Warming Up the “Chilly Climate” for Women in the Workplace

sandlerHello! Been a while. What better way to ease myself back into blogging than to spend some time acknowledging a trailblazer for women’s rights in education! Last week I went to a presentation at the College of Education given by Bernice Sandler, a longtime activist for eradicating gender discrimination in academia. I didn’t realize at first that this woman is actually kind of a big deal, but quickly caught on during her introduction: among other accomplishments, Dr. Sandler is a Senior Scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in DC; she was recently inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame; and perhaps most famously, as one of the law’s key developers and champions, she is referred to as the “godmother of Title IX.”

In fact, soon after she earned her doctorate in the 1970’s– also at the University of Maryland’s College of Education, where I study– she filed a lawsuit against the university for sex discrimination! It soon became a class-action suit, involving 250 institutions. She told a funny story upon taking the podium. When the College invited her to speak, Sandler thought that whoever issued the invitation must not have known that she had once pressed charges against the institution. She was a bit nervous about coming to speak here, so she decided to be totally aboveboard about it. As she met the Dean, Donna Wiseman, for the first time she said up front, “You know, I filed a lawsuit against the University of Maryland for gender discrimination.” And without missing a beat, Dean Wiseman responded, “Good for you!” So perhaps it’s a sign that things have changed around here.

Unfortunately, things aren’t changing as fast as they should be. And it actually may be due to the fact that in this country where gender discrimination is both gauche and illegal, discrimination carries on in subtle, not often measurable ways. Dr. Sandler claimed that feminist movements may have lost a lot of their steam because we don’t have “horror stories” of sexism anymore; therefore we have less to incite us to active protest.

To demonstrate the sluggish progress toward personal and professional progress for women, Dr. Sandler cited a study by Jo Handelman where a stack of identical resumes were sent out to universities across the country, half of them with a man’s name on it and half with a woman’s name. The researcher asked if the universities would consider hiring this person as a faculty member. Disappointingly, the hypothetical male candidate was found to be more hirable, and when the female candidate was considered hirable, she was offered less money. Not only that, but some respondents even expressed doubt about the truth of the woman candidate’s accomplishments. (You can read more about the study here.)

When was the study published? 2012.

Unfortunately, the issue runs deeper than simple prejudice against women. Everyone– men and women– hold deeply rooted beliefs about gender roles. Even those who are deeply committed to equity have unacknowledged conceptions about how genders should act. Women can be viewed as the symbolic wife, the nurturing mother, the dutiful daughter, the secretary, a potential sexual partner. And, of course, sometimes we want to hold these roles; these roles constitute our identities. However, when we’re at work or at school, we want to be seen as what we are: professionals. And so it gets frustrating when compliments from male colleagues are more likely to pertain to our attractiveness than our effectiveness. (The reason, by the way, that Dr. Sandler filed a suit against UMD was that, when she discussed with a professor the possibility of applying for a faculty position after receiving her doctorate, the professor discouraged her, saying that she “came on too strong for a woman.”)

What is perhaps even more alarming than the fact that everyone has unconscious beliefs about gender roles, is that women often enact their role as the weaker sex. Ask a man how he got his job, and he’ll say that he earned it, worked for it, deserved it. Ask a woman, and she’ll say that she was lucky. (Sheryl Sandburg tells a similar story about a college course she took with her brother, and with a female friend. Though her brother studied the least of the three of them, he felt most confident about his performance on an exam. If you haven’t already, you can watch Sandburg’s great TED talk here.)

Historically, men speak more assertively and women are softspoken and nurturing. However, Sandler claims, these speaking styles should not be viewed as black and white, good and bad. Clearly, speaking assertively is not always appropriate, whether you are a man or a woman. Sometimes you are in a context (teaching, perhaps) when you don’t want to simply authoritatively dictate, but you would rather build consensus and participation. Both genders should therefore become fluent in both manners of speaking, argues Sandler. Both men and women should be comfortable with leading sometimes and facilitating other times, depending on the context, and manners of speaking should not be associated with one gender or the other.

At this point in her talk Dr. Sandler offered several strategies for dealing with subtle (or blatant) discrimination in the workplace. Most of these strategies make sense for anyone– they don’t need to be employed only by women, and they certainly don’t need to be used only in response to gender discrimination.

1. If someone interrupts you, just keep talking. Yes, it’s awkward. But just keep talking. If the interrupter persists, turn to him or her and say, “I wasn’t finished,” and then finish.

2. If someone tells a sexist or sexual joke, look at the joke-teller deadpan and say, “I don’t get that joke. Can you tell it again?” Upon re-telling, say, “I still don’t get it. Can you repeat?” If the joke teller doesn’t realize that s/he is being a jackass by that point, simply respond with a curt “Oh.” and walk away. (I don’t know why, but I was laughing at this one for several minutes. There’s something about playing dumb in order to highlight idiocy that strikes me as hilarious.)

3. If someone calls you out for being too strong/too smart/too assertive, flash them a brilliant smile and say, “I knew you were going to say that!” If they call you a flaming feminist, just tell them, “It’s probably only going to get worse!”

4. This one may not be as feasible in real life, but sure had us in stitches. If someone says something obnoxious to you, take out a folder and write in big letters on the front “SEXUAL HARASSMENT NOTEBOOK.” Turn to the harasser, making sure s/he sees the notebook cover, and say, “Excuse me, I’m doing some research on sexual harassment, and I was wondering if I could ask you a couple questions?” The person will be so caught off-guard they might actually say yes, so you might want to be prepared with a question or two. A good one to start with is, “Of all the women here, how did you pick me?”

5. The Letter. This one is a bit more practical. If in a meeting you propose an idea that no one acknowledges, but then later a male colleague offers the SAME idea and everyone warmly approves it, you can write a letter to your supervisor/department chair, composed of the following parts. Part 1: a factual account of what happened, eg, “Last week at the faculty meeting, I suggested that… .” No emotion or evaluative words, just the facts. Part 2: In a separate paragraph, talk about how this person’s behavior affected you. No accusations, just “I-statements,” eg, “I felt demeaned and ignored… .” Part 3: In one sentence, describe the action you’d like to be taken, eg, “I would like for you to acknowledge that the idea came from me.” Don’t ask for an apology, don’t even ask for the idea-stealer to be informed. Dr. Sandler pointed out that most of the time this letter goes unacknowledged, but at future meetings, you’ll notice a change in behavior.

It’s often hard to imagine sticking up for ourselves in the ways listed above. Sometimes it’s simply too awkward or embarrassing to do so. Sometimes it might even feel like we’re putting our job on the line by doing it. Of course, pick your battles. But as a friend and I were discussing Dr. Sandler’s tips on the phone later, she pointed out that sometimes you’re caught in a situation and you don’t know how to react until later. Sometimes the boorish behavior of others surprises you into silence. So now, if you want to respond in the moment, you have some options. And maybe these small interventions will start to chip away at the subtle but nefarious behaviors that perpetuate the inequities between men and women.


Do the Write Thing Part 2: Going Underground

I am an obsessive compulsive procrastinator. OCP. If you could be a fly on the wall of my brain you’d be embarrassed for me. I sit down to work at my laptop (one of the lesser qualities of grad school is that most of my reading comes in the form of electronic PDFs) and the rough order of operations is:
1. Check email.

2. Check my school email.

3. Check Facebook. (Hey, I’m admitting it here. I’m not proud.)

4. Check my favorite Blazers blogs for any news. (Yes, it’s basketball season and I’m a rabid Blazers fan. NOT good for the productivity.)

5. Check NYTimes.com and CNN.com.

6. Do price checks on Amazon for a couple Christmas present ideas…

You get the idea. And all the while I’m watching the minutes tick by, and the 30 minutes I was going to spend reading dwindles to 15, 10, then nothing at all. Infuriating.

So last night, while watching a Blazers game in its entirety and feeling guilty about it, I made a to-do list for today. On it, I wrote that I would work on a massive paper for my rhetorical theory class (due in T minus 16 days) for FOUR uninterrupted hours. To all you doc students out there, that maybe doesn’t seem like a whole lot; after all, the blogger I featured in my previous post wrote that it’s not hard to find some advanced doctoral students out there clocking 12 hours a day at the computer. But for me, if I could pull off four hours without getting lost in the comments section of some blog post on why Damian Lillard should win Rookie of the Year, then I’d consider it an out-and-out victory.

The day got off to a good start, as far as my to-do list was concerned. I even went for a run. BEFORE breakfast. But the schedule quickly began to deteriorate. After breakfast I even found myself curling up in bed with a book and a mug of tea for a while, and then frittered away a couple hours doing some Christmas shopping (a necessity, but the paper was not writing itself here). Before I knew it, it was 3:30 and that ugly combination of anxiety and self-disgust was mounting. It doesn’t help that it’s mid-November and the sun goes down basically in the middle of the afternoon, which feels like life is passing you by even in the best of non-grad school circumstances.

So desperate times called for desperate measures. I went: underground. Knowing that I was my own biggest distraction, I cut as much of my life out as possible. I went into the office, cleared the desk and spread out my laptop and books. I got a glass of water and some brain food (banana), and closed myself in.

I. Turned. Off. The. Wifi.

And I told myself: two hours. You can’t leave the room, you can’t look at your phone, and you CANNOT turn on the internet.

It worked! Two hours flew by. And I got some serious work done. I figured out what the thesis for my paper will be; I even drew a concept map laying out visually the basic principles of my argument (that the shift from deductive to inductive reasoning among genre theorists is paving the way for a critical approach to genre studies). How supremely, productively dorky is that!

Not wanting to rest on my laurels too long– after all I had assigned myself 4 hours, not 2– I celebrated with a quick skip around the apartment and a small glass of wine (there has to be some compensation for these early nights), and then hunkered down for another hour. Piece of cake. I had dinner, and pounded out my final hour by 10 pm.

4 hours. I feel good. Tomorrow I’m going for 6 hours, in 3 2-hour shifts. To all you OCP’s out there, if you need to buckle down and accomplish something may I recommend these tactics: 1. Write down your goals. That makes it somehow more urgent, more real. 2. Go underground. Banish yourself– physically– from your distractions for a (reasonable) set amount of time.

When you’re finished, reward yourself. Then, checking basketball scores will be a source of hard-earned pleasure.

Where the magic happened. And hey, there’s my concept map!

Do the Write Thing

Occasionally when I’m shirking my duties I start doing random Google searches using search terms to the effect of “How to survive grad school,” and “PhD success rates,” and “Avoiding madness during PhD program.” Sometimes I actually conduct searches for job openings, but that usually just depresses and overwhelms me, so then I revert back to the comforting kind of you-can-do-it advice that you see on black-bordered posters in office buildings. Tonight I found a blog post by a professor at the University of Utah, and it struck me. Here’s what he has to say about writing.

“Generally, grad students don’t arrive with the ability to communicate well. This is a skill that they forge in grad school. The sooner acquired, the better.

Unfortunately, the only way to get better at writing is to do a lot of it. 10,000 hours is the magical number folks throw around to become an expert at something. You’ll never even get close to 10,000 hours of writing by writing papers [for your classes, I believe he means].

Assuming negligible practice writing for public consumption before graduate school, if you take six years to get through grad school, you can hit 10,000 hours by writing about 5 hours a day. (Toward the end of a Ph.D., it’s not uncommon to break 12 hours of writing in a day.)

That’s why I recommend that new students start a blog. Even if no one else reads it, start one. You don’t even have to write about your research. Practicing the act of writing is all that matters.”

As a second year doctoral student, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I should be writing. Ideally, I’m writing manuscripts for publication. They might be theoretical, they might be analyses of research, they might be ruminations on methodology. Doesn’t matter. But best case scenario, I’m pumping out drafts and submitting them to journals and conferences.

The second-best case scenario is that, if I’m not getting polished manuscripts together, at least I’m doing personal written explorations of my topic. I’m writing “around” my ideas, so that better ideas form and solidify. Of course, to supplement my exploratory writing I’m also spending “10 to 15 hours a week” in the library, doing independent research on my topic (the quotation marks are thanks to my adviser who indicated that, if I’m not engaging in such copious amounts of extracurricular research, then… well, I’m not quite measuring up).

The reality? I’m struggling to get out of the lower tiers of the hierarchy of needs. Daily survival is the name of the game. Taking 9-10 credits, teaching 3, and working part-time in an administrative office (the latter two duties pay for the first), I find it difficult to even cook DINNER on a regular basis. Some days, I literally run out of my apartment and don’t stop until I get home: run to the bus, run to class, run to a meeting, run to class. The thought of writing for hours a day just, ya know, for it’s own sake, seems… laughable.

But I guess I must have intuited the necessity of putting words together whenever I can find a small pocket of time. I did create this blog, didn’t I? It might even be a bit relaxing, taking a break from work just to write about whatever (don’t tell my alter-ego, Productive Megan I said that, though– she already thinks I’m such a slacker).

Ok. 1 down. 9,999 to go.

Reading and Teaching Mockingbird

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” -Scout Finch

The first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird I was twelve. The last time I read it, I was 32. I swear, it gets better every time. I think one of the biggest perks of being an English teacher is getting to read and teach this novel over and over again (though having only taught it twice now, I could be wrong about this– maybe some teachers who have taught the novel 20 times have a different story).

But this year my co-teacher Lisa and I worried that she and I might be the last generation to adore the book– after all, the pedagogy text we’re teaching out of tells us that many members of the Millenial Generation are not passionate about the same literature as their forebears. Even, apparently, To Kill a Mockingbird is leaving young readers cold. The prospect made me sad. But, since I teach a group of students who are not only Millenials, but will be teaching our nation’s youth in the next few years, I decided to meet their tepid responses to the novel with fortitude.

Luckily, I was as wrong as can be. The hour and fifteen minutes we spent talking about the novel was far too short. Everyone was thrilled by it, wanted to interpret it, wanted to join the conversation. The book just begs to be talked about: Scout’s witty prescience, Maycomb’s hilarious inhabitants, Atticus’s infinite wisdom.

Lisa, who was taking charge that day, had a great activity. Everyone was assigned a character for whom they had to make a poster (I got ol’ Mrs. Dubose). On that poster we had to write a quote describing that character’s physical appearance, a quote that defined that character’s essence, and a statement either in the student’s own words or excerpted from the novel about why that character was so important to the story. Then we taped our posters to the wall, and did a “Gallery Walk” (a classroom activity that can fit many circumstances and grade levels– we as doctoral students even do them in our own classes), where we walk around and read other people’s posters. We can take notes on the quotes people chose, or chat about the poster with those standing near us. Then after a while we return to our seats and discuss what we learned. I learned how Harper Lee uses sight and vision in the novel– Atticus’s glasses, and his being “the deadest shot in Maycomb County” stuck out to me for the first time. I love when my students teach me new things.

So, happily, To Kill a Mockingbird is still going strong. In a wonderful documentary I watched about the novel, Hey Boo, I learned that the book has sold 50 million copies and is still one of the most widely taught books (it’s also one of the most widely banned ones!). But I suppose it will one day fall out of favor. Indeed, I hope that as Americans we will not always need to grapple with the issues that Lee presents in such a beautiful, wrenching way: racism, classism, sexism. Still, I hope I’m no longer in the classroom when students don’t need this book anymore.

If it’s been a while since you read To Kill a Mockingbird, I dare you to pick it up and read the first page. Before you know it, you’ll be reading the last chapter, the last paragraph, the last words– and thanking me.

To Ponder:

“And when fun is unleashed in the classroom, can learning be far behind?”  -Harvey Daniels, Literature Circles

Yesterday I came across this quote while reading Daniels’s book, and was struck. The author asks the question rhetorically, leaving no doubt about what he thinks the answer is. I’m a little less sure. I’d be curious to know what others think: Is fun a prerequisite for learning? Think about a time recently when you were learning something for the first time. Were you happy and enjoying yourself?

(Not) Speaking of Testing…

Having just written about quantitative tests as questionable means for assessing students and teachers, I was happy to listen today to last week’s episode of This American Life. It reminded me of an episode of another great podcast, American RadioWorks. Both podcasts reveal the research that has started to come out countering the effectiveness of policy initiatives like No Child Left Behind.

The secret to student success? Well, it’s really pretty intuitive once you think about it. Instead of test prep, kids need to learn “soft skills:” persistence, determination, resiliance. Or as one researcher calls it frankly, “grit.”

Listen to both of these podcasts for some very important ideas about how to think about and approach education.

Link to This American Life’s “Back to School”

Link to American RadioWorks’ “Grit, Luck, and Money”

Semantic and poetic meaning: a heart cleft in twain

“Poetry is truer than history.” -Aristotle

In a couple classes I’m taking, I keep running into the same competition of concepts: it’s the duel between the scientific and the artistic. The quantitative and the quantitative. Or as Kenneth Burke would have it, the semantic and the poetic. The difference, which I’ll explain in a minute, is in itself so interesting to me. Long before I knew the word “epistemology” I was curious about a human’s ability (or maybe lack of ability) to understand or describe an objective reality. But this left brain/right brain battle is particularly interesting in light of another issue that puts me in a fettle: teacher evaluations. Without going into the politics of whether or not teachers ought to walk out on their students as they have done in Chicago in recent days, I think it’s important to make a couple philosophical observations about teacher evaluations and the standardized tests that feed them.

But first, a word on semantic and poetic meaning. Semantic meaning is what any scientist worth his (and yes, that pronoun is deliberate) salt is after. They aim at “making true statements about the world” (Eisner, 1981). Put more colorfully, the goal is to “evolve a vocabulary that gives the name and address of every event in the universe” (Burke, 1989). A noble pursuit to be sure! Such pursuit involves a process of universalizing, or essentializing.

Burke offers the example of a chair. According to an “ideal semantic definition” of a chair, “people knew what you wanted when you asked for one, a carpenter knew how to make it, a furniture dealer knew how to get it, etc.” All the actual chairs in the world are but examples of this ideal “chair-ness;” from the particular we move to the general (and here of course we are floating into Plato’s realm). On the other hand, a poetic definition of a chair might be the chair I’m looking at right now– a stuffed velvet chair of golden hue, which I inherited from my dad, and which will always remind me of him and its spot in the apartment where I spent my teenage years. Or it could be the lovely wooden dining room chairs behind me, which, incidentally, my mother gave me. As you can see, my furniture is filled with meaning beyond the simply material. I associate with these objects memories and meanings, and even aspects of my relationships to my family.

In sum: while a semantic definition of a chair tries to “cut away, to abstract, all emotional factors that complicate the objective clarity of meaning,” a poetic definition of my chairs is all for the “heaping up of all these emotional factors… and [for] seeking to make this active participation itself a major ingredient of the vision” (Burke).

Where does this leave us in the messy world of trying to just come to some conclusions for godsakes? And why won’t these teachers stop forsaking their pupils and just get back to work? Good questions, all. But we have to look at what the teachers are protesting. While teacher accountability is of course a good thing, as all accountability is in a social world, we must ask: what are the methods by which teachers are being held accountable? They are being judged by measures of a purely semantic nature (and I’m using the term in a Burkean sense here of course).

Value-added modeling and other similar kinds of teacher evals are based on student standardized test scores. These assessments (of both students and teachers) seek to capture some kind of objective measure– represented by a measly number!– of student learning and therefore, teacher success. While it would certainly be convenient and scientific (because numbers are so unclouded by emotion) to be able to place the attainment of knowledge on an interval/ratio scale, anyone who has ever learned something can testify that what they know is not quantifiable– try counting the things you learned last year!

Indeed, teachers (and for that matter, students) are being assessed semantically for their expertise in a poetic phenomenon. Where we seek fact we should be seeking meaning. Do our teachers help students create meaning? I’m all for assessing that, though I don’t think numbers will play a very big role in the instrument. As one researcher elegantly frames this relentless attempt at quantifying truth, “Truth implies singularity and monopoly. Meaning implies relativism and diversity. Truth is more closely wedded to consistency and logic, meaning to diverse interpretation and coherence” (Eisner, 1981). Certainly, consistency and logic have their place. But how can you compare the millions of contextual factors that make every single teacher, every single classroom, unique?

Works Cited here:

Burke, K. (1989). On Symbols and Society. J.R. Gusfield (ed.). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Eisner, E.W. (1981). On the differences between scientific and artistic approaches to qualitative research. Educational Researcher, 10(4), 5-9.

Fiction’s Far Shores

This is a neat animated video about how fiction can illuminate our lives. The narrator says– and I’ve always agreed with this!– that fiction can teach us as much about a concept, emotion, or time period as non-fiction can. If anything, it teaches us even more because a good novel grabs not just our brains, but our hearts.

Not just a theory

“Until lions tell their stories, tales of hunting will glorify the hunter.” -African Proverb

For our Literature for Adolescents class this term, we’ll be thinking about the teaching of literary theory in the high school English classroom. In her book Critical Encounters in High School English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents, Deborah Appleman makes a convincing case for it. And her reasoning is actually more audacious than you might expect. It’s easy to yawn and look at your watch when you hear the phrase “literary theory,” even if you have some experience with it. Isn’t using theory basically the practice of analyzing the life out of literature so that you can sound like some pompous academic? And if so, WHY would we put our high school students through that? Don’t we want them to read MORE, not less?

Well, Appleman reminds us, looking at literature through different theoretical lenses is a way to understand the perspectives of those who are different from us. When we do a feminist reading of The Great Gatsby or of Hamlet, peering into the inner worlds of Daisy Buchanan and Ophelia, we are learning how to see the world from the viewpoints of people whom society has conditioned us to ignore. When we deconstruct The Heart of Darkness we can see the other side of the colonial conquest, and begin to comprehend the experiences of the colonized. We learn how to refuse to take stories, and eventually, real life events, at face value – because there is always more than face value for everything.

But aside from increasing our students’ facility for questioning and for empathy, maybe using different theoretical lenses can actually help them get engrossed by texts that had formerly been closed to them. I for one have noticed that thinking about why Ophelia lost her marbles is a lot more interesting than thinking about why Hamlet lost his. Is it because I’m female? Who knows. But literary theory gives me permission to choose how I want to look at the play.

Appleman anticipates an objection to the politicizing nature of literary theory. She responds to those who just want to teach stories, and not get bogged down by all that conflict and politics, by saying: “Teaching is essentially a political act, a political stance– a stance that advocates for the literacy rights of everyone, a stance that acknowledges that when you give someone literacy, you give them power.” Basically, teachers may not ignore the fact that ideologies exist and conflict in the way that other professionals may. Still, maybe some are put off by the battle cry words of “political” and “power.” Think of literary theory in these terms then (and here Appleman quotes Shirley Staton, 1987): “There is no such thing as an innocent, value-free reading… People who deny having a critical stance, who claim they are responding ‘naturally’ or being ‘completely objective’ do not know themselves.” The stakes are high, it seems. But the lion could have told you that.

Big Day

Mom: do you have any of those old first-day-of-school shots? I’d love to post one here!

I think one reason the first day of school has always been a big deal for me is that my mom always had a tradition of taking a picture of the two of us (my sister and me) on that morning. Every year we held up the number of fingers that corresponded to what grade we were about to enter. For example, six fingers = 6th grade. Traditions die so hard that I couldn’t resist asking the guy at the bus stop this morning to take my photo. I don’t have enough fingers to hold up anymore, but I was still as giddy as I was in elementary school. Also, from what I can tell, I’m still doin’ my mama proud.