Sexism and Teaching: The Elephant in the Room

Back in 1996, I was fortunate enough to get a job teaching a few courses at a university: several sections of a non-credit remedial English language course, a section of critical thinking, and various applied ethics courses.  At the end of the second year, I was notified by the Dean that my student evaluations for the critical thinking course were too low, and I was asked to submit a self-assessment, along with an outline of proposed changes, were I to teach the course the following year.

I submitted the following (slightly edited).  (Skip ahead at any time to the elephant in the room.)

*

First, let me say that I was a bit surprised to receive [your] letter.  One, I don’t think scores of 3.3 and 3.25 on a scale of 5 are unacceptable; true, they’re nothing to contact OCUFA about, and they’re not what I would like, but they translate to a ‘satisfactory’ (to use the grading scheme we use for our students) 65%.  Two, given the ‘uprising’ early in the year, to have brought the course and myself to the favourable side of neutral is, I think, admirable. …

Regardless, you continue to have concerns about my teaching ability, so I will continue to try to alleviate those concerns.

I’ll start by describing changes made [following the uprising]:

1) I agreed, after an hour of consensus-reaching discussion with the class, to weight the “crapbook” assignment (the first assignment which, I believe, started it all, for which students were to simply find examples of logically fallacious reasoning in the media and explain the fallacy) as low as 5% instead of 15%.  The remaining 10% could be made up however each student wanted, in 5% chunks, choosing from the crapbook (so for those who did well, it could count the 15% it was originally supposed to count), an in-class test on the fallacies, a homework assignment schematizing the argument of one of the weekly assigned essays, and/or a participation mark.

2) I agreed to consider quantity alone for the participation mark (i.e., it didn’t matter what the student said, as long as s/he opened her/his mouth…).

3) I reduced the length of the final exam (which was originally planned to be exactly like the mid-term, which, you may recall, was thought to be too long) by half for Parts A and B.   (Part C, which required the student to argue a position on a given issue, was left as is.)

4) I re-calculated the mark for the mid-term as if Parts A and B had been half as long, with no maximum (i.e., if a student originally scored 23 out of 40, re-calculation gave the student 23 out of 20).

5) I used the mastery approach for the final essay assignment: that is, students could rewrite their essay an unlimited number of times, each time having it marked – thoroughly annotated by me and a number value assigned.  Additionally, I scheduled individual student conferences to discuss my feedback, spending up to two hours per student (on top of my usual office hours).  (I heard another faculty member say he simply didn’t have the time to do that.  I made the time.  Pretty good, don’t you think, for a sessional instructor who gets paid half as much per course as a Lecturer, never mind a Professor…)

6) I also added an extra class each week, attendance optional, an hour in length, during which ‘practice Parts A and B’ were worked through.  (Way beyond the call of duty here…)

7) I made a public apology in class to anyone I may have offended or ridiculed. (I wish you could have seen the expressions of many as I did so – it was clear they thought the accusations were a ‘crock of shit’.)  (Also, I would still like to know, by the way, exactly what the basis was for the accusations of rudeness and disrespect – it’s been really difficult to stop doing whatever it is that’s perceived as rude and disrespectful when I don’t know what it is.)  (One student said I didn’t ridicule, I ‘teased’ – I do think this is much more accurate; one teases good-naturedly, one teases one’s friends.)

With all of these changes, the average of the class was, as you requested, not below 69.  It was, in fact, 69.5 (excluding, of course, three students who didn’t write the exam and/or the major essay).

Now, as for your requested “self-assessment and an outline of what [I] might propose to change next year” – it was decided, was it not, half way through the first term, that I would not be allowed to teach [the critical thinking course] next year?  Nevertheless, I have carefully considered each criterion, and my score (in parentheses, below), and submit the following responses.

COURSE PRESENTATION

1.  Required texts were useful (3.50) – I examined 14 texts before choosing the two I used.  I chose a logical reasoning text that was fairly easy (I anticipated not having a class full of Philosophy majors) and rather entertaining (there were cartoons throughout).  I also chose an argument reader – an anthology of essays on topics as diverse as capital punishment, abortion, smoking, war, mowing one’s lawn, sexism, civil rights, aboriginal rights, and the value of a university education; the essays were varied in length (about 3 to 15 pages) and difficulty (newspaper article to academic essay). Without further feedback, I’m not sure what change to make here…

2.  Other instructional material (3.82) – I’m not sure whether quality or quantity was evaluated: in addition to the texts, I used a few handouts as supplements; I also prepared a quiz on overheads to summarize, review, and measure learning outcome achievement at the end of each chapter.  Should I have used more materials?  Perhaps the overheads were not easily seen by those in the back?  Again, I’m not sure what change is in order here.

3.  Assignments/Papers useful (2.94) – First of all, because I extended the deadline for the major essay four times (if I hadn’t, there would have been a lot more than three students who received a zero), these evaluations were done before the major essay was done.  This is important: I believe that many students experienced significant benefits from the mastery approach and the intensive one-on-one appointments with me.  Half of the students eventually wrote an A essay; the average was 78%; they did learn; it was useful.

This score was based, then, on two assignments: the crapbook and the argument schema assignment (which was optional).  I can’t believe the crapbook assignment wasn’t useful: as mentioned above, students were to find examples of logically fallacious reasoning on television, in the newspaper, on the radio, in videos, in political party material, etc.  And as for the argument schema, being able to read an essay and extract the argument (the author’s point and his/her reasons for claiming that point) should be considered useful to anyone who considers the course useful.  (Perhaps that’s the problem.  See item 8.)  So, again, I’m not sure what change is in order here.

However, knowing now how valuable the mastery approach to the major essay was, I’d use the approach on a smaller essay (a mini version of what the major essay would be) during the first term – and then perhaps not use it with the major essay.

4.  Tests (3.39) – I’m not sure what the question was (unfortunately I have only my score sheet, not the questionnaire originals), but I don’t see any problem at all with the one test: students had to identify and explain the fallacy present in three of five given items, and they had the entire class (80 minutes) in which to do this.  Perhaps students wanted more tests?  They could have said so when we discussed the grading scheme at the beginning of the course.  Perhaps they didn’t think the test was fair?  Only 12 of them opted to write it (recall, it was optional) and the average was 73%.  Again, what to change?

5.  Labs/Seminars – N/A

6.  Appropriate difficulty (3.00) – While a few students clearly said that the course was a much needed refreshing challenge, 12 of 18 students noted that the course was too difficult.  I disagree.  And in a way, that’s all there is to it.  I think I’m in a better position to know what a second year Philosophy/Critical Thinking course should be like than my students (at least, I’d better be!).

I’d like to point out that ‘appropriate difficulty’ is a problem for most professors here at [name removed] University (it received the second lowest score) – I am assuming the problem is that the courses are perceived to be ‘too difficult’, not ‘not difficult enough’.

The texts I chose were specifically written for this kind of course, at this level, and so they should not have been too difficult.  In fact, the logical reasoning text I chose was easier than the one [the department chair] had been using.

I think a large part of the problem was students’ reading skills.  The argument reader was, quite simply, way over their heads.  Many of them even had difficulty with the newspaper articles – difficulty even with comprehension: they couldn’t tell me what the point was, let alone what the reasons for that point were.  And this ability is prerequisite to the course, which focused on whether or not the reasons were good reasons.  That Part B on both the midterm and final exam (“Read the passage below, then explain and evaluate the argument.”) was the most poorly done supports my analysis.  [A colleague’s] passing comment about the Nelson-Denny results at [name removed] University (there were an alarming number of students who tested at a grade four reading level) also supports my analysis.  The course I’m currently teaching also supports my analysis: at the beginning of the class, I give an open book quiz on the assigned reading, and questions like “Does Berns support capital punishment – yes or no?” are not always correctly answered – that is to say, it’s not unusual for students to have read a whole essay on capital punishment and not know whether the author was supporting it or attacking it.

One could say ‘teach to the lowest common denominator’ – but if we’re always teaching to the sparrows, when do the bluebirds get their education?  Surely, university is for the bluebirds.  Or one could say ‘start at where the students are’ – but this is not high school; students are not required by law to be in my classroom; if the course is too difficult, then they shouldn’t take it (or, at least, not expect an A grade).

And yet, and yet…  Perhaps next time, I’ll spend the first month on reading comprehension: I’ll start by having the students read just a one-paragraph piece and tell me what the issue is; once they can do that, I’ll see if they can tell me what the point is; after a week or so, we’d graduate to a letter to the editor; then a short article; then I’ll have them tell me the point as well as the reasons; and maybe by second term, we’ll get to academic essays.  But that would be Remedial Reading.

Another large part of the problem is student effort.  Attendance was low, or at least lower than I expected (I know, you’ll say this is my fault), and many students seldom put in the three hours it took to be prepared (most had just read the essay – they were also supposed to have figured out the point and the reasons for that point, and thought about relevance, adequacy, and truth, the criteria for a good argument).  Had they done this every week, had they put in this practice, I maintain the exams wouldn’t have seemed so difficult.  More than one student supported the idea of graded quizzes based on the readings; they were too busy doing the homework for other courses, they said, which was marked.  In the same vein, another suggested giving marks for attendance.  Frankly, I find this really pathetic: if students need to be rewarded by marks to do the homework, and even to attend the class, then they aren’t really interested; and if that’s the case, again, why are they taking the course?  I don’t want to encourage such ‘marks dependency’ nor do I think I should have to entice, coax, cajole, or bribe students – at the university level.  However, if most of the other professors here at [name removed] University do give marks for attendance and homework completion, then I can understand why the students were less motivated in my class.  And so, much against my better judgement, I am giving quizzes on the readings in my current course; I’ve made them ‘open book’  quizzes and have designed them to act as ‘advance organizers’ for our discussion and review notes for examination preparation, so perhaps it’s not turning out too badly; I would consider continuing with this practice.

And part of the problem was writing skills.  Some (many?) students resented the fact that I ‘marked for grammar and stuff’ …; one specifically said on the comment sheet of her evaluation that it was unfair of me to have marked the writing.

What other changes would I make?  To be honest, I’d do a little of the Remedial Reading suggested above.  But you have often told us not to lower our standards.  You’ve also said make sure they get Bs.  You can’t have it both ways.  (Unless incoming students are better prepared or become better prepared very quickly.)

8.  Course Content Valuable (3.12) – Well, this is a sad comment on our society, isn’t it.  The ability to think clearly and critically is not valuable.  Or perhaps the students think they already know how to think clearly and critically.  I think that’s more likely.  Trying to get through the ‘It’s my opinion and everyone’s entitled to their opinion’ attitude was like trying to walk underwater.  Perhaps next time I’ll open with a video of “The Jerry Springer Show” and then follow it with a video of “Studio 2” – to try to get them to see that they do have something to learn…  Though if I start the course by telling them what they can’t do, I’ll be perceived even more as insulting them.

(Reminder that you can jump ahead to the elephant in the room if you’ve had enough.)

INSTRUCTOR

9.  Course Objectives were Clear (3.56) – I articulated them orally and wrote them on the board at least four times throughout the year: “To succeed in this course, whether you’re  reading, writing, listening, or speaking, you have to know (i) what the point is, (ii) what the reasons are for that point, and (iii) whether or not the reasons are good ones – considering relevance, adequacy, and truth.”  And every Thursday, when we considered that week’s essay, these questions were asked, repeatedly.  In fact, even the first class icebreaker introduced them to the fundamental concept of the course: they were to introduce themselves to someone by saying ‘Hi, my name is X and I believe A because B’.  How many times am I expected to convey course objectives?  How could I have been more clear?

10. Grading, Evaluation Criteria (3.22) – Assuming this addressed whether or not the criteria were clear, I confess bafflement.  I must have said their writing had to be “clear and correct” a hundred times.  I put students’ crapbook items (voluntarily submitted items that received diverse marks) on the opaque projector so students could see what a 5/5 was like and compare it to a 1/5, and I walked them through – ‘See, here the student has stated clearly what fallacy is present, that’s one mark; then the student has defined the fallacy, there’s the second mark, etc.’  When I handed back the mid-term exam, I included perfect answers to every one of the fallacy items, and I had written out an ‘A’ answer to Part B and included that as well.  What more to do?

11. Consistent, Fair Grading (2.56) – Almost my lowest score.  Amazing, given that I marked blind (that is, students identified their work by student number only) in order to eliminate bias; I also, of course, marked all Part As, then went back and marked all Part Bs, and so on, to further ensure consistency; and, also of course, I marked recursively – that is, part way through, I looked again at the first few answers to be sure I hadn’t drifted, and I looked again at the middle few when I was at the end; lastly, neither [the department chair nor the only other Philosophy professor] thought my marking was inconsistent when I offered a sample for their examination.  Suggestions for change?

12. Helpful Comments and Feedback (3.00) – Again, I remind you that this was before the major essay assignment.  Nevertheless, this is again a puzzle.  Perhaps the students couldn’t recognize the help; perhaps they thought that my Socratic questions leading them to the light were just bludgeoning them into the dirt.  Or perhaps they just wouldn’t recognize my help.  More on this later.

13. Meaningful examples (3.56) – What do you want me to say about this one – I do try and will continue to try to provide meaningful examples.

14. Organized, well-planned (3.33) – Again, a mystery.  I am compulsively organized. I recall twice forgetting to assign homework questions, and once I put the wrong overhead on the screen.  Is that really, seriously, a problem?  There is, simply, no need for change here.

15. Opportunity for Questions (3.72) – I consistently solicit questions in class; I am in my office during office hours.   No room for improvement here.

16. Clear, Effective Answers (3.11) – This was the first time I taught this course and so I was fielding questions in this area for the first time.  Yes, there were times I was not as incisive as I might have been.  I’ll do better next time.

17. Encouraged independent thinking (3.44) –

18. Challenged, provoked thought (3.50) –

On both criteria, more mystery.  Rather, misunderstanding.  I would’ve thought both of these items would have scored over 4.0.  It makes me think that these students have never been exposed to the Socratic pedagogical style before.  And actually, I do think this is part of the problem.  If most professors lecture, then indeed I am unusual, indeed students don’t know how to take my constant questions, my constant challenges – perhaps they take them as insults. Perhaps when I present an opposing view, they think I’m genuinely disagreeing with them and they are offended.  Perhaps when I insist on reasons, they think I’m insisting that they’re wrong (and that I’m right – and hence I’m not encouraging independent thinking but, instead, I’m encouraging them to agree with me…).

Also, we’re back to ‘It’s my opinion and I’m entitled to it’ and a built-in difficulty with this kind of course: not only do I push (and I do – I push, I prod, I prick), I do so close to their hearts – the content (abortion, capital punishment, the pursuit of profit…) is more personal than, say, physics.

Next time, I’d do a lot of advance explanation of my pedagogical style.  The Rasool text has an excellent ‘Note to the Student’ explaining that when professors ask for reasons, they are not insulting you … apparently I’m not the first Critical Thinking professor to have been so misunderstood …  I really didn’t think I had to explain all of this…

19. Made the course interesting (2.78) – Wow.  If issues such as those in the argument reader (see above) and assignments like the crapbook (see above) aren’t interesting, I don’t know what is.  (Actually, if they aren’t, then the student should’ve dropped the course.)  One of our classes was a United Nations simulation in which students were Iraq and Israel, Somalia and Bosnia, and Ireland, and the rest of us were whatever country we wanted to be.  In another class, we played a game I made up called ‘Argument Chess.’

I speak with an animated and enthusiastic voice (which also happens to be genuine).  While I can’t move around the room, I do move back and forth at the front rather than planting myself in one spot for the whole class.  I vary the mode of presentation (Tuesdays was mostly text and oral with overheads; Thursdays was mostly text and visual and then discussion – in twos, small groups, and large groups, sometimes assigned groupings, sometimes student-selected).

I think I made the course as interesting as I need to; I am not wholly responsible for whether or not the students are interested.

Honestly, I think there was something else going on here…  The elephant in the room.

20. Clear effective voice (4.06) – Can I assume this score is acceptable?

21. Responsive out-of-class (3.82) – How would they know?  90% of my office hours were not used.  (And again, this was before the intensive appointments about their essays.)  No improvement needed here.

22. Up-to-date knowledge (3.50) – I confess, I do not have up-to-date knowledge on all the issues we discussed.  But I don’t think I am expected to: when we evaluate argument, we say ‘If the premises are true, this would be a valid/sound argument’ – we leave the determination of truth to those qualified.

23. Learning Environment (2.44) – Surely who’s in the class affects the learning environment as much as, if not more than, the professor.  I must confess I think the critical thinking course was a case of ‘a few bad apples’ – I agree with the student who said, on the comment sheet, “There were a lot of immature students in this class who didn’t respect [the prof] and gave her a hard time no matter what she did.”

You may ask then, why was this so?  Why did they give me such a hard time?  Good question.  One student suggested that it was because I didn’t have a Ph.D.  Though a few others complained that I constantly flaunted my degrees!  (Like I’d flaunt an M.A.)

Another suggested that things would’ve been different had I been teaching in the auditorium rather than in a portable.  Apparently being in the portables is a low-status indicator.

Another suggested that students were so free to express their opinion in my class, they kind of got carried away.

A few said that I shouldn’t have let them get away with so much, I should have asserted my authority more; and others complained that the class was run like a dictatorship.

One complained that I was always right and the student was always wrong and I made that perfectly clear.  (If I say the answer’s 5.4 and my student says it’s 3.2, I’d better be the one who’s right, and I’d better make it clear to the student!)

What do I think?  How do I explain the hostility?

1) I think a lot had to do with the marks – as I pointed out earlier, the uprising occurred only after the first assignment was marked.  Perhaps some of the hostility toward me was displaced anger and frustration with their grade.  Next time then, the first assignment will be earlier,  and while it will be marked, it won’t count.  Also, I’d like to say that next time,  the exam will be worth 30% and everything else will be weighted according to each student’s preference, decisions  to be made at the end of the course.  Perhaps also next time I should find out before the course begins what the average grade is supposed to be.

2) Also, my style is somewhat personal.  I would often share bits of what I was doing or had done, as conscious role modelling; I’d say things like ‘That’s exactly an issue I’m struggling with right now in a paper I’m working on’ or I’d refer to my own article on euthanasia when we read the anthology selection on euthanasia.  Unfortunately student comments indicate that this was perceived as bragging – so I guess I won’t do this next time.

3)  My guess is that some students simply didn’t take the course seriously right from the beginning because (a) they thought that Philosophy was an easy, rather than a rigorous, discipline; (b) they thought that any course without a prerequisite would be a breeze; (c) they were convinced they already knew how to think; (d) they assumed that since the course was very much about opinions, it would be easy because, after all, ‘everyone’s entitled to their own opinion’ so all that’s necessary is to have an opinion….

4)  Unlike other courses, there is very little content in a critical thinking course to ‘save’ them; there is no research to be done, there is no knowledge per se to acquire – this is pure critical thinking (the stuff that brings their other marks down) (here it is the only stuff). I find it interesting that with blind marking, the top student was a Math student; there is a close relation between Math and Philosophy in their disciplined clarity of thought; Math is right up there with Physics and Philosophy regarding GRE scores.)  One of my [former] professors recently said to me that she first thought this course would be easy to teach because there’s no content; then she realized it was the hardest to teach – because there’s no content.  And since it’s purely a skill course, practice is essential – and I don’t think most students did the practice I assigned.  Perhaps like Statistics, this is a course that students need to take twice to pass.

*

Of course, even while I was preparing the above response, it occurred to me that all of it could be irrelevant, an exhaustive and exhausting bucket of red herrings.  Why did the students complain?  Why were they so resistant to my questions, my comments, my instruction?  Because I’m female.  That’s the elephant in the room.  There’s no way men (and many of my students were male) are going to take instruction from a woman.  There’s no way men are going to concede to a woman, grant that she’s right and they’re wrong.  There’s no way men are going to consider women competent.  [I found out later, regarding another course, that a male student actually organized a meeting or petition, then presented a list of sixteen complaints to the Dean, one of which was “She puts comments on our essays.”]

But I came of age in the 70s, obtained my teaching degree and my first teaching position in the early 80s, when we were developing non-sexist language and revamping the dead-white-male canon, and taught joyously and enthusiastically through the 80s; I then moved to a backwoods sort of place that I thought was just behind the times a bit – through the 90s, I assumed the rest of the world was progressing in the direction set in the 70s and 80s.

So one, I thought that my sex couldn’t be the explanation for my experience at the university, or at least not the whole explanation, because we were so past sexism.  And two, I thought that that explanation was so obvious as to not merit mention; I assumed everyone my age or younger (the Dean, for example, and most of my colleagues) was as up-to-speed as I was about sexism in the classroom.

I didn’t know about  the backlash.  I didn’t realize that all the ground we had gained, and then some, had been lost.  So I was wrong.  So very wrong.  On both points.

Some time after I’d prepared my detailed, anguished response to the Dean’s letter, I happened to stand outside a male colleague’s class for a few minutes (I’d been invited to do a special talk on ethics and economics), and I was amazed at the quiet: no one was interrupting him; no one was challenging his every word; no one was competing with him.  That is to say, they were not trying to undermine his authority; they had accepted it.  Because he was male.

Just in case you haven’t had enough, before I was completely ‘fired’ (a.k.a. not asked to teach any other courses), yet another (male) student went to the Dean to complain.  I may be wrong, but I suspect that he never would have done so if a male professor had refused, given the circumstances indicated in my response below, to increase his grade.

*

Please consider this as comment/rebuttal to Cody’s allegation of unfair treatment in [Ethics for Social Science]:

1. I don’t fully understand Cody’s first point: “with a considerable amount of commentary and another re-write, [his first paper] was worth at least a pass.”  Students were not allowed to submit re-writes of the first paper (not one, and certainly not “another”), and any “commentary” he wanted to include in his paper would have been, should have been, included in the version he submitted.

Also, I’d like to point out that I met with every student, Cody included, on a one-to-one basis, discussing in detail their first paper – partly because it was indeed their first, partly because the final exam would be similar, and partly because such feedback is simply excellent pedagogy and my classes are usually small enough that I can do this.

2. I did not grant an extension to any student for the second paper, certainly not to a student who “simply forgot about the due date.”

I did allow a student to hand in the third assignment a week after it was due: I had changed the due date, moving it earlier by a week, and she apparently was not present when I announced the change (she was working to the original due date as per the course outline).

Also, I did allow two students to resubmit their second paper, but this was clearly not permission to rewrite: while both students had identified the secondary source they used, they did not include quotation marks wherever they quoted – I merely refused to mark their papers until they inserted the quotation marks (so I could clearly see what was their work and what was not).  Believing that Cody, and perhaps others, misunderstood that as permission to rewrite (and therefore evidence in unfairness), I explained at some length to the class as a whole exactly what I was permitting those two students to do; unfortunately, that was a day Cody arrived late, and I had to therefore repeat the explanation – it’s possible my repeat explanation was abbreviated, leaving Cody without full understanding the distinction between ‘rewrite’ and ‘resubmit’.

Further, I’d like to point out that with regard to the second paper, students were required to submit an extensive outline four weeks before it was due.  I provided extensive feedback two weeks hence (again, meeting with students individually), leaving them two weeks to rework (if necessary) and write up the paper – I, thus, ‘built in’ the re-write option.  Cody, however, did not take advantage of this: he did not submit an outline, but, instead, simply submitted a completed paper on the final due date.  (Such preliminary feedback was also allowed for the third assignment; again, Cody did not take advantage of that.)

Further still, with regard to the second paper, I did allow a few students to re-write their paper correcting their grammar and punctuation (but not changing the content at all); they could then resubmit it for a slight increase in the grade (for example, a C+ would turn into a B-).  Cody was one of these few students, but he did not bother to correct and resubmit his paper.

3.  With regard to Cody’s class participation mark, those marks were based not only on quantity, but also on quality of contribution.  As for quantity, attendance was also taken into account: Cody missed at least two full classes, which I consider substantial in a course totalling a mere twelve classes.  As for quality, Cody’s contributions were very poor.  For example, in a discussion about whether one is morally ‘allowed’ (the weak version) or morally ‘obligated’ (the strong version) to tell someone that someone else is HIV positive, Cody’s contribution was something like ‘And what about at places like Casino Rama where they have a separate trash can for needles in the washrooms?’  Such a comment is indicative of Cody’s continued (that discussion occurred during the last class) inability to understand and follow the arguments that comprise the course content – and that, not my unfairness, explains his failing grade.

It is certainly quite possible that I use different assessment standards than Cody is used to: ethics is quite a different course than, say, marketing or accounting. However, I believe I use standards appropriate for the course, and they are, thus, not unfair.  And I have used the same standards for Cody as I have used for the other students in that course – which is to say, again, that I have not been unfair.  (Of course, much depends on one’s definition of ‘fair’ – as this was a topic we explored at some length in the course, it’s disappointing, but not surprising, to see Cody using the term with such imprecision.)

*

As I say, if I were a male professor, I doubt Cody would have gone to the Dean.

Perhaps more importantly, if I were a male professor, I would not have assumed the students’ feedback on the course evaluations to be sincere and, therefore, personal, so I probably would have responded to the first Dean’s request, above, with just a short paragraph full of generalities about making changes, making improvements.

And that would have been the end of it.

for my brother, a poem by Chris Wind

(for my brother)

I

with a grunt of irritation

you condescend to be interrupted

and move your chair back a bit

so i can crawl

under your desk

(the one dad built special for you

now that you’re at university)

so i can dust the baseboards

as is my job

(i’ve already done the rest of your room)

i’m quiet

careful not to disturb

because it’s hard stuff, important stuff

you’re doing

(i’m still only in high school

but you’re at university now

it must be harder

you’re getting only 60s)

i turn around in the cramped space

on my hands and knees

and see your feet

i think about washing them

i think about binding them

II

the guidance counsellor pauses

then discourages

“philosophy’s a very difficult field”

and i thought

(no, not then, later)

i thought, she’s telling the kid

who has the top marks in the school

it’s too difficult?

III

it’s true

i just find it easier

besides, compared to business

philosophy is such a bird course

no, that’s a lie:

i’m smarter

and i work harder–

while you’re out with your friends

friday nights

i’m at work

because my summer job didn’t pay enough

to cover the whole year

and while you’re watching tv

i’m at work

(at ten o’clock

after six hours of lectures

and just as many of typing and filing)

i move the set

so i can crawl

into the corner

to dust the baseboards

you lean and yell in irritation

because i’m in your way

because i’m in your way

1987

from dreaming of kaleidoscopes

www.chriswind.net

The Academy Awards

Why is the acting category of the Academy Awards sex-segregated (Best Actor in a Lead/Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Leading/Supporting Role)?  We don’t have separate awards for male and female directors. Or screenwriters, cinematographers, costume designers, film editors, soundtrack composers, or make up persons.

Is one’s sex really relevant to one’s acting ability? In a way that justifies separate awards?

Of course not.

My guess is that it’s because the award isn’t really for the actor/actress, but for the character portrayed.  Probably partly because most people can’t distinguish the two.  I’ll bet George Clooney still gets asked what to do by moms whose kid has a fever.

Even so, why do we have separate categories?

Because if we didn’t, women would never win.  Not because they’re worse actors (remember the award isn’t for acting ability), but because we honor the heroes.  And women never get to play hero.

 

Trust – the movie

Trust – the movie

 

I’m so bloody sick and tired of men who assume center stage is for them.  The way the movie ends, and most of the way it plays out, it’s about the dad, about how he can’t deal with his failure to protect his daughter.

Mom’s not quite so important, apparently, despite her greater empathy with the whole experience: not only is she too beating herself up over her failure as a parent, for, after all, she’s as much the girl’s parent, but also she must surely be saying to herself ‘It could’ve been me — at 13.’

And that’s what the movie’s really about.  The real story, the far more important story, is about Annie.  She’s the one who misplaced her trust.  She’s the one who pays for it, with her life almost.  She even says as much, but apparently the director didn’t hear the writers (assuming he chose the last scene and determined how it was shot, who got the close-up, who got their big face in the camera last…).

This movie should’ve been an examination of not only trust (what is trust and how do we know who to trust?), but also an examination of love: with all the shit we force-feed our kids (including the shit ads the dad makes), it’s perfectly reasonable and perfectly predictable that what happened happened (and I refer here both to what Charlie does and what Annie does).

Shame on Schwimmer for making it about the man.

The Baroness Von Sketch Show – MUST SEE!!

https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=baroness+von+sketch+show

Snowmobiles Rule – Only in Canada.  Pity.

Snowmobilers are often presented as enjoying the natural beauty of the North.  Oh please.  Not at the speeds they drive.  Not while their exhaust pipes spew fumes into our air.  And their engines roar at a volume that must be endured by everyone within five miles.  And their tossed beer cans litter the forest until someone comes by and picks up after them.

What snowmobiling is all about adolescent males going VROOM VROOM.

Which means that our government has handed over thousands of miles of crown land to a bunch of young men to use as their personal racetrack.  How fair is that?  And did they ask us first?

When a friend of mine contacted the MNR to ask about putting up signs at each end of a short trail through crown land that snowmobilers are using as a short cut to get to their trail and, in the process, making it dangerous (not to mention extremely unpleasant because of the fumes and the noise) for the rest of us to use (for walking and cross-country skiing), she was told No, they can’t put up signs prohibiting snowmobilers from using it because everyone has access to crown land.  Right.  Then why do the signs on the snowmobile club trails say ‘No Trespassing – You must have a permit to use this trail’?

Why has the government done this?  Because they’re adolescent males themselves.  Who still want to go VROOM VROOM.

And because local businesses asked them to, because they want to make money from the snowmobilers.

Snowmobilers are a minority.  Local business owners are a minority.  Why do they get to determine policy and practice?  Policy and practice that affects other people?

When snowmobilers (and ATVers and dirtbikers – essentially, all motorized ‘recreational’ vehicles) use crown land the way they want, no one else can use it the way they want.  Consider the trails, mentioned above, unsafe and unpleasant now for hikers and skiers.  Consider the lake we all live on.  In winter (and in summer too – jetskis, another motorized recreational vehicle), our properties may as well be backing on, well, a racetrack.  (So much for sitting outside and – well, so much for sitting outside.  Not to mention canoeing or kayaking.)  Consider all the backroads we live on, the ones without sidewalks.  It’s nice that we can hear a snowmobile coming from miles away so we have time to get off the road, but it’s not enough to get off to the side (assuming that’s not where we already are), because that’s where the snowmobiles drive.  It’s not even enough to get off the road and up onto the snowbank, because they like to ride the banks.  You have to climb up and over the snowbanks to be safe.  In some countries, pedestrians have the right of way.  In Canada, gas-guzzling, fume-spewing, noise-farting, male-driven snowmobiles do.

Taking Tiddlywinks Seriously

Imagine a game of tiddlywinks being played by men.

Imagine it televised.  And broadcast to the whole world on any one of over a dozen Tiddlywinks Channels.

Imagine a play-by-play description of the proximity and angle of orientation each tiddlywink, relative to the pot; of the exact positioning of each man’s squidger, relative to each tiddlywink; of the precise force with which the players flip their tiddlywinks.

Imagine after-the-game interviews with the players, eliciting earnest reflections about their every move.

If you’re laughing, why don’t you also laugh at football, hockey, baseball, basketball, and soccer games?

And if you’re not laughing—behold the legitimizing force of serious-men-doing-it.

Figure Skating: A Very Gendered Thing

Many call figure skating a sissy sport, a feminine thing.  To the contrary, and to my unrelenting irritation, it is a very gender-inclusive sport, a sport of both sexes, a sport where men must be men and women must be, well, girls.

Consider the costumes.  The men usually wear ordinary long pants and a more or less ordinary shirt.  The women, on the other hand, with such consistency I suspect an actual rule, show their legs – their whole legs – and as much of their upper body as they can get away with.  And they always wear that cutesy short little girl skirt.  What is it with that?  Or they wear a negligée.  (Ah.  It’s the standard turn-on for sick men: sexy-child.)  (Why is child sexy to men?  Because child guarantees power over.  And that’s what sex is to men – power, not pleasure.  Or rather, the power is the pleasure.  Probably because they don’t recognize the responsibility of power.)  (So even in a sport without frequent legs-wide-apart positions, the woman’s costume would be questionable.  But I believe it is actually a rule – the female skaters must show leg.  Like most rules women are expected to follow, this one surely was made by men, for men.  As if women exist for men’s viewing pleasure.)

(Too, no doubt there’s some compensation going on: the stronger women get, the more feminine (i.e., the weaker) they’re told to be.  Men can’t accept women’s superior fitness, physical ability, endurance, and agility; so the women are encouraged to compensate by being child (I’m really young, small, and no threat at all) and by being sexy (I’ll still please you).)

In no other sport – I think of track, basketball, volleyball – do the men and women wear such different outfits.  And in fact, not even in figure skating, at least not in practice, do they wear such different outfits: most skaters, whatever their sex, wear some sort of spandex bodysuit, perhaps with sweats, when they work on the ice.  You can’t tell them apart then: there’s no difference in speed, in line, in movement.  (Ah.  That’s the problem: that we won’t be able to tell them apart.  Men define themselves as not-women; the greater the difference, the stronger their identity.)  (And yet, as one male student of mine once explained, ‘It’s natural to pick a fight with whatever’s different.’  Men are so confused.)  (Then again, maybe not – maybe they just like to fight.  Hence the need to ensure there’s always something different nearby.)  (Men are so confused.)[1]

Consider, too, the pairs.  Always male and female.  There are same-sex pairs in other sports (for example, tennis) – why the obsession with mixed-sex pairs in figure skating?  And yes, there are mixed doubles in other sports, but only in this one is the strong boy – weak girl thing so prevalent, only in this one does the man routinely (seem to) support the woman: he is the subject who throws, pulls, pushes, lifts, and carries her, the object.  It’s the perfect metaphor for our deluded masculist world: the man lifts the woman, displaying his strength as he puts her on a pedestal.  Deluded, because, of course, the woman, despite her incredible physical strength and skill, appears to be a mere object moved by the man when, in fact, the success of the move depends as much on her: her strength, her balance, her timing.

Given that, why aren’t they called aerial balances instead of lifts?  Or better yet, more fair, lifted balances?  The very name describes only what the man does.  As if the woman does nothing, as if she’s completely passive.  You try holding your body horizontal in mid-air and see how much sheer strength it takes, along with amazing balance.  Go ahead: climb a tree; now hang over a branch; okay, now straighten your body and hold it; now, add a couple pounds of skate to one end; and now lift both ends not just even with the branch but higher than the branch, that’s it, arch; okay now let’s make the tree move; now smile.

And now get down.  But you can’t just jump down.  You have to land in the man’s arms.  Without slicing his balls off with your blades.  That takes some skill.  (And yeah, okay, some concern.)

And why aren’t they called throwns instead of throws? Or better yet, more active, soars?  Contrary to popular belief, the woman doesn’t need the man to throw her high into the air in order to do a couple twists before she lands.  The side-by-side triple jumps show that she is quite capable of throwing herself.  And, in fact, wouldn’t it be harder to land when you’ve been thrown by someone else?

The answer to this question about the names is that figure skating, like so much else, is defined by men.  The quad is deemed to be the most difficult move; it is the benchmark of superior ability; it is more noteworthy than a spin or a spiral.  This is not surprising.  The quad is a short-burst feat of speed and strength.  These are male obsessions.  Perhaps because they are easily mastered by the male body.[2]  The spin, less lauded, is a feat of balance (as well as speed and strength).  And more easily mastered by the female body.  (Unless, of course, you’re Surya Bonaly – she can do both a quad and a spin.)  (Sometimes even while wearing a cute little skirt.)  The spiral, less lauded still, a feat of flexibility (as well as balance and strength).  The quad covers more ground, conquers more territory.  The spin stays in one place.  The spiral also covers a lot of ground, more, in fact, than the quad, but it’s static, and beautiful, and is therefore demoted.  The quad is also subject to quantification – it’s more than a triple.  The spin is also subject to quantification, more, in fact, than the quad, but as I said, it stays in one spot, and it’s very small.  That there is more comment about women not doing quads (or rather, more presumption that because they can do only triples, they’re not as good as the men) than there is about men not doing the Biellmann spin, a difficult cross between a spin and a spiral (let alone the presumption that they’re not as good as the women because they can’t do it) indicates that the measure of ability, the standard, the norm of reference in figure skating, is male.

Perhaps the polarization, in costume as well as in movement, is perpetuated not by men in general, but by insecure men who are reacting to the ‘real men don’t figure skate’ view.  So they emphasize a ‘masculine’ physicality.

There are, of course, thankfully, exceptions.  The “Marbles” piece of Gary Beacom and Gia Guddat is one example: skating on their hands as well as their feet, in identical striped three-quarter bodysuits, they emphasize not sex, but technique and humour.  The Duchesnays provide another example: in one piece, they each wear the same simple blue pants-and-shirt outfit, and the choreography has no heterosexual romantic undertone whatsoever, they are simply two skaters on the ice, each as apt to support the other; the piece is about, again not sex, but art and athletics.

[1] This need to differentiate would explain the prevalence of the military theme, the warrior figure, in the men’s solos: I’m not a sissy, I’m a real man, I’m physically strong and emotionally flat, I like to fight.  (And kill.  So it suddenly occurred to me, when I happened to watch a figure skating competition right after a newscast during the Serbia/Croatia ‘conflict’, what poor taste it was – to act out, on the ice, killing someone, with such pride, such celebration.  Especially if there’s a nationalistic edge to the performance, as there often is because of the accompanying music.)  (Well, duh.  Of course.  From toy guns to action movies, it’s not just poor taste, it’s sick – to portray, and to consider, hurting and killing as entertaining.)

Consider too the male habit of thrusting (!) his fist into the air after a successful performance (in any sport), showing this unsettling association of victory with violence, pleasure with power.

[2] Consider the fact that women leave the sport (or have to re-learn it) once they reach puberty – i.e., once they actually develop female bodies.  As is the case with gymnastics.  And track.  There have got to be moves that a woman’s body can do, for which hips and breasts and a certain amount of body fat aren’t debilitating.  Why haven’t we made sports out of those?  Well, we have.  But the media, and society, in which men call the shots, don’t put a lot of attention, time, energy, or money into distance swimming.  (There, our fat is good – the buoyancy makes it easier.  There, our anaerobic superiority is good – we last longer, we finish.)  Or synchronized swimming.  (Which men simply couldn’t do.)  (Or at least couldn’t do very well.)  (Or, most importantly, couldn’t do better than women.  They don’t have that anaerobic efficiency.  They’d drown.  And they certainly couldn’t get their legs very high out of the water – what with their poor buoyancy and their top heaviness, they’d be, well, pathetic.  And few – only the young ones, the boys – could split them to the horizontal.  And anyway, that complete relinquishing of the ego – absolutely no grandstanding, no upstaging, allowed – and that continuous adjustment which requires a sensitivity to others, is beyond them.)

Miranda, by Chris Wind

from Soliloquies: the lady doth indeed protest, by Chris Wind

 

Miranda

 

Why has she no mother?
Why have I no mother?
Nor Ophelia, Portia, Kate, Cordelia, Hermia,
Indeed, none but Juliet?
I’ll tell thee:
’Tis an obsession with the male.
Consider Prospero, my good father,
‘The male as authority’—
For ’tis to you, father, I must direct my questions
There being none other to answer,
’Cept Caliban who though half beast
Is also (perchance moreso) male.
(And when there arrive a multitude of others,
Strangers to the island from the ship come asunder,
They too are, alack, every one of them male.)
You doth also seem to be ‘the male as power’—
You are parent and thus hold the natural virtue of veto
Further, you are conjurer, with unnatural force as well.
Lastly you are ‘the male as protector’—
For from you comes my safety from hazard and harm
(Though it seems needed only against others of your kind.)

Next consider Ferdinand,
It is you I am to see as my saviour,
You have knowledge of the other world,
You will release me from the power and authority
Of my father.  You are my only alternative.
But since you are a man, you are not an alternative
At all.

’Tis odd this single stress on male—
The island is a reversal, not a reflection:
For ’tis women who are responsible for the young,
’Tis they who manage their education,
Their care and survival—not men.
This disregard of what is true
Can only issue from a mind deprav’d
And clouded over by sickness—
I fear ’tis envy of the womb:
Bereft of female affect, denied female influence,
I am totally fashioned, created by man—
’Tis a dream perchance of many a small boy
Playing with his penis one day
And crying out the next that he has no breasts.
(Yet ’tis not so simple: this jealousy
Of the ultimate power, the power of creation,
Raises the woman to great importance
And yet at the same time there seems to be
A preoccupation with self that
Excludes the woman to insignificance.)

Forsooth, ’tis a dream indeed
For I am not a vessel to be filled with your desires;
That you think me so is plain:
Ferdinand, it is clear you are interested
Only in my ability to reproduce,
For only if a virgin would you make me queen.
(Queer logic this—if it’s progeny you want,
Better to choose one proven
Than one untried and perhaps unable.)
You are no better than Caliban
Who in arrogance sought to people the isle
With copies of himself, and Stephano
The would-be king desiring also to propagate.
Father, you too are of the same,
For when giving, selling me to Ferdinand
You paraded as my greatest value
My virgin-knot.
Moreover, not only into my body but into my soul too
Would you thrust your desires:
Seeking purity and goodness but failing to attain
These qualities yourself, you hoist them upon me;
Aghast at the pain and responsibility of knowledge,
You would have me remain ignorant;
And guilty with experience, you declare me innocent;
Despising your own ugliness, you demand beauty in me;
And humiliated by the ravages of time passing,
You wish me to be forever young.
But I am not a ship at sea
To be directed by your hand at the helm:
I have my own course,
And will not be what you wanted to be
And could not become.

’Tis said The Tempest is a fitting summation
Of all the rest; if that be true
Then by rule of logic, all the rest
Is unrealistic and unbalanced:
For there are two sexes in the world,
Of equal representation in quality and quantity.
’Tis said I am the ultimate conception of Woman:
Young, beautiful, innocent, pure—
Is this what you want?
Then ’tis no flesh and blood you want,
For flesh ages as the years pass;
And it is not always, not often, beautiful.
And ’tis not mind, heart, and soul you want,
For the mind thinks, the heart feels,
And the soul moves by its own stars.
What you seem to want is something insubstantial,
Something of the air perchance.
Alas, look again, for I am a person
And not such stuff as dreams are made on.

 

***

 

Said to be a summation of Shakespeare’s work (it is the last comedy he wrote), The Tempest tells the story of Prospero (a Duke) and his daughter, Miranda, living in exile on an island. Caliban, “a freckled whelp hag-born—not honoured with a human shape” (I:ii, l.283-284), is the only other ‘person’ on the island (there is also Ariel, but he is a magical spirit); he has attempted, at least once, to rape Miranda and thus ‘people the isle with Calibans’ (I:ii, l.350-351).

Prospero commands a passing ship to wreck (he can do this), and all of its passengers survive, cast upon the shores of the island: Alonso and Sebastian (King of Naples and his brother), Ferdinand (the King’s son and, therefore, a prince), Antonio (Prospero’s brother, unjustly Duke of Milan), Stephano (a drunken butler who, once on the island and hearing about Miranda from Caliban, plans to take over by killing Prospero and making Miranda queen), and a few others.

Miranda and Ferdinand see each other and fall in love (Miranda has been on the island since she was a baby, so this is the first man she’s seen besides her father). Since she is a virgin (“Oh, if a virgin…I’ll make you Queen of Naples” I:ii, l.448), they are engaged (“Then, as my gift, and thine own acquisition, worthily purchased, take my daughter. But if thou dost break her virgin knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rite be ministered…” IV:i, l.13-17); Ferdinand promises to be honourable, as he hopes “for quiet days, fair issue, and long life” (IV:i, l.24).

Kept Women (and Men)

There is something objectionable about a perfectly-capable-of-working adult being ‘kept’ by another adult.  It seems to me the epitome of laziness and immaturity to be supported by someone else, to have someone else pay your way through life.

But, I suppose, if someone wants to pay someone else’s way, if a man wants to ‘keep’ a woman (or vice versa), and that woman (or man) wants to be ‘kept’, I suppose that’s no business of mine.

But then why should I subsidize their keep? What has your wife (or husband) ever done for me?  And yet I must subsidize her discounted income tax.  Her discounted car insurance.  Her discounted health insurance.  Her discounted life insurance.  Her discounted university tuition.  Her discounted club membership.  Hell, even her discounted airline ticket.

If he wants to pay her way, fine, but her way should cost the same as mine.  Why is her way discounted just because she’s not paying it herself? Why do we roll out the red carpet for kept women?

Even if she is paying her own way, why should she have to pay less than me just because she’s married?  Why should spouses get a discounted rate on all those things?

In particular, access to company benefits irks me: you don’t even work here, why should you be covered?

Two married adults should pay the same as two single adults.  End of story.

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