Wednesday, December 18

bookshelf feminism and other thoughts

months ago, friend Priya had us all over at her place and as we admired her bookshelves she boasted of the diversity they represented. she said something about how few of her books were written by white men. most of them were the work of women and minorities. Priya owns many books. she's into minority rhetorics. her shelves are full of Victor Villanueva and bell hooks and this makes plenty of sense.

I came home from Priya's to look at my own bookshelves. they are not as extensive or as well-populated as so many of my colleagues'. I am not and may never be much of a book owner. but aside from a few anthology/textbook conglomerations, which seem in some sense semi-obligated to be comprehensive and broadly inclusive, and The Beekeeper's Apprentice, all my books--the Oscar Wilde, the C.S. Lewis, the George Orwell, the Arthur Conan Doyle, the Norton Juster, and the Mervyn Peake--were the work of this sampling of a long-privileged majority.

if my book collection were of any substantial size, maybe this might be more worrisome. maybe someday I'll look through a list of all the books I've ever read and tally the white/non-white ratio there. that could be interesting.

in any case, what Priya reads vs. what I read is not a contest that makes sense to hold. in fact, lumping all white men into a category like they're all the same bland mush has its own problems. as homogenous as my bookshelves' authors may seem, Wilde and Orwell certainly didn't have the same background or lifestyle or perspective.

but last month, as I spent a day in that room full of women learning Ruby on Rails, one of them spoke for a few minutes about women in tech and the importance of role models. she said it's hard to feel like you can or should do a thing if you don't see people like you doing it, and this is one reason there's such gendered segregation in some professions. not seeing women or minorities represented in a field will make that field seem fairly off-limits to you if you're a woman or a minority.

this TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie (thanks to friend Chris for sending the link) touches on similar ideas, using stories from her own life. I love what she says about stereotypes being more dangerous for being limited than for being wrong: "the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete; they make one story become the only story." if the only story involves only certain characters, where does that leave the rest of us? if only men can be successful programmers, or if only women can knit, or if only tall black guys can play basketball--that leaves out a million other stories--stories that are totally possible, but somehow get hard to imagine without some precedent.

so yesterday, when I was thinking about my teaching plans for next semester and listing out ideas for the kinds of examples I'd show my future students, ideas for models they might find useful as we approach our various writing projects, I wanted to diversify the story. "smart, successful writer" does not have a single definition or single story. the experiences and imaginations of white men are not the only meaningful kind.

the thing was... I also wanted to include examples of well-done, well-presented, nicely-scripted but not too scripted-sounding, researched-based compositions in video form. stuff like Vsauce, CrashCourse, this C.G.P. Grey guy, and my new obsession, the PBS Idea Channel. there are a plenty of similar productions all over youtube. there are algorithms that suggest ones you may not have seen yet. I started exploring, using my half-formed syllabus as a framework for the kinds of material that might be most useful.

and somewhat depressingly, I realized all the youtube channels I've so far been exposed to along these lines are hosted by men. young-ish. white. men.

John Green (echoing what bunches and bunches of people have been saying for ages about women in [insert your favourite male-dominated whatever]) presents a few reasons why this might be so.

for a good hour I wrestled with search engines, trying to find similar research-based content as part of established, well-designed programs presented by a non-white, non-male host. it was hard. it was hard to even know what to search for. results for "women on youtube" merely compounded my disappointment.

thankfully, when I explained my frustrations to friend Chris, he reminded me of this channel and its collection of fascinating and diverse vloggers (Kiri Callaghan's Kiriosity seems most like what I'm after) and also suggested Feminist Frequency.

so there is hope.

at some point in my searching yesterday I came across this short interview on women and philosophy, which made me think that in looking for clones of shows like CrashCourse or Vsauce, with nothing much different but the race or gender of the host, maybe I'm looking for the wrong thing. what if there is as much lack of diversity in the form of these well-done, well-presented (according to my academic self), research-based video compositions as there is (superficially at least) in the group of people who happens to host so many of them? what if that whole logocentric, "objective," "factual" approach is just as dominant and arbitrarily privileged as white males have been for so long? then what? these are topics for another day (unfortunately).

in the meantime, if there are youtube shows or vlog channels you've seen that present well-thought-out and semi-thorough research (on any topic whatsoever--comics, science, life, whatever) in interesting ways, please comment to let me know about them. bonus points if the creators or host fit into some section of non-majority.

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