This post originally appeared in August 2006.
Yesterday on campus, I ran into a colleague I hadn’t seen in several years. "Max" and I were hired around the same time as adjuncts in the early 1990s; I eventually was lucky enough to get a full-time job. Max (who taught sociology and psychology) was not. He taught at PCC for a number of years, and then gave up his dreams of teaching and went into the business world. He told me yesterday, as we greeted each other, that he’s back to "adjuncting" again — his business success has allowed him to return to his original passion of college teaching, even if only part-time. He’s maybe a decade and a half older than I am, somewhere (I think) in his mid-fifties.
I never saw Max teach. But I vividly remember a discussion we had a few years ago, not long before he left the college. He was in the faculty lounge one morning, going over his class roster. He stood up excitedly when I walked in: "Hey Hugo, look at what I’m doing!" I came over, and saw that he had placed numbers next to the names of many of his students. My heart sank; I thought Max was going to share with me some new and complex grading theory that would be very tedious to have to listen to.
But it wasn’t about grading: "Hugo, I’ve ranked all the girls in all my classes!"
I was stunned, staring at the sheet. He’d ranked them two ways. One, "ordinally", from 1 (the "hottest" in his estimation) up to about #20 (there were that many women in the class). Then, he’d put a second number (in a different color pen) next to the first number. This reflected, he explained, where the girls stood on the classic 1-10 "objective" scale. His #1 in the class, therefore, ranked as an 8.75.
I was so bewildered, all I could think to ask was "Max, how long did this take you?"
Max told me he did this with every class each semester. It took him a few weeks to make decisions, he explained. "I can’t make a final decision on where they rank until I see them in different outfits; it’s usually not until the midterm week that I am sure of what numbers they deserve. But hey, Hugo, you should try it — it’s objective and subjective grading at the same time!" And with that, I got a slap on the back and off he went.
I really agonized for a while about confronting Max about this. The temptation to "let it go" was overwhelming. I was certainly still quite tentative in my commitment to challenging older men. But after running Max’s story by a friend of mine who was an active feminist (and not on campus), I summoned up the courage to confront him. Of course, it didn’t go well.
I invited Max into my office, and I told him how uncomfortable I was with what he had showed me. I used words like "sexist" and "unprofessional". Max became very indignant. "This is bullshit, Hugo. I’m only doing on paper what every man does in his head. I’m honest about it — but you, you’re a fucking self-righteous fraud!" And he stomped off. Later, he came up and apologized for his language , but not for his "ranking system." And having said my peace, I let it drop. When I saw Max yesterday, I instantly flashed back to our fight over his "rankings". Honestly, I’m surprised I hadn’t remembered it earlier to blog about it before.
This story ties in nicely with the theme of yesterday’s post about feminist men and assertiveness. It also dovetails with the vital issue of accountability in fantasy as well as in action. And in that context, I remember that Max had been right about one thing: many men do in their minds what he was doing on paper — "ranking" their students, colleagues, and acquaintances on their sexual desirability. He may have been more brazen than many, but he was hardly unique.
As a teenager, I learned that "ranking" girls was one of the chief pastimes of my peers when we were in a single-sex group. And I’ll be the first to admit that in those years, I happily participated. We had long debates about whether "Cindy" or "Lisa" was the hottest girl in Mr. Fletcher’s biology class. And of course, even at that age, I figured out the desperately obvious: the real pleasure in sharing these rankings lay in the fact that they acted like glue to cement male friendships. I was shy and insecure and eager to make friends with guys, and at that age, more than willing to use sexual objectification as a tool to bring me closer to them. Homosociality in action indeed!
It was telling to me that Max was so eager to share his ranking system. It wasn’t enough for him to establish "control and power" over the women in his classes by secretly evaluating them on their looks without their knowledge. Whatever pleasure that brought him was insufficient — he needed to share his efforts with another man. I suspect that he hoped I would react with pleasure. He knew that he and I shared some of the same female students, and that perhaps we could spend a few happy minutes together discussing and rating their physical attributes. I’m grateful indeed that for me, there was no charm at all in his creepy "system"
Obviously, I don’t rank my students this way, even in my mind. It’s unethical, it’s anti-feminist, it’s immoral, you-name-it. As a married gender studies prof more than twice the age of my students, to do so would be antithetical to everything I profess. But I still run into men (including some of my current colleagues) who from time to time are eager to "bond" over a shared discussion of the relative and objective attractiveness of their students, co-workers, or simply women passing by. Sometimes, the temptation to "get along and go along" still flares for a tiny second, though I resist it. The lure is not in the power over women, or the excitement of evaluating women who would no doubt not give the likes of us a second glance. The lure — the terrible, destructive lure — is that in sharing fantasies and "rankings" men can become closer, recreating as adults the "boys only" clubs of their childhoods.
Max is back on campus. (And his real name, obviously, ain’t "Max.") And I’m wondering whether to bring up the ranking system again, or leave it be. He’s not violating an official college ordinance, after all. Maybe what he’s doing is harmless. But from the perspective of his students, the idea of him continuing on with his "system" bothers me still. I’m not yet sure what, if anything, I’m going to do.
UPDATE October 2012: I did end up asking Max about the ranking system again, in late 2009. He looked embarrassed, told me that it was a stupid thing and that he’d given it up. I have no way of knowing, of course, whether that was true. I had no power to look at his rosters. But I’m glad I asked.
Max has not been on campus since the fall semester 2009, when his adjunct position was eliminated.