Tag Archives: education

On Feminism

22 Sep
Though if you want to be a delicate princess, all the time or sometimes, then you are damn well welcome to do so too. (source)

Though if you want to be a delicate princess, all the time or sometimes, then you are damn well welcome to do so too.
(source)

Just moments ago, to put it in breaking news lingo, I read an article on Emma Watson’s speech to the UN on feminism and, particularly, the HeForShe campaign. The article cites a glorious portion of Watson’s speech in which she says that she decided to be a feminist because it just made sense.

I decided that I was a feminist. This seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, [women’s expression is] seen as too strong, too aggressive, anti-men, unattractive.

Why has the word become such an unpopular one? I think it is right I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decisions that affect my life. I think it is right that socially, I am afforded the same respect as men.

Many a badass woman has talked about how they of course they decided to be feminist, because when they paused to look around at the world they lived in, it just made sense.

This is not how I became a feminist.

I don’t think I’d go so far as to say I was “born” a feminist, but I was certainly shaped into one from before the age that kids develop theory of mind. What feminism really stands for, the ideas of equality – equal opportunity, equal respect – they were delivered to me as the norm. I grew up a feminist the way you can grow up a Southerner, or a Catholic, or a French-speaker. What feminism said was just a fact of life, the same way that belly buttons and fingernails and noses were.

Well, mostly.

Let’s back up and pan out. I grew up in the Midwest, as many of you lovely readers know. Because my parents are brilliant humans who cared deeply about my education, I attended a private, all-girls school from the age of three. Sure, this caused a lot of difficulties in my life, because a pre-pubescent or post-pubescently-hormonal clique of girls is about the social meanness equivalent of a pack of rabid hyenas starving for unsuspecting prey with a side of well-marinated sadism, but beyond that, uh, tiny pitfall, my school had a hell of a lot going for it.

For one thing, I was surrounded by girls. Yes, I did art and English and social studies and French entirely surrounded by girls. But I also did algebra and geometry and trigonometry and AP calculus and honors physics and AP bio and AP chemistry entirely surrounded by girls, too. There was never even a spec of the “girls can’t do/are less good than boys at STEM fields” attitude that apparently pervades other academic institutions. For me, the idea just plain didn’t compute. It was ridiculous. It was laughable. At least, it was once I heard about it. Because growing up from the age of three going to a school that required I and my entirely female classmates to take all those STEM field classes, and furthermore take them under the direction of something like 98% female faculty – the idea that “women aren’t good at math/science” never entered my brain. It’s like how I don’t know the Chinese word for milk. It’s just not ever something that was taught or exposed to me. I don’t speak Chinese. I don’t speak anti-feminism.

My school showed me that women could run the gamut of competence. My English teachers were 99% female. My science teachers were 99% female. My math teachers were in fact 100% female. Interestingly enough, my music and drama teachers were mostly male. And straight. So there went any kind of “heteronormative males can’t be interested in the performing arts” stereotype.

When it came to higher education, the faculty that taught me included both women and men with PhD’s. Most of the administrators at my school, both grade school and high school, were women. And what’s more, my school has had a 100% college acceptance rate for its graduating seniors since women were first allowed into college after my school’s inception in 1833.

So, I had a lot of role models. I saw adult women in positions of administrative and academic power and expertise. But my school also taught me that capability was not something I needed to look upward to find. I was shown that women are competent at any age and level of experience. When it came to student government, being at an all girls school, obviously, every single position was filled by one of my female cohorts. Our state-winning sports teams were entirely female. Our academic competition teams were entirely composed of females taught by mainly females, and we routinely routed out the all-boys schools we competed against. Our clubs, our plays, our every extra-curricular ever – they were run and attended by female students. I – and other students – even created clubs. We saw a need, we filled it. We problem-solved. We critically thought. We engineered. We created. We supported. We fought. In my sixty-seven person graduating class alone, one female student set a new record for the military entrance physical fitness test. Another went to West Point. And another to the Naval Academy. On the flip side, one of my friends deferred college for a year and prioritized full life experience and went to teach in Peru.

I lived in a world of intelligent, competent, caring, complex women. Sometimes we hated each other. Most of the time we at least got along, if not fiercely loved each other. Our views on love, sex, religion, politics, academics, sports, literature, really life in general were spattered across the board. But whatever happened between us, we knew it was because we were people, not “just” because we were women.

When I was still in grade school, I once asked my father on an election year if there were any female candidates. He told me that no, there weren’t, because women are naturally less good at being leaders than men.

That statement did not compute with small me’s view of the world. And to my school, I am incredibly grateful for that.

Oh yeah, I later ended up heading five clubs, creating a seventh-twelfth grade mentorship program, graduating as valedictorian, and becoming the first of my school’s students to go to Caltech.

I think I did all right on the leadership front.

Oh! And I do believe that next election, I’ll likely be voting for Hillary Clinton, very serious female Democratic presidential candidate.

Because the fact that she is female does not bother me.

Because I know that what her second sex chromosome is matters less than what she has shown of herself.

Because I know that women can be leaders.

Because I was raised a feminist.

I thank my fellow females for that.

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Frustration

20 Jan

A lot of America’s pre-college education seems to focus around making sure that kids know things. I think it should focus more on teaching kids that they don’t.

We teach kids the equations they’ll need for their plug-and-chug recognition homework. “Question type a takes equation process type b with steps c through g.” It focuses on making sure that kids can recall what chapter heading a certain phraseology fell under and and what process they were told in that chapter they should use to solve it. “Do you know what sort of thing it is that you needed to know in order to attack this problem?”

But we never teach kids how to handle not knowing what they need to do to attack a problem.

It’s a problem I first ran into in college. My math and physics problems, they were derivation and proof based. “Here are the theorems and axioms, have fun figuring out how to build your own damn process.”

Uh, no.

Especially since by “figure out your own damn process” my TA’s definitely meant “recreate the already universally-accepted specific series of variable translations we’ve written down in our solution set. No no, don’t do math, originate it.”

Now, there is a dichotomy in me. I am not a math or physics person. You start to say either of those words at me, and I’m going to run screaming into the nearest hipster humanities student-filled coffee shop. I’m writer. I’m also a biologist. Once Caltech finally prints my diploma, it’ll say I earned a B.S. in both.

But really, the workings of biology are something that make much more inherent sense to me. I spent months’ worth of free time hours over the course of my high school career lolling around on my bed, Google searching the shit out of my laptop and staring at the wall while playing around with concepts and generating designs in my head for ways to tweak biomolecules into HIV-attacking machines. There was – is – no set process to calculate the cure for AIDS. That meant I was free to run around with factoids in my own imagination, hurtling through a tunnel of question-answer-roadblock, question-answer-roadblock, as I tried to use what I knew and what I could learn to fill in the blanks of what I didn’t know while wrestling with this problem. Nobody was grading me on how I worked out the problem. No one was going to tell me I had to figure it all out by a certain time and then slap some red slashes and a hopefully two-digit number evaluation at the top. The project was entirely mine to work on. There wasn’t the pressure of expected performance to numb my thinking capacity with adequacy-anxiety. I had the time and mental freedom to think and rethink and unthink and think again without anyone telling me I wasn’t doing it well enough, fast enough, proper enough.

The work I did entirely on my own self-motivation and un-judged learning capacity ended up getting me into a lab the summer after my frosh year of college to work on a project that was in fact trying to build a new sort of biomolecule, a grandaddy triton of antibodies, essentially, to overcome the whole HIV-has-ridiculously-sparse-spikes, oh-shit-normal-antibodies-can’t-get-good-avidity-to-that. ‘Course, that’s when I found out that while for me the mindwork of research is tantalizing, I despise petri dishes and aliquots of clear liquid with a passion so fiery it burnt my enthusiasm for the underlying problem to a dead crisp. And so ended my lab career.

But anyhoo, I tell all of that to contrast it to those terrible math and physics problems I had to grapple with on my frosh and sophomore college homework. The problem there was that there was a particular blueprint for building the process. I couldn’t just fiddle around dreamily with the nuts and bolts, wandering around in factland away from the glowering stare of a deadline. Because those math and physics homeworks were due tomorrow. And I needed to know how their axiomatic parts fit together by, like, yesterday. Probably by last week, actually.

But, despite going to one of the top universities in the nation, I was at a school full of smart researching professors and smart ready-to-learn students where the smart researching professors didn’t know how to communicate with their smart students through the language of lecturer for shit. I had the axioms chucked at me in a lump and never had time spent or given to think about their implications. Sure, there was this phrase, and it said this thing, but goodness knows I was never given a chance to properly think about what the fuck did the phrase actually mean. And when it came to those homework proofs and derivations, there was no set protocol or process for doing them. This wasn’t “how do you do this computational procedure?” This wasn’t “how do you fit these parts to this process?” This was “what tricks of second-order cleverness do you need to play hide and seek with these notation symbols and thus pop out in Neverland?”

How. the fuck.

And, because I’d gone through high school being a good student who’d always made sure she knew what process a question was asking her to proceed with, I naturally looked at these procedureless questions due in a matter of hours and began to cry.

No, actually. My hours of struggling through physics and math sets are more saturated with tears and skin-grating frustration than anything else. I didn’t know how to go about figuring out the problem, and I was time-limited enough that I felt too pressured to spend time playing around with its components to see if maybe something I did would work. I expected myself to know what I was supposed to do, now. And I didn’t.

I was paralyzed. I didn’t know what I needed to know, and I had very little confidence that I’d be able to figure out what I needed to know before the set was due in any manner that wouldn’t result in my brain feeling like a nuclear bomb had gone off in it a despairingly short time in, and so I froze. I hated myself. I felt so. fucking. inadequate. All because I’d not been taught how to figure out a solution – because there was a known, set solution already – from scratch. Because with all the good lectures did me, I was approaching my homework sets with an effective knowledge base of zero.

Sure, there were lots of issues going on with my math and physics education for those two years, and those problems weren’t all because of my lack of mathematical capacity or the style of my pre-college education. (Take, for example, the unmedicated clinical depression I had at the time.) But the fact that I wasn’t emotionally or conceptually prepared to handle not knowing at least what it was that I should have known to figure out a problem – that was still a factor.

So, three years later, having gotten my head out the mire enough to figure out how to at least somewhat productively stumble around in the muck of it all, I do say that freshman-me might have benefited quite a bit if my pre-undergrad education had focused a mite less on “let’s check if you know what to know” and more on helping us learn how to bear up against when we wouldn’t know. I’d have appreciated learning how to the statement, “Okay, kids. You don’t know anything.”

“Now, deal with it.”

An Open Letter to Private Boys’ Schools

28 Oct

Dear Private Boys’ Schools,

let’s talk about your rape education program.

If you even have one.

As someone who attended a private all-girls school from the age of 3, I received a fair amount of self-protection spiels. From the awkward “it’s not okay for anyone to touch your private parts” mumbles I received in elementary school to the assembly of junior high where a police woman came to talk to us about reducing our risk factors as potential targets to the high school prom night safety and it’ll-ruin-your-life-to-get-pregnant talks, I was doused in awareness from the very beginning that there were people out there who, if I wasn’t careful, would try to take advantage of my sexuality.

Sure, threat prevention awareness is a good thing to learn. But notice how it was presented to me as an “if I weren’t careful” scenario? Notice how I was taught about “reducing my target risk-factors?” While I was never explicitly told that it would be my fault if I were raped – in fact, I was usually vocally told the opposite – that message was still insinuated by the very approach the rape education programs took.

And oh hey, just a side note – nobody ever taught me what to do if I were raped. Police calls, hospital rape kits, legal paths, therapy – I only found out about those things through watching Law & Order SVU. In college.

But most of that, I suppose, is irrelevant to the main thing I’d like to tell you, oh vaginaless boys’ schools. You see, what I’d really like to say is that while all those rape talks about making sure we were safe might have done some good for me and my fellow females, it would have done even more good to have made sure there weren’t any rapists to begin with.

And that’s where you come in.

If anything, the rape rate would go down more drastically if boys were taught how to not rape. Girls don’t get to choose whether or not they’re victims. Boys always get to choose whether or not they’re rapists.

Sure, not all rapists are male and not all victims are female, but as things stand right now, males do make up the majority of aggressors. Where “majority” means 99%.

But surely, your sweet young upperclass boys who have been hand-fed good, moral values from the age of five would never do something so terrible?

Well. That has not been my experience.

I had friends who had been raped by the time we even got to be seniors in high school. It wasn’t by some thug from the bad part of town. It was by one of those nice, privileged boys that their friend had just gone to the winter dance with. The straight-A student, the drama club regular, the average joe on their crew time they’d hung out with on Friday nights. You know, the one nobody could ever envision as a rapist.

I mean, the sense of entitlement that would require!

Surely this son of a lawyer who drives his shiny car to school and has a tight group of male friends to back him up no matter what he needs would never have such a sense of entitlement. Sure this good Catholic boy who was taught that a vagina is a prize to be won by wedding vows would never be tempted to think he deserves the goody bag early!

Oh. Wait…

Hopefully by now you’re seeing my point. Those innocent young boys in your private prep school, they’ve been set up by their socioeconomic status to maybe become not so innocent. And even if those traits don’t quite take hold in adolescence, your boys are the ones who go on to become the frat guys you read about in the news who got to college and decided that finally, sex was theirs for the taking. Or if they make it beyond that, they are the ones who form into utterly distinguished businessmen with prim-and-proper wives and a white picket fence and a routine predictable as clockwork and 7 am traffic, and who when they become bored with their utterly distinguished, utterly regimented lives find themselves relieving that boredom in their niece’s bedroom…

No, these are not figments of a perverted imagination. They are real stories. Of my friends.

So. Now that we’re all properly horrified here, what do we do about it?

Well, let’s go back to those rape prevention talks I mentioned earlier. How about we have them again, except at your school this time? How about we make rape prevention as important a curriculum component at boys’ schools as at girls’? And while we’re at it, why not incorporate it into a recharged version of sex ed? One that could be used to teach both boys and girls, at private and public schools, from a practical perspective? Because honestly, telling us that hey, here’s your reproductive system, and it will do these things is about as helpful for managing daily sexuality as telling a pilot-to-be that hey, here’s a diagram of a plane, it can fly. Great. Now the pilot knows the plane can fly. Probably has no idea beyond that what the fuck to do with it.

Why not go beyond the mere “here’s a uterus and a vagina, here’s a penis and testicles” to actually tell budding pubescents, “and here are some feelings that you’re probably going to have with respect to your particular genitals, and here’s how to handle them.” Instead of just telling kids that it’s not okay to have sex before marriage, why not focus more on telling them that it’s not okay to abuse another’s body? Teach about abstinence in religion class. Teach about consent in sex-ed.

Seriously, there are so many ways to tackle teaching boys about rape prevention. And they’ve been shown to work. Take, for example, the “Don’t Be That Guy” campaign in Vancouver that led to a 10% decrease in the rape rate. Or the course designed by Foubert, Tatum, and Godin that told men, among other things, about other males that had been victimized – and that even led participants to report two years later that they had retained perspective and behavioral changes as a result of the course?

For decades, girls’ schools have been trying to keep down the rape rate from their side. Honestly, hasn’t done a whole lot of good.

Guess the ball’s in your court now, boys’ schools. Whatcha going to do?

I really hope it’s not just sit back and change nothing. This is not somebody else’s problem. It is yours.

Sincerely,

Miceala Shocklee