Gender Inclusivity in the Classroom

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Note: In the spirit of collaboration and learning, this post is the first in a series (we hope!) of conversations we will have with cool colleagues and friends about various classroom and campus topics. All conversations are edited for readable clarity and relative concision.

This is the first part of a conversation we had with Tegra Straight, the Assistant Director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at Carleton College.

AE: We’re drinking! [glasses clink]

Tegra: Let’s get that on tape.

AC: We’re really excited to talk to you. I was thinking about this topic in part because the faculty retreat this year had ‘diversity training…’ as a theme and one of the things we talked about was gender pronouns.

AE: Yeah, and it’s clearly not comfortable yet for everyone. I remember a small group meeting last year when the facilitator joked, “introduce yourself and include whatever you need to include,” but didn’t use pronouns. And, going around the room, no one else did until a faculty member affiliated with Women and Gender Studies used pronouns. A few folks later, another WGST prof did.Then me. Out of the 16 or so people, only we three people did it.

T: You see the same thing in Student Life. The GSC staff, maybe a couple of the other identity-based offices, if they remember, but hardly ever other offices.

AC: That’s why we want to talk about it. The first time I remember being asked to say my pronouns was about four years ago at a training at Carleton. My answer then was “she/her but I don’t really care.” I wasn’t being facetious, and I think that’s actually true for me. I’ve been called “sir” before. My story from Japan is that some woman [Note: Anita is totally assuming this person’s gender!!!!] came up to me and said, “Are you a boy or a girl?” in Japanese. I have stories like that but for me, they haven’t been traumatizing events. It’s strange but it doesn’t bother me when people misgender me. It’s not that I don’t think my gender isn’t important… I don’t know. That’s just been my experience. Having read this piece on asking for gender pronouns in the classroom, does asking for gender mean assuming that gender is important for people in a particular kind of way? Also for students for whom gender might be more fluid, are we asking them to choose something? Those are some of the questions we’ve been thinking about.

AE: The larger issue is this kind of discomfort that some faculty seem to feel around the naming of pronouns…it feels…what’s that word?

AC: Like it’s violating people’s privacy.

AE: Yes, that’s it.

AC: But before we get into this, we’d like to steal a question that our favorite podcasters ask…

AE: If this were a podcast, it would be organized much better. People would be like, “Could you two stop talking? You have a guest!”

AC: Shut up!

T: It’s all good. It’s not a podcast. [Note from editors: T finally gets a word in edgewise. Sorry, Tegra!]

AC: So what do you do and why?

T: What do I do? I’m the assistant director of the Gender & Sexuality Center. That’s my professional life. Non-professionally, I do a lot of random things. I like to garden. Recently, I’ve gotten into petsitting, a way to make some money and have dogs in my life. Some community stuff but not a ton. Because my job is ridiculously intense and we have a lot of evening and weekend hours. In that job, primarily, Laura [Haave, the director] and I take a co-[director] approach to a lot of things. A lot of the events coming from our office, I or Laura are responsible for all of the logistical details. Brainstorming with students, publicity, advertising, speaker contracts, mostly I do all that. I supervise the student workers. I oversee the two [residential] houses affiliated with our office. I’m also an advisor, have five sophomore that I advise. I’m the co-chair of the Restorative Justice committee and one of sexual misconduct support advisors. That’s kind of my day to day.

AC: And why do you do what you do?

T: I feel like I just fell into the “gay for pay” space [laughter]. I’ve also always related well to college-aged students, young adults. At Carleton, it’s a specific age range of college students, but anywhere else, that could be from 18 to whatever. I’m just a very relatable person. When I was in undergrad and was pre-med, like half the people in higher ed who are first gen students [term used for students who are the first in their families to attend college], I recognized that bio and pre-med wasn’t where I wanted to go. I realized that I really enjoyed helping out students figure out the process of higher ed. I worked a lot in both housing and admissions during undergrad. That just flowed into grad school.

AE: What’s the degree title?

T: Depending on where you go, the titles are different. Mine is higher education administration with a specialization in student affairs…Our program had more of a research focus…but we didn’t do any counseling. I think we all should [have some training in counseling] because it’s a part of the work that we all do. Particularly if you’re doing transformative advising on the faculty side, all of that is about their non-academic selves, which you can’t split from their academic selves. But all of the conversations I have with my advisees are all about their lives. Maybe that’s because that’s the approach I take. I do what I do because I like people, I like to talk to people, and I love to learn new things and I constantly do that at the GSC.

AE: What I love about what you just said is that I feel like I would say the same thing. And yet there’s two very different places where we ended up…there’s a million different places where you can end up where it’s basically, “I love people. I love learning different things.” Which is very cool.

AC: I don’t really love people.

AE: No, you do not. [laughter]

AC: But I do like the learning and I like that people learn. Tegra, how have you changed because of your work at the GSC?

T: Since coming to Carleton, probably learning more about oppression and social justice, and in particular, joining the queer community because that’s been in recent history, has taught me the importance of personal experiences and the personal connection to what identity labels mean. All that has shifted my hard T to somewhere in the middle. Personal experience matters so much in the work that I do, it’s become a constant.

AE: Thinking about identity and labels, and how we work to help students figure out how to name themselves, these things are related to the issue of pronouns and the work that y’all [GSC staff] have chosen to do. Clearly you’re all movers and shakers on this issue on campus. And those buttons you put out two years ago [Tegra: and last year], those are amazing. The students all get it. The first and second year students all have theirs. So why? Why did you decide as the GSC to do this?

T: A lot of the work that we do reflects what our students want to see. We try to hire a really diverse staff, in terms of race, gender, across identities. We try to hire students who represent a lot of aspects of Carleton’s LGBT community. Also we connect with our student groups. We hear from them what they are interested in, what do they need to feel safer or more comfortable at Carleton. Pronouns and, just, more intentional work on the classroom space becoming more inclusive and welcoming for trans and gender non-binary students became the biggest call. Carleton, in particular, has a high number of gender non-binary students. Those experiences can be confusing because the narrative across media is about trans people, particularly White trans women. So non-binary people aren’t really represented in media and you don’t read about them.

AE: Can we clarify? What do we mean when we say “non-binary” students? What are the steps they’re taking that helps them see that identity as possible and what do you all offer them?

T: I don’t know that there’s anything that we offer them other than a safe space to question their gender and talk about the labels they want to use or if they want to use labels. A lot of students are coming into Carleton with that already. I think social media has become a space to find communities around a lot of different identities. We have a lot of students coming to Carleton as non-binary. It’s about processing through what they’re feeling, their internal selves, what they’re feeling about their bodies, what feel comfortable for them as they get dressed in the morning. Does that include certain things, does it not include certain things? I think non-binary looks different for a lot of people. Some students dress in masculine ways but identify as non-binary. Some people are more fluid about the masculinity and femininity that they express. Some people are more androgynous and will mix it up at the same time. It means different things to different people which is where that individual experience and definition becomes really important.

AC: Maybe this is a basic question. How’s that different from trans identities and experiences?

T: For me, and this is not necessarily the perspective of the GSC, for me personally, trans usually has some type of more solidified end point. You were assigned woman at birth and you are a man. So you might identify as a transman or trans as an umbrella term. Whatever identity you were assigned to doesn’t fit your current narrative. You self-identify in ways that are different from what you were first assigned. Gender non-binary is called different things in different places—gender non-conforming is another way that’s more commonly referred to in academic or higher ed spaces. We use “non-binary” here because that’s how our students identify. Regardless of what you were assigned at birth, you don’t feel like you fit with any gender. Or you feel like you can go back and forth among genders. Agender is similar. You are a person with gender that can be expressed in many ways.

AE: I think my question is going to show my age…one of the things we talked about in the late 80s around lesbianisms, we wouldn’t have called it queerness exactly, then… One of those ideas back then was that you chose to be queer as a political claim against heteronormativity. For students who identify as gender non-binary, how much of it is a choice or how much of it is about seeing identities that are not them? Or how do we separate out those things?

T: Personally, I could identify as lesbian or queer, but I chose queer because of the ideology that it’s associated with in a way that lesbian isn’t. I don’t think that a non-binary identity is political in that sense. I do think that, because society has a strict definition of what it means to be masculine or feminine that’s usually associated with women and men, this other way of being has been created for people who feel like their way of being doesn’t fit society’s expectations of how you should express your gender or your sex. I think in some ways a lot of the language in the queer community is a response to the rigidity of society and how we have created constructs around gender. Kind of what you [Anita] were saying before about being misgendered as a woman because of masculine presentation, it surprises me when it happens to me because, in my eyes, I can be a woman and be super masculine. That’s not a contradiction. I want to be pregnant, I want to be a mother, and I want to be masculine, and that’s what comfortable for me.  But for society, that’s constantly a double take that you have to do. I always wonder, if the gender roles didn’t exist in society, would we still have the identity labels that we do? Would you have gender non-binary folks if they could express their gender in any way they want and society didn’t care? I don’t know.

AE: And if maternity or paternity weren’t associated with any particular kind of gender expression.

T: I do think that trans might always exist–discomfort with a particular body that you have. That could exist regardless. Identities that are based on gender identity and expression where you don’t have discomfort with your physical body that you have…

AC: I guess the pushback would be that how is that different from saying that we should be colorblind? Is the argument about being genderblind the same?

T: I think it’s different if being colorblind or genderblind is ignoring the differences that exist that are organized around a person’s gender or race, versus validating each person’s expression of gender or race. When Laura and I had a conversation, we discussed your question of what’s the difference between being gender neutral and gender inclusive? Gender neutral to me is almost being colorblind. The author in this article suggests that everyone just use “they/them” pronouns. Sure, that gets around the discomfort of cis-students having to hear pronouns that they weren’t expecting but that doesn’t get at the root of the transphobia that makes those students uncomfortable at the moment. I think it’s better to be gender inclusive where you’re talking with your students about why they’re having the reactions they’re having and wanting to honor the pronouns that people want to use in that space, rather than just having a blanket statement about using “they/them” pronouns for everyone and maybe misgendering everyone at that point…especially if they all agree as a group, maybe. But just to prescribe it seems to be like a colorblind approach.

AE: I love how you put this. Part of being gender inclusive is getting at why this might be uncomfortable, and getting at the root of this discomfort. I’m imagining doing that in my class, I’m not having trouble imagining having that discussion but what about for faculty who teach in fields where all they have time and space for is having students say their gender pronouns during the introductions. Is it still worthwhile doing even if there isn’t a chance to have a follow-up conversation to help students understand why you’re doing what you’re doing?

T: I would say from feedback we’ve gotten from students it’s always better to do it. All of the students I’ve talked to on campus, the GDG [gender discussion group on campus] wanted faculty to introduce the pronouns, recognize and use the pronouns that the students want to use. If as a faculty member you’re uncomfortable doing that, that’s what our space [GSC] is for. Come in and have a conversation with me or Laura about how do i make this more comfortable? Or if someone says I use “real boy” pronouns–

AC: [interrupting] What is that?

T: Real boy. Like when you said, “I use she/her but I don’t really care.” For some people, that means you can use whatever and I don’t really care. For others, it’s like you’re being kind of an ass saying that. Some people might say “I use men pronouns.” And then I would ask, “what does that mean for you?” Sometimes it’s good to ask a question, sometimes you just let it go.

AC: Also, I assume as a student, most of the  time you let it go if a professor says that in class.

T: For me, it even depends on what group of students I’m with…an example, the RAs do a resource rotation to get to know the various office. An RA came to GSC we do introductions, and the RA said I use male pronouns. I asked, “What do you mean by that? Men can use any pronouns and that why we do the introduction with pronouns. What you look like doesn’t necessarily relate to pronouns.” So if the point of that circle wasn’t for me to get them to understand what we do and the language around pronouns, I maybe wouldn’t have pushed, depending on what the group and how comfortable I am. If someone says something that’s blatantly problematic, I would say something…

AE: No matter what.

AC: What I got from the LTC presentation was that you ask students to share pronouns among other things during introductions but if a student doesn’t share, I should just let it go. I feel like as an instructor, I always have to reveal my gender pronouns, I have to role model, I feel like I don’t have that choice that our students do. Or at least I hope that how students see it because I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable doing it. Maybe that’s some of my resistance or maybe that’s just my cis-privilege. And I need to get over it.

T: As a faculty member if you’re uncomfortable disclosing your gender pronouns, you can just use your name. “You can just refer to me as ‘Anita’ in this class.”

AE: It is really funny to me, though, about the way people talk about the discomfort, that it’s about this recognition that they’re tracking something, that they are cisgender. Oh, you can call me “she,”  and it’s not a surprise.

AC: But that’s the problem, I could look feminine and not use she/her pronouns.

T: I feel like the discomfort comes because we naturally assign identity labels to pronouns when we hear them. If I hear someone who I perceive as using “she/her” pronouns say they use “she/her” pronouns, okay, I’m going to assign a cis-identity to them, if someone looks masculine and uses “he/him” pronouns, I’m going to assign a cis-identity to them, if they use “they/them” I might assign them as gender non-binary or agender o trans. The problem is that we need to get faculty and people in general to stop associating a gender identity with the pronouns that people use. Particularly for people who are fluid. Pronouns can mean any number of things. They woke up today and that’s the pronoun they wanted to use.

Next blog post: we continue the conversation with Tegra, talking about gender fluidity, best gender-inclusive classroom practices, and learning from students.

 

Inspirations

Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality,” 1986.

Julia Serano, Whipping girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2007

Resources at Carleton

GSC: Resources for Transgender and Gender Non-binary Students

GSC: Inclusive Classroom

Unstickiness and Emotions in the Classroom

 

Classical and Quantum Optics, Fall 2014
Photo Credit

(We will occasionally feature posts written by just one of us or by a guest. This post is by Adriana.)

In 2003, I, a white-appearing Latina/Mexicana/Chicana, arrived at Carleton after leaving the University of New Mexico, a HSI (Hispanic-Serving Institution). If I were to say that sentence at the Latinx Studies conference in July, I would not need to follow it up with anything. There would be nods of understanding and sighs. But following it up is important, because while my story is like many others’, it’s also mine, and full of rich detail that could easily be forgotten but that shouldn’t be. (Sometimes I think my poor memory is a survival mechanism, but that’s another story.)

I was and continue to be very glad to have landed at Carleton. I have grown a great deal as a teacher and a scholar, and I am blessed with wonderful colleagues across all disciplines. But even though the institution was generally welcoming, it was and still continues to be an HWCU, historically white college/university (or PWI- predominantly white institution). In those early years, I couldn’t have put my finger on what that meant for me, exactly. There were moments of minor “oh hey there” moments that mostly had to do with being reminded that I was not in New Mexico anymore. And then there was the day–about four years in–that, having become accustomed to teaching Latinx studies to mostly white students, I entered a classroom and found it to be 40% students of color… and my whole body relaxed.

Fast forward to last year (my thirteenth year of teaching here). After many years spent being jealous of my American Studies colleagues at Macalester, who do an amazing job of bringing students of color into their program year after year, I entered the American Studies Methods and Theory classroom and, out of eight students, seven were of color. And my whole body relaxed. What does this relaxation mean?

When I first read Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included several years ago, it rocked my world. Describing the common experiences of faculty of color at PWIs in England and Australia, Ahmed uses the concept of stickiness to describe the way it feels, for example, to walk into a meeting and be one of the few people of color: “When you stick out, the gaze sticks to you. Sticking out from whiteness can thus reconfirm the whiteness of the space.” Ahmed’s language and descriptions helped to name my experience, giving me language for what I had inhabited. Let me note that this stickiness is not simply a Carleton experience for me, but a Minnesota one. Whenever I make my way home to the Bay Area (California) or to somewhere like New York City, Philadelphia, or Chicago, I feel myself rocked into health by the voices around me speaking so many different languages and the bodies around me that are all so very different. In contrast, in one Carleton meeting room, paintings of past presidents all look so much alike that, as we sit there discussing campus issues, I can’t help but feel unalike and sticky in the face of this “reproduction of likeness” that Ahmed argues tends to be assumed as an “institutional given” (38). Teaching in classroom after classroom of white faces, I try to use this stickiness of my racialized body to ground conversations about our raced identities and our raced practices. I don’t know how to say this gently: being brown in this way is exhausting.

Given this usual feeling of stickiness and exhaustion, walking into a room filled with students of color felt freeing. My racial identity was no longer something hypervisible or invisible, it simply was. When talking about discourses and histories of race, class, gender, and sexuality–key topics in American Studies–I didn’t have to explain, justify, or manage my racialized relationship to my field of study. Unpacking the relationship between whiteness and citizenship could be done without steeling myself for defensiveness.

And, after years of moving towards a pedagogy that attempts to guide students in learning that is affective, I finally felt comfortable enough to take some risks. I remember seeing 12 Years a Slave in the theater with a white friend. Afterwards, we tried to have a conversation where I asked him (spoiler alert) what he thought of the scene where we, the viewers, are not allowed to not see Solomon Northup, left hanging from a tree, in media res of the lynching. The camera cannot not look. The looking lasts. We wait an impossibly long time for the master to return and cut him down. How did it make you feel, I asked him. My friend got upset, in essence asking me how I could even talk about the film at an abstracted level. But, the thing was, I asked him how it made him feel. But this was all too much.

12 Years a Slave in the classroom is also all too much. But with my group of students of color, after we watched it, how we felt became a route into cognition instead of feelings getting cordoned off at the door. What I mean is that, historically, the U.S. classroom privileges rationality over emotion and, as we bring students into our courses, we implicitly and sometimes explicitly ask them to learn how to “gain distance” in order to learn. But this move –one I’d taken for granted for years– means that students who feel particularly affected by a topic like the physical and epistemic violence against people of color in the U.S. must do much more work to manage their emotions while other students skate easily into “rationality.” Or as Dian Million puts it, speaking of indigenous feminist scholarship, “academia repetitively produces gatekeepers to our entry into important social discourses because we feel our histories as well as think them” (her emphasis). Million makes the vital case that, to decolonize our knowledge production, we cannot divorce understanding from feeling.

To think about these emotional reactions as part of our learning meant that we recognized that there is, as Lauren Berlant puts it, a “pedagogy of emotions” that has been unequally engaged and reproduced depending on our social identities. She says, “by the time you’ve been in primary school for awhile, or whatever, you have feelings about citizenship, you have feelings about race, you have feelings about gender and sexuality. You’ve been trained to take on those objects as world-sustaining perspectives.” In working through 12 Years a Slave, thinking and feeling about Northup and his absolute powerlessness opened the door for us to consider the empirical and emotional weight of current judicial and law enforcement systems. It allowed us to make historical connections without collapsing the differences in structure, raced lives, and workings of power in these eras.  And while eight out of nine bodies in that classroom were not white, we were not all the same “not white.” This made for various moments of cross-racial recognition but also times of productive dissonance, where someone or another’s voice would emerge to remind us of multiple silences. We held each other accountable to all of our frames of knowing and feeling.

Watching 12 Years a Slave, we claimed our entry into knowledge and history, through feeling. But it also mattered that, in these moments of strong feeling, we could all feel deeply without the worries that have accompanied me in other moments of racially-charged emotional revelation: will I be seen as irrational? can you handle seeing all of me?

Note: Some of the ideas in this post are being developed into a longer essay for the forthcoming collection Difficult Subjects: Radical Teaching in the Neoliberal University, edited by Badia Ahad and OiYan Poon.

Sources/Inspirations:

My students, who are also my teachers.

Ahmed, Sara. (2012) On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke UP.

Berlant, Lauren. (2013)  https://societyandspace.com/material/interviews/interview-with-lauren-berlant/. March 22.

Million, Dian. (2009) “Felt Theory: An Indigenous Feminist Approach to Affect and History.” Wicazo Sa Review 24.2: 53-76.

Yancy, George and Maria del Guadalupe Davidson, ed. (2014) Exploring Race in Predominantly White Classrooms: Scholars of Color Reflect. New York: Routledge.

And always and forever, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa, who opened doors for me into what it means to feel my way into knowing.