What I am not giving

I’m working on a book project about my teaching life (past, present and future). Most of my processing for this is happening in a green notebook and on my story blog. Occasionally, like right now, I’m posting about it here.

What does a book about my teaching life in which I attempt to offer up some of my ideas about teaching and learning and living an undisciplined life look like? How do I structure it in ways that avoid offering “advice” as an “Expert”? How do I share insight and knowledge without being arrogant or didactic?

These questions haunt me as I reflect on what sort of teaching book I want to write–what can I offer? who am I writing it for? who cares? Lately I’ve found that constructing pithy lists is helpful for sorting out my ideas and engaging in conversations with the ghosts that haunt me. So I decided to make a list of what I’m NOT giving (or least trying not to give) when I’m offering up my ideas about teaching and being undisciplined.

I am NOT Giving…

  • Advice
  • Permission
  • a Lecture
  • a Sales Pitch

ASIDE: In addition to engaging with persistent questions about authority, expertise and being the Teacher, this list is also a direct response to a recent suggestion by Elizabeth Gilbert that she was the hall monitor, giving out permission slips to women who needed them to be creative (she’s said this in many different interviews. Here’s one source).

I meet people who want to be doing interesting and creative things and they’re stuck,” she says. “Women especially seem to feel they need a permission slip from the principal’s office before they’re allowed to do anything, and I’m so happy to just be constantly writing those permission slips for everybody.

I’m the hall monitor: You have a pass and you have a pass and you have a pass,” she says, handing out imaginary passes. I’m very happy to have that be my job, or one of my jobs.

Yuck. As a teacher/guide/mentor, I’m not interested in granting permission. Why reinforce the power structure of an Authority figure who must say it’s okay? Why have a hall monitor? I’m probably not being entirely fair (or generous) to Gilbert here. In my defense, I did listen to a lengthy interview with her and I tried really, really hard to be open to her ideas. Repeatedly I found that her arrogance creeped in to her comments even (or especially) when she was attempting to be humble.

If the above list indicates what I am NOT giving, what is it that I AM giving? Here are some preliminary thoughts:

I AM Giving…

  • an Account of a teacher/person/thinker/troublemaker who is passionate about education
  • Proof that other ways of being/engaging/teaching are possible (not always successful or recommended, but possible)
  • an Invitation to engage, experiment, resist and unlearn unhealthy habits


Free to be…you and me: 40th Anniversary

This November is the 40th anniversary of Free to be…you and me. The television special, which aired on March 11, 1974 (3 months before I was born) and was shown repeatedly in my elementary school in North Carolina, was my introduction to feminism. In honor of the anniversary, I thought I’d post some of my online lectures about the film; I’ve screened parts or all of it in many of my classes.

Feminist Debates, Fall 2011

Final day of class, December 13, 2011 
In “Feminist Education for Critical Consciousness” (in Feminism for Everybody), bell hooks argues for the need to give children access to a feminist education. Is this possible? Necessary? What would it look like? Did you have access to feminist education when you were younger? If so, what were (weren’t) you taught?

On our last day, I thought I’d show you my introduction to feminist/feminist values: Free to be…You and Me.

top_logo.gifI’m a child of the 1970s (born in 1974). When I was in elementary school in North Carolina, the entire school watched the Free to be…you and me film (Videos/VCRs didn’t exist yet…yes, I’m that old) during an assembly. Everyone was really excited because it was a long film–a whole 45 minutes!–and long films meant less class time. Anyway, I don’t remember much of what I thought about the film back then (I was probably 6 or so). Yet, I’m sure some of it seeped into my consciousness, helping shape how I experience the world and how I see myself and my relationship to others.

Originally a book/album created by Marlo Thompson, with a little help from Gloria Steinem, Free to be…you and me was turned into a one hour TV special. It first aired March 11th, 1974 (3 months before I was born). You can find out more about the history of the project here. Several years later, it became a popular film to show in schools around the country (like mine in North Carolina. It was also shown in Minnesota).

It stands as one example of feminist mass-based education. Would such a show be possible now? What sorts of feminist (or feminist-friendly) films did you see in elementary school? If we were to create a feminist resource for kids, what would/could/should it look like?

Here’s one of my favorite songs from the show:

Note: Rosey Grier was a football player during the 1970s. I really like how “Free to be…you and me” challenges the stereotype of who does cry (girls/women) and who isn’t supposed to (boys/men). In addition to having Grier sing the song, they also show a series of images of all sorts of people crying. As I was searching through youtube for this clip, I also found this one from Barney, “It’s OK to Cry”:

Barney is singing to little Beth about how it’s OK for her to cry. Does this song undercut a feminist message to boys (and all children), that its alright for everyone to cry?

Feminist Debates, Spring 2011

Week of April 11th, 2011

April 11               Youth/Children and Values
Martin, Karin. “William Wants a Doll
Berstein, Susan David. “Transparent
film clips: Free to be…you and me and Tomboy

Direct Engagement Question for the week (students were required to post comments on these questions):

  • What does it mean to engage in gender-neutral child rearing?
  • How are gender and sexuality connected in terms of child rearing and the development of gender identities? This is a key part of Martin’s argument–I am curious about what you all think she is saying with this argument and if you agree with it or not.
  • We will be watching the clip from Free to be…you and me, “William Wants a Doll” in class on Monday.

    You can check out the lyrics here). What sorts of strategies (theories of gender, etc) are going on in this song? What do you think about how this song frames William’s behavior in terms of his role as a father?
  • In her essay, Martin describes one of the critiques made against socialization theory, that it offers an “exaggerated view of children as unagentic, blank slates” (457). (How) are children active participants in their gendering process? How do they process and reflect on their own gender performances (their practices, actions, etc)? Are they just products of socialization? Or, are they both projects of socialization and agents who negotiate their gender identities/roles/expectations?

Online Lecture/Discussion:

We wil be watching this video in class today:

Tomboy from Barb Taylor on Vimeo.

Here are some questions to consider from kjfalcon’s discussion of the movie:

  • What are some of the main messages from the cartoon?
  • Why is gender something that has to be policed?
  • In the cartoon how do you interpret the representation of the intersections of gender and race? If you don’t see the explicit connection between gender and race/ethnicity does it matter that this Alex – the tomboy – is a Latina character?
  • What do you think of the representation of the mother character?
  • This is meant to be a tool for teachers learning how to teach – is this affective in this sense? What value do you see in encouraging dialogues around these issues to occur through this movie?
Is it possible to raise children in a gender-neutral environment? How do toy advertisements discourage this and encourage rigid gender divisions?
We are also watching some clips from free to be…you and me.

Comments (on blog entry)

Author Profile Page Nosecage | April 15, 2011 1:20 PM
I am going to try to keep this comment relatively brief, as I know we all have so much work to be getting done. I was, however, a little bummed that we didn’t get to address “Transparent” by Susan Bernstein in class last week. I think it’s a really important article to critique and engage with, so I wanted to bring some of my curiosities up here on the blog and see if we could have a bit of a discussion.
My main concern here is that we understand that Bernstein’s perspective is quite problematic on a couple of levels. The article is not meant to be taken as an authoritative perspective on what it means to raise kids with gender-neutral values. Bernstein does nothing to address the consequences of her kid’s gender non-conforming behavior, which can be severe and damaging. Throughout the article, Bernstein writes from a stance that suggests an almost utopic (not-a-word; adjective form of ‘utopia’) understanding of the world. As early as the third paragraph she says, “…it’s a commonplace to encourage children to try on all sorts of identities.” Really? I think not.
She at one point explains to Nora (her daughter) that, “…once in a while boys grow up and decide to be women, and the other way too.” This seems like an overly simplistic description of transgenderism, if not outright misinformation. Most transgender folks I know don’t ‘decide’ to be transgender, or to transition to living as some other gender than they were assigned at birth, it’s something they need to do in order to begin the process of being comfortable with their bodies–which I would argue is an undeniable human entitlement. While I understand that some of the complexities might be hard to put into language that young children can comprehend, it’s important to not set them up with assumptions that could potentially lead to transphobia (“If they’re simply deciding, why don’t they just not do it?”) Is this all we can say to kids to trouble sex/gender assignment? Can’t we work outside gender binaries to ensure our children have a full range of ways of expressing their gender and, more importantly, their personhood?

Perhaps even more troubling is the way Bernstein deals with and addresses Nora’s eventual move toward gender conformity. She praises Nora’s androgyny as if it were the ultimate answer to gender troubling–some phase on the path to personhood at which we can all arrive and feel at ease. Bernstein also largely ignores the question of Nora’s sexuality, which clearly deserves to be addressed.

Finally, the second to last sentence of the article, “Today’s multiplication of options, though inevitably a challenge, definitely bespeaks a better chance for adult postgender happiness,” almost critiques itself. Bernstein’s uptopic vision is made so apparent in this sentence that I’m not even sure what else to say. Postgender!? Equivalent to color-blindness!? Eek.

Author Profile Page sara | April 16, 2011 10:32 AM

Thanks, nosecage, for beginning this discussion. I agree that it is important to be critical of this essay and I think you do a great job of raising some key points of concern. As I was reading this essay, I also found myself writing all over the margins: what about the consequences of violating gender norms? In many ways, this story of Nora seems very utopic. The recent s**tstorm over a boy wearing pink nail polish demonstrates that “playing with gender norms” has serious consequences–consequences which are exacerbated by social media and the ability to spread violations so rapidly and effectively across the interwebz.

I also agree that sexuality needs to be a big part of this discussion. In many ways, Bernstein’s essay and her promotion of postgender happiness seems to be an extension of the second wave gender-neutral parenting techniques and the “free to be…you and me” attitude that was always haunted by heteronormativity and the threat of homosexuality (this gets hinted at when Bernstein discusses Nora’s “baby dyke” haircut on page 4). How are negotiations of gender tied to negotiations of sexuality?

This essay is from the perspective of Nora’s parent and not Nora. What might Nora’s narrative about growing up and negotiating the gender binary look like? How might she talk about the experience of being mis-identified at the hotel or being accused of being in the wrong bathroom? We focused our discussion on family values from the perspective of feminist parents and their attempts to educate kids/youth. How can youth be engaged in the process of educating? Check out Put This on the Map and their video about reteaching gender and sexuality (created in the wake of the It Gets Better Campaign from last fall).

Curiosity and Being Engaged

According to Connie Yowell, Director of Education at The Macarthur Foundation, “Part of what’s wrong with the educational system and why people talk about it as broken is because it’s fundamentally starting with the wrong questions.” In this short film by Nic Askew, Yowell argues that we need to shift our question in education away from “what are the outcomes?” and toward “is the kid engaged?”

ENGAGED from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

This video is part of a series of videos by Nic Askew on “The Essence of Connected Learning.” Yowell argues that if we focus on the question, “is the kid engaged?” we are compelled to pay attention to that kid as a person, not just a student/test-taker. Then we can develop strategies for reaching the kid and getting them excited about being curious, learning, and developing a strong “need to know.”

Here’s one of my favorite points:

In the traditional school system, where we’re driving home facts and discrete knowledge, we don’t make room for curiosity. We don’t create enough opportunities for kids to take things apart anymore. To look inside. To see how they’re made. To put them back together again. We used to do it with our old chemistry sets. We used to just play and see what would happen and wonder about it. That engages the imagination and can trigger the imagination. As we get more and more serious about test scores and our kids future, we move further and further away from those little opportunities to constantly fail and to iterate. And we forget that those are also opportunities to iterate with one’s identity. And to play around and to mess around. And it’s so important to do that when you’re at the middle school age and your early in adolescence—even when you’re an adult. We’ve gotta have these opportunities to be curious about who we are in the world and about how the world works and to fail and not be embarrassed by it. And to come back to those failures and do things over and over again.

I love the idea of focusing on failure and being curious and linking both of these to imagination and understanding about the world. But, how do we make room for these? What would a classroom (or a workplace) that embraced (valued, encouraged, celebrated) failure look like? Is that something that the teacher should model?

I think that feminist and critical pedagogies, with their focus on engaged students who actively participate instead of passively receive (Freire) and who embrace their discomfort and unknowingness (Megan Boler) would add a lot to this conversation. Also, bell hooks and her emphasis on bringing the whole person (mind, body, spirit) into the classroom would be helpful. At one point in the video, Yowell argues that we can’t force students to learn facts; we need to find ways to inspire and incite their “need to know.” Using her son as an example, she describes how he doesn’t care about fractions at all in school. But, if he’s in the middle of a game, and he needs to know how to solve a fraction in order to move onto the next level, he demands that someone teach him. I really like this idea. Building off of Yowell’s conversation, I think it’s important to pay attention to what, beyond an outcome-based, test-driven model, prevents kids from being curious and “needing to know.” What other factors contribute to an unwillingness or resistance to knowing? Here I’m thinking of lots of different things—everything from lacking energy/desire to know because you’re hungry or too tired, to being wary of what knowing might do to us (see Luhmann for more on what knowledge does to us.) To me, these questions come out of a need to pay attention to power and privilege.

In posing these questions, I was curious about whether or not other videos in the series addressed these issues of dealing with barriers to developing a “need to know” in terms of power and privilege (which is what feminist pedagogy devotes a lot of energy to). While the other videos are great—I especially like Creative—and they make oblique references to opening up education to “everyone” and moving beyond the top 10%, discussions of sexism, classism, racism, or heterosexism don’t seem to be explicitly referenced. Why not? Is this lack of reference to feminist and critical pedagogies indicative of larger conversations at DMLCentral: Digital Media and Learning? I’ll have to look through more of their videos and check out their site to see…

Feeling trouble, take two

So, last summer I attempted (quite unsuccessfully) to write and submit an article about “feeling trouble not troubled in the classroom.” While I generated some useful ideas, I never converted them into an academic article. Why not? I’m sure it had something to do with my need to prep two classes while watching/hanging out with my two kids (who were 5 and 8 at the time). And I know that it had a lot to do with my growing resistance to academic writing. It’s difficult, and frequently not in ways that push me to engage more deeply and meaningful with ideas or authors or experiences.

Now it’s a year later and I’m trying again. I’m still resistant to writing in ways that I don’t want to, but I also recognize the value of sustained, deliberate, and laborious attention to working with and through what it might mean to feel trouble in the classroom. As a result, I’m trying to craft a very brief abstract today to submit for a call for papers on queering academic spaces.

I’m amazed at my resistance to this activity. I know that I’ve taught, thought about and practiced a queering pedagogy that fits with the themes of the edited collection that I want to be included in. Yet, I’m doing everything I can to avoid writing the abstract. Like tweeting:

Or posting on facebook (which, BTW, I almost never do):

Or, writing this blog post. Why such resistance? Perhaps even the fact that I want to pose this question and then engage with it is an effort to procrastinate?

Or is it? The theme of my proposed essay is “feeling trouble in the classroom.” It’s all about creating spaces within (and outside of) the classroom for feeling (addressing, processing, struggling with )the trouble that engaging with queer ideas/concepts/authors engenders. In “Queering/Querying Pedagogy? Or, Pedagogy is a Queer Thing,” Suzanne Luhmann writes:

As an alternative to the worry over strategies for effective knowledge transmission that reduce knowledge to mere information and students to rational but passive beings untroubled by the material studied, pedagogy might be posed as a question (as opposed to the answer) of knowledge: What does being taught, what does knowledge do to students (7)?

She continues by offering these questions:

How does the reader insert herself into the text? What kind of identifications are at stake in this process? What structures these identifications? How do identifications become possible, what prevents them, and ultimately, makes learning (im)possible? (7)

In my own pedagogical practices (inside the classroom and online–course blogs and this trouble blog), I strive to create spaces where readers/class members, myself included, can explore/work through/engage with what knowledge does to us. This is true in all of my classes, but especially the three undergraduate queer courses that I’ve taught: queering theory, fall 2009; queering desire, fall 2010; queering theory, fall 2011. In each of those classes, I experimented with online and offline ways in which to articulate, share and process our feelings (resistance, confusion, excitement, wonder, anger, uncertainty) about the ideas that we encountered.

Could my resistance to writing about queering pedagogy be about more than mere procrastination? Yes. Do I have time to reflect on why I resist? No.

As I (try) to work on my abstract, here are the posts that I’m drawing on:
Feeling Trouble and Troubled in the Classroom, part ONE, part TWO, part THREE

Family Values: Some Teaching Resources, part one

The following is part one of my series on family values from my feminist debates class.


First, a little background. Since I came to the U of M in the fall of 2006, I’ve taught a course on contemporary feminist debates five times. Each time I taught it, I aimed to trouble students’ assumptions about what was at stake with some popular feminist issues, such as: reproductive rights, equality in the workplace, and family-as-patriarchal-institution. I chose readings that complicated their ideas about debate as being for or against an issue (as in the case of pro-choice/pro-life) and worked to get them to recognize what J Butler describes as the “irrepressible complexity” of who and what feminism is.

For our unit on feminist family values, I selected readings that went beyond the typical “mommy wars” debate (between career and stay-at-home moms) and the rejection of the Family as an oppressive, patriarchal institution to explore how our understanding of the family in the early 21st century is dominated by the family values rhetoric of the Christian right. We traced the history of “family values” rhetoric and then explored ways to rethink and reclaim feminist (and queer) families and values. As I taught the course, my readings and topics for this section evolved with my increased interest in queer feminism.

Starting with my spring 2010 version of this course, I posted lecture notes on the blog. The following summary of the issue involves a mash-up of my lectures from Spring 2010 and Spring 2011 (also check out my syllabus for spring 2010 and my syllabus and reading schedule for spring 2011):

Historical Background

The essays that we read for this unit are all responding to a particular moment within American popular/political culture when rhetoric about family values was frequently used to critique feminism and to position feminists as against the family and family values. See my timeline for some general dates related to our discussion.

One oft-cited example of connecting the promotion of family values with the critiquing of feminism is Pat Robertson’s remarks in a 1992 letter opposing Iowa’s equal rights initiative*:

The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.

*Note: When I originally posted this entry earlier today, I indicated that the Robertson quotation came from the 1992 Republic Convention. After further research, I determined that this was not the case (see here for more information).

Another notable (and perhaps the most popular) example of connecting feminism/feminist goals with the erosion of the family and its values is Dan Quayle’s (in)famous comments about the fictional character, Murphy Brown in May of 1992:

It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another `lifestyle choice’. I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong. Now it’s time to make the discussion public.

— Vice President Dan Quayle addressing the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco and criticizing Murphy Brown’s decision to be a single (highly successful) mother, 5/19/92.

[Note: I created an in-class exercise with these above quotations in which students spent about 5-10 minutes free-writing some responses to my questions about them: Is feminism necessarily counter to family values? To morality? Is it possible to redefine the family and family values? If so, how?

Important to note is that Quayle’s comments on Murphy Brown are part of a larger speech in which he claims that one of the primary causes of the LA riots (which happened in the summer of 1992 right after the police who beat Rodney King were found not guilty) is the erosion of traditional family values. (As I will discuss later, discussions of the erosion of family and family values by the right is frequently linked to racist rhetoric and the demonizing/pathologizing of black mothers and families). Here is a transcript of the entire speech and a news clip with an excerpt from the speech:

As an aside: Did you watch the entire clip? What do you make of the juxtaposition, by the newscasters, of the clip about Dan Quayle and his description of Murphy Brown as mocking the importance of fathers with the clip about Robert Reed (Mr. Brady) and the revelation that he had died of AIDS and not cancer? Is this merely coincidence that one clip leads to the next? Or, is some connection being encouraged in the viewer?

It would seem that for both Robertson and Quayle, feminism poses a serious threat to the family and its values about “right and wrong”? But, why is feminism such a threat? Why does feminists’ desire to work for an equal rights amendment (Robertson) or a feminist’s choice to be an unwed mother (Quayle) elicit such extreme responses? What anxieties/fears about white masculinity do these feminists claims tap into (see Chloe’s post for more on this)?

In her essay, “It’s All in the Family,” Patricia Hill Collins focuses her attention on “the family” part of family values by exploring “how six dimensions of the traditional family ideal construct intersections of gender, race, and nation (63) and produce/reinforce gender/race/nation hierarchies. She argues that it is crucial for organizations –feminist or Black Nationalist, for example–to be critically aware how they use/invoke  ‘family.’ For more on this article, check out my chart and notes for it.

In their various contributions to the Feminist Family Values Forum, Lloyd, Jimenez, Steinem and Davis focus much of their attention on the “values” part of family values. Indeed, the purpose of the forum was to bring a wide range of women together to talk about what values actually mean and what values feminists want to embrace and promote. See some of my notes for these readings (along with readings by M Pardo and V Lehr).

In bringing all of these readings together, I want us to be curious about:

  • What are families? What are their values?
  • Is feminism bad for families and their values?
  • What sort of values do feminists promote?
  • What does it mean to value something?
  • Why is language about values (and morality) so exclusively linked with one particular vision/version of the family?
  • What differences do you see between the phrases “family values” and “families values”?

a. Selections from Feminist Family Values
b. Lehr, Valerie. “Social Problems and Family Ideology
c. Pardo, Mary. “Mexican American Women Grassroots Community Activists: ‘Mothers of East Los Angeles’”
d. Collins, Patricia Hill. “It’s All in the Family: Intersections of Gender, Race and Nation
e. Henry, Astrid. Not my Mother’s Sister (see ch 1 for background on late 80s/early 90s backlash against feminism)

EXERCISE: Reflecting on family

Drawing upon the readings from the past two weeks, our discussions (in class and on the blogs), and your own observations, write down some thoughts on these different aspects of the “family.”