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Report From The Field--The Winds Of Change

Updated: May 25, 2021

Had a discussion a few weeks ago in my philosophy class that perfectly demonstrates my point in my earlier post about student conformity ….it also was simply weird. We were talking about the James Damore google fiasco (For context, read background here and here, and read his actual memo here. In the second link, you will need to scroll past the first part about Trump to get to the part about Damore.). I had them do a mini-research project: read the memo he wrote that got him fired, read the back and forth about it (both sides), and write/discuss what you think. Was he being sexist? Should he have been fired? etc. This is a good intro activity about many issues in gender. It makes abstract concepts and questions real, and it gets students talking. When I did this project in CA back a few years ago, a noticeable number of students just scoffed at the view that he was sexist. Students have always mostly leaned heavy left, but in past years that had its limits. Even a few of the strongest feminists students pretty confidently said no, he shouldn't have been fired and no he wasn't sexist. Though some did disagree with some things he said, what he said was fairly benign, and the real question was whether what he said was true or false, not whether it was hurtful. A sizable portion of my students held that men and women are different, even if those differences are hard to articulate and there are plenty of exceptions, and we should avoid pigeon-holing as a result of those generalities. Even as late as 2018, this view was prominent. I don’t know if it was the majority view, but it was pretty clearly represented.

Well, no more. In just a few years, the wind has changed substantially, at least based on this year’s classes. Granted these classes could be outliers, but I don't think so. Almost every student, men included, were deeply offended by what Damore said. They couldn't even understand what he was saying. They kept manufacturing offense by putting words in his mouth: "He's saying that men are better than women" "He's saying women shouldn't be in tech jobs" etc etc. And this was dogmatic. No matter how many times I asked questions to get them to slow down and pause, they persisted. No matter how many times I asked “where does he say that in the memo?” they struggled mightily to produce anything actual. A few actually did manage to point to a quote, but those quotes, on further inspection, either were clarified by context or did not even come close to saying what the student(s) thought.

Keep in mind that I teach in a Texas suburb. This ain’t Portlandia. It’s middle America.

Some were deeply, deeply offended that he even suggested that some differences between men and women are a) not rooted in the patriarchy, b) are rooted in biology, and c) might play a role in career and vocation choices/outcomes.

I asked one student "so what would Damore have to do to convince you that these differences between men and women are real? Is there anything he could say to get you to change your mind? How many studies would he have to reference?"

Answer: "None. As a man, it is not his place to be talking like that to a woman." (Well, that is the genetic fallacy, but never mind that.)

Me: "So what if it was a woman saying it, or what if he pointed to a study by a woman that made the same points he made. Would that change things?"

Answer: "No." A firm no.

She was adamant and straightforward: nothing would change her mind. The differences Damore pointed to were obvious fictions, to her.

Out of both classes, perhaps 23-25 each class, there was ONE student...ONE...who said "you guys aren't even understanding him correctly. I don't get why everyone is offended. I feel like I'm in 1984 here with the way you guys are responding." Yes, or like Animal Farm. It's like the students were mindlessly repeating "four legs good" again and again, except her. She has been willing to oppose the crowd in a few discussions. I admire her for that. For the others, their insistence, dogmatism, and utter inability to understand opposition was astounding.

Again: this is an anecdote, which is limited in what it can actually prove. This might just be this year, this group of students, my classroom. I say this caveat often. It could totally be due to some particularity of the way I teach. It could be due to the nature of online school, which makes everyone loopy in the head and socially off kilter. It could also be just the ones that talked in the discussion happened to be the most outspokenly progressive (not everyone talked). Then again, if the students that didn't talk thought differently, you have to wonder why they didn't speak up. Was it general shyness, or was it fear of looking weird? Did the ones who did speak confidently do so because deep down, they felt socially safe laying it all out there, while the others didn't feel so socially secure? I’ve heard things like this enough from students to suggest a pattern, though. There might be something to it.

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