Training for creating safe spaces for students on gender issues

An ungendered perspective on students

An ungendered perspective on students

Richard Dawkins talks about the moral zeitgeist of the times in The God Delusion. It is something that is generally accepted at a given time, but can change. When we look back, we can be horrified at past standards on many issues from the horrors of slavery to corporal punishment to unequal treatment of women. At some times the zeitgeist is more fluid than others. Right now attitudes and feelings are changing fast around sexual and gender identities.

As an educator, mentor, and friend to developing students, I want them to feel comfortable and free to be themselves, to explore ideas wherever they go. I do not want them to limit the ability of their minds to soar because of fear about attitudes towards their gender, dress, or any aspect of their identity. Nor should they fear stereotypes from race, mental or physical illness, social class or anything else. How do we achieve this?

If it were easy, we wouldn’t have so many problems. If even nice people unwittingly say things that hurt some people, we have a problem. How to solve it may come largely from fields like psychology.

Of course we should first have a clear idea of the basics. At its most fundamental, we should treat everyone with respect. A person’s gender identity should not impact how we treat them. We can use different pronouns if requested. We can advertise in our offices and labs that we are supportive of all our students. In some ways it is sad that we need to indicate a safe space with a rainbow. We don’t do the same for other forms of bias. But this is the current zeitgeist, so do it if you are supportive.

At Rice University when I was on the faculty, if you wanted to display a rainbow indicating a safe place, you were given one. At my current institution, to get this you have to go through a training program that is supposed to be updated every few years and your date of training can be policed because you have to put it on the card. I signed up. It was a very small group of faculty that came to the 1.5 hour session. I thought about what a good training session might look like.

To me, effective training would go straight to the subtleties. After all anyone voluntarily there wants to be helpful. I imagine such training would talk about implicit bias, maybe mention thinking fast and slow, and such things. If I were designing it, I would probably start by asking people to tell their neighbor why they came to this workshop and maybe ask them to tell each other a relevant story. Then I would launch straight into a series of videos where we would watch for five or so minutes and then discuss with our neighbors what we saw. There might be a list of questions on the board, like what did you see, was this biased behavior, were there communication problems, and the like. I would have maybe four such videos of different sorts and they would be ambiguous and hard to decide. After all, it is on the borders that decisions are hard. Discussions would all be with small groups with the facilitators floating around. Maybe someone else has a better idea of what to do. This is what I thought of.

Unfortunately it is not what we got this morning at Wash U. Instead we got a really long list of terms we might hear from queer to cis-gendered to pansexual and about 15 more. I had already heard all of them, but then my daughter did go to Wellesley. We got some interesting information, some information I think was erroneous, and little interaction. I can hardly believe they started the session by telling us they had a lot of material so they were going to “talk at us.” These are well-meaning people who care a lot about the issues, but surely they know there is no greater turn-off than to be told this. If you must lecture, make it telling a story.

So, give those cards with lists of resources on the back to whomever wants to display them. And while you are at it, treat the big issue of the scandalous lack of toilets for all on campus. We should not need a special map. Just take out the urinals and make all the men’s rooms for everyone.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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