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EXACTLY the time to commit sociology

This is what I said to my methods students this morning:

“I hope you will understand that I cannot lecture today, but I do need to say a few things. It’s been a tough semester, and I’ve been distracted – I apologize for that.

It’s been a tough semester for you all, for numerous reasons – the projects haven’t worked out as planned, the response rates haven’t been terrific, it’s been difficult to get and use some of the data. It’s difficult to run your tests, understand them, and write about them. I want you to know those things ARE extremely challenging, and I’m proud of you for trying.

What I also want you to know is that what you’re doing is of fundamental importance.

More than ever understanding empirical reality matters. This is true of the physical scientists, who let us know about environmental degradation, rising sea levels and climate change – very real, documented, and getting worse. We in the social sciences do the same thing to solve public policy issues – poverty, discrimination, etc. From my perspective now more than ever it’s important to understand how to collect and analyze social data that is fair and accurate. There is no other path to understanding social facts and improving the world around us.

All four of our projects contribute to that. Two of our projects are about disenfranchised people without resources — some without legal aid, some without a place to live, and some without both. Our project based on UMW data will help us have a campus where students feel safe and appreciated rather than harassed and discriminated. The last project, intentional communities, looks at people who are trying to envision and create a better way to live and a better planet.

It might seem like your role here is small. IT IS NOT.”

And then I broke down and blubbered like a baby. It was 10 am, and it had been a whole day.

Learning Some Hard Lessons as an Educator and a Caregiver

I didn’t get to take pictures of my daughter at the bus stop yesterday along with all of the other parents waiting for the first day of school. I didn’t get to post adorable pictures of her on Facebook (y’alls were very cute, I’m not whining). I did wish her a fantastic first day of eighth grade before I left my house at 7:30 so that I could drive an hour to take my mother to the doctor at 8:45, the soonest appointment I could schedule after I got THE CALL last Thursday (I teach all day Friday, and last week was the first week of classes where I work).

As a caregiver and an educator, watching my mother unlearn (there is no other word for it) is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

Another difficult task I have attempted to learn, over the last twenty years as a caregiver of my own children and as an educator, is when to let go. It took me a long time to get to the place where I could let my children take responsibility for themselves, when every fiber in my control-freak body wanted to take over and do it for them. It took a long time for me to watch them make mistakes as a way of learning, when I know that I could do the task faster. It took me a long time to say, “It doesn’t have to be done my way for it to be good.” It works for students as well — now my twitter handle says, “I’ll show you where to look; I won’t tell what to see.” I believe in an education that is active and autonomous and free and empowering. I think I finally might be getting okay at it.

Now, with mom, I am learning how to do the opposite. There is no moment of greater learning. There will be no moment of greater responsibility. There is no letting go so that mom can do it on her own — there is only my taking on each new responsibility, each new task as she loses them one by one — driving, balancing her checkbook, paying her bills, and now cooking for herself and cleaning her toilet. THE CALL came because she has moved to needing a much higher level of care. It is heart-rending to watch her lose each element of her own autonomy. Still there is the struggle to allow her her dignity, to retain as much of herself as a person that one can.

Some moments, she is placid about what’s happening, but yesterday had been a long day of events, and she was tired. As afternoon waned, she cried, and I cried, and in the midst of my incredible sadness about my own situation, I had to marshal myself to support her. She told me how much she doesn’t like what is happening to her, how much she doesn’t want to be “there” – today I see that doesn’t mean just her physical location but also the overall space she is now inhabiting. “Why is this happening to me?” she cried. So we talked a bit about how nice it was that she had a cozy apartment, plenty of medication, and long-term health care insurance (Y’all, GET IT if you don’t have it. NOW). Apart from dementia, there is not much medically wrong with her. She can walk and talk and hear and see. We talked about the beautiful blue sky we could see from her apartment, the friends she’s made in in her facility. The fact that HGTV, her favorite, exists. How much her children love her and will continue to take care of her.

I’ve been thinking today about all the teachers she must have had. My mother does not have a college degree, but she went through elementary and high school in Corunna, Michigan, where I know she was a straight A student. She still can recall many of the teachers she had (every single time we pass Jahnke Road in Richmond she talk about Mr. Jahnke). Her favorite teacher was Dick Clark, who was her teacher and then her principal, and who has now been married to my Aunt Jo Ellen, her sister, for over twenty years (small town). She did go to college, Central Michigan University, for two years, but dropped out at the beginning of her junior year and married my father when she became pregnant with me.

Many years later, she returned to college at Butler University in Indianapolis, where she worked for years in the admissions department of the pharmacy school. I can’t remember what she wanted to major in, although I do remember the conversation we had about whether it really mattered, at 50-plus, what she majored in — couldn’t she just take classes in things she enjoyed? Absolutely, I said. I remember when we went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant and she proudly ordered in the Spanish which was her language requirement. She earned her AA at Butler, and the December she received it, about twelve years ago when she was in her late fifties, she wanted the revelation of her degree to be a “gift” to her four children for Christmas. When the moment came, though, she couldn’t find the envelope that had the notice of her degree in it. The loss of this document made her very anxious — she may have been already in the very early stages of dementia at the point — but when she finally told us, we were so proud of her.

So – all her teachers and instructors over the years. I wonder what kind of teachers they were? I wonder — and hope — they gave her that opportunity to explore on her own, to develop the skills she wanted to develop, to take responsibility for her own learning. I hope at least some of them afforded her as much autonomy and ability to learn in freedom as I want my own students to have.

I have a feeling they did, because despite everything that has happened to she has an indomitable will and resilience. My mother still is just so incredibly stubborn — she is resisting the memory loss, the confusion, the hopelessness of her condition with everything she has. It frustrates me almost beyond measure most days, but then I remind myself why she is responding in this way.

Today, I thank my mother’s teachers.

Who’s Afraid of Domain of One’s Own?

“A [student] must have [a domain] of her own if she is to write…”

I was surprised to learn, in a recent conversation with colleagues, that although there are clear and justifiable connections between “Domain of One’s Own” (hereafter, DoOO) and Virginia Woolf’s extended essay A Room of One’s Own from which the initiative gets its title, we could identify no one who had written substantively about those connections. In some references, only Woolf’s picture appears, with no mention at all of the book or its contents.

After our DoOO Book Club reading and conversation about Woolf’s book, I decided to write more thoughtfully about the relationship between the two. Two caveats: I am neither an expert on Virginia Woolf nor on Domain of One’s Own. Instead, I am relying on my own reading of the book and my colleagues’ thoughts on what we read. The conversation took the form of some questions posed by UMW Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies Executive Director Jesse Stommel, and I do my best to reconstruct them here.

Should we make more obvious the connection between DoOO and Woolf?

What does it mean, both literally and figuratively, to have a room of one’s own? Woolf’s room with a lock, and resources (the famous “500 pounds a year,” but also education, time, and access) provides a place within which the figurative can flower. Similarly, a domain is more than a delimited internet space with your name on it–it is a figurative room that provides time, creative license, and a space to express oneself freely. Part of our discussion revolved around what people are most lacking that prevents them from fully using their domains. The time and space to write? Or is it something deeper than that–the need for a place to write and create without fear?

What can Woolf tell us about the goals of DoOO?

“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.” We can see in Woolf’s essay instructions on how to locate the space to find, develop, and write in one’s own style. A similar goal undergirds DoOO. Though this approach is more difficult and potentially risky, it has been critical that this writing be both public and allow students to take part of a wider digital conversation, one that is ultimately not dictated by others, including their instructors.

What does that work look like, and how can we best encourage that free expression?

“But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery.” Woolf’s reader gets a profound sense of the stifling nature of education at Oxbridge with its “only one right way,” clearly oppressive not only to the women of the time. How do the professors and staff structure the learning process so that use of DoOO is not yet another required course task but one that is empowering? How do you move from a tool taught by a professor to one a student can use as she chooses? How can we use DoOO within a course framework while not inhibiting students’ own creative impulses? Students are often at a loss as to what to do with all this unstructured freedom, or maybe don’t yet believe that they are capable of this type of work. How do we create a safe space where students can practice that freedom?

How does Woolf help us think about identity?

Woolf tries on multiple other identities in her book, much as students might choose to do with their domains. She narrates her piece as multiple characters named Mary who exist in potentially dangerous spaces outside marriage or motherhood. She also invents fictional women authors to demonstrate the difficulties women writers have being taken seriously. Identity as a concept is central to DoOO. Students learn how to develop their own online presence. They gain knowledge to protect their identities online, but more importantly, they learn to take control or manipulate their online identities in numerous ways. Students can take risks (or not) with these personas in a safe space as they develop more fully.

Should DoOO have an explicitly feminist voice?

Woolf’s short book has now become a classic feminist text (not everyone in our group was initially aware of this). Should students learning about DoOO also learn about this? UMW, of course, is an historically a women’s college, with a strong women’s and gender studies program and prominent feminist voices represented among faculty and students. Another connection might involve recognition that Woolf is writing at the tail end of fundamental shifts for women (voting rights, first wave feminism), much as this is a time of great upheaval for students, digital identity, and online learning. On the other hand, concerns about access and social justice which might be prompted by Woolf could actually take us beyond feminism to think about other social justice concerns related to DoOO. The book does not limit us to discussing women and sexual politics, but extends to social class, economics and other forms of power.

What other inequalities might DoOO address in terms of cultural capital, social justice, access?

Woolf constructs a critical and historical account of women writers, classified as second-class citizens. With no wealth of her own and no title, no one would take a women writer seriously. “In the first place, to have a room of her own… was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble.” Nevertheless, in 1929, even Woolf, as an upper middle class married woman with an inheritance from an aunt, does have the 500 pounds, along with time and the space to write.

What other inequalities could be addressed with DoOO? Generational differences? Young college students’ work online, like the writing of women in the early 20th century, can often be delegitimated as “scribbling.” The digital divide? How do we ensure that all of our students not only have equal access to DoOO but also feel equally comfortable with information and communication technologies provided by the project? How would we address further inequities presented for students who might be further marginalized in a liberal arts setting, such as adult students, first generation college students, students with disabilities, and so forth? If empowerment is to happen with DoOO, it must happen for all.

How is the connection between Woolf and DoOO central to the liberal arts enterprise?

She asks, in the absence of fiction and history on women, how do we actually “know” women? So classic liberal arts questions such as, What is knowledge? What can we do with it? How do we know? What is meant by reality? can link Woolf to conversations we’ve been having about how DoOO fits within one’s education (as well reveal the false dichotomy between liberal arts and digital technology yet again).

Finally, how do we use DoOO and liberal arts education to empower students? Perhaps more to the point, how do we create systems that don’t disempower? The tautology this choice might evoke: This gives the student the power to choose to remain on line, to curtain one’s online presence, or not after graduation. A choice to keep one’s domain, to change it significantly, or not to use it at all. (Bear in mind the not inconsequential fact that teaching students this might negatively impact the way our own institutional evaluators assess the success of DoOO).

inline-celebs-who-can-outdrink-you-Elizabeth-Taylor-in-Who’s-Afraid-of-Virginia-Woolf
[Film still from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)]

But what did we eat?

“Novelists have a way of making us believe that luncheon parties are invariably memorable for something very witty that was said, or for something very wise that was done. But they seldom spare a word for what was eaten.” It wasn’t until I finished this essay that colleagues reminded me that we talked about this very quote, and what it underscores about the importance typically placed on arenas that are publicly male (discourse) versus privately female (domestic). In that spirit, let me add that although it’s possible nothing very witty was said, we did have some lovely nachos and margaritas.

In the end, we don’t have all the answers to the questions posed above. This is just the beginning of the meal. Please join us in a broader discussion of the role that Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own can play in the Domain of One’s Own community.

Yay! I’m on Fruehlingspause!

I realized today, once my German class was over at three, that I am officially on spring break and don’t have to go to German next week! Hey, cool. As a colleague pointed out, not in my best interest really to not speak to German for a week while I’m trying to learn it. Good point. But I don’t care. I appreciate this new way to identify with students.

I got an 95 on my German midterm earlier in the week. Hermione that I am, I crowed about this to another colleague, who pointed out that I do have a PhD, which shows I kinda know how to do the student thing well. Fair enough. Yet, somehow comforting to know that I still love the extrinsic reward of the big fat A on my paper.

In fairness, I must point out that the test was heavily curved, and I missed a few important things. But I still did pretty well. In another weird moment, a student from the class asked me how I did on the test while we were standing in line for coffee. At first, I was reluctant to share it (guess I am not that much of a grind). But I we got to talk about the course, and I did share my grade (she’d gotten an 81, and was disappointed, but I had noticed some students had done far worse), and it was nice to have that little quiet acceptance of my honest-to-gosh student status. You can remember what it’s like, but reliving it is just … fun.

Learning Teaching by Learning German

A few more observations about what I’m learning about teaching by taking a course at UMW. First, I’ve taken courses in multiple disciplines: a course on Science Fiction taught in the English department, Spanish 101, and a Costuming class in the theater department (and I should disclose that in the latter case, I was only able to complete about one-third of the course due to course load and my other obligations).

Everyone should do it — it’s masterfully eye-opening for a teacher.

Now I am taking German 202, and it’s difficult, but going well. I took German for two high school years and three in college, though I haven’t spoken it much in 25 years. Word endings, verb tenses and intransitive changes are particularly difficult, but I am especially proud that my pronunciation, apparently hard-wired, is still relatively good. Other things are coming back.

I got 102 on my first quiz — and then I took my mother to Florida.

Lesson one: it’s easy to get behind. I forget that as a teacher. I am not trying to make excuses, but it’s important to note that sometimes family and other obligations are difficult to avoid and one must make trade-offs. Here, I traded in on my status as a professor by just telling my instructor I would be gone for a week. Also, I’m not worried about my grade. But I’m definitely going to suffer for it; so difficult to get back on top.

Lesson two: there are varying levels of interest in this course. Two years of language are required at UMW, and for some students it’s a burden with unclear purpose, whereas I am extremely committed to re-learning German because I intend to use it in my research. There are many students in the class for whom proper pronunciation is not a priority. Others don’t really engage in the classroom exercises. Of course as a professor I do know that some students are committed to my course content, some intend to never use the material again, and some are only hoping to get by. It’s been more enlightening, though, to be viscerally and immediately reminded of this varying commitment from the students’ perspectives.

Lesson three: On Friday I went to the one o’clock class instead of my usual two. The instructor occasionally asks (or allows) us to answer in unison (it’s a neat technique — I don’t think I could use it in my courses, but it’s a useful way to get people to use the language often without as much fear of being wrong). I was my usual vocal contributor, but of course NO ONE KNEW ME. Here is a random stranger out of nowhere. I think I even heard someone say “who is that?” I didn’t think it would matter — and as an instructor, I let students do this often if I have two sections. But it’s probably good to make some introductions when that happens!

Finally, class was canceled today due to snow — first time as a student this has happened to me. Of course, “as a student,” I was elated, since we had a test today. But, then I felt bad for my instructor, whose schedule has gone awry. And myself, since of course I still have to take the test!

Back to studying…

Already in over my Kopf

I’m on sabbatical this spring, but I decided to take a German course, since I am hoping to spend part of the summer in near Kassel visiting a forty-year-old intentional community, Neiderkafungen. It also seemed like a good idea to get back into the classroom every once in a while, even though I’m not really learning something new (I took many years of German as a high school and college student).

So I dutifully went at 2:00 with my backpack, trying to blend in a little, dressed as my version of a student in jeans, tennis shoes, etc. I sat in the back, out of the way, and luckily I was not the only non-traditional-aged student in my corner of the classroom. This was after I went to the bookstore and found out how much the textbook — not even a book, but the photocopied pages! was going to be. Ouch! I know books are way more expensive than they used to be, I’ve bought books for my own college-aged son, but it’s good to be reminded of what a visceral gut punch that can be, especially if you’re not sure if you’re going to “need” this course. (I didn’t buy it yet. I’m going to look on Amazon.)

The class went well, I thought — I could understand pretty much every word the professor was saying. We played a little game of “Drei Verheiten, eine Luge” and I handled that just fine (three truths — I’m a professor here, it’s been twenty years — at least– since I spoke German regularly, and I am hoping to go to Germany this summer. The lie was I hadn’t seen Star Wars). Still, my German is very rusty and my reaction time, at 48, is quite a bit slower, which means that even though I understood the words it is taking me longer to PROCESS what they mean. Language professors, too, speak slower and more distinctly than actual Germans do, I’ve found, so what may seem doable in the classroom breaks down a little moving through German society. We watched a video, at normal German language speed, and even with a written transcript it was hard to follow. It’s going to be work for me, which is a good thing. There’s nothing being out of your comfort zone in the classroom to help remind you of what one’s students sometimes go through.

The upside of intractability

Thinking much this morning about intractability, or what seems like it. Of our nation’s leaders and the environmental crisis we are facing. Of university administrations and the inability to deal with student concerns and protests effectively. Of our public school system’s mandatory SOL testing of our most vulnerable young students. Of those daily moments when I fear I am that teacher in “Charlie Brown” and this is all people hear when I talk:

(And I’m not usually referring to my classroom experiences here…)

Of those things that lead to moments when you feel every day that you are banging your head against your desk, and shouldn’t you maybe think about stopping that now?

How do we change the message?

But maybe that’s not the question. Social change IS ugly stuff. The things that we forget (or never learn) about great periods of upheaval in our history are that they seem like such obvious ideas now, but they didn’t at the time. We always have the benefit of hindsight to think that upheaval and change was an inevitable result of great ideas and ideas making themselves heard, when people in the middle of these events are never certain change is going to happen. I recently finished the fabulous biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks — impoverished and neglected long after her famous bus stand, not listened, not respected, not asked to speak again and again because of her gender, told her conduct was unbecoming for a respectable middle class Negro lady. Only really revered after her death, and then frequently for the wrong reasons. Reading that book I could never figure out how she managed to hold it together, especially when there was the very distinct possibility that she herself would never personally benefit from it.

But she did.

Maybe great change can only happen after periods of great intractability, after much individual pain, losing or not being able to keep jobs, being treated as a pariah, being told you are loud, messy, and in the way, not being heard year after year after year, going to work every day and doing your job well without proper recognition, and yes, going to jail. There are big moments, but most of social change is surviving tiny injustices that happen every day.

I have a quote in my office from James Baldwin that is hanging there because I have to turn it again and again: “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

We’re doing that – we are doing that. Let’s keep doing that, and once and a while, go play softball.

“Lurking” at the Convergence Center

I’m on a special assignment this semester, and so I am doing a couple of things at my university that I wouldn’t ordinarily do. One is thinking strategically about what is distinctive about UMW. Call it “The Mary Washington Experience.” The other is lurking in our new Information and Technology Convergence Center, the ITCC. Because I’m hiding out here, I come and go pretty quietly, not talking to people most days. But there’s something I’ve noticed: the students are EVERYWHERE. Not so many at 8 am when I arrive, sure, but they’re here. More arrive all day long; today — mid-afternoon, mid-semester – the place was packed. They are here at five when I leave. They are here for more studying and socializing when I come in on weekends. I know the center’s head, Special Assistant for Teaching, Technology and Innovation Jeffrey McClurken, is less than thrilled when the student set their open cups of coffee on the new furniture, but it is a sign they’ve moved in and they made it their space.

Writing, speaking, and digital knowledge centers provide formal spaces for students to receive peer tutoring. But there are a variety of semi-private and public spaces for students to work, learn, teach and collaborate. Some play video games. Some just are there to hang or veg out. Some meet in groups of two or three to drink coffee and chat. Student organizations meet. But most of them are collaborating on papers or projects, practicing group presentations, studying for an exam, going over the material they’ve been learning,. And my favorite part: They’re TEACHING each other. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

Because, not only is it collaborative, interdisciplinary, and apparently great fun, it’s also VISIBLE.

Of course, this is not the first time students studied in groups or worked on projects together, or even taught each other. What’s new is that it’s in the open. Students leave their outlines, equations, notes, and musings on the white boards in the conference rooms and on the stand up opaque glass boards that are provided, with dry erase markers, for them to work on and move around in the open spaces. The first thing I love is that no one is embarrassed to be seen studying or working hard. The second thing I love is that it’s clearly not just the nerds or the tech heads who are reveling in this space. Because we can see them, it’s obvious that the students who come together are from many different parts of our university.

Community, collaborative, fun, exploratory and open: There could be no better advertisement for our university right now. It would make for a great photo op – except, it’s all real and spontaneous – nothing was staged, nobody had to prompt them to do this, it’s just emergent student culture.

Call it “The Mary Washington Experience.”

The Talk

I am finally getting around to blogging about some things that were heavily on my radar LAST semester, both because I ran out of time and also because I thought some perspective might make them easier to write about.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “The Talk.”

“The Talk” is the one I got – and one that I’m sure a lot of female academics got as young scholars. As far as I’m aware, though, no male academic I know ever got the “The Talk.”

Here’s where I got “The Talk.” I remember it very well. I was a third-year graduate student attending my first academic conference, the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association in Philadelphia, PA, in 1992. It’s a great organization of likely minded folks who study law and society issues interdisciplinarily. The conference is relatively small, and they have a graduate student professional development workshop that runs alongside it, which I was attending for the first time. I had met up with some like-minded feminist graduate students and junior faculty, and we had gone out to dinner.

We were swapping stories about teaching, bitching about surviving grad school, and generally just having a good time. I had worked as a TA for a few semesters, and was getting ready to teach my first course on my own. We were touching on various classroom issues. But then the conversation turned a little grim.

Just wait, said one woman. Just wait until you get your first student who explains why she hasn’t been coming to class and failing your exams: because she was raped several weeks ago, and it was by someone she knew, and the guy is too well known, too popular, too connected, to report it. In fact, she hasn’t really done anything about it, and is suffering in silence.

“Does that happen often?” I asked.

Of course. It happens all the time, they say. You know that. One in four, or one in five, or one in six — it doesn’t matter, the odds are pretty high. You know that. Sooner or later it will happen. And they come to us more, because we’re women, because we teach courses in gender studies, because we’re more approachable, because they know where to find a sympathetic ear.

I did know that. But I hadn’t yet thought about it as being part of my teaching role. For some reason, I hadn’t thought about it happening to my students.

“What do you do?” I said. “How do you handle it?”

That’s the kicker – although they did offer some strategies for what to do, and how to feel about it, they also made it clear that sometimes there’s not much a professor can do. You can listen, you can offer advice, you can suggest she go to the police anyway, you can suggest she get counseling, any number of things, but there’s a lot of powerless and anger in the situation. It happens, it happens a lot, and it also happens that nothing is done about it.

And then you get to wonder about every young women who DOESN’T come to you when she stops coming to class or starts failing exams for no clear reason.

I’m grateful to those women – I don’t remember who they were now, or what schools they were from. But I was prepared when it eventually did happen to me, and although I reeled from the experience, I wasn’t completely unprepared. Still I’m sad, reflecting on the events at the University of Virginia and news from other schools, that we must continue to have to have “the talk” with graduate students, and I wonder how many male graduate students — if any — now get to hear that talk.

“Which of the following best describes you?”

I tried something different on the second to last day of class. We spent the last week on the larger ethical and philosophical questions of the work that sociologists do, and I told them about something that’s been troubling me for the last few years, and asked for their advice about what to do.

I asked them to talk about my use of the gender binary in survey research and in my class examples.

I’ve explored this issue in the past in terms of how we think about race/ethnicity as a concept used in class. On the one hand, using current bureaucratic or institutional understandings of race (such as those used by the census) are important ways of assuring the reliability and comparability of your data. On the other hand, using those examples reifies race as a biological, immutable, or relatively unchanging concept when in fact it is none of those things. On the third hand (no digit binary for me), what I do right now is present the socially constructed elements and problematize race as a measurement – and then spend the rest of the semester treating race in quantitative analyses as if the measurements we use are unproblematic (collapsing race categories with a recode, for example, or only looking at the larger racial groups because the n is too small to analyze the nuances of the smaller racial categories). An inelegant solution, to be sure.

Obviously official statistics are still replete with the gender binary, and it’s official statistics we have to deal with. Sometimes you’ll see a “prefer not to answer” but that creates missing data problems as well as validity issues (it may not really be that someone prefers not to answer, but that the valid response for that person isn’t there). “Other” (with or without fill in the blank) is even more problematic, as it further marginalizes those with a non-traditional gender identity.

This is what they had to say.

First off, avoiding talking about gender at all (or race) is not an option in sociology. Moreover, we agreed that variation in your population is a factor. Since we are conducting a survey of undergraduates, and gender is a variable, the issue is pressing. We talked adding a few more categories and then discussed what those categories might be. We looked at some examples:

In the end, they preferred phrasing the question as “the gender I identify with is…” with a blank for all respondents. This means that coding is bit more difficult — rather than having an easy 1 for female, 2 for male, you have more work to do; you may get 8 or 10 or even more different possibilities, just as you do when you ask an open-ended question about racial categories. However, they agreed that the extra work required was worth it.

The more difficult question I had for them, however, had to do with the examples I use in class. Do I use too many examples with a gender binary? There are just lots of useful — and sociologically relevant! — examples. One of the labs they complete looks the relationship between gender and income, using a t-test, which examines the difference between average male income in a sample and average female income, testing for a statistically significant difference. We also look at gender and political preference (a lab which undermines the notion of the “gender gap,” at least in a sample of Latino respondents). Dichotomous variables are easy to work with and don’t complicate things very much. I often use these examples because they need to be simple to run and understand — in essence, stereotypical. For the same reason, we might examine black and white samples and leave off the others race — theoretically problematic but allows for “cleaner” examples.

They decided that I should continue to use those examples because they are important ones, but also to find at least one example of a data set or research question that expanded the notion of gender. It’s not too confusing, I asked, to present gender in all its lovely socially constructed glory but then to back off with “But we’re going to do this anyway?” Nope. We can handle it, they said. They pointed out that discussing gender in this way is a new development, and still evolving and so I shouldn’t feel bad that I hadn’t discovered the solution to this problem! But I should show the class what the possibility would look like, even if institutionally we hadn’t come up with any alternatives.

Productive session.