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Kate Peterson: Nothing funny about reinforcing stereotypes

After hearing about the recent investigation into sexism at Spokane Community College (“PowerPoint slides corroborate allegations,” April 7), I was shocked, saddened and frustrated. My initial response was one of concern for the professor, the college and the city I call home.

I am an adjunct professor at a local university and so I put myself into this professor’s shoes. I worried that perhaps he was being attacked unfairly. Perhaps his PowerPoint was taken out of context. I wanted to be on his side, and I also worried for SCC and the larger Spokane community. I would hate to see the college or its professors placed under unwarranted scrutiny.

But then I saw the PowerPoint.

The learning objectives for this lesson were “explore the benefits of effective communication,” “realize the impact of poor communication,” “improve listening skills” and finally “awareness and self-correction.” These also happen to be my objectives in responding.

If the lesson was intended to highlight differences in men’s and women’s communication strategies, there are better ways to go about discussing those than to depict a man on his knees before a woman, offering up his credit card. This does not seem to have much to do with teaching communication strategies. What this is doing is communicating to students that this is what women value (money). This is how women communicate (via tears, threats and sex).

I know that even if my own students aren’t listening to me, they are. I am an authority figure in their lives whose job it is to teach them. They shouldn’t be learning that it’s OK for a man to make jokes about women as sex objects, bad drivers (or, “driver’s”) and emotional manipulators (one slide states that women cry to get what they want, and apparently say things like, “Give me your sympathy”). This is problematic on many levels, but no matter what your opinion is on these “jokes,” you certainly can’t argue that they belong on a PowerPoint aimed to teach students about effective communication, or that sexism has a place in the curriculum.

“Get a thicker skin.”

People have spoken out via social media to defend the professor, and to claim that these slides were shown in the name of comedy. I don’t find anything funny about encouraging damaging stereotypes, but let’s imagine for a moment that this is just satire. Is it helpful? Is it teaching students that these stereotypes, these insults, are OK as long as they’re funny? Maybe satire will become an excuse they learn to use in order to demean.

Have we learned nothing from the divisive and delusional rhetoric that has become commonplace in today’s political climate? When Donald Trump began his run for the presidency, many people thought it would be “entertaining” to hear him disparage women and minorities, to encourage violence and riots and cruelty. Now we see where comedy has gotten us.

To make a joke that encourages inequality, violence and ineffective communication is hijacking comedy and using it as an excuse to legitimize dangerous attitudes and behaviors. People who try to fight for equality are told they need a “thicker skin,” as one commenter noted under the original article. How much thicker does a woman’s skin need to be?

The slides claimed, “To make a woman happy a man needs to be (among a list of other traits) very rich and love shopping. To make a man happy a woman needs to show up naked and bring beer.”

Here is one of the items listed under Man’s Rules: “Sympathy is what your girlfriends are for.”

I don’t see anything funny about telling a group of students that men are incapable of being sympathetic. This method of communication creates a climate that effectively stops any fruitful discussion about inequality that we could be having in our classrooms. These “jokes” are the reason that we are still experiencing such systemic sexism.

There is one point the professor made that I can agree with. There is a slide dealing with diversity that states you should “never let an incident pass without remark” because “to do so sends the message that you are in agreement with such behavior or attitudes.”

So these are my remarks. I couldn’t let this incident pass without weighing in on the problems I see, despite my own fears about being employable in this field and this city that I love so much. If the professor’s point was to “evoke conversation” as he stated in a recent interview, there are certainly more relevant and thought-provoking ways to do so that would not promote sexism in the name of learning.

The fourth and final learning objective listed on the professor’s slide was “awareness and self-correction.” I can only hope that this objective can be met now that this issue has been brought to our attention.

Kate Peterson earned a master’s of fine arts degree at Eastern Washington University, where she now teaches composition.


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