Tuesday, 30 September 2014

G is for GENDER (and other binaries)

The seventh in an alphabetical series of blog posts: A-Z: An alphabetical journey through the doctoral experience. 

The title of this post is intentionally provocative. I don't believe gender is a binary. This post is inspired by a recent trip to see British actress Maxine Peake playing Hamlet at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.  About which, more in a moment... 

If you were asked to imagine a part-time, mature higher education student what image would come to mind?  I'm guessing there's a pretty good chance it would be a woman?  Statistically, that's well supported. Over 65% of part-time learners are female and as 90% of part-time learners are mature - well, you can do the maths!  But what are the potential consequences of stereotypical assumptions about these students?  Gendered assumptions about their identities, capabilities and needs? Invisibility of male part-time students and a lack of attention to their interests?  Reduction of a diverse group to a set of common attributes?

This is nothing new and not just in higher education.  But the reason it's important is that, firstly, UK higher education seems all too reliant on binary short cuts: traditional/non-traditional; mature/young; full-time/part-time; working-class/middle-class...  and of course, female/male.  These categories fail to depict the rich and complex diversity of each individual let alone whole student cohorts and have consequences in terms of policy and practice. Secondly, my doctoral research (on part-time, mature undergraduates and retention) attempts to challenge typical models of 'an HE student'.  Yet I find myself having to challenge my own tendency to essentialise, to label, to categorise - all for the convenience of reporting data.  Using excuses such as 'broadly' and 'overall' doesn't compensate for ignoring the potential for nuance and contradiction.  

Gender is nuanced, diverse and complex.  Gender is constructed.  Maxine Peake played Hamlet as a principal boy, flouncing and heroic.  She looked like a baby dyke (look it up).  Occasionally her Hamlet was a sulky teenager, gurning and sneering.  I'm happy Maxine got a juicy part to get her teeth into - too rare for so many actresses as excellent as she is.  I'm happy for the Royal Exchange Theatre that they've had to extend the run to meet the demand for tickets.  But somehow, I was disappointed by the production.  It all seemed too obvious. One of the most important tasks in my research is to depict the wide diversity of part-time students for what it is, not a flattened, convenient category but a population defying classification. 

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