Showing posts with label ideology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label ideology. Show all posts

Thinking about Learning Part 1: A Willingness to Change My Mind

"Learning is acquiring new, or modifying existing, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information." (Wikipedia)

A central tenant of learning is change.  Learning is internalized change in how one makes sense or meaning in the world.  Learning like humans is utterly dynamic; never static.  Despite what we tell ourselves, we are not static beings.  From the microscopic to the entire body and to the mind, we are never the same from one moment to the next.  Our bodies are constantly changing, much it based upon the constant feedback we receive from our numerous senses (by the way, did you know we as humans have more than 5 senses--we have more than 10 according to some).  As you sit reading this right now, consider all the changes occurring in your body right now:  blood coursing through veins, foodstuffs in various states of processing, cells in various states of decay, neurons firing away as you translate arbitrary markings on a screen into meaning in your head.  This says nothing to the physical movement your body is experiencing as you feel stationery and yet, your body moves at speeds you never imagined as the earth you inhabit rotates on its access and your body moves even faster as the planet you inhabit hurdles through space revolving around the sun.

Learning is very similar in that it is happening constantly.  Those senses take in all that information and we constantly make meaning of everything going on around us--we learn, unlearn, and relearn the environments based upon a range of variables that are certainly beyond this author's ability to keep track of and quantify.  We are conscious and unconscious of learning.  A great example of unconscious learning is the spine.  I've had various lower back issues for years.  It's a low-grade pain that peeks its head out every once in a while.  How did this happen?  My body slowly learned to contort itself to what it perceived for the moment was a comfortable position.  However, over time, this created other problems with my back and posture.  (It's partly why I've switched to a standing desk).  But I didn't consciously set out to do that, my body adapted and learned (wrongfully alas) what would be comfortable for the immediate future.  Now, the conscious me has worked long to unlearn what my body naturally learned, and I will eventually relearn how to sit properly in chairs for longer durations (if that's even possibly).

 If you haven't figured out yet, I'm committed to the idea of being a life-long learner.  I can probably fault my father for inspiring this but it's a core part of who I am.  As I close in on this Master' of Education that I've been working on, coupled with the other 4 degrees, and the nearly 100 college courses that I've taught, I've come to an important realization about learning and it may sound simple (though it's hard to master) and has already been said elsewhere, I'm sure, but I feel important to discuss it in the realm of teaching and learning.

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A willingness to change my mind stands as a major part of this aspiration for life-long learning.  I don't mean in some frivolous way wherein I want chocolate, no wait, I want vanilla, no wait, I want chocolate, definitely chocolate, or maybe I should try strawberry.  I mean that to be a learner means to actively find ways to change your mind.  But not just change my mind in the sense that it is no longer the same (e.g. adding pennies to a jar, changes the weight and substance of the jar), I also want to change my mind on things I've long believed.  That's what learning in part means--to change my understanding and knowledge in the world and a true learner must recognize that this means some things I learn will not be easy or easily fit into the narratives and frames with which I understand the world.

This is the learning that's hardest for many of us and triggers resistance and cognitive dissonance among people, trying to interpret, reinterpret or outright ignore things that conflict with their worldview.  More than anything else, it conflicts with how we as individuals make sense of the world and we don't like such conflicts.  We see this on the big level all the time with international conflicts, political debates (remember "You didn't build that."), and in squabbles on Judge Judy.

But understanding this in education gets tricky.  To be a successful teacher does in part mean being a successful learner and in doing so, to continue to peel away at the preconceived notions we come to class about our learners and to help them peel away their own preconceived notions.  Helping students retract their preconceived notions is the bread and butter of many disciplines.  After all, we encounter students who argue that Subject X is not their strong spot or relevant or interesting.  We do our best to make converts of them.

But changing our worldviews about our students remains tricky.  Sure, we always have the student that surprises us in almost every class.  The student who didn't make a good first impression but then makes us want to cry with success by semester's end.  But in our classrooms, we very quickly decide that a range of actions and personalities are antagonistic.  We use terms like "respect" and "attention"; often determining what they mean (even though they are culturally-socially-economically-dependent and we often have a very diverse population), and grow resentful or angry towards those who don't fall into line.  In that way, I wonder if we as instructors need to relearn our classes each and every time.  I know that many of us treat each new class as a brand new opportunity but we slip into our own patterns and interpret our students according to our own past--not theirs.

In some ways, from the design of the syllabus and outline of the semester to assignments and classroom activities, we're setting the course for learning based on previous experiences (old classes; old knowledge) but not often or substantively enough, setting the course of learning based on the present experience (the classes we are actually teaching).  Should teaching be a more improvised and adaptive to the students we have--not the students we had.  And if so, what does that look like?



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Yes, It's Complicated: Accusations, Performance, Gender, & Sexuality

Maybe it's the weather...maybe it's the Supreme Court...or maybe because it's been on my mind of late what with this letter to the editor and this calling out of a sexist meme.  Yes, it's probably the last two and in general, I regularly have gender, sex, and sexuality on the brain and thus, am inclined to write about this.

So I'm just going to throw it out there.  I'm quite challenged when I hear people accuse others of being gay or being closeted.  It's something I have been witness to at least half a dozen times in the last year.  And it does often come as an accusation of being gay, in the closet, or so repressed, that the (accused) person just doesn't know it.  All of these conversation I have experienced happen not in front of the accused but in conversations to which they are not privy.

When pursued with questioning about why the accusation has been made, no answer involves, "Well, I saw him making out with another male."  (Though that in itself is not necessarily a guarantee of him being gay, keep in mind).  But usually, there is nothing in the accused's behavior that can be defined as "gay"; instead it almost universally points to gender.

I get why people may speculate about the sexual orientations of others.  I certainly look for clues.  I do my best not to assume everyone I meet is necessarily heterosexual.  I constantly have to look for clues or check innate assumptions embedded in typical discussion questions. I recognize that I have to do this because we're still not comfortable enough with the topic to ask or have a respectful way of asking.  But the danger lies in moving from clues to conclusions.  At the end of the day, I don't assign their sexuality; if it's relevant, then I'll try to find a way to invite them to tell me and if I can't find a meaningful way to do that, then I probably don't deserve to know.

So what's my hang up about suspecting or even accusing people of their sexuality?  These are vocalized or text-based conversations; ones that could be overheard or re-read.  And the accusers have most likely had these discussions with others besides just me--the accusations have spread.  The damage of this cuts two ways.  It first cuts in the amplified perception of this person of being questioned about who he or she is.  But it also cuts at the people who hear the accusers make their case.  People like me.  

Gender and sex are often hard for people to understand and to clearly delineate.  I get that but I still am pained when am witness to these occurences.  It's a philosophical and activist issue but also a personal one.  There were various times in my life where I've been openly accused of being gay.  The most absurd (though in truth they were all absurd in some degree--not because of my sexuality, but because how or why the person thought he/she had the right to make such a claim and what he/she was doing with such a declaration) was in either junior or senior year of high school where a female classmate accused me of being gay because I wore shorts all year long.  Apparently wearing shorts year-long has something to do with sexuality--who knew?

One of my favorite movies on gender, sex, and sexuality is Jamie Babbit's But I'm a Cheerleader (1999).  It's a film I often use or refer to in my courses.  However, there's one challenging scene in the film that throws the rest of the film into question and in some ways, undervalues much of the good the film does.  The scene (below) is the intervention scene, wherein Megan is confronted by her family and friends to be told that she is gay (and needs to go to a de-gayifying program).  Now, I get that Babbit in all likelihood shaped the scene in the context of Megan being so utterly repressed that she is ignorant of her homosexuality.  Yet, I can't help but feel the coercion of that scene in which her non-sexual acts are read as gay and the declaration of her homosexuality lead her to re-form herself as homosexual.  I know how loaded that sounds and I'm sure at least half my readers (friends and strangers alike) just furrowed their eyebrows, if not outright cursed me.  Bare with me!


Megan's gender is called into question--not her sexuality.  She's vegetarian, likes Melissa Etheridge, has vaginal art, and doesn't like making out with her boyfriend (that last point is supposedly the final truth--but bad chemistry between two people--isn't always an issue of sexuality).  This crystallizes er perception by family and friends as "lesbian"--an attraction to other women.  Yet her acts are non-feminine (at best--though barely by any means), not necessarily homosexual.  Megan comes to accept the label forced upon her by  her community and embraces it.  In this way, Babbit's film reads almost like the nefarious "True Directions"--the conversion therapeutic camp that attempt to fix people who are not heteronormative.  In Babbit's rendering of Megan--it's the community's intervention and then her acculturation to that identity by fellow non-heteronormative types that lead her the status of homosexuality--that is, she's cured of her heterosexuality by the training she receives from her nonheterosexual group.  In the end, the perception of her gender comes to codify her sexuality--never entirely divorcing the two (even the title conflicts gender and sexuality).  Again, that's some of the point Babbit is making but it's that sword that cuts both ways again.  It cuts at Megan--because she may be homosexual, but that she never gets to question or explore her gender--without it having to reposition her sexuality (or even consider more than the two options given here or heterosexual or homosexual) limits her (and I do recognize that in the context of a 2 hour film in 1999, some of these topics are much harder to fully flesh out--Babbit does give this some attention with the character of Jan).  It cuts the other way in which audiences reinforce and take with them the fact that gender dictates or is a solid indicator of sexuality.  And that's a challenging and somewhat dangerous idea to pose openly.

So I bring it back to the accusations.  When we declare someone else's sexuality based upon their gender, we do harm to all people.  Beyond the potential effects it has for accuser and the accused (and how the accuser's perception reinterprets the relationship with the accused), the accuser's sharing of his or her suspicions with others perpetuates the elements of gender with sexuality that are already problematic for our culture.  Why?  It informs others of the "right" and "wrong" ways to be as a "man" or "woman," if one is to be associated with a particular sexuality.  When we accuse someone of their sexuality in this context, we speak volumes about the ways in which we expect gender to conform to sexuality.

In Megan's case, it leads a happy ending--which is great.  But I think in many instances, it does harm because it communicates how people should not act to avoid the associated perception.  This happens for two reasons.  The first is that the associative sexuality with gender performance in many contexts is still understood as derogatory if it defies heteronormative expectations.  The second is that people want to be understood and not miscommunicate who they are.  Combined, the failure to create neutral space for gender and sexuality that is nonheteronormative and non-threatening with the desire to clearly communicate who we are, creates caustic side effects.  It's not only that we don't want to miscommunicate who we are but we devalue certain associations--we see them as threatening if we're perceived as such (Listen to the hostility in someone's voice when being labelled as an identity they are not, "I'm not gay!"  Followed by the Seinfeld'esque, "Not that there's anything wrong with that.").  It reinforces the gender and sexual hierarchy.  If we are a culture that cannot divorce gender from sexuality and privilege some genders and sexualities over others, we encourage heterosexual males to be "men"--"real men" and other such questionable ways of conceiving ourselves and others.  We limit our abilities to understand and express ourselves in full.  We perpetuate the perceptions of gender and sex expectations (and expressions) and reinforce some of the more negative results from such associations from gay-bashing to slut-shaming to rape.

Here's what happens in those conversations when the accuser is speculating to a friend--he or she is also communicating what are acceptable and unacceptable ways to present one's gender in conjunction with one' sexuality.  As a person who regularly reflects on his gender and sexuality, I consciously pick up on what this spells out on the ways we are supposed to be--what's appropriate or what will get people talking.  I like to think I've garnered the strength, self-confidence, self-acceptance, and understanding to not let such things affect me--but they most likely do in ways I'm not entirely aware of.  Thus I would imagine that others too who are confidants in such discussions, hearing about an accused are likely to also internalize the unspoken messages about how he or she should be to avoid such accusations.

In writing this post, my purpose is not to scold or condemn those who have done this.  In truth, I would bet in my own history, I have likely done this.  Rather I want to bring an awareness to the nuance within our conversations that we might not entirely realize is there when we talk about gender and sexuality in the presence of others and the ways it effects us directly and indirectly.  If this has provide some means of doing that for you--great!  If I've failed miserably, well--I guess I have more work to do.



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The Big Bad World

Maybe it’s because I’ve read a good share of horror or because I have a vivid imagination or because I’ve seen this play out in history time and again, but the Miller McCune’s “The Comforting Notion of an All-Powerful Enemy” seems like an article that just makes so much sense to me.

So often we define ourselves through others.  “Who are you?”  If the questioner is not asking for my name, but exactly “who” I am, I’m apt to respond in relational terms.  I’m a teacher; I’m a writer; I’m a comic book fan.  These are relational definitions within a cultural context.  I may also answer “human” but even that just connects me to the entire human race, instead of a specific group.  Other people and their roles help me to define myself.  This has a lot to do with both history and cultural identity.  Many cultures rely on enemies or the “Other” to help define their own roles and beliefs; what they are and what they aren’t.  History is chockfull of examples of “us vs. them” moments such as civilization vs. barbarian societies, Christians vs. Muslims, Colonists vs. Natives, colonists vs. mainlanders, capitalists vs. communists, citizens vs. immigrants.

In the creation and maintenance of this other, it makes sense that the other is given more power and influence beyond typical expectations; thus in the immigration debate, we’re told by major news outlets that immigrants are going to take our jobs, are drug addicts, freeloaders, and other nefarious and erroneous beliefs about the group as a whole so that many feel threatened even when they have no need to.  In the days following 9/11, we feared that terrorists were everywhere and could do anything; malls, city-halls, and companies across the country believed they would be struck next and needed to take precautions.  The media fueling the flames of fear certainly helped.

Projecting the Enemy

But the interesting piece is that when faced with a chaotic world or a clear enemy, people opt to reposition their fears onto that enemy.  One cannot (with much great success) focus their anxiety and anger at the universe at large (or in religion, hating God is a big mistake).  Thus, the more challenged and problematic the world becomes, the more we are apt to fracture and feel deeply resistant to those we don’t identify with.

The line that strikes my fancy and gives me pause is:  “So, again, we see that the need to perceive enemies is reduced when people are made to feel that they are in control of their lives, or that there is a reliable, efficient social order that protects them from the threat of random hazards.”  So much of our current public debate sways between extremes (or rather is made extreme by the two “all power” enemies) of saying that government should stay out of everything or government should control everything (realize, these are the extremes that each side slings at one another and there are ample shades of gray inbetween that most people inhibit).  But a balance is needed; a quality mix of government empowering and people taking responsibility.

Where else can we relate the information in this article to in our counter?  It makes obvious reference to the healthcare debate, and I’ve mentioned immigration, but what else?  How has this piece place a role in history and the distribution of rights and resources?  What examples come to mind that this article sheds light upon? 


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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.