The Female Body at the Front of the Room

I found myself at the front of a college classroom for the first time in 2005. I’d just begun my teaching assistantship for a Master’s program, and in the pre-semester teacher training, the first advice I was given by my teaching mentor was to wear make-up. “You look young and you are young,” she said. “Many of them will not respect you. They’ll try to treat you like a friend. You have to build boundaries and authority immediately.” Clearly that couldn’t be the case, I thought. I mean, we were well into third wave feminism. Wasn’t the fact that I knew what I was talking about and was at the front of the room enough? I wanted to make a good impression though, and following directions in a new job is paramount. The weekend before the semester started, I went to the New York & Co in the town’s small mall, applied for a store credit card, and charged two pairs of dress slacks, three button down shirts, a black blazer, a cardigan, and a modest dress. I went to Walgreens and bought new mascara, a Revlon palette of three colors that were supposed to bring out the green in my eyes, and a tube of lipstick. On the first day of class, I wore my new clothes, my new make-up, and a pair of black heels I’d bought the previous year for my grandfather’s funeral. I looked like I was going to a job interview.

A few moments before official class time, buttoning and straightening the front of my blazer, I looked out at the 24 faces in neatly aligned desks, their expressions a mixture of expectation, fear, and apathy, and felt nervousness take residence in my chest. As everyone began settling in, I walked across the scarred vinyl flooring, the clacking from my heels echoing against the walls of the room, black marker in hand, poised to write my name on the white board, when I caught my reflection in the clean glass of the window to my left. I froze, momentarily paralyzed by a flashback of “Ms. Poetry” and the eerie resemblance reflected in the window.


The first poetry class I ever took was in my sophomore year of college. I was a psych major, slinging coffee part time at two cafes, and all I knew about contemporary poetry (reading and writing it) came from the very little I was exposed to in high school (mostly dead white people, mostly men), listening to Peter Everwine and another old dude Valley artist talk at one of the cafés where I worked (where Peter was a regular), and occasionally attending the Fresno Poet’s Association readings at the art museum, where I had seen a handful of Fresno State’s creative writing faculty read.

Upon entering my first poetry writing class, I was expecting something like the passionate conversations through smoke and coffee I overheard at work, and I was expecting the writer-teacher at the front of the room to look like Peter Everwine or Charles Hanzlechek, or better yet, Corrine Hales. I was picturing a sort of distinguished (in a Cali poet kind of way) down-to-earth jeans and sandal-wearing, not made-up, intellectual hippie. Instead when I walked into the classroom, there was a professionally dressed 20-something fresh out of her MFA program made-up like she was heading after class to a business meeting and then cocktails at The Daily Planet. Her hair was styled with mousse – honest to goodness mousse – creating perfect loose shoulder-length ringlets framing skin foundation, eye-liner, three color-layered eye shadow, expert-looking mascara, lipstick, and bright-patterned fake nails. The works.

Because it was an intro class, it consisted mostly of sophomores and juniors from a wide range of majors, most of whom had never formally studied poetry. Once we were all sitting, Ms.—let’s call her Ms. Poetry, for the sake of anonymity (and my spotty memory for names, she definitely insisted on being called Ms., that I’m clear on) handed us what at the time seemed like an insanely long syllabus (three whole pages!) and insisted on going over every detail regarding a strict attendance policy and grading practices. We left that first class not having discussed any poetry.

I was, to say the least, disappointed. This was not what a poetry class was supposed to be. I hadn’t taken one, but I had watched Dead Poets Society. I’d seen interviews with beat poets. This woman didn’t look like the representations of poets I’d encountered. She was too young. She cared too much about her appearance. “How much time and money does she spend to look that way?” I complained to another would-be writer that night while wiping down patio tables at work. “How does she have any time left to write?” And worst of all, she was too formal and strict, making us call her Ms. “And I bet she doesn’t even have a book,” the other would-be writer said, taking a pretentious drag from his clove cigarette.

Even though this wasn’t the poetry class I’d dreamed of, it still counted as an elective, and my interest in poetry kept growing. I’m also not a quitter; if I start something, you can be sure I’ll finish it. The more I disliked the class, the harder I worked. And wow, did I dislike that class. On top of what I saw as all her aesthetic wrongness, the assignments were hard. Each week we read about forty poems and had to take a first lines test. Ms. Poetry would hand out a Xerox copy with two columns, one with the names of the poets we’d read and in the other, first lines from poems. She was even tricky, including extra first lines and/or authors’ names, ones that we hadn’t been assigned, to make it so there wasn’t the possibility of easily deducing half the list. I did terribly on the first handful of tests.

Some time into the semester, with the keen wisdom of my freshly minted 19 years, I came to the conclusion that Ms. Poetry was just trying too damn hard. She rarely joked around and almost never made small talk. She never spoke emotionally about the poems; we didn’t talk about how beautiful they were or how they made us feel. It was like poetry had become science or a math problem. We looked at numbers and poems became equations: numbers of lines to numbers of syllables. Number of stanzas to number of stresses. To our way of thinking – mine and a few other brash, wrong-headed “arteests” from class – she was clearly overcompensating for not being that great of a writer. It was the only answer that made any sense at the time.


And there I was, five years later, wearing the uniform of so many female instructors, designed to mute youth and inexperience, looking like I was going on a job interview. What I learned in that semester of teaching, and what continues to be reinforced all these years later, is that it was a job interview. When you are a woman—especially if you are a young woman, a woman of size, or a woman of color—every new class is starting over to work against the centuries of stereotypes perpetuated by Western patriarchy. As I like to remind my students who say that we live in a post-feminist society (I mean, gosh, we have a female professor), it has not even been 100 years since woman gained the right to vote. There are women alive who remember not being allowed to own property, or having no legal recourse to fight sexual harassment (sadly still a very current problem). There are female professors who remember being the only woman in a college class, or the token woman hired in their department.

According to a study in Scientific American, in 2010 49% of PhDs awarded in the U.S. went to women[1]. This is just slightly lower than the number of women earning undergraduate degrees, which creeps over the halfway mark. These numbers have remained steady into 2015, and in fact, a study in 2014 found that women who went to college were 21% more likely to graduate[2]. This same study points out that women have successfully risen to just about half of the overall U.S. workforce. While these numbers are heartening, they do not account for the fact that women in traditionally male jobs (which, I guess, is most jobs?) still earn only 78% of what men with the same level of educational in the same position earn.

For those of us working in academics, the numbers are less hopeful. A 2013 study found that in the U.S. while women “held nearly half (48.4%) of all tenure-track positions” they held only 37.5% of tenured positions[3]. Women were also found to comprise almost 60% of non-tenure line instructor positions (you know, the ones that pay so much less and have minimal job security). And should you be one of the lucky women to make it into a tenure-track faculty job, a 2012 study done at the University of Southern California revealed that 92% of white male faculty were awarded tenure, while only 55% of women and minority faculty were.

On the day I graduated from the PhD program at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, as all of us nervous, exhausted, and happy soon-to-not-be grad students stood in a long hallway waiting for the ceremony to begin, one of my mentors, Dr. Amelia Montes, took me and two other graduating “minority” English PhD students—one of color and one queer—aside. She looked us each in the eyes, told us how proud she was, and reminded us how monumental it was for those of us from underrepresented groups to make it all the way through. Statistically our success rates in post-baccalaureate degrees is in the single digits. At the time, it was all I could do swallow the lump in my throat, because in that moment she validated what had been the mantra I repeated to myself over and over every time the microaggressions were building to macro-level, or some seemingly insurmountable obstacle arose: don’t quit, there should be more of us.

Going through both graduate programs, I knew many students from working-class backgrounds, women, and students of color who dropped out or just stopped once they were ABD. From the outside, it’s easy to judge them for not finishing what they started, but frankly, the process is fucking hard. Not just the kind of hard it is for all graduate students: difficult classes, becoming a better writer, dealing with rejection, being challenged and pushing the limits of your reasoning; I mean it’s hard to be the only one like you in the room. It’s hard to be the only person in a class interested in the type of literature or subject you’re researching, the only writer trying to articulate issues of ethnic identity and poverty. It’s hard to be the only person (or one of few) whose parents aren’t academics, artists, medical doctors, or in the white-collar sector. Whose parents didn’t go to college. To be the person who was too busy taking extra shifts to spend spring breaks catching up on sleep or traveling.

In a 2013 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, Latin@ faculty, at all rank levels, was below 10%. The highest number being “Instructor” at 7% and the lowest, “Professor,” at 3%[4]. That’s all Latin@s. I’m not even getting into the numbers regarding socio-economics, gender and sexuality, and first generation students (which many Latin@s still are). I am a mestiza Chicana, half first-generation college student from a working-class background. There’s like a point zero zero some number likelihood for me to actually have those symbolic letters after my name. And it is this lack of visibility that is in part responsible for the terrible way that female instructors and professors, particularly women of color, are treated.

That first semester I taught, and in the succeeding semesters of my career as an instructor, male students openly defied my instructions in the class. Female and male students argued with the grades I gave, saying that I was unreasonable and unfair. Male students stepped into my space, got in my face and tried to physically intimidate me. I was routinely hit on. Students of all sexes used their end of semester evaluations to comment on my clothing, whether they liked my shoes, how I wore my hair, my lack of “nurturing.” Near the end of that first semester, walking through the hall toward my office, I overheard a group of students complaining about one of my colleagues I knew to be an experienced teacher finishing up her PhD. “She probably doesn’t even know what she’s talking about. She doesn’t even care about the way she looks,” they said, criticizing her for not being “professional” because she wore dark jeans and black polo shirts—basically the same outfit many of the male instructors wore, though I’d never heard anyone comment on their appearance.

Now, almost fifteen years since I took that first poetry class, I am myself teaching poetry writing and literature at a university; I am handing out very long syllabi with detailed attendance policies and lecturing on the proper way to cite lines of poetry in an explication. I am emphatically insisting on the use of my educational title, because if I don’t, students default to Mrs. or my first name (despite the myriad places it is made clear that I have a doctorate). I too am not wearing jeans or sandals, and while I’m not nearly as made-up (just not my thing), I do start every semester wearing make-up so I can meet the students looking stereotypically professional. It’s not that I don’t know that some students won’t care, or that I think I “have to” (or that I think anyone else should). At this early point in my career, I just find it easier in the long-run of the semester to begin this way—as normative and traditional looking as a Chicana in the classroom can manage—to circumvent all the most basic, knee-jerk visual criticism until I’ve established my academic and topical expertise.

As a youngish Visiting Assistant Professor trying to move forward in my career, I sometimes wonder what happened with Ms. Poetry’s career, and wish I could find her to apologize for my ignorance. It wasn’t that I was ever mean to her or openly defied her authority in the room, but like many students, I had unrealistic and dangerously misinformed ideas about what a professor looks like and how they should act. Even as a young woman who already identified as a feminist, I judged her by old-school, patriarchal standards and “artsy” criteria I’d created based on limited information and over-simplified second-wave feminist stereotypes. It’s not just the openly misogynistic students contributing to the prejudicial treatment of women and writers/scholars of color. Students and fellow faculty (even those experiencing marginalization) all need to take time to check and recheck their privileges and prejudices. Even when kept in the quiet of students and colleagues’ hearts, those assumptions affect what information is transmitted and how it is interpreted. Even though in retrospect I know I learned a lot from Ms. Poetry’s class, I wonder if my mind had been open, would I have learned more? If I could have—if we all had—accepted her presence and presentation without resistance, what kind of rich classroom environment might that have fostered?





28b2a782-ba4e-4baa-b93c-d3a9c6886f54Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), a selection of which won the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship (2013). Her manuscript, This, Like So Much, was an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Contest. Her debut full-length poetry collection, Hands That Break & Scar, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications (2017). She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in the anthologies Political Punch: The Politics of Identity and Bared: An Anthology on Bras and Breasts, as well as the journals North American Review, Acentos Review, North Dakota Quarterly, andThe Boiler Journal, among others. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor teaching Ethnic American literature and creative writing at Marshall University. She is also the interim coordinator for the A.E. Stringer Visiting Writers Series and a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.