Understanding the Frustrations of Your Female Graduate Teaching Assistant: A Quick Guide for Student
Recently, I spent half an hour explaining to one of my students that his tone is very condescending and that I will not tolerate mansplaining in my classroom – whether directed at me or his colleagues. As a response to my monologue, all I got was a blank stare and an “Okay, but…” followed by repetition of all the things he previously said. Sure, there will always be entitled people in our classrooms, and not all our students will be susceptible to change. But would the situation be different – would his tone be at least a shade more respectful – if his teaching assistant was not a girl with straightened hair and a polite smile? You bet it would. You don’t think so? That’s the problem.
People are naturally inclined to both explicit and implicit biases, and the classroom environment certainly doesn’t escape this pattern of behavior. As a student, you are more likely to perceive your professor as an authority figure who ultimately decides on your grade in class, even though this might not always be the case. This is not necessarily a detrimental thing on its own, but when multiplied with the fact that the TA standing in front of you is a woman, more biases tend to creep in, some of which you might not even be aware. You are more likely to question me, interrogate me, fact-check me, ask me if I am completely sure, talk over me, and in extreme cases, show a huge lack of respect. Now that is problematic.
Don’t get me wrong; the anecdote from my classroom is not an isolated case that made me angry and eager to write this piece – it is just an example portraying a microscopic part of the struggle. Women face mansplaining everywhere. As a matter of fact, just yesterday my friend tried to explain to a man what mansplaining is and he talked over her in the middle of her sentence, saying: “That’s not what it is, it’s just men explaining things, right?” Ironic, isn’t it? Sure, but also very problematic and sad.
When I explain this constant questioning I face from all age groups in both my academic and personal lives, you may dismiss my frustrations in disbelief. Your inclination is to believe that I am overreacting. Because that’s what women do, right?
Allow me to offer another anecdote: recently, one of my students complimented my outfit, and her classmate thought it was funny to add, “Oh, now you’re more likely to get a good grade.” Now, if I opened this up for discussion, I would be overreacting, right? I guess we should just not mention the implication of his joke: that I will grade my students unfairly because I care so much about their opinions of my outfit.
But my desire to discuss this behavior, while suggesting that we can become aware of our implicit biases and work on changing them, is not an overreaction – it is an attempt to change one in a myriad of the systematic problems related to gender we are facing in higher education and beyond. Your assumption that I am overreacting is another part of the problem.
When you strip it down to its core, what I am asking you to do, no matter what role are you playing in the classroom, is very simple – listen. Trust me, I will note the difference between active listening, followed by a healthy dose of the questioning we do need in academia, and your tendency to dismiss my argument before I even open my mouth. I am not claiming to know everything about a subject, and you can always disagree. I just need you to disagree while showing me the same respect you would show to your dad, or your 45-year-old male professor, or any other male authority figure you can think of. If you don’t agree with me, let’s talk about it – but don’t tell me I am overreacting. Frankly, I am not going to tolerate your condescending tone.
Neira Kadic, originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, is a United World College in Mostar alumna and a University of Oklahoma graduate holding a BA in International Area Studies. Currently, she is pursuing her Master’s degree in International Development at the University of Oklahoma. Her research focuses on post-communist societies including both Southeastern Europe and Latin America. Neira is a former graduate teaching assistant and a current graduate assistant in the department of Education Abroad.