summer book exchange #7: How To Be a Woman

I am not, nor have I ever been a woman. I have, however, known many women, slept with a few, married one and fathered two.

Until I read this book, I don’t think I ever really knew anything about what it takes (or means) to be a woman. After reading it, I probably don’t KNOW – but now I have a bit of a clue.

photo 3How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran (2011)

This is, without doubt, a feminist manifesto and Moran’s test to determine if one is a feminist is quite simple.

“So here is the quick way of working out if you’re a feminist,” she writes. “Put your hand in your underpants. A) Do you have a vagina? and B) Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said ‘yes’ to both, then congratulations! You’re a feminist.”

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Why the hell would Wes read a feminist manifesto?” and “Once he read it, why on earth would he write a review of it? After all, he said he was only going to review the Summer Book Exchange books he LIKED.”

Liked it? LOVED IT. This is hands down the funniest nonfiction book I have ever read in my life. Ever. Nonfiction. Period. I started laughing – and learning – on page 1 of chapter 1 and while the laughing peters out late in the book, Moran’s style is so easy, so free and so utterly funny that you can’t help turn the page to see what kind of mischief she’s going to get herself into on the next page.

Her approach to feminism is what appeals to me. It’s not about separating the sexes, it’s about bringing them together.

“Don’t call it sexism. Call it ‘manners’ instead. When a woman blinks a little, shakes her head like Columbo and says, ‘I’m sorry, but that sounded a little…uncivil,’ a man is apt to apologize, because even the most rampant bigot on earth has no defense against a charge of simply being rude.”

In Chapter 1, 13-year-old Moran gets her first period and explores the relationship she has with her sister Caz and her mother. We meet most of her family – all 7 or 8 of her siblings and her clearly tired parents. Neither her mother nor her father are particularly helpful (or useful) in her journey to learning how to be a woman, but we certainly can’t hold that against them. They’re also fat, as is Moran, something which she reminds us of quite often.

Chapters 1 (I Start Bleeding!) to 14 (Role Models and What We Do with Them) are funny and poignant, and it’s easy to follow Moran’s feminist narrative throughout. I feel it’s important to note that she’s not a man-hating feminist – she says so herself – but that’s because she feels a man-hater isn’t a feminist, really, and needs to figure out better their place in the world. The funny comes to a screeching, crushing halt in Chapter 15, when she discusses her abortion and the final chapter isn’t really a barrel of laughs, either, though it is a reprieve from the rather loaded topic of abortion. If I’d stopped reading after chapter 14, I’d give this book 5 stars easy. As it is, I have to pull back to 4.75, because even though I think abortion needs to be discussed more openly in our society, it really is a total bummer to do so and the previous chapters are so funny that it’s a real left turn as far as the book goes.

I think the abortion chapter is so …abrupt… simply because Moran has brought us along so merrily and willingly in her free flowing style that when it stops (and it DOES stop), it’s just hard to see it as a cohesive total. The last two chapters of the book stand out, stand apart from the rest of the material, so much so that they give the last quarter of the book a disjointed feel. This doesn’t mean they’re not well written, because they are. For example:

“I cannot understand antiabortion arguments that center on the sanctity of life. As a species, we’ve fairly comprehensively demonstrated that we don’t believe in the sanctity of life. The shrugging acceptance of war, famine, epidemic, pain, and lifelong, grinding poverty show us that, whatever we tell ourselves, we’ve made only the most feeble of efforts to really treat human life as sacred.” (author’s emphasis)

Not even George Carlin could have said it better, and it’s a sentiment that somehow has more power coming from a woman. Perhaps that’s because women are the source of life, sanctified or not.

Humor aside, the two best chapters in the book are the companion chapters 12 and 13 – Why You Should Have Children and Why You Shouldn’t Have Children. Moran’s insight into the human condition – for men AND women – is so acute and powerful that these two chapters alone make the book worth reading.

The most powerful chapter, however, is 14: Role Models and What We Do with Them. In this chapter, Moran viscerally excoriates somebody called Katie Price, of whom I had no knowledge until I read this book. (I had to google her to get a basic rundown.) Moran holds Price up as the worst kind of woman, or at least the worst kind of feminist – one who has turned her looks and her marriages into her “career.” She contrasts Price’s existence with that of Lady Gaga, who – if you’ve been paying attention to the book up to this point – is clearly the best kind of feminist, male OR female. Not being a fan of Gaga’s music, I developed some respect for her just reading about some of the things she’s done and the way she expresses herself. It’s an eye-opening part of the book for a lot of reasons.

The joy and laughter in reading the books comes from Moran examining her own life and describing how it all comes together even while it’s falling apart. Her description of the 48-hour labor leading up to the C-section that brought her older daughter into the world is horrifying, but you barely have time to be horrified because you’re so busy wiping tears off your cheeks because you’re laughing so hard you can hardly breathe.

Yes, that’s right, I just said her horrifying description of birth is side-splittingly funny. This is how Moran reaches you – man or woman, child or adult (not that I’m recommending children read this book). She lays open the human condition so well that you follow her right down the rabbit hole, holding on for dear life, and the book is so good you’re compelled to ride the wagon all the way to the bottom.

I highly recommend this book – for adults. Maybe older teens if they’re very mature. There’s a lot of frank discussion of risky behavior, including smoking (heavily), drinking (heavily), and sex (um… heavily?) of all sorts and Moran’s vocabulary is quite vulgar (of which I heartily approve). I think men especially could benefit from reading this book – it may not turn a man into a feminist, but it will certainly allow a man to gain a little insight into how many women are affected by bras, menstruation and bridesmaid’s dresses.

The summer of cheating

Anybody that knows me knows that I am not a positive person. In fact, in the dictionary next to the word “pessimist,” there is a full-page photo of me, very similar to this one:


John Locke believed that we’re all born as the perfect vessels – he called it tabula rasa, clean slate. He also believed that the right form of government could create the right kind of citizens, which in turn creates the right kind of society. I’m sure he fervently believed what he wrote and spoke about, but I think maybe – just maybe – he was an idiot.

I don’t believe it. I think people are born inherently evil, and that evil is based on pervasive selfishness. I look around me at the consumerist, materialistic culture Americans have created for themselves and it makes me want to cry. Don’t get me wrong – I confess I’m fully invested in it and part of the problem instead of being part of the solution. As Jules once said though, “I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.”

I think that feeling, that effort to suppress my own evil nature to be a good example to my students – in effect, a shepherd at the college level – is what has driven my summer class into the ground like a pile driver setting the foundation of a skyscraper.

It’s come to a head in the last couple of weeks as I’ve dealt with what more or less equates to a cheating scandal in my classroom. It’s not that I’ve never caught cheaters before, but this summer … man. In one 8-week class, I caught FOUR students cheating on exams in my class! Unbelievable. The funny thing (if cheating can be funny) is that the way I caught them was so incredibly simple:  WORDS.

“Words mean things” is one of my mantras. I’m big into words, what they mean, what we think they mean and how we use them. One of these days I’ll blog a riff on the word “accident” to show you what I mean. In the meantime, though, and for the purposes of this entry, let’s look at one word in particular:  Eponymous.

Quick! Define it!

Admit it – you had to look it up. Maybe you remember buying the R.E.M. album Eponymous in 1988. It was a greatest hits sort of album, that is, if you think a band that had only put out 5 albums to a largely smelly, hairy college crowd can have any greatest hits at that point. At any rate, even the college students that made up the vast bulk of R.E.M.’s fan base at that time had to go looking for a dictionary to discover that eponymous means “being the thing for which something is named.” What this means in the music world is simple: An eponymous album is an album with the same name as the band, such as Queen’s 1973 album titled simply Queen. You could refer to that as “Queen’s eponymous debut” or something like that.  (By the way – Queen? Best. Band. Ever.)

My point here is that the average (and even many above average) college freshman doesn’t know what the word eponymous means. When it appears on not one but TWO exams, I’m going to take notice – and not in a good way. There’s two reasons for my noticing such a thing – #1, as I said, most people don’t know what that word means; #2 and perhaps more importantly, I never once used that word when discussing the topic covered by the exam question being addressed.

One thing I’ve learned about college freshmen in my 12 years of teaching (d’oh – just realized I’ve been teaching college now as long as I taught guitar back in the day!) is that, when it comes to test time, they’re pretty much going to use the words that I used in class. That’s what they heard, that’s what they wrote down and that’s what they studied. I would never say ‘eponymous’ in a lecture – I would say “named after himself” because it’s faster. If I used the word ‘eponymous,’ I would instantly see questioning gazes, a hand go up and I’d have to define the word anyway. It’s just faster and more expedient to just say “named after himself.”

Seeing the word ‘eponymous’ on a freshman’s exam, then, attracts my full attention. Believe it or not, grading exams kind of happens on autopilot. I know what the question is, I know what the answer should be – I’m grading 50 of these things, so I’m scanning for highlights and anomalies.  Highlights (question: explain feudalism; answer: contains the words/phrases fealty, vassal, subinfeudation, manorial dues, Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Oath of Salisbury Field, knight, serf, etc.) mean points. If those words/phrases are there and strung together in a more or less coherent fashion, bingo, somebody gets full credit. If some are there but others are not, that warrants more attention to determine partial credit. Anomalies will snap me out of that autopilot; if you’ve used laissez-faire economics to answer the feudalism question, suddenly I have to figure out what the hell you were trying to accomplish.

Same thing with the word ‘eponymous’ – you use that, I’m paying attention. That’s when I notice your other answers contain similar $5 words, and the language you’ve used to answer the questions is far more formal and studied than I would normally expect to see from a stressed-out college freshman taking a history exam.

It takes me about 10 seconds to type your answer into a Google search and discover that you got the answer from Wikipedia. Getting the answer from Wikipedia means you were relying on your spot way in the back of a crowded classroom to hide the fact that you were using your iPhone to read Wikipedia pages and copy info from them directly onto your exam.

In other words, not just cheating but cheating in a way that’s so laughably easy to discover that you deserve to get caught. This brings me back around to the concept of the tabula rasa – Locke’s clean slate.

Cheating is, in my opinion, not learned behavior. You are either a cheater or you are not, and guess what? Everybody is a cheater. I believe that anybody that has the opportunity and thinks they can get away with it will cheat. I never cheated (in college) because I firmly believed my professors were smarter than I was and would absolutely catch me, then kick me out of college. That fear of consequences is what keeps the majority of people, including me, from cheating. I don’t even cheat on my taxes! (I did make a grievous error once, but sucking at math isn’t the same as cheating.)

Catching these students cheating on their exams also brought to light something very uncomfortable for me to think about, something about myself that I had to look at very closely.

Three of my four cheaters were men, which means one was a woman. The woman, maybe 18 or 19 years old, was the last one I caught. I’d already turned in the other three and even received notification that one of them had confessed by the time I caught the young woman.

Maybe I was shell-shocked at having caught a fourth cheater in one term – and the third on that exam. Maybe it was a moment of general weakness. What happened was, for a period of a couple of hours, I considered going easier on the girl than I had on the boys. Instead of turning her in for punishment and academic sanctions, I considered contacting her, telling her I caught her cheating, giving her an F just for that exam, and letting her stay in class.

I had to think very, very hard about why that idea came to me. I’m no psychologist, but I think it is some kind of deep-seated desire or need for women to like me or at least not hate me. I’ve always been better friends with women than men, so maybe there’s something to that, I don’t know. The point is, for a short period of time, I considered going easy on this young woman simply because she was a woman.

In the end, I decided to turn her over to the same sanctioning process the men would have to go through. One friend I discussed this with said that proved I wasn’t sexist, but I’m not sure he wasn’t just placating me to get me off the phone. I did a quick statistical analysis of two years’ worth of my grades and discovered that women average about 8-10% better grades in my classes than men. Is this a function of some issue I’m dragging around with me? Or is it a function of women being more conscientious (in general) in their educational pursuits than men? I don’t know, and I plan on doing a full analysis of all 12 years of my classes to see if I can dredge up some data.

The point is, this cheating scandal has brought my attention more to myself in a way that I find unpleasant to think about or deal with. Am I inherently a sexist? If I’m a sexist, that means I can be a racist, too, right? What other deficiencies of personality do I suffer from? Will my inherently evil nature (I’m tryin’ real hard) now affect the way I deal with any questionable situation in my classes? Have I lost the last vestiges of faith in human nature? Will I forevermore be the total hard-ass professor that nobody likes?

I hate cheaters. Not because of what they do to themselves, but because of what they do to me.