Sunday, April 11, 2010

On Aha! Moments, Stereotypes, and Self-Definition

A central tenet of my personal teaching philosophy is the importance of cultural awareness. That term means several things for me pedagogically. First, it means opening my students up to views outside of their own and teaching them that they can simultaneously disagree with and respect one another. Though my students are of different socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds (as well as a number of other backgrounds I haven't named, of course), they all seem to enjoy this part of the learning process, after the initial shock of being allowed to "argue" in class wears off. Though I've introduced this spirit of debate differently in the past, I decided to use a "Lunch Menu" activity from my school's archive of teaching material to serve that purpose this semester. My 1102 class is organized around the topic of community dynamics this semester. We'd been talking since the class began about how the urge to define others was actually in some ways, an urge to define the self. They were in the middle of researching papers on stereotypes of global communities as they are represented in popular media, so we'd already spent some time discussing what creates a stereotype and how generalizations breed inaccuracy. As the class began to look at the menus (one meat and potatoes on a disposable plate, one vegetarian on more environmentally friendly tableware) and decide who would choose what (men, women, Democrats, Republicans, those under 40 or over 65, etc.), they mostly agreed. This provided an opportunity to discuss the fact that stereotypes' generality are connected to their wide dissemination. The trend of similar answers continued through questions about political parties and age groups, but ground to a quick halt when the subject of gender was broached. At first, the majority of the students agreed that men would choose the carnivorous option and women the lighter fare. They cited a cultural equation of masculinity with strength that most seemed to find valid. After a few moments of prodding from me, though, a few men in the class dismissed both meals as too feminine, due to the fact that the steak and potato were accompanied by a double martini--apparently a girly choice of alcohol. I then asked them what fictional character was most closely associated with bringing the martini back into vogue in the 1960s, and some students immediately responded, "James Bond." When I questioned whether or not James Bond embodied masculinity, I could see some light bulbs beginning to go on: masculinity could vary! It could exist in different types, manifest itself in various ways!

As discussion moved on, one male student offered the following justification for the equation steak eater=masculine: "If I was on a date with a girl and she ordered that, there wouldn't be a second date!" I didn't have time to decide whether I was offended at his sexism or overjoyed at the opportunity for discussion, or a little of both. Chaos had officially broken out in room 310. Female members of the class were irate, and many of them offered the rejoinder that they would certainly feel feminine even if they ordered a steak, that femininity was complex, that it should ultimately be an issue of self-definition. At that point, I felt the need to point out two things: first, that the male student felt that dating a girl who exhibited what he considered unfeminine traits, even just once, somehow called his own masculinity into question, thereby proving something we'd been discussing all semester long--in defining other people, you ultimately say something about how you define yourself. Second, I felt the need to push against the women in the class's ire a bit. Earlier, almost all of them had agreed that "women" would order the vegetarian meal. Since several of them now expressed an individual desire to order the steak, by their own definition, they were not women. When confronted with this syllogism, several students protested that they had been deliberately asked to stereotype themselves. I acknowledged that was true, and then ended the discussion by asking them to consider how often the circumstances in which they live ask them to stereotype themselves in similar ways.
This is the second way I would like my students to be culturally aware. I feel like getting them to see the ways in which they are connected to and constructed by the world around them, even through small things like the activity described above, can show them that critical thinking is not just for the classroom. It can help them make sense of a larger world that may not respect them as individuals, as much as they are taught that our society values the strength of the individual above all else.

Thoughts, friends?