Escaping unidimensionality

I’m in my third week back in school and well on my way to getting used to the nature of things in social sciences. Although I had taken various writing-intensive social science and humanities courses back during my undergraduate studies, they were somewhat easily balanced in terms of workload with other engineering and science courses. Taking all social science courses initially proved to be somewhat challenging, but I am adjusting very well to the learning curve.

Last night, a friend told me a very interesting anecdote about the earlier versions of the Cinderella story. Apparently in those versions, the stepsisters had to cut off parts of their feet in order to fit into the glass slipper. She said, ultimately, that Cinderella is not a story about finding Prince Charming at all, but rather a story about retaining your self-image and experiences in the face of adversity. This is very much at odds with what the overarching message Cinderella seems to represent in popular culture, but I really needed hear this deviation of interpretation from the norm.

2013 has thus far been a very odd year for me in that it seemed people and institutions were quick to relegate me to roles without much scope or depth, and without any real input for me. Apparently progressive individuals and institutions, who sought more transparency from upper levels of bureaucracy, responded to my grievances towards them by silencing me or by delineating my power over my own roles. This was emotionally taxing and frankly quite infuriating. The experience of unwillingly being assigned roles I had little chance to negotiate can be a frustrating and degrading experience, regardless of the learning opportunities they seemed to provide. I am currently in a place, where at least professionally, I have creative control and input over a large project involving institutional image and development – and it sure feels empowering to vocalize myself in a way that sets the foundation for the institution’s future.

The idea of the unidimensional use of people is nothing new. In our lives, it is difficult indeed to cater towards all aspects of any individual, but commonly we aim to have create an understanding of depth of the people around us – and actively acknowledge that they may indeed have a rich inner life independent of our views of them. It frustrates me to no end when I am not afforded my own agency and respect simply because it is easier for an institution or individual to compartmentalize me into a narrow role that protects their interests more than it does mine.

Thus, in the spirit of escaping the tyranny of unidimensionality, I have proposed a new policy for myself going forward. I will not be afraid to demand that my own space and needs be met by individuals and institutions, regardless of how long and at what capacity we aim to work together. I will not simply be ascribed a role that completely negates my needs for transparency, respect and empowerment while serving those for others.

I will not be intimidated into silence, made to believe that how things are cater to the protection of my freedoms and needs. I will not be shamed for speaking up and made to seem unreasonable to simply demand what I already ought to know.

I will not be an unquestioning employee, a lover but not a friend, a friend but not a critic, and least of all, I will not cooperate or desist when injustices have been committed against me. If nothing else, I will at least make sure that it is heard, because ultimately, I am the owner of my experiences and viewpoints, and I have the freedom to do as I please with them, within reason of course, and this time around, I intend to use that freedom.

Towards a history of sexism in STEM fields

Recently, I read a paper by Judy Wajcman, a sociology professor from the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, entitled ‘Feminist Theories of Technology’ (Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2010, pp. 143-152). The paper gives a good overview of the exchange of ideas spanning centuries with regards to the gender relations facilitated and manifested by technologies through time.

Upon evaluating a more theoretical background to feminist critiques of the women in STEM ‘problem’, I see the necessity in framing the associated questions in much different light.

To clarify, I think contemporary critiques, such as the most recent ‘What women don’t want‘ by Khadijah M. Britton, are imbued with cogent rhetoric which helps raise awareness of the damage done to both women and the industry at large when discrimination occurs. Nonetheless, I think everyone who cares about sexism in tech can benefit from understanding how things came to be as they are now. We need to go beyond the umbrella argument, that it simply is the nature of patriarchy manifested as it permeated into tech cultures, as the paramount explanation for how things are.

What do we mean when say ‘technology’? The word today most saliently evokes images of civil and mechanical engineering industries as well as information technology. Wajcman argues that these representations of technology illustrate the typical late 19th century, post-Industrial Revolution views of technology, while erasing all innovation undertaken by women in the domestic realm – their contributions to the sciences and technologies in cooking, childcare and communication. When the latter is completely eradicated from the popular imagination of what technology constitutes, it is no wonder women continue to experience erasure and feelings of incompetence when their own input to the improved quality of life that we all capitalize on has been obfuscated.

Perhaps we should aim to acknowledge the technological prowess, critical thinking skills and analytical skills of women of all ages and generations, regardless of whether or not that conforms to our concurrent view of what tech looks like. This broadening of the paradigm will not only ease the anxieties women feel about their abilities but also enable technology-oriented cultures to see themselves more intuitively as part of a greater social fabric, bridging the untenable gap between the low- and the high-tech diasporas.

Penalizing rape chants has everything to do with preserving intellectual integrity

Yesterday, Prof. Mark Mercer of St. Mary’s University wrote an article for University Affairs magazine asking with the seemingly innocuous question “Are there any universities in Canada?”. Knowing everything we do about the crisis in higher education, with respect to both increasing tuition fees and the lack of job opportunities for students and graduates, one may think it is just another take contributing to the ongoing and useful debate about the future of higher education in North America.

However, Prof. Mercer just used the bait of a headline to perpetuate the climate of hostility and ambivalence to the complaints of women (and other genders and minorities) that have historically plagued universities in the western world. His idea, that “[to] be a university, an institution must be a place in which people value intellectual integrity” is indeed idealistic, and far from the historical and current realities of universities in that they are not the meritocratic institutions with complete freedom of speech and expression that he purports they should be. If they indeed were places where intellectual integrity of individuals were paramount, they would not have continued to discriminate against or impose barriers against the advancement of women, LGBT people, people of colour, people of low socioeconomic status, or of particular religious affiliations, in ways that are both direct and insidious, to this day.

In fact, rape chants such as the ones undertaken by SMU students only work to distance institutions away from Prof. Mercer’s own ideals of what a university should be. Perhaps he does not know, but these ‘harmless’ antics alienate women, and I am sure a lot of men too, who find themselves in an undesirable environment where sexual harassment is normalized, and any complaints against it gets one labelled as anti-intellectual integrity – for the sake of the preservation of the spirit of free expression that a university aims to embody.

This is an idea I’m sure many social activist types are pretty damn tired of proselytizing further. Freedom of speech and expression do not cover threats to bodily autonomy of individuals, or hate crimes, and that while individual members of our society are free to do or say whatever they please, consequences exist. Prof. Mercer should therefore not be decrying the death of freedom of expression at universities – he should acknowledge that it exists, and that unfortunately for a specific group of students at SMU, it meant becoming a subject of scrutiny across North America, while graduates of the institution came forward to return their degrees in protest. It is the likes of Colin McGinn and Hugo Schwyzer that have poisoned the spirit of intellectual integrity in their respective institutions by propagating the already endemic sexism that women in academia face, not those who came forward against them.

Additionally, Prof. Mercer should know that by opposing the penalization of students who partook in the chants, he just used their positions to indirectly harm women and in turn, perpetuate a culture of discrimination and misogyny, by dismissing the scrutiny against the contentious acts.  If he wants Canadian ‘universities’ to become better approximations of his ideals for such institutions, he should encourage and support more disciplinary action against similarly toxic behaviours in the student body – and that’s how we can preserve the intellectual integrity of universities.