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Getting heard

April 19, 2009

I am quiet. This is a personality trait as much as a quantifiable reality. I cannot speak loudly, and my voice is high-pitched. If I begin speaking, and then someone else begins speaking, I will almost never win out by decibels alone.

It wasn’t until recently that I realized how shy this had made me. I had gotten used to being quiet, to being interrupted, and to being talked over. I had just stopped talking. There was a point last spring when I realized I hadn’t said anything in more than 24 hours. Not in class, not to my friends, not to my boyfriend. I had just stopped talking.

Now, I’m working on getting my voice back. My singing voice has recovered from the three-steps-lower Very Serious Classroom Voice I had tested out as a sophomore. My boyfriend demands that attention be returned to me after I get interrupted. I’m remembering how to talk about myself, to share something inconsequential but maybe conversation-starting when conversation stalls. I am taking small classes taught by women.

But this is not a problem unique to me. My women friends here often talk about getting silenced. Carleton is a pretty selective school; people here know they are smart. And lots of people here abide by the “academics as blood sport” school of thought in class discussions. And in dinner discussions, and dorm room discussions, and outside-with-a-guitar discussions.

Mandolin at Alas, a Blog has a post up about debate, which is altogether great, but it’s her analysis of the gendered aspect of this issue that made me think to write this:

I associate debate with power games, attempts at manipulation, and a confrontational mindset. Is this gendered? Well, maybe — I’ve noticed that 90% of the people who have attempted to wrangle me into debates and refused to let me stop talking about the subject even after I’ve expressed my clear desire to stop…are men.

I enjoy discussion, and in fact am often quite animated in a small, discussion-based class. I like hearing other people’s opinions, thoughts, goals, totally incomprehensible ramblings about lolcats. I like hearing other people talk, and I like to learn from them.

But in this “academics as blood sport” model, the goal is not to grow. The goal is not to reach a consensus, or to get to the bottom of a thorny problem in the text, or to hash out a controversial point. The goal is to make the other person look as stupid as possible. The goal is to, as a friend once put it, “whip it out and measure it.” Women play at it sometimes, but this is a game for men.

Women need to work hard at getting heard. Not just because our voices are higher, our shouting is quieter. But because we get overlooked. We get overlooked in the syllabus. We get overlooked in favor of our breasts. We get overlooked when everyone is so entangled in the game of the debate.

I have things to say, I’m going to get heard, and I’m going to do it without silencing my classmates.

UPDATE: “Academics as blood sport” is borrowed from David. While an evocative phrase, I didn’t get it quite right, so read his post to understand exactly what he meant by it. I hope from the context of this post that it’s clear what I meant by it.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Becky permalink
    April 19, 2009 3:57 PM

    Fuck yes, Jill.

  2. Nikoleta permalink
    April 19, 2009 4:12 PM


  3. Emily permalink
    April 19, 2009 4:49 PM

    This was a great post, and I have a lot of things to say. First, I think a lot of this “academics as blood sport” atmosphere can be created or discouraged by a professor. I know many great, brilliant, kind professors who think that this intense, often vicious variety of class discussion is constructive; I avoid their classes. My favorite professors are those who will step in to cool an argument, who will twist arms until a class discussion becomes constructive rather than destructive, who will single out those who are being cut off or shouted down and demand that their voices be heard. This is not to say that these professors discourage a vibrant exchange of ideas, but rather that they believe the classroom should encourage collaboration rather than competition for the sake of competition.
    Second, and we’ve talked about this in person, but I feel strongly that this type of discussion is characteristic of certain departments at Carleton, and that it is by no means universal. The testosterone-fueled shouting matches are part of what drove me away from the major I had originally intended to declare and towards History, a department that on the whole seems to discourage the silencing of certain people and the cut-throat discussions found in other departments.
    But sometimes I wonder if by taking classes taught by women, or with more welcoming and open atmospheres I am copping out. Should I suck it up and take classes where I know I’ll have to push back and shout back to be heard? Because if we leave those classes to those people–usually but not always white, straight, privileged men–who think that academics should be “a blood sport”, how will they ever learn to hear others’ voices? Or is it not our place to ‘save’ these people from themselves? I’m not sure.

    • Jill permalink
      April 19, 2009 4:59 PM

      But sometimes I wonder if by taking classes taught by women, or with more welcoming and open atmospheres I am copping out.

      I worry about the same thing. If I’m going to pursue a career in academia, this is going to be my life, and this is something that I need to learn to do.

      But still, I know that I take classes with female professors (and those who I know are supportive, collaborative discussion leaders regardless of their gender) for reasons other than just my general comfort. I take classes with these faculty because I know that they will talk about women, race, class, and other variables that I find important to the discussion of almost any issue. That correlation is important too.

      I guess I don’t know how to end this. Maybe a lot of it has to do with the general male dominance in academia, or maybe it has to do with the fact that studying things that don’t have to do with White men is still pretty marginalized. But I don’t want to be there.

      And I think you’re SO right about how this varies across departments.

  4. April 19, 2009 8:21 PM

    Faux-trackback: Agonism, Debate, and Blood Sports (featuring a citation to The Princess Bride!).

  5. April 20, 2009 11:43 AM

    Getting into bad habits of argument as blood sport (in the sense of trying to make the other person look stupid) also trips you up in contexts where you actually are required to make an argument. For example, you’d think litigation would be the one career where being an argumentative ***hole would help, but that’s not necessarily true. It’s been shown that juries don’t like attorneys who are mocking or cutting down the other side, and that sense of dislike, especially in a civil case where the jurors don’t have to feel invested in whether they’re letting a criminal go, can disadvantage the “mean” lawyer’s client. The average adult doesn’t like bullies.

    • Jill permalink
      April 20, 2009 12:08 PM

      Yes, and I think that’s true in most professional environments–diplomacy is almost always preferred over an antagonistic style of any brand, much less being rhetorically bludgeoned.

      It makes me wonder how this particular style has come to such popularity in certain realms–lay politics, philosophy, academia (in particular the social sciences)–when it’s in such conflict with the norms of conversation in so many others.

  6. April 20, 2009 1:21 PM

    From what my mom has told me, this style of communication is pretty common in the business world too. Business has historically been a man’s game where you do what you gotta do to make the other guy look bad so you can make the deal. While it may start diplomatically, I know she has to get in peoples’ faces fairly frequently. And she’s damned good at it. While I hate to say this type of communication is “masculine,” I think it’s fair to say that it is most prevalent in predominantly male work fields. Should it change? Not sure. The competitive nature of business lends itself to this type of communication. In a lot of ways it’s a chicken and egg sort of game. Did this way of communicating lead to the beginnings of business or did business create this type of communication?

    Should business reform itself to be more female-friendly? I don’t think so. Business is based on competition. Letting everyone be heard is inefficient and detracts from its ultimate goal: buying and selling as much as possible. Business is not for people who can’t communicate in that blood sport way. In other fields where efficiency is not such an integral part of the field (like academia, no offense), I don’t see why this blood sport type of communication would even make sense. Doesn’t the plurality of opinions add richness to a discussion? And no, I don’t think you’re copping out. You just recognize that the type of environment you get the most out of intellectually.

  7. Lotus permalink
    April 20, 2009 2:48 PM

    Reading this post it’s easy to understand where you are coming from. However, I have some pretty basic problems with the points being made.

    First, there is the unfortunate assumption that debate is a man’s passtime and women who would participate are merely “playing at it”. Not only does this not match my own experiences, but the suggestion kind of pisses me off. Why is competition a man’s game?

    Second, is it really necessary to refer to any form of male competition, no matter how intellectual, as dick measuring? It’s demeaning, crude, and largely inaccurate as a metaphor.

    Third, I don’t really know the “blood sport” concept, but classroom debate where ideas are directly challenged is not a competition in the way you have defined it and seems to say more about your own frustrations with volume or the quality of moderating than classroom structure as a whole. Debate based class discussion not meant to be a competition at all. Ideally the discussion will move towards consensus as competing views are picked apart and concessions are made when students admit that certain points of their theory don’t hold up. Consensus doesn’t always actually result however, because the kind of subject where debate is useful is also the kind of subject where certainty is impossible. The only thing that should be “silenced” is a weak idea. Speak up, if your fellow students aren’t aware that you have a point to make they won’t stop for you.

    • Jill permalink
      April 20, 2009 3:11 PM

      First and foremost, as far as the dick measuring analogy, I’m sorry that it made you feel demeaned. It was meant tongue-in-cheek, but clearly wasn’t universally understood that way, so again, I apologize.

      Second, please reread my post (and the comments section on Mandolin’s post!). I didn’t mean to imply that constructive debate–even when it is aggressive–is by necessity a negative. I agree with you that classroom discussion is meant to be a place where we all are challenged, and I think that’s how we all will learn best.

      What I am arguing against is a classroom environment that looks like this:

      PERSON A: “When you said that, it made me think of this point in the reading–”
      PERSON B interrupts: “I disagree. Let’s go back to talking about this other thing.”

      The point is not to challenge A’s link; rather, it’s so that B gets to talk, probably until someone else stops B by interrupting. If you have not experienced that, I’m glad. You’re really lucky. But you have a thread full of women here who have, and have had the gendered experience that I described. And most of them are much louder than I am. It may be an issue of moderation, but the obvious question is, Why aren’t professors stepping in when many people feel uncomfortable? This is a topic that comes up time and time again in discussions at Carleton about campus climate. I don’t think it’s as benign as you argue.

      That is not to say that every man is a poor classroom conversant, not at all. Nor is it to say that no woman ever takes on this style of debate. I am corroborating Mandolin’s argument with my own experience, which is that the vast majority of these incidents are perpetrated by men. I respect that that may not be your experience, and you are welcome and encouraged to discuss that here. But please do respect that this is what we have seen.

      • Becky permalink
        April 20, 2009 9:49 PM

        Jill, I’m so glad you posted this because you articulated the silencing I have felt myself in the academic setting. I’ve always put the blame on myself, that I should’ve spoken up more, done the homework better, or have been as smart as the boys. I have always been impressed at how you’ve spoken up about this overlooking of women in the classroom, it helped me connect my experience to a larger phenomenon. Now, hearing my female peer express the same feelings, its clear that this is not isolated to a single classroom or teacher. It’s clear to me that if so many women are felt overlooked, we have to begin problematzing (as you have) the gendering of the methodological approaches and assumptions behind these classroom environments.

  8. Lotus permalink
    May 4, 2009 5:12 PM

    Back from the comment graveyard.

    Just wanted to point out that you shouldn’t assume the gender of posters. Many people use a non-identifying handle to avoid the preconceptions of sex and race. I really love that about the internet, although I suppose being critical on a “things we don’t like about boys” post is bound to lead to certain assumptions.

    Anyway, I certainly understood your post, I just can’t conceive that such a classroom structure exists outside of some kind of “structural strawman”. As a person that rarely makes much noise in the real word, I’ve always found academia to be an unusually welcoming place. The idea that a class would be run as some kind of competition sounds terrible, but I’m more likely to blame poor professors than an institutional problem. I’m sure that most decent teachers know this is a bad idea.

    • Jill permalink
      May 4, 2009 8:06 PM

      You have a thread full of women saying that yes, this is precisely what they experienced, and you “can’t conceive” that such a thing could be possible? Again, I’m glad you have never experienced this environment. That does not mean it doesn’t exist. Your failure to acknowledge the possibility that we just might know our own experiences is insulting.

      Here is the institutional problem: independent of whether or not they are good professors, many faculty members simply do not see it as a problem if students (predominantly female) feel silenced. They do not notice, and they do not care. They have the privilege not to think about it. I cannot remember having a single female professor who allowed this kind of behavior to continue. It’s not because they’re somehow better professors, it’s just that they’re better able to take my experience into account.

      For what it’s worth, my apology to you merely reflected that I believe you have the right to have a response to your concerns about the statement I made, regardless of your gender. And I really am sorry if you felt demeaned by what I wrote, even if you do not identify as male.

    • Becky permalink
      May 4, 2009 10:26 PM

      I would echo Jill’s sentiments. Although I am happy for you that you haven’t experienced this in the classroom, do not diminish other women’s experiences. I think its possible that the fact that you don’t hear more about this silencing is because women are being silenced.

      Also, please try to give us more credit, than to claim our posts are about “things we don’t like about boys.” We are trying to have an honest discussion of how we navigate the world in our bodies, and I’m sure you understand this is our intention. Please don’t demean Jill’s argument in this way.

  9. Turtle permalink
    September 17, 2011 12:21 PM

    Thank you so much for posting about this. I am also a Carleton student, and notice that I often find myself getting interrupted or ignored in class and outside of it. I never realized it affected more people than just me, because no one else seemed to mind that dinners were taken over by people trying to have “discussions” when in actuality, they were just trying to prove everyone else wrong and make them see the error of their ways. The kind of discussions I enjoy are the ones where people essentially bounce ideas off of each other, and then other people will come up with new insights based on what has been said. Too bad I don’t see much of this around, especially not among the male population I know here.

    On a different topic, I am always hyper aware when I am in the minority (gender-wise) in a class. For instance, I am one of two females in one of my classes this term, and I feel really uncomfortable a lot of the time, which affects my ability to speak up and participate actively in the class. Which I think is really too bad, because I really enjoy what we’re talking about and the sorts of things we’re supposed to be learning.

    I would be interested in doing some sort of campaign to make people aware of this on campus, if that’s a possibility.

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