A very good-looking male friend of mine from a Southern Spanish university tells me that, to his deep chagrin and mortification, a student (male or female he doesn’t know), mentioned his biceps –oh my God!– as the strongest point of the English Studies BA degree for which he teaches. (Yes, we teachers gossip all the time about what students say or do… just as you, students, gossip about us. Obviously…).
This comment on his biceps came up in a questionnaire run by the students themselves and was not made public, nor is it reflected in the questionnaire itself. However, rumours about this peculiar answer soon were rife among my friend’s colleagues and students leading to all those inevitable jokes. And worries, indeed. Under cover of anonymity some students may be enticed to write boutades they would never express publicly, yet this student’s opinion is worrying in that this person did not really respect the work of his/her own peers, much less the teacher himself.
In any English Studies BA degree the proportion of men to women is around 20%, or less. This means that, inevitably, male teachers are on the spotlight much more noticeably than female teachers as potential erotic objects (of the platonic kind or otherwise), particularly the attractive ones. I say particularly because I know very well that totally unattractive male teachers may become truly handsome in the eyes of some female (and male) students by virtue of their intellectual allure.
This doesn’t happen to us, women. No matter how sexy and intelligent a female teacher can be, I know of no case in which they have been the object of a male student’s interest. I am by no means saying that this would be desirable, rather the other way round: that male teachers should ideally be seen also with the neutral, detached eyes male students consider us with.
Why’s that? Well, think of my good-looking friend, still young enough to be a potential actual ‘romantic’ partner for a girl aged 18-23. Now think of what it is like to be on the platform addressing a class of mainly female students who are paying more attention to his biceps than to his lectures (I’m not excluding gay male students, of course). This is embarrassing and distracting for the male teacher, who only wants to be appreciated because of his academic qualities.
For me, this is what should count in how a teacher, male of female, is assessed: not the looks, nor the chances to get a pass mark easily. In every Department the top-ranking teacher should always be not the most popular for looks or charm, but the most solid one academically speaking.
As you can imagine, this is what bothers my good-looking friend: every time he comes top of his Department in students’ surveys, he worries himself sick that his good looks have done the trick again, while his efforts to offer good teaching pass unnoticed. He does not mean by ‘good teaching’ just ‘nice’ teaching, of the kind that makes the time in class pass by quickly. He means serious, demanding teaching of the kind that makes students be a little bit in awe of the teacher but finally appreciate the hard work done with him (or her).
So… ironically, he tells me, very few female teachers have ever made it to the top ranks of students’ preferences even though, as he stresses, 80% of these students are women. This is also something to consider. In an ideal world, gender issues should not apply to teacher-students relationships but I’m learning that they do in more ways that I had thought of.
I mean that although I am aware that serious romantic relationships have come out of many classrooms (and also quite a few more questionable liaisons), I had missed the problems that male teachers face as such. And I mean here teachers that stress the point that they’re not available at all but remain nonetheless the object of some students erotic musings (um, platonic or not).
I’m not jealous, not at all, in the sense that I would not like to be appreciated for … whatever stands out in my body (or not). I’m irrationally jealous, however, that as an ageing female teacher I cannot compete in popularity with good-looking male teachers like my friend, whether he wishes himself out of that absurd competition or not. Um, and there are some indeed in my Department!!
Well, there’s nothing either of us can do. My friend, I’m sure, will try to wear less revealing shirts and I’ll dress as nicely as I can considering my age, status and audience. Hopefully, we will all be judged fairly for how we teach not how we look. And no, I have never given high marks to a student just for being male of for looking good…