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I floss daily, brush after every meal, and trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Gender Studies

I’m currently teaching a Gender Studies class. It’s the third time I’ve taught the class, and this semester I have ten students. Because our high school is very small, it’s difficult to add new courses into the regular schedule, and so far I’ve had to teach Gender Studies as an Independent Study. This means two things: 1. we only meet once or twice a week, and 2. I don’t get paid for teaching the class. I don’t really mind not getting paid; I love teaching this subject, and invariably the students who seek out this class are among our school’s coolest juniors and seniors. I try to offset the relatively small number of class hours by giving my students plenty of outside reading and independent research assignments.

Last week we were only meeting for one day, one fifty-minute class period, and we were discussing a passel of readings I’d given the students on transgender identity and the sometimes complex distinctions between sex and gender. The afternoon of our meeting a Gender Studies student, one of three guys in the class, came up to me a few minutes before class. “Um, I’m really sorry, but I think I’m going to have to miss some or all of Gender Studies today. [Girlfriend’s name] has a lot of stuff going on right now, and I really need to be with her to talk it through.” I paused and briefly contemplated giving him an alternative assignment – a short written response to the week’s readings sent to the rest of the class via email, for example – but some impulse led me to say instead, “That’s fine. I understand,” and leave it at that.

My first year of teaching, I pretty much just said “no,” any time a student asked for an extension or a special favor; maintaining my authority was more important than a nuanced consideration of every request. At this point in my career, after more than a decade of teaching experience, I often follow my instinct in such cases. I don’t want to stand around assessing the validity of a student’s request, thus wasting time and inviting persuasion, but I also don’t want to fall into an automatic “yes” or “no” rut. This time my instinct told me to give this kid a break.

Later that afternoon, I mused on what led me to let my student off the hook without some compensating assignment. Largely I think it came from knowing something of my student’s girlfriend’s situation. She’s also a student of mine, from my Creative Writing class, and I know a bit about her life as the only daughter of almost maniacally strict parents guided by their severe interpretation of their religion and by a set of social codes learned in a culture very different than the one their daughter has grown up in. This young woman is truly in a difficult situation, and needs all the support she can get. I was also guided by my sense that the relationship between these two kids is a strong and healthy one, which in the two years they’ve been together has helped bring out the best in both of them.

As I thought about it, though, I realized that in helping his girlfriend weather this crisis, my guy student is probably learning more about gender, its effects on people’s lives, and its role in shaping his own identity, than he ever could in a fifty-minute discussion of our Gender Studies readings for the week.

Heterosexual relationships are not necessarily a way for individual men and women to come to a better understanding of gender; in fact, they often serve as an opportunity to play out the most tired and even destructive gender scripts out there. But in some cases, a stable, trusting relationship between a man and woman (of whatever age) creates the opportunity to move beyond the assumptions about our own gender and the “other” gender, to question how we feel about those assumptions and consider possibilities for resisting them.

I know my own early, long-term boyfriend was instrumental in helping me feel secure and accepted enough to explore my own early feminist inclinations. I probably would have grown opinionated and outstpoken, stopped wearing makeup, and embarked on my history of relative indifference toward body hair removal even without his support. But I know I was able to do all those things with greater confidence and less angst because I had a guy I was really into who continued to be really into me, even though I was a mouthy feminist with hairy legs and acne-riddled skin that I no longer covered with a face full of concealer and foundation. And I know that my old boyfriend sees his relationship with me as the source of his own commitment to feminism and his habit of relating to women with respect and consideration. In fact, I’ve had more than one of his subsequent girlfriends thank me for “training” him so well. And although I give my Old Man full credit for his superior level of coolness and his total lack of toughguy bullshit, I also think it can’t have hurt that in his youth he had a serious long-term relationship with a kick-ass Women’s Studies major.

So I don’t in any way regret giving my student a pass on class last week. I hope that he and his girlfriend were able to talk through her situation and, if not come up with solutions, at least reach some understandings that help her cope with it for now.


Blogger Star said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:49 PM  
Blogger Orange said...

Comment spam? Here?

Anyway...I'll bet a considerable number of your students, male and female alike, harbor a crush on you as the cool teacher they wouldn't mind growing up to become.

6:27 PM  
Blogger Orange said...

Totally off-topic—you posted about wedding gift etiquette not so long ago. A friend's getting married in England, and the store where they've registered will only set up a registry for an eight-week period—six weeks before and two weeks after the event. Only two weeks of wiggle room for late shopping from the registry! It's unconscionable.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Esereth said...

First of all, "passel" is a beautiful word.

Second, I thought those damned word verification things were meant to keep spam (and me, half the time) out.

Last, it really rocks that you teach a class without getting paid. And you write good, goodly good.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Feral Mom said...

I think you should get paid. But I agree, great post--how much of the "gender studies" curriculum happens outside the classroom?

My original four attempts at commenting on this post were more insightful and articulate than this one. I figured I should jump in while I have an actual word verification scramble.

dude, I'm glad you're back posting. lots of love to you. And if you want to enter any of those "weekly competitions" with me, just give me a call.

8:58 PM  
Blogger E. said...

Okay, I was finally able to delete that comment spam. For some reason my office computer wouldn't let me. But I deleted it without the "delete forever" box checked, just in case I ever want to look into one of those "weekly competitions." Then again, I'm sure Feral Mom and I could come up with much more interesting weekly competitions than whatever that link would've led me to. Shall we start with work ("most abject teaching moment of the week") or home ("grossest anecdote related to bodily fluids, yours or your spawn's")?

3:37 PM  

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