Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From Erica: in the news lately

After my unexpected absence due to intense legal term papers to write, I'm back! With some recent news items, no less. Check them out:

The Episcopalian Church has elected a lesbian woman to be the new bishop for the archdiocese of Los Angeles, which is causing a massive schism in the broader Episcopalian community. You can imagine my two cents on the issue: homophobia is far from over in our country, and extends way beyond the issue of gay marriage. But another question that comes to mind when I consider the issue is this: why are people of faith so much easier to convince of the veracity of an interpretation of a religious text when it's interpreted in a hateful, bigoted, or restrictive manner?

In acronym-land, news organizations and scientists are starting to pick up on yet another letter in meaning of LGBTT2IQQA. While for most people the acronym is just LGB or LGBT, the long version (standing for "lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirit, intersex, queer, questioning, asexual"- and it's STILL underinclusive) has acknowledged for a long time that there are folks out there who simply aren't interested in sex, or sex with other people. Science is finally catching up as researchers acknowledge that asexuality is, in fact, a real state of being. Welcome to the 21st century, science, where sexuality isn't as easy as looking for biological imperative.

In Orlando, Florida, a trans teen was harassed by the manager of a McDonald's to which she was applying when she was forced to check male or female in an optional application question. The manager apparently thought it was acceptable to point out that the sex she checked and her gender presentation didn't match his idea of the binary, and used various slurs to refer to her before kicking her out. Thankfully, Zikerria has a spine of steel, and has sued for discrimination. The manager's been fired, and hopefully her lawsuit draws attention to the continued inequalities our society forces upon trans folk. Good luck, Zikerria- you'll need it.

We also highlight a whole can of worms when we celebrate the fact that Huston, Texas is the first major American city to elect an openly lesbian mayor. Not only is she a lesbian, but she's also conservative- which may seem like an oxymoron, but is exciting solely for the reason that it demonstrates to the broader populace (we hope!) that sexuality and politics are not synonymous. The newspaper that brings us this story also brings us a summary of the year's landmark events for "gay rights," as they call it, from Proposition 8 to this mayoral election. It's been quite a year, folks, and while we've brought a lot of visibility to queer rights, we've also lost a lot of ground.

Finally, Nevada state officials have approved a method for testing male prostitutes for STIs, which means that soon male prostitutes will be able to be work with a license. The current regulations permit prostitutes to do sex work if they are approved for licensure, and the license requires regular testing for STIs- that is, it requires regular cervical testing. The new law permits urethral testing for men, which sounds quite uncomfortable but is a step in the right direction for protecting males who wish to be sex workers. I have to admit, though, I'm curious why the language had to be so specific in the first place as to require cervical testing. Did the legislators of the state renowned for its Sin City honestly think that they didn't have trans or male prostitutes?

That's all for now, folks!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

From Emily: Female Authority in the Classroom cont.

This is a post I just wrote for my personal blog, but I thought I'd share it here too:

Sometimes I grow so used to talking about gender amongst my like-minded friends that I forget how foreign some of my ideas will seem to those who oppose the premises that drive feminism. I forget that as soon as I mention the word "feminist," or explain that "gender" is by definition only culturally derived, the people I am speaking to will assume everything I say and do goes back to my hatred of men and my firm belief that men are out to get me. And then they will interpret everything - yes, everything - I say, through that lens.

Today I had some friends over from my home ward (if you're not LDS, what I mean is that they're from the same congregation I attend back in New Hampshire). One of my friends, Meghan, is dating a boy whose name I am sad to say I do not remember. He is a chemical engineering student, and the first time I met him, he offended me by explaining that English is a useless subject for him. He informed me of this immediately after I had learned that he was signed up for a class that I am team-teaching with a professor next semester.

Well, I should have kept my mouth shut, but I'm in the middle of some heavy revisions on a paper about the male returned missionary phenomenon at BYU, and how that affects power dynamics in sections of first year writing, when they're taught by young, female, grad students. I've been reading through You Just Don't Understand by Deborah Tannen, a psychologist who explains a lot of male-female miscommunication with the concept that men see relationships in terms of hierarchy and women in terms of intimacy. While I take issue with Tannen's readiness to generalize these patterns, these patterns provide a helpful explanation behind the seemingly bizarre classroom dynamics I've encountered with my students.

I brought this topic up at the Ward Reunion because I was curious what the two men present (my sister's husband and Meghan's boyfriend) had to say about the idea of seeing relationships as hierarchies. And the way Meghan's boyfriend responded backed up everything I've been theorizing, along with everything Tannen argues. As soon as I mentioned gender, I saw Meghan reach over, and pat her boyfriend's knee. I started feeling a little apprehensive. But being me, I went ahead with the conversation anyway.

His response? He made a few different points, and I'd like to put them in list form, just because they're easier to process that way:

1. "I had a grad student for my 150 teacher after my mission, and I had no problem with a peer teaching me. We called her by her first name, and sure she was grading me, but we were still peers, and I liked it."

2. "It's fine [in reference to me team-teaching his 316 class]. I took one of my engineering classes early, so I'm the TA for people who are my peers or even my TAs in other classes. So I'm used to having peers teaching me."

I then pointed out that I have my students call me Ms./ Miss and then my last name. And his responses changed a bit.

3. "Well, I'm older than you. If I were in your class and you wanted me to call you Miss, that wouldn't seem right since we're peers."

I then said, "well, none of my students are older than me right now. What if you were 21, straight off the mission?"

4. "We'd still be peers. You're a grad student, not a professor, and if I knew my teacher wasn't really a professor and was trying to be authoritative anyway, that'd bother me. That might be your problem. I can see why that would bother some of your students."

Me: My students are not my academic peers

Him: Yes, they are. You've taken some more classes, but you're still peers.

Me: Not in that setting we're not.

Him: Yes, you are.

Me: Your responses have backed up everything I've found in my research. This is amazing!! [ overly excited, to try to remove any tension, with my childlike enthusiasm].

My sister's husband: I'm comfortable with accepting that even if in a different setting a 150 teacher isn't more advanced than me, they have more expertise than their students in that setting. I'm very comfortable with that as a student, regardless of their age, etc.

At first I just wanted to cry over how frustrating the whole conversation was, because I meet this kind of resistance to feminist-informed ideas everywhere I go. Sometimes it makes it hard for me to tell whether my logic is flawed, or whether I'm simply up against anti-feminism. But if I apply Deborah Tannen's research and theories, here's how I can interpret the struggle that played out in that scene: as a woman, I'm not thinking in terms of hierarchy, where I'm above my students, or better than them because I'm their teacher. I'm thinking in terms of the kind of respect that I deserve in the specific teacher-student relationship we have. So I maintain "I'm not your peer," by dressing professionally, asking them to call me Ms.____, and maintaining a professional distance. I do this to maintain the appropriate distance.

As men, however, they see that in any other context, I'd be their peer. We're both students, we're about the same age, and we're both in a church where we could easily be ward members together. In fact, they could receive church callings that put them in stewardship over me. If they see relationships in hierarchy, then by refusing to act like a peer, I am telling them that I think they're lower than me. That seems like a falsehood to them, so they resist it and act up in ways designed to return me to their status level. The more polite students try to come up to my level, while the seemingly rude students try to drag me down to theirs.

As a woman who is very much steeped in female perspective, I perceive their behavior as an attack on me as a person and on our comraderie as teacher and student. I see their rejections of my authority over them in this area as evidence that they don't respect me as a person, or as an expert. When the students try to join me at my level, however, I see them as validating the relationship of reciprocated respect that I want to have between myself and students. They do their assignments on time, are kind to me, and maybe even take the time to say "hi, how are you?" and get to know me as a friend. I still maintain a bit of a distance there, but I appreciate what I see as a gesture to deepen the personal connection between teacher and student. But perhaps their main goal is to make sure I am no longer their superior.

Also, now that I think back on it, the male students most likely to even the score through diligence and politeness are the students whose work I praise and grade highly. By scoring their work high, I express admiration for them as students instead of highlighting my position above them in a hierarchy. In fact, the rude responses I've received from male students have usually come when my position above them in a hierarchy was highlighted through a low grade or my refusal to budge on one of my policies. While they might not like being lower on a hierarchy in general, they'll especially bristle if I remind them of their position, when they see no evidence that I have a right to be above them in that hierarchy.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

From Emily: Female Domestic Abusers and Male Victims

I just came across an article about a couple who signed an agreement to limit a wife's abuse of the husband to once a week

I thought it fit in nicely with the recent media craze over Tiger Woods, and this lovely SNL video about Tiger Woods, which makes light of domestic abuse perpetrated by a woman against a man.

It should go without saying that any type of person can experience abuse at the hands of any other type of person. And movies or shows that consistently make light of a woman's ability to commit abuse against a man reinforce the extra burden of shame a man might feel over admitting that he's a victim of domestic abuse. Nobody, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, level of physical able-ness, religion, etc. etc. deserves abuse. Abuse is always a problem, no matter who commits it and who experiences it.

Friday, December 4, 2009

From Emily: The Gender Spotlight and the Classroom

Why have Erica and I have fallen off the face of the planet recently? Two words: term papers. They have arisen as suddenly as we should have expected from the beginning of the semester, and yet boy can they be consuming! One of my term papers, however, relates to our ongoing gendered discussions, so I want to briefly introduce some of those ideas.

I'm currently a grad student at BYU, and along with taking classes, etc. I am teaching first year writing. All new instructors take a composition pedagogy class, which is where this term paper comes in. For my term paper, I decided to look at an issue I'm passionate about, but where I'd also like to find a solution.

The issue I've chosen is the "gender spotlight" (as a male friend put it) that often inconveniences female teachers. Students often don't treat female teachers with the same level of respect as male teachers, and in my classroom I found that my female students showed me much more respect than some of my male students. Female students never criticize my policies in front of the entire class, or speak to me with a rudely sarcastic tone, or deliberately and repeatedly call me by my first name, even when I've asked the class to call me Ms._______ (sorry, not revealing my last name). If a female student doesn't like her grade, she'll usually come and ask me how to make her writing better in the future, whereas a male student will get annoyed and think I've graded him unfairly.

There are exceptions to this, of course. But as I've been writing this paper, I've honed in on something that's unique to BYU: the male returned missionary. If you're unfamiliar with LDS culture, here's a brief breakdown: for men in the LDS church, it's considered an obligation to spend two years as a volunteer missionary, provided the man's health doesn't prevent him from going. Usually men go when they're nineteen and then come back when they're twenty-one. While they're on their missions, they don't date. They spend all of their time assigned in pairs with other male missionaries, which builds a strong bond between all the male missionaries but also saturates them with male communication. In terms of leadership, they answer to a male mission president, in addition to local male church leaders. When women serve missions, they usually go when they're 21 or older. But within the mission, the leadership positions missionaries are called to, where they're in a position of authority over other missionaries, are always held by male missionaries. Which means that some returning missionaries may be used to having authority and stewardship over women who are a couple years older than them, without having answered directly to a female authority figure for two years.

I'm not saying it's wrong that the LDS church has such a high percentage of male leadership, but there are certainly some repercussions. In BYU's case, what this translates into is an environment where men who take first year writing (FYW) after the mission are at least 21, while many of the graduate instructors are women in their early- and mid- twenties. Sometimes recently returned male RMs have no recent experience answering to a female authority figure, let alone one so close to their age. They may not even have spent much time working with women as colleagues, since male and female missionaries don't spend a ton of time together. While I don't want my students to tremble in awe when I walk in the room, they do need to show me respect in basic ways, such as not texting in class (especially not when they're sitting in the front row!), not demanding that I "frickin'" do anything, and recognizing the fact that at the end of the day I do indeed determine the grade their work has earned.

As luck would have it, I happen to have an unusual number of male RM students, which creates very unique classroom dynamics. I'd say about half of them are very respectful, a quarter are rude, and another quarter skirt the line. What is interesting to me is that the ones who are most respectful still treat me more like a peer. Which I don't mind at all - I think that's great. I think it's possible to be respectful but also feel comfortable and friendly. These students do their work on time, they earn good grades as a result of doing their work well and on time, and on the occasion that something goes wrong (printer meltdowns, etc.) they don't demand that I make concessions for them. They recognize that there are consequences to everything, even if they also request a little mercy. There's a huge difference between "I'm so sorry I missed my conference slot. Is there any way I can make it up?" versus, "I had a mandatory meeting for x campus organization, so I would hope I'll still get credit for the conference." Especially when no documentation is ever provided, excusing the student because of x obligation.

In my term paper, I focus on trying to find solutions for the male RMs who seem uncomfortable with female authority, but I think there are many other important questions about gender and power relations in the classroom. For one, I've been fascinated by how my name factors into power relations. The male students who are straight out of high school, and all the female students, call me Ms.____. The male RMs usually avoid calling me anything at all. They simply don't address me in emails or in class, though one student will in a half-joking tone call me "teacher." A couple of the male RMs have a habit of trying to call me by my first name, but whenever they want something and need to be on my good side, they'll switch back and call me Ms._____. I can't help but wonder if it's a conscious decision.

I could speculate on why they do these things forever, but the truth is that I can't read their minds. All I know is that my term paper is still calling my name. There's a ton more I could write on this topic, but you really don't want to hear all of that. One amusing bit is how confused some of my colleagues have been as I've tried to use the term "cisgendered" in my paper. Even though I explain in the paper what that means, some of them have such a polarized conception of gender to begin with that it's unthinkable to even define a school of thought where gender is polarized. The thought that some see gender as more of a continuum is simply unthinkable. Interesting how language and our grasp of concepts interact, huh?

If anyone has similar, different, contradictory experiences, etc. I'd love to hear them.