Volume 21, Number 3, Autumn 2004

Jim Gough

Red Deer College

jim.gough@rdc.ab.ca

 

 

 

 

 

 

"So there is controversy even in the naming of the course."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The instructor isn't required to make the issues 'relevant' or 'timely' but rather is in the position of discovering, with the studnets, the universal situation of women."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"After all, they were not in the situation of women two hundred years ago!"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"The personal experience of the student or her peers had to be connected to the experiences of women from other situations and generations."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I had to give way to the dumb ones in the front rows."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I always moved towards the driver's seat and my wife, mother or daughter invariably moved to the passenger seat. I asked the class to questions why this was the case?"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back to the top

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Writer Becomes the Reader and the Reader Becomes the Writer


There have been several occasions when I have found it not only useful but instructive to recount classroom experiences teaching one or more philosophy courses. None of these has had as personal an effect on me as a teacher and person more than the writing experiment I conducted in a philosophy and women course that I have taught for several years. The experience for me, and some of my students, was transformational.


This course was unique from its inception. First, women, primarily nursing students, asked me to offer a philosophy of women course. Several attempts by me to get the course started failed as administrators claimed there was no interest, based typically on no empirical research nor direct connection to students’ voiced needs or preferences. So, frustratingly caught between what the students wanted and the administration claimed that students wanted, I sent the students as a group to demand the course be offered. The test was simple and effective. Only hours after the course appeared on the schedule it was filled to capacity. So, the course had and still generally has a motivated and interested audience of students.


Second, after an initial discussion with some feminist colleagues (or, at least those who claimed to be feminists), I succeeded in getting the course identified as philosophy “and” women, rather than the traditional or standard philosophy “of” women, since I claimed then and now that there is no such entity as identified in the latter reference. This is a contentious claim, of course. I’m not sure that I will continue to win this debate, but I am still convinced there is a distinction with a difference between “and” and “of”. I have since discovered through several terms teaching this course that the former use of a conjunction produces a less divisive and less confrontational attitude than the latter, making it easier to comprehend and argue about controversial issues with both feminist sympathizers and non-feminists. At the same time, it can inflame and distance those who believe there is a separate world “of” women. So, there is controversy even in the naming of the course.
Third, although I had some experience teaching courses that involved women writers, I had no background teaching an entire course about women writers confronting important philosophical issues. So, I knew, from the outset, that this course would be a learning experience for me. It would be a learning experience both in terms of the content and in terms of the approaches to teaching this content and testing student’s comprehension and ability to display critical skills in dealing with controversial parts of this content. However, I didn’t expect to learn what I did learn.


Finally, I suspected that the pedagogical strategies that I normally followed in my other philosophy courses might be subject to change in a course that would probably involve students deeply and personally in the debates, discussions, and controversies with both philosophical and “personally experienced” significance. In other courses it is possible to separate and detach “philosophical” evaluation or criticism from “personal experience,” and indeed this can be encouraged to get students out of a narrow perspective so that they can confront and understand “the big issues”. However, from the beginning I was concerned about how to deal with “personal experience,” and I was to discover that this concern was justified.


Transformational Relationships


As a result of my experience teaching this course for several years, I have discovered (or, perhaps re-discovered) a relationship that can constructively and perhaps almost exclusively occur in an open, non-intimidating classroom situation. There are two parts to this relationship. The first is about the structure of the content and the second is about the content itself. First, it is a multiple relationship between the writer as writer and this same writer as reader and a second reader of the work of this writer who becomes, as a result of this process of self-revealing, a writer also. The self-transformational and other-transformational relationships can be diagrammed roughly as follows: W1(writer)—becomes?R1 (reader)[as a result of the activity of W1], then R2 (the reader of the written words and experience of W1)—becomes?W2 (a writer inspired by the experiences documented in the writings of W1). The student is primarily situated in the transformational relationship W?R1, (transformation of the original experiential person) while the instructor (me) is transformed (transformation of the other) in the relationship R2?W2 in ways that probably could not have happened outside the classroom, where students might be unwilling to freely express their experiences.


Second, in this (and some other courses) I have discovered that the “big questions” normally raised in a philosophy course to identify and focus attention on the central or essential features of an issue do not always connect well with students. However, the same issues opened up by posing “big questions” about systemic discrimination, patriarchal sociological and political structures, and troubling pseudo-scientific “fit-by-nature” claims about gender differences, can be posed using what the students call “little questions”. Such questions have their source in the particular experiences of individuals, yet they can focus the “big” issue clearly, distinctively and effectively in the mind and experience of the individual student or teacher. This move away from the macro to the micro concerns has the positive effect of engaging more students in discussions and classroom debates by contextualizing the issues in the course, within the student’s personal experience or within the experiences of the student’s peers in the classroom. The instructor isn’t required to make the issues “relevant” or “timely” but rather is in the position of discovering, with the students, the universal situation of women. Doing this requires that the instructor be prepared for emotional reactions as students compare experiences and reactions to these experiences in a cathartic interaction that has to be brought back from the specifics of a particular context to a more universal perspective, opening up the audience to both women and men willing to learn from these experiences.


The Problem


I discovered early on that there was a dispositional disconnect between some students in the philosophy and women course, namely the younger students, and the critical issues that I felt needed to be raised and addressed. These students did not understand that they were being treated badly in their “everyday lives” or that they were the subject of systemic discrimination in a society ostensibly dedicated to implementing equal opportunities for all. After all, they were not in the situation of women two hundred years ago! They could do what they wanted freely, with no interference. Other women in the course, however, disagreed that the situation was significantly better than that of women two hundred years ago. There was no solidarity in a group that seemed to at least need to understand what solidarity meant! This situation brought some important relational issues to the forefront.
Women from one generation could not seem to identify with the situation of women from another generation to the detrimental understanding of both generations. What seemed to present itself to me was a kind of gender-generational gap, a situation where those women with sufficient experience of life could identify clearly and unambiguously with the issues raised, while those with less experience felt that there were no issues that were either relevant or meaningful to them. This was an inter-generation relational situation in the classroom. This put me in the position, as the teacher, of having to solve a relational problem by trying to defend the claim that the issues I felt were important to be raised in the course were “real” and “significant” for women of all ages and all generations. I could tell by the reactions of some women in the course that my efforts were not generally successful to make the critical issues raised about their lives both relevant and meaningful to these students. The question “What did I (the male) know, after all, about their (women’s) situation?” seemed both significant and damning of my efforts.


Frustration developed in this course, since I was the one who some students thought had the task of demonstrating to them that critical issues about their lives were ethically significant. The way they initially perceived the situation, we had an impossible impasse. I became the brunt (in some sense willingly to function as “devil’s advocate”) of the “us-them” dichotomy, as the daggers were thrown at “him” (me) because I was one of “them,” males disenfranchised from the discussion. Compounding the “black and white” thinking problem evident in their response, was a “guilt by association” fallacious strategy, which made open critical evaluation of the central issues I needed to raise in the course very difficult and tainted by a pre-determined bias.


As well, my approach to the course is that we need to understand issues about women in both their historical and contemporary context, since the issues and their significance are often context invariant. My emphasis, throughout the course in all of the content and argumentative approaches followed, is on an audience of women and men who need to be convinced to accept one side or the other of some controversial claim, position, point of view, or perspective. It is a bigger task to try to convince an audience of both the converted and non-converted but the significance of the accomplishment is worth the effort. So I set some tasks for myself and for my students which were to move well beyond what we currently might believe to consider the situation and beliefs of the “other” as important to the understanding and support for our own beliefs.


The Solution


In designing assignments for a philosophy course, the task for me has to be one which helps students not only gain a better understanding of philosophical issues but also more importantly an ability to employ argumentation strategies in their writing. In many philosophy courses, this can mean taking the voice of the detached observer or spectator, someone empathetic to the rational resolution of an issue but not directly or emotionally connected to it. Such a stance is often helpful in focussing the various competing claims and coming to an informed judgement based on balancing these competing considerations. Clearly, given the situation I described above, this would not be an effective approach in a philosophy and women course, with the goals that I set for the course. The writing of three to four short argumentative essays and a final research argumentative essay had to give way to an approach which enhanced the integration of personal experiences in the development of a critically defensible position, decision or judgement. At the same time, the personal experience of the student or her peers had to be connected to the experiences of women from other situations and generations, grounding the experience in the readings of an anthology, which spanned the generations.


To accomplish this goal, I asked the students at the end of the first set of classes, in which we discussed topics that would appear as part of essay questions, to write for ten to fifteen minutes an account of their own experience(s) or experience that might relate to what we had been discussing. In one example of this approach the results were startling and illuminating. In the Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollestonecraft says “I view with indignation the mistaken notions that enslave my sex” and “barely am I able to govern my muscles, when I see a man start with eager and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief, or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two” (Emphasis added). Wollestonecraft clearly indicated her personal outrage at specific experiential situations that had occurred in her life. She also expressed the idea that, even in her time (as some of my students observed in the discussion), it was possible to be very emotionally involved, even outraged at what might appear (both the one offended and the offender) to be the least of minor offences. Of course, the minor offence is embedded in a wider context of meaning, which the students discovered.


In the written assignment that followed the students were asked at the end of the class to find some experience of their own or from one of their peers or someone from another generation that related to or approximated Wollestonecraft’s description of her reaction. The students more than met the challenge. One student wrote about the following important experience in her life (which I leave, as much as possible, in her words): “I could have qualified for the police training program, if I had not failed to vault the high fence they asked me to leap over. I excelled in the written and psychological tests, as well as spending considerable time as a volunteer for the force in the community. Why was passing this test necessary? Was the test constructed so that my lack of upper body strength would work against me and prevent me from getting a job that I had longed for all my life? I was very, very mad at this outcome.”
Another student wrote, “I have lately struggled to come back to school raising my family as a single parent after the departure of their father when he broke into my apartment and stole my school textbooks and notes. If this wasn’t bad enough, he proceeded to brag to his friends and his sons about what he had done. I was very angry at both him and his sons. I was so upset that they thought my struggles were a joke.” We had writing from a 40 year old woman frustrated by her attempts to join the police force to a 28 year old woman frustrated by the actions of her husband and sons, but more was to come.


Although there were other significant examples, the final one helped all of us see how to bridge the gender inter-generational gap. A 75 year old grandmother of six, wrote in the kind of precise and perfect handwriting esteemed in her generation of an event, of seeming little importance, but ultimately of great significance, in her life. She wrote: “I went to a one room rural school, where the male teacher on the very first day of classes produced his seating plan for the next twelve years. All of the girls were to be seated at the back of the room, since it was not necessary that any of them successfully complete the diploma. After all, he said, they were all destined for domestic tasks anyway. I was seized with indignation and outrage for much of my elementary and secondary schooling, each time I recalled this seating plan and its intentions. I had to give way to the dumb ones in the front rows.” This was such a powerful written indictment of the treatment of women, paralleling the outrage expressed by Mary Wollestonecraft. It also confirmed an inter-generational outrage, anger, indignation about something “seemingly” insignificant—insignificant until connected with a life, the lives of women, in a larger context.


Transformations


Through writing about their experiences, students, as writers, began to understand the situation of other writers, some from an earlier generation and some from their own. It was difficult for all of them to recall and then write about their experiences, but the writing about them transformed these writers into much more informed readers (W1?R1) of the experiences of other women writers, as well as much more informed readers of their own experiences. Questions about the source and reasons for the anger, expressed by so many women from so many diverse contexts, began to surface and take on a new significance for many of the students in the class.
The personal writing projects at the end of each class had opened up a new space for the argumentative essay. It provided the basis for not just complaining about something but making the critical complaint clear and including it in an argumentative appeal to focus on an audience of believers and non-believers. The class had not lost its footing in distanced abstract issues nor had it mired itself into petty “gripe sessions” designed only for the amusement of participants. The writing of personal experiences, and the integration of these experiences as one of the pieces of support in an argumentative essay, had transformed the class and many of the students in it. Writing had a new focus for them and for me.

At the same time, there was a second transformation. This time it was the instructor who was to change. Moved by the students’ written accounts of their experiences (which we shared in the class by my having their accounts re-typed and distributed for discussion, with no reference to the author of any of the experiences—a task that will not be repeated by me or any member of the secretarial staff ever again because it was too difficult and time-consuming) I began to survey my own experiences and write them for the student’s critical examination to determine whether they corresponded or not.


Without my reading of the students’ experiences, I wouldn’t have transformed myself from reader (R2) of these experiences to (W2) writer. One such recurring experience that I wrote about in my personal account involved a car. My wife and I leave a theatre or restaurant and head towards the car in the parking lot. I couldn’t recall from my own experience any time when a man and a woman, each with keys to the same vehicle, didn’t seem to automatically move to different sides of the vehicle. I always moved towards the driver’s seat and my wife, mother or daughter invariably moved to the passenger seat. I asked the class to question why this was the case? And, what about the bill presented at the end of meal? If a man and woman have enjoyed the meal, who is the waiter or waitress likely to give the bill to, between these two people? In my experience, it is almost always the man. Both cases initially seem insignificant, but what lies below the surface in these seemingly innocuous pieces of behaviour? Reading of my accounts, students started to get mad. These were experiences that they had been a part of but had not interpreted in any way at all. My writing about them had triggered a variety of critical interpretations. Some students, for example, remained optimistic that there was nothing to be concerned about in these experiences, while others began to become mad, angry and outraged by these accounts, as they connected them to other experiences in their own lives and in the writings of women writers.


Finally, as the teacher of a course in philosophy and women, I have initiated a research program involving a critical analysis of some women writers, like Mary Wollestonecraft and May Sinclair. At the same time, I give presentations and I write pieces, like this one, to inform others of my continuing writing and transformation.

Jim Gough
Red Deer College

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