Playing with Categories

9/5 class notes

I. Anne's review of last Wednesday's discussion

Lakoff’s Philosophy in the Flesh argues that thinking is
--shaped by our bodies (physical experiences in material world)
--largely unconscious (serious implications for classroom!) and
--which means? bear/with/carry across/
(exs: classroom as small patch of sunlight, swim meet, audition, food distribution center, assembly-line:
these are concrete images, w/ abstract implications for what constitutes work we are doing here,
implications of natural growth and hunger, vs. competition or forced labor)

in an earlier book, Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson
explain that metaphors foreground some aspects of an identity between two items, while backgrounding others
Thorne does this on p. 5, in her discussion of the metaphor of play,
which she defines as
-- action
--possibility, and
(but @ this fourth defintion she "calls a halt! contradicts its allusions!"
claims that "all metaphors fall short," that play is SERIOUS!

Actually? Where play GETS serious is just where the metaphors fall short/
Where the image won’t “carry” the idea “across,”

Where the cozy pleasantness of the classroom as a dinner party starts to bother you,
Or the unwieldiness of a forest full of folks riding different sorts of animals…
Where you start to see how the limits of our language can limit our world
(and vice versa: how limits of our world limit our language)

Thorne emphasizes this on p. 172: “The painfully sparse language that kids have for relationships between girls and boys…underscores the need for more images of and more experiences with, cross-gender relationships based on friendship and collegiality….Gretel and Hansel…provide mutual support as they go through the dangers of the forest. They each take the lead…

Several of your postings flagged this passage—-
Orah: “in our culture the model of sisters and brothers offers one of the few powerful images of relatively equal relationships…” I’m thinking about sex as struggle for power…one party is dominant and one submissive. The roles are set…Unless! ..we are actors in our roles…
Amy Pennington: “The cultural of heterosexual romance needs fundamental reconstruction…..”
Anna: So what I came away with was this: if I decide to have children I need to be as awake as possible when I raise them. There can be no naps for the mom who wants her son…or her daughter to be strong and sensitive….we need to start w/ them as thoughts in our brains or ripples in our ovaries…

So: let’s start w/ the ripples in your ovaries that are your children-to-be…
What images or roles might you offer them, as alternatives to “the heterosexual romance”?
Let's go ‘round/name self and new role/image…
how would you like the world to look, to your children?

OTOH!—as counter to constant watchfulness/the mother who can never nap, see

Thorne, p. 29: "schools ....give a public, witnessed quality to everyday life"
p. 163: "Kids do not flourish when they are perpetually watched and controlled; they need, and will struggle to claim, at least, some independence from adults. Trying to see the world through kids’ eyes can help adults act more effectively, in part by tempering our impulses to control."

II. Jen leads discussion on our reactions to Thorne



1. For many of you, Thorne’s observations about childhood and education really resonated.  A couple of you find her unconvincing…does she place too much emphasis on the power of teachers to shape gender socialization? Is some of what they are doing just “realistic,” “efficient,” common sense?  If so, does this diminish the validity of her arguments re: the construction of gender in schools?


Orah:  I appreciate Thorne’s attempt to pinpoint the origins of this inequality in childhood. Probably because I do not have those memories of childhood, however, I am not convinced and am looking forward to hearing if others, with more vivid memories, are convinced.


Alex:  on page 34 thorne says, "other teachers also peppered their classroom language with gendered terms of address ('you boys be quiet;' 'girls, sit down;' 'ladies, this isnt a tea party'), implying that gender defined both behavior and social ties"-- it seems to me that using gendered terms to keep kids in line simply suggests that a group of kids from one gender is misbehaving-- if there are three girls standing up, it would be silly for the teacher to say "you people there, sit down," and if some boys are being rowdy, telling them specifically to be quiet seems more effective to me than directing a general "be quiet" to the entire classroom. i think perhaps thorne was reading too much into gendered terms in situations like this.

Talya:  I think that this was a rather silly article because the majority of people who would read this are most likely the choir that she is already preaching to. She made a conscious effort to raise her children in the most gender neutral way, at the same time, might that have given them a heightened sense of the importance of gender and therefore negated the whole process?

I don’t know whether I am writing this as a devil’s advocate, whether I believe it, or whether I don’t really know what I believe. I simply don’t think that it’s as easy as she’s making it. Not all that is going on with children and the idea of gender is negative. I don’t think that the idea of gender is bad if people are aware and able to move fluidly throughout the confines of those specific genders.

My Q: can we take a step back and consider what her argument is?  To my mind, perhaps the most key point:  ą  gender as not just a “category of individual identity,” but a “dimension of social relations” that comes in and out of focus/relevance.  I’m not sure she wants to call it wholly negative or that classrooms are the reason why gender categories exist. Rather, that she is trying to draw attention to the relatively quiet ways in which gender is naturalized – not really as a characteristic of persons so much as an aspect of a social context: how does gender become what a situation is “about?”

ą I really like her observation that “gender” is produced often in the service of some other activity:  the teachers wield these categories for the purposes of social control. It helps them organize an otherwise unwieldy group of children.  *So sometimes appearances are deceiving – a situation that seems to be “about” gender is also “about” something else entirely, and vice versa!  (see theme #4, Patricia)  This seems like something important for us to keep in mind...

2.  Roles:  what do we mean when we talk about gender “roles?”  Are they rigid, or fluid?  Binding, or voluntary? When individuals occupy different roles in relation to one another, does this inevitably mean a relationship of hierarchy/ domination-submission? 


Orah:  I think of a role as something that is set, a solid. The unchanging, chained quality of any role bothers me. Is there such a thing as an unbinding role? Being bound seems implicit in the term role. Unless! We are role playing, if we are actors in our roles.


Samantha:  Orah asked a great question about power in sexual relationships and I don't know if there ever is real fluidity of power in sexual relationships. I think even if two people discuss the roles they wish to play in a relationship and if equity of power (the question is, what does power mean?) is important, other factors can strengthen and diminish this.

Amy Phillips: I want to also respond briefly to Orah’s comment on the dominant and submissive nature of homosexual relationships, which would be cool to talk about in class at some point. What does it mean to be dominant or submissive in a relationship? Is the more masculine of the pair the dominant one? What if both parties are girly or manly (which happens!)? Why does it seem that this is set? I think it was something in the lesbian feminist movement that tried to push for more equality in their relationships: androgyny and such. And then we can always talk about organized dominance and submission, which is consensual, rather than the implicit dominance and submission in most relationships, and, therefore, in my mind, groovy and hot.



This seems like a pretty meaty question to discuss.  Perhaps the point I wanted to emphasize re: “boundary-work” fits in here –

ąBoundary-work: mark this anthropological point from Barth.  Categories are formed not around a bunch of cultural “stuff,” really, but as a process of boundary-making, where meaning of each group derives from its not being the other.  As we can see in Thorne, what this implies is that maintaining boundaries as separate takes work.  So that if roles seem rigid, that is partly explained by the way in which their interrelationship is continually being marked, defined, sustained…a process more dynamic, perhaps more tenuous, than it would seem? 

(Also, that boundaries provoke intense emotions (b/c of that tenuousness), suppressing awareness of cross-cutting phenomena.)



3. Gender asymmetry:  why is “tomboy” different from “sissy?”


Amy Phillips: Why is it that the boys only have references to sexual orientation, and not the tomboys, since tomboy is a gender commentary rather than sexual orientation? Does this again have to do with one of the advantages women have over men in somewhat greater flexibility in gender expression? I mean, we get to wear pants. I think it’s also interesting and problematic how she seems to exclusively use the word “gender” rather than “sex.” I agree with her in that what the children are expressing is the social construction of gender, but she doesn’t really seem to separate the two.

Amy Pennington:  In general, I think I found Thorne's analysis of gender asymmetry most interesting. That girls are so unevenly defined as the source of 'contamination' is really interesting, and disturbing. I really agree with Thorne's conclusion that "the culture of heterosexual romance needs fundamental reconstruction so that it no longer overshadows other possibilities for intimacy and sexuality."


Anna:  What stuck out most for me in her writing was at the very end where she draws a line between the teachers and parents of boys and the teachers and parents of girls. "Perhaps because no specter comparable to 'sissy' and 'fag' reins in imagined alternatives for girls, teachers and parents of young children seem far less ambivalent abut encouraging androgynny in their young daughters than in their sons" (169). This sentence comes after a section on "the problems of aggressive masculinity" and how we, as a society, attempt to not only build up the strong elements in males, but also encourage the more sensitive. We do not as easily do this with our females.


4.  Thinking about the relationship of gender to other categories…


Patricia:  I was extremely intrigued by the anthropologists' claim that female contamination can be used as a source of power. "Male susceptability to female pollution can be experienced as a source of vulnerability; if a girl is designated as having cooties or threatens to plant a dangerous kiss, it is the boy who has to run." (182) I loved it! I think that it's very symbolic of the fluidity of power and gender which is central to Thorne's argument. It's not so much that it's all about gender, but rather that gender is among many other things that make up power relationships. I feel like looking at gender dynamics this way yields positive effects because it doesn't seem so overwhelming and makes change a realistic goal.


Samantha:  I also wanted to highlight something Thorne noted that states, "The topic of children and gender should be considered in close connection with social class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality and not artificially stripped from these other contexts." (pg. 9)

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