating in their professors is a *perceived* lack of expertise in the subject matter he/she is teaching.

Very few of us have scholarly interests focused in the basic law of first year courses (with the exception of Civ Pro perhaps). Our true areas of expertise are very likely in more esoteric or, at least, advanced subjects. Add to that the lack of practice experience among many in the academy (combined with the scam-blog rantings) and there is the perception of a big credibility gap between those teaching 1L core courses and the application of the subject matter to "real life." [And, I think if we are honest, we all know folks who really have had to learn the nuances of their 1L class subject matter on the fly because they did not practice in that area and do not write in that area.]

So, despite the fact that I am a white male and somewhat physically imposing, I clearly establish my bona fides at the beginning of the first class session. I tell my students about myself (CV stuff) and then I spend a few minutes (and a few PP slides) outlining how my previous experience makes me highly qualified to teach them. I do this very matter-of-factly, just as an intro to me as their professor, and conclude with "... so I know what I am talking about."

I teach Civ Pro, so I highlight my litigation experience, my use of the rules and theories we will discuss etc. I also make clear that I left all that behind by choice because there was no place on earth I would rather be than in the classroom. By spending 5-10 minutes doing this, I think I establish credibility with them and show them that I am (1) someone who wants to teach them and (2) someone from whom that should want to learn. [My female colleagues have also had success with this tactic.]

Regardless of how long you practiced, SOMETHING makes you qualified to teach that 1L class. Sharing that from the get go and building your credibility with your class is another way I think you can preempt the types of challenges various folks have described and, perhaps, immediately focus your students on you as Lawyer and Teacher and Mentor...period. (Rather than, on the fact that you are a WOC or a white woman or a LBGT person or a disabled person, who happens to be teaching them).

Sorry for the long post.

Posted by: BC | Mar 12, 2014 9:54:15 AM

Mehrsa, a wonderful post and excellent advice. I think most professors immediately recognize the "competence-testing" kind of question that you describe. It's largely a matter of tone rather than substance. And over time, it becomes very easy to deal with (i.e. with a polite but thorough answer that makes it clear that you know far more than the questioner), but can be particularly tricky if not handled correctly by junior profs.

As much as we would love to live in a world where hierarchies did not exist and a classroom could be a safe space for give and take, that world does not currently exist, and pretending it does is likely to get young profs (particularly WOC) in trouble. So your advice for younger profs is spot on.

Posted by: Jody Davis | Mar 12, 2014 8:57:29 AM

I am a fairly new professor and have experienced some of this in student evaluations. Most interesting to me was on last semester's evals I received quite a few comments mentioning that I am a mom of small kids. I do not discuss this in class (I do have pictures of my children framed in my office). The evals that discussed the fact that I am a parent also were the lowest evals I have ever received. While those students gave me high evals on the specifics (teaching, preparation, availability) I then scored strangely low on "overall." My male colleagues teaching this same cohort also have small children and photos in their office and received no such comments. I have no idea what to make of this.

Posted by: anon | Mar 12, 2014 8:48:34 AM

Think like a 1L writes "As to the 'WOCs' commenting, the clear inference to be drawn from a professor in terror of her white male students is that this is not a serious person, nor a credible professor." It is interesting that you write this sentence. Studies generally show that when given the same description of words stated by a person, readers often project differing intents based on just the gender assignment of the speaker. This seems to be an instance of that phenomenon. That is, I read through the comments, and there is no mention of "terror." I can attest that at least for me, the feeling is more a sort of eye-rolling (I do not actually eye-roll; years of experience as an appellate litigator has trained that out of me) annoyance, rather than anything even approaching "terror."

To other professors on this thread, though, I still think that by taking the "commanding" approach, we're missing out on providing valuable pedagogical lessons. Students, when they are practitioners, will face people in actual positions of authority who don't exhibit the sorts of veneers of "authoritativeness" that Think like a 1L describes: deep voice, height, etc. I am reminded of law firm partners I worked with who were short, softspoken women. I am reminded of Circuit Judges Edith Jones and Alice Batchelder, who anyone who's argued in front of them know are not tall, nor have deep voices. But acting like an asshole in front of any of these people will severely hurt one's practice. Thus, I do think that we need to address these dynamics explicitly, as a matter of professional training, rather than circumventing the discussion through acts of authority.

Posted by: Steph | Mar 12, 2014 7:23:56 AM

Thank you for this post. I have been amazed in my limited time in the academy how I have been pigeon-holed based on my gender. As half of an academic couple I compare how my students interact with my husband and myself and I find that I am slotted into a role that often is uncomfortable and starts with an assumption that I am not as good or as qualified as my husband. Like many of the women who have commented on this post I have been told by students and colleagues how to dress, how to talk, and how to, in the words of my academic dean "behave" in order to get the students to respect me. Never mind that I graduated top in my class, worked for over a decade as a lawyer before joining the academy and have a great publication record. I needed the advice my husband didn't. And what was that advice? To wear dark colored suits, no jewelry, pull my hair back, wear conservative heels, and always display pictures of my family in my office so everyone would know I was a married mother. Even following this advice I have been propositioned by students and received student evaluations which commented on my body or my "do-ability." In response my administration told me I must try harder not to be seen as a woman. As if I could. At the end of the day this post makes the important point that we are women. We are women and we are teachers and those are good things regardless of whether the academy and our students have reached the point to realize this. Thank you for saying this.

Posted by: Not a Trailing Wife | Mar 12, 2014 3:48:48 AM

MJ, there is a clear difference between shutting down inappropriate classroom behavior (really, the equivalent of hazing) and shutting down students. Professor Baradaran makes extremely clear that she responds in a specific way to the former, which seems entirely appropriate. She also makes extremely clear that she does not do the latter at all.

More importantly, your comment -- and the comments of several others on this thread -- prove precisely the point Professor Baradaran is making. It's very telling that people are questioning her ability to understand the dynamics in her own classroom. Why exactly do you think you are more qualified to judge what is going on than she is? It seems to me to be exactly the type of assumption -- "she must be misunderstanding, she must be doing something wrong" -- that is disproportionately applied to women of color in the academy and that this post so usefully describes.

As a white male professor I experience these dynamics only indirectly. But it is clear to me they exist. One small anecdote to this affect: During my first year teaching, a student came up to me after the second class of the semester and told me how glad he was that a man was teaching him property law. His other professors -- all women -- were much more experienced in the classroom and one of them won teacher of the year shortly thereafter. To my shame, I was too stunned by the comment, and too new to teaching, to reply as forcefully as I could wish. As Professor Gowder says: "Male privilege. It exists."

Posted by: Justin Pidot | Mar 12, 2014 2:06:23 AM

classof03, obviously no one deserves a professor who is phoning it in, but law students pay to be taught by humans. Humans are fallible, have limited memories and limited time, and the most we can expect is that everyone, professors included, do the best they can with the resources they have available. Anyone who can't deal with that fact is entering the wrong profession.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 12, 2014 1:56:12 AM

Prof. Baradaran, I can't say I was impressed by that article when it came out, but if I read your reply correctly then I may have some concept of the kinds of questions you describe, which indeed are not well taken.

I'm inclined to wonder whether the lately disfavored Socratic Method may be an effective defense to such antics. A slippery Socratic professor is unlikely to find him or herself put so much on the spot even by a good 1L, and (ideally) students may be too busy thinking to try.

Posted by: Think Like a 1L | Mar 12, 2014 1:19:27 AM

MJ, wow, 4 "horribles." I should have been clearer in my description. As I noted above, it's very hard for me to explain the difference between a genuine question and the type of confrontation I am describing above. I don't know how else to respond to your accusations but to assure you that I do not come off as a horribly defensive person with no self esteem. Often the student does not know they are being "shut down." And if you knew me, you would realize that what I consider a "shut down" is to most professors, just a polite exchange with students.

Posted by: Mehrsa Baradaran | Mar 12, 2014 1:03:44 AM

CBR wrote:
"The relationship of student expectations and tuition ("students who pay huge tuition have a right to test the professors"), and how this affects the student-professor dynamic."

Forty years ago law school tuition could be earned doing unskilled work over the summer, now it costs the median annual household income. That's a change in kind not degree, so of course it's going to change the relationship. And law professors generally get paid better than undergraduate professors in the social sciences (especially per classroom hour). Increased pay ought to mean increased expectations

I'm all for law professors being "the one who knocks" but that means getting it right. They may be just 1Ls but you don't know what kind of backgrounds they are coming in with. Prepare your classes, the first time, the second time, and the tenth time. That after all is your job.

Posted by: classof03 | Mar 12, 2014 1:03:26 AM

Think like a 1L, as I wrote above, I do not regularly engage in the shutting down of students. As most of my students can attest, their thoughts and questions are more than welcome in my classroom. My favorite part of teaching is classroom discussion. The specific type of challenge I am referring to happens just once or twice in the beginning of the semester in my large classes. Maybe MPM can better explain what this type of thing might look like. It does not come from someone wanting to know the answer to a question--it is very specifically meant to trip you up or as a gotcha. This article (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/education/harvard-case-study-gender-equity.html?pagewanted=all) describes the hazing of female faculty members at HBS. I talked to a few of these women and they seem to have similar experiences.

I appreciate the commenters that have noted that this also happens to men. I don't doubt it. I can only experience the classroom from my own perspective and perhaps as some have mentioned, my male colleagues have not cared to discuss their own experiences with me. I am glad they are doing so here.

Posted by: Mehrsa Baradaran | Mar 12, 2014 12:54:08 AM

I agree with most of your recommendations, but couldn't disagree more with "shutting down" comments like “You say ____, but doesn’t the case actually say ____?” or “I don’t agree with that, isn’t ____a better explanation?” What a horrible, horrible example to set in the classroom. It is not a professor's role to "shut down" students or to shame them. I try to encourage classroom participation, critical thought, constructive disagreement, and independent thought. I imagine you come across as horrible defensive and lacking in self esteem if you aim to "shut down" students. Sure, students should disagree with the professor respectfully. But, I don't see comments like the ones you listed as some affront or horrible challenge to my authority.

Posted by: MJ | Mar 12, 2014 12:50:38 AM

Prof. Horwitz, I don't think there being a relation between intimidation and authority is such a strain on our imaginations, is it? Culture can't be much more than a lens on this effect.

Posted by: Think Like a 1L | Mar 12, 2014 12:20:17 AM

As a younger male and racially ambiguous prof, here's some contrast/revelation of privilege. First, I definitely get a presumption of competence in a way that the women on this thread report not having. None of my students would, I think, ever try total crap like that "deeply prepping" idiocy that MPM refers to. Folks, can we actually listen to the experiences that women report of having their competence irrationally questioned?

I have gotten a little bit of the behavioral stuff (probably related to my extreme laxness), but as far as I can see based on a limited sample, it's much easier for me to deal with, again, than many of the women here report: I simply have to come down with a sufficiently hard hammer once, and the problems stop, and moreover, the student(s) who have evidenced the behavioral stuff show no signs of resentment.

Male privilege. It exists.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Mar 12, 2014 12:02:26 AM

I suppose there might actually be a more or less scientific answer to this question out there somewhere, but what does it mean to be "naturally authoritative?" I guess I'd kind of assumed that, say, having a deep voice or being short had nothing to do with one's authoritative status or affect, except as a matter of cultural baggage.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 11, 2014 11:52:39 PM

This is an excellent post that I will recommend to all of my new faculty. I remember these days well! Thank you.

Posted by: Susan Poser | Mar 11, 2014 10:25:21 PM

I agree with Prof. Baradaran's conclusions on this matter, except (depending on how this is performed in practice) the "Alpha Dog shut-down" point. It's not really clear to me how a professor will build credibility by "quickly, painfully, and effectively" shutting-down meritorious arguments. (I might have misinterpreted the post, but it seems like what's being said here is that early on, even legitimate questions should be handled in this manner. If this is not what is urged, I apologize.)

Suppose one of Prof. Baradaran's students does a little research on her after being shut down in such a manner. Would she want them to see this post?

As to the "WOCs" commenting, the clear inference to be drawn from a professor in terror of her white male students is that this is not a serious person, nor a credible professor. There's hardly a more imbalanced power relationship than lawprof/law student (except I suppose tenured lawprof/law student).

I don't doubt that male students "test" female faculty more than male faculty. This is because (1) women are indeed less naturally authoritative than men, for reasons of size/voice/&c. in addition to any cultural baggage, and (2) because women - even women law profs - tend to have mannerisms that reduce perceived confidence. I had a 1L professor who couldn't stop herself from raising her inflection (as though asking a question) even at the end of declaratory statements. This just isn't going to fly in a lot of places.

Prof. Baradaran is quite right when she says "fake it till you make it," because successfully faking it is the same as making it.

Posted by: Think Like a 1L | Mar 11, 2014 10:06:52 PM

(Another WOC here.) I still refuse to cater to students' expectations with respect to "imposing heavy order." I'm pretty sure it hurts me on my evals, but after trying the stricter, more formal (I wore heels for a semester or two) approach, I decided that the toll on my own psyche wasn't really worth it.

Instead, I've taken to prefacing all my classes with discussions of how students have to face navigating more complex forms of hierarchies when they actually enter practice (some of which isn't automatically evident from mode of dress, apparent age, gender, etc), and how they should evaluate whether their own expectations are the result of other biases. And to remind them that law school isn't (and in my view shouldn't be) like K-12 education; it's a graduate program, and they should approach it like adults rather than feeling they need to be controlled and told exactly what to do.

Posted by: Steph | Mar 11, 2014 7:19:59 PM

This was a great post. I would never minimize the unique challenges of Teaching While Female or Minority, but some challenges are universal (I'm a white, male, straight young prof, traditional credentials).

(1) Academics are naturally informal, thoughtful people. To many young profs, imposing order on people almost our own age does not come naturally.

(2) Initially, I had to pretend I was playing the role of a stodgy teacher in a movie. I felt like I was saying no all the time, even though I was being generous in general. I also learned that arbitrary but clear is usually better than flexible but fair. I avoided volunteering "I don't know." These contradict my instincts.

(3) I had a non-trivial number of students who were around my age or older, and I look fairly young as it is - I'm sure that's part of it. But age cuts both ways. Being young feeds into the "presumption of competence" CBR mentions, from which I probably benefited. The assumption may have been that I must be competent, and so if I have an off day I'll get better as I get more experienced. Women and minorities should get the same benefit of the doubt.

(4) Finally, like Anonolicious, I got comments on my appearance and trivial, jokey things on my evals my first semester. They went away as I got more formal. To CBR's point, the comments were never big-picture, like I was doing my gender a disservice. What crap.

Posted by: Beneficiary of "presumption of competence" | Mar 11, 2014 6:56:49 PM

How useful it is that MPM and Mark have given us examples of such behavior right here on the blog to see for ourselves. The kind of racism and sexism that MPM describes is well documented in the academic literature. In this vein, I find it illuminating that MPM (modern-postmodern?) and/or his/her classmates try to justify such egregious behavior by asserting that they have a "right" to test the professor because they are consumer-students. In my experience, this kind of entitlement usually shows up other places; if the Bar filter on Character and Fitness doesn't catch them before they become lawyers, chances are the Codes of Professional Responsibility will run into them somewhere further down the line.

Posted by: ProfWOC | Mar 11, 2014 6:42:31 PM

Anonolicious: I believe you that you get evaluation comments about clothes and hair. But do you get unsolicited advice about how you style yourself? Are you told that your gender presentation makes others take your professional skills less seriously? I would suggest reading "Fem(me)inity in the field" (http://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com/2013/10/24/femmeinity-in-the-field/) to better understand where your female colleagues are coming from.

Posted by: CBR | Mar 11, 2014 6:11:16 PM

I am a younger male professor. Without fail, I get comments every semester on student evals about my dress and/or hair. I don't talk about this much. So, almost every semester some female colleague explains to me, in that "you don't know what it's like" tone, that women must endure such evaluation comments. And each time I, because I am culturally obliged to do so lest I be accused of being “insensitive,” grin and quietly bear it.

Posted by: Anonolicious | Mar 11, 2014 5:23:32 PM

Great post- I completely agree with all the points made-and as a WOC law prof, I have faced many of the same issues--I hate having to have that intense, very strict persona that is not the "real" me--but it is very necessary. Regardless, I still get teaching evaluations each semester mentioning looks, hair, or clothing--which I am pretty sure are not described in my male colleagues' evals. I also have students arguing about some of my rules (no signing the roll if you are late to class-- "Why can't I sign the roll when I was stuck in traffic?" or whatever), but I stand my ground. I think some of it is generational-this generation of law students seems to feel entitled and tests professors a lot more than when I went to law school. Additionally, I teach at a tuition driven school and a few students try to act like their professors' employers.

Posted by: Agreed | Mar 11, 2014 5:04:09 PM

I think MPM's comment (and to a lesser degree, Mark's) are fascinating and illustrative of several issues relevant to Mehrsa's points and to law teaching generally:

(1) MPM's account of "testing" a young "WOC professor" fits right in with research that shows that white males in academia experience a "presumption of competence" that others do not (see, e.g., Christine Haight Farley, Confronting Expectations: Women in the Legal Academy, available on SSRN).

(2) The relationship of student expectations and tuition ("students who pay huge tuition have a right to test the professors"), and how this affects the student-professor dynamic.

(3) Condescension and "talking down" in the guise of friendly advice ("It was obvious then (I think) that what you needed to do was . . . Glad you have figured out some strategies that work for you to better manage your classrooms.")

(4) Selective memory and the unreliable narrator: (1L's "deeply prepped for one class by reading all the cases and law reviews in the notes and mooted the issues beforehand"--all the note cases? all the articles mentioned? and kept up with other classes too?)

Posted by: CBR | Mar 11, 2014 4:41:01 PM

What is stunning about MPM's comment is the belief that the "testing" students KNEW that their interpretation of the materials - in their vast wisdom as 1Ls? - was the "correct" understanding of the material and that they were "testing" the professor. Would any of those assumptions have held, or even taken root, if the professor and not been a woman of color? Obviously, there are better and worse teachers, and more and less informed professors, but as described, this was not a test of that.

Posted by: Lori | Mar 11, 2014 4:27:55 PM

MPM, did it occur to you that perhaps the professor's perceived lack of knowledge was actually utter confusion in response to TOTALLY BIZARRE BEHAVIOR by a small group of students? It's remarkably entitled for a small group of students to "slowly take over the class discussion" and "have a debate amongst themselves," thereby using the class as a forum for them to deliver lines that they've already extensively rehearsed together.

Of course students pay a shitload of money and should be able to test their professors, but I can think of at least a thousand more productive (and, frankly, more illuminating) ways to accomplish that goal that don't involve hijacking a class. If I were one of the other students in that room I'd be completely disgusted with my classmates, not least because I'd be paying a shitload of money too.

And you say you don't know whether the behavior was motivated by the professor's WOC status. Well, so did the students test all their white male professors in a similar way? If not, I think we can deduce the answer.

Posted by: wow seconded | Mar 11, 2014 4:27:27 PM

Many kudos to Mehrsa for this thoughtful and terrific post. From the sounds of it, your students are fortunate to have you.

I only wish your post didn't inspire delusional works of short fiction like MPM's. What nonsense. Students test professors all the time, sure. But you want us to believe that these smart-and-smug students mastered a "topic" by reading the casebook notes and "mooting" the issue? And you also want us to believe that you -- who would never participate in such shenanigans, of course! -- could tell, just by sitting there, that the professor "couldn't keep up"?

Give. Us. A. Break. Mehrsa's important post deserves much better than that.

Posted by: SparkleMotion | Mar 11, 2014 4:22:02 PM

I guess my point earlier (which was not to "troll" BYU, nor to provoke an alum's "lolz") is that I think--but do not know, as I have had no experience with BYU myself beyond what I hear gossiped in the faculty lounge--that a white man who teaches exactly as Baradaran did in her first semester would have been seen and treated very, very differently. Even if the students thought the style difficult to track, I think--but do not know--that most white men in the class would grumble out-of-class and never try to humiliate the teacher and automatically assume superiority in the way that Baradaran's former student suggests occurred, even in his own mind watching as an "innocent" bystander. I think--but do not know--that a place, like BYU, whose student body consists largely of white conservative men will have more of this sexist dynamic than would occur at another place, simply given ideological views likely prevalent (about essentialist gender roles, say) or the lack of experience with women in positions of authority. But I am not arguing that this happens only at conservative institutions. Indeed, as with the previous commenter, I have seen this dynamic on my own faculty in workshops, etc, from some very liberal white men who would be aghast, I suppose, at the thought. I just suspect that there are bad examples in lots of places, but egregious examples at some places.

But I could be wrong here--maybe BYU's rather stunning lack of diversity among faculty and student body, and the ideology of some (many?) conservative Mormons about gender roles, are irrelevant to the dynamic Baradaran describes. Call this a rough hypothesis worthy of a blog comment, not some systematic accusation--hence all my question marks and caveats, which may well have been viewed as waffling, hemming, hawing, and feminine weakness, or intellectual honesty and an appreciation for complexity, depending on my audience.

Posted by: Depends on the School? | Mar 11, 2014 4:21:46 PM

Wow to MPM's comment. You didn't indicate that this person didn't know the material well enough to teach it (giving conflicting rules or something) but instead that the students thought she "was not good enough." I can't help but equate the woman of color / not usual credentials with "not good enough." I note that you imply that she knew esoteric and theoretical things about the topic but not what every case related to one in the textbook said.

I'm so glad Mehrsa wrote this post, but some of the comments are making me really depressed.

Posted by: wow | Mar 11, 2014 4:01:06 PM

I have to laugh, if only not to cry. The professor's knowledge was too "esoteric and theoretical" because she hadn't read all the law review articles cited in the casebook? And you think that someone who had spent more years negotiating contracts--or litigating tort cases, or practicing criminal law, or whatever the class was--would have?

Posted by: Jennifer Hendricks | Mar 11, 2014 3:22:32 PM

I had a WOC professor my 1L year, teaching one of the classic courses early in her teaching career. One study group concluded that the professor, who lacked the usual credentials, was not good enough. They deeply prepped for one class by reading all the cases and law reviews in the notes and mooted the issues beforehand. Then they slowly took over the class discussion and had a debate amongst themselves about the assigned topic. They were very polite but it was quickly obvious to everyone that the professor’s knowledge of the material was thinner than the students’. She couldn’t keep up and at times the students gently corrected her comments about what the other cases held. It made me feel small just to be in the room as it all slowly unraveled. Afterwards the students said that they needed to test the professor one time to see if she was the real deal or not. They felt that given the money they were paying they had a right to know if the professor was a reliable guide to the subject matter. After that class, the professor re-grouped and projected a more take-charge attitude but her credibility was gone. The professor’s status as a WOC may have been a substantial cause of the students’ behavior. But at the same time, students who pay huge tuition have a right to test the professors. One of the take-aways is that the professors who know a legal topic from merely an academic point of view should not be teaching courses that have matter. They should stick to purely esoteric and theoretical courses.

Posted by: MPM | Mar 11, 2014 2:56:08 PM

I think 'Depends on the School' raises an excellent substantive point: it isn't just about how much students in the classroom feel entitled (or not) to push back against certain professors who are not immediately seen as authority figures; it also is about how those professors' responses to students are themselves being perceived. I have had this experience coming out of seminars and guest lectures, when male colleagues have remarked about how the (female) speaker seemed hesitant or uncertain, when what I saw was thoughtful engagement and an open, nuanced approach to comments and criticisms. I have found myself at times wondering if we actually just saw the same talk. So, it's tricky.

Posted by: Lori | Mar 11, 2014 2:32:42 PM

I really appreciated this post, Mehrsa. Thanks for writing it.

Posted by: Nancy Leong | Mar 11, 2014 2:10:19 PM

I second Mehrsa's response to Dan. As Dan recommends, I am very wary of my ability to unintentionally shut discussion down by coming down too brusquely on a question that challenges something I said. In normal class discussion I tend to err on the side of being a bit fuzzy on what I think the right answer is. But there's a distinct difference in demeanor between the student who's puzzled about how what you said can be reconciled with the book (sometimes because one or the other is wrong), and the student who is attempting to play "gotcha" with the professor. The latter -- fortunately rare since my first couple of years of teaching -- can either destroy the class's confidence in you if allowed to persist, or seriously sidetrack the discussion into unproductive arcana. If not batted down quickly they encourage others to arise in a large class as well. So if I encounter one, after a round or two of attempting to persuade I usually (if true) declare the topic non-critical and encourage the student to follow up with me after class.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 11, 2014 1:40:56 PM

I am a relatively new, openly gay professor who is currently teaching in the South. I consider myself "soft" in that my personality--and therein my teaching style--rejects many of the more dominant and traditional elements of masculinity. I always approach the material and my students with a friendly demeanor, I don't seek to humiliate anyone, and I use a gentle Socratic variant--largely because I think it helps female and minority students break out of isolation earlier and more often.

For the most part, my students are respectful in class. My status as a white, tall male with a deep voice helps a lot, I'm sure. But I am finding that the more open I am about my sexuality, and the more I let my personality and my research interests trickle into classroom discussions, the harder the class is getting to manage. People are leaving the room more often, talking over me and each other more often, etc. Perhaps this is a symptom of my own paranoia, but I'm starting to struggle a bit with how to maintain both my authenticity and control.

All of this is just to say that many men, and particularly minority men, likely share similar experiences with many female faculty members. The unifying thread seems to relate to how students (and professors) conceptualize power, which inevitably differs across a variety of raced, classed, gendered, and geography-related lines.

Posted by: LB | Mar 11, 2014 1:27:20 PM

I'm glad that Mehrsa posted on this topic. I just wanted to add that I don't think the problems she mentions are limited to particular schools or to female professors. After I accepted my first tenure track job, I happened to be at a social event with one of my old 1L professors. This (white male) professor was the most intimidating and demanding prof I'd ever had in the classroom, but he and I chatted very nicely for about 15 minutes at the event. At the end of our conversation, he congratulated me on my new job, and then advised me to start out tough and with high expectations in every class I teach. He explained that this was a philosophy he'd had to adopt early on, because some classes need more structure and discipline than others, and while you can always become nicer and more easy going during the course of a semester "you can never adjust the opposite direction" without the students revolting.

In my personal experience, female faculty tend to talk about these problems with each other more often, which may reinforce our perception that students are engaging in this behavior because we are women. I see many male professors deal with the issue as well. A few months ago, I heard a student walk into the male professor's office next to mine & announce that the professor's exam was "wrong" about some issue "according to Gilbert's." The professor cooly responded: "I wonder what is wrong, Gilbert's or your interpretation of Gilbert's." A comment that fully shifted the conversation back to the prof explaining the doctrine & reminding the student that he shouldn't rely on commercial outlines. Maybe because it was a white male professor, the situation came across as a prof dealing with an overly cocky/rude-ish student, rather than a full scale attack on the prof's authority. And it sticks in my mind b/c I think, had a similar comment been directed at me, I might have reacted as though it were that latter situation rather than the former.

Posted by: Carissa | Mar 11, 2014 12:58:35 PM

I have to agree with Depends on the School. I am a woman of color who teaches at a top twenty school and I have taught or visited at five different places that range quite widely. The culture of the school really does differ in a way that affects how women of color professors are received. It is unfortunate but true that a school whose culture is dominated by white conservative males some of whom bat around the professor for sport will be a much less hospitable place than a much more diverse law school classroom. It's too bad that law school classrooms (far more than other classrooms) are so hierarchical; the CLS line on that is that the culture is meant to train you to be deferential to the judge and to the law. Good news is that your reputation will now do a fair amount of work for you.

Posted by: ProfWOC | Mar 11, 2014 12:54:12 PM

Dan and CBR, so the particular types of challenges I'm referring to are a bit different and the difference is hard to articulate besides "I know it when I see it." I mean, these are 1Ls who in their second or third week of class are ready to take on the professor. After this initial power play is out of the way, I welcome any and all content-related questions and challenges. I often try to bounce the question back and have them answer and I try to really engage the question if it's good. I even freely admit mistakes when I am wrong. I can do all of this once I have control. Before, it looks like weakness and they apparently get frustrated. It is quite possible, Dan, that when you walk into a classroom, your reputation had preceded you and they automatically know you are the boss. :)

Posted by: Mehrsa Baradaran | Mar 11, 2014 12:46:28 PM

Lolz at the poster throwing out weak BYU troll material here. Those mean white men and their anti-intellectual, mysoginistic, racist, homophobic views! If only they could all be so enlightened as students at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, etc. where none of this stuff would ever happen!

Seems like the poster wants to live in a fantasy land where everyone gives deference to professors by virtue of their title. I have serious doubts that such a place exists.

BTW, one particular student that I am thinking of from that class was male but was not white and was an undergrad student at an Ivy-ish school. You think he would have learned better manners there. I'm pretty sure he had plenty of chances to have a woman as an authority figure over him.

Posted by: Mark | Mar 11, 2014 12:23:26 PM

As former students of mine know, I'm a pretty strong fascist about showing up on time, making sure students tell me in advance that they can't do the reading, not letting them use the computer for internet, etc, and consequently very rarely do I have flakey students.
But I really think it's important for students to raise their hand and feel free to challenge the intellectual content of what's being asserted (with a modicum of respect) and not feel that these challenges "must be shut down." Socratic method of the students is very useful, but I also think profs can be challenged and need to be kept on their toes. The tricky part is creating an environment where the protocols are strict but the substance is mutually invigorating and provocative. Nothing makes me happier (professionally) than a student whose perspective illuminates the material for me in some way that I hadn't seen. As long as they are civil when doing so, even if somewhat aggressive in tone, students who offer alternative explanations that might be more succinct or persuasive should be exalted, not shut down for the sake of asserting authority in the classroom. Just my two cents.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Mar 11, 2014 12:22:06 PM

"I'm naturally averse to hierarchy and formality and wanted to run a democratic classroom." I did this exact same thing my first time teaching (not in law school) and experienced the exact same result: disaster. Some amount of hierarchy and appearance of authority is required by the role.

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 11, 2014 12:01:13 PM

This is very interesting, and thank you for sharing. I also thought I would mention that students do challenge young men in some ways as well, although I could not offer thoughts on how similar or different that treatment is to your experience. I just thought I would mention that that was my experience in Year 1, FWIW

Posted by: Anon | Mar 11, 2014 11:56:48 AM

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