My courses in Women’s Studies have given me the voice and tools to go out in the world and create change to better our society.
Here are three scenes:
Scene 1: Teaching Ntozake’ Shange’s play for colored girls who have considered suicide. The WebCT Discussion Board has taken off. One student has used the “n” word. Other students have replied with “a” words to describe the n-word user. And by “n” word, I mean “nigger,” and by “a” words, I mean “asshole,” “ass-brain,” and the understated, just plain “ass.” The n-word user is thirty years older than the a-word users, and is pretty surprised by the whole thing. After all, Shange herself uses the n-word all over her play, so why is it ok for her just because she’s black, but not ok for him just because he’s white?
Scene 2: Teaching Queer Theory in a Literary Criticism class. Student approaches me after class and asks me when we’re going to do the unit on Christian Theory. Accuses me of bias. Tells me her mother is going to issue a formal complaint to the dean.
Scene 3: Last week. Teaching “Identity and Difference in American Lit,” and showing transgender rock musical film Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig has just received his botched sex change operation, and is now singing about it. Lyrics include, “I have a Barbie-doll crotch, a one-inch mound of flesh where my penis used to be where my vagina never was.” I think it’s funny, and I smile serenely as I half-watch the movie for the ninth time. Student walks out of room with backpack in the middle of class. I follow. He says he is nauseous. I think he means he has the flu. He means Hedwig makes him nauseous. He won’t watch the rest of the film, and doesn’t care what that means to his grade.
It’s really fun and exciting business to teach courses about sex, gender, and identity. Except when it’s not that fun at all. A lot of times I wonder what the hell I am doing. I mean, I know these texts inside and out, and I know how to help students develop their analytical thinking skills. But am I supposed to be doing something else here?
In Scene 1, War of the N’s and A’s: am I supposed to tell the one student that the n-word isn’t allowed in class? Am I supposed to tell the others that the a-word isn’t allowed? Should I let them duke it out, and live with the consequences of using the language they choose? How peaceful must a classroom be, and how safe? Clearly that room had become tense and even a little hostile. But that seemed ok to me. But you don’t see a lot of teaching manuals called, How To Increase Hostility in Your Classroom.
So to Scene 2, about the Christian Theory. I decided to look around for some Christian Literary Theory. You know, Christian Literary Theory isn’t in the current Lit Crit textbooks, but it turns out it’s out there. So I found some, and offered to read it with the student. She declined the offer, which was oddly comforting to me. But I kept thinking. If I teach Queer Theory, should I be required to balance that out with Christian Theory? Is Christian the opposite of queer? Hmm. Someone forgot to tell a lot of queer Christians about that. Should students in my classes be required to accept non-normative sexuality as their Lord and personal savior? Is it true that I have a gay agenda? Does my whole field have one? How should I grade a beautifully written paper that condemns the lesbian sexuality in a novel as “depraved” because it’s, well, lesbian? How should I grade an error-free paper that celebrates Sherman Alexie’s book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven because it “demonstrates the truth about Native Americans: that they are drunk and lazy all the time.” Is my rhetoric about freedom of speech and students’ rights to disagree with me, with the law, and/or with each other actually empty? Am I really trying to change these students’ minds?
So to Scene 3, Hedwig, his angry inch, and my nauseated student. I did wonder why he wasn’t nauseated by the day’s reading, in which a seven-year-old girl is repeatedly raped by her stepfather, but he was nauseated by a drag queen in a yellow wig singing rock anthems to elderly folks at a scummy diner. Should students have to sit in my class even if they feel like barfing? Should my first-year students in Feminism be chained down while they watch porn during our final unit on, well, porn? Even if I don’t chain them, is it fair to tell students that their discomfort will not be an excuse for their absence? Is the goal of a good General Education program to induce nausea, verbal name-calling, or motherly complaints at least once per semester?
It really is risky to teach Women’s Studies. And while the rewards are numerous, you do feel out there on the line in very personal and complex ways. I don’t purport to get it right much of the time, but I give myself credit for being willing to do it. And I accept this award on behalf of the teachers who take these risks even though it can make you feel like you’re a yellow rubber duck in a shooting game at an NRA carnival.
After a week of getting pummeled (which happens to be the week I just finished), I like to check myself into one of my personal triage units. There’s the Women’s Studies Council, where people like Alice and Linda and many others patch me up with great conversation. There are certain classes where certain students just revive me like a defibrillator, so thank you Meredith, Bob, Kimberly, Krystal, Nate, Audrey, Michelle. There’s my home, where Roo and Phil always know how to help me take it down a notch. And there’s drunken poker, where the best women on the planet cook for me and take my money, and Angie, Liz, Jeannette, Cathie, Evelyn, Tab, KK, and Ann—you are exactly what those sistahs in the 60’s were hoping our generation would turn out to be. So I don’t want to be a downer with all this war and triage diction, but sometimes it’s helpful to remember that in this decidedly not post-feminist age, doing the work of a feminist teacher can occasionally be scary, unfun, and befuddling. The real work has no blueprint, and I want to thank my colleagues and my students for slogging through the confusion and the thrill with me. Thanks for recognizing me with this award. Every feminist should have one of these hanging on her wall to remind us all that we’re in it together.