What Happens When You Teach a Graduate Seminar on “Women, Gender, and Sex in U.S. Religious History” to a Class That is Over 85% Men?

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Andrea Turpin, a history professor at Baylor University, reflects on such an experience in a recent post at The Anxious Bench.  She uses her observations from this graduate seminar, as well as her experience teaching an undergraduate class on women and gender that was almost 90% female, to say some important things about history and diversity.

Here is a taste:

Too often the term “diversity,” and even the concept, comes loaded with all the baggage of the culture wars, and we reflexively either embrace it or reject it accordingly. (Indeed, as I was thinking about these things this week, a controversy along these lines broke out at Duke Divinity School.) So what difference does it really make, intellectually and spiritually, who our conversation partners are — in terms of our classmates and pewmates, the authors we read, and the voices from the past that we seek out?

Since I had a ready-made experiment at hand to help me answer this question, I periodically asked both classes to respond emotionally to what we had been reading or discussing. After all, in my view one of the great spiritual and intellectual benefits of studying history is that it can help students develop empathy for those who are different alongside critical thinking about themselves, others, and their world. I first tried this question on the graduate class after we discussed Rebecca Larson’s Daughters of Light (Knopf, 1999), about traveling Quaker female preachers in colonial America. The book is a bit hagiographic, but it paints a compelling picture of women who lived very full lives and whose spiritual and intellectual contributions were valued by the men of their community. I am not a Quaker and do not share all their theological convictions, but I always find the book moving and have had women students report a similar experience. No man in the course had that emotional response — though they did have thoughtful insights on the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, my great joy of class that day was watching one man have the sudden realization that he had not particularly felt for any of the book’s women in their triumphs or struggles — but that he had been moved by the account of a husband who had been left behind while his wife, with full support from the Quaker community, went on an extended preaching mission.

Meanwhile, the undergraduate class watched the movie Suffragette, about British women fighting for the right to vote in the early twentieth century. The movie is crafted to induce emotional responses — I wept openly at my kitchen table the first time I screened it — so every student certainly had one. But different things stuck with male and female students. It was one of the course’s two men who made the observation, part way through class discussion, that the movie featured three types of male characters: the suffragettes’ allies, their opponents, and men somewhere in between who were wrestling through competing impulses. He could give incredibly nuanced summaries of the attitudes of the different male characters and what might have accounted for them.

Turpin concludes:

What should we make of these stories? Perhaps the most obvious point is that students, and indeed all of us, tend to respond most easily to those people in history with whom we identify in some manner. Knowing our own history is a basic human need that helps us develop our sense of place and purpose in the world. Identifying with historical actors also helps pull us into their story. Once we’re there, we realize that these people are not only familiar, but also different, as denizens of the “foreign country” that is the past. They are paradoxically therefore also a gateway to widening our sympathies. Including diverse voices in the curriculum thus serves the spiritual and intellectual needs of multiple types of students.

The flip side is also true: having a diverse classroom population expands the minds and sympathies of all students. The presence of the two men in my undergraduate class meant that the class’s women were constantly confronted with the question of how what we were studying affected men as well. And my presence and that of the female graduate student meant that the men in my graduate class could not content themselves with merely dispassionately analyzing a book. The presence of students of color in both classes had a similar effect.

Read the entire post here.

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