Like any incoming Freshman, I couldn’t wait to start college back in Michigan. And as an English major, I especially couldn’t wait for my first English class. Having had such incredible and supportive English teachers in high school, I had high expectations for my very first English professor.
I had Professor Owens: an older man on the brink of retirement. He was kind and always at least five minutes late to class. On the first day, I asked him if he used the Oxford comma or not so I knew whether to use it in my papers.
“The what now?” he responded.
The man didn’t know what the Oxford comma was.
How was he even an English professor?! I remember thinking. I looked past this flaw originally, thinking there was still hope for him to be a great first English professor.
Around midterms, we had an assignment where we had to analyze advertisements through a critical lens. There was a final paper due, as well as a presentation in front of the class where we would show the advertisements we wrote about and speak to the ways we analyzed them. As a young and fired-up feminist back in 2016 (although the fired-up feminist aspect hasn’t changed) I chose to write about two different sexist car commercials through a feminist critical lens. But first, I had to get approval on my topic.
I went up to my professor during class and presented him with my idea for the paper. When I finished, he was silent for a moment before saying, “I’m not so sure you should do this topic. It’s pretty controversial and the class is mostly boys.” I couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t college supposed to be the place for controversial ideas and exploration?
“I don’t care if there are boys in the class,” I said “They could probably learn a thing or two anyway.” I marched back to my chair in disbelief, but also, filled with a passion fueled rage to write my best essay yet. This was my most blatant battle against the patriarchy for my 18-year-old self.
On the day of the presentations, I felt confident and ready to rough up any boy who dared challenge me. I showed the two sexist Superbowl commercials. The boys around the room chuckled here and there at the advertisements, as if right on cue with the marketer’s signals. After they finished, I gave my presentation about the blatant sexism and disrespect of the ads, describing the men in the commercials as emasculated and dumbed down. The laughs stopped. Their eyes avoided mine, but I made sure that they all knew I was speaking directly to them. I left class that day feeling as if I had done my duty to women everywhere.
Looking back on this as I’m getting ready to graduate, Professor Owens was merely the beginning of many sexist men I’d have to deal with in education, as well as in the workplace. I’m glad he was my first English professor. In his encouragement to avoid “controversial topics” (as if asking to not be viewed as a sex object was such a controversial thing to do), I found my fire and learned to step over any man or obstacle who might try to stand in the way of what I so fiercely believe in. I got an A on the paper, so I guess he must have learned something after all.