Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Let’s Talk about Theory!: Part II


Frontmatter:
In Part I I talked quite a lot about sexism and feminism, because that’s apparently how I roll these days. Maybe I’ll blog about that development some day. But right now I’m thinking about something else that equally but differently relates to the title.
If you know me from school, you should maybe read the Frontmatter of Part I before reading this post.

Vi Hart (thanks, Leah!) frequently begins her videos by narrating her boredom-induced doodling in a fictional high school math class. She makes videos that promote math as recreation. She is not bored because she does not like math. She is bored because she likes math. Remember that bit.

When I hear those openings, I think about my own experiences being bored in high school math class. I regularly took the lowest-possible math course that was still university-bound, and I skipped calculus entirely. (I did take math all four years, even though I didn’t have to. I really wanted that data management course.) This is not because I find math boring (at least, I don’t find algebra, probability, or statistics boring); this is because I wanted a really high average and I knew that I did not need much mathematics for my life plans. Easier math = higher marks. It was a simple calculation. As a result, my math classes were always well below my level. Whenever I did the homework, I got most of the answers right, and when I checked them in the back of the book, I always understood what my errors were. The next day the teacher would spend half of the day going over the homework, which was entirely redundant for me. (I realize that does not make it a redundant activity. It was necessary for my peers. I am not blaming anyone.) So I never paid attention during this part of class. I wish the things I did to amuse myself in math class were as incredibly interesting as Vi Hart’s seemed to have been, but that wasn’t the case. About the most I did is figure out what happens when you divide by zero (which is old hat, I know, but I was pretty pleased with myself when I worked it out all on my own) and discover a bunch of relationships embedded in how the numbers are arranged on a calculator. Oh, and mash a bunch of different functions together on a Cartesian grid to see what shapes would happen, and how I could change them if I tweaked a particular element of the equation, and try to imagine how I could plot those changes in three dimensions... anyway.

It’s been a long time since I felt that way. Sometimes I talk about how I was really challenged by my education for the first time in my Master’s degree. That’s not to say that I hadn’t had a lot of work or that I was never stressed before. However, I do mean that I never strained to understand a concept before that. I had a lot of work, but the act of thinking itself never felt like work until graduate school. Wrestling against Laplanchean psychoanalysis or deciphering Derrida or trying to find Greenblatt’s epistemological foundations—here I finally began to put those intellectual muscles into practice. Here I had to sweat. If I tell the story that way, I am omitting the challenging but enjoyable Philosophy of Mathematics class I took as an elective in my undergraduate degree, and maybe not remembering the Mysticism class quite correctly, either. The truth is, even if my undergraduate degree didn’t offer me the same vigourous workout that my graduate degree did, I still never lacked anything to think about. Classes were usually engaging, and if they weren’t that had more to do with the professor’s oratory skills and less to do with the subject.

It’s been a long time since I felt like the student who was disruptive in class because he wasn’t challenged (I really was never disruptive; I just didn't know what question we were on when the teacher called on me). But I feel that way again.

My classes are three hours long. My peers sometimes complain because they find the topics unnecessarily complex and theoretical (see Part I; same complaints, different subject). They would rather the professor give us the practice to apply and they won’t ask questions. I can understand this, or I can try to understand. But I do not feel the same way. 

Maybe it’s because I have a good memory and good grasp of procedural knowledge. Maybe it’s because I have a knack for taxonomic systems. (I call it “a taxonomic imagination.” Not that the taxonomic imagination is the only one I have. Having plural imaginations is key.) I don’t know. Whatever the reason, I find a lot of the content in particular classes really easy to understand, even if painstaking to execute. I find the subject interesting, sure, but the actual lectures are not very challenging. I never need to think. So when the professor starts talking about how the rational principles of the design snarl against certain practical considerations, or how the constraints of a library's system favours classical Aristotelian classification when a more psychology-based categorization would be a better ontology, I get interested. This is the stuff I want to talk about. But for most of the class, this is where things get unnecessarily confusing.  For them, this is precisely the spot where it’s time to encourage the professor to move on. Move on the professor does, and I get tremendously bored again.

I don’t know how to handle it, guys. I drink lots of tea to stay awake for my very long Tuesdays (>9 hours on campus), but this means that I’m wired on caffeine during class. My body has so much energy, and my mind is starved for intellectual stimulus. While I might be matching my peers’ vaguely disinterested exterior, internally I’m writhing about and bouncing around and thrusting my arm in the air like Hermione. (It takes so much effort not to monopolize class discussion. So much effort. I’m sure I look like a know-it-all.)

Why is this worth a blog post? Why am I ranting at you about this when I’m already ranting about it to my English grad ex-pats? Two things.

One: I’d like advice. High school math was a while ago. I’ve forgotten how to deal with understimulation in class, besides making anagrams in my margins (that's my current thing). Does anyone have any suggestions (that are socially appropriate)?

Two: I am struggling an awful lot with arrogance, condescension, and feelings of superiority. I sometimes make a distinction between semantic beliefs and emotional beliefs (I’m drawing “semantic” from memory studies, the difference between semantic memory and episodic or procedural memory). Semantically, I know that these experiences I am having, the critical thinking skills I have developed, and my general working intelligence do not make me better than my peers. Semantically, I know that my contributions are not somehow more important than their contributions. It is much harder to know this emotionally. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels underwhelmed. There are other grad program refugees who look equally unimpressed. I try to remember that I’m likely no more awesome than they are, but that slips close to an academic elitism that I’m trying to avoid, because I shouldn’t choose only the people with MAs as examples of people who I’m not better than.
So I would like advice on this problem, too, if anyone’s reading this. How do people keep their egos in check? How do people try to prevent feelings of superiority from corrupting their character? How do people remind themselves that they’re really not that awesome?

Maybe I should remember that lots of mathematicians put their boring classes on interesting topics to much better use than I am putting mine.

[Clarification: I'm weird in that even while I feel unbearably superior some of the time, I don't actually like people any less. I don't even feel superior five minutes later. It's only during moments when my engagement conflicts obviously with other people's engagement that I start to feel superior. (Well, when some people do things that are bizarrely racist I feel superior, too, and then those feelings are longer-lasting. But that's not most people.) So, again, if anyone from class is reading this, I don't actually think I'm better than you...unless I'm bored in class. And then I'm trying really hard not to!]

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Let’s Talk about Theory!: Part I

Frontmatter:
It is perhaps indiscrete for me to write this, since it is theoretically possible that the people I am discussing could read this at some point. In the case that that happens, to those people, I say: I do not think less of you for what I’m going to discuss. I disagree with you, and at the time I felt uncomfortable saying so, which is why I said nothing. But just because I disagree does not mean I think you’re bad people or foolish people. Also, my discomfort in speaking has nothing to do with you. It has to do with me.

In one of my library and information science classes we were watching a segment of a movie which discussed the representation of librarians. The common vision of librarians as prim women comes from the days of Dewey (he of the Decimal System), in which Dewey argued that women should work as librarians because the job did not require particularly strenuous thought or activity. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Because women who worked in public at that time were in danger of being seen as immoral and unrestrained, librarians cultivated a reputation as being the very embodiment of propriety, maintaining a severe normativity in order to protect themselves from reproach. This reputation still lasts, the movie suggested, but it certainly no longer true that librarians are socially conservative or prudish.

One of my fellow students then asked about the sexy librarian image. This image is the opposite of the one the movie discussed, and has perhaps equal social currency. The professor seemed uncomfortable discussing it, but entertained the topic briefly. Another student suggested that all occupations that are traditionally held by women have a sexy [profession] version: the sexy nurse, the sexy schoolteacher. It seems to be an attempt to objectify female professional roles. Soon the professor moved the topic along.

After class, some of my friends brought the topic up again. Early in this conversation I started to float an idea I had been incubating on this topic: this has something to do with roles perceived as being powerful. That’s about as far as I got before one of the others said, “No, it’s just sexist, is what it is.” Another of the others said that they wished a particular person from the class, one who had been studying Gender Studies before this degree, had had the chance to say something. “Yes,” said the one I’ve already quoted. “Ze’d have said something much more eloquent than what I could have said.”

Part of my reaction is about the bruising of my ego: one thing that I really really dislike, and that happens to me rather a lot, is being interrupted. I generally shut down immediately when this happens, and I can’t quite seem to grasp why anyone thinks interruption is acceptable behaviour. But I do have a wider point than just whining needlessly on the Internet. That point is this: of course the image of the sexy librarian is sexist. To attempt an understanding of the motivations behind that representation is not to deny its sexism. Rather, I was trying to uncover the particular way in which it is sexist. After all, sexism is not a homogenous phenomenon. It is not even a phenomenon; it is a set of disparate, sometimes contradictory phenomena. And if we are going to combat it, we need to understand the different ways people can be sexist. Moreover, it would really help if we understood the motivations behind sexism, not as justification for it, but as a way of disabling, within the realm of possibility, every incentive structure that supports it.

This anecdote seems to exemplify a fairly thorough distaste for theoretical inquiry on the part of many people in my program. (I am dangerously close to being elitist or judgemental here: I am trying very hard to keep that tendency in check and I would appreciate help on this. If you notice me being either of those things, please call me out on it.) Certain people in my program seem to espouse the view that theory is not especially practical or important. We should be focused on practical things, they suggest; those people interested in theory can study it, but the rest of us haven’t time for it, nor should we be expected to listen to anyone talking about theory. I want to be clear that these women are feminists. They are passionately interested in combating sexism (and heterosexism). But theory does not play a role in that, for them.

It does not worry me that some people dislike theory. That is fine. What worries me is that some people think that theory does not inform practice. What worries me is that some people are unwilling to listen to others engage in theory, unless those others are somehow designated “theory-people,” generally by being in Gender Studies and being gender-queer. What worries me is that activism will be wrong-headed or impotent if it does take theory seriously. This is not to say that thought begins in the ivory tower and then trickles down to the streets. The trickle-down model is one of things I am worried will happen if activists do not take theory seriously; if the people on the streets, so to say, are uninterested in engaging with some level of inquiry, what other model besides total disconnect or intellectual trickle-down is possible?

Now, I will happily acknowledge something else that was possibly happening here. Perhaps it sounded a lot like I was going to mansplain things to my female friends. I managed to say hardly anything at all, so I didn’t give enough for them to make a fair judgment, but likely most conversations with men that they’ve had on this topic did not manage to proceed past your standard bingo-card of male responses (I was going to link that, but there are too many to choose from; just Google “sexist bingo card” and pick the ones that best apply to your subcultures). Since I tend to be very quiet about my opinions in early friendships, they cannot possibly know that I spend a lot of time thinking about feminism (and classism and ablism and racism and heterosexism and whatever other form of kyriarchy is on my mind at that time). They cannot possibly know that I get emotionally invested in this sort of thing (see this post). They cannot possibly know that I have grown a lot on this issue in the last three years or so and am trying to grow even more. They cannot possibly know that the only reason I don’t like to call myself a feminist is because I don’t think I’ve earned it. So I do not think that I can blame anyone for expecting me to mansplain things. But I am still worried about the disparaging of theory going on by feminists trying to fight sexism, because this is not the only example in which my peers have mentioned that they are not especially interested in feminist discussion that is “too theoretical.” It’s just the only one where someone actually shut down an attempt at theorizing.

For what it’s worth, the idea I was trying to float was this: librarians, nurses, and teachers are all professional roles which embody power on behalf of a particular institution. Nurses can make patients do things and can control access between family members on behalf of hospitals, which are often alienating and internally-hegemonic institutions. Teachers are absolute authority figures over students on behalf of a governmental institution, or at least that’s how it can seem to those students. Librarians are the least powerful, but at least in the world of a child, they can be fairly imposing, enforcing silence and levying fines. Lots of men seem to feel emasculated when they interact with figures of authority; look at how certain men deal with police officers, for instance. When interacting with a man in that role, they may try to dehumanise or emasculate that man in order to mitigate their own sense of emasculation, but they are still limited in that attempt by the systems of power in place. When a woman holds the authoritative role, however, these men do have a tool with which they can re-assert the authority to which they feel entitled. That tool is patriarchy. Or, I should say, the tool is sexual objectification, and it is part of patriarchy. By objectifying women who currently hold or once held institutional power over them, these men can reassert their dominance. This theory has the advantage of explaining why police women are often sexually objectified, even though police are not traditionally female, while “the sexy waitress” is less of a codified concept than “the sexy librarian,” even though wait staff are traditionally female and subject to a lot of sexual objectification in the course of their daily duties. It can also begin to suggest certain solutions, though I have yet to work out what those solutions might be. (I have no sources for this. It is wild speculation!)
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