Sarah Colonna

Reflect, Engage, and Decenter

For this Feminist Theories and Education class, we were charged with the task to “reflect on how our subjectivities are shaped, engage in meta-dialogue, and decenter limiting ways of knowing” (Villaverde, 2010).  Wow, that is a lot to do in a one-month summer class!  It was made into a more manageable project by having the class assemble itself into creative and interesting sub-topics.  In this activity I chose to be in the Language, Disability, and Pop Culture group.  My mind was immediately bubbling with ideas to pull these issues together by thinking about television shows, music, public and private disabilities, and the language used to talk about and classify all of these topics.  The group had many ideas and we came together easily for leading the class in an exploration of these issues.  Using Cervenak, Cespedes, Souza, and Straub’s (2002) guidance to “promote excitement about a collective process of learning” and the idea “everyone has some type of knowledge that adds nuance to what we read, think, and discuss” (p. 344 and 345), the combination of language, disability, and pop culture offers space for the people doing feminist work to theorize these pedagogies, epistemologies, and ways of being in traditional and non-traditional educational spaces.  If everyone really contributes to our knowledge and collective learning is really an exciting process, then looking at those with disabilities, the ways disability is portrayed in the media (which is a reflection of how it is seen in society), and the ways in which our language provides a frame for our communication of all of this information is an important space for feminist theorists/pedagogues to exist within.

Language, disability, and pop culture touch our lives everyday, we understand and reflect them back to our students, peers, and society in ways that can often normalize some bodies, minds, words, and media while marginalizing others.  Without a mindful critique of our own understanding of language, disability, and pop culture, we may, knowingly or unknowingly, be contributing to this process of normalization/marginalization.  Disability/ability is a binary, like male/female or black/white, that many have not thought to interrogate or even going further, “to move away from universalizing concepts of disability to reveal the multitude of disability experiences” (Knoll, 2009, p. 124).  By taking time to break down our notions of disability/ability we go beyond ideas like blindness, deafness, and major physical impairment to understand disability/ability as a fluid, changing, socially constructed reality for many.  It is just as much about how society reacts to a person with a disability as the physical/mental/ emotional disability they have.  Via the 2009-2010 breakout hit television show “Glee,” we have seen characters with spinal cord injuries and with Down’s Syndrome performing in the school’s show choir and on the cheerleading squad.  Glee has its own share of critiques, including using able-bodied people to portray wheelchair bound characters, it does offer a space for us to talk about the ways that disability is seen on TV and in our own realities.  It takes preconceived notions of who is a performer and pushes us to think further.  In episode 11, “Hairography,” the McKinley High show choir competes against a show choir from a school for students with hearing impairments.  The ideas of what songs should sound like and what singing looks like are played with, norms are bent, and we get a unique rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” By having the chance to see a choir composed of people with hearing disabilities singing and students with the ability to hear learning to sign as they sang, we are asked to reconsider our understanding of what performing can be as we are entertained on Tuesday night and again as we talk about the show with friends and co-workers.  The nature of the pop culture medium offers us another space to theorize, to teach, and to learn about disability and the language we use to understand it.

Language is word and not word. It can serve to put space between self and other.  It can work to silence and to be unheard.  It can also connect, build relationships, and unite (LeGuin, 1989).  Language is both the means of communication and a tool for creating the realities around us.  Being aware of our language and knowing that we can wield it to connect or to distance is a powerful feminist pedagogical tool.  It can frame our learning spaces, making them open and critical, closed and hostile, or indifferent and uncaring.  What we say and how we say it is often as important as the information we are trying to convey.  Disability rights advocates are profoundly aware of this nuance, advocating for people first language as we talk about people.  The difference in saying a “student with a learning disability” and a “learning disabled student” may, initially, seem insignificant, but a closer inspection of these phrases finds the first phrasing acknowledges them as a person, a student, who also has a learning disability while the second phrasing foregrounds the person’s disability.  People first language works as we spotlight our humanity and make our labels secondary.  This is one small example of language’s importance as both a medium of communication and a social reality.  The poet Adrienne Rich (1986) says this to be the idea of verbal privilege- we move but our words stand, contexts shift and the words are still there.  She reiterates the staying power of language as it helps to create and define our lived realities. With this commanding poem Rich shows how words are more than the stories we tell, or the hair we braid, it is to context of the action, in what country you are braiding the hair, that also matters.  It is not just the words you say or the lessons you teach, but the context in which you operate is just as important.  How we communicate tells the world more than the information contained within the sentences, it is a window into how we view the world.

In this short class time, I have followed the syllabus guidance to “reflect, engage, and decenter” while engaging both my small group topics and large group learning sessions in ways that serve to broaden my education and the ways that I understand education to exist and places that it can happen.  I was able to focus on the issues of language, disability, and pop culture, but those threaded throughout the rest of the class topics.  The intertwining of themes such as virtual gender, service learning, and globalization in the larger project of feminist theories and pedagogy offered a place for me to think about these concepts but also to think between them.  It is not just the separate issues or even the places where there are obvious connections between them that is important; just as significant are the gaps, the possibilities, and the places yet to be thought because they represent the pushing forward and thinking further of this many headed thing call feminist theories and pedagogies.  It is this “intellectual and physical jarring, a process of dislodging what was previously understood” (Villaverde, 2008, p.121) that, when undertaken with intention, is the space for learning, previously unthought connections, and new potential.  I learned about the topics for the class, but I also took away an insight of the meta-dialogue this class exists within and how we learn (and unlearn) with and around one another.

Brennan, I. (Writer). & D’Elia, B. (Director). (2009). Hairography [Television series episode]. In Murphy, R., Falchuck, B., & Brennan, I. (Executive Producers). Glee. Los Angeles: FOX.

Cervenak, S. J., Cespedes, K. L., Souza, C., & Straub, A. (2002). Imagining differently: The politics of listening in a feminist classroom. In G. E. Anzaldua (Ed.), This bridge we call home. New York: Routledge.

Knoll, K. R. (2009). Feminist disability studies pedagogy. Feminist Teacher, 19(2), 122-133.

LeGuin, U. K. (1989). Dancing at the edge of the world: Thoughts on words, women, places. New York: Harper K Row.

Murphy, R., Falchuck, B., & Brennan, I. (Executive Producers). (2009). Glee [Television series]. Los Angeles: FOX.

Rich, A. (1986). Your native land, your life. New York: WW Norton and Company.

Villaverde, L. (2010). Feminist theories and education. Syllabus. University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Villaverde, L. (2008). Feminist theories and education primer. New York: Peter Lang.

Pedagogical enactment

In trying to understand this assignment, I did what many do and decided to stay with a familiar author while figuring out what to do with this experience.  In this instance, it was a smart choice.  While I have read Judith Butler before, she is a theorist I need to revisit and sit with to grasp her nuance and inflection around ideas like gender performativity.  I understand the big picture- gender is not essentially a part of us, but rather a performance we engage in.  It is not a passive given, rather something that is continually constructed.  I took this opportunity to read her work Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory for this week’s pedagogical enactments assignment.  In doing so, I was able to spend time with an author I admire and work on theory I find foundational and detailed.  The trick, I thought, was going to be connecting it to lived experiences in such a short time frame.

Butler (2006) offers the suggestion that gender is not a stable identity.  It is, she suggests, “an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (p. 61).  Gender is not just something we are, but something we do.  On a larger scale, it is not just an individual attribute, but it is “an historical situation rather than a natural fact” (p. 62).  By having some time to re-examine my understandings of this work connections while thinking and looking for pedagogical enactments, I was able to see how she connects performance, language, and theatrics as well as connect to another work that I find helpful to understand how binding patriarchal structure can be to all.  Marilyn Frye (2007) in her piece Oppression neatly crafts an example that I refer to, as well as use as a teaching example in my Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies classes.  Briefly, she references a birdcage.  When we look closely at the cage, the wires are thin and not tightly spaced, why does the bird not just fly around them?  When we broaden our view, the wires are woven and connected in a network to keep the bird in its place.  It is this view of patriarchy and use of gender in a performative way that keeps us actors in our performances without which “there would be no gender at all” (Butler, 2006, p. 63).

Frye presents an example of the roteness of gender performativity and the patriarchal use of gender to maintain the status quo.  Men opening the door for women.  We teach our boys to perform this act as an example of politeness and helping, but we do not teach them (the them I refer to is on the large scale of how we socialize our children) to value work done inside the home or insist upon the eradication of interpersonal violence.  Is opening the door for another polite and helpful? Yes.  Should men do it for women? Yes. But women should also do it for men.  My critique and pedagogical enactment enters in the way we, collectively, perform this act and what happens when that act is interrupted.  As a woman, men open the door for me regularly.  They do it as we approach the door together. They rush ahead of me as we approach the door simultaneously to be able to open the door for me and they hold the door open for an extended time if I am coming towards the door, but not immediately behind them.  Men whose hands are full will juggle their load to open a door for me even if I am empty handed.  I have been the object of education as a parent says to their young boy, “a gentlemen holds the door for ladies.”  To a smaller extent will women hold the door, for men or for women.  I have witnessed some women hold the door open longer for others to pass through and have seen a young girl told “hold this door for this woman.”  (The time referenced here was an obviously much older woman, so I believe age had something to do with this lesson.)  But I have more often witnessed women opening the door for themselves and not noticing those around them.  I have also seen women visibly upset if the gender routine is upset and a man does not hold the door in the expected gender performance.

I have found much pleasure in disrupting this expectation and holding the door for men.  In this small act, many display obvious discomfort and rarely simply walk through the opened door.  When I open the door for a man, there is often gestures telling me to go ahead or he steps back to motion me through.  As I hold my ground and the door, telling them to please go ahead most go through with head lowered and shoulders slumped as if dejected or perhaps so no one else will see them going in a door held by a woman.  Alternately, when I am holding the door he will grab the door above my head forcing themselves into a position that hovers both above and behind me.  In this moment I always struggle with the power dynamics at play.  Do I step back, still holding the door, and force him to move out and around, pushing for him to go through the door? Or do I take the moment at face value and walk in the door?  I have done both depending on time circumstance, and commitment.  In these small gender performances I do not expect to change the culture of door holding, but I do play with the nature of performance as defined by Judith Butler.  I have the experience of being the door holder and he has the experience of walking in a door held by a woman.

In this way I have a better pedagogical understanding of Butler’s suggestion that “the body becomes its gender through a series of acts which are renewed, revised, and consolidated through time” (p. 64).  Holding the door open for someone is not an inherently gendered occurrence and things like age, armload, disability, and social conditioning surely play a part in who opens the door, why, and how.  Holding the door open for women has gotten some men yelled at, “I can open it myself,” and some demurred to, “What manners of a gentleman,” but still exists as a place for us to think about and experiment with out gendered place in the world.  Individual acts done by individuals everyday will probably not change the entire way we socialize young men and women because “transformations of social relations becomes a matter, then, of transforming hegemonic social conditions rather than the individual acts that are spawned by those conditions” (Butler, 2006, p. 66).  In this way, I do not refuse to walk through doors that are opened for me or demean those that perform the act, but do take opportunities that present themselves to turn the act on its head, step outside the expected gender role, and open the door for a man.

Butler, J. (2006). Performative acts and gender constitution: An essay in phenomenology and feminist theory. In m. Arnot & M. Mac an Ghaill (Eds.), The RoutledgeFalmer reader in gender and education (pp. 61-71). New York: Routledge.

Frye, M. (2007). Oppression. In P. S. Rothenberg (Ed.), Race, Class, and Gender in the United States (7th ed., pp. 154-157). New York: Worth Publishers.


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