Who the hell said it could be November? We had snow in Boston over the weekend people! Not really sure I’m ready to go straight from summer to winter this year. I’d miss all the incredible color in the maple trees.
Anyway. Feminism For Real. Ahem. This week, we’re reading a co-created piece by Krysta Williams and Ashling Ligate that seeks to “deconstruct dialogue in feminist education.” Williams and Ligate write/converse about the complexities of (what else!) doing feminism in the context of an academic framework where certain kinds of learning are privileged over others; where there is a constant tension between pushing the boundaries of what is considered authority while still seeking recognition from the powers that be for area studies programs and feminist pedagogical methods.
THIS SHIT IS REAL: DECONSTRUCTING DIALOGUE IN FEMINIST EDUCATION by Krysta Williams and Ashling Ligate (p. 153-164)
p. 154 – Krysta: “There was an attempted apology (the kind that comes with a justification).” Williams opens the piece by describing an incident in her undergraduate studies when a white student posted a statistic online, with no context or deeper understanding, about how “Aboriginal students are more likely to commit suicide than go to university.” When Williams tried to confront the student about this one-dimensional portrayal of indigenous communities, the fellow student got defensive. “We are not only a statistic and those numbers do not always reflect the reality that we face every day,” Williams writes. I always feel conflicted about the insistence that “real” apologies should not contain any sort of explanation for the thinking behind the words or actions that are considered racist (or any other kind of -ist). Obviously, reflexive defensiveness, excuses, anger, etc., are not apologies and don’t lead to learning why went wrong and why. But sometimes an actual explanation of why the mis-step was made can lead to deeper learning on both sides about how to prevent repetition of the problem.
p. 155 – Ashling: “I often feel as though I am required to climb mountains in order to have my peer-to-peer learning experiences recognized and appreciated as legitimate and grounded sources of knowledge. Why are oral histories labelled as ‘radical’ sources?” Gosh, a lot going on here. Given that there is a professional Oral History Association, a world-renowned oral historical research center at Columbia University, and the regular use of oral history narratives in a variety of fields, I don’t think oral history is always considered “radical” in this day and age. I was never challenged, as a graduate student, about my reliance on oral histories as primary sources — though I was challenged to critically interpret the source as I would any other type of historical text.
However, Ligate isn’t just talking about oral histories — she’s talking about peer-to-peer learning and the legitimacy of conversation as a source of learning. I do think this is a more complicated issue in academia. Graduate seminars and academic conferences, obviously, place a premium on peer-to-peer learning: what is a colloquium presentation and discussion if not peer-to-peer learning? As scholars we regularly circulate papers for comment from others in our fields. But I think the key here is that such peer networking is generally considered the reserve of the already-professional … or at the very least graduate students, the quasi-professional class. Undergraduates, in many contexts, are given less leeway to learn in these more democratic contexts — and if we were to look at K-12 institutions, youth-directed learning becomes even more suspect. Once again, feminism and ageism intersect in pernicious ways.
p. 158 – Krysta & Ashling: “Rarely is dialogue recognized as a form of education, even in so-called feminist spaces … When students try to seek out opportunities to learn from other human beings, the tools needed to support that process are not made available.” I guess I want more evidence to back up this assertion, or at least a recognition that the situation varies wildly from discipline to discipline and institution to institution. Internships, work-study placements, fieldwork, interviews, mentoring programs, and I would argue even in-classroom learning are all settings for dialogue, and ones which are often recognized within feminist spaces and in education. Not always, perhaps not enough, but often enough to constitute a widespread pattern.
I’d also question the separation of verbal dialogue from other types of give-and-take that happen in scholastic endeavors. What is reading an essay and writing a response paper if not a form of dialogue? Or reading a book and writing a blog post? It’s us talking back to the author of the piece, probing their assertions and reflecting on their credibility, or documenting the way their words changed our thinking.
p. 159 – “There is a joke about how every Native community has its own anthropologist … academics who continue to take knowledge from our communities and lives in order to become highly paid ‘experts’ …” This made me think about a couple of books I’m reading concurrently in which queer-identified folks were/are working in some fashion as observers/academics within sexual subcultures. In other words, the academics aren’t always outsiders — sometimes they’re also insiders. I realize there’s a long, long history of imperialism behind the profession of anthropology, so on the one hand, yes. There’s something fucked up about the fact that some academic researchers profit from the continued marginalization and oppression of the populations which they study. There are people today doing research on LGBTQ folks precisely because our experience supposedly differs from the “norm.” I’m not being interviewed about my experiences as a self-identified heterosexual person; about how it feels to move through the world as a straight person (although that would be a really interesting study!). But I think it’s more complicated than exploiter/exploited once you factor in all the different ways of conducting ethnographic research and all the different individual reasons we have for undertaking a particular course of study.
p. 162 – Krysta and Ashling: “White anthropologists are still considered ‘experts’ on communities to which they do not belong. But Native people who write about their communities, are considered ‘biased.’ This is racism.” I think this note dovetails with the above quite well, in that it highlights the way in which the broader social dynamics of inequality shape how we read scholarship and the credibility we extend to the voices of various authors depending on how we read their own personal histories. This happens outside the academy as well, as the recent discussions of “call-out culture” and identity and credentialing in the feminist blogosphere show. Again, I’m reminded of the politics of studying sexual minorities — I recently read a study of barebacking for example (anal sex sans condoms) in which the author wrote extensively about the push-back he got for supposedly legitimating unsafe sex by researching the practice, and about all the assumptions people made about his own sexuality because of his research. We map “bias” in all sorts of judgmental ways.
p. 163 – Krysta and Ashling: “[as an ally] DO simply ASK what needs to be done, and do it, no questions asked. DON’T expect the work to be easy or glamorous. Doing dishes can be extremely helpful!” I get what they’re saying here about the role of allies being supportive, not attention-seeking. We should all be engaged in social justice work, as much as humanely possible, because it’s the right thing to do not because we want the brownie points. But I’m a little concerned with the idea that an ally is someone who doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t push back, doesn’t think critically. Maybe I’m over-thinking the phrasing here — but it seems like we need to incorporate allies who are intellectually curious and demanding of both themselves and the people around them in terms of the actions they take and the values they advocate. I’d much rather have a straight person who asked challenging and maybe even slightly invasive-feeling questions in good faith than someone who was so scared of me as a sexual Other that they just deferred to my supposedly greater authority on X, Y, or Z.
Join me next week for Lisa Mantia’s “Finding Our Voice in Mainstream Media Madness” (pp. 165-169).