Sometimes, the prism of the future can be envisioned in the kitchen and playground, in unexpected forms of empowerment.
Recently, the US media has reverberated with a prickly debate about contraceptive rights, the preservation of traditional marriage, and “Satan attacking the great institutions of America”, a 2008 tirade by Rick Santorum that he effortlessly echoes from town hall to TV sound bite, at least in substance if not in exact terminology, during the current epic Republican primary. Yet more and more, these rants may be understood as the last gasp of priviledged males, if current trends hold true.
The future is female, to a great degree. To that end, women are empowered not by resurgent feminism alone but by old-fashioned folk practice skill sets that continue to improve their chances in the modern world.
Male academic achievement in many areas is wheezing heavily. Men are attending class and graduating from college in alarmingly lower and lower numbers. Looking at ethnic percentages reveals even wider gaps. To date, 65 percent of black students are female, which means that they compete with men at a 2-1 rate for jobs in an economy in which many men, bound by traditionally gendered jobs, lack essential skill sets, such as adept adaptability, for the soft, information-based economy.
Their behavior at school serves as precursor to their dilemma: as Dr. Gar E. Kellom of St. John’s University has noted, instead of honing in on studies and skills, many men often study less frequently, visit counselors less than females, play more video games, study abroad less, and volunteer less as well (Video: College Male Crisis: What's a Man to Do?). My own 15-year experience as a college instructor has awakened me to this male academic crises.
I am not alone. Kate Ristau, an Oregon-based composition instructor and folklorist, has a shared sense of unease. "I experience the same thing year after year: a few students shine in classroom discussions, while others fade to the background, then slowly disappear. What I have noticed in the past few years is that while many such borderline female students will continue to attend class and sit in the background, but this is not always the case with male students. Once they disconnect, my male students often choose to skip class entirely. Then, they get so far behind that they feel unable to catch back up, and often write the class off completely."
Ristau attempts to prevent such a hemorrhage by conferencing with students throughout the term and maintaining a dynamic classroom setting: students work in small groups, often with the use of laptops and other technology, aiding each other in the pursuit of critical thinking. Still, first generation men attending college often seemed shocked by the rigorous demands.
I do not intend to demean or denigrate men or even the value of video games. Prof. Henry Jenkins has examined such media savvy skill sets at length and outlined useful media literacies shaped during such playing, including transmedia navigation, distributed cognition, and multi-tasking (See New Media Literacies.org).
Yet, these skills, I argue, should be judged against a much older set of skills developed by women over preceding decades that have equipped them for a world of flux and constant change, including fluid and flexible gender roles at home, work, and school.
To some degree, a male-female learning style difference may be pertinent. The push towards service learning, project-based learning, and co-intentional classrooms teeming with feminist pedagogy may, or may not, hinder male participation and success. What intrigues me, though, is how females routinely categorize males. Note these attributes and traits female students of mine use to characterize their male peers:
17. Easily influenced.
In contrast, the women identified a series of their own strengths that could be easily mastered in traditional folk practices, like cooking, which might illuminate a portion of female student success. When I pressed my students to outline skill sets that they culled from learning foodways at an early age, they listed:
3. Ability to adapt.
4. Ability to follow detailed directions.
8. Ability to fulfill cultural, aesthetic, social, and gender expectations.
9. Clear, concise communication.
11. Active Listening.
Folklore theory itself goes beyond this, as well. Such experiences provide ethnic-cultural deep learning, including an emphasis on food terminology, religious taboos, proper preservation of food, and a sense of family, ethnic, and regional lore.
Food practices also provide a deep sense of both the usable past and living history. Meanwhile, if boys are Facebooking and playing video games instead, their skill sets may not be providing ample elasticity and conditioning for a world in which women now serve as media entrepreneurs, CEOs, poets, surgeons, and prime ministers.
To witness another example of early female gender encoding that leads to persistence and resilience, one may review the film Pizza Pizza Daddy-O (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2YodFqZ7nQ), a black and white playground documentary.
Filmmakers Bess Lomax Hawes and Robert Eberlein capture African American 4th grade girls in the heart of Los Angeles, engaging in what has been termed singing games, handclaps, chanting games, and improvisational game songs by various scholars. As Hawes admits in the book Documenting Ourselves by Sharon Sherman (1998, Univ Press of Kentucky), the film was not intended for folklorists like me; instead, the filmmakers sought to show beautiful, nice, cooperative, friendly, and pleasant local children to the people of Watts.
In doing so, they hoped to examine “continuity and change” in playground games and bridge the world of “trivial behavior” with subject matter of keen interested to social scientists. Granted, the filmmakers’ stated intent has been deemed problematic, as well as the voice-over narration provided by a Black Panther advisory committee member.
Many argue his rather imperious lecture style feels a bit off-putting, distanced, authoritative, and demeaning. Yet, one can still glean some important insight from the girls’ behavior, including their use of verbal interaction and play as form of social organization, plus their adept and spontaneous use of melody, meter, and rhythm, which varies throughout each of the eight songs.
The routines reveal important dynamics: the play cements a sense of pride, provides a bridge to the past, stimulates musicality, aids memorization, forges female bonds, maintains style and mood, and fosters a sense of heritage and identity. In this light, black female cohesive bonds begin in such places, or during jump-rope competitions and hip-hop and slam poetry events, which may provide a kind of multi-faceted, constructive, and resilient set of traits (trust, assertiveness, solidarity, and a mix of creative and critical energies) that prepare them for the challenges of new family dynamics, employment expectations, and new media interactions.
If we want to understand the future, maybe we need to return to the proverbial playground -- and kitchen.