Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

10 Feb 2001, 3:22 a.m.

The right question

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

I experienced a truly transcendent moment the other day while teaching, and I'd like to share it with you.

(In the CD slot right now: Frisbie, "The Subversive Sounds of Love." Playing the first track, "Let's Get Started.")

Yesterday was class meeting number four -- the second session of the second week. I love having two hours a week to discuss stuff -- the last class I taught had only one. (All right, so they're Berkeley hours, 50 minutes, but still, it's twice as much. I wish my political science classes had two hours a week of discussion, not one.) There's so much interesting stuff to talk about, and I can choose the subjects, shape the discourse.

Yesterday while writing the lesson plan, I experienced a problem I don't think I'd ever had so bad: teacher's block. What should be the milestones in our first discussion of Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness? I knew where I wanted to start, but what destination would be most useful, and what route would cover the most interesting scenery? Le Guin (through the Foretellers), Simon Stow, and Steve Weber have all powerfully raised my consciousness of the importance of asking the right question.

I already knew that I wanted to mention a thing that Le Guin says in her introduction:

Yes, indeed the people in it [the book] are androgynous, but that doesn't mean that I'm predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I'm merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and though-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are.
So: where is she right? When are we "already" androgynous? Where does, and where doesn't, gender affect us? I also wanted to ask them whether the world of Gethen repelled or attracted them, and discuss ways that gender and biology affects our institutions.

So I finally came up with some concrete details and examples, both in the book and in real life, that we could productively discuss. For example, since each individual Gethenian is sexually inactive most of the time, Earth's sex-drive-based advertising campaigns wouldn't exist there. Also, even though Gethenians don't generally do things based on sex drive, the first country we see on Gethen has a monarchy, a hierarchy, and Gethenians use the institution of shifgrethor in devious power plays. (Don't ask me what shifgrethor is -- read the book or look it up; I can't explain it adequately.)

So the lesson plan got written, and a few hours later I entered 235 Dwinelle, grungy and very student-looking. I'd meant to go home before class and change into teachery-y clothes and exchange my student-signifying backpack for the teacher-signifying portfolio bag. I saw the students -- my students -- with The Left Hand of Darkness on their desks.

[Lengthy Aside: By the way, I get a kick out of the fact that these students were carrying and reading a book simply because I had assigned it. I know, that's kind of a power trip. So sue me, I'm an insecure little dictator. A "desperate little despot," as a teacher at my old high school once wrote:

So good night and good living and good life and get along
And farewell, and be happy and be sure you sing the song
That allows you to be something ... you've been nothing for so long
You desperate little despot ... des spot light's yours.

But that, though it's from "The Pope Pong Song," page 80 of Tiger Pause 1996 from Tokay High School, is beside the point.

Wait a sec -- I guess I've always felt this way. A poem from the same literary magazine, two pages back, by me:

To Buddha
God sits at the desk now
Marking papers red
Subbing for our teacher
Struck this morning dead
God is wearing earrings
White streaks in her hair
If I want to get in AP
Saffron I must wear

It's sophomoric, what you would expect of a high school sophomore, which is what I was. But teaching-as-power has been a theme with me for longer than a year. Perhaps that's because school was, it seemed to the younger me, the one place where I excelled. And if academics are your sports, then teachers are the coaches and referees. They make you and break you.]

I did the administrative things. I took attendance and I dealt with a new student who wanted to enroll. We started talking about the book -- what shifgrethor was, and who thought the world of Gethen was possibly "neat," and who was wary.

And then I asked -- "How are we 'already' androgynous? Where does gender not affect us?" I may have said different words.

And the moment was electric. I looked around the room. Every student -- I think, I hope -- was staring, gazing, not blankly, but thinking, for a second, two, three --

I had asked something they hadn't asked themselves before, and they were sifting their experiences, seeking, seeing with new eyes, forming new synapses, making connections --

And two or three voices called out at once, bursting with the enthusiasm of discovery. On the rowing team. In Wu Shu. Over the internet. And we made connections, categories...

The rest of the lesson went well. Animated discussion ensued about the traditional powers that women have, and what Gethen is like, and why the cold climate is important. I set up my next lesson, about the Self and the Other in Darkness. As with all good lesson plans, mine proved to be the skeleton, not the flesh; the map, not the territory (apoogies to John Chapman).

Le Guin writes in that same introduction:

Finally, when we're done with it, we may find -- if it's a good novel -- that we're a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it's very hand to say just what we learned, how we were changed.

I can't say, either, how I was changed, or what my students learned from Friday's class. But I saw something happen in that moment yesterday, when my question lingered unanswered in the air, and it gave me a high so strong, so clear, that I never wanted to come down.

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Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at