The Cursed Cursor

In the months since I’ve lasted posted, I’ve made some ok progress on this whole PhD thing. For one, my coursework is now finished, which is a pretty decent milestone. Second, no one has gently suggested that I look for another career, which is nice. I’m even submitting conference proposals, and they are getting accepted, which is even nicer. So I’m still moving forward.

Next up: comps. The exciting, glamorous appeal of comps (“comprehensive exams”) is that I’m now my own boss. I don’t have 23 articles and book chapters to read each day for class; there are no paper deadlines to give me anxiety rashes and bald patches. My schedule is serenely… open. What the heavenly prospect of this newfound freedom did not prepare me for is the fact that I now have to write three very long essays, and ain’t nobody out there giving me an F if I don’t finish them by a certain time. (Well. Someone might notice if I didn’t have anything to show for myself, say, 9 years from now, but god help me in that event.)

Lucky for me, my first comp was a breeze. I simply converted one of the papers I had written for a class and turned that in. It was probably too easy. Now I’m facing #2, and my good luck has gone cold. I JUST.CAN’T.SEEM.TO.START.THE.DAMN.THING. I have analyzed reams of data, I have pages upon pages of notes. I know what I want to say; I just cannot seem to overcome the blinking cursor syndrome. Anyone who has ever tried to write something knows what this is: the cursor blinking and blinking and blinking on a blank Word doc like Chinese water torture, and suddenly you’d rather be scouring the litter box with your own toothbrush than be taunted any longer by that hateful, laughing line.

So, I decided to do what I used to urge my students to do, back when I taught writing. I’m going to write a letter (blog post) telling my reader what I plan to write about. Before I know it, the logic goes, I will just have tricked myself into writing the thing itself. Just so you don’t snap your laptop shut or wander back over to Twitter at the thought of reading someone’s academic essay (and a rough draft, at that) let me tell you about a couple self-imposed rules for this exercise: 1. I’m going to be as concise as possible. Just as it can be difficult to start writing, it can be difficult to stop. Sometimes you can convince yourself you’re being productive, but really you’re just creating a curtain of words behind which you’re hiding from what you really want to say. So, for each main idea, I plan to devote only a short paragraph. 2. I’m not including any scholarly citations or using academic jargon. It’s easy to hide behind that stuff too.

Here goes.

Main idea 1. I am very interested in teacher identity. Specifically, writing teacher identity. “Identity” is a very sexy idea in the field of education research right now (why do I have to be such a follower?), so I need to make sure that I’m not just jumping on a bandwagon here, and tossing around the faddish word without giving it the weight and meaning that it deserves. So to me, teacher identity is a conception of self and purpose that is constantly being remade and enacted in one’s interactions with students, colleagues, institution, and discourse. In other words, who you are amounts to what you do, and what you have done.

Main idea 2. Like I said, I’m interested in writing pedagogy. If a teacher is trying to teach a student how to use language, then how is she herself using language? Language is the way teachers communicate with students. Language is the main chisel we use for sculpting our teaching identity. As we sculpt ourselves linguistically, what kind of form is the student left looking at? (Case in point, imagine two different writing prompts, handed out to students by two different teachers. One says, “For every typographical error, one full letter grade will be deducted.” The other says, “Engage in a dialogue with Shakespeare/Darwin/Lao Tzu. What would you most want to ask him, and how would he respond?” Can’t you get a sense of the identities and values of each of these two teachers?)

Main idea 3. After conducting interviews with four writing teachers and combing their responses for patterns I’ve come up with what I view as three of the most important influences that shape their professional identities every day. They are:

3a. Academic biography. Each of my interviewees told me happy stories about loving to read and write as kids. Their parents couldn’t pry the books and notebooks out of their hands (this sounded familiar to me too…). Then they went to school. Their flaming love affairs with words were snuffed out by 5-paragraph essays, inverted pyramids, and red-pen wielding professors. Yet somehow, a resolve set in and they learned how to play the game of academic writing, they excelled, and they became English/writing teachers. While I’m still trying to figure out how this history plays out on a day-to-day basis in their teaching, I know that it is a big deal somehow. I’m sure Freud would approve.

3b. Being a “writer.” Research is coming out lately that says that we can’t teach our students to write unless we think of ourselves as writers. Asking your students to write something that you would never write (there’s that 5-paragraph essay again) is a farce, and a transparent one at that. Asking your students to do in-class writing while you grade papers, erase the board, or check Facebook is like lecturing your child on the merits of a healthy diet while snarfing down a Cinnabon. Students will not engage in writing that is authentic and joyful unless you show them what that looks like (because let’s face it, the blinking cursor can be ruthless!).

Problem is, I suspect that most teachers don’t think of themselves as writers. For one, most English teachers got into this gig because they fell in love with reading literature, not writing it. And two, even if the teacher does write a lot– and all professionals write a lot– they don’t view the writing that they do as “real” writing. When I asked one of my participants (a writing teacher and doctoral student in rhetoric) if he wrote, he said glumly, “Not as much as I should.” Later in the interview I discovered that at the time, he was working on his comps, editing an article that he planned to submit to a journal, and regularly contributing to a blog about his writing research. If he isn’t a writer, then who the hell is? What kinds of writing would he need to do to be a “real” writer?

3c. Professional learning and development. My opinion in a nutshell is that, as far as P.D. is concerned, K-12 teachers are way over-managed, and college teachers aren’t held accountable enough. Therefore I’m painting in very broad brushstrokes here when I say that that “professional learning” is the final main influence on teacher identity. Whether it’s from the funny and amazingly astute thing your colleague said in the hall, or from the 8-hour workshop on implementing curriculum standards that your principal made you go to, teachers are constantly learning on the job.

I met my participants in two different courses on how to teach writing, so my study focuses on the context of these courses (one of which was the National Writing Project, which I wrote about last year). So in my interviews I asked my participants to reflect on how the course affected, and affects, their teaching. But I hope to broaden this discussion by observing that influences on our professional behavior are myriad: a thought-provoking mentor, the latest pedagogical theory, a joyful poem that reminds you that, damn it, writing can be play.

Well, that’s about the sum of it. Re-reading it, it sounds somewhat naked and simple. But like I said, I had to take off the academic claptrap to see what was underneath. I think I’m far too immersed in it to know if the ideas are valuable at this point. But at least I’m writing.

And on the topic of professional learning, check out my bone pile of library books. I think they’re reproducing at night. Luckily, as you can see, I’ve got a very faithful research assistant.  Image


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.