It’s an age-old and tiresome story, and I’ve watched more than one friend undergo some variation on it. He’s got what you want: the knowledge, the erudition, the passing grade on exams, the dissertation signature. He’s brilliant, an acknowledged expert in your particular area of study, an incisive thinker and an wide-ranging scholar, and he provides quick, detailed (some might say terrible and swift) feedback on the many difficult but instructive assignments he requires. In short, just the kind of professor from whom one might, in theory, secure a first-class education.
He’s also, not to put too fine a point on it, a jerk.
There are, for women, two kinds of professorial jerks: the sexists, and the sexualists. The few sexists I’ve known have been along the lines of one seventy-year-old classics prof who had never really adapted to coeducation and who determinedly emitted random comments about the mechanics of bull insemination (mid-Plato’s Apology, I kid you not, Dave Barry) in the hopes of embarrassing us confused bluestockings who’d drifted away from our needlework and into the range of his gimlet, Latinate eye. There are the geezer old-boys’-network profs who won’t write letters of rec for women applying to med school, the right-wing loonies who prate on about the disastrous consequences of women’s suffrage. As for the sexualists, well, every college of humanities has a serial seducer or two who just can’t keep his hands off his graduate students. We’ve all known a couple in our time. (And then there are those versatile charmers who are both, just a little excessively friendly with the women, embarrassingly prone to working out their bizarre mommy issues in their commentary on the ostensive topics of their classes.)
I’m in one of those squishy feminine fields–literature–which has led nervous literary men everywhere to don the Jock Straps of High Theory with a vengeance (the interpellated alterity of the post-capitalist body, hi-YAH!), but it’s also a field stampeded by Hawthorne’s damned scribbling women. This does give the sexualists greater occasion to drool over the nubile bodies flashing by, in some cases quite visibly, but it also, mercifully, reduces overt sexism by normalizing a feminine presence.
For the most part, these petty sexisms are little more than obnoxious, and a certain variety of “Now, honey” hand-patting sexist is a dying breed. But what should one do when the expert in one’s particular area happens to be a galloping sexist sexualist? (Sexualists, sad to say, are not a dying breed. Perhaps because they so successfully, ahem, breed.) In short: should the canny female graduate student (1) switch to a subfield governed by more humane advisors or (2) adopt a ruthlessly professional attitude with the sexist sexualist in question and hope to get by educated but unscathed?
- 2 April 2007