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A Fair Shot?

March 4, 2015

Working on the farm

Classes started last week but today was the first day I got to actually teach. The agriculture college has been the base for Ebola training and when IMC vacated the classrooms they had to be sprayed. There is a mandatory waiting period after spraying and they didn’t do it until… the day we were supposed to start. So our already short semester lost another week. Better late than never, though, and it is so good to be back.

I was told to expect low enrollment and small classes but almost everyone is back and classes are as overcrowded as ever (at least mine are). I’m teaching the same soil science and gender/food security courses I had last year plus a new one about gender in agriculture extension. I pushed hard not to have any new classes but there was no escaping it so I’ve resolved to enjoy myself. Today there were only thirty students in the extension class and it’s a junior-level class so I know almost all of them. It’s so much easier when they know your system and no one feels shy to talk!

When I taught gender last semester there was tension from a good number of the men and I wanted to address that early this semester. “Gender” is too often thought of as “women” and men need to realize they are an important part of the solution. We discussed gender characteristics verses sex characteristics and the way gender expectations change across cultures. I could see a lot of “light bulbs” going off and that’s always gratifying for a teacher.

Then I tried an exercise I came across somewhere online. It’s ridiculously simple but really illustrative of gender disparity. (I’m sharing it so you can have it in your pocket if you ever need it.) I divided scrap paper and told everyone to write their name then crumple it into a ball. I set a wastebasket at the front of the room and told them I’d give a bonus point to anyone who could throw their ball in the basket… without leaving their seat. They went crazy. “It’s not fair! I want to stand up! I’m moving my chair!” We went row by row and they tried to hit the basket, everyone gasping and cheering as paper balls bounced in and around, about eight making it in.

I unwrapped the papers and called the names of the people who had made it in. Predictably, most of them were sitting in front and there were just a few lucky people from the back rows. “So how was it?” I asked, “Was that a fair thing for me to do?” The people in the front mostly nodded and the people in the back threw their arms in the air and yelled. “We couldn’t even see the basket!” I just shrugged and smiled at the people in the front row, “Sorry yeah!”

Then I explained to them that the people in the front row are like men and the people in the back are like women. I gave them the same materials and the same task but they weren’t starting from the same place so it wasn’t really the same challenge. The idea is not to send men to the back but to bring women to the front so everyone has the same opportunity to shoot their ball in the basket. We’re not trying to knock men down, but rather help them realize their privilege at the front. The people in the front weren’t thinking about the people in the back, not because they are mean but because it never occurred to them to turn around. “This class is about turning around and reaching out your hand to pull them up. You are privileged as a man and you can’t change that. I am privileged as a white person and I can’t change that. But when we are aware of our privilege we can use it to help other people get to the front so they have a fair shot too.”

When class time was up they wouldn’t stop asking questions so we could go. It’s going to be an exhausting semester but I’m encouraged. Planting seeds, forever I am planting seeds.

“There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”          -Madeleine Albright

One Comment leave one →
  1. Robert Dahl permalink
    March 9, 2015 4:01 pm


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