(Sociology of) Sex and Gender


Robert Max Jackson

~~~~~~~~~~~ The Gender (Auto)Biography ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

~~~ The Weekly Pieces ~~~


What is a gender social (auto)biography? It is an effort to make sense of your life--past, present, and future--as influenced by your gender. In this class, the goal is to consider how the material we read illuminates what gender has meant, does mean, and will mean in your life.

At the end of the course, you will submit a gender social biography that shows how your life relates to the conditions of gender inequality and gender differentiation, using a range of materials from the class. To prepare for this, you will submit a brief biographical analysis for each section of the course that considers how the material for that section offers insights into your life (or, potentially, why it fails to do so).

How? & Why? We want to explore the ways the social organization of gender has influenced our lives, and the ways our lives have diverged from expectations. In this quest, we want always to ask How? and Why? How is that our lives were shaped as they were? Why did it happen one way rather than another? Never forget to think long and hard about how and why.

The Weekly Biographical Pieces

Each week you will submit a biographical piece that is connected to the course material for that week. These pieces will use or respond to ideas in the course material. The aim is to establish an analytical connection between biographical experiences and the ideas or arguments we study. The brief biographical analyses for a topic can be as long as three pages if needed. Most commonly, people do one and one-half to two pages.

Each weekly analysis should consider some aspect of your biography that is important. This could be an enduring part of your personality or your family, a crucial episode that had lasting influence, several different aspects of your life, or any other assortment that makes sense to you and makes good use of the material. Essentially, as you look over the readings for a section, besides trying to understand and assimilate the main ideas, you want to be asking how is this related to my life?

A biography is the story of someone's life. Think about biographies read in the past, usually as literature. The good ones tell us what happened to a person, what experiences accumulated to shape the person's life. They also tell us who that person is, what identity they had at different stages, and whom they became. By putting these together, the biography makes sense of the ways the person responded to their experiences and also the ways they adapted. Our autobiography has similar aims. It differs in three ways.

First, the focus throughout is on gender. This includes the development of our gender identity, the way that others responded to their perceptions of our gender, and the ways that their genders influenced their actions around us.

Second, we need to connect the biographical assessments throughout to the issues and ideas raised in the course material. We are viewing our biography not just through the lens of our experience, but through the multiple lenses supplied by these many ideas and findings. We are weighing our biography against what we know about the multitude of other peoples' biographies, trying to discover where our own is the accumulation of experiences and circumstances defined by gender and experienced by many others and where it differs. Note that even while we may build our biography on a series of experiences each of which are comparable to those of many other people, the sequence and specific content of those experiences are distinctive and produce a unique outcome in our identity and memories.

Third, not least, we are first writing brief weekly pieces, then a term paper, not a book-length biography. This means that we need to be selective and concise. In the weekly short pieces, we cannot expect to create a cohesive construction of our life stories -- rather, we want to try for a close examination of some stories from our lives. We can do much more in the term paper, although we still need to be focused and selective.

Our ultimate aim in our gender biographies is to consider our development from our childhood to our future as adults. This means we generally want to include: (1) the past history of experiences and stages of our development that constitute our earlier biography and make us what we are today; (2) an assessment of our current identity, our sense of ourselves as men or women, the ways our relationships with other people reflect our identity as man or woman, the ways that our feelings, sensibilities, and activities relate to our gender identity; and (3) our expectations for the future, how what we anticipate for ourselves depends on our gender.

In our weekly pieces, we seek to relate our gender biography to one or more ideas found in the week's readings. As we read the material, we should notice when an argument strikes us because of the way it fits, or the way it contrasts with, our biographical experiences. For example, if we read an argument that women and men have divergent nurturing tendencies, we might ask about how our male and female relatives responded to us when we were young, how our childhood experiences did or did not involve lessons in nurturing others, what kinds of nurturing patterns we see in our relationships today with friends, lovers, and others, or how we anticipate gender appropriate or inappropriate nurturing tendencies will play roles in our future. Thus, we would seek to understand how our biography displays the results and implications of the arguments we read, both in the ways that experiences and expectations conform to the arguments and the ways they depart from them.

In each brief autobiographical piece, we want to have a clear focus. None of us can cover everything at once. We might begin with an important developmental experience (e.g., the first time I did X, when I was refused to do Y because of my sex, or what happened when puberty occurred) Or, with one enduring aspect of our lives (e.g., how some part of my life seems to work or not work today in a manner related to my gender, or the gender implications of my participation in some sport). As with fictional narratives, tension, conflict, and unexpected twists not only enhance the reading, they are revealing. But avoid trying to write about multiple topics in a brief weekly piece.

Brevity is always desirable and good writing necessary. You have considerable latitude about the length of the brief biographical analyses for each section of the course. Sometimes you may feel a need to write several pages to do justice to what you want to say. That is acceptable. However, we should write at length only if what we have to say justifies it. A paper that is long because it is repetitive or poorly organized will frustrate any reader. We should always edit any writing carefully before submitting it. Among other things, this means making it as direct and short as possible.

So, our goals resemble those of any good biography, to examine and reveal a person's life, but we shape those general goals to fit our needs to focus on gender, to respond analytically to the material we have studied, and to remain with the limits of time and effort available to us.

A final note about the weekly pieces. We all should learn one fundamental lesson about writing. Never submit first drafts. Edit and revise every paper. This makes an enormous difference in quality and is a lesson learned by every successful student, writer, and scholar. This lesson has a critical implication. We need to complete our first drafts early enough that we have time to edit and revise.

A note on confidentiality.

    Please understand the autobiographical accounts are considered private and that any personal experiences described in them will be treated as confidential materials by the instructors. Unavoidably, many people accumulate personal experiences related to gender that are private, sometimes troubling, and, more often than we like to believe, even traumatic. The gender biographies for this class do not require that students share any experience or information that they consider too private to share or about which they feel uncomfortable. However, students should feel confident that any information or experiences they do choose to write about will be treated as private and confidential.