Lecturing on Gender & Technology

15 11 2004

I just wrote an e-mail to a friend of mine discussing how to lecture on gender
issues to technical students. Thought I would share it here:

Educating people about gender is quite straining. I just held my first lecture
in gender and technology for the engineer students at Linköping university.
It was very hard in some ways – it was a constant struggle not to piss
the students that were sure that biology was the foundation of gender off
– but still remain critical of the patriarchal power structures. One
guy was constantly in a battle with me over women being like this or that,
and it was hard to keep my temper at times. But I managed. It is really
tough when fundamentals like the distinction between sex and gender are questioned
from the first moment. But I hope some of them understood the lecture. You’re
right. There is a deep chasm [Between engineers and social scientists].
and it’s
really hard to bridge in a short time like a lecture or discussion.

Basically if I relate to my own feelings, I feel very guilty for
being a man when I think about gender equality. That makes it harder to think
neutrally about it – and it is easy to get into “defense” mode. Maybe
that’s what your friend did? In my lecture I tried to relate gender issues
to other social power structures within the genders, and then I kept going
with the discussion until we reached the power structures between the genders.
Or actually the lecture went like this:

  1. Gender varies with class, ethnicity, age, historical period.
  2. There are power structures in society both between men-men, women-women…
  3. … as well as between men-women
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13 responses

15 11 2004
Hilde

Yes, it’s hard to control the temper in such classes… and it is really strange how different gender lectures can be from lectures in other subjects.
“One guy was constantly in a battle with me over women being like this or that…” Why was he? How could he? I mean, in which other subject would a student constantly claim that the lecturer is incorrect?
One of the problems in lecturing on gender is that everyone ‘knows’ a lot about gender through their own experience with being or knowing gendered persons. When I start a new gender&tech lecture series, I emphasize that there is a difference between what we all ‘know’ about gender and research based/produced knowledge about gender. And I can see a great difference between the essays by students who did attend the lectures and students who did not in how they use their own opinions vs. research in their arguments.
There’s a few articles about how to lecture on gender, and Anna Wahl’s ‘The Cloud. Lecturing on feminist research’ (in NORA, 1999) gave me some very good ideas.

17 11 2004
Francis

Yes it’s strange that the question of gender becomes a matter of “personal opinion” so often. I think I managed to get the main point through to the main class though: we must separate politics, experience and research – also when discussing gender. But I think I should emphasize that aspect more next time.

Thanks for the tip! I’ll check the article out.

18 11 2004
terri

One of the reasons may also be that everyone invests his/her life to form out an identity as a man/woman in various social interactions and scenarios, and gender in this way thus constitutes a large part of that long and important process of identification.

gender determines how one behaves, talks and interacts. people consequently feel threatened when the damned academics like me, go about claiming that gender is nothing more than socially constructed and that our interpretation of sex and sexual organs, too, is socially constructed. all gender play and identity-claims are manipulations and imitations without a say of the self… these will be pretty irritating and unsettling with the fact we all get up every morning and go to work in the same routine of playing the gender role to some extent. i guess it’s not just how serious gender is considered an academic subject by people outside the discipline; it’s also how gender has been naturalised to such an extent that people don’t want to be exposed to the undesirable reality of it.

but then reality is a bad word here. i feel bad whenever i want to use words like reality, truth etc… XD

18 11 2004
Anonymous

As a engineering major and, more importantly, as a human being, I am constantly pissed off hearing ‘damned academics’ claiming that biology is *not* the foundation of gender. Fine, one is allowed to define the six-letter word ‘g.e.n.d.e.r’ whatever one sees fit. But discussing whatever behavior observed among human beings while denying that biology plays *a* fundamental role? You got to be kidding me. I believe human beings are biological machines governed by certain fundamental principles. If you ‘damned academics’ believe otherwise, please leave me alone. ‘Biology’ definitely plays a role on our interpretation of sex and sexual organs — the so-called ‘socially constructed interpretation’ is by definition within the reach of biology, for ‘we’, the entire human races, are biological.

20 11 2004
Francis

I agree that the biological reality (or material reality) indeed plays a large part in determining our reality – but remember that we always interpret reality through our senses and preconceptions – it is our mind that gives meaning.

If we use an example I might illustrate the point. Take a house. It is just a structure of (physical) materials, but we as human beings name it a house, live in it, define it as nice/not-nice. In effect we socially define it as a house (apart from being just a structure of materials).

To take the analogy with the house further: some features of a house are deemed important (and nice) in some countries, while those features can have a completely different meaning in other places or times. For example the wall-to-wall carpet is deemed ugly and non-hip in Sweden – while it is deemed as very nice in certain places and classes in the U.S. Different meanings to the same material reality.

The same argument can be made of gender. What is deemed a good man or woman varies. To this end we can see that what is masculine and feminine varies with time, place, culture and class. What is feminine/masculine in one place (or time, or culture, or class) is not feminine/masculine in another.

And this also goes for our interpretation of biology (remember the analogy house). What we deem as important features of the female or male body varies – both in biological science as well as in society. The biological definition (if you talk to a biologist at least) of male/female is not so precise – it varies and is based in the interpretation of the biologist.

This is not saying biology does not play a crucial role in our lives – it does. But the complicated relations between society and biology show us that we are not strictly biological – but also interpreting the biological into the social realm.

The relations between biology and society are not clear-cut and simple – they are complex and messy. Saying that we know the final truth seems like oversimplifying – and awfully much like dogma.

20 11 2004
terri

wow……..francis, i feel like clapping my hands after reading this!!!

well done!!!

can i take this reply to my blog??? i’ll post it and translate it there.

i did give a track-back from my blog (the chinese one) here and translated part of what you wrote to me on the eamil a few days ago.

… and i still have to say that this is so classic. it clearly shows you have been devoting your time teaching! and on the contrary all i have done after one month is live inside my head. (and i do understand that i am in need of it at this stage, so, no, i am not complaining.) but still… wish i could be this patient and pedagogical one day.

*applause*

21 11 2004
Anonymous

Dear Francis,

Point taken. In fact, I pretty much knew what kind of response I would get right after I read the “biologists defining normality” of yours.

However, as much as I would like to agree with you, some of what you said does not make sense to me. A dumb question for you first: what is ‘mind’? Aren’t our senses and preconceptions biological?

And you said: the complicated relations between society and biology show us that we are not strictly biological. What exactly do you mean by ‘we are not strictly biological’? Are you implying that ‘we’ have something (call it ‘soul’ if you want) which is beyond the reach of biochemical reactions?

This has probably gone to far. Again, I understand and appreciate your stand points, and yet I have mine. It’s a matter of taste.

21 11 2004
Francis

Thanks for the praise Terri! Go ahead and post it. 🙂

Well, yes our senses are partly biological – but they are also partly social. We cannot say that our preconceptions lie entirely inside our heads – they are also defined in society.

If our senses were entirely founded in biology adopted children would inherit their biological parents views – not develop their world-view in accordance with their social parents. My friend adopted to Sweden from India when he was an infant would think the caste system was natural, and that inidian food was the most tasty – which he does not.

We can say that cognition is biological in that we perceive certain things in certain ways (certain wavelengths of light, certain atomic movements as heat, etc.), but we always interpret them in relation to our experience in society and the world. Therefore (to continue the same analogy) a house that we perceive is interpreted differently by different persons. So biology and society both come into play.

Consequently I’m not implying that we have a soul, but that we interpret things according to our experience in the world – an experience that largely depends on how society (family, friends, enemies, etc.) shapes us. So I would say that we have something which is beyond biochemical reactions in our own heads since we are part of an extremely complex web of social and material relations which we call society.

So I would disagree that it’s a matter of taste only – it’s also a matter of how society has shaped us… 😉

22 11 2004
Anonymous

Thank you for sharing your insight. It seems you are working very hard on building walls and drawing boundaries (biology v.s. society). I, on the other hand, am a fan of breaking them.

With all due respect, Franscis, shall we not try to break walls instead of building them? Isn’t that what serious thinkers are all about? They seek for transcending boundaries, *all* boundaries.

22 11 2004
terri

it seems strange to me that this anonymous person (since there’s no id attached) is speaking about breaking down the boundaries– as that’s been what francis is trying to do here: biology is not so different from any other social realms/subjects as everything depends on how it is received. neutrality and objectivity does not exist as it is because we can never understand or comprehend anything without a perspective. this finding in itself is a way to break down the seeming dichotomy between social/biological becuase it all comes down to the social in the end.

23 11 2004
Francis

May I suggest that you read your posts and my replies again? What you will find is that I say both the biological and social worlds are important. (Without the house structure, there would be no interpretation of it, right?) You will also find yourself saying, and I quote: “I believe human beings are biological machines governed by certain fundamental principles. … the so-called ‘socially constructed interpretation’ is by definition within the reach of biology, for ‘we’, the entire human races, are biological.”

I partly disagree with this statement since I believe we cannot escape the complexity of a system which is *both* material and social. It is not advisable to dwell exclusively in either the social or the material world – we must include both in the analysis. Therefore an adequate account of society must develop a vocabulary to analyze both these realms – hence the distinction between sex/gender. This is not about boundaries but about clarity of analysis.

31 01 2006
asha

IS IT GENDER DUE TO BIOLOGY OR UPBRINGING,AND HOW? EVIDENCE PLEASE….

31 01 2006
Francis

The common definition of gender in gender studies is that it is social, and that sex is biological.

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