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Saying No To A Man

A FEW DAYS AGO , I cleared the remaining syllabi, books, and student papers from my study so that I would not be reminded of classes and teaching and, especially, of certain troubles I had this past quarter. My course on women and organizations went extremely well, but my course on feminist methodology in the social sciences had difficulties. When I had taught this course previously, it had felt very special to the students and to me. This time, however, it felt like a nightmare. The trouble began when I refused to allow a third-year male graduate student to take the course. He had said he was opposed to doing woman-centered research: "I object against it," he wrote in his first paper. "I want to do research that is centered on humans, not on women." It took me a week and a half to recognize that this student's opposition to woman-centered research represented more than ignorance. Rather, it was a sign of his intention to assert a position of male dominance in relation to my course and to me.

When I started teaching courses on women several years ago, before my first class I had an anxiety that many teachers of courses on women probably share. I thought about how I would respond if a man belligerently challenged me from the back of the room, attacking the feminist


nature of my course, filling the air with a bravado display, and generally being disruptive—a hostile male. It was clear to me immediately that I would not stand for this. I would take the hostile student aside or speak to him after class, tell him to drop the course, get him to psychological services if necessary, call the police. The main thing was to show no tolerance for his behavior. The problem with my hostile male this past quarter, however, was that he was not a two-hundred pound man with a beer belly and a brimmed canvas hat, gesturing toward me with an opened can of foam as he spoke. This fellow was introverted, thin, and balding, with glasses. He mostly wanted me to feel sorry for him and to engage him in a densely articulated argument about his need to reject a focus on women. I refused him the instructor permission necessary to take my Feminist Methodology course, a limited-enrollment seminar.

Last year, a man in Women and Organizations acted in a way that was offputting at first, but my sense was that he was unaware of alternative ways to behave; with a few cues and instructions from me, he caught on. My sense with the balding introvert this quarter was that in ten weeks' time, he would still be arguing with me, and although I could refuse to engage his challenges, students in my class, who would be trading weekly papers with him and meeting with him in small group sessions, would not have that distance. I felt protective of my class—a highly interactive seminar required for undergraduate feminist studies majors that focused on the emotional experiences of each student in doing research and writing. It did not seem to me that the students for whom Feminist Methodology was an advanced course should have to respond to someone repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of their subject.

Whatever the reason—protection of the students, of the woman-centered and personal nature of my class, protection of myself—I said no. The male graduate student, angry with me, wrote a letter of complaint to me, and when I said no a second time, he wrote to the chair of the Women's Studies program and then to the student newspaper. For weeks, the paper never published his letter. During that time, the letter hung over my head and also caused anxiety for members of my class and for the program chair, who defended my decision. The newspaper finally published an article, but the story, by then, was not the male student's gripe at being refused permission to take my course, but internal


conflict among feminist faculty members. "The Women's Studies program is embroiled in controversy," the paper's lead sentence read. This was a student paper searching for a story, and pitting women against women has often made for a good one, but the fact was this story was also true. Had my male graduate student stood on his own, he would have faded away far more easily and caused me less trouble than he did. But he turned, cleverly, to a woman dean in his graduate program who quickly decided that the issue was academic repressiveness (mine of him), not to mention the unwomanliness of my saying no to a man, and possibly the issue of why a faculty member, indeed a lowly lecturer, should have the right to deny access to anyone.

This dean—who considered herself a feminist—was joined by only a few other women faculty, but they were prominent. They spoke to the student paper and convened meetings to talk about "creative ways" of dialoguing with problem students (meaning problem men), "stimulating controversy" in the classroom, and other things I do not often worry about. These women were not criticizing me, they said. However, they thought I had acted hastily and that students such as my hostile male should be viewed as a challenge. What we need are more imaginative solutions, they proposed in the one discussion meeting I attended. I thought, "It's about saying no and getting support for it." The ability to say no and receive support was not the main concern of the meeting, however. It seemed a minor issue even among the majority of feminist faculty present, who assumed that in my classroom situation, saying no had been a clear-cut and acceptable good choice. But, they asked, what about other situations—larger classes, for instance—in which the teacher could not say no? That possibility was what worried most of the faculty.

I felt that the student who was causing a disturbance should either shape up or ship out. I thought feminist courses, especially, should have a paragraph written on their syllabi warning students they ought to be on good behavior. These are vulnerable courses. People play things out on them, and women teachers are especially vulnerable—expected to serve everyone and to smile when walked upon. Students should know about this situation and be careful and respectful in the extreme, rather


than expect feminist faculty to bend over backwards to take care of obstreperous men and to absorb the insecurities of the system.

Fortunately for me, at the time I was teaching Feminist Methodology, I was also teaching Women and Organizations, a course that discussed separatism and the rationale for women saying no to men, or denying men access to women. In that course, we explore how separate organizations enable women to have their own power and culture, and how women need to protect their organizations from disruptive male influences and not put men at the center of their attention, even when we do include men in our groups. The subject matter of my Women and Organizations course encourage an intellectual understanding that seemed to me absent from Feminist Methodology.

My methods course was about the same size and gender composition as Women and Organizations—there were fourteen women and one man in Methodology and sixteen women and three men in Organizations. I taught both courses by emphasizing the inner experiences of each student as a route to learning. Yet my methods class seemed, very soon after my denial of the male student, not to be developing as it should have: trust between the students and myself was not growing over time as I would have expected, and there were many silences I could not explain. I felt these difficulties had to be my fault, that I was not conducting classes well enough. Yet there were external factors that are easier to identify in retrospect than they were at the time. For example, eight women students enrolled in my methods course came from the same graduate program as the man to whom I had refused permission and they all knew each other. Nothing like this course was offered in their department and they thought it would be good for them, even if my approach would not be viewed positively by their own faculty. When I decided to refuse the hostile male student, I was afraid that the other graduate students who knew him would see my action as unnecessary, since they had already put up with this man in other classes. I was also concerned that some of the graduate students might experience my denial of the male student as a potential refusal, or negative judgment, of them—if he was unacceptable, maybe they would be too. None of the students ever said they felt this way, but it sits in my mind as a possibility.


A second external factor affecting the course was that during the entire quarter, four of these graduate students met with the hostile man in a weekly seminar held the night before my class at the home of the conservative woman dean, who was his advocate. She was a person far more important in these students' institutional lives than I. During the quarter, however, I did not know about the existence of this other seminar, nor about its influence on a core group of students in my class. I only knew that, from about the sixth week of the term—the week the newspaper article came out, the week after the first faculty meeting occurred—from that week on, the students in my methods class noticeably began to pull away from me. The graduate students began to withdraw first and the undergraduates followed. The students generally became quieter and more challenging of me in class, more brooding, more unwilling to answer my questions about their experiences, more desirous of addressing only each other in class discussions, even if they did not say much because everyone was scared. I noticed an unwillingness to respond to me with eye contact. I was lucky to get one smile per session. I felt the students were trying to take the class away from me; to have it be their class, not mine; to have it feel like a conventional readings course, like, I later felt, the seminar some of them were having over at the home of the woman dean.

Because of tensions in my class, on several occasions I spoke with the students about my decision to say no to the male graduate student and about each of their responses to it. This relieved the situation somewhat, but, by the next week, the controversy would be restimulated outside the class. For example, two weeks after the daily student newspaper ran its article, the right-wing student paper printed a front-page story. The woman dean spoke to the right-wing paper, as did the male student; both were quoted prominently. A second faculty meeting took place the week after the right-wing paper came out, raising the issue once again and providing a further platform for the woman dean. These external events had the effect of making persistent the difficulties of my class.

My class was perhaps especially sensitive to unsettling external influences because my approach in the course emphasized openness in discussing each student's feelings. A relatively stable and protective environment is necessary to make such discussion feel safe. The course required


a relaxation of intellectual posturing and academic self-protectiveness, and, because it drew on my own work, it required a sense of identification with, rather than disassociation from, the teacher. It was exactly such identification, however, that the students, especially the graduate students, seemed increasingly unwilling to allow. I sensed their distance during the quarter, yet it was only after the last class session ended that I realized how much my Feminist Methodology course had been undermined. During the last class, in the last fifteen minutes, I found myself again bringing up the subject of my refusal of the male graduate student. The final class session was not going well—it held, for me, too many silences and not enough appreciation for the course, the teacher, or the students' own efforts. I felt that although the students had gained important research insights during the quarter, the course had become a problem in their minds, and not a normal problem, but something made into one. In the last session, a few of the students spoke of talking with others outside the class about difficulties with the course and criticisms of me. Hearing them speak, I felt, uncomfortably, that I had become a difficulty along with the course, indeed the source of the students' troubles—something was wrong and it was me.

The Faculty Meeting

I walked into the room where the Women's Studies faculty meeting would be held. My trouble with the hostile student was on the agenda. The chair had circulated two background papers to the faculty attending: a copy of the student's open letter of complaint to the campus newspaper, still unpublished, and a copy of a memo written by the chair defending and explaining my decision to an administrative dean. The chair felt that the feminist faculty might be receiving increasing hostility from antifeminist students, and she wanted the faculty to discuss the issue more generally.

I felt I had to be present at the meeting. However, I wanted to be invisible. I took a seat far away from the center table on a chair set against a back wall, with no one sitting beside me. About twenty-three people soon filled the room, forming a group much larger than the eight to twelve who usually attended these luncheon meetings. The first discussion


item was gender bias against women faculty in student course evaluations. Some women spoke of changing their teaching behaviors in order to score well on the evaluation forms. I felt silent and uncomfortable. For me, the discussion was too much about success and advancing in the system. What if being a good teacher meant one would not score well on the forms? Two-thirds of the way through the discussion, a woman who announced she had to leave soon to get to a meeting somewhere else impatiently launched into the second item on the agenda, referring to it as "the case of student X." When the chair had introduced this item at the start of the meeting, she had called it "the case." I had been startled. The term sounded too big and legalistic to me and too much like the student had a case.

"What does 'woman-centered' mean?" the woman who had to be somewhere else began. She claimed to have no idea what this term meant and said that the chair's letter of explanation to the dean gave her no understanding of why the male student was denied permission to take my course. Surely, denying permission to this man because he was unprepared for an advanced course in feminist methodology could not be the real reason for refusing him. Again, what did woman-centered mean? she asked.

The chair, who sat at the head of the long center table, grasped the woman's question from out of midair and turned toward me. Could I please explain? she asked. It seemed to me her memo had already explained the grounds for my decision better than I could. I thought that the woman who had to be somewhere else was saying, with her questions, that she did not agree with me. She was challenging the acceptability of what I had done by claiming it was not intelligible. I had no desire to be on trial in this meeting, and suddenly I felt on trial, and I felt guilty.

"No," I said to the woman, I would not explain "woman-centered." The logic of my decision was presented very well in the chair's statement, I told her. Then I spoke to the group and told them it was painful for me to be at the meeting, to have my decision challenged, to have it become "the case of X." It had already been painful simply saying no to the male student. He was the one who had given me trouble, but I now felt I was the source of the trouble.


The Pain Of Saying No

Here are some details I did not discuss at that meeting that nonetheless throw light on the issue: I did not deny permission to the male student after the first class session because I hoped he would drop the course. I hoped he would decide that since it was so difficult for him to grasp or accept woman-centered research, he ought not to be in my class. When he did not drop the course, and especially after I had read his first paper arguing against a focus on women, I felt I should make the decision to drop him and not expect him to make it for me. I should take very seriously his statement, "As a man, I see no way to do woman-centered research." He was not telling me he was open to learning, as I might have wished. He wanted me to hear he was closed to it.

I said no to him on the phone the day after the second class session, feeling a strain in my voice that made it hard for me to speak. Passive-aggressive in style, this man answered me with silence, then told me how surprised he was. He was speechless with hurt. I felt he was experiencing the pain of being rejected by a woman, by me. I wanted not to be rejecting. I tried to make it easier on him. I told him the reason for my denying him permission was that he was not prepared; he did not have the prior understanding necessary for this advanced-level feminist course. He had said he wanted a humanist, gender-free course, but this was a feminist course, heavily gendered in its approach. He wanted chemistry and this was physics. None of this made sense to him. Then I used the word "exploitation" and suddenly it made sense—that he would be exploiting the course for his own purposes and this might not be good for others in the class. As we ended our phone conversation, he said he felt I was trying to get him to agree with my decision, which I was, but I said no, I just wanted him to see the logic of it. "You don't have to agree. I'm denying you permission, even though you want to take the course," I finally told him.

He called me back two days later, at night. I got out of bed to answer the phone. As he spoke, I felt the disturbed, needful depths of his emotions. I felt, What if I was needful and had called, as I had sometimes called my therapist at night. I should not toss this fellow out simply because


he was troubled and hard put for words and called me late at night for a conversation full of distressed silences. He finally said he had left me a letter asking me to reconsider my decision; would I answer it? At school the next day, I found his letter—an account of how all the faculty in his department had deserted him and would not work with him, except maybe the woman dean, but she did not have enough time. His one hope now was me and my Feminist Methodology course. I again refused him permission to take the course and suggested that he use the course reader on his own to develop further the kind of humanistic method he was seeking.

This student next wrote to my program chair and to the student newspaper, and called for a meeting with the chair to discuss my rejection of him. The chair and the woman dean from his department subsequently met with him and offered him a readings course with the two of them jointly, in an attempt to meet his needs. He could read on his own, he told them. He did not want the authority of faculty over him. What then had he wanted of me? I thought. He had told me he needed my help. Denying him that help had been painful for me. It felt like I was denying him myself. I had fallen for his line that he needed me, and that I was unfairly rejecting him, even after I had thought it through and decided that the help he wanted was either help I could not give, or that he could not take, or it was really another way of his saying that he wanted a convenient woman to respond to him. Perhaps I seemed not well defended to him and so was chosen for this role. I know I could not have been institutionally of much importance for him. I was emotionally important to him at the moment (I felt his "I need you, you have to help me" had some truth), but I was not important in any other sense I can think of. I had to say no, of course—I could not put myself in a position of being wrongfully used by him, or put my students, or women he might research, in that position—but it never seemed like "of course" to me. It always seemed like, "Oh my God. I am going to say no to him and I feel so poorly justified. I feel only that if I have so much doubt about this student's potential effect on my class, I have to pay attention to it now, or it will be too late."

I made my decision before I called him and I felt I was not going to


change it. Mine was a decision based on scant evidence and on a feeling about the future; it was a judgment.

The Faculty Meeting Continues

In the faculty meeting, they seemed to be looking for black and white, right or wrong, for a defense of what I had done. I felt terribly indefensible at that moment. The majority who spoke up in the meeting said I was right, that I had a clear case; they could certainly read between the lines in the two documents. By then, however, I had forgotten about the documents. I was focused on the experience of being cross-examined by a group of women and of not getting the immediate, unquestioning support that I did not know, before then, I needed from these other feminist faculty. I teach courses on women in a women's studies program, and most of the people important to me in the university are feminist women—faculty and students. In saying no to a man, I wanted to feel these women were behind me, that I had a mighty force behind me that understood the necessity of my action.

Therefore, I felt disproportionately upset by the woman who challenged me with her questions at the start of the discussion, by the few others who joined her, by the woman dean whose views seemed behind some of their criticisms (although she herself was absent from the meeting), and even by the program chair at certain times outside the meeting. A song written by the feminist singer Judy Small came to mind. It retells the case of an Australian woman who was tried and wrongfully convicted of killing her own child. The refrain goes, "It's everybody's nightmare to stand alone accused, to be thrown into a prison for a crime you didn't do."[1] That song rang inside my head for weeks. I would not have understood before the feelings attached to those words. Yet I now felt inside a prison, which was my pain, and I also felt that none of it should matter, that I should not let this incident affect me so. The male student had wanted to use me, I felt, and some of these women now wanted to use me—to take their ideological stands in relation to me, to show they got along with men, to pretend this was only about politics and not about me.


I think I spoke for fifteen minutes at the meeting, but I cannot remember much of it except that I often looked at the floor beneath the table or at various largely faceless people dressed in black and far away. I tried to connect my sentences by means of my emotions, sure that I would not have any sense of logic if I sought, instead, for well-formed thoughts. At the end of the meeting, after more discussion of the case and its implications, the subject was tabled until another meeting.

As the group was disbanding, I got up from my chair and was looking around the room at the people, mostly women, talking to one another. One of them was a woman with whom I had consulted when I made my decision to refuse the male student. She had concurred that she felt it was right for me to tell this student no. "It will only get worse," she had said, meaning he would only get more troublesome. I felt she knew this because in her own introductory course, she had suffered with hostile men, some of whom were clean-cut and would act nicely on the surface. "Have you thought about what if he does something?" she had asked me. "It crossed my mind," I said, "but I don't think he will, and I'd do it anyway. I can't not do it based on fear." I would still do it anyway, even after what happened.

Now the friend whom I had consulted came across the room and gave me a big hug. She was dressed in a long-skirted dark dress, and I was in pants, feeling oh so butch-dyke-out-of-place, as I had ever since the start of the meeting. I was stiff as a board as I accepted her hug, and I did not hug her back, but her gesture felt good and it surprised me. Then a woman I did not know, from some other part of the campus, came over and said something to me. I looked at her oddly, surprised again. I shook my head no, I did not think it took strength or courage. Why should she be getting that idea? I thought maybe she felt I looked unsteady emotionally and so anything I did took strength, or maybe I myself thought so, or perhaps she came over because I looked like I needed someone to be kind to me. No one else said anything to me. People got their lunch dishes and trash together and started to move out of the room. My Women and Organizations class was waiting in the hallway, ready to come in to use the same conference room for our class, scheduled next.

I helped clear off the food trays from the side table to get the faculty


out so my class could come in. We began the class late, and our discussion seemed slow and hesitant to me. I thought I might as well tell the students about my saying no to the male student, about the meeting that had just gone on in the same room, and about the open letter to the student newspaper that might appear any day. The students listened and I do not remember how the class ended. I do remember I was surprised when one student told me later that I had seemed shaken, so it had helped the class to be told why. I had thought I was hiding my feelings. This same student then volunteered to write a letter to the student newspaper so they would have it ready to print as soon as the hostile man's letter came out. "Why wait?" she asked. "Thank you," I told her. "I'm trying not to feed the publicity." Yet her offer was good for me to hear. No one offered in my Feminist Methodology class, or anywhere else. Maybe people assumed I did not need them, or maybe they did not want to get involved or felt they did not know me. I assumed I was untouchable.

Conversations With The Chair

The phone rang later the same week I had said no to the male student. The chair of the Women's Studies program wanted to know what procedures I had followed to deny this student permission. I knew the chair of the program as a no-nonsense sort of woman and I liked her. She had recently tried to make my teaching appointment more permanent. Now, on the phone, she was concerned that there not be further trouble for the program as a result of my refusing the male student. She felt a controversy about my decision could easily sap the energy of the program. I had not been aware of following procedures, however. When the chair asked me about them, I felt as if she were asking if I had acted above reproach, and I was not sure I had. I groped around for words. The most direct way to explain it took two: "hostile male."

"You didn't tell him that, did you?" she asked.

"No," I said, remembering my phone conversation with the student and how I had sought for inoffensive words, all the while feeling what I wanted to say was, "It's because you are a hostile male." At the time, I blocked those two words from my mind, fearful that calling him a hostile


male would get a hostile response from him. I also felt that giving a personality trait as a reason for rejection from a course would sound like inadequate grounds, even if "hostile maleness" was not really a personality trait, but rather a form of behavior. I had given the student the reasons that he was not advanced enough for the course, and that he wanted a different kind of course (a humanist, as opposed to a feminist, course). Yet this reasoning had not washed with him, nor later with the woman who challenged my logic in the feminist faculty meeting. I now thought it would have been better if I had said "hostile male," named the thing for what it was, because then others would have known what I meant. Still, the chair was saying it was good I had not used those words. This conclusion did not feel right to me, but I think she had a gut-level sense of what you do, and do not do, to protect yourself in a university. I had perhaps only a gut-level sense of what you do to stay true to yourself. This often left me without protection.

I was trying to find a way to tell the chair about what had happened with the male student without going into the details. My process had not been a procedure, and I was sure the details of it would make it seem that I had done something wrong. I also did not want to take up too much of the chair's time. In the end, however, there seemed no way to tell her other than to give her the details: he said, he did, I said, I did. "Yes, there is another man in the class. He is still in the class." "Good," she said, betraying, perhaps, her heterosexuality. For the chair, the issue was that this student was a man. She needed reassurance that other men were in the class to feel I was not rejecting men, that I was not thus making us both unsafe. For me, the issue was the student's hostility, his male hostility, to be sure, but it was not his being a man that caused me to reject him. My safety lay in my being able to say no to hostility directed against me, and my class, whatever the source of that hostility.

I had wanted to give the chair a well-grounded sense of what had happened in my conversations with the male student in the hope she could figure out what to do—that she would put the best face on it, see me in the right, understand. She took in what I told her. Yet after her call, I felt undone. Why did she have to question me? Why couldn't she have assumed I had acted acceptably? Perhaps she did assume that, but I am sensitive about whether others think I have acted conventionally


enough in a university, or protected myself well enough. I worry about this because I myself fear that I will misstep, that I will do something wrong and be cast out, or cause trouble for others that they do not want.

A few days later, the chair called me again to ask if I would do an individual readings course with the male student. She was going to meet with him and wanted to offer him an alternative so that it would not look like the Women's Studies program had turned away an interested student. I felt he should be sent back to his home department since they were the ones who had failed him, but more than that, I felt hurt, surprised, and misunderstood by my chair. This man was intolerable to me or I would have accepted him into my course. How could she expect I would do an independent readings course with him? I found myself saying loudly and clearly, "No, I won't do that." I felt the male student had wished to force himself on me, and now my chair was trying to help him. I thought perhaps this was happening because I was a lecturer. Lecturers are expected to do almost anything in order to keep their jobs. Or perhaps the chair felt I had created the problem of this man's discontent, so I should take care of it.

"I won't," I told her. She then spoke of offering him a readings course herself. I thought maybe she felt obliged to help him because she was a heterosexual woman and thus had a harder time extricating herself from men. I thought lots of things. I was aware that I did not know the chair well personally. I knew her only formally as a result of an institutional relationship in which she had more middle-of-the-road responses than I did. We left it that she would meet with the male student, reaffirm my no, and offer him something else if she saw fit.

Two days later, I received a copy of the chair's memo to the program's administrative dean. She had defended me well, and I felt extremely grateful. Her letter presented a detailed argument for my denial of permission to the male student that made my decision seem more legitimate than I had ever thought it was: "Feminist Methodology in the Social Sciences is one of two courses in a three-course sequence required for majors," her letter began. "It functions as a senior seminar, a capstone experience for Women's Studies majors. In the first class session, X stated that he objected to undertaking a woman-centered research project." With such a letter, I felt, my troubles were over.


The faculty meeting occurred the next week. By this time, the chair stood publicly behind my saying no to the male student. Thus when I was criticized for denying him permission, she was criticized too. The woman who challenged my decision at the start of the meeting challenged us both, as did the male student in his letter to the press, and the woman dean when she spoke to the paper. When someone had to present a defense of my decision to the student paper, the chair did it. My decision was, by now, the position of the program.

The week after the faculty meeting, the chair phoned me again. Another student in my Feminist Methodology class, an undergraduate woman, had come to her with a complaint and was seeking to drop the course, she said. The chair wanted to advise me to work things out with this student, both for my own good and because it should not look like the Women's Studies program was discouraging students from taking its courses. She said she was going to meet with the student again and would encourage her to stay in the course. I could see the logic of being cautious when at the center of a controversy, but I felt this student needed permission to drop my course. She had trouble with the personal nature of the research approach and was unusually uncomfortable doing the assignments. I told the chair I would encourage her to stay in the course, but in the next class session when I spoke with the student and saw the pain in her face as she looked at me, I broke my word. I was not going to tell her to stay in my course when it was too painful for her. She dropped the course the next week, which was fine with me. The problem for me, by then, was not the student but the chair.

By now, I felt I was being told how to conduct my class. The chair's effort to tell me what to do with the undergraduate who sought to drop my course was but one instance of this. The second and more consequential instance occurred when the chair mentioned, in the same phone conversation, that yet another student, also an undergraduate, had spoken with her. I never learned the name of that other student, nor the specific nature of her complaint. The chair suggested the complaint was generally about class dynamics, and that the student felt she was not learning in the course. According to this student, others in the class felt as she did. The chair felt I ought to open up discussion in my next class session, ask the students what was wrong, and correct it.


I was shocked that the chair had so quickly decided something was wrong with my class. I told her, "Nothing is wrong with my class. It's a wonderful course." She said I was being defensive, and probably I was. I was responding as if accused of a crime, and responding to a feeling—that either she conveyed, or that I assumed had to be present—that if there was not something wrong with me (something out of tune, or out of step), I would not have said no to the male student, or not said it in a way that would bring on an openly hostile response from him. I must have been doing something wrong or the two additional students would not have complained about me, nor suggested that others also had complaints. To argue differently was to be defensive. I told the chair I would do as she requested and see what I could find out from my class about what was wrong.

In the next class session, I opened up the kind of discussion I hated—a critique of class dynamics. I hate such discussion because the students in my classes always find things wrong that I can do nothing about. Their discomforts have deeper sources, I always feel, but they come out as if they are dissatisfactions with the interpersonal dynamics of the class. When I opened up the discussion, the main thing the students said was they wanted to talk more with each other in class sessions, rather than looking at and addressing me. I never had a rule that they could not talk to each other, and it seemed to me not unusual, or terrible, to have the students say they wanted more connection with one another—it meant they valued learning from each other. Further, it seemed not odd to me that their other complaint was about grades—they would rather not have them in a course like this. What was unusual was something harder to pinpoint that I felt at that time and even at the quarter's end.

I never held my difficulty against the chair. I felt she was attacked for defending me, and that occasionally she turned the attack back on me, viewing me as the source of her trouble. I continue to feel so grateful for her defense of me that I tend to excuse as understandable those of her actions that undermined my self-confidence with my class and thus contributed to my feeling I was inadequate as a teacher. My refusal of permission to the male student had been an individual decision. Acceptance of it by others was supposed to hinge on an acceptance of my right


as a professor, teacher, or woman to make a decision about who could take my course—who could use me and how. Acceptance of my decision was not supposed to hinge on anyone else's judgment of the adequacy of my reasons for it. Yet things are not really so separable, and my reasons were called into question, in part because I did not, in fact, fully have the right to say no, in part because I was vulnerable in the university. When my decision was challenged, I was scrutinized and my class was also put under the microscope—was something wrong there, too, larger than this one man?

Class Dynamics

A few nights ago, I had a nightmare in which I was sitting at a long seminar table in a room much like the one where I taught Feminist Methodology last spring. The students—about half a dozen seemed to be there—would not obey me. They kept moving around uncomfortably in their chairs, indicating with their body language they wished to be elsewhere. They were physically writhing away from me. I wanted their attention to focus on our topic of discussion, but that was impossible. Disrespect for me emanated from all their body motions, and I woke up in a sweat. That was how I felt in many of the classes during the second half of the quarter.

The day we discussed class dynamics, I took medication before the class session, as I had before my earlier class that day, not thinking much about it except that I wanted to avoid a migraine headache and I wanted not to be at a loss for words. I told the students that in light of recent events, I wanted to check on how they were feeling about our class. Yet as the discussion proceeded, I felt emotionally absent. I felt I was saying proper-sounding words and keeping up a good humor in response to the students' comments, but my medication had smoothed things out so I did not feel any pain, even when the discussion became difficult for me. I remember asking several students, at the break, whether they were learning enough, seeking to locate the undergraduate who had complained to the chair, but failing to find her. At the end of class, after the students had traded papers with each other and planned their subgroup meetings for the next week, they fled. I was suddenly in a startlingly


empty classroom. I wished someone had stayed around to talk with me. I felt that none of the students wanted to be seen speaking with me. The one student who did want to talk came back into the building later, after the others had gone.

That was the sixth week of the term. The newspaper article had not yet appeared (it would come out the next day), but the students in my class knew about it. The male graduate student had consulted with some of them when he wrote his letter, and I had mentioned his letter in class to prepare them. The session during which we discussed our class dynamics merges in my mind with later sessions, all of them emotionally painful for me to recall. In those class meetings, I had difficulty speaking with the students. I felt, increasingly, that they did not want to hear from me and that what I would say to them would be wrong. In recalling the start of my discomfort that week, I can see the students who were sitting across the table from me. There was tension in their voices and I lost a sense of connection with them when they spoke. Something was amiss but I did not know what it was.

At the beginning of the discussion, one woman who sat across from me spoke in a friendly and reasonable-sounding way. She was one of the graduate students in the woman dean's seminar, although at the time I did not know that. She spoke as if trying to lead the discussion, or trying to be a peacemaker (yet where there is no war, one does not need to make peace; that was the level of subtlety involved). This woman proposed that the students talk to each other more, rather than addressing their comments to me. I could enter the discussion here and there, she said, so that I would not feel invisible, but the students should be responding to each other. I remember feeling grateful to her. Her statement was one of the few in the whole discussion that acknowledged that I had feelings.

After a while, one undergraduate said she felt frustrated. How could she, a middle-class white woman with no experience other than her own, do research about anyone else? I thought her problem might stem from her having anthropology as a major, because in that field, research was being criticized as an imposition of the powerful on the less powerful. It did not occur to me that her frustration might be related to my having said no to the male graduate student weeks earlier. Not much of


what was said in the discussion of class dynamics that day seemed related to my refusal of him. It seemed primarily about my interactions with my class. During that session, I remember feeling I had to be silent. Looking in the direction of the clock on the opposite wall, I thought, "All they are saying is they want to talk to each other. Why am I feeling there is something wrong with me, that they are telling me I cannot be trusted to teach them?"

I was hurt more by the students in my class who challenged my assignments, wanted to ignore my presence, and increasingly protected themselves against me, than I was by any of the others—the faculty, the male graduate student, the press. I think this was because teaching, for me, is about being valued by students. It is about having whatever is me rub off on them. It is about being acceptable. Now, suddenly, the students were saying, "We don't want to have much to do with you. We will say we value the assignments you give us, and that we value each other, but we won't say we value you." I have never felt so tainted.

By the end of the quarter, my class seemed to be a headless monster—a group without a teacher, or with a teacher but no one much liked the idea of her. The students met in subgroups outside the class every two weeks. By the ninth week, some of them proposed they would rather have met mostly among themselves during the quarter and limited their time in the larger class with me. In the first half of the quarter, students had come to my office hours excited about what they might do in the course; in the second half, they stopped coming. Those who came—and only when I asked them to—seemed not to want to talk with me much. The graduate students responded warily when I asked them how they felt about course issues, or about how the course fit in their lives. In class, similarly, my questions aimed at helping the students speak about their emotional responses to the readings and research got guarded and limited answers from most. My questions about how the students felt about my own work also received limited answers. The students were reading a book manuscript I had just finished and I had told them I needed positive responses, but it seemed increasingly hard for them to give me any. At the start of the quarter, I had thought there were several lesbians in the class. One of them, who had proposed to do


research on the subject of lesbianism, dropped it. Another never revealed her gay identity to me, even in private.

I think, over time, I became a symbol of something the students in my class wished to avoid, a woman they wished not to be like. When they turned in their final papers, several of the graduate students included a parting shot aimed at me: "I can't say I enjoyed the class sessions," one wrote. "I have never been in a class where the teacher talked so much about her feelings." Another said, "Although this has been a course about feminist methodology in research, I would not call our class feminist. There was no equality. The teacher had all the power." Such critical comments helped me to identify those graduate students who had taken the seminar with the woman dean. The judgmental tone used in their statements seemed to come from somewhere other than my course. I hated to read the negative comments in the students' final papers. However, I could not fail to notice that, for the first time, some of the students were speaking directly about what had gone wrong and telling me I was it. They were doing this in writing and at a time when they could expect not to see me again, but they were attempting an analysis and they were articulating a discomfort I also felt, although my explanation for why the discomfort occurred differed from theirs.


I decided, in the end, that the key word that helped me understand the situation was "vulnerability." I tried to explain this to some of the students in comments on their final papers, hoping they would eventually understand. I still wanted to reach them, even when the class was over. I wanted them to see that they had been unfair to me and, more importantly, to understand why. I wanted to offer an explanation other than one that found me faulty as a teacher, or that saw our class dynamics as flawed because of my personality, lack of self-confidence, focus on feelings, or whatever traits the criticisms pointed to. My own explanation was more contextual.

First, I think I was vulnerable because I was a lesbian. When a lesbian says no to a man, even if in a public situation (she does not want him in


her class), the question is raised in people's minds: is she doing this because she hates men and does not want them in her bed, or is there a good reason for it? Thus her motives are suspect more than is usual. A lesbian is also vulnerable because when she says no publicly to a single man, she dramatizes her lack of solidarity with all men, a facet of her experience normally hidden in her private life. Saying no to men, or showing disregard for the importance of her ties with men, the lesbian seems alone and unprotected. It is expected that men will take offense at her and that she will not get the support she needs—the support necessary to advance in a university, for instance. A lesbian is vulnerable, in addition, because when people say or think "lesbian," they think "sex" and they think "woman," and suddenly they have, in their minds, undressed the individual and become intimate with her. Being a lesbian thus calls attention to one's female vulnerability. Acting butch, or acting like a man—as some lesbians do and as I, in part, do—is a way a woman can cover her vulnerability, thus making it harder for the outside world to invade, or to take advantage of her.

I think I was also vulnerable because women are expected to be open to others and especially to men, who are assumed to need them. What is expected of a woman extends to the teaching of a feminist course, or a course focusing on women. These courses are viewed as soft, available, womanlike, as ideal environments in which all needs are met, that are taught by caring, goddesslike women. To close the door of such a course in the face of a man is to do an entirely different thing than to close the door of an advanced physics course to someone whose closest prerequisite is geography. To give as one's reason, as I did, that the man is unprepared, or even hostile, does not make much sense when the important fact is that the man is being denied access to a woman, and that this denial of access is considered unacceptable. After the man is refused, the course gets scrutinized more than another course might because with feminist courses, as with women, it is assumed that everyone has a right to see them, to expose them, to make them as fully available as possible.

Finally, in addition to being a lesbian and a woman teaching a course on women, I was vulnerable because I was a lecturer. It seems to me that


I was less respected, and more interfered with, than other women with higher status who were involved with this incident—the woman dean, the chair, other senior women faculty. No one can prove this one way or another, but there is a distinct possibility that none of the public questioning and challenging I received after saying no to the male student would have occurred were I a full professor. People with status, or those who have no experience with status injuries, might not think this true, however. To them, I was probably more vulnerable because I was a woman than because of my lack of institutional status, and indeed the two are related, compounding each other.

Add to these some other facts: that I was vulnerable because I was teaching a course emphasizing the personal aspects of research, often considered soft and female; because I drew primarily on my own experience to teach it (rather than on external expertise); because I do relatively unconventional work for a sociologist; and because I apparently do not look like a very well-protected person. Much as I try to look like a man for protection, I do not really succeed. To others, I often look as if I do not have a hard shell, or enough of a shell, a condition I think I live with more safely than others suppose. However, the students in my class were not likely to know this, or it was not what mattered. When they looked at me, they saw vulnerability and they saw that I was attacked—by the male student, the woman dean, other women faculty, other students in my class—and they did not want to be like me. They did not want to be as easily hurt, or to be as unprotected in the academic world or within themselves.

One can, of course, side with a vulnerable woman who is attacked—but if one is insecure oneself, and inexperienced, and if one feels very unprotected, the response can instead be aggression and withdrawal. Fear of their own vulnerability affected the students in my class very centrally, I think, because the system we were in did not value the unprotected. It was a milieu of many strategies for allying with those perceived to be powerful and for camouflaging one's own insecurities. When I spoke to the students in my class about my own vulnerability, and about the degree to which the negative responses to my saying no undermined me and caused me pain, it did not relieve the situation or


help the students to feel close to me, as I would have hoped. Why side with this woman who speaks about her pain? Who wants such pain? they must have felt. Mine was an easy class to take a swipe at, with big effect. It was an easy class in which to capitalize on the students' potential for identifying with an aggressor. Nonetheless, some of the students felt the aggressor was me—I gave grades, I had brought all this on. Yet if I had all the power some of them thought I did, I would have given us a better experience.

During the quarter, several of the undergraduates in the class said they were glad I had said no to the male graduate student. They would not have wanted to engage him. The one graduate student who whole-heartedly supported me wrote in her final paper: "The newspaper is interested in X's story, not mine." One of the undergraduates wrote: "I am sorry that negative consequences resulted for Susan over denying permission to X because, perhaps for the first time, I felt my needs as a woman were being looked out for." The campus women's newspaper, published the last day of the quarter, carried an editorial in support of my decision, saying it was important for women students to have classes where the legitimacy of studying women was not questioned. One of the undergraduates in my class was a member of the paper's collective. The statements by these students in support of my decision were rare and they touched me.

Despite our difficulties, throughout the term the students in my class wrote emotionally moving, candid weekly papers about their research and writing. They spoke in the first person, expressed their feelings, and discussed troubles they had in acknowledging themselves in their work. I would read their papers and think, Everything is all right. Then I would go into the classroom the next week and the feelings expressed in the papers would seem bottled up, as if it was easier for many of the students to speak privately in writing than publicly in class discussion. I think the students must have learned something valuable to them in our course, and probably they were less upset by its failures than I was. But the failures and hurts were real, although often hidden.

When I think back on what I could have done differently, I think it might have helped if, early on and continually, I had talked at length


with my class about our problem—my saying no to the male student and the responses, especially the responses within each of us. If we, as a class, could have talked about it—and it would have taken talking again and again at the expense of discussing the course assignments—maybe that would have helped. However, it seemed wrong to me at the time to let the trouble of the situation focus our attention; it seemed too vague and too big a trouble, and I was not feeling on good enough terms with my class to lead such a discussion. I did receive important support from the few people close to me during the quarter, and I am not sure what a lot more support would do. It has occurred to me, however, that a woman in a position like the one I was in needs a great deal of encouragement for her right to act on her own, and for her individual value, far more so than it would seem. It might also help for people, in general, to know how sensitive is the central unit of a class, how easily affected the teacher and students can be when the teacher is attacked.

I am left speaking of my experience afterward, seeking to share it in the hope that someone else will be able to deal with an event such as my saying no to this male student better than I did, or to experience it with less guilt, or less pain.[2] My class and I did not act together to form a deliberate response to our experience. We were together only in being undermined by it. We were divided, pitted one against another, and estranged often from one another.

At the start of the quarter, after the students had done their first week's readings and papers, they took turns going around the table, speaking of what they felt they had found in our course. This was to be an ideal class for them, the perfect class, useful for their futures and for each person in an intimate way. Perhaps it was useful in the end as a dramatization of some usually hidden pressures in a university, especially the pressures on women to ally with men. For me, it was a hard lesson about my own vulnerability as a teacher. My saying no to one man had many unsettling effects. It stimulated fears in other women and in myself, and caused others to question my judgment. I then confronted a situation in which respect for women's independence was not the norm, where women were easily turned against one another, and where the fragility of female relationships was easily undermined. To


say no to a man is often a necessary act, and, as often, extremely difficult. Saying yes to women stands on the other side of that refusal. It seems to me important to say no to men, when needed, in order to protect the space of female intimacy. Only then can what is in the female space begin to be explored.


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