Post 221.

The failure rate in my most effective first year course was the highest in ten years. There’s something going on in our education system, before students get to UWI, which has led them to check out of an investment in their own learning. I don’t think this deterioration is slowing down.

In 2006, students were assigned four readings per week, and mostly completed them in time for class. By this year, we were down to two readings per week, and even then, by mid-semester, the majority had stopped reading both or even one in entirety.

The course explicitly includes multiple learning opportunities, levels and styles. It asks students to do their own internet research and to present what they have learned about concepts and definitions to their peers to compare what I teach with their own findings. Assignments also require students to read newspapers or scan on-line media, and to present gendered analyses of its content based on articles or images they choose. These are also presented as a basis for peer learning, and tutors both facilitate discussion and provide feedback.

In addition to encouraging self-directed on-line research, analysis of media and peer-teaching, the course also provides students with an opportunity to undertake original historical research using sources in their midst. We teach them how to logically organize a short essay, define and apply key concepts, conduct an interview, and analyze their data. And, the end of term project is a group assignment that requires them to engage others on the campus in well-researched, creative and interactive ways in order to raise awareness about an issue of their choice. For six weeks, we lead students through the process of putting together this final project which is especially good for those who are better at discussion than essay writing.

Over the years, we have provided more and more detailed guidance. This year, I gave the students as close an approximation to the exam questions as ethical, along with rubric that identified how each question should be answered, and the list of three readings that provided core parts of the answer. There were four compulsory questions and no surprises or tricks. A depressing number of students failed, not just 19 out of 40 fail, but with marks ranging from 4 to 14 out of 40. We reviewed these exams three times and were unable to salvage any extra marks on students’ behalf.

I know this is a trend. Many other lecturers, and possibly also secondary school teachers and parents, will attest to this. In my own experience in university twenty years ago, I read books. In my second year Political Science class alone, I read Plato, Bentham, Rousseau, Mill and Marx. Whole books. There is no chance that could happen here today. Learning specialists suggest using more audio-visual materials and tech tools, but reading remains fundamental, and we see the limitations of students’ inability to deal with reading material when they enter both workplaces and graduate school.

Folks like Minister Imbert and others with more opinion than understanding resort to quick explanations for such failure, which often rely on blaming lecturers. Yet, we get students whose writing skills are far below the starting point we need, who read superficially, haphazardly or not at all, and who seem not too bothered about the idea of being responsible for your own education. Against uninformed stereotypes, many of us at UWI are passionate teachers who aim for that place that encourages students to question everything, to think about their contribution to our society, and to grow intellectually and professionally, rather than being a certification mill.

My course was designed specifically to connect classroom learning to the outside world and to make sure that learning is relevant, passionate, personal and collective. Yet, increasingly, that is hard to accomplish. My high expectations of students, that they will aim to be the best in the world, that they will read what we assign and perhaps more, seem less and less shared.

As I plan for a semester of teaching that begins next week, I hope to both understand this trend and be able to better address it in the mere twelve weeks of undergraduate life that lie ahead.

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Post 172.

One day I woke up and realized that I was twice as old as the university students I teach, cast as too serious about school work, obedient to an institutionalized hierarchy and long past any connection to rebellious irreverence.

I thought about this when a student came to tell me her essay was late because she was too busy with activism. We were on break, during a guest lecture that challenged gender studies’ students about academic feminists’ commitment to more than our own professional advancement, to the everyday needs of women’s lives and to social change. Why laud writing books when we should be helping communities prevent another abuse of a woman or child? What was achieved by articles instead of direct action?

With the guest lecturer’s questions resonating in her mind, the student felt she was on strong footing to school me on the truly radical politics of a late essay justified by on-the-ground civic involvement.

I laughed quietly because she reminded me of myself when I had that heady certainty that those older than me had given up the revolution for work wear and girl shoes, monthly salaries, and the class privileges of Babylon. She thought I had sold out, not continually redefined subversive commitment.

I told her the story of my University of Toronto lecturer, Guyanese Arnold Itwaru, who assigned us an essay on our Caribbean identity. Weekly, while reading Kamau Braithwaite, Franz Fanon, Eduard Glissant and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o outside of class, I’d tell him I couldn’t write the essay because I had no nation language, only the colonizer’s English, and only equally foreign forms such as poetry, prose and plays to substitute for the alienation of academic writing style.

Given that class was all about decolonization, and we were so inspired that my nineteen year old friends and I had stopped eating with knives and forks and forever forsworn jackets, I was sure Professor Itwaru would understand I was wrestling with the whole point of essays and education.

Indeed, I had called up my mother from my dorm room and asked her if she wanted me to get a degree or get an education. Any parent or person over nineteen knows exactly what she said.

I had also just challenged my college’s insistence that we wear academic gowns every night to dinner in our dormitory dining halls. Trinity College, at University of Toronto, took and still takes that tradition seriously. Naturally, I wasn’t down with wearing no symbol of academic, colonial elitism on my post-independence, fervently brown-is-beautiful shoulders.

The college said to wear the gown or get kicked out. I said me and my Iranian comrade sistren would go to the press about racism. They said ok, the college will collectively vote on your right to refuse in one week’s time, wear the gown until then. We complied by painting ‘fight the power’ and ‘oppression’ in red, with our hands, down the front of the gowns, and walked in to eat with young Marley as our life soundtrack. Turns out, we successfully argued for a decolonial right that was non-existent before, winning by three votes in a packed room. In May, Professor Itwaru accepted the paper that was due in December, and gave me an A.

Now on the other side of youthful idealism, that is being seen as neither youthful nor radical, I appreciate that scholarship can save lives, and that reading and reflection can enable better activism. Education is both a practice of discipline and freedom, I told my student. I understand why my mother wanted me to graduate. Now, write that essay.

If I was Prime Minister, I would fearlessly challenge sexism and homophobia.

Image

Ending both would improve life for everyone, regardless of your sex or sexuality. This is because sexism and homophobia ultimately harm both women and men, both gay folks and straight. These are not minority or special interest issues, these are issues of human rights and equality for all. And, either you are for equality for all or you are not for equality at all.

In the Caribbean, where our historical struggle has precisely been about emancipation, a politics committed to this for all should be the first basis for constituency, community and nation building.

Get my full pitch on youtube. Just type my name and PM, yes, for Prime Minister. If you think you are not hurt by sexism and homophobia or even if you just don’t want to be treated unequally, you might be interested in Caribbean advocacy that bring statistics, legislative review, stories, quotes and performance poetry.

The slide background was the logo for the student feminist group, ‘Consciousness Raising’, which was active from 2007-2009 and was the first group to come out of my women’s studies class.  They held campus marches for two years for International Women’s Day and International Day Against Violence for Women. The words in their logo are ‘solidarity’, ‘freedom’, ‘take action’ and ‘change’.

The students I quoted in my talk have also formed groups such as ‘Support for Change’, in 2011, to advocate for the national gender policy. They run Facebook discussion safe spaces like ‘Womantra’. They start campaigns of all kinds such as a Port of Spain and UWI ‘Slutwalk’ action to show that women’s sexuality in no way justifies rape. They are involved in creating safe spaces on the UWI campus for LGBT students, finally. These students are also active in the Institute for Gender and Development Studies-led ‘Break the Silence’ campaign to end child sexual abuse and incest. Rock on, UWI youth!

Viewers will also see my Introduction to Women’s Studies class of 2013. This is the seventh year that my male and female students have done popular actions on women’s rights, in a course first taught in 1982. Students this year were open-minded, thoughtful and courageous about engaging in such movement-building. Those faces are a Caribbean feminist generation nurtured in our own university.

For those in the field of Caribbean feminist academia and activism, there is lively debate about whether to use words like ‘equality’ or ‘equity’, or even ‘transformation’, also whether to use ‘homophobia’, which actually misrepresents the issue but is at least commonly known, or whether to use ‘heterosexism’. Regardless, I hope the message is clear.

For Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s Cabinet, which has buried the National Gender Policy and passed a discriminatory Children’s Act (2012), it’s a must-see. For the PNM, which remains a deeply homophobic party, clueless to the implications for even heterosexual boys and men, it’s also necessary.

If you have homophobic religious beliefs, or you care about children, the economy and creating safe communities, watch it with an eye to the leadership that I think we need beyond 2015.

There is a lot of talk in the country, not all of it constructive. The TEDx Port of Spain 2013 event featured an inspiring line up of speakers, including Etienne Charles, Attillah Springer, Wayne Kublalsingh, Rondel Benjamin and Keegan Taylor, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Father Clyde Harvey, Erle Rahaman-Noronha, Debrah Lewis and Dominique Le Gendre. All the talks are on youtube. There are also past talks by Sunity Maharaj, Verna St. Rose Greaves, Christopher Laird of Gayelle and others. Google them, sit back and tune in.

(This post was originally posted earlier in the year, but revised for later publication in the Trinidad Guardian on February 13, 2014).

(See also Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Why can’t he just be like everyone else?’ It is important that Africa, India, the Caribbean, Latin America and so on lead this struggle, as we have been doing.)

Post 127.

On Saturday, at Central Bank, I gave a talk on why we should end sexism and homophobia. The talk explains why ending them would improve life for everyone, and is aimed at those in power. It’s pitched to all the people who think that they are not hurt by sexism and homophobia, and to those people who don’t want to be treated unequally. The talk includes statistics, legislative review, stories, quotes, cool pics and performance poetry.

Shout outs to my students are the sub-text of the entire presentation. The slide background was the awesome logo for the student feminist group, ‘Consciousness Raising’, which was active from 2007-2009 and was the first group to come out of my women’s studies class.  They held campus marches for two years for International Women’s Day and International Day Against Violence for Women. The words in their logo are ‘solidarity’, ‘freedom’, ‘take action’ and ‘change’.

The students I quoted in my talk also formed groups such as ‘Support for Change’, in 2011, to advocate for the national gender policy. They run Facebook discussion safe spaces like ‘Womantra’.  They start campaigns of all kinds such as a Port of Spain and UWI slutwalk action to show that women’s sexuality in no way justifies rape. They initiated the CARICOM-targeted campaign to end homophobia and transphobia. These students are also active in the gender studies-led Break the Silence campaign to end child sexual abuse and incest. When people ask for feminism, these are its young leaders in their actively expanding numbers. Women and men working in a wide range of movements. Rock on, radical university youth!

Among the coolest things I showed was the picture of my Introduction to Women’s Studies class of 2013. This is the seventh year that my students have done popular actions on women’s rights at UWI, in a course first taught in 1982. These are the people doing movement engaging and building, and I got to put their faces in her/history. My students this year were open-minded, thoughtful, ethical and courageous. It’s wonderful to see a politically conscious, Caribbean feminist generation coming out of UWI.

I hope the PNM, in its upcoming Parliamentary critique, doesn’t miss this kind of national contribution, particularly in light of the party’s anti-choice and homophobic prejudice, simply so they can score political points. We will see.

I struggled a lot with the words in my talk. In Caribbean feminist academia and activism, there is lively debate about whether to use words like ‘equality’ or words like ‘equity’, or even ‘transformation’, also whether to use ‘homophobia’, which actually misrepresents the issue but is at least commonly known, or whether to use ‘heterosexism’. I also wrestled a lot with my talk’s absence of direct reference to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered persons and women, though it is hard-core anti-sexism activism.

There is a lot of talk in the country, not all of it constructive. The TEDx Port of Spain 2013 event featured an inspiring line up of speakers, including Etienne Charles, Attillah Springer, Wayne Kublalsingh, Rondel Benjamin and Keegan Taylor, Stacy-Marie Ishmael, Father Clyde Harvey, Erle Rahaman-Noronha, Debrah Lewis and Dominique Le Gendre. In about a week, Google TEDx POS 2013, sit back and check them out.

There are also past talks by Sunity Maharaj, Verna St. Rose Greaves, Christopher Laird of Gayelle and others. My talk included Episode 4 of my ‘If I was Prime Minister’ series, started in 2009. For Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s Cabinet, it’s a must-see.

It’s also for those with homophobic religious beliefs, or who care about children, the economy and creating safe communities. Watch it with an eye to the leadership we will need beyond 2015.

Post 121.

I was surprised to hear her experience, though I suppose I already knew inside why we need to attend to the truths of women’s lives.

In my Women’s Studies class, we were reading Catharine MacKinnon’s classic piece on consciousness-raising.  A woman quoted in the article said, ‘I am nothing when I am by myself…I only know I exist because I am needed by someone who is real, my husband, and by my children. My husband goes out into the real world. Other people recognize him as real, and take him into account….I stay in my imaginary world in this house… The work I do changes nothing; what I cook disappears, what I clean one day must be cleaned again the next…”

A housewife in my class, articulate and passionate, read this excerpt to us because it described how she feels every day.  Then, she began to cry. Don’t worry, forget it, she said, dismissing her feelings and her voice.

Not in my class. Knowledge should touch not only our minds, but our hearts. It should rattle the cages we peer through. It should teach that our silences will not protect us, and it should turn our fears into language and transformation.  Invisibility and inequality hurt, and we can also get cut by the shards when we shatter those glass walls. It’s totally okay to cry.

Another woman suggested that the first not let anyone undervalue her contribution as a mother to her family and to society. However, it is not that housewives must discover self-validation from within themselves.  It is that our values must change.

Housewives live in a society where their labour has no visibility and no value. CSO does not count the number of hours spent on cooking, cleaning or caring for elderly or children. It is as if the care economy, for which women remain unequally responsible and without which the waged economy would collapse, does not exist. The government has no clue what the these many thousands of hours and skills add to Gross National Product (GNP). Yet, we know they have value because a price can be put on that work when it is not performed, mainly by women, for free.

When a woman leaves the paid workforce to mind children, she cannot put any skills she uses or gains on her resume. She is not only considered unemployed, she is considered a cost.  That’s damn untrue. The majority of housewives are home-based, non-unionized, unwaged labourers for whom negotiating access to power, status and resources may not be easy. 

Housewives subsidize the cost of reproducing workers for the economy. This is why unions used to fight for a ‘family wage’, not only because men were seen to be the family breadwinners, but because those producing and being paid are like a two for one deal.  

Of course, the women in the class then began to debate whether housewives should get ‘wages’ from their husbands, whether there was an income to which they were due. These wages are not a sign that the wife is the husband’s employee, but that his income includes her contribution. After all, the hand that rocks the cradle, labours, sometimes night and day.  

The personal is political precisely because it points us beyond our own individual experience to women’s shared social and economic realities. Consciousness-raising aims to enable women to find the words to identify the annihilation they must resist, make the connections they need so that they always struggle collectively, and enable even, or especially, housewives to name the problems that rule the world, and which must still be changed.

Post 116.

Teaching started at UWI this week.

Students come to class with heartbreaking experiences of everyday violence, neglect, anxiety, pain and disappointment. Adult and young women come having left abusive relationships or still living in them. Both young men and young women sit in front of me having survived child sexual abuse and still in situations where they live with it every day. People come as single parents, having risked illegal abortions, as gays and lesbians fearful of homophobia, and from families with too many harsh words and too little listening or love. A few come without any home. Some are young and sheltered and ready for the world, many walk in with their wounds, fragile but steady.

As I stand looking at them on the first day of class, sometimes I want to abandon the course outline, the grades and the pressure because as we systematically explore power, domination, inequality and silencing, I know it gets too much for some. When I listen to their stories, the pores on my arms raise. Not because of the trauma they carry, but because it hits me how much wise and strong they are, beyond anything I can teach, and I’m humbled by how much I need to make theory useful for further healing their reality.

Once, one wonderful woman in her twenties came to find me. She had been left at an orphanage by her mother and had been raised by an adopted grandmother who recently died.  After that, other family members began to deal drugs from the house, which is not uncommon in Trinidad and Tobago. She moved by an uncle who tried to molest her, saying sometimes there were things she would have to do. She had just experienced her second miscarriage, and been abandoned by the baby’s father. He had been concerned not only about her as a burden, but as a stain to his reputation because they had conceived out of marriage. Now he wanted her to hide her truths. She was staying with friends and had to move. Still managing post-partum depression, she dreamt her lost baby crying on mornings, experienced black-outs and was trying to find her feet on her own.  She was in crisis despite looking young, polished and professional, and starting a new term of school.

When these are your students, what do you do?

As I stand looking at them on the first day of class, sometimes all I want is to push them to get the grades, pressure them to do the work, give them something to focus on and at which to succeed. In giving all to their education, there is a way they learn focus, discipline, acceptance and self-love. They learn to discard some of what has locked down their spirit. They learn that, although it is not easy, change is always possible, for each person differently.

I expect students to earn their degree and I’m prepared to give my all to them. I help them to learn to read critically, write analytically and understand how knowledge can change the world. More specifically, my job is to help them learn to apply and reflect on feminist theory and the lens it provides to their own and others’ lives. I’m focused on course content and assignments and I expect my students to be too. Yet, over the years, I’ve repeatedly discovered that that can just be too much.

It’s like this in schools everywhere in the nation.  I teach the curriculum, but hope that each year my students also gain the power they need for both liberation and transformation.