Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Constructive Criticism

Hi, everyone. I’m enjoying this class and I’m grateful towards Leandra for working so hard to put it together. I feel like there is room for improvement, though, and I think that others agree. By voicing our constructive criticism now, we can improve this course for the next students who take it.

My biggest concern is that I expected more about…well…men. Much of our time seems to be spent examining men and masculinity from a female perspective, rather than looking at the male experience directly. Consider this week’s blog prompt. Most of the articles we read this week were about queer men’s sexuality. The prompt does not even mention this topic. In fact, out of the prompt’s three parts, one is gender-and-orientation-neutral while the other two are implicitly heterosexist and directly mention only the female gender. Out of all the listed blog prompts on the syllabus, only one does not center on feminism or the female experience. The problem isn’t just online. Our class discussions seem to evolve into conversations about feminism, with masculinity as an incidental topic.

I understand that there are reasons for this. Masculinity is impossible to understand without examining its relationship to other gender roles. Our instructor and TA are women, as are most of our peers, so most of us are approaching this from a woman’s point of view. This class has a strong activism component, so pondering the role of men in the feminist movement makes sense. Most significantly, the study of male gender has its origins in feminist theory and is therefore couched in feminist language and defined by feminist ideas.

Nevertheless, I feel like we’re missing out on what this class could be. Activism is important, but this is also an academic space. Men are worth studying for more than just their utility or threat to the feminist movement. While masculinity has meaning through the negation of femininity, and vice versa, neither is a pale reflection of the other. This class should seek to delve directly into the rich, unexplored country that is masculinity rather than becoming, as my wry peer put it, “Third Wave II.”

Thanks for reading this. I don’t mean to put anyone down, just voice my opinion on how this already great class could be better. If you also have some suggestions or gripes, or think I’m dead wrong, please post your thoughts here.

13 comments:

Leila said...

While I don't really want to comment on this until others do, I feel compelled to point out two things: 1) I don't think we're far enough into the semester to make fair critiques about the class as a whole (particularly the "Third Wave II" comment) and 2) every single text is written by and/or focuses on men. I welcome and look forward to feedback, esp. with new courses, so appreciate Ross for inviting this discussion.

Zen Lien said...

I definitely see your point Ross and I feel similarly despite the fact that I am a female. I think my take on the reason there are so many women in the class is simply this. Whether she realizes it or not, Leandra is sort of like a local celebrity here in the UCF Women's Studies community. Her classes attract a lot of Women's Studies students, who are, for the most part, women. I don't think that's any news to anyone. Due to her reputation as a good feminist instructor, these women want to take ANY class by her because they know it will be good.

So I know that the conversations end up being about female experiences as feminists rather than about masculinity, but that is how we relate to it best. It is after all considered a Women's Studies class and I believe the very objective of the class is to study masculinity from a feminist perspective, not just masculinity and men by themselves. Masculinity also isn't necessarily a term used solely for or about men, it is as we are learning, a construct that is performed by people of all sexes, genders and sexualities. For example, masculine women are just as much a part of the discourse as masculine men. Women are trapped by masculinity as well, how many women feel they must act masculine in order to be respected/get a promotion/have their voice heard etc? Women are trapped by it by feeling forced to play my men's rules to gain power, just as men can feel trapped to maintain it.

I also agree with Leandra, we have a ways to go into the semester to see how the class as a whole unfolds. I must admit, if I identified as male, I would probably feel the same way.

taco said...

I understand the merit of examining men from a feminist (and, almost by default in such a setting as our female-feminist-majority class, female) viewpoint. I know I can’t possibly speak for the men in the class (I can’t possibly speak for any man), but if I try to put myself in their shoes, try and attain some understanding of their position in our classroom, I think that I would feel alienated. I think I would feel uncomfortable. With so many women talking about the ways in which constructions of masculinity have negative effects on them, I would feel awkward voicing my own personal experience of my masculinity and the way its construction affects me. I feel like we are marginalizing the men in our (traditionally) female-space-ified classroom. And since I can't speak for the men, I'll speak for myself: because of this potential marginalization, I think that my education in the area of men’s experience of masculinity is suffering.

I’m not criticizing the texts – I think the texts are great. But, from my perspective, the meat of the texts seldom makes its way into our classroom discussions. This almost makes sense to me: We’re women’s studies students who have been trained to explore gender from a feminist perspective, as a female experience. It’s what we (female students) know. It’s who we (female students) are. And I don’t fault us (female students) for this. Leading discussion on the first week, I was overcome by the task of trying to approach the texts from a broader perspective and figure out what resonates with men. It’s hard. And in the end, I don’t think I succeeded to the extent I would have liked to. But I think it’s necessary to try and relate to men, to put equal importance and legitimacy on the words and experiences of men in this “woman’s space.” If we don't, how can we possibly expect to learn from them?

And yes, women are affected by masculinity as well. Of course. That’s one of the main reasons we’re studying gender, one of the main reasons feminism exists. But we, as female women’s studies students, have so many opportunities to explore this reality – be it in Intro, in Third Wave, in Feminist Theories, in pretty much every women’s studies course – all of these classes illuminate women’s experience of masculinity. And I do not think we should ignore women’s experience of masculinity. But I don’t think we should highlight it to the point of shadowing men’s experience of masculinity. If this is not the place for us to learn about men as men, where is?

I’m not saying men don’t have “men’s spaces.” Virtually every space we inhabit is a “man’s space.” From school to work to government to church, men control the institutions. And women’s studies classes are one of the few “women’s spaces” we have. It makes sense to guard it as a safe place for women to voice opinions and learn with one another. But, for all the “men’s spaces” that exist, where is the men’s equivalent of women’s studies? Where is the space for men to explore the ways that society’s construction of their gender affects them and those around them? If this is not the place for us (both women and men) to learn about men as men, I don’t know where is.

And though this is only the fourth week of school, I think it’s fair to make assessments of how we think the class is shaping up. Maybe in the coming weeks the class will make some turn and all of a sudden I will have no complaints, but as this is a class that meets only once a week, I think it's necessary to address our problems now. It’s important to explore and critique our learning as we are doing it, rather than waiting until the class is nearly over to do so. Right now, we are setting the course for how the rest of the semester will go. It makes sense to voice our concerns before they become entrenched.

Abigail said...

I agree that it’s a little too early to judge the class. I even feel uneasy with deciding whether or not I agree since we have had only 3 classes and noticed that there was a big difference from the first discussion to the second (third class) so I won’t and will only make a comment on the class discussion part of this critique. In women’s studies classes we focus a great deal on the personal and it’s become a testimony to every person should be heard and the personal is political. This all works out fine since the classes are mostly females and everyone is allowed to express their opinions and stories in regards to feminism. Now we are in a Masculinities class and we as a class need to find our way since the majority of us are women and we don’t want to focus on women or make the class about what women think of men or masculinity.

Kevin Alvarez said...

I love that this class exists and that we have a space in which we can critique what it means to be masculine. The readings already have, and continue to open my eyes to hypocrisies in my own past and my current life. However, I must admit I feel out of place in this class at times. Having already taken several women's studies courses I wouldn't have thought I would ever feel awkward in a predominantly female space. However, it's almost as if some subconscious barrier comes up when our class convenes and we become bogged down in ways that stereotypical masculinity is evil and hurts women.

I don't fit the typical masculine identity and I understand completely how it hurts women. I feel that our conversations in class, with the help of the readings, are evolving into more intellectual endeavors in which we use all of the readings to understand the social constructions we're facing.

Sara N said...

Ross and classmates,

First I also want to thank Leandra for all her hard work as it cannot be easy to do what she is doing. For that we all owe her a great big “THANK YOU, LEANDRA!” I also agree that it might be too early to judge mainly because 1. This is the first class of its kind and 2. This is apparently the first “real textbook” of its kind. This is not to say that this discourse isn’t important because it definitely is.

That being said, it is also important to note that invisibility is one way in which privilege operates. Again I point to the example of the water that surrounds the fish. We are not aware of it but we rely on it. So to be fair, this class, these discourses, these texts are a result of and a reaction to “feminist” theories. If feminists did not make the first strides men would not have the urgency, the desire to examine and reexamine their own privileged status i.e. the fish becoming aware of the water. In this way, theories of masculinities came out of but took a different trajectory from feminist theory. This is also why it is essential to keep in mind that these discourses are more or less in their infancy and the broader theoretical work from which we have to draw is from feminist theory. Many theories, movements etc. start this way so it is nothing novel. The immediate necessity is to encourage more men to contribute their ideas and theories so as not to run the risk of “women talking about masculinity” anymore than we want “men speaking for women.” This is the reoccurring threat we face.

Hence, I prefer to focus my energies on the “theories” aspect of constructions of masculinity because it is a way to 1. Keep the focus on men while 2. placing it in the broader context of gender that does not risk reinscribing gender binaries and 3. also helps us understand the effect masculinity has on other genders (and society as a whole). As Eve Sedgwick notes, male homosocial desire (also touched on by Schwyzer) structurally requires heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is constructed by the constant casting out of homosexuality. In this way, “homophobia directed by men against men is misogynistic, and perhaps transhistorically so. (By misogynistic I mean that it is not only oppressive of the so-called feminine in men, but that it is oppressive of women)” (Sedgwick, 1985, 20). It is for this reason that we must keep the focus on men while keeping in mind how far the tentacles of patriarchy extend.

Thanks for speaking out, Ross. Sometimes that is the hardest step.
Thanks, Sara Nowak

Ari <3 said...

I think it is imperative to address our "likes" and "dislikes" of our college courses. Feedback is necessary and essential in bettering the experience as a whole as well as future classes. I would like to address a few things in Ross' concerns. You stated that your "biggest concern" is that we are "examining men and masculinity from a female perspective." Did you mean a feminist perspective (as Zen so greatly put)? I think that it is important to make that distinction between female and feminist. All of the ideologies discussed are supposed to be examined critically from a feminist perspective, not necessarily a female perspective. Not to mention, it may (and is) uncomfortable sometimes to discuss these ideologies because we may not have first hand experience. But as a critical thinking course, I don't think it's necessary to have more men/less women/ more/less trans, gay, bi what-have-you in order for us to delve further into these readings (which are all written by men) rather than address just the surface.

As far as the blog prompts, Leandra stated and reiterated that the blog prompts are suggestions and just something to get us thinking. They are not fixed. And the fact that both our professor and TA are women-- well, I think that is completely irrelevant. I understand that they may not have a first hand experience on what it means to "be a man" but the fact that we cannot have masculinity without feminity says something (lets not forget that Leandra is the one who proposed the class and is more than qualified to teach about theorizing masculinities--- regardless if she is equipped with a penis or not).

Like Abigail and other's mentioned, we have only had two classes, and I honestly think that last class definitely focused more on the text rather than our personal stories. In a WS class, it's very easy to tangent away from the text because our personal stories are so political which connects to the theoretical. But I think if we make more of an effort to always "bring it back" so to speak and make the relevant connections to the text, we would get more out of our discussions.

In regards to the class as just another... it's inevitable. We can (and should) discuss how masculinity has changed and developed from the first wave up until now, but the reality is that we are the third wave, we all have third wave mentalities, and most of the readings are written within a contemporary time in mind. Just sayin.... xoxo

Ani Reina said...

Ross,

I thought this was great constructive criticism of the class thus far. The sooner we realize our issues the sooner we can fix them. :)


Taco- Thank you for posting that, it is basically everything I wanted to say. :)


Ari <3- "All of the ideologies discussed are supposed to be examined critically from a feminist perspective, not necessarily a female perspective."

Hmmmm, while men have been able only recently to contribute to feminist theory I think it is safe to say that women have created this feminist perspective and therefore it comes with the gender binaries that we, as women, experience. Feminism is of course for all genders, sexualities, etc. we can not look at our selves constructively and honestly if we deny that fact that as women we have created these theories. We would be just as bad as men, who refuse to acknowledge their privilege within social sciences, such as Psychology. Does that make sense?

Maybe this will help: Psychology was founded by men, almost ALL of its hard beliefs are from men, therefore it is not a "female" perspective. It is a male perspective. Thus feminism was founded by women, and is such a "female" perspective.

Ani Reina said...

Actually upon rereading that quote I might have misunderstood you. Sorry, if I did. I have the tendency to jump to conclusions. :/

Kevin Alvarez said...

Arielle, I'm not trying to call you out but I found what you said very interesting:

"And the fact that both our professor and TA are women-- well, I think that is completely irrelevant."

Is interesting because we have already spoken about what it would be like to have male women's studies professors and we even had the reading about the male professor teaching gender studies. I don't feel that the gender of our professor or TA is impeding the class but we can never deny it has no effect in the same way that some people would believe it to be weird that a self-identified man teach Intro to Women's Studies.

I personally don't have quips with the gender of my professors, especially when it comes to this subject matter. However, you are right in several cases. This is the first time this course is being taught, it is being taught through a feminist lens (as it should), and it is being taught by womyn. I don't have problems with this but when the course becomes more open to other people I feel that there may be some conflict with men who are not already in the women's studies program. I have already had several people who believed this class belonged under sociology or psychology, and when I correct them they are dumbfounded and think the class is inherently flawed.

I try to explain why the course is under women's studies (because of our courageous professor and the theory behind the course matter) but it is something people - especially men - have trouble coming to terms with. So, to say that the gender of the professor is irrelevant is subjective. To us in the women's studies department, or with strong womyn/feminists in our lives, it isn't a big deal. But when this class inevitably expands, gender may become a big deal.

Ross said...

Arielle,

In answer to your question I had the distinction between a “feminist” and “female” perspective very much in mind when I wrote my post. My main concern arises from our group’s majority’s gender, not their ideology.

As Ani pointed out, the experiences of female thinkers shaped and defined feminist theory. This is fine, as long as we acknowledge it and keep a critical eye towards bias and misapprehension, as students in any field should. Feminist theory forms the best basis for this class because it provides the most comprehensive and verifiable explanations of gender available.

When I talk about a “female perspective” I’m referring to the way female-identified people perceive the world after a lifetime of socialization and conditioning. As male-identified people undergo different conditioning, their perspective is different. We are viewing the same subjects through differently tinted glasses and speaking subtly different languages. This by itself would be a communication barrier that needs attention, but the numerical superiority of the women in this class, their well-justified assertiveness, the gender of our classroom authority figures and the gendered origins of feminist theory combine to create another concern. The female perspective is the dominant perspective in our classroom, and this dominance has a privilege similar to, but certainly not identical to, a privilege that the male perspective enjoys in the wider society. I agree with Kevin that a “barrier” seems to form around me during class discussions, making it difficult for me to express myself candidly. For example, it was very difficult and embarrassing for me to talk about pornography in our last class. I was deathly afraid of offending anyone or being perceived as a pervert or predator and found myself desperate to justify views that I feel quite secure with in other contexts.

Ideally, a mixed class like this should allow people of diverse personal histories to share their perspectives and challenge each other’s assumptions. Unfortunately, if this barrier restricts the expression of the men in our class assumptions will go unchallenged and perspectives will go unshared.

Leila said...

I find it very frustrating to hear critiques about which department houses this course, who teaches it, how it's taught, etc. because the fact of the matter is that *I* proposed and organized the course as a *female* *Women's Studies* professor and certainly did not have anyone, male or female, in any other department clamoring to help propose, organize, defend, or teach it. If Women's Studies did not propose and work VERY hard to get this class off the ground, it would not exist this semester and we would not be having any of these discussions or reading these texts. So where were all these "dumbfounded" people during the many semesters before this class was offered? Certainly not lining up to teach it. And the reason we have so many women in this class is because women signed up for it. I have not had men banging down my door to take this class so am grateful for the women and men who ARE taking it and would appreciate if we could focus on what we are/can/will get(ting) out of this class that would not exist otherwise. Criticizing the participation and hard work of the women who have organized and propelled this class forward undermines the fact that it would not exist without us. I appreciate this discussion immensely but also feel the need to point out these very relevant and seemingly overlooked realities.

Leila said...

I forgot to comment that Women's Studies is the most appropriate place for a course like this because Women's Studies is about GENDER and gender constructs and implications, not just about women. So why wouldn't this class be WST? I do understand the surface irony, but to assume that Women's Studies can only house "women-focused" courses is to fail to understand the broad range of issues that Women's Studies encompasses.