Feminar 101: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

Posted on June 10, 2019

If you are a teacher, you might recognize the following scenario. It’s the beginning of the academic term, and you’re pulling together syllabi, texts, and notes for your first class meetings. You check your email and find a few messages from new students giving you information they consider crucial. Sometimes it’s the names they go by. I am not talking about nicknames or using middle instead of first names or just the initials of first and middle birth names. These students most decidedly do not want to be deadnamed in class—and that new term signals the importance of this issue to them. Rather, these students have taken up new names reflective of their ongoing self-fashioning, and it is these names they need you to acknowledge and use. Such announcements typically contain in the signature line the student’s preference in pronoun use (masculine, feminine, plural, or newly invented forms such as xe, xem, and xyrs). Now imagine remembering the individual pronoun preferences of a class of, say, thirty students. Of course, the ready solution to constant confusion and possible offense is to learn every student’s name (of choice) and to use it instead of any pronouns beyond “you” (which to me always sounds a bit rude). Less easy to know how to handle are other personal markers students also share in emails: “I am trans*” or “I am nonbinary” or “I am a cis-gender male.” What is each declaration trying to say? What is one supposed to do with this information? Why or how does this matter, one asks oneself, in a course on American realist and naturalist literature?

Beyond the Bibliography: Academic Style as a Venue for Teaching Values

Posted on March 26, 2019

As evidenced by the infamous “Prof or Hobo?” online quiz,[1] professors are not known for being particularly stylish. Whether due to a sense that matters of style are trivial or a lack of time to plan nice outfits, many professors would likely dismiss fashion as a low-level priority. However, rather than being an indication of merely aesthetic preference, I argue that fashion provides a venue for teaching students about values without ever speaking a word and that this premise suggests that female professors might actually have an advantage over their male counterparts.

Can Personal Identity Survive Personalization?

Posted on February 7, 2019

Algorithms, especially computer algorithms, are playing a larger role in everyday life. Algorithms work well when they serve as filters that limit data overload and increase relevant search results. Facebook’s algorithms, for example, use a ranking system that examines the inventory of all of the possible stories (posts by the user’s friends, posts by companies the user follows), examines signals given by the user (types of stories that the user likes/shares/blocks), predicts which stories the user is likely to enjoy (share/like), and develops a relevancy score (Mosseri 2018). Stories are then posted on the user’s newsfeed based on that score. This process can be useful since it prevents the user from having to sift through many unrelated and unwanted posts.

I contend, however, that there is a fundamental problem with some computer algorithms: the effect they can have on the development of the individual’s I-for-myself. The I-for-myself is an internal self-definition. It is how our lives feel to us, day to day, on the inside. Our conception of the I-for-myself, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, comes from the initial words of the parents that are internalized by the child as self-definition (1984, 1986, 1990, 1993, 2017). As individuals encounter new people and ideas, this inner definition is used to judge new definitions of the individual given by external others. The inner definition is modified as the individual openly interacts with a world of other selves. When those others lose their personhood, when the individual no longer sees others as individuals but as stereotypes, categories, or images, the individual becomes less trusting of the other and less open to change. Algorithms quicken this shift by flipping the normal equation: the individual interacts with programs that create a snapshot of the individual at a given moment. The (artificial) algorithmic image stands in for the authentic other, “helping” the individual develop her “self” by presenting the individual with articles, stories, or search results that “match” her. Because the development of self requires voices that bring novelty, the algorithmic voice, which brings the individual conformity (material she already has affirmed as part of her “self”), shuts the person off from herself and her development.