Monday, September 24, 2007

Politically correct

The activities during my week of orientation were mostly dull, as expected. The ubiquitous seminar on sexual harassment complete with skit, the lecture on academic honesty, the mandatory team building exercises with towers made of spaghetti and marshmallows. However, unlike orientations for my teaching jobs, this week did not involve a video of blood-borne pathogens and the correct use of a body fluid clean-up kit.

However, my orientation also included a keynote address, called "The Aims of Public Policy," from Kerwin Charles, a member of the faculty at the Harris School. He reminded us that amidst all of the tedium of statistics, correct citations and unwanted sexual advances, we had chosen the Harris School because we wanted to change the world. He was able to communicate earnestness and acknowledge the rediculousness of the idealism all at the same time. It was the type of address that made me want to sign up for every single one of his classes, and it's lucky for me that his specialty is educational policy and the policy of poverty and inequality: the two "areas of focus" I intend to explore.

Towards the beginning of the address, he stumbled a little in describing the hypothetical policy student as a he, she, he and she or a s/he. He'd start one way, re-think and go another way. What I like is that he settled on simply referring to the grad student we were all supposed to relate to in his examples as "she."

I have been reading David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays that was loaned to me by my new friend Mike after we talked about the intricacies of teaching African American students traditional English. Regarding the great feminine/masculine pronoun debate, he writes in his essay entitled "Authority and American Usage":
For another thing, the very language in which today's socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmental movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the . . . belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Priveliged WASP Males* and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair. Think Ebonics. Think Proposition 227. Think of the involved contortions people undergo to avoid using he as a generic pronoun, or of the tense, deliberate way white males now adjust their vocabularies around non-w.m.'s.

The footnote indicated by the asterisk reads, "(which is in fact true)."

I've always been a little blase about the whole thing. Usually, I think people are making a little too much of a fuss but I'll go along with inclusive language because it's probably better for the world. I usually sing old hymns with old male pronouns because that's how I learned them. In my writing, I'll usually use the feminine for the first hypothetical and the masculine for the second hypothetical.

But Professor Charles settled on a consistent feminine. Then he said, "She is resolute and brave and indomitable," when describing the characteristics necessary in good public policy students.

She is resolute and brave and indomitable.

That's me! Or, at least, that's who I am when I'm imagining myself as one of my storybook heroes. Only instead of casting spells or deciphering ancient riddles or learning to fight by pretending I'm a boy, I can be resolute and brave and indomitable while researching surveys and writing policy memos. Pretty cool, huh?

It's interesting because that sentence wouldn't have been worth writing down in my journal is he had said, "He is resolute and brave and indomitable." That's not me.

I guess that's the point the feminists have been trying to make all along.

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