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On Being A Feminist Role Model in the Classroom, Revisited, Part 2

More thoughts.

September 22, 2015

I took piano lessons when I was young and then I played clarinet in high school band. I wasn’t very good at either (poor fine motor skills, short fingers, etc), but I enjoyed playing music, and learned a lot about listening, about rhythm, and how to read music. And I sang in choirs, in cover bands, in shows. I can still sing, and my kids appreciate that a lot, especially at bedtime or when they have nightmares. I still love music, love to sing.

I was quite good at math in high school and in my early college years, when I still thought I was going to be an engineer or a marine biologist. I took calculus, advanced geometry, trigonometry, linear algebra. And then one day, during my MA, I found myself explaining to my mystified classmates why an ellipse, with it’s dual focal points, that are always the same distance from each other and both are always the same total distance from any point of the edge, is a pretty good metaphor for Canadian literature, when you only think of it in terms of Quebec and the Rest of Canada.

During those same years at Sherbrooke, and beyond, I honed my French, a language I had been forced to learn as a child, growing up in Quebec, even though I lived in an English family. Sherbrooke was my escape, an escape that was only open to me because of the French I learned over all those years in French Immersion. I live in the States now, and I rarely, if ever, speak or use my French, and given my change of careers, I also rarely get to read French. But having that language proved to be an essential part of who I was to become.

I met with a student the other day who was doing volunteer work teaching computer science to high school students at an alternative school. Project based, the course was completely voluntary, and was proving to be a great success. But, as I found out, there were no girls in the course. Or rather, there had been, but they all left. And so I was left struggling to help the student-facilitator (also male) come up with ways to make the elective more attractive to girls. Perhaps make it less about the coding or hardware itself, and more about what they can do with it? What about thinking of digital communities and social media as entry points for thinking about computer science?

Have you heard of digital humanities?

And then I think of my almost entirely female classroom of introduction to literature students, where the majority of them assert that they “aren’t good at technology” and are almost paralyzed by a new tools that we are using in the course. I think of my own daughter, in fact both my kids, who are so comfortable with technology, and who are lucky to have a mother who as gently as possible encourages my kids to use beginner programming apps and opportunities to think about the technology they use and how its made.

And I think about how while the whole “everyone should learn to code” isn’t going to solve all the problems, what it can do, however, is give students options. Maybe they’ll never use code or the programming language they learn again. They may never be programmers, in the same way I never became a musician or an engineer or even a full-fledged professor of comparative literature. But to have options. To have the option of coming back to it later, in a different context, in a more meaningful way.

At least so that they aren’t so “scared” by and of technology.

And so I do digital humanities “lite” in my class, because I want them to be less intimidated, to be less about the tools and more about imagining what they can do with them, and then talking through and working out how to do it. It’s also because it’s an introduction to literature class, and I also have to talk about looking for imagery and symbolism and rhythm and all the things about literature.

And so I try to model bravery and playfulness and the potential for reinvention and discovery and rediscovery in both literature and technology. I try to communicate empathy and patience and encouragement and high standards I know they can meet.

And I fear that by trying to do too many things, I will accomplish none of the things. But remember the girl that my narrative has largely erased who knew how to wire and rewire a computer, VCR, TV, and cable decoder box (as well as hook it up occasionally to the stereo), and knew Basic and HTML and the Command Line. And the one who never thought French would be an escape. Or that literature, not math, would be the path forward.

There are possibilities, even if we don’t see them or understand them yet. 


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