Resistance in/to the academy?

A few weeks ago, I came across this article: Did a Harvard Economics Class Cause the Financial Crisis? via @Good. 70 students in N. Gregory Mankiw’s Economics 10 class walked out in protest to Mankiw’s biased, ineffective, limited and dangerous teaching of introductory economics. In their open letter to Mankiw, they argue that

In brief, their reasons for protesting by walkout are:

  • Information presented is biased, with no primary sources and no critical interrogation on limits
  • Concepts, ideas, theories are narrow in scope and don’t allow for a broad foundation that can be used in future courses/work in different disciplines
  • Failure to present students with proper tools for a future in which they will have power (privilege?) to influence major financial decisions
  • Acting in solidarity with the Occupy movement
While I appreciate the students efforts to resist (in) their education, their desire to be active participants/agents in the education process and their call for better education in the field of economics and economic theory, I’m still a little troubled by their approach and the ideas that they use to support their reasons for walking out. At one point in their letter, the students write:
Care in presenting an unbiased perspective on economics is particularly important for an introductory course of 700 students that nominally provides a sound foundation for further study in economics.

Is it possible for any professor to offer an unbiased perspective? What sort of vision of the teacher is invoked with this myth of an all-knowing educator that can bestow honest, True (real) facts about what economics is or does? It sounds as if Professor Mankiw was particularly egregious in his failure to supplement his own bias with alternative perspectives, however all teachers present information in a biased way, based on their background (their interests, where they trained, where they were born/grew up, the cultural communities to which they belong, etc). And the solution to this bias is not to find a mythical teacher who can transcend their own positioning and perspective and present the facts or theories as they really are (whatever that means). Instead, the solution is to recognize that all knowledge is political/politicized and to develop strategies/tactics/skills for learning how to critically sift through various perspectives and determine which ones are most useful in understanding specific situations and problems. I’m sounding very Foucauldian right now. And that’s okay because I really appreciate what Foucault has to say about knowledge, power, the will to truth and the value of problematizing. One goal of an educator should be to provide students with these tools and tactics. Judging from the students’ letter, Professor Mankiw failed to offer any ways for students to learn how to decide between various theories; he didn’t provide primary sources or any justification for why some theories might be better or any admission of his own investments in certain theories over others. In protesting his failures (can we place this failure all on him? more on that in a minute), students shouldn’t argue for less bias, but more transparent teaching and more ways of learning how to negotiate between various ideas.

The idea that professors have certain investments and that ideas and theories are always shaped by who is using them and how is a central one in feminist pedagogy and is routinely taught in intro to gender and women’s studies courses. Can you see my bias here? I am a gender and women’s studies teacher, after all. Maybe instead of agitating against Professor Mankiw, students should be agitating for more feminist classes or feminist theory and feminist pedagogy that is integrated into intro to economics classes.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation. Students should agitate against professors who wield too much power even as they are agitating for a better education. But, does agitating against one bad apple really address the larger systemic problem? This question brings me to another aspect of the students’ letter (or, at least the way it was shared via twitter by Good with the question: Did a Harvard Economics Class Cause the Financial Crisis?), one that I will have to take up in a future post: In framing the problem of bad education as solely the result of the professor and/or his class, students are failing to address the various ways in which ineffective education, particularly in relation to economics and finances, is the result both of various practices on different levels of higher education (the Economics department at Harvard, Harvard University, Higher Education in the U.S) and of problematic pedagogical theories (like the banking method of education in which knowledge is deposited into the heads of passive students by the Expert Teacher). Why aren’t we having more of these conversations?

Teaching Halloween

My last post on live-tweeting Halloween inspired me to dig up my past notes on screening/teaching Halloween in my feminist and queer classes. In both classes, we discussed the film in relation to Carol Clover’s Men, Women and Chainsaws:

Day Eighteen (11.2.06)

Reactions to Halloween

  • what is the story? Outline of plot
  • listing of characters
  • representations of women?

Introduction to Clover

  • her background
  • the notion of the final girl has been very significant
  • What is the argument of the final girl?

Clover argues that the phenomenon of the final girl within late 1970s/early 80s slasher films is significant for rethinking how we understand gender within these films. In contrast to the traditional understanding of gender and the masculine gaze as sadistic and objectifying, Clover argues that within slasher films, male audience members identify with the final girl; they don’t objectify her or find pleasure in her suffering but root for her to vanquish the killer.

Who is the final girl?
Halloween = Laurie

  • the one who doesn’t die/survivor
  • encounters the mutilated bodies of her friends/understands the horror
  • she is chased, cornered and wounded
  • screams, staggers, falls, rises again
  • looks death in the face

Chapter 7: introduction to her as bookish, smart, different, asexual read parts from Clover essay (39) + boyish quotes as well
Chapter 22: her experience of the horror, confronts it. Clover 35, bottom 39)
Chapter 24: trapped in the closet, able to defend herself (35, bottom 39)

Elements of Clover’s argument:

  1. Basic argument = male gaze is not exclusively about objectifying women or about getting sadistic pleasure out of their pain/suffering/death [although that is evident in the film] A different type of girl, the final girl, exists
  2. Final girl complicates the classic gender division of male active/hero and female as passive/victim…The final girl represents both
  3. She is a masculine female: How is this represented in the film? Her name, her interests, her disinterest in boys, her intelligence, her heroism/ability to fight back (see 48)
  4. Gender fluidity: “The world of horror is in any case one that knows very well that men and women are profoundly different (and that the former are vastly superior to the latter) but one that at the same time repeatedly contemplates mutations and slidings where women begin to look a lot like men” (15)
  5. The audience may shift their identification throughout the early parts of the film, starting with the killer as a boy, but by the end of the film we fully identify with the final girl as hero (see 44-45). This challenges the idea that the gaze is always male and that the primary identification is with the man/male character-hero
  6. One sex versus two sex…arguing that horror films play with gender—Halberstam quote about queering gender (Butler too) “improperly or inadequately gendered bodies represent the limits of the human and they present a monstrous arrangement of skin, flesh, social mores, pleasures, dangers and wounds. The bodies that splatter in horror films are interestingly enough properly gendered ‘human’ bodies, female bodies, in fact with the conventional markings of their femininity. Female bodies that do not splatter, then, are often sutured bodies, bodies that are in some way distanced from the gender constructions that would otherwise sentence them to messy and certain death. Carol Clover has named the improperly gendered, de-girled being as the ‘final girl’ (141).

The point of her argument is not to suggest that horror films aren’t sadistic-voyeuristic, but that they are more complicated than that. Women are surely objectified in this movie and gender roles are reinforced, yet something else, something that complicates how we understand gender to function, is happening. The horror film demonstrates that gender is not rigid but fluid.

What do you think about her argument?
What are some other interpretations for what is going on here?
What struck you about the Clover article? The movie?

And here’s the worksheet I distributed when I screened it my queering theory class in 2009:

Queering Theory
29 October 2009

Who is looking? How are they looking? What are they looking at?
Who is active? Passive?
How is the gaze gendered? Sexed? Is it always male? Always heterosexual?
Are there possibilities for looking at this queerly?

Primary Identification: from the perspective of the camera
Secondary Identification: with the character of empathetic choice

  • Who are we meant to identify with in this film? (How) does our primary identification shift? What about our secondary identification? (See page 45)
  • Why is this shifting identification significant for how we understand what is happening to sex/gender/desire, the subject/abject, the possibilities for queer looking?
  • Is the gaze in a horror film, as Mulvey and many feminists suggest, sadistic-voyeuristic (Clover, 8)?

Voyeuristic looking involves a controlling gaze and Mulvey argues that this has associations with sadism: ‘pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt – asserting control and subjecting the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness’ (Mulvey 1992, 29).

What else does Clover think is going on when the audience (young heterosexual men) watch a movie like Halloween? Do they watch it because they like watching young women be tortured?

Key question for Clover: But if it is so that all of us, male and female alike, are by these processes “made to” identify with men and “against” women, how are we then to explain the appeal to a largely male audience of a film genre that features a female victim-hero (Clover, 44)?

the free exchange of themes and motifs, the archetypal characters and situations, the accumulation of sequels, remakes, imitations. This is a field in which there is in some sense no original, no real or right text, but only variants…(Clover, 11). Do you see parallels with Butler here—her notion of gender performativity?

Why horror? its engagement of repressed fears and desires and its reenactment of the residual conflict surrounding those feelings (Clover, 11).

Sex/Gender: What is the gender of the victim? The monster? The Hero?
Sex, in this universe, proceeds from gender, not the other way around (Clover, 13).
What does she mean by this? How does it function in Halloween? Connections with queering theory?

  • What are the differences between the single sex and the two-sex system? What understanding of sexual difference is being employed in Halloween—according to Clover? According to your viewing?
  • How do sex and gender work in this film? Does gender directly follow from sex (body)? What sorts of slippages do you see?
  • What types of visual/narrative/language cues about gender and desire do we get in the film? (e.g. Clover discusses how the masculinized final girl almost always has an ambiguous/manly name. See also her discussion on 39-40.)

What is the final girl? What is the significance of this concept for our viewing (and thinking about) horror films?

WHAT? The fact that horror film so stubbornly figures the killer as male and the principal as female would seem to suggest that representations itself is at issue—that the sensation of bodily fright derives not exclusively from repressed content, as Freud insisted, but also from the bodily manifestations of that content (Clover, 47).

What gender is the killer? (How) does their gender shift throughout the film?
What gender is the final girl (victim/hero)? How does their gender shift?

  • What connections do you see between Butler’s articulations of the abject with the Michael Myers? How does the child psychologist—Dr Loomis—describe Michael?
  • What connections can we draw between the figures of the killer and the final girl—are they different parts of the same person (Subject/abject?) See 49.

Abject terror as feminine: Abject terror is gendered feminine…form of crying, cowering, screaming, fainting, trembling, begging for mercy. Subject = male= forceful anger (Clover, 51).

Gender fluidity/uncertainty: not just the case that the thrill comes from fooling with gender and gender ambiguity (56)

Single sex or both sexes at once? Halloween is a test in which the categories masculine and feminine, traditionally embodied in male and female, are collapsed into one and the same character [Laurie]—a character who is anatomically female and one whose points of view the spectato if unambiguously invited, by the usual set of literary-structural cinematic conventions, to share (Clover, 61).

KEY QUESTION: Clover is analyzing the genre of slasher films primarily from a feminist perspective here. Her analysis of how gender functions within the genre (and films like Halloween) is about moving beyond the simple dismissal of slasher films as low brow fantasies of violent males and victimized females. In what ways does/can our analysis of this genre/Halloween change when we take a queer perspective? What is a queer perspective? In other words, how can we queer this?

feeling trouble not troubled in the classroom, part three

I’m continuing to work on my troublemaking pedagogy and the value of feeling trouble. And continuing to be in denial about the looming due date for my manuscript–sept 1. how much have I actually written? not much. how much time do I have to actually work on the manuscript considering my 5 yr old doesn’t start kindergarten until Wednesday? not much. I had a breakthrough last night; with a slight change in my title, I’m able to focus my project. Instead of “Feeling Trouble and Troubled in the Classroom,” I’m calling my essay, “Feeling Trouble not Troubled in the Classroom.” Why? Because I’m interested in exploring the positive effects/affects of making and staying in trouble in the classroom. While I don’t want to discount the discomfort/trauma that trouble (in the form of being uncertain, disrupting the status quo and challenging one’s own deeply held beliefs) can generate, feeling trouble can also generate “good feelings” (of openness, generosity, curiosity, wonder).

Envisioning trouble only as crisis suggests that making trouble (critiquing, challenging, disrupting, unsettling) is a necessary but unfortunate part of the process of coming to awareness. In other words, we may not like making/being in/staying in trouble and the discomfort and uncertainty it causes, but we have to struggle through it in order to learn and gain a better awareness of the world. But, what if feeling trouble didn’t make us feel troubled? What if didn’t always lead to crisis and result in trauma? What if we valued feeling trouble and imagined it as a goal instead of merely an unfortunate byproduct of our efforts to engage? Within queer theory and pedagogy, trouble is valued. Challenging, disrupting, critiquing, subverting knowledge/ideas/authors are central to queer engagements. But this value is most frequently read negatively (as being against) and can, as Eve Sedgwick suggests in her chapter, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This is Essay is About You,” result in an overemphasis on and valorizing of suspicion and paranoia.

In this essay, I want to position my practicing and theorizing about making and staying in trouble beside but not in opposition to pedagogical theories/practices about trouble, coming out of critical pedagogy, feminist pedagogy, queer pedagogy and anti-oppressive pedagogy. I want to make space for imagining a classroom that embraces staying in trouble as productive and as central to engagement and critical and creative awareness. And I want to describe the strategies I use in my classes to feel trouble as curiosity, wonder and (sometimes?) joy.

Okay, that’s all I have time for now. I want to take RJP to the park on this beautiful day!

2.5 hours later: We’re back from our hike by the Mississippi. Fabulous!


what does it mean to engage, part two: even more questions

In part one of this series, I provided one framework for engaging with an author/idea/reading: appreciation, critique and construction. I have found this framework to be very useful for students, particularly because it is concrete and logical and because it requires that students spend time really thinking through what the author is attempting to argue before moving on to critique it (this is what grad students love to do first) and/or discuss why it is/isn’t relevant to their lives (this is what undergrad students love to do first). But, even as I find this framework to be useful, I can’t help but wonder, particularly from the perspective of someone who draws upon queer and feminist pedagogy, about the aspects of engagement that it might be leaving out. The three part framework of appreciating, critiquing and constructing seems too rational; it is based on the goal of knowing an idea/author’s argument and being able to effectively describe, critique and apply it. But, what if knowing isn’t the primary goal? Or if it is only one part of what I am trying to get my students to do when they engage? Or if it can sometimes come at the expense of other, important aspects of engaging (and developing a connection) with ideas?

In posing these questions, I am thinking about the frequent need to emphasize feeling/experiencing over knowing and unlearning (as in, breaking down bad habits, busting binaries, challenging assumptions, reworking master narratives) over learning. And I am thinking about the various passages from feminist and queer pedagogues that I posted in a recent entry. What sort of framework is needed for getting students to feel the effects of ideas (Kumashiro) or to experience the force of the questions posed by/in a reading (Freire) or to process how they are implicated in a theory (Luhmann) or even to commit to bringing their full (personal, intellectual, spiritual, embodied) selves into spaces of engagement (hooks in Teaching to Transgress)? What sort of strategies are necessary for encouraging students to unlearn their assumptions (about ideas, about how to read, and about even how to be/act in spaces of engagement)?

In many ways, these questions have inspired how I am shaping a class that I’m teaching this fall (and that I have taught four times already). In my next post, I want to talk more about how I’m emphasizing troubling/troublemaking–partly in the form of feminist curiosity–in my readings and assignments. For now, check out the course blog (still in progress) for it: feminist debates: fall 2011. I love my design for it, especially the header. It visually reflects how I’m trying to integrate our blog and twitter (via the course hashtag, #femd2011).

What does it mean to engage? part one

Quite frequently I require my students to “engage” with readings, authors, and concepts from class. I prefer this term over other options, like critically assess, analyze, critique, or even describe. But, what does it mean to engage? Last semester in my big class, one of the TAs had to devote about 30 minutes of her 50 minute discussion section to explaining the term “engage.” At first, when she told me that the students had required that she spend so much time discussing how to engage I was incredulous. Really? I wondered. How can students come to college and not know what engage means? However now, as I think through some of the readings that I’m using for my feminist pedagogy article, I’m reassessing my reaction. Maybe understanding what it means to engage is not as easy (or obvious) as I thought. Maybe I need to spend some time unpacking the term (ugh….I don’t really like using the term “unpack,” but it seems to fit here)? Maybe I also need to think through why students wouldn’t necessarily understand what it means to engage. Or what resistances they might have to engaging in the first place. In (hopefully) a series of posts, “What does it mean to engage?”, I want to spend some time and space engaging with the term “engage.”

So, again, what does it mean to engage? Maybe a good place to start is the dictionary; I’ll use the one on my computer dashboard. While not all of these fit, I do find that several of the definitions can help to clarify what I mean when I ask students to engage. To engage with an author or an idea or a conversation or a reading is to do more than just read or attempt to comprehend what someone believes or what they assert in an essay. To engage is to participate/become involved (def. 2.1) with those ideas, to establish meaningful connections with them (def 2.2) in ways that require thinking about not only what they mean but what they do and what they do to us. In other words, when I ask students to “engage with an essay,” I want them to do more than read the essay, I want them to really try to understand what the author is claiming and then think about how that claim affects how they see/experience/feel the world. To engage is also to critique a reading/idea/author, not by dismissing it immediately as wrong, but by working through it, exploring its limits and possibilities and by debating it (def 2.6). Perhaps the biggest key to engaging is to be an active, involved, serious participant in the process of learning/thinking/feeling about an idea/author/reading.

When I was in grad school, one of my professors provided me with a helpful framework for engaging with an author/text. I use this framework to think through my own writing and as I develop assignments for my classes. Here’s an example of how I used it in a class last fall. It involves three key elements: appreciation, critique and construction:

APPRECIATION involves figuring out what the author is saying and demonstrating a clear understanding of their argument and how they develop and defend it. Appreciation does not require that you agree with the reading. Instead, it requires that you clearly state the author’s argument. What is their main argument? What is the purpose of that argument? How do they defend it? This element of engagement is crucial; you can’t have a critical conversation about (or with) an author until you spend some time really thinking about what they are claiming.

CRITIQUE involves assessing what the author is saying. Critique should not involve a total rejection of dismissal of the reading. Instead, it could involve raising some critical or questions and/or exploring the benefits or limitations of the argument. An important thing to note here: critique does not mean trash (or reject or dismiss). Critique involves entering into a critical conversation or debate with the argument; it’s hard, if not impossible, to do that if you enter the conversation with the intractable position, “this author is absolutely wrong!”

CONSTRUCTION involves applying the concepts from the reading to your own thoughts, areas of interest and research or experiences. It could also involve applying the reading to the topics/discussions of our class. This element is especially important for engaging. Construction is about doing something with the author’s argument: applying it, translating it, re-working it to function in unexpected ways, taking it in new directions. 

But, this isn’t all that engagement is, especially engagement from a queering feminist perspective. To engage with ideas is to resist them: to refuse to merely accept them as the truth, to push back and talk back at them, to trouble and disrupt them. It is also to be generous with them: to be open to taking them seriously and to allowing them to disrupt your worldview. I have a lot more to write on engagement, especially in relation to both my own troublemaking pedagogy and bell hooks’ notion of engaged pedagogy. But that will have to wait for part two of this series.