Friday, February 16, 2007

Why I Wither When Teaching WS

Teaching Women's Studies is both a thrilling and draining job. I am not a full-time Women's Studies faculty member, but I occasionally teach for the WS department. One of my specialities is Feminist theory, although the kind of theory that grows out of Philosophy. Over the years, I have discovered that any semester in which I am teaching a course related to gender or race is more stressful than when I am not. And yet, this is the subject matter I have passion for and that I am very good at teaching.

The reason why teaching WS is hard is because it challenges students almost everyday in a way that is psychologically difficult for them. The most resistance that I feel in the classroom involve conversations having to do with race; in fact, I am not sure that there is a more difficult subject to broach in the classroom than the on-going reality of racism. I would say that these conversations are especially difficult because of the nature of my students' background--largely affluent and from white Suburbs in New Jersey and New England--but I didn't find these conversations any easier when I taught at a large State U with a great deal of diversity.

I have spent lots of time thinking about what makes these conversations so difficult and I think it may have a lot to do with self-image, that is the self-image the students want to have of themselves that the content of my course really challenges. I am pretty sure that the majority of my students don't consider themselves racists or sexists. A few more might admit to be homophobic. But, there is a difference between how you perceive yourself and the reality of your life. The content of my course challenges students' self-perceptions daily (hell it challenges my own self-image).

Only a very few of them are grateful for this. I imagine that those same students have already had such epiphanies about their place in the world and so my course is nothing new. The students who are most vexed by the material assuredly have grown up in households wherein the parents have offensively equipped them to reject any frank discussions about race/class/gender. If they read about a Latina woman's struggle in white USA, they loudly proclaim that she is just whining. Everyone has it tough, what makes you think that your life is any harder than anyone else's? In fact, the most frequent complaint that I hear students make about the material is that the author is just "complaining" or "whining." If they are a bit persuaded by the argument, then they claim "well, the author has pointed out the problem, but has done little to give us a sense of how to make it better."

This last response is the most curious one to me. I think that pointing out injustice and how it gets enshrined in our institutions is a step toward making the world better. Such knowledge challenges the author to re-evaluate herself in relation to institutions, which is assuredly an important step toward considering how to restructure them. And yet, students claim "but I don't want to change how the system works, I don't want to have to give anything up." Now, if we weren't talking about structural inequality, then they might feel more disturbed about injustice. If you knew, for example, that your parents could only afford one present for X-mas, and you demanded to have it at the expense of your brother, well, most likely you want to find a way that didn't result in only one child getting a gift at the expense of another.

Alas, challenging students to care, take seriously, and then commit themselves to social change is emotionally exhausting work. And yet, these students I teach, above all, are the precisely the most important audience to reach. They will be the future decision makers and leaders. I don't want to be responsible for having contributed another Rick Santorum or George W. Bush to the world. Ultimately, I have little control over that outcome, but I will try my hardest to make some impact on these students before they graduate.