Hello, Beautiful People–
I started this post in mid-August. Since then, since this meeting about which you will read, I’ve had two more meetings. Four more students have complained about me (you’ll see why, below), and many more have, in class, in emails and in person said “thank you”. But still. Big Brother is watching and everyone’s turning into a Rhinoceros–
August 9th I met with the head of our department and the associate dean of the faculty in which I teach. Two students had gone to them with concerns about my teaching. In 2012, I went to a similar meeting, with similar boss people, for very similar reasons.
Other than that, these two meetings were worlds apart.
In 2012, three men in my class went to the teacher education office and complained that I was “sexist against men” — they were angry with my approach, and they found my feminism distasteful. They didn’t say that last bit, but that was the essence of their complaint. I usually spend some time talking about sexism in my classes, and male violence against women, and structural inequalities based on the political categories to which we are born — namely, sex, race and class. We get into it. We read and talk about the dehumanizing effects on all of us of the reproduction of inequity that the institutions of education, law, medicine perpetuate (especially education, on account of they’re all becoming teachers). It’s difficult. Sometimes I am a bit heavy-handed, and was even more so then, when I was less experienced. I could’ve done things different. I have done since then. Different every time, every year, every class. Often my students disagree with me, and sometimes they won’t say what they think, but more often they will, and more often we can explore these contradictory and difficult ideologies, ideas, approaches, and questions as well as together feel nervous, relieved, angry or curious or any combination of those (and more) emotions.
I don’t remember now what the exact incident was, but I do remember a particularly uncomfortable day, wherein several men became accusatory — one said he didn’t like that I said “all men benefit materially from some men’s violence against women”, another told me he was my ally, and several women said, “i don’t think so…” (but only one said that in class–others came to me after). One man left the classroom and never returned, not for the rest of the semester (I don’t remember if it was that was the same day or later on). I was a teaching assistant then, and my faculty mentor received and graded his final project.
Anyway, at that 2012 meeting, with the head of the department, and representatives from the teacher ed office and one of the main creators of the course and my faculty mentor, they started with reassurance. “We have to discuss these concerns with you, but we know you are a good teacher, and we support your work here” they said. “In fact, that some students are rattled enough to come to us indicates that you’re doing some interesting work, that you’re on the right track.” They met me with generosity and respect. They worked to help me check my defensiveness and to help me plan how to return to my classroom and try to deal with the hurt feelings and conflict between me and some of my students, and between the men who complained about me and some of their colleagues. They protected, supported and educated me, helped me find my part. In so doing, they reinforced me and helped me become a better teacher.
Fast forward five years,
When the bosses emailed to ask me to meet them, they did not tell me what it was about, nor did they invite me to bring someone with me. I know that these people don’t bother with lowly sessionals unless we’re a real problem to them, so I was pretty worried.
I revealed my anxiety at the beginning of the meeting, and they responded with some ‘lighthearted’ joking. “I’m a little paranoid,” I said, “I’m pretty sure you don’t ask sessionals in for meetings to tell us what a great job we’re doing”.
“Sometimes we do” replied the Associate Dean, “But we have some concerns”. I know, and they also told me at the beginning of the meeting that they have to bring problems to my attention if students go to them. That’s fine with me, though I would hope students will come to me first (one did. Another did not).
Once they got that out of the way, they proceeded with the accusations. Students won’t “feel safe”, they said. “You’re on record as saying you won’t use people’s preferred pronouns”, they said. And “You’re breaking the law”.
Of course I was delighted to finally have an opportunity to speak, with people in positions of authority in my workplace, about the contradictions between gender-identity and trans-inclusion and sex-based protections in the provincial human rights code (sadly, I’m joking. I had no such expectations). I said that there is almost nothing in the curriculum about sexism and male violence against women and girls in schools. I said we discuss many controversial and difficult topics in class, and people are often uncomfortable. Including me. But no one is “unsafe”. I want them to be uncomfortable, for all of us to agree to “stay in the discomfort” and to meet our feelings with curiosity, and each other with integrity and respect. We are looking at some powerful things here — policies designed to maintain the structures of domination and subordination — institutions that shaped us, and in which we have invested a lot. Criticizing those institutions and analyzing those policies is kind of risky. We have to, though. It’s part of our job as educators.
They said, “you have a lot of power over your students, you could fail them”. I said, “That’s true. I could. But I won’t fail them merely because we disagree. YOU have a lot of power over me, too. You could fire me.”
“That’s not exactly true” said one, “there are procedures…” which statement I found not at all comforting, for some reason. Neither of them said, for instance, “we wouldn’t fire you because we disagree with you, we want to learn how to continue to speak to each other even though we disagree, and reach some understanding”. That would’ve been nice.
They offered no reassurances. Once, one of them said, “I am beginning to understand what you mean”, and I’m sorry now that I didn’t ask her to describe to me what that was. At the end of the meeting I said, “I know we all want the students in our courses to have a rich educational experience, and we have their well-being foremost in our practice”, and they agreed. As I opened the door to leave, they thanked me for meeting with them. I said “you’re welcome. I know you’re watching me now”.
It was a terrible meeting, and shook my confidence. Sessional, (or Adjunct in the US), professors are not secure. We are not well-paid (especially, strangely, in Education. We are the lowest paid instructors on campus). A full-time course load is considered 15 credits a semester which is 5 courses. It’s a LOT of work.
And I love it. Love it. There’s something new every day, and each person is SO interesting–they come from everywhere and have with them so many stories and experiences…each class is a village. We hear each other’s stories. You can’t know someone’s story and not love them. So there’s lots of falling in love going on. Not like necessarily, or agreement — but love. And the possibility of conversation and connection across difference and conflict. It’s wonderful and prickly and energizing. I learn way more teaching, too, than I ever did studenting. I hope I get to keep doing it.
One month later, now. A new semester. After the first day, another student complained about me, and then dropped the course. During that first two hours together, we reviewed the syllabus, read and analysed our first article, and did a quick introductory exercise. Then, I guess, she went and looked me up on the internet, found this blog, wrote a letter of complaint to the above mentioned boss people and dropped the course. So, here we go again.
This time, because I had, this time, a representative from the Faculty Association, and also sent them notes from our first meeting, wherein I described our conversation and behaviour, they did begin with perfunctory reassurances. I think the head of our department said that they would still offer contracts, that I am likeable and smart. blah blah. So that was better. But the other one, the Associate Dean of the faculty, she was possibly even less hospitable than before. This time, they gave me a printed copy of some of the quotes from my blog the student had cherry-picked. This time, they invited me to bring a representative with me.
The woman from the Faculty Association read my notes after that first meeting, and looked up this blog and did some research. She`s lovely. Sensible, intelligent, kind and good-natured. I don`t know whether or not she agrees with my analysis of this whole mess, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is she’s in my corner. She is thoughtful about the points I bring up, and she applies some of the analysis we talk about to examples in her own life. She is not an academic, so she can still think, and ask questions, and take some time to consider things.
unlike, apparently, the associate dean of education or the head of the department for which I teach. We talked for an hour at our second meeting, and we again came to no resolution. They (the boss people) stepped outside for a bit and when they returned, they said that they would come up with some `guidelines for instructors`. And the head of the department said he would like to meet with me on my own (with my Faculty Association rep as well) to discuss some possible ways forward.
This is all so tiresome, I tell you what. the week after, I had another meeting this time with the department head and the FA rep. He does not get it. Of course. We talked for an hour, which was about an hour longer than any of us has, and we came to no agreements. At one point I said, “What about the majority of students who said, ‘thank you for letting us talk about this, we don’t know what to think, and we don’t feel there is anywhere we can discuss it.’ What about the students making room for their ideas and feelings?” His reply was, to the best of my recollection something like, “That’s a good point. I didn’t think about that”. Which of course I knew. In the end he said, `perhaps you can address these topics in such a way as to not hurt anyone’s feelings`. To which I responded, “not likely”.
in late September, after that meeting, I received from him a letter describing the department’s expectations of instructors (well, just me, really, but never mind that). It indicated, as I had already surmised, that those previous meetings were a giant waste of time. We are not closer to understanding than we ever were. Here`s the second page:
Equal access to education includes access to the Department’s individual courses and classes. To be clear: it is not acceptable or available to suggest that particular students should choose, or would be better served by choosing, different or specific courses or teachers because they possess a protected characteristic. All students are entitled to access all courses, without discrimination.
A person does not have equal access to a course if one reasonably perceives oneself to be unwelcome to attend at, or access, the class or education because of a protected characteristic. This constitutes discrimination. As we discussed, reasonably and objectively feeling unwelcome is something different from subjectively feeling “offended” by academic dialogue. Reasoned, respectful discourse about social or political life does not create a climate of discrimination, but statements and behaviours which exclude, or create a climate of exclusion, do. Some examples of statements or behaviours which reasonably and objectively exclude are:
- Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic is not real;
- Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic is or should be socially unacceptable;
- Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic is a product of disease or illness;
- Stating or suggesting that accepting a protected characteristic is a form of abuse;
- Stating or suggesting that a protected characteristic will not be recognized when providing the service; and
- Stating or suggesting that views or opinions supporting or acknowledging the characteristic are unwelcome
These statements and behaviours create a climate of exclusion which is contrary to the Department’s expectation that learning environments will respect the inherent dignity and self-worth of all. Not only do these types of statements attack the inherent self-worth and human dignity of anyone possessing a characteristic, they suggest that any person possessing the characteristic is not welcome or is less able to access the education, class or service. It is also the Department’s expectation that teachers, being leaders and directors of the classroom, foster this inclusive environment. They are certainly not permitted to compromise it. The Department views a breach of this expectation as a serious offence
So. That’s how a feminist critique is understood. They decided from an out of context selection of quotes from my blog, and misunderstood paraphrasing of a few students’ memories of some comments from class that I am withholding a service and trodding upon someone’s human rights. And here we are. They decide whether to offer me teaching contracts, and they decide how many. They can’t see that gender-identity protection contradicts protections based on sex, but in any case they have decided that gender identity is more important than anything else. Of course it`s more important to them, because addressing inclusion doesn’t challenge the sex-caste system that reinforces male dominion over women. Indeed, it reinforces patriarchy. Men are much better at being women than we are, because they know what men want in a woman. And when women reject their womanhood to `transition`, they are no longer a threat to male domination.
So I sent that letter to the Faculty Association representative, and I asked a friend and ally who is a lawyer to look at it too. Both of them agreed that it was threatening and heavy handed. My lawyer friend helped me find some compassion.
“There is no case law about this, no one wants to be the first” she said, “they’re frightened”. And they’ll throw me under the bus, sure as shootin’, if I step over the line to ask questions or offer a critique.
it’s not true that there is, (as he said in his letter), no hierarchy of rights or value. Gender identity is like religious or political belief — they are subjective. It’s fine for example, to critique Catholicism, or Marxism, or even post-modernism. But heaven forbid anyone should even question gender ideology. Which is a big shift from even five years ago.
Anyway, with the help of my lawyer friend and my Faculty Association friend, I wrote the head of the department a letter in reply to his letter. Here’s an excerpt:
I am writing in response to your letter of September 27th, which aimed to clarify your interpretation of the department’s expectations of instructors with respect to teaching and sections of BC Human Rights Code.
I would like to assure you that I understand there is so far almost no case law by which we can understand and interpret the new protected grounds of ‘gender identity’, and everyone (no matter where you stand in regard to your analysis of the merits or otherwise of this characteristic as protected) is kind of on tenterhooks about how to behave. As I have told you each time we have met, the students in my classes bring up the topic of gender identity every year. I do not bring it up, but once it’s in the room, I must, because of my political beliefs and pedagogical commitments, offer a feminist analysis of this form of identity politics.
This characteristic, “gender identity” is pretty subjective, as is political belief and religion. Unlike other protected grounds such as sex, race, ethnicity, these more subjectively defined protected grounds may be interpreted as in contradiction with each other. It seems that [our university] does interpret the relative importance of these protected grounds, as even asking questions about gender identity, or criticizing the ideology that informs this identity is subject to censure. Religion is also a protected characteristic. Yet there are many examples when it is entirely appropriate to invite students in the teacher education program to engage in critical analysis and expect challenging questions of some of the teachings of various religious traditions and organizations. […] I’m sure you would not prohibit, or warn an instructor away from offering students a criticism of ideologies or thought of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Marxism. Indeed, [our university] has been quite public about its criticism of the religious instruction offered to students of the law program at [___], a private Christian university [we’ll call it PCU from now on].
So, in this sense, your statement in the fourth paragraph, “…there exists no hierarchy of importance or value” is not the way I see [our university] interpret the relative standing of prohibited grounds, in light of its position on [PCU] Law School graduates.
Also, and with due respect, I would like to draw your attention to Section 13 of the BC Human Rights Code which states:
(1) A person must not
(a) refuse to employ or refuse to continue to employ a person, or
(b) discriminate against a person regarding employment or any term or condition of employment
because of the race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, political belief, religion, marital status, family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or age of that person or because that person has been convicted of a criminal or summary conviction offence that is unrelated to the employment or to the intended employment of that person. (http://www.bclaws.ca/Recon/document/ID/freeside/00_96210_01#section13–emphasis added).
I don’t think it is unreasonable of me to interpret your letter as a form of censure of my expression of political belief, and therefore could be considered a contravention of Section 13 of the BC Human Rights code. Certainly, case law on competing rights is constantly evolving and we cannot predict outcomes with certainty. […]
I have never denied a student entry into my class for any reason, nor discriminated against them. I am not contravening the new law when I suggest that perhaps a student who is firmly invested in their beliefs (about gender-identity, Christianity, or any political or religious belief that may be scrutinized in the classroom) may be more comfortable with an instructor who will not question or criticize these beliefs. Indeed, when I was a student, I would sometimes not enroll in courses because I knew I would find the professor’s politics distasteful or offensive. In the case you spoke to me about, the class in which the student was enrolled is over-subscribed, and there are many sections of the same course available at the same time. In other words, I did not deny her access to the class, (in fact I told the associate dean that I would certainly teach students who identify as transgender, you may remember that exchange), and she had many other options from which to choose when she decided to change classes.
I will not teach something that I find abhorrent. If you decide that I am not to offer a feminist critique of transgender ideology, or a feminist analysis of the social construction of gender, then I will advise my students that we will not be discussing that topic in any of my classes. It pains me to do that, but I won’t agree to offer only one view of this issue, and I think that I would not be acting with integrity were I to act as if the ideology promoted in the university is beyond criticism.
In conclusion, please be assured that I have the utmost respect for the people in my classes, and I am committed to providing my best to them in terms of instruction, investigation, opportunity to explore difficult and challenging material, and expectations for their success. We do not have to agree about anything, but I hope everyone has the opportunity to express their thought and emotion and to stay together through discomfort as we develop new understanding together.
The response the head of the department sent was merely, “thank you for sharing your response”. I don’t know if he even read it. So now, we’ll see if they will offer me any more work in the spring or next fall. I love teaching. I love teaching in this program, but I don’t like the constant and increasing scrutiny and thought-policing to which we’re subjected.
Fortunately, I am now a certified personal trainer, so if this whole under-paid, insecure sessional gig does dry up, I have a plan B — under-paid, insecure personal trainer. At least barbells and kettlebells don’t have a gender identity. yet, anyway.