Thursday, August 09, 2012
Why Men Should Take Women’s Studies
I’m not kidding.
Moreover, I can imagine them being incredibly useful for other men in management roles.
That flies in the face of cultural stereotypes, I know. Courses like those are usually held up -- by those who like to make such arguments -- as among the most self-indulgent of the purely academic enterprises. They elicit snickers from some. I get that. But there’s a tremendous value in them that rarely gets expressed, even by supporters of courses like those.
At their best, the women’s studies courses I took -- yes, I used the plural -- helped with two incredibly important management skills. They helped me learn to navigate complex and emotionally charged issues, and they helped me learn to depersonalize categories.
These skills are useful every single day.
I was reminded of this a few days ago, when I was on the receiving end of an extended, vitriolic outburst. It would have been easy, if unhelpful, to respond in kind, or to try to respond point by point. Without betraying any confidences, it was based on different sets of assumptions crashing into each other.
Getting through that and coming out in a better place required the patience to first try to figure out where it was coming from. It required accepting that the reason I was being yelled at was my office, as opposed to me personally. And it required emotional self-control in a charged setting that was moving pretty quickly.
Looking back afterwards, I realized that women’s studies classes were the first academic setting in which I honed those skills.
As a clueless -- if well-meaning -- straight young white guy from the suburbs, I went into those classes without malice, but with some pretty glaring blind spots. And back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, some of the theoretical issues were, um, let’s go with “at an early stage of refinement.” Some discussions were conducted with appropriate academic distance, but some of them got pretty raw. And it was easy to fall into the demonization/defensiveness spiral that we all know so well.
But it was also where I was first blindsided by arguments about things I thought I already understood. I remember being struck dumb when someone made the point that the question of mothers working for pay registered differently in low-income communities, where the “choice” was never a choice. I hadn’t thought of it from that angle. And I remember repeatedly getting flustered as statements that had seemed obviously correct were parsed for unintended, but real, effects on folks I wasn’t thinking about.
If that isn’t preparation for administration, I don’t know what is. Everything here has ripple effects, and dealing with those ripple effects is a huge part of the job. For some of us, the patience to take those seriously is a learned skill. (There’s always a temptation to just throw up your hands, say “screw it,” and do what you wanted to do in the first place.) And learning to at least think about possible unintended effects is incredibly helpful.
I won’t claim that all was sweetness and light. There was some groupthink, and heaven knows that the prose style of, say, Gayatri Spivak, can sap the will of even the most tenacious reader. Some of it was a bit much, and at least back then, the standards of proof weren’t always what they could have been.
But that’s not really the point. The point was to develop habits of mind that acknowledged that even things that seem obvious may have more to them, and to be able to separate, say, an attack on “patriarchy” from a personal attack as a guy. It wasn’t always fun, but it was incredibly useful.
It wasn’t marketed as vocational, but I use it on the job every single day. For any guys out there considering administration or management, I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
Suppose you were asked to design a class that would broaden students' perspectives on situations outside their experience, and teach them how to handle tough discussions like you described. Could you suggest a topic or field or approach that might enable that sort of learning, only without groupthink and with standards of proof that might be a bit more in keeping with academic expectations?
While working at Large Telecommunications Company, I was required to attend a lot of Affirmative Action meetings. Most of the time, I thought that these meetings did more harm than good, that they created a lot of division and friction between various groups. But sometimes I gained a new perspective about things I hadn’t thought very much about, and I learned how people from different ethnic groups might see things quite differently.
For example, there was an all-day meeting held off-site concerning issues that our African-American employees were faced with. One thing that came up was the fact that a lot of our African-American employees were hassled quite often by the local police, especially if they had to work late at night, apparently under the assumption that any African-American driving around that neighborhood late at night had to be some sort of criminal. My office mate was African-American, and he told me that he was very often stopped by the local cops while driving to late-light lab sessions to test his computer code. He actually had to get the top management at the company to tell the local police that he had a perfectly valid reason to be there and that the cops should leave him alone. I can now see how an African-American male might view policemen quite differently than a white male would.
So a women’s studies class might be a valuable thing for a straight, white male such as myself to attend. But I need to recognize that I must not fall into stereotypes, imagining that all women have the same opinions about every issue. Other factors, such as ethnic background, economic status, and religious beliefs may also play a major role.
"I can appreciate what Dean Dad said about the value of a white male taking a women’s studies class, if only to better understand that women’s perspectives might be somewhat different from a typical male perspective. But I would suspect that there is a danger that a male attending a women’s studies class might encounter a rather hostile reception, and might be subjected to a lot of male bashing. "
What you describe sounds just like what my female friends encountered while doing an engineering course (in reverse of course).
Which explains why the men were told to leave the room of the "Women's Issues in Education" class at uni, in order to have a 'non-threatening' environment where everyone was free to share. Of course, as this was a seminar course we would have failed through non-participation.
(Had to go to the dean to change courses even if past deadline, on the grounds that the profs had set up a course that no man could get a credit for. Got the transfer, profs got to keep their women-only course.)
For example, consider the possibility that the reason for "groupthink" in the classroom is that most people with that background share some experiences that you cannot even comprehend.