Dear Mentor: To bake or not to bake?

Dear Mentor,

I read an article giving advice to junior faculty women that said the following: "You don’t gain respect for your scholarship, or your authority, by baking. So don’t be the one to bring in home-baked treats for your students." But isn't telling me not to bake for my class like telling me to teach like a man would? (If a man would never bake for his class, then I shouldn't do it.) But what if I like baking and it makes me happy to bake for my class? Then am I not just teaching like me? What are your thoughts?

from mentor Audrey Bowden

As a junior faculty woman in a male-dominated field and department, I can certainly appreciate the article’s suggestion to refrain from stereotypical female behaviors. The idea here is not necessarily that you are being asked to “teach like a man,” but that 1) baking is not related to teaching, so this advice is not really saying something about how you should teach, and 2) such activities could undermine the respect you receive from your peers, which may ultimately affect their evaluations of you — for tenure, for example. Sure, you may like baking, but your actions may not be perceived as completely innocent. Instead, some may perceive your actions as manipulative in order to get better student evaluations — this is not unheard of at my institution. If this is not your goal, I suggest that if there is some way to tie the activities that bring you pleasure to genuine teaching lessons, go for it; if you can’t, it may be best to reserve such activities for outside the classroom (perhaps in office hours).

from mentor Elizabeth Harper

I agree with the article.

My mother, who was an academic administrator for many years, gave me the same advice when I started teaching. This advice is not just about teaching “like a man” — it’s about the complicated relationship between women and food in our society. Preparing food is a “mothering” activity but, unfortunately, mothering is still not a respected activity in our society. This is particularly true if you are teaching traditionally-aged undergraduates who are just leaving their parents for the first time. When you bring homemade baked goods to your class, you are tapping into a powerful stereotype in your students’ minds: the loving, endlessly nurturing mother whose only role is to give — never to set boundaries or attend to her own needs. This role is at odds with the role of a professor, who must often speak authoritatively, enforce policies, and deliver bad news (including grades). Many students will receive your food as it is intended, but a few students will interpret it as a cue to dispute your grades, comment on your appearance, and ignore the policies you have put in place in your classroom. In my experience, these sorts of disrespectful behaviors eat up time and exhaust the goodwill you have for your students as a whole. They also don’t occur when men bake — my husband and one of his male colleagues bake for their classes, with no apparent problems.

I would encourage you to think about why you like to bake for your class. (This article discusses women’s altruism in the workplace and how to channel it effectively.) If you feel that your students already respect you deeply, then maybe baking for them is fine. But you might consider other ways to achieve the same end. For example, maybe you could choose to bring your home-baked goods during final exams, when your students are most likely to appreciate it and least likely to take liberties afterward. Another possibility comes from my mother, who recommends bringing store-bought dishes to departmental events. The store packaging downplays the “nurturing” element while still meeting a need. Still another idea is to bake for friends and needy neighbors instead. There is probably someone in your church who really needs your warm scones and beautifully-decorated cakes. Lastly, I’d suggest taking time to pray for your students individually. Prayer helps both you and them, and I sometimes find that it re-orients my teaching in helpful ways.

from mentor Sarah Conrad Sours

The trouble with advice columns is that the advice is usually geared toward the author’s own life — her goals, battles, disappointments, successes. The “no baking” advice in the article may have been prompted by an offhand comment by the author’s colleague — one that I’ve never received and on which I’m unwilling to base my career plans.

Sexist assumptions exist, and they impact women’s rates of success. You and I will probably be battling implicit bias our entire careers. No one piece of advice will meet both our needs at all different points in our careers. In the face of that, you have to decide what your goals are, which battles you want to fight, and how you want to fight them.

I’ve never followed advice that I try to avoid feminine behaviors, because I’m not interested in fighting the “treat me like you treat men” battle. I’m all about the “pay me like you pay my male colleagues” battle and the “publish me like you publish my male colleagues” battle, but I’m not male, and I don’t want to be treated like a man. Men don’t need lactation rooms. I’d rather fight to be treated fairly as a woman than as an honorary man.

So, I decided to publish under my obviously female name, even though I had a wonderfully ambiguous middle name handy, because I decided that I want my ideas taken seriously because they are mine, not because they could be a man’s. I also decided to let a maternal tone leak into my interactions with my students, because I do treat them the way I would want my children to be treated.

And I bake, and I bring baked goods to department meetings and to class, because food is love, and I love my colleagues and my students. I’m under no illusion that it will make me more likeable or more tenurable, and it’s really not some sort of feminist stand. I just bake because I like to bake. (Also because all my male colleagues have hobbies, and they don’t ask my permission to have them.)

You are fighting different battles toward different goals in a different situation. Bake if you want to bake. Stop if it gets in the way of something you want more. Stand up to sexist comments about your baking, or quietly bide your time until you’re in a position to stand up to them. Have confidence in your own wisdom to discover what does and doesn’t work in your context. And resist the urge to make sweeping changes in response to a single off-hand remark: your projects and personal interests are too substantive to give up for some trivial comment the speaker may not even have meant.

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