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.