I’m sick of learning from old white men

Sunday, November 8, 2020 - 1:31pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

This week, I was on a Zoom call listening to one of my professors drone on about Sinclair Lewis, when I realized that every single professor I have this semester is a white man.

The realization wasn’t totally abrupt — it crossed my mind before. Last semester, I remember thinking that it seemed disproportionate how many white professors I had, but it was never an issue I’d spent much time investigating. This week, after hearing my white, male professor talk about how a white man author was “kind of racist, but still worth reading,” I got fed up and decided to look at the statistics.

I started with my classes from this semester. I went down the list. History, yes. English, yes. Philosophy, yes. Creative writing, yes. The only instructor of color I have this semester is the discussion leader for my history class, and I have no female instructors. Last semester was the same: white male professors only.

Then I busted out my records — screenshots of old class schedules, Canvas archives — and realized that in almost four years at the University of Michigan, I’ve had only three professors who weren’t white men: Two were white women, one was an Asian man. In my major courses, every single one of my professors was a white man. I’ve never taken a single class with a professor who was a woman of color, or with any professor of an underrepresented minority.

Maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise to me: academia is, and always has been, dominated by white men. This disparity can be worse in some fields than others. For example, disciplines like women’s studies and sociology tend to have better representation of women than fields like mathematics or physics, which are particularly gender-stratified. My own major, philosophy, is one such subject area

Of course, many universities, including the University, are aware of this disparity. But even when efforts are made to fix the diversity gap, changes often come at the level of lower faculty, diversifying non-professorship before professor appointments and adjunct positions before tenure or tenure-track jobs. For example, the front page of the University’s diversity statistics touts a faculty and staff composed of 44% women and 26% ethnic minorities, numbers at least somewhat close to representative of the U.S.’s general population (which is composed of 51% women and 40% ethnic minorities). 

But the numbers for diversity among professors lags behind faculty and staff diversity as a whole. An in-depth report in 2019 showed 73% of all professors are men, and though 23% are racial or ethnic minorities, only around 8% belong to underrepresented minorities, a crucial distinction to make. The term “racial or ethnic minorities” generally refers to people belonging to racial or ethnic groups which are not the majority group in their societies — in the U.S., this means non-white groups. However, underrepresented minorities refers to people who are disproportionately excluded from a setting or field — in this case, academia. At the University, that includes people who identify as Black or Hispanic/Latinx, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders — groups which collectively compose a full third of the U.S.'s population. Another University site said 49% of the University’s tenure-track faculty are white men as of 2018.

This may be, in part, due to the built-in delays in the tenure system which prevent older professors from being replaced. Once a professor receives tenure, it’s very difficult to fire them. More and more professors are working past the standard retirement age, resulting in an aging workforce that, due to historic disparities in hiring, remains primarily composed of white men.

But regardless of the reasons behind it, it’s still a problem. Firstly, a lack of representation in higher education can be discouraging for minority students and female students. When diverse students don’t see themselves reflected in their teachers, they can feel dissuaded from pursuing a particular field of study or pursuing post-graduate education. They can also often struggle to connect with professors. Young women and people of color may feel less comfortable speaking to older white men than their white peers. This can become a barrier to education, but it can also limit networking opportunities or the growth of mentor-mentee relationships, which can lead to letters of recommendation down the line.

LSA junior Sophia Raines, an African American woman, described this phenomenon in a phone interview.

“It takes me a while to feel more comfortable with (white male professors) than I think it would if I were a white person,” she said. “I’m in a lot of writing classes, and when I write my script, I think they definitely tend to be more (written from) my perspective as a Black woman and my identity, and so I usually am very wary of what the professors have to say and kind of more on guard with them.”

There’s also the issue of content. White male professors may be less likely to teach material from or about women and people of color. Take, for instance, an English class I’m enrolled in this semester. Taught by a white man, the syllabus includes 13 authors that we’ll read in depth. Of those 13 authors, nine are white men, three are white women and only a single author is a man of color. Research has shown that white male professors are less likely than their diverse peers to assign readings by diverse authors. Even when professors try to diversify their syllabuses, it’s often with one of a few oft-cited women or minority voices. It will probably come as no shock that the single author of color in my English class is William Carlos Williams — a very popular author whose work is often taught in both high school and college.

There’s also the fact that white men teach content differently than women and people of color — they teach from a white man’s perspective. This reinforces the structuring of knowledge on their terms and allows the view of the white man to become the baseline which other perspectives are seen as branching off of.

The predominance of white male professors can also lead to specific problems when discussing issues of gender and race. For example, earlier this semester, I remember one of my professors commented admiringly on a book saying that, “this author is one of my favorites, because his women characters read like real people, which was not common at the time.” I heard that and thought: is that it? Is that really where we’re putting the bar: that women are written about as “real people”? If that’s truly the standard by which we define great books, it seems like we should read more books by women with more realistic women characters.

And that’s a relatively benign example of the bias of white men: others can become much more problematic. In our interview, Raines also recounted in a phone interview an incident that occurred in a history of film class taught by a white man. 

“There was this one instance, we were talking about … this movie called ‘The Jazz Singer, (which is) about minstrelsy and the guy puts on blackface to become a minstrel performer,” Raines said. “And the professor … he goes cursorily over the movie, but he doesn’t talk about those elements, and I felt that it was a little problematic. And I said something in the chat (on Zoom), and he sent an email out saying he saw what we put in the Zoom chat and wasn’t delighted by that and wanted us to read this article that discusses the film and what cultural work it does. And I was like, ‘cultural work?’” 

Raines explained that the next day, they had a discussion about it in her class. “(I said) I think it’s important to acknowledge that this movie is inherently racist. And he kept throwing out questions and more, like, discursive topics, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to discuss it. I just want you to admit that this film is racist.’” 

These issues are problems across the board, from humanities classes to STEM courses. For my part, I’m tired of reading about history from a white man’s perspective. I’m tired of my philosophy syllabuses containing readings solely by long-dead white men. I’m tired of having feminist ethics explained to me by professors who are white men. I’m tired of GSIs having to correct the textbook in discussion because it’s 20 years out of date and implicitly biased, like my anthropology GSI who had to explain how the hunter-gatherer framework is outdated. I’m tired of learning from professors, class after class, semester after semester, who don’t look or think like me. 

The tenure system makes this a problem that can’t be quickly or easily fixed. Though the solution is simple — more diverse professors, fewer white men — it can be difficult to implement. So, professors: I know you can’t change your race or gender, but please, if you haven’t already, diversify your syllabuses. Incorporate the perspectives of women and people of color as primary sources of information rather than as an addendum to the views of white men. Consider bringing in guest lecturers who can actually speak from diverse perspectives. And if students raise concerns about the inclusivity of your lectures, for the love of God, please listen.

In the meantime, students, especially students who are white or men and thus privileged, need to push for greater diversification of their curriculums alongside diversification of professorships. The University responds to feedback — slowly, perhaps, and maybe only out of concern for their reputation, but they do respond.


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