sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘feminism’ Category

on learning how to STFU

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 3, 2010

I argue with people. A lot. Sometimes I raise my voice and shake my fists while I’m arguing. I say inflammatory things and I swear a lot. Often, I’m told, I seem very, very angry while I’m arguing. This is usually because I am very, very angry.

I get mad because there’s a lot to get mad about. I argue because certain issues matter to me. And I say inflammatory things sometimes because I’m impulsive, and I’m impulsive because the things that make me mad pop up spontaneously and unexpectedly. If you’re not mad, after all, then maybe you haven’t been paying attention.

I’m also a woman, by the way, and one who was successfully inculcated into a cultural belief system that prefers its women to STFU. Good job, patriarchy: You did your job well. I want people to like me. I don’t like making waves. And I hate making people mad.

But I’m also doing my damnedest to kill that part of me that wants to be seen as cute and polite and deferential and modest. I’ve written before about the challenges of choosing this path; over in that blog post, I wrote this:

If you’re a woman and you want to be heard, especially in academia, you have to knock on every door, announce your presence to everyone, and holler your qualifications at everyone in earshot. And if you do it right, people will hate you.

I’ve been thinking recently about the extent to which “doing it right” leads to silencing of other people or groups of people. I’m such an enormous loudmouth that I suspect that, for example, my presence in an argument means other women in the room are less likely to be heard. When I speak to my experience of prejudice or oppression, I always run the risk of silencing someone whose experience is different from mine. I understand oppression from the perspective of a queer woman, but as a white, thin, able-bodied queer woman I often speak from within the tower of privilege that comes with these features.

So how do I balance my desire to kill the deference I was enculturated to embrace while still knowing when and how to STFU and let others speak?

Posted in feminism, gender politics, politics, rage | 5 Comments »

how to make like an ally

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 11, 2010

You read Sady Doyle’s blog Tiger Beatdown, right? Everybody reads Sady Doyle’s blog Tiger Beatdown. If you’ve never been to this site, may I suggest you leave my blog immediately in order to immerse yourself in the glory and ladyrage that is Tiger Beatdown? Here, I’ll even do something I never ever do: I’ll give you a link to her blog that takes you directly away from my blog and deposits you at her blog, which if you haven’t read her blog is actually where you belong anyway.

Today I want to direct your attention to the most recent Tiger Beatdown post, which is about feminist allies and offers a nice description, in the person of one Freddie de Boer, of how not to be an ally. Freddie, it appears, is Sady Doyle’s enemy in the worst way: He explains that, as a feminist man, he’s tired of being silenced by feminist women who purport to have more right to speak about sexism than he does!

Well, Sady gives ol’ Freddie a glorious smackdown, which I’m sure he has already interpreted as yet another example of why we shouldn’t let ladies speak their minds. In the middle of her smackdown, Sady offers up what I consider to be most excellent advice for anybody who wants to serve as an ally to a marginalized group. I’m going to include an abridged version of her advice below, though this should in no way hinder your intention to read the entire post in its gorgeous entirety.

Sady writes:

A common phrase, which just about every ally has ever heard or been instructed to heed, is, “if it’s not about you, don’t make it about you.” That is: If someone is describing a gross, oppressive behavior that some people in your privileged group engage in, then there is no reason to get defensive unless you personally engage in that behavior, in which case you need to stop complaining about your hurt feelings and focus on how quickly and completely you can cut that shit out. And rushing to the defense of people who do engage in the oppressive behavior, even if you don’t engage in it, is not acceptable, because you’re showing solidarity with your privilege, rather than with the people who are being hurt or oppressed. There is no better way to announce that you seriously don’t care about racism than to leap to the defense of some racist-ass people and ask people of color to stop talking about them in such a critical tone, for example.

To illustrate what the ally behavior Sady describes above actually looks like on the ground, I want to tell a story about my friend Adam, in whom I recently–and unexpectedly–found an ally.

I have a history of being a woman, and I also have a history of being involved in romantic relationships with women. I talk about the first thing all. the. effing. time. I haven’t done much talking about the second thing, though I’m proud to announce that I’m getting better at talking about it.

I was out with a group of friends a few nights ago and decided to talk about it. Specifically, I decided to talk about my tendency to judge people who affiliate with organizations that make it their business to try to keep gay people as unhappy and unable to live freely and without risk of personal or psychological harm as possible. (I do not accept ignorance or political apathy as an excuse, in case you were wondering.) Uproar ensued around the table, which was filled with people who to my knowledge did not have any history of dating people of the same gender. Everybody wanted to weigh in on whether I was right or wrong to judge others. Everybody wanted to weigh in on whether I was being closed minded. Which was fine with me, really. These guys are my friends, and they seem to like me an awful lot, and I wasn’t mad or upset or anything. I was interested in learning how each of my friends (some of whom belong to their own marginalized–or even doubly marginalized–groups) understood the notion of marginalization. I was intensely interested in fighting about this issue for as long as they were willing to fight.

But Adam, who I believe to be a straight white man, did something I didn’t expect: He acted as my ally. He participated in the conversation, but he mainly did so to help me to clarify my stance and open up space for me to speak. He did this so gracefully and so intelligently that I assumed he agreed with me but only later realized I actually don’t know his opinion on my stance toward people who affiliate with anti-gay organizations. I don’t think he ever weighed in.

Adam is a classmate, and he’s near the end of his graduate career. In class, he’s kinda pushy and extremely talkative; he tends to dominate discussions and it’s sometimes hard to get a word in. But on the other hand, he knows an awful lot about his field and has a lot to say about it.

So I know Adam can dominate a conversation, which means that in Friday night’s discussion, he chose to stand back in order to give me more room to speak.

This is Adam:

Adam knows a thing or two about how to listen. Adam is an ally. I didn’t thank him on Friday night, so Adam, consider this my thanks.

Posted in awesome, bigotry, feminism, gay rights, gender politics, graduate school, human rights | Leave a Comment »

why I am not a constructionist

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 6, 2010

and why you should expect more from my model for integrating technologies into the classroom

I recently showed some colleagues my developing model for integrating computational technologies into the classroom. “This is,” one person said, “a really nice constructionist model for classroom instruction.”

Which is great, except that I’m not a constructionist.

Now, don’t be offended. I’ll tell you what I told my colleague when she asked, appalled, “What’s wrong with constructionists?”

Nothing’s wrong with constructionists. I just don’t happen to be one.

a brief history lesson
Let’s start with some history. Constructionism came into being because two of the greatest minds we’ve had so far converged when Jean Piaget, known far and wee as the father of constructivism, invited Seymour Papert to come work in his lab. Papert later took a faculty position at MIT, where he developed the Logo programming language, wrote Mindstorms, one of his canonical books, and laid the groundwork for the development of constructionism.

Here’s a key distinction to memorize: While constructivism is a theory of learning, constructionism is both a learning theory and an approach to instruction. Here’s how the kickass constructionist researcher Yasmin Kafai describes the relationship between these terms:

Constructionism is not constructivism, as Piaget never intended his theory of knowledge development to be a theory of learning and teaching…. Constructionism always has acknowledged its allegiance to Piagetian theory but it is not identical to it. Where constructivism places a primacy on the development of individual and isolated knowledge structures, constructionism focuses on the connected nature of knowledge with its personal and social dimensions.

Papert himself said this:

Constructionism–the N Word as opposed to the V word–shares constructivism’s connotation to learning as building knowledge structures irrespective of the circumstances of learning. It then adds the idea that this happens especially felicitously in a context where the learner is consciously engaged in constructing a public entity whether it’s a sand castle on the beach or a theory of the universe.

Examples of constructionist learning environments include the well known and widespread Computer Clubhouse program, One Laptop Per Child, and learning environments built around visual programming tools like Scratch and NetLogo.

why I am not a constructionist
Constructionism is really neat, and some of the academics I respect most–Kafai, Kylie Peppler, Mitch Resnick, Idit Harel, for example–conduct their work from a constructionist perspective. A couple of things I like about the constructionist approach is its emphasis on “objects to think with” and some theorists’ work differentiating between wonderful ideas and powerful ideas.

Constructionist instruction is a highly effective approach for lots of kids, most notably for kids who haven’t experienced success in traditional classroom settings. But as Melissa Gresalfi has said more than once, people gravitate to various learning theories when they decide that other theories can’t explain what they’re seeing. Constructionism focuses on how a learning community can support individual learners’ development, which places the community secondary to the individual. I tend to wonder more about how contexts support knowledge production and how contexts lead to judgments about what counts as knowledge and success. If it’s true, for example, that marginalized kids are more likely to find success with tools like Scratch, then what matters to me is not what Scratch offers those kids that traditional schooling doesn’t, but what types of knowledge production the constructionist context offers that aren’t offered by the other learning contexts that fill up those kids’ days. I don’t care so much about what kids know about programming; I’m far more interested in the sorts of participation structures made possible by Scratch and other constructionist tools.

If you were wondering, I’m into situativity theory and its creepy younger cousin, Actor-Network Theory. So what I’m thinking about now is what sorts of participation structures might be developed around a context that looks very much like the diagram below. Specifically, I’m wondering: What sorts of participation structures can support increasingly knowledgeable participation in a range of contexts that integrate computation as a key area of expertise?


why I’m mentioning this now
My thinking about this is informed of late by what I consider to be some highly problematic thinking about equity issues in technology in education. A 2001 literature review by Volman & vanEck focuses on how we might just rearrange the classroom some to make girls feel more comfortable with computers. For example, they write that

to date, research has not produced unequivocal recommendations for classroom practice. Some researchers found that girls do better in small groups of girls; some researchers argue in favor of such groups on theoretical grounds (Siann & MacLeod, 1986, Scotland; Kirkup, 1992, United Kingdom). Others show that girls perform better in mixed groups (Kutnick, 1997, United Kingdom) or that girls benefit more than boys do from working together (Littleton et al., 1992, United Kingdom). Other student characteristics such as competence and experience in performing the task seem in any case to be equally important, both in primary and secondary education. An explanation for girls’ achieving better results in mixed pairs is that they have more opportunity to spend time with the often-more-experienced boys. The question, however, is whether this solution has negative side effects. It may all too easily confirm the image that girls are less competent when it comes to computers. Another solution may be that working in segregated groups compensates for the differences in experience. Tolmie and Howe (1993, Scotland, secondary education) argue strongly for working in small mixed groups because of the differences they identified between the approaches taken by groups of girls and groups of boys in solving a problems.

For the love of pete, the issue is not whether girls feel more comfortable working in small groups or mixed groups or pairs or individually; the issue is why in the hell we have learning environments that allow for these permutations to matter to girls’ access to learning with technologies.

Also, just for the record, the gender-equity issue in video gaming cannot be resolved just by building “girl versions” of video games, no matter what Volman and vanEck believe. They write:

Littleton, Light, Joiner, Messer, and Barnes (1992, United Kingdom, primary education) found that gender differences in performance in a computer game disappeared when the masculine stereotyping in that game was reduced. In a follow-up study they investigated the performance of girls and boys in two variations of an adventure game (Joiner, Messer, Littleton, & Light, 1996). Two versions of the game were developed, a “male” version with pirates and a “female” version with princesses. The structure of both versions of the game was identical. Girls scored lower than boys in both versions of the game, even when computer experience was taken into account; but girls scored higher in the version they preferred, usually that with the princesses.

I don’t think that the researchers cited by Volman and vanEck intended their work to be interpreted this way, but this is exactly the trouble you get into when you start talking about computational technologies in education: People think the tool, or the slight modification of it, is the breakthrough, when the breakthrough is in how we shift instructional approaches through integration of the tool–along with a set of technical skills and practices–for classroom instruction.

Looking at my developing model, I can see that I’m in danger of leading people to the same interpretation: Just put this stuff in your classroom and everything else will work itself out. This is what happens when you frontload the tool when you really mean to frontload the practices surrounding that tool that matter to you.

This is the next step in the process for me: Thinking about which practices I hope to foster and support through my classroom model and deploying various technologies for that purpose. I’ll keep you posted on what develops.

One last note
I’ve included here a discussion about why I’m not a constructionist along with a discussion of gender equity issues in education, but I don’t at all want anybody to take this as a critique of constructionism. I declare again: Nothing’s wrong with constructionism. I just don’t happen to be a constructionist. Also, I think a lot of really good constructionist researchers have done some really, really good work on gender equity issues in computing, and I’m just thrilled up the wazoo about that and hope they can find ways to convince people to stop misinterpreting constructionism in problematic ways.

References, in case you’re a nerd

Joiner, R., Messer, D., Littleton, K., & Light, P. (1996). Gender, computer experience and computer-based problem solving. Computers and Education, 26(1/2), 179–187.
Kafai, Y. B. (2006). Constructivism. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 35-46). Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Kirkup, G. (1992). The social construction of computers. In G. Kirkup and L. Keller (Eds.), Inventing women: Science, gender and technology (pp. 267–281). Oxford: Polity Press.
Kutnick, P. (1997). Computer-based problem-solving: The effects of group composition and social skills on a cognitive, joint action task. Educational Research, 39(2), 135–147.
Littleton, K., Light, P., Joiner, R., Messer, D., & Barnes, P. (1992). Pairing and gender effects in computer based learning. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 7(4), 1–14.
Papert, S., & Harel, I. (1991). Situating Constructionism. In Papert & Harel, Constructionism. Ablex Publishing Corporation. Available online at http://www.papert.org/articles/SituatingConstructionism.html.
Siann, G., & MacLeod, H. (1986). Computers and children of primary school age: Issues and questions. British Journal of Educational Technology, 2, 133–144.
Tolmie, A., & Howe, C. (1993). Gender and dialogue in secondary school physics. Gender and Education, 5(2), 191–210
Volman, M., & van Eck, E. (2001). Gender Equity and Information Technology in Education: The Second Decade. [10.3102/00346543071004613]. Review of Educational Research, 71(4), 613-634.

my model, in case you were wondering

Posted in computational literacy, education, feminism, gender politics, graduate school, Joshua Danish, schools, teaching, technologies | 15 Comments »

on sexism and gender performance: it’s the bathrobes that’s outrageous?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 14, 2010

There’s a nice little conversation going over at really? law? about masculinity, gender performance, law school, and competition.

The post, which was written by my sister Laura McWilliams in observance of International Women’s Day, describes her experience as a female law student. As she explains, her male classmates are the ones who shout her down, who silence her; she writes:

I can’t say for certain that this is about gender, but I can say that I’ve often been dismissed, insulted, or shouted down by men, but only once, since I started this thing, by a woman. Not every man has acted this way, but nearly every person who has acted this way has been a man.

She does add, however, that she hasn’t thought much about how men perform gender, and specifically about “the anxiety that comes with being a man and proving one’s manhood”:

I always separated in my mind the competition between men and women and the competition between men and men. One was about domination; the other was about bonding. Now I’m thinking that I was nowhere near right. The two are more mixed up than that. I’ve only recently begun trying to synthesize the two.

Men’s interactions are about performance–right?–in a way that’s different from how women perform. Men are constantly proving their gender, while women are forced to try to prove–I don’t know, their lack of gender?

The post has received several comments from male readers, and the set of comments by someone who calls himself “passer by” were especially interesting to me. He begins by arguing that women are far more competitive than men are:

I’d challenge the notion that males are more aggressive that females. And I have given it more than a passing thought. Both are more than capable of aggression, at equal levels.

Competitive? I’d say your (sic) wrong, sorry. Both men and women are competitive, but men more often acknowledge when they loose (sic), and let it go on the spot. Maybe with a bit of rude behavior, but that’s it. Women tend to find a way to bring it back around, go after revenge, and throw some vengeance in to boot.

This writer argues that women are more competitive, more vicious in their gossip, and more “catty”; in fact, he writes,

Cats are both masculine and feminine, but how many men do you know that are “catty?” How many men gossip in a way that undermine the credibility and reputation of women, or other men? Far more women tend to expend energy on such things.

Over the course of a multi-comment exchange between Laura and this commenter, she gently suggests that the “cattiness” label is part of how women are disempowered, then follows him as he changes the subject to sports, stereotyping of all men based on how a minority behave, and biological differences that he believes prove that men and women are just different–they just are. He writes:

Yes, environment plays a huge role. But any 8 year old can tell you boys and girls are born different, and anyone who has forgotten that fact hasn’t looked in their pants in far to long. To try to “discover” there are biological differences is a hysterical concept to me. It’s not news that sexual organs are the only distinguishable differences, so are hair patterns, hormones, and emergence differences that are apparent. To think that this doesn’t affect mood, attitude, aggression, and ultimately social perception is just naive.

Laura’s willingness to engage with this commenter, and to consider his arguments thoughtfully and carefully, led to a lengthy and perhaps productive conversation about gender. But I was struck by how hard Laura seems to have had to work to make this happen. The notion that “cattiness” is an apt term for women but not for men is just…well, it’s blatant sexism, is what it is. And the commenter argues that sports are to blame for turning men competitive, but somehow overlooks the inherent sexism in the fact that society “encourage(s) boys to play sports more than girls.”

Yet, by letting these comments pass, Laura makes it possible for the commenter to post an interesting argument: that all men get blamed for the sexist behavior of “a small minority”–in his view, maybe 20% of all men.

Which is a powerful point that’s well worth discussing. I’m not willing to go so far as to agree that sexism is only evident in 20 percent of all men, but it’s clear that not all men engage in sexist behavior, and that not all men who do engage in sexist behavior do so all the time.

The problem, really, is this: Even if less than 20 percent of all men engaged in sexist behavior, we still live in a culture that not only encourages but rewards that kind of behavior. Which means that this “small minority” has a distinct advantage when it comes to not only sports but education, work, and access to advancement opportunities.

Women and men alike should be outraged by this. It means that women and men alike are being forced to play a game that, all things being equal, they would probably choose not to play; it means that the rules of the game are being set by a small subset of our culture; it means that if you, male or female, choose to opt out, you’re setting yourself up to walk a rockier path than you might otherwise take.

Sam Seaborn: Where’d you get the bathrobe?
Carol Fitzpatrick: The gym.
Sam: There are bathrobes at the gym?
Claudia Jean ‘C.J.’ Cregg: In the women’s locker room.
Sam: But not the men’s.
C.J.: Yeah.
Sam: Now, that’s outrageous. There’s a thousand men working here and 50 women.
C.J.: Yeah, and it’s the bathrobes that’s outrageous.

From  “The West Wing: Bartlet’s Third State of the Union (#2.13)” (2001)

Posted in feminism, law, politics, social justice, sports | 2 Comments »

Blog for International Women’s Day: A call to end ‘horizontal violence’

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 8, 2010

This blog post is part of the call from Gender Across Borders for blog posts written in response to the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day.

About a month ago, I posted a review of And Then Came Lola, a film that ran as part of my city’s LGBTQ film festival.

In my review, I criticized what I saw as a heteronormative portrayal of lesbian sexuality: to wit, the more traditionally feminine a character was, the more heroic she was; and any character who stood outside of traditional notions of femininity was either a bad guy or played for laughs. I expressed concern that in treating sexual desire as the exclusive right of the traditionally beautiful, this film reinforces negative stereotypes of lesbians and of women more broadly.

Well. As you might imagine (and as I might have expected), I received lots of responses to this post, including a disproportionate number of personal attacks delivered in comments below the review and in personal emails. It was suggested that maybe I have a problem with lesbians, that maybe my own prejudices are clouding my judgment, that maybe I take myself too seriously. In fact, more commenters wanted to talk about what was wrong with me than about the content of my review–about whether I had a point worth discussing.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day with the theme “equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all,” I want to call for progress within the communities that comprise the women’s rights movement. We know that one highly effective strategy for doing away with a political point that threatens the status quo is to twist it into a question of personal character: She’s just a man-hater. He’s just a pedophile. She’s a hypocrite, a bitch, a traitor. We know this strategy is effective because it’s been used against us time and again. Yet we’re still so likely to pull out exactly this strategy if a member of our community says something we don’t agree with or don’t want to hear.

In lots of ways, it’s not really our fault. This is a divide-and-conquer tactic built right into the fabric of our culture to maintain the subtle balances of power. It’s also a tactic that has, for many members of minority groups, been highly effective in helping them to gain a voice, position, power. If you’re not an official member of the dominant group (which in America is largely comprised of middle- and upper-class, educated white men) you can always cozy up to the dominant group by acting in ways that show whose side you’re on. This is why we hear that women are so often each other’s worst enemies: If you’re a smart, ambitious, driven woman you can lessen the threat you pose to the status quo by helping to smack down other smart, ambitious, driven women.

But, wow, talk about trading off long-term change for short-term rewards. The Brazilian revolutionary Paulo Freire calls this “horizontal violence”: oppressed peoples “striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons.” If you want a seat at the table, it may very well be faster and less painful to ingratiate yourself instead of shoving your way in; but on the other hand, you have no power to keep yourself at the table once you get there. If the dominant group ever decides you’re not docile or pretty or respectful or interesting enough, they can pull the table away.

On International Women’s Day, I’m calling for more attention to the long revolution, for more attention to the difficult and complicated work of building a movement based on solidarity, mutual respect and support, and making room for a variety of voices, interests, and needs. I’m calling for more attention to the ways in which we hurt each other, diminish the voices of our comrades, use any power we gain individually as a weapon against others who would like a little bit of power too.

I’m not calling for an end to disagreement or conflict within the movement toward equality; disagreement is useful, and conflict is inevitable. But I am calling for more introspection, for more thought put into why and how and where we disagree, into why and how and where we try to silence each other in the exact ways we find so despicable when it comes from outsiders to our communities and movements. I’m calling for all of us to examine our own behavior, our own attitudes, our own understandable struggles with power, beliefs, and attitudes about ourselves and about others who have joined with us to fight for progress and equality. I’m calling for more public generosity and private compassion. I’m calling for it from myself most of all, starting now and henceforth; but I do hope that you’ll join me.

Posted in culture, feminism, gender politics, human rights, social justice | 1 Comment »

Blog for International Women’s Day

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 7, 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010, is International Women’s Day, and Gender Across Borders is helping to get the word out by asking people to blog on this year’s theme: “Equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all.”

Find out more at Gender Across Borders. Sign up to blog for IWD here.

Posted in blogging, feminism, gender politics, human rights | 1 Comment »

"Math class is tough!" a few thoughts on a problematic metaphor for learning

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 21, 2010

Academics, and especially academics who think about culture (which is to say, more or less, all academics), seem to really like metaphors and similes. Here’s one that made me mad this week.

Jim Greeno: Learning how to participate is like being in a kitchen.
Situativity theorist Jim Greeno, in “Number Sense as Situated Knowing in a Conceptual Domain,” considers how people develop conceptual models for participating in disciplinary communities (what he calls “conceptual environments”). He explains that

knowing how to construct models in a domain is like knowing how to work in an environment that has resources for a kind of constructive activity, such as a woodworking shop or a kitchen.

A shop or a kitchen has objects, materials, and tools that can be used to make things. Knowing how to work in such an environment includes knowing what objects and materials are needed for various constructive activities, knowing where to find those objects and materials in the environment, knowing what implements and processes are useful for constructing various things, knowing how to find the implements, and knowing how to use the implements and operate the processes in making the things that can be made.

In constructing conceptual models, the ingredients are representations of specific examples of concepts…. We can think of the conceptual domain as an environment that has representations of concept-examples stored in various places. Knowing where to find these, knowing how to combine them into patterns that form models, and knowing how to operate on the patterns constitute knowledge of the conceptual domain. The representations of concept-examples have to be understood in a special way. They are not only objects that are drawn on paper or represented in the mind. They are objects in the stronger sense that their properties and relations interact in ways that are consistent with the constraints of the domain.

This example would be fine if everybody agreed on a.) where everything belongs in a kitchen; b.) what everything in the kitchen should be used for; c.) what activities afforded by the kitchen are most appropriate; and d.) whether the kitchen is appropriately and effectively designed.

Let’s say, just for kicks, that the cabinets are made for glass and have been installed at just the right height for someone who is, say, at least 5 feet 9.2 inches tall. I’m 5’3″. If I want to get to the materials I need to, I’m going to need to find something to stand on.

If there’s nothing to stand on (and if most people who use the kitchen stand around 5 feet 9 inches, there would be no reason to keep stepstools or the like around), I might try to climb up onto the counters. I might try to find some sort of utensil–a spatula, maybe, or a wooden spoon–to help me access the ingredients I need. If I’m really desperate, I might try to throw things in an effort to shatter the glass cabinet.

To an outside observor, none of the above activities would appear appropriate in the kitchen setting. The spatula is made for cooking, not for prying open cabinets. And shattering glass cabinets–that’s just destructive.

You see my point, I hope.

Then there’s the unavoidable issue of choice of metaphor. Greeno offers a kitchen or a woodworking shop, which we might say is a nice way to offer one example for each gender! But though it’s true that Greeno doesn’t take it a step farther to prescribe who gets to enter which type of space, the gendered nature of the examples is undeniable. These examples are not neutral, just as the practices that occur in the examples are not benign, at least not always, and not for everybody.

Metaphors do lots of good work for us; indeed, it may be that our entire culture rests on a bed of shared metaphors. As Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day write in their 2000 book Information ecologies: using technology with heart,

Metaphors are a useful form of shorthand…. But it is important to recognize that all metaphors channel and limit our thinking, as well as bring in useful associations from other contexts. That is the purpose of a metaphor, after all–to steer us to think about the topic this way rather than some other way.

What are you doing? Stop–stop throwing soup cans at the cabinets! You’re liable to break something!

To which you respond: I never liked tomato soup much anyway. And I sure as hell hate glass cabinets. Good riddance, you say, even as you’re being hustled out of the kitchen. Good–

And that’s when you realize they’ve shut the door behind you. Maybe even locked it. See what kind of trouble metaphors get us into?

Posted in academia, education, feminism, gender politics, language, learning sciences, social justice, teaching | Leave a Comment »

I’m kind of appalled by Clay Shirky

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 17, 2010

You may have read Clay Shirky’s recent post, “a rant about women.” You may also have read, heard, or participated in the chaos and conversation that sprung up around it. And rightly so, given this representative chunk of Shirky’s post:

Remember David Hampton, the con artist immortalized in “Six Degrees of Separation”, who pretended he was Sydney Poitier’s son? He lied his way into restaurants and clubs, managed to borrow money, and crashed in celebrity guest rooms. He didn’t miss the fact that he was taking a risk, or that he might suffer. He just didn’t care.

It’s not that women will be better off being con artists; a lot of con artists aren’t better off being con artists either. It’s just that until women have role models who are willing to risk incarceration to get ahead, they’ll miss out on channelling smaller amounts of self-promoting con artistry to get what they want, and if they can’t do that, they’ll get less of what they want than they want.

There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less. They will also end up in jail less, but I don’t think we get the rewards without the risks….

And it looks to me like women in general, and the women whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren’t just bad at behaving like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks. They are bad at behaving like self-promoting narcissists, anti-social obsessives, or pompous blowhards, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in their best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can’t say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

There are enough smart people out there responding to this piece that I don’t need to add more noise to the cacophony. But I do want to speak up as a dues-paying member of Women Who Run With The Arrogant Self-Aggrandizing Jerks And Sometimes Behave Like Arrogant Self-Aggrandizing Jerks Themselves.

Did I mention I’m a dues-paying member?

Because it’s not easy to self-promote. It’s not easy to stand up and say things that might be seen as stupid–or worse, dismissed because they come from a woman. It’s not easy to announce to people “You should listen to me because I am awesome and the work I do is also awesome.” It’s not easy, in part because it takes extreme confidence (or at least something that looks to other people like confidence) to stand up and ask for attention, respect, recognition; and it’s also not easy because the backlash is often so great, and simultaneously so subtle, that it sometimes feels like a one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of deal.

My experience, in academia anyway, is that the tradeoff is this: If you want respect, authority, and platforms for broadcasting your ideas to a wider public, you have to self-promote; and if you succeed in gaining respect, authority, and platforms for speaking it’s often at the cost of personal and professional relationships.

Let me say it more clearly: If you’re a woman and you want to be heard, especially in academia, you have to knock on every door, announce your presence to everyone, and holler your qualifications at everyone in earshot. And if you do it right, people will hate you.

It will be harder to get daily work accomplished, because your colleagues will be stiff and formal with you. Male colleagues will challenge your knowledge and authority, and if that fails they will simply demean you in front of others. Female colleagues–and this is the really painful part–will shrink from you because in speaking so loudly, you’ve drowned out their voices. Some women, in an attempt to ally themselves with the people in charge, will also attempt to challenge and demean you.

(Another way to gain respect and authority, by the way, is to ally yourself with the people in charge, who in this case are primarily white guys. The backlash that comes out of this type of effort, though, is that you risk losing your place at the table the minute you misbehave. Then you have to come grovelling back, apologizing with downcast eyes, and take what scraps you can.)

Sure, men who self-promote risk hostility and resentment–but it’s a different kind of hostility and resentment than what women experience. As members of the dominant cultural group, men who self-promote may be seen as a threat to specific people, but they certainly don’t represent a threat to the established social order.

Women who are aware of the social positioning of women as a non-dominant group (and not all women are aware of this positioning, which is fine but sort of sad) develop a complex relationship to the decisions they make in crafting their public personae. They may engage in the kind of “arrogant, stupid” behavior that Shirky says is the best way to get ahead, but they do so knowing that some people (including, apparently, Shirky) will see this as “behaving more like men.” They may choose to self-promote far less aggressively than Shirky would probably find useful, and to either accept that they will have trouble getting heard or find platforms for speaking where less self-promotion, less arrogance, is perfectly okay.

Or–and this is what lots of women, including me, do–they may adopt multiple identities, more identities, with more complicated politics, than those that men choose or are forced to adopt, in order to manage the competing demands on their behavior. This is not, lest I be misunderstood, the kind of identity cultivation that allows people to say “I have multiple identities! I’m an academic, and I’m also a mother, and I’m also a sister, and I’m also a friend.” This is something much more complicated: It’s “I’m this sort of academic-mother-sister-friend in this type of context, and I’m this sort of academic-mother-sister-friend in that type of context, and I’m this sort of academic-mother-sister-friend in that type of context with this person removed” and so on.

I don’t quite know how to end this post, except to say that lots of people I like and respect think that Shirky is right on the money. And to add that my opinions are mine alone and not necessarily representative of all women, and that–and this is really important–I’m speaking from a position of relative privilege, since I’m a white, well-educated woman. I’m also thin, young, and not in any way physically disabled. I can’t imagine how much more complicated this gets for someone who’s even one step further removed from the dominant group than I am.

Posted in academia, bigotry, celebrity, Clay Shirky, culture, feminism, gender politics, human rights, politics, social justice | 7 Comments »

on ageism, sexism, and bad behavior: what we can learn from Dave Winer

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on January 11, 2010

Over at scripting.com, ageism is becoming an issue for Dave Winer.

Here’s how it went down, in Winer’s own words:

Earlier today I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR and heard an interview with Keli Goff from the Huffington Post. The interview started with an explanation that linked Reid’s embarassing words (about Obama’s race) to his age. She went out on a limb, way too far, although later in the interview she walked it back a bit.

This led to an afternoon of heated exchanges on Twitter. Lots of nasty stuff was said about people of my age, most of them untrue. What troubles me is that there is no general acceptance for insults based on race, religion or gender, but age-based insults have no taboo.

Dave Winer got attacked on Twitter today, no doubt about it. But what Winer doesn’t point out here is that he gave as good as he got: He came out absolutely swinging, excoriating Groff and smacking back at anyone who disagreed with him, insulted him, or–and you can imagine the temptation was just too great for some of Winer’s followers–notified him that he’s too old to know what he’s talking about. Here’s a clip of Winer’s twitter feed:

More than one person responded to Winer with some version of this:

I have to admit, it’s kinda tough to disagree with @miniver.

Before I go on, I want to cop to my own bad behavior with respect to ageism: In the past, and on this very blog, I have offered up Rupert Murdoch as “further proof of why old people should not be allowed to run media conglomerates.” That was blatant ageism, pure and simple, and it was wrong, and it’s not okay, even when used as a rhetorical device. (In retrospect, I should have offered up Rupert Murdoch as further proof of why hopelessly avaricious people should not be allowed to run media conglomerates.) I am sorry. I promise to try harder from here on out to avoid such wrong-headed attitudes and discriminatory language.

Now then.

In some ways, ageism is similar to sexism in that it’s brutally apparent to those who are the victims of it, even if others (non-victims) don’t see how a person might take offense. (I imagine, but don’t know for sure, that the same comparison could be made to other forms of prejudice–I’m just sticking with what I know best here and leaving the rest to others who know better than I.) People who react with anger to sexism, as to ageism, are treated like they just have their panties on a little too tight. “It’s just a fact that women are better at raising children.” “It’s just a fact that older people don’t understand the digital revolution.” Both disempower the target. Both are destabilizing. And both are treated as socially acceptable in lots of situations where everyone should know better. (By the way, here’s the mp3 of the Talk of the Nation conversation–Winer’s right to take issue with what’s clearly blatant ageism.)

Oh, but while I’m at it, I should also mention that women are exposed to sexism throughout their lives, so they’re used to it and develop strategies for coping with it as it happens and afterward. But ageism is perhaps as startling and frustrating as it is for the simple reason that its victims are experiencing a prejudice that’s entirely new to them. Of course, women who are the targets of ageism get hit with the double-disempowerment that comes with not only being female but being an old (read: asexual and therefore irrelevant) female. I can’t imagine how the prejudice gets compounded when the target of ageism is nonwhite, nonstraight, or otherwise out of the mainstream.

Winer self-identifies as white and he’s presumably straight (though a significant web presence has insinuated that he is, among other things, gay–about which more in a second), which perhaps explains his extreme outrage at the ageism directed straight at him today. (I agree with Anil Dash, who offered Winer this advice via Twitter:

@davewiner The way you are saying what you’re saying is undoing the argument you’re trying to make. Take a deep breath, come back in a bit.)

If you’ve rarely, or never, experienced the prick of arbitrary bigotry, then the first prick stings perhaps all the more deeply, scalds all the more powerfully. I still remember my first encounter with sexism, when my fourth grade teacher told me I couldn’t climb the playground swingsets to unwind the swings because I was a girl. It never gets less galling. It’s just that we do our best to get better at responding, in word and in deed. The fourth grade me, surprised, gave in and went inside. The 32-year-old me, by contrast, might climb the swingset anyway, in direct defiance of her teacher. (The 32-year-old me may, incidentally, actually be worse at getting what she wants.)

There’s a side note to this story, an interesting one: Dave Winer apparently carries a reputation for bad behavior in online communities. I didn’t know this until this evening, when I started researching Winer’s backstory for this post. I started following him on Twitter because of his status as a pioneer in weblogging, and until today knew next to nothing else about him. But here’s a sample of what I learned about how Winer responds to criticism:

  • Software developer and writer Mark Pilgrim decries Winer’s propensity for personal attacks against those who criticize his work (here’s What’s your Winer number? an algorithm for determining how your experience of Winer’s verbal abuse compares to the experiences of the hordes of others who have fallen victim to it, and here’s a post where Pilgrim makes public Winer’s response to the Winer number post–take a look at Winer’s comments below the post).
  • Here’s Matthew Ingram on Winer’s response to public criticism of a post Winer wrote called “Why Facebook Sucks.” When Stowe Boyd disagreed with Winer’s post, Ingram writes, Winer apparently called Boyd “a creep” and “an idiot.”
  • Here’s Jason Calacanis, who names Winer as a friend but still offers his experience of “getting Winered” during a public presentation.

The list goes on. The ridiculous “gay” insinuation–well, that sort of bad behavior is what people resort to when they feel people in positions of power are acting in violation of the public trust–when they see arrogance, pettiness and rudeness from someone who has no reason to act so poorly.

There are at least two lessons to draw from the Winer / ageism story: First, that the worn grooves of prejudice and discrimination are so, so easy for humans, flawed as we are, to fall into, and that it is our responsibility to guard against taking that easy path; and second, that bad behavior in communities of practice is still not okay, no matter who you are. The difference these days, of course, is that reputation not only precedes you but follows behind you like a little yipping terrier. It’s getting harder and harder to walk into a room you’ve never entered without everyone noticing the constant bark of that little dog.

Posted in bigotry, celebrity, feminism, gender politics, lame, politics, racism | 3 Comments »

can we defend danah boyd while also wondering if there could have been a better response?

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on November 24, 2009

file under: just about the hardest blogpost I’ve written to date


I just spent a good few hours catching up on the Web 2.0 Expo / danah boyd debacle. You know the one I’m talking about (and if you don’t, you can read about it here, here, and here).

As a quick reminder, boyd gave a keynote at the event last week and by all accounts failed fairly resoundingly, especially given her renown for fantastic presentation style. According to all in attendance (including boyd herself), she spoke too quickly, read from her notes, and struggled to get her points across. If you weren’t in attendance, a video of her presentation is below.

Issues of ethics, good behavior, and bullying aside, I’m most interested in boyd’s response to the event. On her blog, she published a reflection on the event, which alternated between clear-headed analysis of her mistakes and a resentful self-defense.

Now bear with me for a second, because I stand here in absolute defense of boyd against her critics. But I also, because as a young female academic myself I cannot afford not to, want to offer a reflection on boyd’s reflection, which to me felt somewhat overly defensive.

boyd admits that her delivery was fairly bad, but she defends herself with a host of excuses, including the following (all emphases, to highlight points of self-defense, are mine):

Because of the high profile nature of Web2.0 Expo, I decided to write a brand new talk. Personally, I love the challenge and I get bored of giving the same talk over and over and over again. Of course, the stump speech is much more fluid, much more guaranteed. But new talks force folks to think differently and guarantee that I target those who hear me talk often and those who have never seen me talk before.

A week before the conference, I received word from the organizers that I was not going to have my laptop on stage with me. The dirty secret is that I actually read a lot of my talks but the audience doesn’t actually realize this because scanning between my computer and the audience is usually pretty easy. So it doesn’t look like I’m reading. But without a laptop on stage, I have to rely on paper. I pushed back, asked to get my notes on the screen in front of me, but was told that this wasn’t going to be possible. I was told that I was going to have a podium. So I resigned to having a podium. Again, as an academic, I’ve learned to read from podiums without folks fully realizing that I am reading.

When I showed up at the conference, I realized that the setup was different than I imagined. The podium was not angled, meaning that the paper would lie flat, making it harder to read and get away with it. Not good. But I figured that I knew the talk well enough to not sweat it.

I only learned about the Twitter feed shortly before my talk. I didn’t know whether or not it was filtered. I also didn’t get to see the talks by the previous speakers so I didn’t know anything about what was going up on the screen.

When I walked out on stage, I was also in for a new shock: the lights were painfully bright. The only person I could see in the “audience” was James Duncan Davidson who was taking photographs. Otherwise, it was complete white-out. Taken aback by this, my talk started out rough.

Now, normally, I get into a flow with my talks after about 2 minutes. The first two minutes are usually painfully rushed and have no rhythm as I work out my nerves, but then I start to flow. I’ve adjusted to this over the years by giving myself 2 minutes of fluff text to begin with, content that sets the stage but can be ignored. And then once I’m into a talk, I gel with the audience. But this assumes one critical thing: that I can see the audience. I’m used to audiences who are staring at their laptops, but I’m not used to being completely blinded.

All of the above points are undoubtedly true but obscure a crucial point: that even the most stellar academics just sometimes have bad days. This was a bad presentation from a stellar academic, and it should be enough to leave it at that.

The audience should have left it at that, but did not. They treated boyd’s struggle with glee, with an evil, hysterical schadenfreude. So instead of defending herself by explaining how the cards were stacked against her, boyd should have spent her time reviling the spectacularly bad behavior of the keynote audience. This behavior is exemplified through the following tweets, which were broadcast on a screen behind the podium, out of boyd’s range of vision:

This guy, whose profile names him as Doug V, was one of boyd’s most active hecklers. Other chunks of the twitter stream, in which @dugwork was a regular and active participant, included this:

and this:

Then, when the twitter feed was apparently taken off the screen by conference moderators, this:

In her blog reflection, boyd expressed anger and frustration, and rightfully so: this was bullying at its most despicable.

There’s also, as boyd herself points out, a gender dynamic to this kind of bullying. She refers to the hecklers as the tech version of 12-year-old boys with whiteboards. She asks:

what’s with the folks who think it’s cool to objectify speakers and talk about them as sexual objects? The worst part of backchannels for me is being forced to remember that there are always guys out there who simply see me as a fuckable object. Sure, writing crass crap on public whiteboards is funny… if you’re 12. But why why why spend thousands of dollars to publicly objectify women just because you can? This is the part that makes me angry.

I parsed the archived twitter stream, tweet by tweet, and didn’t find anything in there that suggested the audience saw or was trying to treat her as a sex object, though I don’t doubt she felt completely objectified. Let me reiterate: I do not doubt that she experienced this bullying as objectifying, possibly terrifying, definitely absolutely demoralizing. I don’t doubt that I would feel exactly the same way. In fact, isn’t that the point? It didn’t even take an outright sexual comment for boyd to feel objectified, sexualized, and treated like a “fuckable object.” That’s what the best hecklers can do to even the most capable female speakers. 

And here’s the part where I start to feel incredibly torn, because a huge piece of me wants to leave it at that, to stand up and start swinging at boyd’s bullies. They rose up en masse against her, in a public, cruel, and mean-spirited way. I have deep suspicions, just as boyd does, that gender played a significant role in helping the steam to build: We (us smartypantses in audiences filled with other smartypantses) are more likely to want to undermine women, especially when they dare to speak with authority, especially when they dare to present themselves as confident, competent, and infallible, especially when they dare to also seem in any way vulnerable. Seriously, you guys, stop being such enormous assholes. Stop using your misogyny as an excuse to be cruel. I’m so effing tired of you effers.

I also struggle with boyd’s blogged response to the heckling, because I worry that it plays into the very weaknesses that so many of the hecklers (and techies and academics and so on) suspect smart, confident, brash women harbor. Women are overly emotional. We whine when things don’t go our way. If people don’t play by our rules, we pick up our toys and go home.

Now, I don’t mind being critiqued,” boyd writes;

I think that being a public figure automatically involves that. I’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years, but there are still things that get to me. And the situation at Web2.0 Expo was one of those. Part of the problem for me is that, as a speaker, I work hard to try to create a conversation with the audience. When it’s not possible or when I do a poor job, it sucks. But it also really sucks to just be the talking head as everyone else is having a conversation literally behind your back. It makes you feel like a marionette. And frankly, if that’s what public speaking is going to be like, I’m out.

So I have a favor to ask… I am going to be giving a bunch of public speaking performances at web conferences in the next couple of months: Supernova and Le Web in December, SXSW in March, WWW in April. I will do my darndest to give new, thought-provoking talks that will leave your brain buzzing. I will try really really hard to speak slowly. But in return, please come with some respect. Please treat me like a person, not an object. Come to talk with me, not about me. I’m ready and willing to listen, but I need you to be as well. And if you don’t want to listen, fine, don’t. But please don’t distract your neighbors with crude remarks. Let’s make public speaking and public listening an art form. Maybe that’s too much to ask for, but really, I need to feel like it’s worth it again.

It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s not defensible that female intellectuals are held to a different standard than male intellectuals are. It’s abominable how the audience treated boyd during her keynote. And not having ever been subjected to the kind of public bullying boyd was subjected to, I don’t know how I would react given the same situation: probably with the same rage, resentment, and abject pain that boyd expresses in her post.

But the solution is not to plead to the audience to be nicer next time. The solution is to come out swinging, to come out with both barrels smoking, to storm the audience with righteous indignation, to stand up and say yes, I screwed up, and fuck you all because I’ll be back up here next year (or next month, or next week) and you’ll still be sitting down there in the audience watching me shine. Good luck with your puny little attempt at twitter fame.

boyd and I are approximately the same age, and I look to her as one model of female academic. I believe that those of us who are strong enough to take it (and early evidence suggests that boyd is indeed strong enough) have a responsibility–an ethical duty–to stand in scrappy, defiant, unapologetic opposition to the stupid, ignorant, misogynistic, did I mention ignorant?–ignorant theories about how women should act and how to take them down if they get too presumptuous, too arrogant, too cocky to fit their preconceptions.

Here’s what you say in response: not Can you please be nicer next time? but Fuck you. 

Here’s what you say: Fuck you. I’ll see you next year.

Posted in academia, academics, celebrity, conferences, danah boyd, feminism, human rights, lame, obnoxious | 11 Comments »