Off piste academia

“We can learn from theory. But we can learn from the embodiment of that theory by experiencing what it is.” Maha Bali here: http://balimaha.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/body-of-knowledge-or-embodied-knowledge-on-theory-reading-privilege-and-rhizo14/

A few days after my first day studying teaching I was discussing what we’d learnt with my mum. When I told her we’d discussed Freire, her response surprised me. “Why are people still talking about him? Haven’t things moved on since I was a student?!”. After some thought I understood her reaction. Why do some writers end up as code words for a certain set of ideas long after those ideas have been taken up, changed and lived for 40 years or so? And why did they get to claim it in the first place? It used to enrage me as a teenage anarchist when people dismissed my (in hindsight parroty) opinions as Marxist. I have never cared much for how history seems to want to make sense of ideas by giving them names of dead men.

Then I watched a youtube clip of Judith Butler which prompted me to pick up her book Gender Trouble despite the fact that for the last ten years all I’ve known about it is something like ‘oh, ’90s queer theory, really hard to read’. Y’know it really was hard to read but at the same time I knew exactly what she was saying. I knew because I now live what 20 years ago she was theorising. It was a surreal moment where the genealogy of queer feminism stretched into a past I didn’t know about. It was uncomfortable. I could suddenly see how easy it could be to say ‘ooh your analysis is pure Butler’ and become the cynical smarter-than-thou theorist. And then reading Bulter kinda made me want to read Foucault and I realised that this is how academics are born. That somehow the history of ideas has well worn paths, even the radical emancipatory ideas.

Last Wednesday I had a really tough day at work trying to persuade teenage lads that neatening edges in a park was worthwhile and important while mostly failing to challenge their deeply misogynistic ideas (the more we work together, the more comfortable they are to express them. Be careful what you wish for Ellie). I still love it, but I think it will always destroy me. I came home physically and emotionally exhausted, quickly made food and then went out to a reading group. I almost didn’t go despite the fact I’d spent probably six or seven hours reading the 28 page article and most of the people I knew would be there were friends.

I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to hold my own. These people did reading groups all the time and were all ‘better educated’ than me. Turns out I did hold my own, and really did enjoy the energetic exchange of ideas despite it being obvious to everyone (because I made a point of making it so) that I was out of my depth academically. Inevitably there was a bit of ‘her ideas are very so & so’ and I did a lot of ‘what does that mean’-ing in a softly softly approach to challenging the assumption of that well worn path I so dislike. It was interesting.

It was also surreal. Near the end it came out that the person I knew least well had a philosophy of science degree from Cambridge. I got vertigo thinking of her studying, the same age as the lads I was working with a few hours ago, the ones I work with on level one maths and English. Talking politics or identity or philosophy has long been my safe space; dreaming of how the world should be heals me from the painful experience of how it really is. But being there always feels indulgent because its just one more safe space defining my intersecting privilege.

How do I work to make my world of ideas less exclusive?

The first one is simple: every word I read I ask myself how the words will change my life. How they will assist me in the real life world of working towards transformational eco-education. If it means I make useful change, the indulgence isn’t just of benefit to me.

I promise to never say ‘that’s so whats his face’. The only originator of your ideas is you, no matter how parroty you sound.

The more aware I am of well worn paths, the more responsibility I have to find my own. The internet has blown this world right open, we can take whatever path we choose and with some perseverance cross paths with some incredible like-minded people. We don’t have to trace ideas back through published books any more. We don’t have to preoccupy ourselves with where ideas come from. Its not important and from where I’m sitting its becoming exponentially clear it never was.

This one I learnt from the brilliant @teachnorthern
Theorists are our friends. Just like the people who post appreciative blog comments or ask us interesting questions. At college we talk of bell and Paulo, not hooks and Freire. What if Gilles and Felix were really here with us, not heroic but distant fathers we struggle to understand. This is the best tactic I’ve found to democratise academia because you suddenly realise that that well worn path started with just one pair of tracks, which is what every one of us is doing.

My last one is to just push through the fear and share my ideas. So hello internet world, especially #rhizo14 here’s my latest offering. Thank you all for the inspiration.

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How can I embed my queer feminist values into environmental education?

Today I have been reflecting on a buschcraft session I taught to a group of adults last week. We did carving, fire building & cooking, tied knots and ID’d trees. It was really fun and I got on with the group well; they all had something to offer and something to learn. The one negative that has really stuck with me though is a recurring theme that I really want to face up to and do something about. Half way through the reflection (which turned into the below blog post) I realised that the achievable goal I needed to set myself was to ask for help overcoming this problem. I’m not getting very far on my own. This post, therefore is an explicit plea for help. I’d be very grateful for any response.

Frequently I am the only woman in sessions. Society doesn’t make it easy for women (or anyone who isn’t a man) to access outdoorsy physical activities. Frequently I come across attitudes to gender (from colleagues as well as learners) that I think are problematic. The more men in the room the more sexist attitudes seem to come out. One of the learners even made a comment that implied that if I wasn’t there it would be worse. In a positive light this highlights the idea that my presence in a typically male space is a form of challenging gender norms and embedding diversity, but does it really change attitudes when the implication is that men just suppress their sexism when women are in earshot?
When I feel like I’m picked out because of my gender, or think a sexist attitude is present in sessions I find it harder and harder to assert what I really think. I even have less confidence in my abilities as a teacher. Things ‘slip’ and I don’t feel as though I can pull it back or challenge attitudes, which affects how and what people end up learning from the session. I really hate this dynamic & it seems as though it’s a bit of a vicious cycle.
Part of it is that my perspectives on gender are different to the majority of people, even feminist people. In my personal life I am constantly engaging with radical queer* politics and identity which asserts that gender is NOT innate, that society coercively assigns and expects certain behaviours from individuals based on a messy collection of biological sex characteristics (which in themselves are arbitrarily separated into ‘male’ or ‘female’ when there is infinite grey areas).
What I want people to understand is that if we expect a person to act a certain way, and shape their whole world and identity around that; that is what they will become. If we divide society down the middle and treat one half differently to the other and construct the world to reinforce that, it will be easy to ‘prove’ that that’s just how it is. That women’s brains are just wired differently, that men are from different PLANETS!
What I want to ask people to do is to act as if this isn’t true. BECAUSE IT ISN’T. It is only true because we believe it to be true and so we construct that truth on top of our belief. I am weak because you told me I am weak by implying I can’t carry that box of tools and somewhere deep down I believe you are strong because that’s how the world works, even though you are skinny and wobbly and I know for a FACT that you will struggle with that box.
I want this not just because I want women to be equal to men but because I want to destroy a society that keeps us in those two factions and rejects anyone who doesn’t fit neatly on either side. I want this for me, for the men in my sessions and for my strong (most of the time), beautiful (always) loved ones who get punished daily for being too ‘diverse’ to fit into societies gender norms.
But how do I work for that in a two day bushcraft course? And if I were able to, would it be ethical to embed a radical queer liberation agenda into sessions with people who didn’t share that worldview? My answer to that when sat writing is a resounding yes, but I’m not so emphatically courageous when faced with a fire circle of kind hearted, slightly sexist men.

Can you help me?
How do I challenge subtly sexist comments made in sessions?
Should I go in right off the bat and explain that I won’t tolerate sexist attitudes? Wouldn’t this just mean people hide their attitudes from me, leaving no space for change?
How do I wrap up ‘emphatically courageous’ and carry it with me into every teaching situation (actually every life situation!) like a shiny queer forcefield to protect me from the trembling, scared little woman feeling I get when I’m blindsided by the patriarchy?
How do I embed gender diversity (and equality) into my sessions in a way that changes attitudes and actions?
How do I ask people to change when it hasn’t occurred to them that change is needed?

* If you don’t know what queer means aside from a homosexual slur, I invite you to look it up! I just typed ‘What does queer mean?’ into google and found a great HuffPost discussion. There is a culture within queer communities that says it is not the responsibility of queer people to educate the wider world about their existence. I am fully behind this because I know its terrifying to be expected to discuss the most private parts of your identity with a world that is mostly hostile towards that part of you. The respect that is shown by self-education is a great place to start these conversations because once you find the language, you find a way to navigate your uncertainties with real people without being unintentionally hurtful. I am a teacher & queer so I willingly take that responsibility at certain times and within certain boundaries. This, as you can probably guess is wholeheartedly one of those times. I’ll let you know if for some reason that changes.