Many students have reported finding my classes on food and nutrition “life-changing”. They leave them motivated to create meals that are both healthier and more sustainable. In my favourite compliment ever, I was called a “rock star”. Such humbling responses have provided a deep sense of professional and personal gratification.
But I have also been subject to the usual sexist comments on my clothing and questions about my qualifications that many female professors receive – especially those in science. Most of these I learn about from student evaluations or anonymous surveys that continue to be used to rank professors and courses despite mountains of evidence showing that bias invariably results in women and people of colour receiving lower ratings.
Moreover, such surveys are just one of the ways that today’s student-consumers are encouraged to complain about professors. In one particularly heartbreaking case, I learned that I had been reported to my university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion for racism.
This was a first in my 20-plus years of teaching. I was flabbergasted, yet eager to understand what had happened, seek forgiveness and move on, wiser for wear. However, despite my repeated requests, the details were never revealed.
After countless hours racking my brain, I concluded that it must have been a microaggression, possibly when I mentioned that some students “looked Chinese”. Many students in my classes hail from China, and my aim had been to draw them into the conversation and avoid the common dominance of US classrooms by one or two students, often (white) Americans. But perhaps “looked” was the wrong word choice, my (Indian American) husband offered.
Maybe my fault had been something different.
But without any discussion, I was ousted from a course that I had developed and honed for more than a decade – and that had won copious praise and a teaching award. It was given instead to a male colleague who lacks both my scholarship and experience in the subject. In an unplanned experiment, he was also criticised for a teaching point we had each independently made in separate lectures regarding food technology: a native Alaskan student erroneously claimed that canning had been used in the state long before it was used in Europe.
This complex vortex of race/ethnicity and gender issues provoked a deep crisis of faith about my teaching abilities and the academy as a whole. I was left to contemplate the crucial question alone: Am I a racist?
I concluded that the only honest answer is yes. I am white. I am also human, ergo flawed. Microaggressions – defined by Columbia University psychology professor Derald Wing Sue as “brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of colour by well-intentioned white people” – are abundant on the internet, in universities and elsewhere.
Yet what if the perception of a microaggression is rooted in its own microaggression? After all, students have their own stereotypes about professors. And humans often place their previous experiences into the present through what the father of analytical psychiatry, Carl Jung, called transference. Social psychology can also be revealing, as can emotional reasoning, in which feelings rather than facts guide interpretations.
While emotions are authentic, they are subjective, so may not reflect objective reality (to the extent that it exists). In their 2015 Atlantic article “The Coddling of the American Mind”, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that “the increased focus on microaggression coupled with the endorsement of emotional reasoning is a formula for a constant state of outrage, even toward well-intentioned speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion”.
Is it victim-blaming to consider the possibility that a student’s race/ethnicity impacts their view of facts, allowing them to misperceive an invitation to inclusion as a racist comment rooted in exclusion? Or that a student might be clouded by their own narrative, and hence unwilling to “learn, unlearn and relearn”? And might the genders of both professor and student play a role in how comments are received?
Still, any perceived microaggression must be examined, beginning with a professor’s words and context, particularly where power dynamics are involved. Any professor worth their salt must therefore seriously consider student comments: many have instructive kernels of truth. But inferring a professor’s worth based on the perceptions of a minuscule minority over two decades is not reasonable. Anecdotes are insufficient data upon which to draw a meaningful conclusion. Establishing whether they are representative would require years of data, with an adequate sample size and variability and a diverse set of valid tools, the most valuable of which would be direct observation of teaching: virtually unheard of in university settings.
Losing my class has left me with deep scars, and that’s the way it should be. It is the ongoing questioning of our actions that is the foundation of a woke society. I will continue to reflect earnestly on my character, ever attentive to how I impact people in the classroom and elsewhere, including unintentionally, in an ongoing journey to become the best person I can be. And so should we all – especially those whose practices and policies are rooted in white hegemony.
But I nonetheless mourn that another female scientist has been lost from the leaky pipeline, denying my students the benefit of a strong teacher, mentor, role model and advocate, in a world where more are sorely needed. And I’m certain that giving my life’s work to a white male was not the right choice.
P. K. Newby is a scientist and author of Food and Nutrition: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2018). She is also an adjunct associate professor of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health.