ADVERTISEMENT
Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

Building knowledge, training new scientists, sharing a world.

Teaching chemistry while female: when my very existence was a problem.

|

Not quite 20 years ago, I was between graduate programs.

I had earned my Ph.D in chemistry and filed my applications to seven Ph.D. programs in philosophy. (There were some surreal moments on the way to this, including retaking the GRE two weekends after defending my chemistry dissertation -- because, apparently, the GRE is a better predictor of success in graduate school than is success in graduate school.) In the interval between the graduate stipend from the chemistry program from which I was now a proud graduate and the (hypothetical) graduate stipend from the philosophy graduate program on the horizon, I needed to earn some money so I could continue to pay my rent.

I pieced together something approximating enough earnings. I spent a few hours a week as a research assistant to a visiting scholar studying scientific creativity. I spent many hours a week as an out-call SAT-prep tutor (which involved almost as many hours on San Francisco Bay Area freeways as it did working one-on-one with my pupils). I even landed a teaching gig at the local community college, although that wouldn't start until the summer session. And, I taught the general chemistry segment of a Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) prep course.

Teaching the MCAT prep course involved four meetings (each four hours long, with three ten-minute breaks interspersed so people could stretch their legs, use the bathroom, find a vending machine, or what have you) with a large number of students planning to take the MCAT and apply to medical school. The time was divided between providing a refresher on general chemistry concepts and laying out problem-solving strategies for the "passage problems" to which the MCAT had recently shifted. I was working with old-school overhead transparencies (since this was 1994), with key points and the problems themselves in permanent ink and the working-out of the problems in transparency markers that erased with a damp cloth. The screen onto which the transparencies projected was very large, so I'd have to make use of the long rubber-tipped wooden pointer that was resting on the ledge of the chalkboard behind the screen.

During hour two of the very first meeting of the very first session I taught this MCAT prep course, as I retrieved the pointer from the chalk-ledge, I noticed that a single word had been written on the chalkboard:

Bitch

I was pretty sure it hadn't been on the board at the beginning of the session. But I still had three hours worth of concepts to explain and problems to work before we could call it a day. So I ignored it and got down to business.

The second meeting with this group, I made a point of checking the chalkboard before I pulled down the projections screen, fired up the overhead projector, and commencing the preparation of the students for the MCAT.

Before the four hour session began, the chalkboard was blank. By the end of the four hours, again, there was a single word written on it:

Bitch

The same thing happened in our third session. By then it had started to really bug me, so, at the beginning of our fourth and final meeting together, I resolved at least to flush out whoever was doing the writing on the chalkboard. I collected all the chalk from the ledges and put it in the sink of the lab counter at the front of the room (for I was lecturing in a proper laboratory lecture hall, with sink, gas jets, and such). And, I brought a water bottle with me so I wouldn't have to leave the lecture hall during the ten minute breaks to find a water fountain.

At the very first break, one of the young men in the prep course followed a path between the projection screen and the chalkboard, paused as if lost (or in search of chalk?), and then exited the room looking only a tiny bit sheepish.

On the board, appearing like a film negative against the light residue of chalk dust, he had written (I presume with a moistened finger):

Bitch

I still have no idea at all what provoked this hostility. The structure of the MCAT prep course was such that all I was doing was giving the students help in preparing for the MCAT. I was not grading them or otherwise evaluating them. Heck, I wasn't even taking attendance!

What on earth about 25-year-old me, at the front of a lecture hall trying to make the essentials of general chemistry easy to remember and easy to apply to problem-solving -- something these students presumably wanted, since they paid a significant amount of money to take the course -- what made me a "bitch" to this young man? Why was it so important to him that not a single meeting we had passed without my knowing that someone in attendance (even if I didn't know exactly who) thought I was a bitch?

When it happened, this incident was so minor, against the more overt hostility toward me as a woman in a male-dominated scientific field (soon to be followed, though I didn't anticipate it at the time, by overt hostility toward me as a woman in male-dominated academic philosophy), that I almost didn't remember it.

But then, upon reading this account of teaching while female, I did.

I remembered it so vividly that my cheeks were burning as they did the first time I saw that chalk-scrawled "bitch" and then had to immediately shake it off so that we could cover what needed to be covered in the time we had left for that meeting.

And I ask myself again, what was I doing, except a job that I was good at, a job that I did well, a job that I needed -- what was I doing to that particular young man, paying for the service I was providing -- that made me a bitch?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Email this Article

X