Teaching on the day my mom died

As I was sorting through a ginormous pile of papers from classes over the past few years, I came across my lecture/discussion notes for the graduate class on Feminist Pedagogies that I taught on the day that my mother died–September 30, 2009. I feel compelled to post them here today.

First, a set-up. My mom died in the very early morning (I don’t know the exact time) in the living room of her house in Illinois. My dad called me at my home, over 6 hours away in Minnesota, around 8 AM. I taught my graduate class that afternoon, starting at 2 PM. It was an intense class; while I didn’t cry, I do recall at least one other student did. We spent the first half of class discussing what it means to be a “person” in the classroom and the second half of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I began the class by announcing that my mom had died that morning. Here’s what I wrote down to discuss in relation to that announcement:

Theoretical: What does it mean to be a “Person” in the classroom? What is demanded of us as teachers? How do we represent our vulnerability—when we are in grief, when we are upset, when we are hurt, when we are passionately committed to our ideas?

Fisher encourges us to, “bring our most authentic selves into feminist discourse” and feminist classroom (51). How do we do that?

What sort of space is there/should there be for thinking about teachers as people with feelings, who have experiences that influence their teaching? How do we perform/represent that in the classroom? How does the classroom become a space for the teacher to learn and critically self-reflect—as a fellow classmate instead of “the teacher”?

What sort of resources does/should feminist pedagogy give to the teacher (as a learner, student, member of the class)? How and when should we, as teachers, shift the focus on ourselves—our own care, our own need to be challenged, our own willingness to engage in critical self-reflection?

Rosa Pugueras writes about her belief that “she is the decisive element” in the classroom, that her mood affects her student’s mood, that she has the power to hurt or heal them. Is this true? If so, does the professor have a responsibility to be aware (and make others aware) of their mood? When is this admission a performance that is authentic and that helps to create a dialog (co-intentional education) between the teacher and students and when is it too confessional and merely personal?

Application: Practically speaking, as teachers should we try to “leave our worries at the door” and perform as selves who are lighthearted and upbeat? Or, should we tell them when we are having a bad day? Should we remind them that we are people too? If so, how?  Is one more authentic than the other? What are some strategies you can think of for bring our “authentic selves” into the classroom?

I can’t remember what I exactly said about how these questions were so compelling to me on that day. I do remember feeling that I had to teach. Teaching that semester–both feminist pedagogies and my undergrad class, queering theory–was what helped me through those gut-wrenching months of my mom’s dying/death.

These questions of authenticity and navigating the personal and professional/academic have been central to my classes this year. In my 2010 Feminist Pedagogies class, we talked a lot about whether or not social media (twitter, in particular) could help us to access our authentic selves, or at least authentic moments of our selves. And in my queer/ing ethics course this spring, we repeatedly reflected on how to put the personal and academic beside each other. I hope to think even more about these questions of the person in the academy and the personal and the academic this summer.


Living (not grieving) beside Judith

The majority of my posts on this blog about my mother, Judith Puotinen, have focused on grieving for her.  This summer I hope to write about my memories of living beside her for 35 years. Of course, my grief still exists (it won’t ever end), but it should not be my only connection to her. I need to find ways to re-connect with her joy, creativity and fabulous troublemaking spirit.

Last July my sisters and I divvied up my mom’s journals and notebooks from my parent’s basement. Almost a year later, I finally have some time to look through them. In one notebook, I found a talk that my mom gave to a women’s club (I think she wrote and gave this talk while in remission–in 2007?) entitled, “Creativity and Weaving : A Journey of the Soul.” While I enjoyed reading the entire talk (before she got really sick I think she was hoping to give this talk to many other organizations), I was particularly struck by her discussion of the challenges of creating.* She writes:

In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron talks about a character in her head that she labels, “The Censor.” The censor is a nasty internal and eternal critic who resides in our left brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as truth. Things like, “You can’t call yourself a weaver. That last piece was a pile of junk. What makes you think you can be creative?…” and so on.

The rule I try to remember here is that my Censor’s negative opinions are not the truth. One way I deal with this is to keep a journal. My journal might be on paper or it could be in the form of a collection of weavings that I just keep on producing. I have a record in front of me of what I can do. Another thing that is very effective is to personify the Censor and paste its picture on the wall and throw darts at it. I have done that as well.

I read this and laughed out loud (luckily I was by myself). I wonder if her audience laughed at this line about the darts?

I love what my mom writes about her weavings as a form of journal “writing” that enables her to prove what she can do. This line makes me think about my blogging and how and why I write. And I love her comment about the dartboard. I remember that dartboard. It was in our basement (well, at least in one or two of our basements. We moved around a lot). I also remember her telling me that she loved to play darts. She never said why…Now I know.

I do have one memory of her in the basement by the dartboard. Her lips are pursed and she is aiming the dart with quite a bit of determination and a playful twinkle in her eye. It’s a wonderful memory to have. To me, it speaks to her refusal to give in to the Censor and her great sense of humor.

*Note on may 21, 2011: My mom organized this talk around different shawls that she had made. Her section on the challenges of creativity involved her putting on a blue shawl. When I get a picture of this shawl, I will post it here.

Oh bother: Do girls like pink because of their berry-gathering female ancestors?

This article from The Week, which summarizes the findings of some researchers in China, was emailed to me by room34. Here’s an excerpt:

Maybe little girls’ preference for pink goes beyond Disney princesses and Barbie. Researchers says they have scientific proof that women are instinctually drawn to pinks and purples because their female ancestors were berry gatherers. Here, a brief guide:

What is the deal with this study?
Researchers at China’s Zhejiang University asked 350 subjects to rank 11 colors in order of preference. They found that the women were drawn to pink, purple and white, and men to blue and green.

What does that have to do with berry gathering?
The scientists say the color findings support their “hunter-gatherer theory on sex difference.” They believe that a woman’s brain is more suited to “gathering-related tasks,” like identifying fruits and edible red leaves hidden in green foliage. Women’s preference for reds and pinks might also be related to finding a suitable mate, one with healthy pink cheeks, they say.

Why would men like blue and green then?
For their manly ancestors, that would mean good weather for hunting.

Really? Is this worth bothering with? Does anyone actually take such a study seriously? Well…I’m not sure, but the search for scientific evidence to prove the biological “naturalness” of certain sexed and gendered behaviors is still in full effect. In terms of this study, I wonder, why is it important to know why girls (supposedly) like pink?

Links to check out:

  • For more on this, see Bitchmedia and their discussion of  how science is (mis)used in popular media outlets: Mad Science
  • For more on the social construction of girls liking pink, see Pink Think
  • For more on sex/gender differences and the science’s “sex industry,” see my class notes