California State University-Chico
I was in heaven. Nerd heaven, that is. After recently landing a tenure-track position, I was given the opportunity to teach my first Contemporary Theory class in sociology. I was a huge theory nerd when I was in graduate school and had often daydreamed about how I would eventually teach theory. So when we started covering key feminist texts in my contemporary theory class, I was literally transported to similar discussions I had had in my graduate-level classes. As many of us know, those discussions (both in and beyond the classroom) were pivotal and generated lifelong connections with the people we shared those early ideas with.
Many of those ideas connected to my own development as a feminist sociologist interested in the body and embodiment and changed the course of my research and writing. So, when we started covering similar material in my course, a wave of nostalgia and excitement impacted how I taught the material.
One of the feminist texts we covered was Dorothy Smith’s (1987) The Everyday World as Problematic, and the point that especially resonated with the students asked all of us to problematize the mundane. I literally stopped in my tracks. Showing how we might use Smith’s work, I started by problematizing space. I told them about two different spaces I had rented in the last 6 years, one in San Francisco and another in Livingston, Montana. I described the spaces (a small room in a fairly large, shared apartment in San Francisco versus an entire 1200 square foot house in Livingston) and talked about the nearly identical rent for each space and how I moved in and through each space. I wanted to show them how we can see innumerable social patterns and inequalities by paying close attention to space and embodiment.
Obviously, we could immediately see how my class location enabled me to have access to very little space in San Francisco and a lot of space in Livingston. Then I transitioned to how I maneuvered through the space I shared (and then didn’t share) in Livingston, thus showing them how to locate and make sense of embodying gender, a key starting point in Smith’s work. I told them about the two years I spent in the house with my partner and his best friend. While I didn’t do all of the cleaning, I was the only person who ever cleaned the bathrooms and, notably, I didn’t have a room of my own. Stopping for a second, I said, “Imagine how it might have felt (for me) when they were in the house. Now, how do you think it felt when they were both gone—for good? What do you think went on for me when they left? I was there for a year, by myself.” I asked this last question with a devilish smirk and then gave them time to consider the full meaning of my story. A student answered, “You had less work to do.” I immediately followed that with, “Yes, and I felt light as a feather for that entire year on my own.” I didn’t have to pick up after anyone (this meant that I literally felt energized) and I could do whatever I wanted to do in each and every room in the house (I immediately set up my own office and breathed a huge sigh of gratitude every time I entered it). While it was certainly a privilege to be able to have an entire house to myself, the way I moved in and through the house was vastly different from how I moved in and through it with two men roommates. That difference was palpable and, most importantly, for our class discussion, I showed the students that they can use Smith (and sociology, in general) to interrogate and make sense of the mundane, embodied, everyday activities they engage in.
After offering myself up as an example, I challenged the students to begin asking these questions about their own, everyday lives. What does it really mean to have a room (or any space) of one’s own? What does that look like in our everyday worlds? How might we be able to see gender, race, class, and sexuality play out by asking those questions about our mundane, everyday worlds? And when we see any social patterns that reproduce inequality, how might we stop and mess with the status quo?
In Alexandra Howson’s (2005) book, Embodying Gender, she lays out the ongoing state of scholarship on the body, arguing:
[N]ew feminist theories of the body [tend to be] fueled by post-structuralist impulses and invest in deconstructive and psychoanalytic frameworks in order to ‘think through the body’…[while students in courses on the body] typically seek to go beyond the text – often by returning to their own experience – in order to assess [the theories’] value (Howson, 2005: ix, my emphasis).
Howson (2005) summarizes the ongoing work that so many of us are trying to accomplish:
Embodied experience as an ‘everyday negotiation of the mundane’ (Skeggs, 1997: 176) might then remain both a core struggle concept for academic feminism as a tool for identifying, naming and authorizing what might otherwise remain invisible to academic eyes and a concept for beginning the process of explaining the social practices and relations that give rise to what comes to be named as experience (148).
Howson, Alexandra. 2005. Embodying Gender. London: Sage Publications.
Smith, Dorothy E. 1987. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology. Boston: Northeastern University Press.