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Academics undercut their influence when they 'mansplain' (essay)

The Trouble With Mansplaining

April 25, 2014

Who can blame Dorothy when she whispers into the Scarecrow’s ear, “I think I’ll miss you most of all.” Of the three losers she collects en route to the Emerald City, he’s the least annoying. You want to punch the Tin Man, that funnel-headed sap, right in the kisser. The Cowardly Lion is a big old pussy.

Poor Dorothy is so busy manning up and taking care of these blubbering, bumbling idiots she never gets to utter a funny or clever line. She’s all earnest forehead and eyes-on-the-prize business. Once she’s over the rainbow, she never even gets another good solo.

But from when he first says, “Some people without brains do an awful lot of talking,” the Scarecrow wins our geeky little hearts. When he offers a suggestion, he prefaces it with “Of course I don’t know but….” He’s not as high-maintenance as the other two and cries less frequently. He has good ideas and presents them with charm.

It’s easy to forget what an ass he was back in sepia-toned Kansas. When Dorothy comes to him upset and worried about her dog-napping witchy neighbor, he accuses the young girl of not having a brain. He dismisses her problem abruptly: Just don’t go by her place so Toto won’t go in her garden. No trouble, see?

And, echoing legions of women in the real world, Dorothy says, “Oh Hunk, you just won’t listen.”

The only way to change a man like that is to get bonked on the head and let your subconscious take over. In her dream world, Dorothy gets to enact what every woman who isn’t heard by the men in her life would love to do: she stops Hunk from being a mansplainer and transforms him into someone who will listen. On the trip to Oz, the straw-stuffed guy becomes good company, a kind man who thinks about others and takes Dorothy seriously. Until, that is, he’s granted his wish and goes back to his mansplaining ways.

In case you don’t remember what happens, the little dude behind the curtain tells the Scarecrow that where he comes from men go to universities to become great thinkers. They leave with no more brains than the scarecrow but with the one thing he hasn’t got: a diploma.

As soon as the Wizard bestows, unearned, the honorary degree of Th.D, doctor of thinkology, on him, the Scarecrow puts his finger to his head and says this: “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. Oh joy, rapture! I’ve got a brain!”

And thus, with his academic bona fides in place, the Scarecrow goes back to being a mansplainer.

In case you’re late to this word party, here’s the first definition of that delicious neologism from the Urban Dictionary: “Delighting in condescending, inaccurate explanations delivered with rock solid confidence of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation.” And the example: “Even though he knew she had an advanced degree in neuroscience, he felt the need to mansplain 'there are molecules in the brain called neurotransmitters.' ”

Once he gets his degree, the Scarecrow can’t even get the Pythagorean theorem correct. Any ninth-grade geometry student knows that he means right instead of isosceles triangle. Except the Scarecrow professes with such certainty that most people don’t notice.

I know lots of folks who are given to mansplaining. Some are women. Many are academics. One is me, at times. (Though this word may seem to have gendered overtones, let’s treat it the way we’ve long approached words like mankind or mailman or chairman: We’ll let man stand in for humankind.)

The mansplainers don’t take into account what the person they’re speaking to might already know, especially since they’re often talking to students who may not in fact know all that much. Mansplainers often start with first principles. They take the conversational podium with ease and entitlement and stay there for as long as they please. They don’t notice when their listeners are nodding off, or trying to say something, or picking their cuticles until they bleed. On and on they go, merrily enchanted with the sound of their own voices, and the thoughts issuing from their overstuffed heads.

I recently watched the Super Bowl with a mansplaining friend who’s never put on a team uniform. I learned a lot about the game. And the players. And the history of the game. While I enjoyed the lectures, I’m not sure another attendee, one who actually played college ball, could say the same thing.

As animated as they can get when they’re talking, mansplainers often seem to find listening painful. A number of my mansplaining friends will not look at me when I’m speaking. They gaze off into space or at their shoes until they get the conversational ball back. It just doesn’t suit them to hear. When they have something to learn, they like to do it on their own, from books, not other people.

Most of us are drawn to certain professions because they’re a good fit personality-wise, and then we are acculturated into modes of thinking that can reinforce those qualities. Lawyers argue; professors profess. In faculty meetings, in the classroom, over coffee, there are plenty of folks willing to explain it all for you, whether or not they know what they’re talking about.

As we know from certain addiction recovery groups, the first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem. I’d like to suggest that in academe we suffer from an epidemic of mansplaining. Like meth, it’s everywhere, and the ravages are apparent once become aware of it.

Writing lifeless, mansplaining prose is the equivalent of not looking at someone when you speak. When we get too excited about our own research and ideas, it can be easy to forget that we have to serve it in a way that makes it appetizing. We have all read prose that suffers from mansplaining. Many of us have also written it. I know I have.

Indulging a tendency to overexplain, to put out there everything you know and have learned, can be useful. How do you know what you think until you see what you say? The process of opining on the page can produce interesting and unexpected insights. In order to go deeper, you have to keep going. First drafts should be fearless and replete.  First drafts should also be as private as your kitchen junk drawer. No one should have to look at that mess; no one but you can be expected to find what they need there.

After you get the first draft down, you have to tidy and declutter. You have to realize that you are embarked on a very public task. Do you really want readers to see the chaos that is the junk drawer of your mind? For many writers, especially graduate students, the emphasis on what gets explained can be wrong or at least lopsided. Most of us feel satisfaction (and often delight) in demonstrating what we know.  We do this in all areas of life: we linger on tasks that are easier for us and rush through the hard parts. Lots of times, when I read manuscripts or published books, I notice how the author lingers on those parts where she feels the most competent and rushes through spots where she’s less certain and confident.

In a first draft, there’s no reason not to linger on explanations and examinations of issues with which you feel comfortable, to enjoy the feeling of mastery; it doesn’t come all that often. But in the revision process you might want to pay attention to when you’re just spouting off. What can you assume the reader already knows? Is your rehashing going to be a pleasurable reminder, or is it going to make her feel like you haven’t noticed that she’s been asleep for the last hour?

On the page, mansplaining can be hard to swallow. It’s easy to close the covers and walk away, especially if an author’s bluster makes him hard to like and you catch him saying things like “isosceles” when he means “right.”

In person, it can be even worse. We’ve all heard a lot about flipped classrooms; one of the things they are responding to is the problem of learning from mansplainers. I had professors in college and have colleagues now where I’d rather listen to them talk nonstop for two hours than go to a movie. There are truly great lecturers who educate and enlighten as they engage and entertain, but they are rare among us. Ask a student to name a professor who teaches by mansplaining and you won’t have to wait more than seven seconds for an answer.

Even more important, I think, is the way mansplaining ways can ghettoize the good work so many academics are doing. Instead of being part of larger public conversations, our conversational style can be offputting and easily satirized. I listen to colleagues in faculty senate meetings pronounce and profess without being able to persuade and wonder how we think we could ever get the legislature to listen to us, to give us the funding we need. It’s not that they don’t have the intellectual guns to frame an issue, but more that mansplaining is not an effective argumentative strategy.

I often end up thinking of the parable of the scorpion who asks the frog for a ride across the river, promises not to sting him, does, and they’re both doomed. On the way down the scorpion says he couldn’t help it; it’s just his nature.  

Mansplaining may be in the academic nature, but since I learned the term, I’ve tried to be aware of when I’m doing it. (You’re right: I’ve done some mansplaining in this essay.) The Scarecrow is appealing because of his humility, his kindness, and his empathy. When he gets his diploma, he becomes less special and, unfortunately, more familiar. Let’s not let our degrees and our positions keep us from remembering that while we may have brains, we don’t always use them when we speak or write.

Bio

Rachel Toor is associate professor of creative writing at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers in Spokane, the graduate writing program of Eastern Washington University.

 

 

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