Trying Not to Mansplain

I hope it will be okay for me to lumber into the conversation here. I’ve recently had a classroom experience that I’m not quite sure what to make of—and I’d be eager to hear your thoughts about it.

I’m teaching an intermediate-level English course at Delaware this semester on Writing and Diversity. It’s listed as a “second writing course”, which means that it’s largely filled with Juniors and Seniors from a wide range of majors who need to meet that requirement. They’re a fun group—seven men and seven women. I’ve tried hard, if not always successfully, not to let the course devolve into simply writing about diversity—in which we would move from one class to the next reading, talking, and writing about one identity group or another. Instead I’ve tried to focus it on the question of how to write across lines of difference and conflict—that is, of how to communicate in what Mary Louise Pratt has famously labeled “contact zones”.

I thought that an apt, perhaps obvious, reading to include in such a course was Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me”, since in it she so clearly sillustrates the barriers that male presumption and arrogance place between actual conversations between men and women. Mansplaining. Not Solnit’s term, actually, but the phenomenon she describes so well.

However, it seemed to me, as I thought about the conversation I hoped to have in class about the piece, that it would be an unbearable irony for me, or any of the other men in the room, to try to explain Solnit to the women sitting around the table with us. So I asked us to begin our conversation (after some fastwriting, you know me) by having each of the seven women in the class offer some first thoughts about a section of Solnit’s piece that they found especially striking or provoking.

It turned out to be an odd few minutes. It was fun, for instance, to watch Winston—a thoroughly likable, politically conservative baseball player and guy’s guy—almost explode with the effort of not explaining to the women why he (and his friends) didn’t explain things to them. (When I opened up the conversation, after each of the seven women had spoken, he was the first person to almost literally jump in.) But it was also difficult to observe several of the women struggle to respond to Solnit, since they seemed almost as eager as many of the men were to to make it clear that, as one of them put it, “most women understood that this was just a problem some guys had”.

Which was what finally got to one of the students, Kate, who pointed out, with some vehemence, that the problem was not that all men acted this way all the time, but that enough of them did much of the time to make it an issue that women had to deal with and think about constantly. This comment was met with (a) at first no response at all, and (b) then several restatements that nobody likes those other jerks who talk over women. The conversation having thus ground to a halt, I brought up ideas of patriarchy and cultural hegemony, and in doing so basically re-explained Solnit to anyone who was still listening. After class, Kate stayed late to apologize to me, which I of course assured her was not at all necessary. She’s actually going to conduct an “experiment” in class tomorrow (it involves needles and balloons and differently colored water) to try to illustrate the “not-all-but-enough” principle. We’ll see how that goes!

So I realize that one, and completely accurate, way of interpreting the class is to see it as enacting—or at least dancing around—the very problem in communicating across genders that Solnit describes. And I don’t mean to suggest that it was a bad class; indeed, I’ve had several conversations about what happened with students afterwards, which suggests that they found the session intriguing, too. But I’m not sure it was a good class either, and I remain uneasy about having pressured some young women to talk about their interactions with men in front of a number of men. I’m not exactly sure what I was imagining when I asked them to lead off the class with their responses to Solnit, but the moment ended up feeling much more awkward and fraught than I had expected.

I’m interested to hear what you think!


I’ve also added course sites from Marlena, Tara, Max, and me to the Course Sites: Some Examples page on this site. Sorry for the delay in doing that.

Author: Joe Harris

I teach writing at the University of Delaware.

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