4. Gender Roles
* * * * * * * * * * by Kate Nonesuch * * * * * * * * * *
KATE NONESUCH has been teaching literacy and Adult Basic Education, both English and math, for about ten years. She has been a feminist and a lesbian for longer than that. What interests her about teaching is how to get out of the way so people can learn. She spends a lot of time thinking about the intersections of class, race and sex privilege as they affect her work and her life, and likes to give workshops about her Never-Fail method of teaching writing.
I was interested in writing a chapter on gender roles because the topic keeps coming up in my classes. I find the students already sharply aware of gender differences; they often make disparaging remarks about the other sex, and notice when opinions or preferences split along sex lines. Since my classes are always racially mixed, and often include people with disabilities, I spend several sessions at the beginning of each term working on welcoming diversity, and setting some ground rules for class participation; sexism is always part of that discussion.
Often I want to modify the gender roles in my classroom, so that women get a better chance to participate in the class, so that discussions aren't dominated by men and so that women don't have to do all of the socializing, nurturing work that makes a class successful. I welcomed a chance to produce some class work for this book that would let us examine gender roles together, and analyze some of the confusion that is part of daily life as gender roles change. My hope was also to produce a greater tolerance of those who step out of line.
There really are no "correct" answers for the activities. I often find that my interpretation of a given situation is different from a particular student's interpretation. When I want to make a feminist analysis of something, students may want to explain it in terms of someone's personal choice. "She's just like that. She likes to be a doormat." In my opinion, there is no point pushing a feminist analysis. It only sets up a power struggle, and while you are in a power struggle, no one is changing or learning. Instead, I try to focus on the breadth and depth of the students' contributions to discussions, making sure everyone has a chance to speak. I have been through this analysis many times before, but most students have never had the opportunity to look at these issues in an organized way. So I let them look. I know that they will come back to these ideas again and again.
Some students who field tested the unit, and asked to remain anonymous, had this to say:
Early in the unit, instructors may want to make time for a statement or restatement of rules for discussion. Talking about gender roles seems to call forth a lot of anti-gay remarks, especially disparaging remarks about gay men. I like to take a few minutes near the beginning of the unit to remind people that our discussions will make most people uncomfortable from time to time, and that when people are uncomfortable, it is tempting to make fun of someone else, especially someone who is not here. I remind them, however, that about 10% of the population is gay, and that means that there may be one or two gay people in the room. I recap the general rules of tolerance that we have established in the classroom, and hope that there will be no remarks that make fun of gay and lesbian people.
When an anti-gay remark comes up, I deal with it in a variety of ways, depending on how much it catches me off guard. My least useful response is to ignore the remark. Sometimes I just clamp down tight and say, "You can't say things like that here." That at least is helpful to any gay people in the room, in that it makes the classroom discussions freer of homophobia. However, it does not do much to reduce homophobia when students meet outside of class.
When I am most successful, I am able to get a discussion going that turns on our reaction to people that are different. I try to include the person who made the remark in the "we," rather than making that person feel stupid or ugly for saying such a thing. For example, in reply to "Must be a fag if he does that!" I might ask, "Why do we feel uncomfortable when he does something that we don't expect? Why do we want to know in advance how someone will behave? How does it make life easier to assume that everyone is heterosexual?"