Is It Just to Teach Social Justice?

Before grad school I used to teach writing. Aside from receiving the occasional student paper on hotly contested political issues (the importance of teaching intelligent design in science class, the im/morality of abortion, the ineffectiveness of gun control laws, and the perennial favorite, the imperative to legalize marijuana), I rarely found myself in a situation where I was actually exploring any of these issues with my class as a whole. And, as a writing teacher, I could focus on responding to my students not in terms of whether I agreed with them or not on these issues, but in terms of the rhetorical effectiveness of their arguments. For example, I could tell them that no, it’s not credible to rely on the Bible as your only source, or no, biological evolution does not mean that we are watching giraffes’ necks grow longer in one lifetime. In other words, I could pass my students off to more varied, more credible sources and trust (and hope) that they would take the time and effort to inform themselves.

Now, as a graduate student in the College of Education, I teach education courses. The missions of these courses are not as cut and dried as the composition course (or at least the composition course as I used to see it). I am teaching future English teachers, and the preparation of future teachers necessarily includes a wide array of issues that are inherently political. Some of these issues include: whether it is effective or morally appropriate to impose “Standard American English” on students; whether English teachers should introduce, via literature, “risky” subjects like sex, suicide, drugs, bullying, and racism to their students; how tracking practices move middle class white kids into courses that accelerate their learning and academic success, whereas remedial and special education courses maintain a very low bar for minorities and English Language Learners; how teachers will deal with pressures from school, district, and state to emphasize test prep at the expense of science, social studies, art, and physical education. Maybe I had been naively avoiding it, but for the first time in my teaching career I am finding that contested political and social issues are not only trickling into class discussion, but are central to the curriculum.

To take a specific example, this semester I am teaching a course called Literature, Mass Media, and Schooling: The Formation of Group and Individual Identity. The goal of the course is to get students to start thinking about the ways that social institutions like the mainstream media and schools shape our identities. A necessary component of the course is the examination of “dominant” and “subordinate” identities. These identities are determined by such roles as gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, physical ability, age, and a hundred other things, and you probably don’t need me to tell you which aspects of each role (i.e., male/female) historically fit into which identity category (i.e., dominant/subordinate). And of course, these roles criss-cross and so each of us develops identities that are at times dominant, at times subordinate. As a white, American, well-educated woman I don’t often consciously find myself in a subordinated position, though research shows that women in my profession are still trailing men in terms of hiring, advancement, and compensation. Female (and male) faculty of color face a whole other set of obstacles (see, e.g., Ford, 2011).

So if university faculty, one of the most elite American professions, are facing varying degrees of difficulty based on social identities, how are younger people doing? It probably comes as no surprise that in K-12 schools across the country, poor brown kids don’t score as well on standardized tests, have lower GPA’s, are less likely to graduate, and less likely to go to (and graduate from) college. Isn’t it my job as a teacher educator to figure out why this is so, and what we as teachers can do about it?

Amazingly, my efforts to introduce undergraduates to the inequities that subordinate groups encounter in school and society are often met with reactions that range from glazed over passivity to angry disagreement and resentment. This week, for example, I introduced my class to the work of Claude Steele, whose research on what he calls stereotype threat has shown that women (who are equally proficient in math as their male counterparts) perform less well than men on math tests EXCEPT when they are told that the exam has been tested for gender bias. In other words, when women are told that in the past other women have performed just as well on a test as men have, then they themselves perform just as well as (in fact, a bit better than) the men on that test. In another study, Steele gave a control group of African Americans an IQ test; he gave the treatment group the same test, but to that group he didn’t call it a “test,” he called it a “puzzle.” The group that solved the “puzzle” performed much better. As Steele and other researchers hypothesize, the subordinate groups were not distracted by the social narratives that women aren’t as good at math, and that black people don’t test well. Just the tacit existence of these stereotypes causes certain groups to underperform, because the stereotypes are distracting and eat up vital mental energy. It is important to note that, depending on the context, dominant groups can be affected by stereotype threat too (watch the Steele clip I hyperlinked above for more on this). For the purposes of education, however, this research is enlightening insofar as it helps us to understand historically marginalized groups.

Thinking that Steele’s work would provide an interesting empirical explanation for achievement gaps, I was surprised by my students’ reactions. A number of them responded by quarreling with Steele’s methodology (“there’s no correlation between the scores and gender/race– he’s just making an assumption;” “there weren’t enough statistics and graphs to make his results credible;” “I’m a female engineering student and if I told my parents that I was struggling because I’m a girl, they’d tell me to just work harder, and they’d be right.”). And the remaining students? They sat there, quiet.

It’s classes like these that make me question myself and think of this report, which argues that too many college professors are pushing their social agendas onto their students. When my students are defensive and resentful that I’ve introduced them to research that questions the damaging effects of white privilege, I wonder to myself: What right do I have to talk about this? Am I doing the wrong thing? Am I pushing an unfounded ideology?

As this Stanford Daily piece shows, the NAS report presents faculty’s political identification as mutually exclusive of course quality. When teachers get political, in other words, the course quality suffers. But what if the course content is inseparable from ideology? What if recent scholarship demonstrates that in order for education to improve, ideologies must be examined, and status quo discriminatory practices must be addressed? I think that some would argue that college curriculum should consist of facts only, and should be divorced from any hint of political stance. To teach otherwise is to be a rogue, an “activist.”

Arguing against Stanley Fish’s admonition that instructors should “keep out of the classroom everything but what is specific to your discipline and its methodical search for truth” and that teachers should “save the world on [their] own time” (Bizzell, 2009, p. 181), Patricia Bizzell claims that she couldn’t do this even if she wanted to. Aside from the fact that often “course material is itself political” (p. 181) as I discussed above, the purpose of teaching is to help students to succeed in the world, and to help them make it a better place. Doing so is “especially valuable for purposes of social redress if the students come from marginalized groups” (p. 185). From the moment I first stepped into a classroom as a teacher, I felt I’d found my calling. Not because all the students in the world need to know the three rhetorical appeals and how to craft a thesis statement, but because learning how to be rhetorically effective is empowering. Students who can write and communicate have a better shot at succeeding, and at empowering others in turn through callings of their own. This might be why most professors identify as liberal– because education is at its very core about making change for the better.

If I am put at ease by these thoughts (and honestly, I’m often not), then Bizzell’s final point packs a pretty strong punch. She has “never found students to be so biddable and easily manipulated as the agitators against so-called political correctness seem to think they are” (2009, p. 186). To assume that my adult students are putty in my ideological hands does them a disservice. Following this logic, I should push them. And as uncomfortable as it can be when they push back with views that confound me, I can only suppose that our sometimes opposing values coming together in a healthy antagonism is a sign that real learning is taking place.

(Un-hyperlinked) Works Cited

Bizzell, P. (2009). Opinion: Composition Studies Saves the World! College English, 72(2), 174–187.

Ford, K. A. (2011). Race, Gender, and Bodily (Mis)Recognitions: Women of Color Faculty Experiences with White Students in the College Classroom. The Journal of Higher Education, 82(4), 444–478. doi:10.1353/jhe.2011.0026


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.