Dalhousie University is in the news again, to the dismay of its administrators. Following the scandal earlier this year in which male dentistry students made comments on social media that joked about rape and generally debased women, a more recent report told of how male students in a university residence shared explicit images of female students without their consent. A few days later, the Chronicle-Herald reported on threatening misogynist graffiti near the student union building, apparently targeting two women who have fought actively against sexism on campus.
The university has rightly faced intense scrutiny regarding its reaction to these incidents. In the dentistry case many raised questions about the restorative justice process that was used, and in the photo-sharing case, the parent of the student who reported the incident said Dalhousie was “more concerned with their reputation than with the welfare of those who have been victimized.” That student says she has been ostracized by her peers.
Obviously, however, misogyny and gender-based violence are problems that go far beyond behaviour at one university. (For an in-depth look at behaviour at another university, check out this series by journalism students at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.) How it is that the young men involved in these incidents think it’s at all appropriate to do these things in the first place?
It’s a common refrain that we don’t yet understand how modern technological influences (like social media or increased access to pornography) affect our behaviour and our brains. But commentators who grew up before the Internet age have pointed out that misogyny itself is nothing new. As someone who went to university in the 60’s told me, men in his day said the same kinds of hateful things that were posted in the Dalhousie Dentistry Facebook group; it’s just that they weren’t archived on line for all to see. The Dalhousie Student Union recognized this in a press release about the incidents, calling for concrete measures to address systemic sexism on campus.
Teachers have a special role to play in combating misogyny. No matter what subjects we teach, the time we spend with our students is an opportunity to model and encourage positive behaviour. Male teachers can send an especially strong message to students by standing up against sexism and misogyny, as this sends the message that men can and should take responsibility for these issues.
Here are some suggestions for ways that teachers, especially males, can confront misogyny. I have no pretence of having all the answers, and this is not intended to be a comprehensive list; in fact, I’d appreciate other suggestions in the comments below.
1. Make an effort to understand sexism and misogyny. Like, really understand them. Many people don’t understand just how pervasive misogyny is. It’s not just outright expressions of woman-hatred that are the problem, but also the ubiquity of street harassment, the double standards in expectations of men and women’s behaviour, the victim-blaming in cases of rape, the gaslighting, and much more. Do a bit of background reading (I recommend the Finally Feminism 101 blog). Resist the urge to get defensive, and try to empathize.
2. Identify and address sexist language, behaviour and social structures. The most overt examples of bad behaviour are relatively easy to pick up on (and relatively rare, since students mostly know how not to behave in front of their teacher). When they do occur, overtly sexist comments – e.g. using gendered slurs for women, or saying a male student “acts like a girl” – should be called out and deconstructed. Saying “what do you mean by that?” can be an effective way to unpack a casual comment and start a productive discussion on pervasive sexism in general.
Other, more subtle behaviours require a bit more careful observation and thought for teachers to address. Who’s teasing who in class or in the halls? Who gets blamed? Which students tend to invade others’ personal space? Who tends to interrupt more in class discussions? How do students talk about men and women differently?
The best ways to deal with situations like these varies greatly according to circumstances, and often isn’t easy. Letting them slide, though, sends the message that all is OK. It can be challenging to find the right point of intervention, but we need to figure out how to do it.
3. Analyze class materials for subtle gender biases. Heard of the Bechdel Test? Use it to evaluate fiction used in class: many, many stories centre exclusively around the stories of men. Modern textbooks are getting better at representing gender diversity in their pictures – there are many more women doing carpentry and men in the kitchen than there were 50 years ago. The reality, though, is that many teachers use more than textbooks to mix things up in the classroom, especially when there are thousands of non-copyrighted videos and other Internet resources available on demand. How are people of different genders portrayed in these? What are they seen doing/not doing? What subtle messages do these portrayals send?
A related concern is the depiction – or lack thereof – of LGBTQ people in class materials. Misogyny, homophobia and transphobia are connected, and even small gestures to increase visibility of LGBTQ people can leave an impact on students. In math or science word problems, or in grammar exercises in English or other language classes, are couples always presented as opposite-sex? Are trans people represented at all? Normalizing non-heteronormativity can be a simple, but powerful way to challenge gender norms. Having students calculate the dimensions for the guest tables at Roberto and Malik’s wedding instead of Jack and Jane’s might seem insignificant, but it sends an important message to students: this is normal.
4. Talk up women. In your class, mention accomplished women often. There should be plenty of occasions to do this, at least in passing, no matter what subject you teach. They could be someone from your personal/professional life, or someone well known. Mention what makes them an impressive person. Don’t mention their appearance.
5. Mark occasions like International Women’s Day (March 8th) and the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women (December 6th). It may be easier in some subject areas than others to fit in class activities or discussions about these days; that said, a mention by a math or phys ed teacher, or even a poster in a classroom, sends the message that these days are worthy of attention. Language arts and social studies teachers can examine them more in depth, but other teachers can let it be known that this is part of their world, too.
6. Advocate for more content about gender and other equity issues in the curriculum. Ontario recently modernized its sex-education curriculum, which hadn’t been updated since 1998. The new document introduces the concept of consent at a young age and talks about same-sex couples soon after. It seems like a good start, but more progress is needed across the country. The high-profile cases of misogyny we’ve seen in the media recently point to the need for deep cultural change, which the education system should play a part in facilitating. It was disappointing that the Nova Scotia government’s Education Action Plan released earlier this year made no mention of such changes.
Have any other suggestions? Leave them in the comments below.