In the back-to-school issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, you can get an unintentionally amusing look at what happens when a progressive educator meets a truly captive audience. “Today is my first day teaching at MCI-Norfolk, a medium-security men’s penitentiary located 50 minutes outside Boston, where Boston University sponsors classes for inmates earning college degrees,” Tracy Slater writes in the September 1st issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. “My course will be an interdisciplinary seminar: ‘Gender, Identity, and Violence.’”
“I'll be teaching a group of men whose individual crimes I neither know nor wish to learn, but I've been told that the class most likely contains murderers, rapists, drug dealers, and thieves.” Ms. Slater is a freelance writer and a lecturer at Boston University. Not too surprisingly, she considers herself “a thirtysomething feminist scholar who wrote my dissertation on gender and violence in the modern novel.”
Three weeks into the course, she breaks the ice by asking her class of hardened inmates “if there’s gender in prison.”
“At first the students look at me blankly, their expressions implying, ‘We’re all men here, so why your question?’ But then we make a chart on the wall, mapping their social hierarchy.”
Five weeks later, she tries to lead a discussion of Judith Halberstam’s essay on drag kings, "Masculinity and Performance." “Halberstam suggests that, despite the greater public visibility of drag queens, drag kings make up a viable subculture that reflects the ease of aping both genders, prompting us to question how fixed anyone’s gender role is,” Slater points out. “Nudging my students to address these abstract notions, I say: ‘In prison, gender roles are so rigid, so traditionally defined: Men are tough, violent; ‘women’ are weak, victimized.”
“But actually, the very idea that men can become ‘women’ is quite revolutionary.” She goes on to frame the debate for her streetwise audience by using terms they might not encounter frequently behind bars, such as “posits,” “transgressive,” “contextual,” “flexible,” and “situational.”
“Dead silence,” she recalls. “Twenty faces stare at me hesitantly, a few looking confused, most understanding quite well but appearing deeply disturbed.”
“And then one of the older students, who usually sits quietly shaking his head, bursts forth. ‘Yeah, I just have to say something about these readings we’ve been doing,’ he starts. ‘I don't agree with any of this ****, men dressing like women, women acting like men ...’ He trails off in another head shake, graying and dignified dreadlocks swaying in consternation, as if perhaps it’s time he set straight this woman half his age. The others jump in, joking, guffawing, seizing on group ridicule of what they characterize as the pure silliness of men wearing makeup and women donning mustaches.”
“Although the moment is lost, I wonder whether a speck of my question has seeped into their minds.” It’s a cinch that at least one mind remained impervious to seepage.
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