Teaching a Lesson about Civil Rights

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , , | Posted on 12:01 PM

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The course I'm teaching right now is a history of childhood in the US and dealing with systematic inequities which cause success in the educational system to be difficult for some children.

I have a revolving series of explanations for how that inequity affects everyone. Some of these explanations use Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, some of these explanations use narrative construction, some use complex systems, some use simple metaphors or various common experiences, or, in the case of last night's discussion in the bar, a polynomial of various exponential relationships representing factors in behavior and society.

In class, I talked about the construction of single, repeated, overarching narratives in history which indicate position, place, ability and what is considered natural or normal for individuals in various populations. I've been teaching the students a narrative of history which more concerns marginalized populations than the more commonly taught version. I made them re-learn history to talk about history as a constructed narrative, so they can see the dissonance.

And then I talked about the influences competing for attention in a multicultural classroom.

I'd like to think it was a thoughtful lesson. Certainly, from my point of view, many of my students looked thoughtful. There's always a danger, when discussions of hierarchy, hegemony and inequalities are the subject, for individual students to feel attacked.

To deal with that, I typically bring it up directly, and talk about the shared pain of cognitive dissonance as various groups discover themselves in history, and the shared burden of maintaining equity, even though the influence of society is to cause some of my audience to forget and to cause different groups to be unable to see each other or understand each other.

One of the gentlemen I was talking to last night pointed out that he knows about civil rights and privilege intellectually, but he forgets in every day life. The gentleman is a white dude, tall, highly intelligent (by my estimate, within the top 4% or so of the general population), a computer science graduate student and master programmer across many languages. He is handsome, well-dressed, funny and while odd as you might think, able to easily negotiate social discourse (if inclined to teasing). He has every reason in the world to not notice inequity. Instead, he has chosen to understand it, if intellectually, as a matter of ethics.

This conversation put him well within my 'like' category for people I deal with.

A point I made yesterday to the class and last night: it's a discipline. There's no position in which paying attention to non-dominant messages in culture is not a discipline. Part of that discipline is listening past that feeling of offense.

A new group member was listening last night to our conversation. His face told me that he alternated between worry, offense, understanding, confusion and frustration. At several points, I wanted to reach out and hug him. I don't have to be comforting, and chose not to comfort until the end of the discussion because I worry about the stereotypical 'women are for comforting' role conditioning interfering with getting the other message across.

As my partner told the table last night, when they teased him for speaking less, "She's more than able to take care of herself." He chimed in where necessary, but mostly listened.

What I wanted to say to the new group member is that it was okay. We're learning together; me, too. It requires the ability to be patient with multiple ways of seeing, with being wrong and with uncertainty.

And it is not easy.

Wrestling with my orientation and fears

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , , | Posted on 5:47 PM

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I spent several hours today in the computer lab for my department, researching gun control laws and injury outcomes for children. Behind me, one of my colleagues talked to his undergraduate student about her participation in local OWS protests. I was listening idly when I heard him mention my previous department and use my name.

I turned and talked a little bit about how bad it was while trying not to gawk at his student, who is amazingly hot. After a little bit, I turned back to the screen, sifting through articles in Pediatrics and JAMA. As she was getting up, she called me.

"Hey, I never got your name." She extended a hand, and when I told her my name, she smiled. I'm afraid I babbled at that point, telling her a little more about my previous department.

When she told me I was hot, I froze. She smiled again and walked out. When the door shut, I turned to my colleague and said, "Phew-- you'd have to be less gay than me not to notice how hot she is."

He chuckled and said he had also been trying not to say or think the same thing, and we talked a little more about her before going back to our respective tasks.

I always freeze when someone hits on me, but more so when the person hitting on me is female. It is not from lack of desire or interest; in fact, I think she's gorgeous, but I would hate to date someone that much younger than me. I worry about the power differential.

Lurking underneath those worries are some more serious worries. I don't doubt my orientation, but I find it anxiety provoking.

A few years ago, I had the chance to take a queer literature class. Walking in the door of the classroom caused my heart to start hammering in my chest. The room was filled with queer kids, lots of us in one place.

My repeating thought was that with all of us gathered in one place like this, it would be easy for some of the people I know are out there to come hurt us. I'm fully aware that the thought is less than rational, but I also know what kind of people there are out there. I've met quite a few of them, and I spent a lot of time getting my ass kicked, as a kid, for being a deviant.

It is a brave act to be gay in public, even now. When I do date women and have gone out to dinner, I've had waitstaff refuse to serve me (I was cross-dressed). I've had straight couples make out in front of me, staring at me the whole time, or sneer at me. I've had people try to lecture me about god/sin/going to hell, or stare at the woman I was with and I as if we were zoo animals. I've been asked which one of us was the man, or any of the stupid shit people will ask while they're trying to figure out how to fit you into the pattern they know. I've had people, while I still worked in blue collar jobs, threaten to rape me into normality.

Beneath that fear is another, the fear that I am not gay enough, because I sleep with men. The fear that I am not pretty enough for other women to want to sleep with, that my children will mean I'm a traitor to lesbianity (I've been told this), or that I will be too boring for them.

All this in a few seconds, before my brain has time to kick in and kick me in the pants. I wish I could respond faster, but that's a hell of a wrestling match.

Herman Cain: Last Night's Hysterical Laughter

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , | Posted on 12:00 PM

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My partner and I were watching the Maddow show last night while I collated CDC death data on the causes of death in minors for a paper; I needed the laugh.

As I entered data for heart defects into SPSS, Maddow read the statement from Cain's lawyer, stating that Cain demands the press stop prying into his personal life, and that he had always had the highest integrity and respect for family values.

I literally pulled a muscle in my side laughing: privacy and respect for relationships, it's only for Republican candidates.

Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Posted by mouthyb | Posted in , | Posted on 2:34 AM

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I memorized the Jabberwocky as a child. The artwork for the original Alice in Wonderland, by Sir John Tenniel, has entered the public domain. This image hangs in my bedroom, printed on a deconstructed page from a stuffy, sexist and racist text cataloging the world's religions (and why Christianity is better) from the 1930s. The seller is here.


The paper it has been printed on amuses the shit out of me. Unlike the authors of that catalog, Carroll knew he was writing fiction.