Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Personal Reaction to Arizona’s New Campus Carry Measure

Heather Cox Richardson

Last week, the Arizona legislature passed a bill permitting students to carry guns on public thoroughfares through state college and university campuses. This was a pared down version of a measure permitting guns in buildings, which was too extreme even for Arizona. Supporters of campus carry, though, suggest that yesterday’s measure will make the next step—that of making guns legal everywhere on campus—easier to achieve. They argue that the only way to stop violence on campus once and for all is to make sure everyone is armed for self-protection.

There has been much ink spilled over whether or not guns stop crime, and I don’t aim to revisit those debates here. I would like, though, to deal with one aspect of the campus carry argument that I have never seen addressed. It is to me one of the most significant.

This measure is a blow to female historians in the academy.

We don’t talk about it a lot in mixed company, but women, especially young petite women, face a particular problem in a history classroom far more often than male professors usually do. Female professors routinely have to assert their authority over young men and women whose pre-collegiate life has left them unaccustomed to treating women as authority figures. In history courses, it has been my experience that classes are often skewed toward men; in the more popular subjects like the Civil War, the class may be overwhelmingly male. Every semester, I have at least one student who refuses to accept that he must complete assignments for a female professor, or that he might earn anything less than an “A” in my class regardless of whether or not he does the work.

It’s not just me. Female TAs, especially petite ones, face a constant battle. Over the years, I have fielded complaints that students are in the class of a “dumb” female instructor when they could have the “smart” male TAs instead. I have had to transfer students out of the sections of female TAs because they heckled the instructor incessantly and refused to accept any grade other than an “A”. (At that particular university it was almost impossible to get a student removed from a course.) This phenomenon is frequent enough that I finally began as a matter of routine to give my female TAs tips on how to maintain control of a classroom that contains hostile male students, and to remind my male TAs to work visibly with their female colleagues to reinforce for the students that they stand together.

Unhappy young men, convinced that their female instructor is ruining their future with a low grade, can turn vicious. Over the years, I’ve dealt with crazy rants, threats, and a student who ambushed my every turn over a period of weeks, and I am neither petite nor a pushover. I can think of three times in my 23-year academic career in which I would have been afraid for my life if I had suspected that the hostile student confronting me carried a gun. Let me be clear: these were not your run-of-the-mill angry students disappointed in a grade; these were irrational young men convinced that some stupid woman who had no rightful place in a university and who had no rightful authority over them was destroying their future.

And the members of the Arizona legislature want to let those men carry guns?

With a campus carry law, female history professors become a special kind of sitting duck. I am comfortable with guns themselves—and am actually a big proponent of hunting—but my comfort with weapons stops dead when they come onto campus in the hands of young men who don’t believe in the crazy idea that women can legitimately be history professors.


Randall said...

There's something about this idea of guns on campus that defies all logic.

Chris Beneke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I agree with your article wholeheartedly. Where you lost me was at "proponent of hunting" -in essence because the nature of hunting is based on the same principles that guide gun proponents and laws. You mentioned it yourself, you become a sitting duck! My difficulty is understanding your hypocrisy about who has the right to overpower another living being based on any disapproval of their "lesser" value, whether this being is human or other. I cannot subscribe to the attitude that a man thinking less of a woman is somehow unacceptable because she is more vulnerable and stigmatized, yet in the same breath claims that humans are superior and have a right to shoot more vulnerable creatures for the fun of it while hunting. You cannot declare vulnerability based on gender bias and biological differences and turn around to exercise your superiority over others. This might be a good time to re-visit your attitude and shape it into a consistent argument not based on fallacy.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

The inability to see women as authority figures is an on-going challenge. There continues to be a distinct overlap between authority/power and physical size. Guns only add to the perceived power differential. Of course, I can imagine a certain type of respondent who would say that if you carried a gun yourself this would all be resolved. But such thinking only adds to the burden that women (especially young women) in authority face all the time--constantly having to maintain that strength, never backing down, never showing weakness.
Kudos to you for talking straight about this with your TAs.

Kelly J. Baker said...

Thanks for the post, Heather! Your gender analysis of this situation is right on, and I always get unnerved at the prospect of students bringing guns into my classroom and what that might do to the discussion, climate, and relationships.

LD said...

@Anonymous - Did HCR say that she is a proponent of hunting "for the fun of it"?

Ethical hunting changes the relationship of people to nature -- rather than exploiting nature, people are reminded that they are part of the natural order and must be wise in forms of knowledge and choice from which most people are removed.

If you have to kill and dress your own meat, rather than buying it at a grocery store, you will absolutely take only what you need, will not waste any part of what you take, and will not contribute to industrialized farming practices.

I have never shot or shot at an animal in my life, but more than once I have eaten at the table of people who hunted for all the meat they ate and grew and preserved all the rest of their food themselves -- right down to the corn meal in the bread -- as they had been doing for generations. Should I have told them to get with the program, join the 21st century (or the 20th, for that matter), and trot to the grocery store to buy tofu and veggie burgers?

There is a world of difference between threatening a professor with a gun and bringing down a deer which will yield enough meat to feed a family for months.

I will take an ethical hunter who cares about how people treat each other and how they live responsibly within the natural world over a judgmental holier-than-thou anonymous blogger who sees no difference between people and animals any day of the week.

hcr said...

I included hunting in this post only to indicate that I am not an across-the-board anti-gun activist, which if you read the pro-gun commentary is the grounds on which opponents of campus carry measures are always attacked.

For what it's worth, though, I am in favor of hunting in part because of what LD points out-- I'm from a region where many people need, and I do mean need, the food they get from hunting and fishing to survive.

But I also back hunting because I am a staunch conservationist, and in my experience, hunters are far more interested in conserving and protecting natural spaces than almost any other group. I know it seems counterintuitive if you equate animals alone with nature, but if you think of the entire ecosystem, hunters are its best, rather than its worst, friends. They understand the importance of large expanses of natural habitat, and understand local issues in a way outside environmental groups do not. They're the ones who make conservation happen on a local level.

I also support hunting because of how badly modern practices have imbalanced natural ecosystems. We have eradicated natural predators, and deer and moose populations in my part of the country need culling (at least where I'm from). There is simply not enough browse to keep unculled herds alive through the winter. If we stopped hunting altogether, we would immediately have to start policies euphemistically called something like culling programs (as certain European countries have) to maintain the health of the herds.

Now, it does strike me, as anonymous points out, that you could argue all these same points about humans: that culling the weak and keeping populations down would strengthen the herd and help the environment. (I'm going to skip the eating part!) And I'm not being flippant here. This strikes me as a good argument on its face, but from a moral and philosophical standpoint it's a leap that almost no one could seriously advocate, simply because most people do-- although perhaps we shouldn't-- consider humans a species apart from animals. Whether or not it squares with philosophy to divorce humans from animals I can't say: their removal from the real world is precisely why I so hate philosophical arguments. So you're right, anonymous, I do see humans as different than animals, and accept that I am willing to exercise power over their lives and deaths for what I see as a good outcome. But I'm also with LD on this one. The acceptance of that power means people must exercise it with intelligence.

People can disagree about all these points. They are a bit incidental to the point of campus carry. But I did want to acknowledge that I'm with LD on this one: to me, shooting a female TA and shooting a deer are very different things.

LD said...

I think my comment would probably have been more helpful without the very last paragraph. I got on my high horse there, which is the very same thing that hacks me off when other people do it.

So I will add a hashmark to my hypocrisy scorecard, and punch another marker in my Garrisonian bombast ticket.

Unknown said...

Just another reason to cross Arizona off the list of places I'd ever consent to work or live. And I'll bet I'm not the only one. Sorry, Arizona students. Your parents' choices at the polls help determine your quality of education.