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3 Application: Seeing Gender and Transgressions Projects

3 Application: Seeing Gender and Transgressions Projects

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C.A. Kunkel

The first week I may bring in newspaper or online stories that illustrate some gender

issue in the world—a statement from a female UAE physician, for example, “Don’t

make important decisions while menstruating” (Don’t 2014). I ask for student input.

We discuss the implications (What are the underlying assumptions? What does it

mean that a woman is saying this?) We do this every Friday throughout the semester. In the weekly “seeing gender” analyses, they show other students how they are

developing awareness of the gender order, how they participate in gender circuits

(Connell 2009), how pervasive gender is in everyday life, and how lived reality is

connected to theory. Many are at first reluctant, but the students get excited about


“The seeing gender assignments were fantastic because I saw gender everywhere. I now have a “seeing gender” bookmark on my computer browser and it is

quite full. Almost every day I would see something and whisper “gender” incredulously to myself. Now I see that gender is everywhere and while I still articulate my

surprise occasionally, I see that gender truly is everywhere so it is not always so

shocking.” (Alexandra 2014). The students come to see gender in social structures

and practice, in everyday life.

Another says. “If patriarchy is so deeply engrained in a popular religious text,

how deeply engrained is it in everyday society? According to Connell, FaustoSterling, Feinberg, Lorber, and Ferber, it is exceedingly engrained. Our weekly

seeing gender stories were evidence of this. It did not take much effort to “see gender,” adding validity to its omnipresent nature.” (Anne 2014).

They share examples of how they notice the pink label on their shoes marking

them as women’s; how a bartender is heterosexualized but also questions men who

drink diet soda, how “lite” menus only show pictures of women in online advertising. They report catching themselves saying guys, noticing male professors’ lack of

concern over family leave policies, of connecting the assumptions of sexual identity

when gender is not performed appropriately, of questioning one’s own identities, or

recognizing the fluidity of gender. They note their own complicity, they question

everything, and they see how pervasive the social construction of gender is in


I also assign them a gender transgressions project. This project stems from my

own graduate school days working with Professor Joyce McCarl Nielsen. The purpose of this assignment is to have students determine the boundaries of some contemporary gender norms and to discover and challenge their own boundaries around

gender. A secondary purpose is to give students the subjective experience of violating a self-defined gender norm—to give “hands-on” experience. Importantly I work

with them to acknowledge the diversity of experience and variance of gender conformity. Each student begins where they are to examine their own gender norms or

boundaries—from never before questioned to radically queer. Each student then

chooses a boundary of their own to transgress.

Many students don’t succeed in following through with the transgressive practice but simply fumble through real life experiences. Others have examples from a

lifetime of transgressions. For example, this year several men committed to wearing

a dress or a jogging bra and couldn’t go through with it. Women agreed to use male


From Protest to Praxis or Being Real in the Classroom


restrooms or try on men’s shoes and they chickened out. They discovered it was

harder to act against the norm than they had imagined. Gender queer students had

to be very introspective about what boundaries they still upheld and sought to challenge those. We had to confront the realities of transgressing boundaries on their

terms, in their lives. Many had to conjure up the courage to confess their failures,

then to discuss and question it. In sum, being real in the classroom means allowing

students to transgress the boundaries of a traditional classroom to ask questions that

really matter to them in the real world—and some that don’t—and not just read

books. It means being able to admit our failures, our complicity, discuss it, and ask

why. It means respecting difference.

An oft reported benefit is that students see the intersections of sex, gender and

heteronormativity in action. They experience homophobia, are often harassed and

heterosexualized (so I stress safety), and they come to see gendered heteronormativity at work in everyday life (Nielsen et al. 2000). They learn from their own reactions and others. We discuss research, theory and their lived experiences. Students

are often stunned to think some of their classmates may experience this everyday.

And they begin to reflect on gender in their own everyday lives. One student noted,

“I began to see how gender issues are everywhere, not just in the texts and history,

but in my daily life! I went from seeing some things here and there to seeing it in all

of the little things, like how people speak, the language and tone they use and how

that relates to the big picture of gender and patriarchy” (Branna 2014).



In learning gender theory and using stories and application activities, the students

come to see how our everyday actions tend to support the gender order. Thus, they

begin to see that their actions can also challenge the gender order through changing

their everyday actions. Moving to action and seeing that there are things one can do

in everyday life to combat patriarchy and the gender system is empowering. Armed

with theory and experience, the students are able to move from complicity to praxis.

Praxis is putting theory into action. Empowerment to speak and to question in the

classroom aids the students in putting theory into practice outside the classroom.

Developing a gender consciousness is potentially revolutionary. It gives one the

knowledge and thus the potential to change the system. One student when he realized in a job interview that he was analyzing his co-interviewees and his potential

employer on their gendered behavior, he came to class asking how to turn his gender consciousness off. Another student who caught herself judging a fellow student

on his hair style commented that she was a terrible person, to which I responded that

she was just human and congratulated her on her developing gender consciousness.

She responded that it was “an incredible blessing and an immaculate curse.”

Changing or raising student’s consciousness about the gender order and their complicity in it provides them with the ability to challenge that system. They want to

know how to change it. They find answers in our return to theory and praxis. As one


C.A. Kunkel

student notes, “With my dose of gender consciousness I also received this burden

that will hopefully inspire me to act” (Anne 2014). Another student concludes,

“Lorber was the most practical piece we read over the semester. Although Connell

and Fausto-Sterling were deeply rooted in the ideology, which is important to know,

the texts felt distant. After a while I got the point, that inequality is everywhere and

patriarchy constantly perpetuates it. I think after the gender norm violation project

the desire for praxis became even greater. We had spent so much time learning, seeing and living the inequality but before Lorber we really didn’t know what to do.

Even though we were starved for praxis for a while, Lorber comes at the right time.

The final chunk of the semester is a good time to teach praxis and empower us to

create a world worth living in” (Sam 2014).


Conclusions or What the Students Said

Through theory, storytelling, application and praxis I try to invert the norms of a

traditional academic classroom to move students to claim their agency and integrate

knowledge with habits of being. I work on helping them learn to question why we

engage in certain practices of gender, to see their own embodiment of gender, and

to take ownership for their constructions of gender in and beyond the classroom. In

students’ final papers I ask them to tell me what they learned in the course. One

student says “the lessons I learned concerning praxis will be the ones I take with me

the most beyond this class as they were ones that took me out of the bounds of the

mind, into the heart, and out into the world” (Anonymous 2014). Another noted,

“Three of the major things I will take away from this class are a better understanding of patriarchy and how it functions in our system, the flimsiness of biological

arguments that are used to justify patriarchy, and ways that I can take what I have

learned in this class and put it into action” (Kate 2014). Finally, “What is truly

unique and extraordinary about this particular class, Sociology of Gender, is that it

not only teaches through text but also by example” (Jacq 2014).

I agree with the students that our progress or “success” as a class isn’t just about

what we read, but is about reading theory and narratives, telling stories, applying

that knowledge to everyday experiences, and learning to put into praxis that knowledge. Being real in the classroom helps them to apply theory to experience, and vice

versa. As hooks reminds me, integrating theory and practice is critical to learning

and to the creation of community. I am awed that students could transgress the

boundaries of a traditional classroom to ask questions that really mattered to them

in the real world—not just what we read in the books. I am awed that they are

changing their language and habits of being. I had a student say the course was like

a bomb that blew up everything she thought she knew. She experienced a paradigm

shift. For me this is success. The key to dismantling the gender order is to move

from protest or resistance to praxis. For many of us this will require a paradigm

shift. Being real in the classroom and valuing experience helps students negotiate

this process.


From Protest to Praxis or Being Real in the Classroom



Anzaldua, G. (1987). Borderlands/la frontera: The new mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Bolus, S. (2012). Loving outside simple lines. In Ferber (Ed.), Sex, gender, sexuality: The new

basics (pp. 146–149). New York: Oxford University Press.

Connell, R. (2009). Gender: Short introductions (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

“Don’t Make Important Decisions…” (2014 September 23). 7 Days in Dubai. http://7daysindubai.

com/dont-make-important-decisions-menstruating-says-top-female-doctor-uae/ Accessed 15

Mar 2015.

Fausto-Sterling, A. (2012). Sex/gender: Biology in a social world. New York: Routledge.

Feinberg, L. (1993). Stone butch blues. New York: Firebrand Books.

Ferber, A. L., Holcomb, K., & Wentling, T. (2012). Sex, gender, sexuality: The new basics (2nd

ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York:


Kunkel, C. (2014). ‘Hey guys’: Gender and the power of words. http://www.luther.edu/ideascreations-blog/?story_id=575544. Accessed 12 Oct 2014.

Lorber, J. (2011). Gender inequality: Feminist theories and politics (5th ed.). New York: Oxford

University Press.

Matzner, A. (2012). ‘O Au No Krei: Voices from Hawai’I’s Mahu and transgender communities.

In Ferber et al. (Eds.), Sex, gender, sexuality: The new basics (pp. 109–117). New York: Oxford

University Press.

Nielsen, J. M., Walden, G., & Kunkel, C. A. (2000). Gendered heteronormativity: Empirical illustrations in everyday life. The Sociological Quarterly, 41(2), 283–296.

Tabatabai, A. (2012). Protecting the lesbian border: The tension between individual and communal

authenticity. In Ferber et al. (Eds.), Sex, gender, sexuality: The new basics (pp. 152–162).

New York: Oxford University Press.

Chapter 18

They Don’t Get It: The Promise

and Problem of Using Student

Resistance as a Pedagogical Tool

Courtney Caviness, Patti Giuffre, and Maria Wasley-Valdez

Sociologists must often grapple with student resistance to thinking critically about

gender. Many of us feel frustrated that students “don’t get it.” We get to the end of

the semester and perceive little intellectual growth from students, due to their inability to apply the sociological imagination. In socially and politically conservative

areas, and in this neoliberal era, teaching about gender inequality can be particularly

challenging. A powerful method of teaching about gender inequality is to teach

about research on student resistance and the gendered classroom dynamics that can

contribute to such resistance (for example, see Copp and Kleinman 2008; Davis

1992; Ergun 2013; Kleinman and Copp 2009; Moore 1997). Previous scholars have

described how and why students are resistant to learning about and engaging with

studies of gender. According to Davis (1992), a resistant class (or students), “…

deny the existence or importance of inequality or may argue that conditions are

improving so rapidly that no interventions are needed” (p. 232). As Davis argues,

some resistance is “healthy” and we do not intend to make the case that our goal is

to stop resistance altogether. Teaching students about their own or others’ resistance, however, can open up important dialogues that might otherwise be stifled. On

the other hand, engaging with student resistance might appear to those who do “get

it” (i.e., students who think critically about gender without hostility towards the

course material and faculty member) as pandering to those who don’t “get it.” Many

of us encounter feminist students who hope for instructors who teach for them, and

Each author contributed equally to this chapter. We would like to thank Gayle Bouzard, Kirsten

Dellinger, Tim Paetzold, Ellen Slaten, and Gretchen Webber for comments on this chapter.

C. Caviness (*)

University of California-Davis, Davis, CA, USA

e-mail: ccaviness@ucdavis.edu

P. Giuffre • M. Wasley-Valdez

Texas State University, San Marcos, TX, USA

e-mail: pg07@txstate.edu; mw1331@txstate.edu

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

K. Haltinner, R. Pilgeram (eds.), Teaching Gender and Sex

in Contemporary America, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-30364-2_18



C. Caviness et al.

who also confront and disengage with resistant students. Our feminist students look

forward to classes with faculty who both teach feminism and engage in feminist

teaching (Weitz 2010).

Our chapter discusses how to engage with student resistance from a faculty perspective, and the potential consequences of doing so from the perspectives of two

progressive, feminist students. We are certainly not the first to assess student resistance to learning about gender inequality (as examples, refer to Copp and Kleinman

2008; Davis 1992; Ergun 2013; Kleinman and Copp 2009; Moore 1997); however,

our chapter is novel because of its inclusion of former student perspectives on resistance in the classroom. The first part of this chapter describes how Patti engages

with student resistance in her undergraduate and graduate courses. The second part

of the chapter describes how two of Patti’s former students, Maria and Courtney,

interpreted these strategies, what they learned, and the strengths and weaknesses of

using student resistance as a pedagogical tool.1 In particular, they point to problems

with Patti’s strategies from the perspective of students who already identify as progressive feminists who think critically about gender.


Patti’s Faculty Perspective: Engaging

with and Teaching About Resistance

in the Gendered Classroom

I came out of my doctoral program energized and passionate about studying gender

inequality. I could not wait to teach about it. During my first 2 years of teaching

courses on gender, I was perplexed and a little frustrated: “Why do some students

seem so antagonistic about many of the topics? Why would they be hostile to learning about the gendered and racial wage gap? I am simply showing them factual

statistics and patterns and offering sociological explanations for the wage gap!”

After being immersed in sociology with other like-minded sociologists, I could not

understand why any of the course material would produce doubt, non-verbal “checking out,” or questions about the legitimacy and validity of the information. Why

don’t students “get it,” I wondered. I began to realize that, as someone who teaches

about inequalities, I would likely encounter various forms of resistance for the rest

of my career. It took me a while longer to figure out that I had a couple of options in

managing my feelings towards their resistance. One response (which, frankly, was

the most frequent during my first couple of years of teaching) was to feel angry

towards students and let them know that they were wrong to doubt me or any of the

data I presented. In other words, I could show the students my continued frustration


Patti asked two of her former graduate students to collaborate on this chapter because both took

sociology of gender with her while they were undergraduate and then graduate students. She also

trusted these particular students to be critical of her strategies. For this reason, the tone of the

chapter is reflective and autoethnographic. We must also switch pronouns occasionally from “I” to



They Don’t Get It: The Promise and Problem of Using Student Resistance…


to indicate that I could not understand why they did not “get it.” I falsely believed

that they would then believe that the studies I presented were accurate, and in turn

become as passionate about learning about gender inequality as I was about teaching it. That was an unsuccessful strategy.

I discovered that an alternative, more successful strategy was to teach and talk to

my class about student resistance to studying gender and other forms of inequalities.

I draw out the resistance instead of being angry about it. I now take this approach

throughout the semester. Instead of wondering, “How can you doubt that there is a

wage gap?” I say, “In the past, some students have felt uncomfortable or even

become antagonistic towards discussing work inequality. Why do you think that is?

Why do some students respond with hostility towards wage gap data that show that

women earn less than men?” These types of questions allow students to talk about

resistance. They open a space for critical thinking and more analytical discussions.

At the undergraduate level, I end the semester by talking more directly about

studies of student resistance. In the last week of class, I remind students about the

goals of sociology and how the major concepts and theories described in the course

help explain the importance of gender in our everyday lives. I then ask, “Why might

some students feel resistance to sociological perspectives on gender and gender

inequality?” We discuss reasons why some students feel resistant, and I list arguments based on Kleinman and Copp’s (2009) description of beliefs that encourage

resistance, including: (1) Inequality has to be intentional; (2) Subtle forms of

inequality don’t really matter. Inequality is only harmful if it is extreme, immediate,

and overt; (3) Inequality is infrequent; sociologists exaggerate it; (4) Bad or ignorant people engage in inequality. Well-meaning people don’t engage in inequality;

and, (5) People are overly sensitive about inequality (racism, sexism, and homophobia). We discuss these beliefs, and I ask, “What if you were a faculty member teaching about gender or other inequalities and encountered student resistance? What

would you do?” That discussion is one of the best of the semester. It engages with

students’ gendered critical thinking by pushing them to personally interrogate their

own resistance to thinking about inequalities and acknowledge what can be an academic elephant in the room. Allowing students to talk about “other students” can be

less threatening for those who feel hostile towards the course material. I intentionally draw out some of the resistance.

Part of student resistance can be related to a feeling of “those studies do not

apply to me.” Some topics in our gender classes are not personally experienced

everyday by all of our students. Some students have not (yet) engaged in care work.

Most have not been and will never be sex workers. Some have no personal experiences with transmen or transwomen, as far as they know. Yet, all students are students. All experience the university classroom every day. Consequently, teaching

about gender in the classroom can be a powerful way to increase gender awareness

and critical thinking about gender. There are several articles that are particularly

useful in this regard (e.g., Bellas 1999; Webber 2005) but for the sake of brevity, I

will discuss one that I find very effective for undergraduate classes, which concerns

“white guy habitus” by Michael Messner (2000). During the first week of my

undergraduate class, I introduce a core sociological idea that we often perceive the

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3 Application: Seeing Gender and Transgressions Projects

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