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what I'm thinking

Flora's picture

This post has been brewing in my head for a week or so. I'm not sure why I was so hesitant to verbalize what I'm thinking, but here goes. It seems that there is a movement on the forum and in the class towards honest personal expression. And I think I should respond in kind. Many students have been voicing frustrations with the course. I have been feeling frustrated with the course as well, but in different terms. I've shared these thoughts with Anne, but feel like I should disclose them to everyone else as well.

As an independent major in gender and sexuality studies, I have no penultimate senior seminar experience. I don't have a cadre of peers with the same gen/sex training. In fact, there is no one else graduating in my year with my major. This fact changes the tone of my final semester immensely. Instead of being able to relax in an advanced seminar, assured that my classmates are fluent in my acquired intellectual history and shared training, I am continually challenged in my various classes to remake arguments I last wrote about two years ago or more. I can't rely on the academic shorthand of naming a familiar term in Foucault, but have to be able to explain the terms to a new audience if I want to use them. I never feel that I'm on solid theoretical footing, never feel that I can assume that everyone in a course will accept a claim I make without objection.

This experience is very humbling, to say the least. And I've spent a lot of energy trying to deal with my feelings on it. Like Jessy (and, I imagine, many other students in this class), I grew up with the messages that I was too smart for my own good and needed to hide this part of myself. In kindergarten, I had my first experience of a teacher telling me that something I learned from my family was untrue in school. First grade marked the beginning of the teasing and bullying for being a nerd. I very quickly learned to be quiet; what I could get away with and what I couldn't: how to be ignored. Through middle and high school, I learned to count to at least eight before responding to a question lest I be accused of talking too much. kiss-up, know-it-all, teacher's pet. Those terms really sting. Even my family often thought that I was just good at manipulating teachers into liking me because of my charms, not my wits.

Of course I know my perceived ability is a privilege. I've had that drilled into my head since I was six. Much of this ability is not ability at all, but rather the result of incredibly favorable circumstances. My parents moved into a neighborhood they didn't like so we could attend a good public elementary school. There I was lucky enough to have the academic training to prepare me to succeed in a magnet school in my state. My parents always encouraged me to read and study. I know I am lucky. The schools I went to were the best in my parish: exceptions in my school system. In college, I have learned a lot about critical feminist studies. But I've been struggling with what to do with this luck. I want to be useful, but I'm trying to figure out how to do that.

Since I don't plan to attend grad school for several years, if ever, I'm starting to observe pedagogy in a different way. I see most classrooms set up as circuses (yes, I love that image). In some, the professor is the ringmaster, squarely in the center of the arena, commanding the various facts to perform so that we student audience members will learn and enjoy their antics. Occasionally, the ringmaster may occasionally call an audience member into the ring to participate in a staged skit, but the participant's contributions are superficial; they are primarily used to bolster the professor's argument. Some smaller classrooms are run in the opposite way: the ringmaster is outside of the ring, cracking a whip as each student takes turn performing the practiced trick, the perfect analysis or critique the way the ringmaster expects it. These two circus models are familiar to most students, I think. In one, we passively accept (or don't accept) information. In the other, we consume information beforehand to prepare for our proscribed performance.

The problem with both models is that they do not focus on developing the thoughts and agency of each individual student. She knows how to absorb and how to perform for others. But these two skills are not useful in a course like Anne's (although some may think she is following the second model... I do not). The second model especially provokes a sense of competition. Only one person will be the best at a trick. Who will it be?

I rejected the passive model of the classroom two years ago. But I am still having trouble ridding myself of the competitive nature of discussion. To a certain extent, I have been trained in the arts of the grand inquisitor. When I hear a comment that hugely contradicts one of my beliefs honed from academic study, sometimes my body literally stiffens. My body language starts to say "no", I cross my legs and start breathing faster. I hate this response in me. It's physically uncomfortable and not useful.

So, instead of resenting my position as someone who has been exposed to many of these issues and texts several times before, I've been trying to think of practical solutions that will make me (dare I say it) happy. And I have this advice, that is making a huge difference in my life right now:
Each time I feel my body start to tense up because I just can't believe what someone just said, I stop saying "no" in my head and start asking "why?" This response is so important to me. When I ask why, I get less upset. When I ask why, I can separate the person from her thoughts and even think about the ways in which her experiences may have shaped those thoughts. I can think about my reaction and wonder why I reacted so strongly to that suggestion.

And I must admit that I'm being a little dishonest here when I say that I've been looking for something to make me happy. I know that Anne says she comes to class because it makes her happy, because she finds talking to us interesting. I'm not sure that I buy that. I know that I want to learn how to talk about difficult subjects because I want to be able to learn more about the world in a respectful way. I am preparing for life outside of academia now. And I think this class is helping me in huge ways.


Flora's picture


edit: the third model.


The third model I implied of a "circus" is that of several student performers in a ring without a ringmaster, trying to figure out how to perform together and at one time. We step on each other's feet, get angry, laugh at each other, etc.

This metaphor may be more useful if you think of the students as circus animals, but I find animal metaphors extremely problematic. I will also readily admit that this circus metaphor is made by someone outside of circus culture. I have several friends involved in circus arts and I imagine some of the structures I have imposed on that performance/community are biased, uninformed and maybe innaccurate. But I still think the mainstream perception of a circus can be useful in my thinking here...