Gender, Navel Gazing, Uncategorized

Learning To Defer

2016-06-05

Our cats – Steve! and Kevin

I am not a parent. It doesn’t take a lot of navel gazing for me to reach the conclusion that I have nothing to say or write about how to parent. I don’t go near discussions of parenting because a) despite my fondness for my cats, I recognize they’re not children  and b) connecting my love for public education to parenting is some pretty high level brain gymnastics.  I don’t defer or claim expertise, I avoid.

I’m not gay or transgender but members of my family (born and made) are. I connected hard with Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and haven’t looked back since then. Deciding to speak up around  gender and/or sexuality  issues was as easy a decision as shutting up around parenting. I don’t claim expertise, I only claim the moniker of feminist and ally.

Meanwhile, I’ve made some awkward, mortifying, terrifying mistakes when sharing my thinking on topics related to race and equity. I think I’ve done enough work to understand an issue and then I realize (sometimes a moment before speaking, sometimes a moment after) I still have to do some unlearning and relearning and crack the spines on some new books. On these issues, I slip and slide in and out of understanding and confusion, occasionally stubbing a toe and working hard to do better. I am a perpetual learner. Any emerging expertise comes in conversations with fellow learners or in my written reflections here on my blog.

And then there’s assessment design. Want to know about performance-based assessment? I can share lit reviews through interpretive dance. Want to write a good multiple question? You want the short answer or the long answer? Don’t like rubrics? Give me five minutes and I’ll change your mind. Wanna debate assessment?

Come at me

Basically, I’m getting better knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. And when in doubt, I defer.

Deferring is a short way of saying:

  • “I don’t know enough about this topic. Let me point you towards someone who does.” or
  • “I think I know about this topic but I know this person knows WAAY more than I do, so go with their response.” or
  • “This isn’t my space. The owner of this space may have a different take than mine.”

We defer when we RT without commenting. We defer when we tag someone in a complementary tweet* and point to their expertise. The flip side of deferring is asserting  expertise, laying bare the tension in on-line discourse – be it threaded Twitter chats, dueling blog posts, or comment sections – where, in theory, all voices are equal.

Thanks to Southpark, many (myself included) can’t help but hear Cartman’s whining about RESPECT MUH AUTHORITAH! when the concept comes up. The implication is that asserting expertise is akin to acting like a spoiled, bratty second-grader, stomping your foot and saying, “I’m right and you’re wrong because I say so.”

And yet… and yet. Expertise exists. Some people know more about some topics than other people. This isn’t controversial nor earth shattering. My favorite quote on that subject comes from John Scalzi, a science fiction author.

Being an expert/pro doesn’t mean you’re right about everything in your field. It does mean you likely know when others are wrong about it.

When to defer or when to assert expertise? I poked at this a bit when I wrote about The Backfire Effect but it’s again on my mind. Because I write and think about gender in education, I notice patterns, patterns which are not unique to education. Patterns, though, that go back to the dawn of our country and are deeply entrenched in the teaching profession. To be clear, it’s not my claim gender is always at play when there’s a disagreement or someone someone says I’m not qualified to comment on something I am, in fact, qualified to speak about. (I would consider donating one of my cats+ to a loving home could I get some women in education to defer to my expertise.)  I do think gender is at play more often than we’re willing to admit.

And why would we admit it? Teaching is a predominately female profession! How can it be impacted by sexism? The challenge is that sexism runs deep in the profession for many reasons, some of which can be attributed to the dominance of women. Teaching was once referred to as “woman’s true profession” and seen as female equivalent of preaching. It was an acceptable profession for women who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to earn a living. By 1880, the mental image held by Americans of a “teacher” was a white woman. Almost 140 years later, the profession is still trying to figure out what to do with that responsibility.

To be good at school is learning how to play along, to be polite, to follow the rules – both informal and formal. And in many cases, those informal rules are created by white women to continue the grammar and tradition of school, a place they themselves thrived. Meanwhile, white boys who break the rules at school, who experience a “crisis” once a generation have gone on to lead our country and companies for as long as girls have outperformed boys at school.

So… I’m at a loss. What does it take to get a male non-expert in a topic to defer to a female expert? To get white men to listen to women about issues related to education? Beyond that, to listen to the black girls who are being pushed out of schools at alarming rates? To the boys of color who return to schools as adults at a rate far below that of any other demographic group?  Native Americans can’t get a white man to acknowledge the racism inherent in the name of a football team. Pragmatic, frustrated me wonders why should I expect the dynamics in education to be any different.

How do we get white men to defer? What would happen if I were to say to a white male blogger/tweet-er, “You’re wrong. I know more about you on this topic.” What labels might be ascribed to me? Can one shrug into a mantel of expertise? Or does it have to be draped over your shoulders by others? What are the implications when the default “expert” has long been seen as having a particular race and gender? What are the implications when there is a sense that because something is written in a blog post or tweet, it’s true?

I’m left asking a question I asked at the end of another blog postWhat does it look like to change the system, one mindset at a time? I still have no idea. I know though that I’m tired about reading mis-information about a field I care deeply about and know a lot about. And not that it matters, but I may very well test the limits of my ability to shout down a white male author the next time one blames Angela Duckworth for the birth of the grit narrative.

 

*It is not “deferring” to tag someone on Twitter to demand they comment on a topic of your choosing. It is not “deferring” to tag someone in a discussion you’re having with someone else to ask that person to settle a debate or comment. FWIW and FYI.

+ Kevin (the tabby) is what one might generously call a DogCat. He’s a tank with a walnut brain who can open cupboards and knows exactly where Paul keeps the thermometer with the laser pointer. So, if needed, I might let another family experience the joy that is Kevin.

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4 thoughts on “Learning To Defer

  1. The Teacher As Expert thing, as much as we talk about being learners, is still alive and well. That coupled with the White Guy Is Right thing a lot of us carry around make for exactly the kind of non-defer mentality you talk about.
    Putting in my two cents but finding someone who knows better feels like how I react a lot, so I try instead to just do the latter without the former. Works sometimes.

  2. Jennifer Borgioli Binis says:

    I so appreciate your use of the word “sometimes.” It’s hard to find the balance between patterns and individual experiences and interactions.

    • Jennifer Borgioli Binis says:

      I’m not 100% sure what you’re asking but I’ll offer this – as it it with all things, when we’re talking about individuals: it depends. That is, I have no idea what your areas of expertise are or where we might not see eye to eye.

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