Thursday, March 25, 2010

Am I a Misogynist Teacher? (Maybe a Little)

My previous post on the issue of bodily functions and its role in civil rights generated some very good comments. It was a risky piece in that I was almost asking to be misunderstood and accused of being a misogynist who believes that women should be sent "back to the kitchen." I am particularly heartened that Clarissa and Miss S. gave me a pass. I see them as my guiding lights when it comes to feminism. If they decide not to kill me then I feel that I can rest easy, knowing that I have lived up to my responsibilities as a gender aware male. In a sense though, the charge of sexism has some validity in that a basic argument of modern feminism does apply to me. My subconscious model of normalcy is male. The student in my head whom I prepare to teach is male. Even my approach to teaching can be regarded as very "male." I work within a very top-down model where I lecture and ask questions. My goal is to critically analyze historical texts through the rubric of clearly established rules, much as a lawyer cross-examines a witness. I am not naturally inclined to focus on forming a personal relationship with students nor am I apt to ask my students how they "feel" about a text. Obviously, I am aware that many of the students, even usually my best students, are women. As a liberally inclined person, women are welcome into my classroom and I will treat them as "one of the guys." This, though, does not solve the problem.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the Home We Build Together, criticizes the Enlightenment model of tolerance in that it treats minorities like guests in a hotel. Even when the West chooses to be "tolerant," it does not change the fact that this is a white European Christian system. Other people are allowed to take part in this system that was not created by them or with them in mind. They are just welcome to reside in it. Rabbi Sacks poses the challenge of how do we create a home in which everyone is allowed to take an active role in creating the system.

To apply Rabbi Sacks, my approach to teaching does create a very real problem for women since it creates a situation where they become "guests" being fit into the situation. This is a problem with our society in general. 150 years of women's rights have not changed the fact that we are still a male culture attempting to fit women in. Because I recognize the situation that women are in I go out of my way to make the effort to try to help female students feel comfortable in my class. This is particularly the case in terms of getting to talk in class; I consciously am on the lookout to make sure that girls in my class are not getting shouted down by some of the louder boys in class. This in of itself, though, only exacerbates the trap we are in. By the very act of attempting to compensate for my subconscious biases I am still placing them as an "other" to be brought into a system not designed for them; in essence as "guests."

I relate to this personally on two levels, as a Jew and an Asperger. For example, growing up as an American Jew, living outside Jewish enclaves such as Brooklyn NY, every holiday season I had to come to terms with the fact that I stood outside of Christmas and thus American society as a whole. The Christmas ads and the television specials were not made with me in mind. I was simply an inconvenient reality to be tolerated and worked into the system. Because of this, I developed a split perception of myself and my place in American culture. I am an American even to the extent that I have an easier time relating to American non-Jews than I do with Israeli Jews. Yet I am an American who stands outside the Christmas window display. Standing apart from American society as it celebrates Christmas becomes my part in American society and what makes me truly American. Similarly with Asperger syndrome; our society has constructed itself around the assumption that everyone is neurotypical. Of course, it is undeniable that not everyone is a neurotypical and we are in the process of working out the full implications of this. I am stuck as the outsider in society peering in and observing and even tolerated, but never truly a part of things. As an outsider, I welcome all other outsiders as allies and, may I say it, brothers.


dcmcmurtry said...

I find this post fascinating because I do a very similar thing and I'm a woman, so I suppose I have no excuse. I don't think that I typically teach to a male student; I teach to a "generic" gender, at least when I’m planning in my head or on paper. And I suppose this makes sense to me because even when I was a child I didn't see myself as either male nor female. I especially didn't feel very girly. When I read general masculine pronouns I think "generic" not "male." But at the time I think that "generic" qualities, particularly intellectual qualities, apply more often to men than women. Women are necessarily set apart from the general while men are probably within or near the general with certain exceptions. I mean that I expect men to fit the general unless otherwise demonstrated whereas I expect women to fail to meet the general unless otherwise proven. But in my mind it is not, as you seemed to be saying, that "male" is necessarily "general" by default or that “male” is the paradigm since the paradigm is essentially separate, though the practical result is essentially the same. And typically in my life, the women that I have met fit my categorization--they tend not to be logical, not to be concerned with intellectual issues unless drawn into them by emotional preoccupation with something, more interested in social relationships than ideas, less analytical, more open to changing their behavior to fit the situation than following an "ideal" or self-designed pattern or behavior. Perhaps it's a self-fulfilling expectation. But I admire a lot of character traits, particularly habits of mind, intellectual curiosity, and certain behaviors, and very very rarely do I find these in women. My role models are almost all men, many of them dead (it's easier to be consistent when you're describing yourself for posterity?)

dcmcmurtry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
dcmcmurtry said...

(sorry for the multiple posts--I'm not an efficient thinker)

At the same time I think that there is a value in the way women (seem to more typically) think and behave that is too often dismissed or criticized. I think believe there is a logic to relational or parallel connections which seem to characterize "female" ways of thinking and communicating, even when they don't fit into patterns of formal logic. That sort of complexity is what draws me to history, really--the logic of complex relational patterns in history, the connection between things that seem unconnected. When I studied biochemistry I loved the complexity and interrelational networks in the human body and the oddities in nature that turn out to fit within the logic of chemical bonding or physical kinetic energy patterns but in unusual ways; the paradoxes and exceptions to rules that prove the rule when you understand them better. But I'm an INTJ and only occasionally test ISTJ, so the intuitive-relational connections and patterns always "feel" right or wrong to me before I can piece together why they do or don't fit. Sometimes I can't piece them together; one answer fits right with one side of my brain and another with the other side of my brain and I can't get them to meet on common ground. Like the rabbit and duck illusion, I only seem to be able to see one at a time but not both simultaneously. I now know your opinion on "neurotypicals" and lack of a consistently logical apparatus (which I sadly lack), but I find that logic is the self-generated construct, that reality is so much more complex that formal logic limits the possibilities, the realities. We may need it to relate to each other, but it is not the nature of things: it is two dimensional when reality requires three. Even when I studied philosophy, I found that translating arguments into pure logic was useful, but limited. It excised aspects of an argument that had a certain value (and not merely rhetorical value, I think). The entirety of a linguistic idea couldn't be encapsulated into the logical structures of formal logical symbols and language. Too linear, too Euclidean. In fact I find current mathematical theories of computer code writing interesting because of the implications for philosophical theories that result from trying to encapsulate "non-linear" ideas of reality into 1s and 0s (i.e. new perspectives on set theory). I have a hard time living according to abstract idealizations of reality because they are false, lies meant to weed out inconvenient truths and the plethora of unsolvable puzzles we don’t have time, energy, skill or experience to answer.

dcmcmurtry said...

Anyway, I don't know what to think about my own misogyny. Traitor to my sex? Apart from morally criticizing my own psychology, whatever its cause, the practical pedagogical issues of relevance seems to be how people learn and how I cater to multiple learning styles and patterns of intellectual/emotional engagement with a topic. Your own comments suggest that you think women are less logical, less analytical, more emotion and therefore not likely to learn best by analyzing history as a lawyer cross-examining a witness. If men tend to think more logically, more analytically, and women tend to think more relationally or through story, or more visually or sensually, then the next question is how should I teach my classes? I don't particularly form personal relationships with my students, but I do care about them as individuals, about how much they learn, about how they think, and about how they will process information and make decisions in the future. But I think my problem is deeper than emphasizing a "masculine" method of education by cultural precedent or misogynist bias; it is an egocentrism. The misogyny is accidental. I know best how to teach in the manner that helped me understand and become interested in the topic. And haven't I already stated that admire men far more often than women? So my misogyny is at least as much a result of my lack of "femininity." A type of misanthropy, I suppose. I think that makes it particularly hard to figure out how to teach to people, not because they're women but because they don't think like me. And if most people who go into academics are introverted and analytical (as is very often the case) then isn't this a general pedagogical problem for university faculty and graduate associates, not simply one of misogyny? And really, isn’t it also a problem of time limits? A logical solution-based approach which provide results of patterns and connections simpler and quicker to present in writing than more story-like narratives and discussions? Certainly the pedagogical approaches developed in recent research to appeal to varieties of learning styles and emotional engagement in the classroom all require time to expound upon, explore, or reveal answers that can be more simply and less interestingly presented through lecture or even Socratic Q&A. And fixing the general problem can't be found only through answering specific sub-categorical problems such as the misogynistic teaching approaches or pressuring teachers to change their personal beliefs and habits on gender. My admiration of women may have nothing to do with my failure to communicate effectively with my female students.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Way back in the 1990's, the Toronto Fire Department came under criticism because they didn't have enough women on the force. The reason, it turned out, was that the physical testing was so demanding only a few women could meet the strength requirements.
The politically correct solution demanded by City Hall? Lower the requirements for women!
The response by the unwashed masses was predictable: we don't care who comes to rescue us from a fire but he/she/it better damn well be able to carry me to safety without a problem!
If you are going to hold students to a standard, then those students, irregardless of gender, need to be able to make that standard. If they start to whinge that their gender prevents them from doing that, then how can they in the next breath demand equality?

Miss S. said...

This is funny, because I never claimed to be a feminist. In fact, the older I get, the more I appreciate the numerous differences between men and women. I do not feel that one sex is superior to the other (although the male sex is, well for now, the dominant sex). I think that women tend to excel in certain areas and men tend to excel in other areas; but it should not be encouraged or discouraged to mold an individuals talents based on their sex alone.

With that being said, few things are more difficult and more painful than to minimize your own natural, G-d given traits. Most women have inate sensitivities to others. When a woman is encouraged to not feel or not cry just because she is a member of the military or perhaps law enforcement, is cruel.

It is curious that women are "outsiders" when we are effectively 1/2 of the population. This is a case where I feel there is a benefit to single-sex education; you can actually stop hiding behind the pretense of gender, and fully develop as a person. I was always educated in a co-ed environment, but from 3rd to 6th grade, I was involved in the Girls Club (which has since gone co-ed and is now the Boys & Girls Club). It was really, really great for that time in my life. I had a space to be involved with the arts, sports (which really was never my cup of tea), technology, and music. In fact I took my first typing and computer classes there. I never had to deal with being told that computers were not a 'girls thing' because we were all girls.

As a double (triple?) minority, I prefer not to have people gloss over my distinctions and treat me as 'an equal'. None of us are equal...we are all pieces and parts of a whole.

Clarissa said...

"If they decide not to kill me then I feel that I can rest easy, knowing that I have lived up to my responsibilities a gender aware male"

-And they say Aspies do not have a sense of humor... :-)

"Even my approach to teaching can be regarded as very "male." I work within a very top down model where I lecture and ask questions."

-I'm a representative of the 4th generation of female teachers in my family. And we all teach according to this model. So how "male" can it be?

"I am not naturally inclined to focus on forming a personal relationship with students nor am I apt to ask my students how they "feel" about a text. "

-This has nothing to do with gender, though.

"Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in the Home We Build Together, criticizes the Enlightenment model of tolerance in that it treats minorities like guests in a hotel. "

-Unless we are talking about India or China today, women are hardly a "minority."

"Because I recognize the situation that women are in I go out of my way to make the effort to try to help female students feel comfortable in my class. This is particularly the case in terms of getting to talk in class;"

-If you had me as a student, you would have a different problem: how to shut me up. :-) :-)

Carole said...

How interesting! I'm a woman, and a lawyer, and am training as a professional historian. I also
critically analyze historical texts through the rubric of clearly established rules, but I don't think of it as a particularly 'male' way of thinking. It is a logical, rational skill to which some come naturally, others learn and some truly horrifying proportion of people -- male and female -- never do grasp.

Perhaps -- just perhaps -- the women in your classes do best because they are (slightly? much?) more receptive to the model you're offering them.

You might be right -- you might be suffering from a fairly mild case of misogyny (or of 'ancientism') Snap that reflexive connection between 'logic' and 'male' and you'll be free. Happy day!

Clarissa said...

I agree with Carole 100%.

There is this marginal type of academic feminism that proclaims that women are more intuitive than logical, more animalistic than reasonable. There is no reality behind their theory, just an ideological manipulation. There is no need to buy into this rubbish.

Izgad said...

I agree that there are limitations as to how far to push the dichotomy of rational male and the relational female so I will not push it. If there is any truth to this then I assume it is in the realm of constructed gender and not physical sex. That being said I have come to recognize that women seem to present a particular challenge once we get away from the two or three really solid students. This is something that I am trying to come to terms with. I was in all boys schools for middle and high school so teenage girls are really something new to me. For example the pack mentality of teenage girls, that it is almost impossible to deal with them as individuals, continues to surprise me. This of course plays to the relational model. Coming from my position of ignorance, I am open to any and all advice.