Conflicting Authorities

Conflicting Authorities:

Female First-year Writing Instructors and the BYU Phenomenon of the Male Returned Missionary

Emily Belanger


Prior to my first semester as a first-year writing instructor, female professors told me that as a woman I would face additional challenges. They told me that students, especially male students, were more likely to fight female professors over grades, less likely to call them “Professor,” and more likely to display rude, disruptive behavior in a female professor’s class. As a soft-spoken twenty-three-year-old grad student who looked like an even younger woman, I tried to counteract these issues with a professional demeanor. I had read that dressing formally could help establish authority for female teachers, especially when they hand back graded papers (Glenn and Goldthwaite 43), so when I taught, I was careful to wear professional clothing such as pencil skirts and blazers. At first the ploy worked. I established clear, strict guidelines during the first few days of class and introduced myself as Ms. Belanger, rather than asking my students to call me by my first name. When I exchanged emails with students, I was careful to sign them “Ms. Belanger,” reinforcing the authoritative distance I had established. Students arrived on the second day of class prepared and alert, with the short paper I had assigned in hand.

During that class period, however, things changed. I asked students to introduce themselves, and then I introduced myself. In an effort to be honest and open, I told them I was a first-year graduate student, a decision I instantly regretted. One student raised his hand and asked, “So, are you going to go easy on us then?” When I said, “No, of course not,” the class laughed nervously. The very next class period, more than three-fourths of my students had not come with a list of potential paper topics, even though I had assigned the list as homework on their course schedule. I responded by writing “no credit” on the half-completed assignments some students tried to scribble during class, and I hoped this measure would stifle their burgeoning expectation that as a grad student I would be lax.

Instead, discipline issues steadily increased. Some students made openly rude remarks to me in front of the entire class and wrote irate emails when they earned low grades. I told a male friend that I was cautious about playing the gender card, but since all the rude behavior in my class was coming from male students I suspected gender and sex were playing enormous roles. My friend responded that it was more of a gender spotlight than a gender card and that the female graduate instructors in his PhD program at another university were struggling with the same problems. Wondering how widespread this problem is, I contacted Cheryl Glenn, a professor at Penn State, and asked if her experiences were similar. She said that gender always impacts teaching and related a story about a male student who was shocked that she knew so much about the history of rhetoric. Other professors have noted that some students are reluctant to adjust to classrooms taught in female-oriented styles, for example with desks placed in a circle instead of in rows (Linkon). My experience as a female instructor with rude male students was not idiosyncratic to my class.

Although my experience was similar to that of female instructors across the United States, BYU has unique gender dynamics that also influence how students respond to female instructors. During my first semester of teaching, I was surprised by how young male students treated me compared to the older male students. While male students who had come straight out of high school seemed comfortable addressing me as “Ms. Belanger,” male students who had served missions either tried to address me by my first name or avoided addressing me at all. One student even called me “Teacher” rather than address me as “Ms. Belanger.” Most of the RMs (returned missionaries) in my class were polite and diligent, but when students did display openly rude behavior, they were almost invariably male returned missionaries. I spoke to other female instructors who had noticed the same pattern among their male students, but a high ratio of male RMs intensified the problem in my class. More than half my male students were returned missionaries, a phenomenon unlikely to occur outside of BYU campuses. Students who have served missions come to BYU with a different background than most students coming straight from high school, and this unique background increases the likelihood that they will grow frustrated when asked to treat a young female graduate instructor like a professor. Through a better understanding of the BYU phenomenon of male RMs, however, graduate instructors will be better equipped to teach at BYU.

Male RMs and BYU Dynamics

One aspect of BYU that is important to this issue is the campus’s sometimes- polarized approach to gender. Heterosexual, cisgendered identities (where an individual unquestioningly adopts the gender associated with his or her biological sex) are the only accepted gender identities on campus. Many students and faculty members view sex and gender as interchangeable terms rather than as separate but overlapping parts of an identity. This dichotomy further reinforces a view of gender as a binary, meaning that male and female are perhaps even opposites, rather than gender as a continuum or as an identity with multiple options. One unfortunate downside of binaries is that a binary cannot exist without one option being valued over the other, and evidence suggests that in a male-female binary male is usually valued over female. While I am not saying that the bureaucratic or religious structure of BYU and its geopolitical location should change, the campus’s predominant perception of gender and sex as identical aspects of a binary may affect how male RMs respond to female teachers. I also do not intend to impose stereotypes or overgeneralizations on male RMs. My research will simply focus on the general patterns of male RMs within a predominantly heterosexual, cisgendered community.

Since BYU‟s unique demographics are integral to this discussion, it is also important to understand the general dynamics that influence FYW courses at BYU. At BYU, anywhere from eighty to ninety percent of the FYW graduate instructors are women, most of whom are in their twenties and some even as young as twenty-one. Often instructors were undergraduate students within the last couple of years, and many have no teaching experience prior to the first day of class. When male RMs encounter this relative youth and inexperience in their instructors, the RMs are likely to resist viewing their instructors as authority figures. Male freshmen straight out of high school are used to female teachers and often still answer to female parents or guardians, but male RMs have usually spent two years answering to exclusively male authorities, from mission presidents and bishops to zone leaders and senior companions.

In some cases, male RMs have even been in leadership positions over older women, but without the balance of seeing female missionaries in leadership positions over male missionaries. Plus, male RMs are at least twenty-one years old when they return, which sometimes leads to classrooms where female FYW instructors are younger than their male RM students. Unmarried FYW instructors who have not served missions are usually not endowed, another area of experience in which male RMs are more advanced than their instructors. By receiving their endowment, male RMs have come of age and advanced in their spiritual lives in a specific way that unendowed women have not. With their lower level of visible spiritual advancement, unendowed female instructors may seem unqualified to some male RMs. In fact, after spending two years teaching about the gospel, some RMs may feel more experienced as teachers than their FYW instructors.

The Male RM and Male-Female Communication Patterns

During my first semester teaching, I was too unprepared for rude behavior from male RMs to know how to respond. Since then, I have improved as a teacher by better understanding the male and female communication patterns that contributed to the problems I encountered in my classroom. A case study by Helen Rothschild Ewald and David L. Wallace demonstrates how different male and female perceptions of communication can be and how these different perceptions may disrupt learning. In this case study, Wallace interrupts one of his students in order to raise an alternative viewpoint. Each student in the study expresses a different perspective on why Wallace interrupted the student, but what is telling about their responses is that the female students were more likely to perceive the interruption as an attempt to dominate the discussion. Two female students, Laura and Ann, each state in interviews that Wallace overstepped his bounds as teacher in order to defend his opinion (351). As the interviews progress, it becomes clear that in theory, Ann’s ideal teacher matches Wallace’s teaching model (353). However, her different perception of communication leaves her with the impression that Wallace’s teaching style does not match her ideal. As instructors, we must be aware of how our communication patterns may appear to both male and female students. Otherwise, like Wallace, we may communicate entirely different meanings than we intend to.

We still need to avoid stereotyping male and female communication patterns, but if we ignore general patterns in how each gender communicates, we are even more likely to misinterpret and misrepresent students. For example, during my first semester I could rarely tell whether male students were being deliberately rude or simply joking. Female students never made rude comments in class, not even jokingly, and I often wished all the male students would communicate like the female students. When a male student who had missed several days of class asked me a question about making up an assignment and I didn’t know which assignment he was referring to, he sarcastically asked if I had just assigned the homework for fun. Instead of calling him on the rude comment, I ignored it because I was unsure how to interpret it. Like many other teachers, I was afraid of creating an uncomfortable environment for the entire class by overreacting. Looking back on the incident, however, I can see how his negative attitude spread to other students. I should have addressed that behavior the first time it occurred, even if all I did was ask the student to explain (and thus own) his comment. In fact, if I had maintained my authority and called students on their rude behavior I would probably have gained more respect from all of my students, especially those who were already resisting my role as a university writing instructor.

The male RMs who struggled to see me as an authority figure may have even perceived me as unworthy of that respect because my communication patterns were different than what they were used to in male leaders. Most research characterizes male communication as competitive and female communication as cooperative, and this difference could explain many misunderstandings between teachers and students. Male and female students often value different teaching styles, as evidenced by a case study conducted by Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler. This study examines the classroom dynamics of a course team taught by three male teachers. Kramarae and Treichler’s analysis reveals deep disparities between how the female students and the male students perceive the class. One female student says that the class has “a bit of a „head hunter‟ style,” where the professors deliberately tear down student interpretations. Male students, on the other hand, defend the competitive teaching style by saying that students should not reveal their ignorance in class discussions and that without heated debates class would be boring (43). Male students who prefer competitive debates may misinterpret feminine or feminist teaching styles as evidence that an instructor is unqualified.

This is not to say that male communication styles are inherently bad. Just as the flexible structure of female communication is often misinterpreted as unclear or disorganized, male communication is sometimes mischaracterized as aggressive, selfish, and overly competitive. In a study that examines the communication patterns of peer- review dyads, Mary Styslinger argues that male students are more democratic than their communication pattern would suggest, while female students are less so. According to Styslinger, “These young men are democratic in their distribution of talk. In seven of eight all-male dyads, each peer receives at least 33% of the conversational focus.” In contrast, “in only two of eight all-female dyads does each peer receive 33% of the conversational focus” (219). An unwitting teacher might think male communication undemocratic when compared to female communication. But if students are used to male communication patterns, they are likely to struggle with a transition to female patterns and may feel justified in questioning the judgment of a young teacher who pushes them to change their communication patterns for no apparent reason.

This is especially a problem for male RMs, who have spent two years in male company with male leaders. According to Styslinger’s research, male students may not be as well equipped to transition to female communication patterns as female students are to transition into male communication patterns (221). This disadvantage is only heightened for a recently returned missionary. Like the male students in Kramarae’s study, who argued that noncompetitive communication in class was boring and a sign that a student was unprepared, a male RM may assume a female teacher is unprepared if she fails to take a stand, argue back, or interrogate students about their opinions. While many instructors prefer female communication patterns and would not want to switch, if an instructor is aware of how male RMs might misinterpret her behavior, she can provide a framework to help them understand the structure of her classroom. For example, she might tell students on the first day of class that they are required to respect one another’s opinions and avoid shooting each other down as they provide each other constructive criticism. By explaining what classroom dynamic she hopes to set up, a female instructor will both claim her place as a teacher and help ease students into an unfamiliar classroom structure.

The Attitudes behind Communication

Even the clearest class policy is unlikely to appease some male RMs, however, because communication may be a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself. Deborah Tannen, a psychologist and the author of You Just Don’t Understand, explains differences in male and female communication as evidence of different perspectives; her theory helps explain why male RMs in particular may feel frustrated by the age and inexperience of their FYW instructors. According to Tannen, men see social interactions as hierarchical, while women define social interactions through intimacy. According to her theory, behavior that seems rude and overbearing to women often makes sense from a male perspective, where the only way to avoid a lower position in the hierarchy is to seize a higher one. Alternatively, behavior that seems weak and insecure from a male perspective often makes sense from a female perspective, in which maintaining social intimacy is more important than seizing a high position in the hierarchy.

There are exceptions to Tannen’s theory, of course, but this pattern may be at work in the FYW classroom at BYU. If we accept that men are more likely to focus on hierarchies in social interactions, then it makes sense for male students, especially students who have recently spent two years surrounded by other men in a highly hierarchical culture, to be sensitive to their positions in a classroom hierarchy. From a young age, men “are continually aware of the framework they are in” and seek to test and redefine their positions within that framework (Tannen 252). As a teacher, I am also aware of the hierarchy in my classroom, and I tried to use it to my advantage with my first group of students by establishing myself as an authority figure in my dress and demeanor. I did not recognize how my attempts could backfire until I spoke to a BYU student who completed English 150 after his mission. He spoke favorably of how the graduate student who taught his class presented herself as a peer, and he proudly said that as an undergraduate TA himself, he had no problem with a peer teaching him. When I described my classroom dynamics, his attitude changed. He insisted that as a grad student I would be his academic peer, even as a teacher, because by completing a BA first I had simply taken a few more classes. He added that it would be degrading for a returned missionary to have a teacher who was not a “real” professor act authoritatively anyway.

I don’t mean to endorse this student’s viewpoint or suggest that graduate instructors really are the academic peers of their students, but it would be impossible to address his viewpoint without first understanding its origins. From a female perspective focused on social intimacy, his frustration seems absurd. Unlike young boys, young girls tend to acknowledge and accept a group’s hierarchical framework and encourage one another to comply with authority (Tannen 152–53). This social pattern may explain why female students are less likely to openly question a female teacher’s authority. According to Tannen, a woman’s social standing in a group depends on supporting that structure rather than fighting it, which makes female students less likely to question the authority of a woman who is close in age. Tannen also says that women try to play down their hierarchical differences in one-on-one interactions in order to increase social intimacy, but they usually do so without challenging those above them in the hierarchy. Both male and female students may bristle when they are placed lower in the hierarchy than someone they perceive as a peer, but male students are more likely to directly test and challenge that authority, based on the patterns they have exhibited and developed with other males since childhood.

Male RMs are already more likely to see a grad instructor as a peer rather than as an authority figure, and according to Tannen’s theories, male students in general are more sensitive to their positions in a hierarchy and more likely to try to change a hierarchical structure in order to climb to the top. Little wonder that a man who thinks he should be higher in a hierarchy would respond negatively to his lowered status in an FYW classroom. As Tannen’s theory would predict, the male RMs in my class attempted to increase their status relative to me. They approached this task in one of two ways: about half of the male RMs seemed to treat me like a peer by rising to my level, and the other half tried to treat me like a peer by pulling me down to their level. The students who rose to my level arrived to class on time, completed their work well and on time, and acted friendly toward me in order to close the distance that would otherwise highlight their lower position in the hierarchy. From all appearances they seemed to be treating me like a teacher who was above them in the classroom hierarchy, except for one thing: they still avoided addressing me as “Ms. Belanger.” Responding with an emphasis on social intimacy, I maintained boundaries but responded favorably to what I perceived as attempts to improve their connection with me as their teacher and as a person. These students completed good work, and by scoring them highly I communicated respect and admiration and downplayed my position above them in a hierarchy. My experience with these students provides strong evidence that students do not need to view their teacher as someone who is higher than they in a hierarchy in order to treat their teacher with respect.

The real problem occurred with the other half of my male RM students, who treated me like a peer by attempting to pull me down to their level. They may not have been deliberately antagonistic, but through teasing and criticizing me as a teacher, they demonstrated that I was not above the level of an undergraduate. They showed up late to class or not at all and acted surprised and affronted when I held them accountable for attendance. From the female perspective Tannen describes, such behavior may seem like a personal attack, or at least like an attack on the student-teacher relationship an instructor is attempting to build. Perceiving their behavior as a sign that they disliked me and lacked respect for me as a person, I tried acting friendly with these students and downplaying my hierarchical position when I had conferences with them one-on-one in order to strengthen the student-teacher relationship. While my attempts at peer-like friendliness temporarily appeased my students by appealing to their desire to be on my level in the hierarchy, as a teacher I ultimately had to remind them of their position when I graded their work. Since these students were not producing high-caliber work, they earned low scores, and I once again highlighted our different status levels when I handed back their papers.


Since students are responsible for their own grades and behavior, there is no easy solution for negative attitudes. Like many female instructors before me, I felt like I was in a catch-22 with these students. They had somehow lost respect for me as a teacher early on in the semester, and nothing I did to regain that respect worked. Worse yet, the more time went on, the more the problem spread to other students. An instructor who finds herself in this situation may simply need to do the best she can for the rest of that semester, learn from the experience, and apply that knowledge with her next group of students. Personalities vary from class to class, and even the best teachers encounter discipline problems. If my first teaching experience taught me nothing else, though, it taught me that teachers must address inappropriate behavior the first time it occurs, rather than wait and hope the problem dissolves on its own. New teachers may hesitate for fear of making other students uncomfortable, but simply putting students on the spot and asking them to explain their remarks makes students accountable for and aware of their own behavior.

Instructors can also prevent many of the problems I experienced by avoiding ambiguity in classroom policies and procedures. I recommend deciding how authoritative a persona to convey ahead of time and then sticking with it. This means that an instructor who chooses to dress casually, to allow students to call her by her first name, and to tell students that she is a graduate student should be prepared to stick to those practices for the entire semester. If she still wants to stress her high standards for student work, she should do so clearly and on the first day of class, perhaps reiterating those standards when the first assignment is due. If an instructor chooses a more distant, formal approach, she should also aim for consistency and clarity. During my second semester as a teacher, I broke down my grading policy as bluntly as possible so that no student would come into the course expecting an easy A. All students knew what to expect, and they knew not to feel entitled to an A. I also decided not to tell them I was a graduate student and to instead let them come to their own conclusions. These decisions set a good precedent early on. I am also careful to keep all students actively engaged in discussions and to ask students to fully explain their comments. This keeps them accountable for their work and their ideas.

In addition to presenting clear policies and holding students accountable for behavior, it is still important to avoid putting students in situations that feel demeaning or degrading to them. While we cannot ensure that students never feel uncomfortable, a few simple measures can help. For example, I’ve found that students respond favorably to having a few set choices about what to call a teacher. This semester I told my students they could call me “Miss Belanger” or “Sister Belanger” if “Ms. Belanger” felt strange, and some of the male RMs opted to call me “Sister Belanger,” a title reminiscent of their time as missionaries. Perhaps calling me “Sister” allows them to think of me as a peer in the classroom hierarchy since this is what they called female peers in the mission, but their respectful behavior creates a positive classroom environment anyway. As instructors, we help male RMs feel comfortable by inviting them to our level. This may mean allowing students a voice in how the class is set up or simply validating student comments and input. This does not mean that we lower our expectations or concede our authority in the classroom; on the contrary, validating good work and inviting students to improve their work raises classroom standards.


Male RMs are an intriguing factor in and phenomenon of the BYU classroom, and their impact on gender dynamics in classes across campus is worthy of further study in empirical research. Their presence presents unique challenges but also worthwhile teaching experiences. When some male RMs respond negatively to young female instructors, new instructors may feel frustrated and confused, perhaps wishing this problem did not exist. In the ideal classroom, perhaps students would produce quality work and make positive classroom contributions regardless of gender, and instructors would reinforce this behavior by praising their dedication. Perhaps such a classroom could bypass gender-based conflicts because students would focus too much on learning to even notice classroom hierarchies. The reality, however, is that young female instructors face the difficult challenge of establishing their authority and qualifications as teachers without coming across as pretentious or overly authoritative. That challenge makes it all the more imperative that female instructors establish clear policies early each semester and hold students accountable for inappropriate or offensive behavior. Even students who are uncomfortable in a lower position within a classroom hierarchy can show respect and contribute to the FYW classroom if they simply approach the experience with the right attitude.



Works Cited

Ewald, Helen Rothschild, and David L. Wallace. “Exploring Agency in Classroom Discourse or, Should David Have Told His Story?” College Composition and Communication 45.3 (1994): 342–368. JSTOR. Web. 14 Nov. 2009.

Glenn, Cheryl, and Melissa A. Goldthwaite. “Chapter Two: The First Few Days of Classes.” The St. Martin’s Guide to Teaching Writing. New York: Bedford/ St. Martin‟s, 2008. 42–55. Print.

Kramarae, Cheris, and Paula A. Treichler. “Power Relationships in the Classroom.” Gender in the Classroom: Power and Pedagogy. Ed. Susan L. Gabriel and Isaiah Smithson. Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1990. 41–59. Print.

Linkon, Sherry Lee. “From Experience to Analysis: Using Student Discomfort in the Feminist Classroom.” Transformations 3.2 (30 Sept. 1992): n. pag. Proquest. Web. 14 Nov. 2009.

Styslinger, Mary E. “Gendered Performances during Peer Revision.” Literacy Research and Instruction 47.3 (2008): 211–28. PDF file.

Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. New York: Ballentine, 1990. Print.