Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Times They Are A-Changing

Every year at the end of my HEL class I do a lecture on sexist language and on the English Only movement and on how English is changing and will continue to change -- this last bit, of course, is just the cap on the main theme of the class, the point I have been endlessly making all semester.

Generally I get the most push back on English Only: even students who I have marked as deeply liberal will argue with me that the United States "needs" to have one language, and (a sometimes directly stated corollary) that language needs to be English since it's our country and we speak English.

But I am used to also getting resistance on the part of the lecture which covers sexist language -- why it's not okay to use "his" and "he" as the generic pronoun; why "man" and "mankind" to mean "human" is not all right; why police officer and flight attendant and chair are all better than policeman and stewardess and chairman.

"But I want to know," one student did say this year. "Waitress is better than server. Because then I know whether the server is male or female. And that's important."

"You know," I said, "I never have understood that argument. William Buckley makes it too. He says he needs to know what gender someone is, that it's a valuable piece of information, and if we hide it by using gender neutral terms, we're hiding it from him. And I'm wondering why he needs to know that about someone. I mean, unless you're planning to date someone? Or have sex with them? I can't really understand why else you'd need to know their gender."

But! Aside from that student, I got almost no resistance this year, about the English Only section of the lecture, or the Feminist section of the lecture. Especially contrasted against eight years ago, when I first began teaching this class -- when I would say only about twenty percent of the class accepted my propositions at all -- this is interesting and encouraging news.

I'd also contrast what happened on our campus lately, with our transgender student being mistreated by the administration, and most of the campus objecting strongly, to this same campus in 2004, when Bush was running for re-election. Here in Arkansas, the GOP was pushing a very strong "The Democrats will make us all get GAY MARRIED!" agenda. I remember class after class in which my students -- not all of them, but many, even most of them -- were vocal and outspoken about homosexuality being evil, sinful, something that was going to destroy the world. When I would disagree with them, in as civil a manner as I could manage, they would tell me I was wrong. Sometimes they would shout.

I think some of these people are still around -- well, I know they are -- but the world is changing, and I think they realize they aren't in the majority. I think this keeps them, mostly, from taking the center stage in classrooms and the public forum.

Sadly, however, when the university administration allows a single voice to decide what can be said or taught in a classroom, that emboldens this tactic. It allows someone who thinks (for instance) that women shouldn't control their own lives, or that evolution isn't real science, or that liberalism isn't a valid political viewpoint, or that gay or bisexual or transgender people are not real human beings. Only heteronormative conservative white people's choices need to be respected and catered to -- only their voices need to be heard.

Well, that's not really the world anymore, first; and second, that is not the function of education, to re-enforce the worldview we already have.

Every year, every week, every day, I learn something new. I question what I think I know. I find out more, I reshape what I thought I knew. I rebuild and reform. That's how it's supposed to work.

Making students feel safe and comfortable? You're doing it wrong.

1 comment:

jo(e) said...

Making students feel safe and comfortable? You're doing it wrong.

I want to post this on campus.