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 ‘social justice’ Category

principles for ethical educational research

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 15, 2010

I’ve been thinking lately about the burden of speaking for others.

Because I’m an educational researcher, and speaking for others is the heart of what we do. We walk into a classroom, watch some things happen for a little while, then make decisions about which stories are worth telling, and how, and why, and to whom. And this is precisely what we’re supposed to do. This is precisely why we head into the classroom in the first place: to tell stories about what learning looks like.

But it can be such a heavy burden, this speaking for others. You know the burden is heavy when the simplest challenge is finding a way to represent what happened in a way that everybody would agree is reasonable and accurate. But that’s not where our responsibility ends, because no research findings are politically or socially neutral. Every representation of research is an articulation of a belief system; it’s an expression of a worldview; it’s a document that leads people to act in ways that can help or hurt the populations we hope to represent.

And the burden gets heavier for researchers working with marginalized, oppressed, or disenfranchised populations, since speaking for these groups can so easily fall into a reproduction of the oppression that rains down on them from all around. Paulo Freire warns us against the “false charity” that so often comes from members of dominant groups who wish to help the oppressed:

False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need to be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.

It seems to me that false charity emerges when a person becomes too confident that she knows and understands the needs and interests of the oppressed groups she hopes to represent. False charity can therefore look like an awful lot of things: Research focusing on vocational education for poor kids. (Why would we dare to assume working class kids wouldn’t want to go to college?) Research showing working class kids are capable of doing college-level work. (Using college readiness as our measure of ‘success’ allows policymakers to continue to make decisions that assume that college readiness is the most important goal, thereby continuing to marginalize kids for whom college is neither desired nor possible.) Research documenting the learning trajectories of immigrant students. (We’re at a cultural point at which nearly anything that’s said about immigrants, especially in America, can be twisted to hurt the very populations it’s intended to help.)

I’ve been working in a small alternative high school populated primarily by lower class and working-class kids. I’ve seen miracles happen in this school for many of its students, and I’ve met graduates of the school who talk about their time in the school as the most powerful and important educational experience of their lives. Sitting in a classroom in this school, or walking down its halls, or talking to its students, reminds me of how powerfully transformative an education can be. I wish you could all spend a day at this school. You would walk out joyful, hopeful and optimistic about the future of our children. You would walk out with a renewed faith in human beings.

But you won’t get the chance to visit this school, because the school board decided to shut it down. I probably don’t need to tell you that I think this is a mistake. I further believe that the decision to close this school was motivated by a deep cultural prejudice against poor kids. We don’t often say it out loud, but we hold a cultural belief that a child’s value is largely determined by the likelihood that she will go to college; our culture is embarrassed by its children who are poor, who live in rented houses or youth shelters or foster care, who are not college-bound. Our society is built on the backs of these kids; we need their labor to keep our society running–and this need only embarrasses us all the more.

It’s the job of researchers who work with marginalized populations to represent their research in a way that not only serves the best interests of those populations but also helps to rewrite the cultural narrative that keeps these populations oppressed. It’s not easy work, simple work, or quick work, but it’s necessary work.

With these things in mind, I want to offer a set of principles for educational research that I hope can help guide researchers in our work with marginalized populations–and maybe our work with all sorts of learning populations.

1. We exist in the service of the communities we work for. I have to believe that when we forget this, it’s on accident. But we must never, ever forget that our work should first of all support the needs and interests of both the learners and the educators working inside of our chosen learning communities. This means that we have to actually talk to the learners and educators to find out what they want, and we have to take them at their word and not, for example, guess that if they knew more about the world they’d want something different.

2. We exist to serve the needs and interests of the communities we work for. It is not our job to decide whether a community’s interests are good or right; it’s only our job to work in service of those interests. If a researcher can’t get behind the stated needs and interests of the members of her chosen research community, then she needs to find another community to research.

3. It’s our job to represent our work in ways that support ethical decisions by policymakers and external stakeholders. Educational researchers serve as an important bridge between learning communities and policymakers who make decisions about the futures of those communities. One of our most essential roles is to represent research findings in a way that is clear and useful to policymakers while also representing to those policymakers findings that support the needs and interests of the communities we serve. I’m not saying this is easy. I’m just saying it’s essential.

4. All educational research is social activism, and all educational researchers are social activists. There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. Let me say that again: There is no such thing as politically neutral educational research. All statements of research findings are statements of a belief system about the role of education, and all researchers must therefore do research that both aligns with and serves to articulate that belief system. Further, all researchers must make their belief system clear, to themselves, to the communities they work for, and to policymakers who make decisions about those communities. They must always ensure that their belief system aligns with the needs and interests of the communities they work for, and if there is a conflict then the community’s interests always trump the belief system of its researchers. If the ethical conflict is irreconcilable, then the researcher must find another community to represent.

Here I want to crib a quote from Jim Gee, who laid out his own set of principles for ethical human behavior in his book Social Linguistics and Literacies. After describing these principles, he made this declaration:

I would claim that all human beings would, provided they understood them, accept these conceptual principles. Thus, failing to live up to them, they would, for consistency’s sake, have to morally condemn their own behavior. However, I readily admit that, should you produce people who, understanding these principles, denied them, or acted as though they did, I would not give up the principles. Rather, I would withhold the term ‘human’, in its honorific, not biological, sense, from such people.

This declaration was made in the second edition of Gee’s book; if you own the third edition, don’t bother looking for the quote–for reasons that are unclear to me, he removed it and instead simply asserts that we really shouldn’t bother trying to change the minds of people who disagree with these ethical principles. I want to call for a return to the stronger language. Given the incredibly high stakes of public education in America, we don’t have time for politeness. We’re in a fight for the very lives of the students we serve, and it may be that too much politeness is what got us here in the first place.

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Posted in bigotry, education, human rights, Jim Gee, politics, public schools, schools, social justice, teaching | 4 Comments »

against ‘tolerance’

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 10, 2010

I want to share with you a beautiful piece of prose I encountered via Out Magazine. The essay, “Riding in Cars with Lesbians,”  by Helena Andrews, is the memoir of a woman who grew up with a pair of painfully abusive mothers. Though they mainly directed their abuse at each other, the scars crisscrossing the writer’s emotional terrain are evident everywhere you look. Here’s an excerpt:

A 99-cent store dry erase board saved my life. I’d never given the thing much thought before using it to slash manic slaps of marker onto our Frigidaire. The grown-ups were in the living room arguing during the commercials, trading insults to a soundtrack about sunglasses. Frances, we need to talk about this. My name is Geek, I put ’em on as a shocker. Do whatever you want, Vernell, leave me out of it. Man, I love these Blublockers. I hate you. Everything is clear. Keep your voice down. They block out the sun. Why? Helena knows what a bitch you are. Oh, yeah, I gotta get me some.

I also love this piece because it presents a clear-eyed picture of an abusive household that happens to be headed by a pair of lesbians, though really, the author treats the gay issue as a secondary thing. Sure, the teenaged daughter is embarrassed to have two mothers–but her embarrassment is depicted as on par with the range of things our parents can do to embarrass us. A trashy car, embarrassing wardrobe choices, the fact of a mother and a stepmother with no father in evidence–it’s all approximately equally embarrassing.

We need this sort of narrative.

We need people who can talk about members of the LGBTQ community in terms as human as those we’ve traditionally reserved for mainstream (straight) people. Gays are neither the vile, depraved and hellbound pedophiles that religious and far-right political groups would like you to believe; but neither are we the perfect angels who only have missionary sex at night with the doors locked and the lights out, who want nothing more than a house in the suburbs and our allotment of stock options and children, who pray to the Lord Our God each night before we go to sleep. Like most people in the world, most LGBTQ people fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum. Sometimes we want to act up and act out; sometimes we want  to toss up our queerness like a flaming red mohawk:

And sometimes, like my friends Elaine and Nancy, we just want to get married:

And sometimes, as in Helena Andrews’ essay, we’re far less generous and kind than we wish we could be. Sometimes we can’t help but talk shit about our partners, even in front of children. Sometimes we’re mad enough that we can’t help but take a swing or two, even at the people we love.

It’s not okay to behave badly, but it’s okay to acknowledge that gays could be better or worse people, depending on the day or the circumstances. It’s okay to acknowledge that gays are decent people, beautiful people, sometimes heroic people, but mostly gays are just average people who are trying to live their lives as fully and kindly and with as much joy and love as they can.

I’m not a fan of the notion of “tolerance,” mainly because I believe it suggests that the people who are supposed to be “tolerated” must be proven to be acting “tolerably.” That’s not equality; that’s patronizing. That’s a power differential that favors the status quo. That’s charity, handed out to the trembling hand held up in supplication. That’s a stunted revolution that permits only the most limited type of dancing.

I prefer multiplicity, openness, dialogue. I prefer that we strike down the cultural narrative of gays as a monolithic group walking together in lockstep, especially since that narrative is not borne out by the truth of “gay culture.” I prefer–I propose–that we craft a new narrative, one that presents members of the LGBTQ community as exactly as diverse, as variable, as perfect and flawed, as everyone else in the world.

Posted in beauty, creativity, gay rights, gender politics, human rights, politics, social justice, writing | Leave a Comment »

as goes Detroit…

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 22, 2010

file under: if you’re not mad, you’re not paying attention.

I knew the recession had hit Michigan, my home state, harder than it’s hit any other place in the country; I knew this because I’ve been following the news and because my family lives in Metropolitan Detroit. But my recent trip to Michigan reminded me of just how bad things have gotten.

This is not the Michigan I remember. It’s not just that some stores are boarded up and some houses are sitting empty; entire clusters of stores point their vacant windows toward passing traffic. (The cars are heavily American; the bumper stickers declare support for this or that union; there is pride, after all, for what little it’s worth these days.) Priced to sell! the For Sale signs declare. Will build to suit. It’s not one or two houses that have been emptied out; it’s neighborhoods that have begun to empty, the streets peppered with brown-lawned lots and swinging realtors’ signs.

Recession in Detroit doesn’t only look like this:

 It also looks like this:

And like this, as captured by a Michigan resident running a blog called Sub-Urban Decay:

The word “decimated” literally means “reduced by ten percent.” Decimated, therefore, doesn’t begin to capture the blight tearing through metro Detroit.

Because it’s not just the economy that’s imploding. Detroit Public Schools is on record as the lowest performing urban school district in the country. The graduation rate across DPS hovers at 58%, and the district’s Emergency Financial Manager, Robert Bobb, recently announced planned closures of 45 schools in the district, for a total of 140 closed schools in the last five years. That’s over half the district. And by the way, Bobb was brought in because state law requires it when a district fails to meet basic fiscal responsibility guidelines.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, you may be aware, resigned his post in 2007 upon pleading guilty to two felony counts of obstruction of justice. He was also, among other things, the target of a scandal involving Tamara Greene, a stripper who performed at the mayoral residence and was later shot and killed in an as-yet unsolved case and a civil lawsuit in which Kilpatrick was accused of retaliating against the police officers in charge of the murder investigation. Because this is Detroit, leaving the Manoogian Mansion in disgrace is not the end of your story: Recently, new details have emerged about an FBI corruption investigation involving both Kilpatrick and his father.

Detroit isn’t the only city in Michigan, but in many ways it’s the most important one. As it goes, so goes the state. And it’s going to hell these days even faster than ever.

You want, as you watch the empty buildings flash past, as you hear the stories of families getting their water shut off and people talking about both the need and the utter impossibility of securing a second job in this floundering economy, as you watch the kids boarding their schoolbus in the morning, their parents slowly spreading off toward their cars, their bikes, their houses, you want to identify the simple cause of decay and you want to locate the simple solution. There are some things we know now that we didn’t know before: It’s not necessarily good to treat home ownership as a god-given, universal right. Lending practices should be more rigorous, and banks must be held to vastly higher standards than they have historically been. Credit card companies are largely evil, with a tiny dollop of forced generosity tossed in by the federal government.

But let’s say we take care of all that, and still we watch as 3 out of every 5 kids drop out of high school, and still we watch as people who are doing everything they’re told to do–working a full time job, paying their bills on time, making a budget and sticking to it–still find themselves realizing they’ll never have enough money to retire, still find themselves making tough decisions like whether to set that extra 50 dollars aside at the end of the month for their child’s college fund or to use it to pay the credit card bill.

Let’s say we change the worst laws: We get some honest to goodness health care reform (hooray!), we hold the auto industry’s feet to the fire, we boot the Kwame Kilpatricks. But the problems is that these are patches pasted hastily across a blown-out tire. Politics, local or national, is about as corrupt in this country as can be, and the recent Supreme Court decision knocking down campaign finance laws will only make matters worse. Our economy relies on a few staple industries, puts all its economic eggs in one or two baskets, and then when the bottom of the basket falls out we’re all surprised when we have nothing to eat for breakfast. And you don’t have to be half paying attention to the health care debate to see how much this country hates poor people and minorities, especially its black and Latino population.

It’s shameful, and it leaves me feeling deflated and defeated. What use is there fighting against such powerful bigotry and self-protectionism? How can we turn a current so powerful it sweeps us all downstream?

Yet we do keep trying, I suppose. We take hope in the victories, even the small ones and especially the large ones like yesterday’s historic vote mandating health care for all. It’s a far from perfect bill, diluted down by special interests and the bigotry of conservative politicians, but as my friend Rafi says, I guess we need to take care not to let great be the enemy of good.

And, I would add, we need to take care not to mistake “good” for “good enough.”

Posted in bigotry, culture, education, elections, jobs, politics, poverty, President Obama, public schools, racism, rage, recession, schools, social justice | 2 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 »

Marilyn Musgrave tries to quash health care reform

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on March 10, 2010

Former U.S. Rep Marilyn Musgrave is the kind of politician I was born to hate.

Musgrave built her career out of an anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-empathy and anti-compassion platform. Before she was soundly trounced by Democrat Betsy Markey in 2008, Musgrave was featured on multiple worst-politicians lists. This profile in Rolling Stone explains that

Musgrave does not believe in the separation of church and state. She entered politics in 1990, running for her local school board on a crusade to end sex education as part of the curriculum. By the time her tenure was over, the schools taught “abstinence only” — and offending passages in health textbooks had been blacked out. During her eight years in the Colorado legislature, Musgrave continued her moralizing, overcoming two vetoes by the governor to pass a state ban on gay marriage.

Once in Congress, Musgrave introduced a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage — which she calls “the most important issue that we face today” — nearly a year before a Massachusetts court approved civil unions. “She doesn’t like the idea of one gay person,” says Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts. “So obviously the idea of two of us hanging out makes her very unhappy.” For her opposition to gay marriage — as well as her push to legalize concealed weapons — Musgrave received an endorsement from the KKK in May.

Let me emphasize: Marilyn Musgrave was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Did I mention that she was thumped by Betsy Markey in 2008? Upon her loss, Musgrave disappeared from sight, never officially conceding the election, never congratulating her opponent, never answering reporters’ requests for comment about her loss.

Now Musgrave has resurfaced as the Director of a project called “Votes Have Consequences,” an effort by the Susan B. Anthony List to scare politicians out of voting to fund reproductive health care services. Specifically, this group is trying to scare politicians out of voting for any health care bill that covers a range of procedures including abortion. Here’s how 700 Club-affiliated blogger Dave Brody explains it:

The Susan B. Anthony List will be targeting certain members of Congress who are out of step with their district on the life issue. No specific Congressmen have been identified yet but the group plans to launch an aggressive TV, Radio and print campaign against them very soon. They don’t want to wait until 2010. They believe the issue needs to be addressed right away because pro-life groups have all too often taken a back seat approach to getting involved early in congressional races.

Priorities, folks. Let’s talk about priorities.

Nearly 46 million Americans are living without health insurance. About 8 million of those uninsured are children. And each year, 45,000 Americans die for lack of health insurance. Even if you’re a cold, cruel, apathetic person who doesn’t care about the human toll of our crumbling health care system, you can appreciate the financial drain of dealing with so many uninsured citizens. If you’re uninsured, you avoid expensive doctor visits. You don’t get physicals. You don’t deal with health issues when they first emerge, and if they get bad enough that you need medical care, you wait until you can’t delay any longer and then you take yourself to an emergency room. At this point, more care–more expensive care–is generally warranted.

When it comes to our health care system, we’re in full-on crisis mode. That’s why the effort of Musgrave and her ridiculously named Susan B. Anthony List to quash any reform simply out-Herods Herod.

Posted in elections, gay rights, human rights, politics, social justice | Leave a Comment »

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 »

"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 »