October 17, 2006

The Flipped Lid: Personally stupid

It happened again a few weeks ago. A girlfriend who’d passed the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) with a 700 — an extremely good score — described herself as not being intelligent that way (read: academically). Instead, she claims to know how to take standardized tests. She is currently working on a master’s degree in American studies at the College of William and Mary. She also claims that school is not easy for her, but that she knows how to play the game (for most grad students playing the game means showing intelligence). What she also neglected to credit herself with is her intelligence as a high school English teacher. She builds communities in her classrooms. She also creates moments of risk-taking and creativity — inspired, in part, by students’ and her own personal experiences. Once again an intelligent woman saw herself as less than intelligent because she doesn’t feel “academic” enough — whatever that means. To describe her another way, she’s not an especially theoretical teacher/scholar, but she understands the power of making scholarship personal and inter-relational. Frustratingly, personal wisdom and social wisdom are traditionally associated with women’s epistemological ways than men’s, and are ergo generally less valued by academia’s hegemony. A few weeks ago at the University of Louisville, The Watson Conference, the Breeder’s Cup of composition and rhetoric’s narrative theory branch, hosted some of the field’s most notable scholars: Deborah Brandt, James Gee and Cynthia Selfe. I gave a presentation discussing the power of personal experience, story-telling and traditionally feminine ways in creating knowledge — knowledge that, I argue, is as valuable as more traditionally male or old-school academic knowledge. You know, third-person, linear scholarship with loads of $50 words, even more in-text citations and aggressive argumentation. Look, man, I can do that. I just don’t always want to. Happily, in composition and rhetoric, men and women are more freely using tricks from other genres. I do not intend to essentialize either women or men by implying that academia values patriarchal scholarship and that such scholarship is generally associated with intelligences that have been defined by a largely male influenced tradition. I am well acquainted with many women who prefer third-person, traditionally academic scholarship. They kick its ass and also find such research very personal. Less valorized forms of intelligence, however, whether traditionally associated with women or men, should be considered just as valuable and accepted as equally important. I mean I value mechanical intelligence because I like that someone knows how to make my car stop. I also value a thoughtful dinner party, because I like that someone knows how to make me stop, think and laugh. For example, my mother and her sisters take turns hosting Christmas Eve for my family. Their homes feel warm. Their recipes please. Their social graces invite our family to linger — telling stories, digesting chocolate torte and joking. These traditionally feminine characteristics, the social, emotional and domestic, do not usually evoke the adjective “brilliant” or “intelligent.” Yet, my mother and her sisters have cultivated wisdom in understanding how to make an event and their homes welcoming and lively. Not that men don’t do the same. Some can and do. My two uncles, though, know how to build furniture, fix roofs, and repair cars. And they are intelligent. Very. I suppose that my aunts could learn how to hang dry wall or hunt deer with a bow, but these lessons would be difficult. Equally difficult, however, would be my uncles hosting Christmas Eve with the emotional skill and social graces my mom and her sisters wield. Both kinds of knowing have equally meaningful implications about how to live life. Many women, of course, work on cars and build furniture (with great intelligence). So, before anyone’s panties get in a wad, I need to add that my understanding of “women’s ways” or gender roles includes that these roles are socially and culturally constructed. Women and men also cultivate gendered knowledge outside these norms, thank god. What I am all about is valuing intelligences more traditionally associated with women whether women or men manifest them. Capice? Looking at the stuff of daily life and making meaning of it is not always easy. I plan on milking my personal experiences for every bit of wisdom they’ve provided. Feel welcome to argue me, but personally, I’d rather hear about your day. Contact the writer at carriemichaelle@gmail.com