The Kugel Gender

When I was in college in the late-1980s, I had two professors that I got along especially well with. The first (I'll call him K) was technically a lecturer (didn't have tenure or even tenure track) who taught medieval studies, but who was also enamored of computers and the way they could be used to augment humanities research (he got a book on vi published, among other things).

The second (I'll call him R) was the head of the CS division. He was an odd duck, having started his career as a petroleum engineer, and his hobby horse was databases, especially medical databases.

One quarter, both K and R offered special courses, neither of which would do much to advance my graduation (other than racking up my credit total), but which promised to be a lot of fun. (Later on, I ended up dropping out of college, so that didn't matter, and what I learned from those courses was probably more useful than some of the degree-satisfying ones.) K's course was "Advanced Computers in the Humanities" and R's course was a graduate-level course in databases.

I don't remember that much about K's course, but I remember the beginning of R's course very well. We started with eleven students. On the first day, R explained the course grading: you had to pick two subjects to research, then turn in a paper and make a fifty-minute presentation for each (i.e. two papers and two presentations). As long as your work met minimum standards, you'd get one grade point for each paper or presentation. Easy A from my POV (and my GPA needed that), but by the drop date, only three people were left in the class.

Now, giving a presentation to three people isn't my idea of fun, so when it was time to do my presentation on text databases, I invited the people from K's class. Three or four of them showed up, including one older woman (I think she was a nurse going back to school). I started my presentation with some examples of semi-structured text databases in print form: dictionaries, encyclopedias, and recipe books.

At that point, the older woman piped up with (this is almost an exact quote, burned into my brain), "That's a rather sexist comment!" I said, "Excuse me?" She said (paraphrased), "Well, it's obvious you're only saying that because there are a couple of women here." I said, "Well, I do cook." Then I ignored her and went on with my presentation. (I've rarely been so happy with the six years I spent in Toastmasters, off and on.)

But that heckling comment -- even if not intended as heckling -- definitely rankled. At that point, I'd been cooking for more than two-thirds of my life, and I thought I was a damn good cook. Heck, other people told me I was a good cook; more than once I'd been told that I'd make some woman a good wife. From my point of view, it was her comment that was sexist, but I knew that she was sufficiently full of her own rectitude that convincing her would be difficult.

Once I thought of it, the solution was obvious: cook something and bring it to K's class. But what? It had to be something that nobody who wasn't a cook could make, but would also travel well on a bicycle. Flipping through my mind's list of "signature" dishes, I decided to make a kugel.

The dish was a big hit, and I got a decent apology. But I've never forgotten that sexism can work both directions.

Copyright 2003 by Aahz
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