From January 20 through February 3, 2010, Dr. Rebecca Garland hosted a discussion on the Diversity & Literacy Discussion List. The focus of her discussion was the impact of literacy learning on romantic relationships. When adults return to the literacy classroom, they do not leave their personal lives at the door. Indeed, outside concerns can exert a powerful influence on their learning and even on their ability to persist with their schooling.
Rebecca Garland’s discussion focused on how intimate partnerships are affected when one partner returns to the literacy classroom. How do couples organize childcare, housework, and finances? What other stresses do they encounter and how do they deal with them? In this discussion, participants shared what they have learned from their students regarding these questions. A focal point of the discussion was how programs can help learners to anticipate and negotiate the inevitable stresses placed on their partnerships when they decide to return to school. The conversation focused on both heterosexual and homosexual couples, and also included discussion on what happens when the man, rather than the woman, is returning to school.
Thanks to Chris Miller, a graduate student at Georgia State University, the following represents a compilation of the various topics discussed by listserv members while Dr. Rebecca Garland facilitated the discussion on Love and Literacy. Each topic contains one or more discussion threads arranged by questions, answers, and comments. All of Dr. Garland's questions and comments are labeled with her name, while questions and comments from listserv members are labeled with first and last initials. Most of the postings were copied and pasted verbatim, with a few words edited here and there to facilitate reading. For complete postings, along with author information, go to the Diversity & Literacy Discussion List and look at postings between January 20 through February 3, 2010.
Rebecca Garland has been involved in the adult literacy field since 1990, both as an ABE teacher and as a doctoral student at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, where she was a NCSALL fellow. For her recently completed dissertation she interviewed women literacy learners and their male partners to explore these couples' understandings of the stresses that occur when the woman returns to school. She found that within the context of spousal support, couples often talk about how their attitudes are influenced by past negative experiences in school as children, past experiences with violence, and their beliefs about appropriate masculine and feminine roles.
REBECCA: I’m delighted to be hosting this discussion on the ways that partnerships are affected when one spouse returns to school. I’ll begin by telling you a little about myself before we get the conversation really rolling. I recently completed my Doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where I focused on adult literacy learning. Previous to that, I taught ABE for eight years at a women’s literacy center in Providence. While teaching there, I was disturbed to find that many women experienced an increase in partner violence as their literacy skills improved. Like many of you, I saw that violence against women literacy learners by their partners was not uncommon, and I returned to school to study this, in the hopes that I might learn something that would prove helpful to teachers struggling to deal with this problem. For my dissertation, I interviewed twelve women literacy learners and their male partners about the stresses that can occur in families when a woman returns to the literacy classroom. I hoped to gain a better sense of the issues that can contribute to the escalation of physical and emotional violence in this population. As far as I know, research that includes the perspectives of both partners has never been conducted. I felt it important to listen to the men as well as the women, in order to gain a sense of both partners’ hopes, fears, and concerns regarding the woman’s return to school. The couples I interviewed considered themselves to be the success stories. The women were doing well in school and they expressed appreciation for their partners’ support. The men, for their part, were vocal in declaring their support. But the men also expressed reservations. They were concerned that their partners were ignoring them and their children - spending too much time studying and not enough time being with the family. They wondered, and sometimes worried about, whom their partners were meeting at school. They also worried for their partners’ safety. Every person I interviewed, both the men and the women, had experienced terrible violence in their lives. They were striving to build stable lives for themselves and their children, and the men were anxious that something might happen as their partners went out into the world that would upset what was sometimes a
delicate balance of stability in their homes. While the men were supportive in many ways, their ambivalence did come out in the form of subtle putdowns and over-protectiveness. The men I interviewed definitely wanted to support their partners. But they had fears that made their wholehearted support difficult. This research showed me that men’s concerns are complicated. And while the women sometimes expressed dissatisfaction with the way their partners behaved, they had no intentions of leaving and wanted to work together with their spouses to make their relationships succeed. One of the most important things I learned from my research is that we need to listen to the spouses of our students. If we understand their concerns, we may be able to develop classroom materials to assist learners in supporting their partners, as well as vice versa. To start off the discussion, I have two questions that I’d like you to consider:
What are your students saying about the influence that their partners have on their schooling?
What kind of contact do you have with your students’ partners? And are you aware of their concerns?
PJ: "Going back to school" can have a major impact on adult learners' relationships with people close to them. This is such a common theme in so many of our learners' lives. "Developing a support system" (to support one's career and educational advancement) is something that we try to deal with in the career planning programs that we run for lower-skilled, low-income clients. A support system (of friends, family members, employers, unions, social services, etc.) is one of many "career tools" (in addition to basic skills, occupational knowledge, self-efficacy, and a career and educational plan) that we all need to move ahead career-wise. This issue is beautifully documented in "What If You Couldn't Read," a film made in the early 1980s by Dorothy Tod, a Vermont filmmaker. It documents the efforts of a Vermont farmer, whose name I believe was Lyle Litchfield, to deal with his illiteracy. It shows how, when he wanted to create his own business, he had to confront his literacy problem and then enrolled in a literacy program. He describes how the dynamics of
his relationship with his wife changed as he became more independent. I've carried images of that film (including the rural Vermont countryside) around in my head for two decades. I tried tracking down info about the film. The best I could do (through a Google search of "Dorothy Tod What If You Couldn't Read") is this article: http://www.ldonline.org/firstperson/The_Diary_of_a_Family_with_Dyslexia
BM: I'm enjoying the wisdom that is being shared about women's literacy and changing relationship dynamics. PJ's post brings to mind what a transformative process, literacy/education can be. In fact, many teachers don't realize that they are often being called/asked to be life coaches. And one of the things that we often forget even in our own lives is our support system.
MC: I just read PJ's post regarding a man who ended up having to make adjustments in his relationship once he began to learn to read and write. It reminded me when I worked in basic literacy during the late 1990s, one of our regular drop-in students was a 70 year old African American gentlemen who had just retired from his janitorial job. He did not know how to hold a pencil. His wife was the literate one and did everything in that vain including all the math with banks and bills. Over about 8 months, he began to read and write (he clearly was bright and a remarkable worker) and started to take some charge at home with his new abilities. One day, his son came in to the center alone to say that the gentleman might not be able to return to the program because his learning was causing such strife with his wife that she was threatening to divorce him. The son was distraught (it was he who convinced his dad to come to the program) and asked for advice. Of course we tried to encourage the learning to continue, but also noted that it was not in our abilities/power/expertise to advise on the strife being caused. We suggested various things like having the wife come with him to the program and perhaps counseling. Over time, the gentleman re-appeared and resumed his learning, but did not talk about what was happening at home. Nor did we ask.
CM: In learning about adult education, it sounds as though most of you who practice it work odd hours (i.e. nights and weekends) with not much pay or many benefits. Yet, you all sound very earnest and dedicated to your students. I am guessing that this is a labor of love for many of you. Surely, you all share many of the same pressures as your students. Why not share this commonality with your students as a launching point for a discussion about their changing family dynamics as they begin their new journey?
SC: I am teaching in an ESL setting with three levels and a provided childcare. I have noticed that quite a few families come all together. The children go to the childcare and the parents go to class. Sometimes one spouse is in a higher level than the other, and I have seen couples in the same level together. I think that it is an amazing thing when learning becomes a family thing. The couples can share this together and encourage one another. If one spouse can't make it to class, the other one can bring their work back to them. What do you all think? Is learning affected when couples come to class together or are both engaged in the learning process?
VY: Family learning at home was facilitated when they had a DVD (see http.www.ozreadandspell.com.au) that gave clues about spelling and reading in cartoon format for 30 minutes. A parent would give it to their children, 'Hey kids, look what I've got for you' and then the adults would watch and learn too without any loss of face. Then they could ask teachers what they needed to know further, again without loss of face, because they had found out things they needed to know.
DP: In past years I taught ESL and had a couple from Bosnia in my class. As a Muslim family, the husband was clearly in charge. Both learned together and eventually they worked well at filling in the gaps for each other, but I noticed discomfort if the wife tested better than the husband, or if the wife seemed more capable in any particular class than the husband. Especially in the beginning, it seems advisable to be sensitive to cultural issues and respond accordingly. This couple is continuing ESL with another instructor as I have been moved to GED exclusively, and they have made great progress in English as well as both becoming U.S. citizens.
SM: In my first year working in our program as a classroom “counselor,” I worked with a very bright student. She studied and passed her GED exam earning a score of 3024 that qualified her for a state scholarship that assisted her in her first year of college. She applied and qualified for a PELL grant that paid for her courses, books, etc. She enrolled in our community college to pursue a certificate in American Sign Language to fulfill a long term goal of working as a sign language interpreter. In keeping with confidentiality, we’ll call this student Mary. While Mary was in her GED class, her partner would call on her cell phone several times during each class. He refused to attend her graduation and the awards ceremony at which she received her scholarship. I followed this student as part of my job is to assist students in transitioning to post secondary ed after graduating. The dynamics present during her GED prep continued as she attended college. Eventually, the pressure from Mary’s partner was so great that she withdrew from college and returned to her occupation as an administrative assistant. I worked with another student in a GED class - we’ll call her Jane. Jane had immigrated to the United States when she was 12. Jane struggled in high school and eventually withdrew, married, and had a little girl. Feeling confined in her role as stay at home wife and mother; she enrolled in a GED class. Jane faced not only relational pressure from her husband, but cultural pressure from her mother who believed that her place was to be at home taking care of her daughter and supporting her husband. Jane would sit with me and cry the entire time. The pressure from her husband and her mother, and her resulting feelings impacted her ability to focus and be successful as a learner. She felt torn between the cultural expectations and her wish to pursue her education. She was not even able to speak with her physician regarding her feelings of depression because her husband accompanied her to the examining room when she went for her appointment. In her culture, feelings of sadness or possible depression were not acceptable. Jane eventually withdrew from her GED class. Working with students like Mary and Jane spurred me to pursue my MS in counseling and impacted my choice of topic for my final thesis project – the psychological and emotional factors that impact change and transition to post secondary education particularly for literacy students. Learning involves the whole person – cognition, behavior, and emotion. Any and all of these factors impact one’s ability to learn and succeed.
HS: We often have learners who are in relationships that become strained when the learner really starts to show improvement and enthusiasm for their goals. One way that our program addresses this is that we offer a discussion during orientation about "dream stealers" and that if there are people in your life that hold you back by discouraging remarks, sabotaging your class appointments by creating other things for you to do at that time, or any other way in which they might cause you to reconsider the possibility of your dreams/goals, you need to distance yourself emotionally, if not physically. We explain that it doesn't mean that they are bad people, but that there can be many dynamics in play; for example, their fear that you will grow beyond "needing" them. Sometimes a spouse or significant other becomes threatened if the tutor is attractive, and we need to do some intervention by arranging for the spouse to join a session of two to see that there really is no need to worry. By addressing the issue from the very start, before there's even time for these kinds of problems to arise, the learner gets to know that it is not anything unique about their situation if it does then manifest, and they can come to us for assistance in terms of our program (not counseling!).
DF: Since hearing about this "dream stealer" idea at one of the trainings I've attended, I've been giving it some thought. And I think we can do better for our students and hopefully for their households. Let me play devil's advocate for a moment. (Something that as a pastor I don't usually get to do) I'm wondering what seeds really get planted when we start by (in the program orientation) labeling a persons family of origin as potential or actual "dream stealers?" ...even though that may be exactly what they are trying to do. And while I'm worried about the seed, I'm more worried about what grows from it. I can see that a husband labeled as a "dream stealer" might tend to get even more negative toward the program when he finds out the program has recommended that his wife "distance herself from him." He might conclude the thing to do is distance her from the program. Who do you think has the better chance of success in that battle? I think he does. Truth is, anyone who tries to better themselves educationally (or in the workplace) is going to create points of friction with the folks who would prefer they stay in their present role. Remember now, the person who is changing or working toward change is the one who is creating the new identified frictions to the home.
- Husbands who have to help out more during her class hours...may not want to adjust...friction
- Children may have to be at a sitter or day care...lots of hassles...friction.
$$ spent on travel or child care may be resented by those who are affected by it...follow the money to...you guessed it friction
Friction happens whenever your goals mess with my selfishness. And depending on my selfishness, that can happen just about anywhere. This is true at every economic level. Low income, under-educated folks have no corner on the selfishness market. Selfishness is an equal opportunity disabler of family systems, and thwarter of change. My wife is back in school(Masters) and I don't always like what that means for me. I don't always like what that means for me. Here is the deal. How one identifies a problem goes a long way toward helping one decide how to fix it. Why don't we say in our orientations: Your spouse is probably a lazy, verbally abusive slug...who is worried your bettering yourself will show everyone what a slug he is." It might be true, but that would be "counseling." It'd be counsel because the obvious answer is leave that slug behind and move on. "Dream stealer" seems to me to be labeling that moves folks in the very direction that the people who are feeling some family friction at the moment may have feared. And the negative attributes of the label may escalate what could be a "solvable friction" into an "emotional or physical separation." I cannot see it helping communication when it comes up at home. :-) I think we can honestly prepare people for inevitable friction, without labeling their loved ones "dream stealers" in the process. Sure the student is going to have to find a way around or through the frictions, and yes, if they do not find that way their dream will be taken. But truth is other people are not the problem...they're doing what people at every level of life tend to do...they're resisting change. Not having or using skills to deal openly and honestly with people while persisting on a personal course toward a desired outcome is the problem. A number of the students I deal with have real problems because they blame others, and as long as they continue in blaming behaviors, they do not take responsibility for their own choices. If you try to do anything good in life, there will be problems associated with that. People will tell you, "You can't do it." Or they'll say in various ways, "I don't want you to do it." I believe it's appropriate to weigh the objections of family before you decide whether or not you will allow them to "steal" anything from you. Shocking as it may seem, occasionally the people who worry about us are right. (There is a reason why I'm not a traveling musician) And if they are right, then another way forward has to be found. We can be determined to move forward, without being cemented into but one plan. I think we can recommend Loving Determination. --_Loving:_ in that our seeking to reach a goal will take into account the people affected by our working toward that goal. My wife chose to wait till our kids were mostly out of the house to restart her education. That was her choice...it had to do with her goals as a mother and her goals as a student. I'm glad she was not oriented toward calling me, or the kids, or how far we live from educational resources as dream stealers and then distance herself from us. Our students are people first...they have likely chosen to grow educationally with the idea of benefiting the very people who are now labeled "thieves." We can do better. --_Determination_ students need to be determined in the sense that they are going to be working toward the goal one way or the other...and their preference is to work on it together with the loved ones...preferably with their support. Ultimately with or without it. There are enough options these days for persons to move forward toward educational goals from home, at ABE sites, online, etc. Besides, for most of our students, a GED is not a dream at all, it's a very achievable goal. They need our help. And the more support they have from home the better. I think strategies for bringing on board the people most affected by the changes that are coming would serve our clients better than setting up an adversarial scenario that they will assume is the case the first time there is a rough spot in the family road. And there will be such rough spots even with the most supportive of spouses. This is a great discussion, and one that hits where we are living.
SM: You make some very good points. I'm wondering if your reference to counseling is accurate... "It might be true, but that would be "counseling." It'd be counsel because the obvious answer is leave that slug behind and move on." In counseling, particularly Rogerian, Cognitive Behavior Therapy, even Reality Therapy - the client sets the goal - the counselor does not and is ethically responsible not to force his or her manner of thinking on the client. Even if the counselor believed that the client should leave the partner, he or she is ethically bound not to suggest such. With that said - there is counseling and there is "counseling" - the latter not being accountable to ethical codes. I think many people have erroneous information that may stem from experiences with counselors who were not very good, but we are taught to avoid just the behaviors and attitudes that have been suggested are common among counselors. I agree that setting the student and partner up as adversarial is counterproductive. I also think that the term selfishness is a judgmental term that would not appear in counseling. It would be stated that each has different goals. The partner could argue that the student is being selfish. I prefer to stay away from judgmental terms. Members of marginalized and oppressed cultures have difficulty in accepting responsibility partially due to the fact that it is confusing as to what is actually their responsibility and what is society's or the other person's. To force someone to take responsibility who is not ready to do so is detrimental. By guiding the client and gently confronting discrepancies and mixed feelings, the counselor assists the client in formulating thinking patterns that assist them in taking responsibility.
DF: Ok, in our scenario, the client has set a goal.... get a GED. Our role is help them get there. They tend to bring their whole self in when they walk in the door. We hear about things we'd just as soon not know about. They have boundary problems. They say too much. They embarrass themselves and do not know it. They are indiscreet about their indiscretions. They live messy and fragile lives...but they're also amazingly kind, helpful, resourceful and resilient. I love them. We agree setting a partner up to become a "Dream Stealer" is unnecessarily adversarial. Selfish, may be a judgmental term in some manners of speaking. Again it may just accurately reflect the truth...both about self and others. I would try to avoid setting a student up to accuse their partners of selfishness as well...I would not give the dream-stealer presentation substituting "selfish people" for the previous term. But the word has its place...maybe not in counseling, but in life. I believe in truth...and trust it...tempered with love. And the truth about my selfishness and yours is a good message for people working at change. As to your last point, if persons are coming to an ABE program they are taking steps toward personal responsibility for their future. I'm willing to risk "confusing" them further in the direction of personal responsibility. I'm not forcing anyone, and I'm not the one telling them their family is a bunch of dream thieves either. I'm one whose saying that their own selfishness (however they express it), and the selfishness of members of their family are on a collision course...and they will experience this friction whether they were in our class room or not...and I'm saying it's better to seek a unified approach to the particular changes that come from being in an educational program. That is our focus and the central theme of our contact with them. I believe that statistics show that educated people make more money. I've heard it repeated at a number of presentations. Exactly what inner drive is that idea appealing to? One we all share. In fact it's a judgment of many, that their lives might be better with a little more money in the house. Younger students are told a GED is worth a million dollars over the course of their work life. A financially struggling family could look at a GED and say, by getting you (the student) a GED we can better our lives and the lives of our children. It's somewhat selfish, but it's also altruistic...and it dabbles in truth. It says we all have something to contribute to this goal. If that's an idea a household can unify around..."we'll work together to get Mommy a diploma and a better job." why not? That sort of family-owned plan makes sense of getting through the tougher times...together. I think when we refer to people as "dream stealers" or just say "such thieves are out there" we're setting people up to go find some...and they will at the first sign of friction. We may or may not be counseling at that point, but we're definitely leading the witness to a conclusion they do not need to draw. And we're not necessarily giving them any tools to deal with those times other than "withdraw." Premarital sessions try to prepare people for the common tough spots that occur as two people make a life together. If we want to orient students to the new life they are choosing, I think this is the type of message we give.
- You're doing a good thing and a difficult thing. We're here to support you in your educational goals
- Here's what can happen in the family, and here are some ways to turn it into a positive thing at your house
- Here are some ways to reassure your spouse you're not doing this so you can move out
- Here are ways to bring your children on board
- Here are ways to show respect for the spouse who is not "growing" with you...or in the same ways you are
People skills are needed in the family and in the workplace. I don't think the need for this is cultural at all...except in the sense that if you want to keep a job, you'll learn what employers value. we all need to wrap our heads around that one. And folks will remain disadvantaged (and confused) if personal responsibility for choices is not taught and caught.
KD: I teach orientation on the other side of our county, and we do mention "dream stealers," but we really don't dwell on that. I usually use the personal example of being married to a pessimist (true story) who always sees the glass as "half empty" while I see it as "half full." He's one of the most negative people that I know, but I still love him to death, and I'm one of the most positive people you could meet. What we do concentrate on is the fact that no matter what anyone says to us, we have the power to stay positive and turn that around. It's inside all of us to keep a positive attitude - that's what's important. So, what we do say is that if someone in your life says that you "can't do it," just remember that you certainly CAN and keep telling yourself that! You can overcome negatives by positive self-talk and reinforcement. Life can be rough, but if we remember all that's good in our lives, stay positive and determined, and keep working towards our goals...we'll get there! That's really the point we try to get across. We always focus on the positive, not the negative. You really gave me something to think about though...thanks for that. I never thought about how negative those words truly are.
MG: I would add to DF's remarks that the very notion of "Dream Stealing" flies in the face of what every effort at marriage counseling worthy of its name and goal achieves to do, namely, to direct the focus on and build awareness of oneself and to validate as well as mirror behaviors of the spouse (children, etc.) with the goal of creating a win-win situation which all affected parties have the greatest chance of buying into. I'd also add that in dealing with the potential impact of literacy (educational) development on relationships, issues might easily surface that we find ourselves literally unqualified to handle. If we're going to frame a situation, it needs to be, as DF asserts, in the most positive of terms, terms that do not trigger defensiveness. That alone is easier said than done, so let's tread this path responsibly.
SM: I wholeheartedly agree that it is more productive to frame the situation in positive and nonjudgmental terms. Emphasizing that each partner has a piece of the truth is positive and productive and opens the door to dialogue leaving the parties involved free to discover the best course of action for them. To impose our judgment of what is positive for any couple is counterproductive.
REBECCA: As literacy practitioners, we are in a weird position. We are not counselors, and yet our students bring to our classes personal and relational issues that we must deal with as if we were. We are often afraid that we will do more harm than good, due mostly to our lack of training in this area. And yet the issues don't go away. There they sit - the proverbial elephants in the room. What are we to do? To apply this dilemma to our discussion here, we are not only being asked to take on the role of counselor, but of couples' counselor as well! Yet, even if we were trained in this area, we couldn't do it properly because our
students' partners are not there. The nature of our work as educators means that we will probably never even meet them. As a result, we are only dealing with one piece of the truth because we are only seeing one partner's perspective. Coming from your backgrounds as counselors, the thrust of your discussion so far has been on how to help couples develop skills that will enable them to collaborate to find the most productive course for them when one partner returns to school. But that's assuming that both people are there to
collaborate. Can you share any ideas you might have on how to encourage the couple to work together when only one of the partners is present?
TE: One of the ways to encourage couples to work together can be borrowed from the practices of insurance companies: Find what the partner really and truly wants in his/her life and help your student to expand the goal to include his/her partner's goal. If the partner wants a car, a house, a....., provide the student with statistics of differences in income for Literacy Levels I, II, III, and IY. My students had to face the tough choice of leaving welfare (Ticket to Work was one of the programs) with no return or staying in a comfort zone. It was a serious challenge for quite a few fourth, fifth generation welfare recipients. Discussion of the transfer of literacy skills into the paycheck and benefit differences was causing a ripple effect: Our students were taking those numbers home, and we quite often had to explain the same thing to their partners, helping to build the mutual ground. Another tool for convincing, in this case mostly male, spouses was the reference to specific employment and vocational TABE score requirements (US Department of Labor).
TCH: Having worked with battered women for 11 years prior to my 'second career' in ABE, and also having directed a mental health clinic specializing in family violence, I am aware that issues of safety are paramount in domestic abuse cases. While teachers need to guard against overstepping boundaries, it is essential that we provide access to resources to adult learners who may be abused. I encourage all ABE professionals to keep handy the phone numbers of their local or state domestic abuse hotline (most of not all states have this resource), and if possible a local battered women's advocacy organization. It is also important to refer selectively to counselors - far too many traditional therapists may overlook immediate safety issues as they counsel battered women to examine their 'role' in the abusive relationship.
SM: You make a very good point. As part of our training, we are cautioned against overlooking immediate safety issues and to have available all community programs that specialize in domestic violence. Our ethical responsibility is first the welfare of the client. In our informed consent documents, we specifically state that our confidentiality commitment ends when the safety of the client or another is jeopardized. Due to recent training revisions, issues such as the one you raise are addressed, so that counselors in training are made aware of our ethical responsibilities.
REBECCA: You state that it's important for teachers to maintain the line between respecting boundaries and ensuring safety. There may be instances, however, when one has to overstep boundaries in order to maintain someone's safety. For example, there may be a time when a student is not directly disclosing, but you suspect abuse and feel compelled to take action, even though the student may not want your intervention.
This issue of boundaries has come up several times in this discussion.
What kinds of interventions will provide information to our students about the possible effects of literacy learning on their partnerships, but will avoid embroiling us in their actual relational dynamics?
Can we inform our students of the relational impact of literacy learning without taking on the role of marriage counselor?
SM: I see our role as support to the student in their educational endeavors. In the absence of obvious domestic violence, we provide support to the student by reminding them of their goals and the importance of those goals. One of the most important skills that practitioners in literacy education can provide for students is development of the critical thinking skills that permit them to analyze their situation, create alternatives, and make positive, appropriate decisions.
HK: However, as the article by Rockhill suggests, for some, the violence starts with school itself. I have not been commenting, as I am absolutely inexpert although with ABE and 'life' experience which corroborates some of the observations others have made. All I would like to input is the observation that 'violence' is quite a complex issue and it is often useful to think in terms of primary, secondary, tertiary (etc) violence. The perpetrator of violence (eg the American citizenry at the time of independence) might be responding with secondary violence to the primary violence of the colonial powers (eg the Brits), even if that was not always immediately obvious and not always involving actual physical violence. This analysis sometimes helps understanding in personal circumstances too. The violence witnessed may not be primary. Violence develops cycles, too, of course. Blame is often the least useful place to start in terms of moving a situation forward on the ground.
AM: Agreed, in the case of Rockhill's argument, violence is the result of immigration and cultural change, coupled with economic distress which manifests itself in men battering women. So, you can make all kinds of structural analyses and if you are a Marxist, you could even argue that the basic element of violence is economics itself. From a cultural anthropological perspective the argument would be that among Hispanics, men are "muy macho" and want to be on top of the food chain. However, the physical violence, in the form of wife battery, manifests itself superstructurally in women being beaten when they start going to school and frustrated husbands sit home without jobs. Rockhill is making a language and literacy analysis of the basic structure of the violence. Women learn English and are able to use this tool to move around in the community, feel empowered and can make more decisions. Men, the original power holder of the relationship, as the bread winner, feels emasculated by the loss of status. This results in men drinking and abusing women. While we could search for economics or other variable as the primary cause of violence, for the woman being battered the obvious (superstructural) fact that she is getting smarter and mobile inversely to her husband's limitations leads to her abuse.
REBECCA: While in many cases violence may be present before a woman returns to school, Rockhill points out that literacy itself can be a catalyst for violence, since a woman’s improved education can threaten a man’s masculinity. Considerations over whether this violence is primary, secondary, or tertiary will not matter to the woman who is being abused. However, framing violence in these terms may prevent some of us from falling into the blame trap, as HK points out. He says, "Blame is often the least useful place to start in terms of moving a situation forward on the ground." Personally, I find it easy to blame many of the male partners of the women I have taught. I find their behavior horrific. However, I recognize that blaming the man does little to help a couple deal with the stresses around literacy learning. If the partners are going to stay together, then they need strategies and support, not blame.
MT: I've seen husbands and boyfriends try to sequester the woman at home, and/or forbid her to talk to family, friends, other men, or try to interfere with her attendance at a class by hiding the car keys, flattening tires, etc. or to use psychological violence like calling her "stupid" far more often than using physical violence. When I have lived in cultures where patriarchy dominates, the typical, universal response is to restrict women's rights through laws and customs where she can't leave home without a family male escort, she must stay covered, she can't work, she can't drive, etc. Violence is used to punish those women who don't or won't follow the rules. My sense is that there is a pattern of escalation that is important to document. Maybe this pattern doesn't actually exist, that violence is more or less random and unpredictable. I think it does exist. I mention this because if there is a pattern of escalation, I think it is important that we share with women students when violence is most likely to occur along this pattern. If this pattern exists, then we also need to talk with experts and do our own study to see if there are any actions or behaviors at each step that might de-escalate/defuse the situation. Also, the status challenge that education seems to provoke affects everyone in the woman's life; family, friends, colleagues but these rarely lead to violence. It happens for men, too, but nowhere near the scale that women may experience. I remember sadly the male friendships that ended when I decided to go to college.
KN: In my experience, coming to a literacy program is sometimes not the cause of a change in a relationship, but rather the result. Sometimes school is a step to escape from a relationship that is already broken, perhaps beyond repair. Two kinds of examples I've seen: a woman who is being battered wants to leave her man, but knows she doesn't have the skills to get a job and survive on her own, possibly with kids, so she comes back to school, in preparation for getting out of the relationship. She is probably doing other things, too, such as finding out about a safe house, and her partner may well be suspicious that she will leave him, and his suspicions are well founded. a woman who is being battered by a man with literacy issues will encourage him to come to class, mistakenly thinking that his frustrations with his lack of literacy and accompanying problems cause him to beat her; I remember having a woman come to see me and beg me to teach her husband to read so he would stop beating her. I have had some learners who have the kind of relationships that are strong to start with, and adjustments have to be made as one partner gets more involved in and more skilled at literacy learning, but they are the exception.
AM: Agreed 100%. I am working on an article in which I argue that violence against women manifests itself in different ways. The first way is emotional. Women feel guilty of leaving their household duties to attend school. This is an ongoing negotiation within themselves. The next level of emotional violence is from pressure by their families. IE: "Mom! you don't cook for us anymore" "Honey, nobody irons my undies anymore". Next is when criticisms and demands start, such as: "I come before school" "You will perform your chores before going to school", "You'll never amount to anything". Above that are the insults, tantrums, hiding keys, destroying homework and lastly, the physical battery. At all these levels women negotiate with themselves and their families about the need, importance, desire, etc to go to school. Some give up and drop out. Others dump their spouses, go to the battered women's shelter and move on. The article was conditionally accepted in a journal pending reviews that I am making. Maybe in the future we can share findings and compare.
JI: This is probably evident to you and others that yes, we need to listen but we need to listen if and as our own students are comfortable having those spouses/partners communicating with us. In other words, I want us to be really clear that while those voices are important, it may not necessarily be wise for practitioners to initiate such communication without learners' complete understandings of possible consequence both intended and not. I worry that we be mindful of the degree of trust that needs to be built before we can initiate these conversations.
DP: I teach ABE/GED in northwest Georgia. I can see the concern that we need to understand our students' spouses and partners concerns, but at the same time I am reluctant to seek contact. As JI reminded us, sometimes students are not comfortable with their teachers having contact with their partners. Some partners could be distressed or even angry if teachers initiated conversations with them about their feelings and fears. Often these partners would not articulate their fears and feelings.
REBECCA: There are difficulties in teachers directly soliciting the men's opinions. There is certainly the trust issue, as JI points out. But in addition, it may not be practical, since partners are not likely to have much contact with the school. During the interviews, I asked each man whether he had ever visited his partner’s classroom or met her teachers or classmates. A few said that they had. One man said he made a point of going in when he picked up his partner. But most of the men had never been in the school. Even when a man makes a point of coming in, teachers' contact with their students’ partners is sporadic, at best, making it difficult to discuss the issue in any depth. Also, as JI indicates, another challenge is the question of safety. If violence is occurring, raising the issue may intensify already volatile feelings. When doing my research, I found that the deeply troubled couples didn’t talk to me, so self-selection alleviated this concern for me, at least to some degree. But I agree that teachers need to be extremely sensitive to avoid unwittingly making a bad situation worse. One idea I had to address these challenges is to use the words of the men whom I interviewed to help learners consider the men's perspectives. I designed some lessons where I took excerpts from the interviews and asked students to think about the men's concerns. I saw this as a way to encourage teachers and students to "listen" to the men without putting pressure on anyone. Below is an example of what I did, using a pseudonym, Dennis:
“ And now she want to go to school. She want to get a job. I would like to get a job too, but nobody want to hire an ex-convict. In all the applications that I fill is that question: “Are you being convicted of a felony?” I always put yes, or sometimes I put no. When I put yes, I will explain in the interview. They say, ‘We’ll call you, don’t call us.’ And that’s aggravating. When you spend 4, 5, 6 months going upstairs from the morning to 3 o’clock looking for work and you don’t find nothing, you know, that’s very aggravating. You know, you get stressed out.”
What is Dennis feeling?
Why do you think he feels this way?
What would you do if you were Dennis’s partner?
The above example shows one way that research may be able to influence practice to help teachers raise the issue in their classrooms. As JI states, the voices of the men are important. But there are certainly challenges to hearing them. How do we bring up the issue in our classrooms? How do we make sure our students are comfortable talking about it? How might the women's partners be included in discussions? Do any of you have ideas?
SM: I'm concerned regarding the issue of boundaries. There is a delicate balance between support and counseling. In situations such as this the support can very easily become counseling and should be addressed by a trained counseling professional rather than a teacher whose expertise is teaching - not counseling. Great damage can be done to relationships when non professional counseling is given to students. I think that when students come to a teacher with an issue such as this, the student should be referred to a counselor rather than attempting to counsel the student themselves.
DP: I have to agree. It is difficult to understand our own complex relationships, without delving into those of our students. It places teachers in an awkward position when these issues arise. My director's take on getting too involved with students' lives is that we can't cross the line between being supportive and meddling. Sometimes it is difficult to listen to students who are being abused verbally or emotionally by spouses and not offer advice. I do, however, urge victims of physical abuse to remove themselves from the situation and seek counseling for themselves and their partners.
SM: It is wonderful to hear the creative methods used by programs in dealing with this issue. In our program we have 3500 students spread over three campuses and throughout the county. For confidentiality purposes, we have strict policies that no one other than the instructor, students, volunteer literacy tutors, and counselors may be in our classrooms. In our case some of our classes have 20 students per class. Our teachers are happy to have the assistance of the counselors who provide community resources to assist students. The beauty of literacy education is the opportunity that each program has to address pertinent issues.
REBECCA: It might be helpful to make a distinction between intervening (or, as some might say, interfering) in partnerships and raising awareness of the issue. Many of the women I interviewed told me that they had no idea that their returning to school would engender such strong feelings in their partners, and they were completely unprepared to deal with the fallout. Thus, our role may be to simply raise the issue and let the students take it from
there. Ongoing discussions about the relationship between literacy and power in our society may be one way of doing this.
SS: This idea of new literacy and learning is an issue that can bring up fear and reaction for other family members in addition to spouses; because as Rebecca points out, literacy changes people and their relationships. I agree this issue should be approached with caution, but definitely approached. When I was working on my PhD my mother commented "You will be so smart we won't be able to talk to you. Or maybe you won't want to talk to us anymore". I view violence as an extreme reaction to similar fears of being overshadowed or left behind or losing control in a relationship. Literacy is the doorway to learning and knowledge. Knowledge is power; so new literacy skills bring up issues of power and control. Discussion around a reflective question such as "How will your life be different when you can read?" or "How are you different since you've learned to read?" could bring out the range of issues in relationships without focusing on violent spouses.
DP: From personal experience, I returned to college after about 25 years ofmarriage and child rearing. Nearing the end of my studies, my husband had become distant and often irritable, and I could not understand what caused his moods. One day we argued and he informed me that he knew I would leave him as soon as I had gotten my degree, so I might as well just go ahead and leave. When students have issues with spouses, I am reminded of how our stable marriage was affected by my desire to improve my educational level and career options, so I have a better understanding of my students' situations. By the way, we are still together after 37 years and I am working on my graduate degree now.
CM: As a first semester Master's student, I can relate to the women returning to school to improve their literacy. With my age, a husband, and 3 kids under the age of ten, I fit the demographic profile of the typical AE student. A month into this new endeavour, I am still trying to balance everything and not feel as though I am shorting any of my responsibilities, old and new. I have pulled out my crockpot so that I can prove that school is not going to interfere with my making home cooked meals. It is exhausting. It is also scary to be back in the classroom after all these years. Life would be much easier not to take a risk and just continue as I was. Going back to school has been a longterm dream of mine. I have been actively talking and preparing for it in the past 5 years while waiting for my kids to be old enough for their care not to be overwhelming for my husband. Sometimes, it felt like a 5 year pregnancy. I also feel kind of giddy and like I am twenty-one again looking at a world of seemingly infinite possibilities, new ideas, and "a-ha" moments. While going back to school will eventually benefit my family financially, it is also good for me. I am selfishly claiming myself and my dream.
REBECCA: It sounds like both of you agree on the importance of understanding your students’ partners’ concerns. At the same time, you recognize the sensitivity of the issue. SS’s idea of approaching the topic more generally by asking students how their learning has changed them is one way to address the topic while also respecting students’ possible negative responses to direct contact with spouses. Based on your own experience, DP, perhaps you have additional ideas about how the issue might be introduced in the classroom? On a different note, SS makes the point that violence is an extreme reaction and that we also need to be aware of those students whose partnerships are not violent. Many of our students are like the participants in my study, leaving class and returning home to relatively stable home lives. And yet, they are still dealing with issues of power and control around literacy. One of my motivations for undertaking my study was to explore the issues faced by these types of couples. Since they have no intention of leaving their partners, these women need strategies to help alleviate their partners’ concerns. What strategies do you think would be most helpful? And how might you encourage your students to consider them in your classrooms?
AU: This is an issue that can and does arise within literacy classes, especially whose participants are women-in particular, women whose culture/traditions are patriarchal, traditionally male dominated but really these issues come up in lots of contexts: when one party in a relationship changes, the organism which is that relationship experiences change-an invitation to come along or resist, the relationship moving either together or more apart or dramatically apart. Forgive the amateur approach of a lay person talking about such well known and much written about subjects. But my point is that whether the change leads to a moving along together or apart has much to do with the individual's inner stability and self-awareness/self-acceptance and the level of security that partner feels/experiences with and from the partner: if insecure, that change may be felt/perceived as challenge and threat, as a potential loss of self-esteem, loss of the previously "safe/stable" world that had been established. Whether the anyone starts a citizenship class or a literacy class or a support group or a new job or any opportunity to hear and approach a "new" or different way of thinking about what one has put together up to that point, when the other partner is fearful of losing something, a common reaction is anger and sometimes acting out, using force, verbal, physical, threats, withholding, whatever tool to try to prevent change for fear of loss of control. A refugee women from a culture or religion that support "traditional" gender roles attends a citizenship class, hears that every vote is equal and every vote/voice is important may then decide that she wants to have a different kind of role in her relationships-unfortunately, very unfortunately, what sometimes happens is the fear/frustration/loss of self-identify/fear of loss of esteem among peers is expressed in the male partner moving past verbal abuse to extreme physical abuse/murder or murder/suicide. In Wisconsin over the past couple of years we have seen this. What I am not clear about is where this thread can go on this topic. We all know this situation; it does not admit of a set of steps that can prevent these so far as I know. One can create groups to support the male partners or to educate/raise consciousness (if they'll come) or try to add such elements to community events or find other outreach methods to get male partners to see these changes differently-but actually effecting change in anyone is, we all know, rare. Psychologists /therapists/ religious/educators/social worker/parents/partners know this. If/when I am afraid of losing my sense of who I am, I am not that open to hearing what you are trying to get across that would prompt me to see that change in my relationship with less fear and more acceptance. Certainly my partner's reassurance that I am still valuable/lovable can help me adjust if I am willing and able to manage my own fear.
JI: As others have noted, when a fundamental change in the dynamics of a relationship occurs, there are, inevitably, results that no one can really anticipate. It's scary when the person you live with/married/are close to changes in a relatively short period of time... What we probably can anticipate is that things will change and so maybe we need to think about as PD's sort of suggested both the support side of family/partner/relationships as well as the threat / potential conflict side of that. (we consider these in terms of persistence and support for learning already - but have we factored all the elements into this consideration?) Not sure that an intake process, as such, can even address this eventuality, but it's really something for us all to be aware of. Aside from the more dramatic examples that many have witnessed, wondering if there are also benchmarks or sign posts along the way that people have observed? Is there a moment, say, as someone is learning/making progress, before it all hits the fan ("You have changed! You think you're better than me!") where programs might consider open houses, or family nights or pot lucks or something where learners control who's invited, what might happen but that MIGHT enable family/friends/others to learn about the program/school thing in ways that make it less mysterious and/or threatening?
DF: I work with an ABE/GED program in Missouri. I have a couple who are "unevenly matched" as she is nearing completion of a teaching certificate and he has only dabbled in efforts at a GED. Some of their relational issues involve: -the fear that she'll get her degree, and leave him behind mentally...or actually leave him. -the somewhat accurate assessment that her increasing education does separate them in some ways...both in terms of the study time and status. -Education is a "way of thinking" and when a couples thought patterns are altered and they no longer "think" the same way...it is a frightening adjustment. I don't see this as very different than the spouse that supports their mate through "med-school" and then feels left behind. Some do divorce. Educated people divorce. Uneducated people divorce.
SR: I too worked with a man in a workplace literacy programme who was a very beginning reader/writer. His wife had to go with him on the back of his motorbike so she could help him find where he had to go if it was a new destination. After a period of time he had improved to the stage where he could read simple directions ( his wife no longer had to ride pillion) and then after 2 years his wife left him. All the tutors on the programme knew his wife because she was a local person and she also used to do after hours cleaning in the workplace we were based in. About a month after she left our learner she came into our centre to visit us and while we never talked about it I was left with the very strong impression that she had come in to try to explain to us that she wasn't a bad person. We knew that anyway because we had known her as long as we had known our learner. Initially our learner was very depressed and we were really concerned about his health but he continued to come in and see us twice a week even though we did more listening for a while rather than teach reading and writing. After a while he decided to try internet dating which provided a different context for his literacy!!!. He subsequently met someone and remarried and had another child but I know he would have preferred to still be with his first wife. I have never forgotten that literacy skill development doesn't always have positive outcomes.
SG: I once had a male student who learned to read over a period of 18 months. His wife had initially urged him to enter our program, but became dissatisfied when all of his LD behaviors were not remedied by his learning to read. In other words, her expectations for his transformation were unrealistic. After 9 years of marriage, she filed for divorce. At that time, she told him she felt he had not been honest with her in the beginning about the fact he couldn't read and "how dumb" he was. The student was bewildered because he had worked so hard and made such gains. I do not wish to over-analyze this particular couple, but it is important to acknowledge that learning to read does not automatically solve all of an individual's (or couple's problems). In these difficult times, also, improvement of skills is not necessarily rewarded in all the anticipated ways. There is a fine line, I expect, between nurturing our student's feelings of empowerment and conceding that learning to read won't solve many of their problems. (The wife in this case had come to me about a year before she filed for divorce to discuss her husband's progress and her continuing frustrations, but, frankly, I couldn't do much more than talk with her about some of the literature about living with LD family members.)
SS: I think the discussions you suggest could be beneficial to the participants and instructive for teachers. I do think the discussions would be more beneficial in the form of a reflective inquiry organized around a set of well chosen reflective questions designed to lead participants to discover solutions in their personal and collective experience. This process of teaching by asking would produce a problem solving approach while avoiding advice-giving and a “gripe session”. Another related possible approach might be a more general discussion about relationships and empowerment. Such a discussion can be powerfully framed by Stephen Karpman's Drama Triangle and David Emeralds' Antidote to the Drama Triangle, TED* The Empowerment Dynamic. In short, Karpman says drama in relationships happens in a triangle of Victim (s/he who is done to), Persecutor (s/he who does it to the victim) and Rescuer (s/he who saves the Victim). These are all victim roles and the individuals move around the triangle. This framework came to mind particularly in SR's story about the literacy learner whose wife had to go with him on the back of his motorbike so she could help him find a new destination. In that case, the man was the Victim. He was Persecuted by his "learning disability" (and probably some other things or persons). The wife was his Rescuer. By starting literacy classes, the Victim began to step out of his victim role, and so out of the Drama Triangle and into TED* The Empowerment Dynamic. With his growing literacy he was no longer a Victim; instead, he gradually became a Creator increasingly in charge of his life. He made the learning disability that he had held as his Persecutor his Challenge that led him to become more fully who he really is. He no longer needed his wife to rescue him because he rescued himself. It is easy to imagine that the displaced Rescuer, feeling unnecessary and maybe underappreciated, moved around the Drama Triangle into the Victim role; made the husband and his literacy classes and maybe the teacher her Persecutors, and left him to seek someone new to rescue her who would in turn need her to rescue him/her. The wife's alternative was to also step out of the Drama Triangle and into TED*.That would mean switching from Rescuer to Coach, supporting her husband's learning and growth. In SM's story, it seems she chose "victimhood" (a state of being as opposed to being victimized, which is an event or condition); while the husband chose empowerment. This dynamic is also important for teachers who feel compelled to give advice or otherwise rescue individuals or relationships dramatically affected by literacy and learning. Rescuing on the part of a teacher could be considered interference and boundary crossing. Challenging or Coaching is empowerment. To empower learners, it is necessary to stay out of the Rescuer role. Instead of giving advice or "doing something for" the Victim, a teacher can teach by asking a reflective question, meaning one that causes the person think about what's happening, link to his/her own and others' feelings, knowledge, experience; and formulate a purposeful response. (Has this happened before? What have you tried? How well did that work? What else could you do? What do you think would happen if you tried that? What help do you need? Who can you ask to help you? What do you want them to do?)
SM: Literacy students often lack the critical thinking skills that aid them in the decision making process. They act impulsively because they are not able to analyze the situation using the thinking skills that they are taught in their GED prep. I believe the more we can teach positive communication skills and give them the means to express themselves in clear concise statements the more we assist them in coming to terms with any obstacles that come along. Some positive nonfiction has been suggested in this discussion that provides students with descriptions of others who have overcome obstacles. Assisting them in developing problem solving skills that aid them in overcoming not only the obstacle of a lack of support from significant others, but also the everyday challenges that all people encounter in their lives. Each of us meets challenges that make it difficult to achieve our goals. That is part of the human condition. Encouraging them to think in problem solving mode is one of the most important concepts that we can instill in students.
REBECCA: Thank you all for sharing your insights. What a great discussion! Let me summarize a bit here in order to keep straight some of the different threads. It seems that there is basic consensus that the issue needs to be addressed or acknowledged in some way. It is simply too important to let slide. DP and SS’s stories of their own experiences, and the anecdotes shared by MG and SS and SG about their students, demonstrate how dramatically one person’s learning can affect a partner. With the importance of the issue in mind, people have also expressed reservations about how programs might address it. We may not have, as MG puts it, the “abilities/power/expertise” to advise students. We may, as SM says, have to be careful not to overstep boundaries. We may, as AU argues, find it fruitless in any case to try to change relational patterns that are deeply entrenched and based on the essential characters of the partners. While SS, PJ, and I have shared some ideas and practices, people seem to be generally ambivalent about how far we can go. It might be helpful to make a distinction between intervening (or, as some might say, interfering) in partnerships and raising awareness of the issue. Many of the women I interviewed told me that they had no idea that their returning to school would engender such strong feelings in their partners, and they were completely unprepared to deal with the fallout. Thus, our role may be to simply raise the issue and let the students take it from there. Ongoing discussions about the relationship between literacy and power in our society may be one way of doing this.
SM: I am currently in a MS Mental Health Counseling program. We are taught that even within the counseling field, individual counselors are discouraged from engaging in couples counseling. It is a separate field unto itself. The dynamics between spouse or partner and a client are complex involving roles, belief systems, ability or resistance to change, and other factors. Enrolling in literacy classes and the educational advancement of one of the partners in a relationship may be the designated issue; however, often there are underlying issues that are really the nucleus of the conflict. Without adequate time to explore the relationship in its entirety, even a trained counselor must tread lightly. To offer supporting responses like, "It sounds like you are having a difficult time. Have you spoken to a counselor regarding the issue?" are certainly appropriate if a student brings the issue to the teacher. Giving the student a list of pro bono or sliding scale counselors is appropriate. Those of us who work with out students have a bias toward the student; however, we do not know what ensues behind the closed door of a student's home, and certainly do not know the inner dynamics of the relationship. Without knowing the outside partner, the teacher is at a disadvantage. Even inviting the spouse or partner to visit the class or offering to speak to him or her may elicit an emotional reaction that could backfire on the student and the teacher. Raising issues of power, oppression, and marginalization are subtle indirect ways of educating students in the dynamics of social and familial relationships. That can be done within the confines of a lesson, and may raise the students' awareness level. That approach is separate from a one on one discussion with a student regarding possible power issues within the relationship.
DP: That's a very good suggestion. By discussing a broad, general issue, it depersonalizes it and gives the student some distance, but still explains the process causing their discomfort.
DF: The key would be to prepare couples for the inevitable changes that education brings, both the positive and negative. I'm also a pastor and did some "couple" counseling with a student couple, and we worked on communication and their common goals of having a better life for their children. I believe we were successful in re-framing her education as a shared goal, and a step toward a better life. Her new job possibilities would allow him to take a more local approach to work, even if it paid less...again to reach and achieve together the family goals that they share. If couples can buy into the idea that, "we are doing this for the good of our family," (Rather than she's doing this for herself, or he's doing this for himself) it can greatly reduce the fear of post graduate separation. I married an intelligent woman who has as much education as I have...and a better mind all told. (My plan is if she ever leaves me, I'm going with her.) But if I hadn't...if I'd married someone who was happy with their GED, I think we could still have a wonderful life and together. I think the trick with education is not letting it go to your head, and to never use a degree unearned as a club to demean your partner. If a person seeking advancement in education acts as if it's just a way for “us” to have a better life together, it can calm a lot of the fears.
REBECCA: The assumption here is that women in literacy classes want to discuss their relationships. I was surprised by how many of the women I interviewed said that they didn’t like this kind of sharing. Here’s a response that was typical:
[The teacher] be like, if she’s handing out papers, like, she says, “This is for all the ladies with older kids that need to talk about their kids.” And then the other girl will jump up like, “Oh yeah. my kid. He’s so bad. He starts smoking.” You know? You know? Like they really need somebody to talk to. So, that’s what they do. And I ain’t in that class to talk about my business. I’m there to learn. “
KW: The issue of personal sharing is such a tricky one. Many students love it, but many others are put off by it. So what's a teacher to do? In some cases, like preparing for the GED essay, some level of personal sharing is required, and I facilitated conversations with students about how much to share. Often, they would respond to prompts such as "What's an opinion you once held that has now changed?" with deeply personal and painful stories. We discussed how to keep ourselves emotionally safe faced with questions like this and did some brainstorming about less intense topics that could still be used to generate a solid essay. This was often a big relief to students to realize that they didn't have to "go for the jugular" in every piece of writing. One of the concerns and challenges that came up for me regularly was the over-sharing student who, if allowed, would monopolize the class with his/her personal troubles and eclipse any planned lesson I might have hoped to accomplish. I think it is our responsibility to set boundaries with our students. Part of learning is making connections with one's personal life, I think, and that should be encouraged. Perhaps, though, that is better done through personal reflection (journal writing, etc.) rather than shared discussion. Also, as much as possible, I think it is important to set parameters ahead of time. For instance, I teach week-long intensives about domestic violence now, and at the start of the week, I say something like this:” Many of us come into the work of ending domestic violence because of personal experience. Our stories are incredibly important, and I want this to be a safe space for those stories to be shared. We also have an incredible amount of information to get through, so there may be times when I need to limit personal sharing so that we can cover the material." I ask participants to agree to this, and I inform them of other options for self-care if that is needed. I think similar methods can be employed in adult education classrooms.
DG: Compared to non lesbian/gay students, lesbian/gay learners often do not feel as comfortable discussing or even mentioning their relationships in the classroom. Therefore, all of the same issues that have been eloquently discussed so far may not even be exposed for some of our students. Instead, they may have the same issues, but not share, and therefore, may for example, come across as being absent for no apparent reason, being withdrawn in class, etc., etc.
MM: My sense is that this situation (and others like them) relate to heterosexual assumption and privilege. Generally, in all social or institutional settings, the norm is heterosexual. So women students (and teachers) can refer to her husband, boyfriend, or baby-daddy, or show off an engagement ring, or talk about the fun she had over the weekend with her male partner, or other similar hetero-normative activities in passing or casual conversation without pause. This also includes more difficult conversations of role assumptions, disagreements in relationships, situations of abuse, and other hetero- relational situations. Hetero-norms also extend in class to vocabulary lessons or reading stories that involve family constellations. It's rare when such classroom content includes language like "lesbian lover" or "her wife" or two mommies! Depictions of many intimate relational/familial situations generally assume heterosexuality. Anyway - the point is - that when it comes to talking about intimate relationships or family constellations -- the trend is hetero- normative. So, having the option of even talking openly about past or present experiences of relationship in a same-sex couple is still not generally acceptable. So, to have an "out" conversation in a safe and accepting space can create some willingness longer term among those who typically don't have even the casual everyday option or opportunity to do so. Also, the willingness to talk about one's business may also depend on one's personal story, culture, age, personality, etc.
AW: What bothers me is the use of "husband" and "wife" in describing lesbian relationships, by lesbians. Could you talk about this?
MM: Lesbians (and perhaps anyone gay or straight who does not have the typical heterosexual married relationship) struggle with terminologies related to our intimate and/or long-term relationships. I imagine even heterosexual common-law relationships struggle with this as well. Each term is problematic.
- "Lovers" can be something that over sexualizes or narrowly describes complicated holistic relationships.
- "Partners" sounds like a business deal.
- "Husband" or "wife" (in my personal opinion) reeks of the legal ownership contract entered into marriage (yes, in the patriarchal historical sense) or -- for others -- implies cultural (typical) stereotypes of roles in the marriage relationship.
- "Girlfriends" can mean anything and everything, so, again, does not reflect the depth of a relationship.
- "Companion" may work for some -- and not others -- and seems more applicable to pets!
- "Sapphic sisters" might be too political -- and again, too narrow.
There are other terms floating out there—but, in the end, it seems to be a matter of preference for the couple in question. Almost everyone agrees that the language is clunky -- and nothing really reflects the passion, warmth, power dances, familiarity and all the other complex nuances of lesbian relationships -- especially those that are committed and long-term.
LS: I myself just go by whatever a couple chooses to call themselves--in most cases with married lesbian friends, it's "wife" and "wife," but I just go with whatever they say. I agree with MM, that every term is problematic, and since I'm not always crazy about being referred to as a "wife" myself, even though I've been in a married hetero relationship for many years, I sometimes question why anyone else wants to be known as a "wife," either. But since it's been a long and hard-won fight for gay and lesbian couples to be able to get married, to me it also has earned them the right to be called anything they want. But this is just my own two cents--it's certainly not up to me! I would also acknowledge that it has taken me a little while to be totally fluent in calling one or the other partner in lesbian couple, a "wife," since it's been so new here in MA that anyone can use that legal term, and it takes some getting used to. There is still a split second when I think, "What?" I think being startled will cease in time--I hope so. But then it also always makes me smile in recognition of the fact that it's been a victory for gay/lesbian couples to be able to get married, even if the word "wife" to me is still to some extent symbolizes gender oppression (as, for many, does marriage in general). I also think that teachers and other ABE practitioners should probably also call students' relationships by whatever term the student prefers to use. It's just respectful. The principle to me is the same respect as in referring to anyone by whatever ethnic or racial (or multi-ethnic or multi-racial) term by which they self-identify. If I were speaking Spanish, I would prefer the term "compañero," which I've always liked. It doesn't seem to connote the same casual thing as "companion"--it's much deeper. More like life partner, or life companion. Or even "esposo," which is at least gender-neutral. I wonder why English is so much harder? And one more funny thing: I usually refer to my husband as my “partner." My kids say, "but 'partner' is solely for gays and lesbians." To me, it's not. And it's been a conscious choice for me, as I didn't want to have privileged status as married, that gays and lesbians couldn't have. But, I too, then struggle with how "partner" sounds like or is confused with, "business partner." "Partner in crime"? No perfect choice here . . .
KW: Our language for talking about intimate relationships is so limited. I find that, when addressing groups, I tend toward labels like “loved ones” and “sweethearts.” I know it’s a little hokey, but I find that “loved ones” doesn’t exclude the way “family” sometimes can, and sweethearts makes the kind of relationship clear without being business-y like partner, sexualized like lover, or completely desexualized like companion. It works for me. In working with individuals, I generally defer to the language they use once they’ve used it. If someone refers to their sweetheart as a girlfriend, so do I.
REBECCA: Here’s a comment made by “Sheryl,” one of my women participants, about how she deals with the more rigid gender role patterns that exist in her heterosexual partnership:
"Most mens are intimidated by a woman having a better paying job than them or more education than them, but if they sit down and talk a lot and realize that it's better for both of them. Because they're one. Yeah. They're one. That's how I see it. [The man] want to be like the head, but you can let them know that they still have their position, they’re the head, they’re the man, they’re the head. [Even when] I'm more powerful in this area, you're
more powerful in that area, and that could encourage them too." I’d be interested in hearing your views on Sheryl’s comment. Here are some questions you might consider:
1) In your experience with learners, have you found that most men are intimidated by their female partners being more successful than they are? Have you encountered men who aren't? If so, do you know what makes these men feel differently?
2) In what ways have you found that men’s views on their and their female partners’ roles might vary by class, by race, by ethnic or religious background, by level of education?
3) Have you encountered students who feel as Sheryl does that it is the natural order of things that the man is the head of the household? Whether you agree with their views or not, how do you respond?
4) More generally, how should we respond when we find that our students hold values that we do not share, especially around issues of power and control that we personally feel very strongly about?
DP: I can respond to the question about the man being the head of the house. It is not only a tradition in our Protestant religion that the man is head of the house, but is established Biblically. However, the interpretation many assume given that fact does not fit the situation now, nor did it historically. There have always been women who were more successful than men or had more financial assets than the men they marry (think royalty). It is important that the man understand the reasons for a spouse or partner wanting to pursue more education or a better job. I am a reader and learner, my husband is a doer. I work as a teacher and am a graduate student, he works outside coordinating deliveries and loading trucks for a building supply company. The problem is often that the man is insecure within himself and cannot endure a woman who is better educated and makes more money than he does. I have even seen an older, retired couple who had problems when the wife was ready to take the GED test. Her husband refused to allow her to return to class. A couple must be secure within themselves and their relationship in order to negotiate this activity.
TE: I would not say that most men are intimidated, but quite a few are. In many cases men are intimidated by what their peers (and I am referring to the members of the family or friends) would say. One of the significant reasons of men's fears is well-masked insufficience. If family members encourage the couple to work as a unit, provide emotional and financial support, and, thus, do not expose what men are used to cover up, they tend to not see their spouses' educational success as a threat. Notes from the workforce literacy program, interim and exit interviews, due to the diversity of the Welfare recipients, provide quite a comprehensive picture. Large percent of Latino, Mexican, Muslim families recognize a man as the head of the household, “Whatever he says, goes”. In Slavic families, the man is the head of the household, but the woman is the neck. Whichever way the neck turns, the head goes. In multicultural society, it is inevitable to have the differences as to what we consider natural, and we, as literacy providers, need to 1) understand the dynamics of various cultures and backgrounds; 2) be very cautious about pressing our views unto representatives of the other points of view. Respectful attitude always wins. No matter how strong we feel about any subject, we need to remember that we can only change ourselves. We may only persuade, fascinate, convince. Change comes from within. It is in our power to control our emotions, and sometimes it is better to state that although our opinions differ, it does not mean that the only one of them is right. In my classroom, I demonstrate illusions to my students and use Fat City tactics. Later on, we discuss what is it that makes us see things differently and change paradigms. Because everyone has an opinion, this class never fails to test participants' (including teacher's) ability to state own opinions in a respectful manner and accept the opponents'. As a teacher, I learn a lot from my students.
OK: In the recent past, I have not been as active in the debate as I have had to grapple with many issues. I must hasten to add that the forum is insightful and highly educative on topical issues. On the current topic, I share immensely in the assertion, "...... but if they sit down and talk a lot and realize that it's better for both of them. Because they are one. Yeah. They're one. That's how I see it. [The man] want to be like the head, but you can let them know that they still have their position, they’re the head, they’re the man, they’re the head. [Even when] I'm more powerful in this area, you're more powerful in that area, and that could encourage them too." I reiterate the special role and position of education through sharing of perspectives at all levels especially at the family level. Dialogue engenders understanding around issues and communication enhances sharing hence broadens peoples horizon. Soon people realize they are looking at the same thing albeit from different stand-points. Quite often disagreements are caused by lack of communication and/or inability or unwillingness to dialogue around issues. Human resource constitutes a special and critical resource in society hence the need to underscore the principle of human development. As a result couples must not hold each other back through fears, prejudices and egoistic tendencies. When people are developed they are empowered and are overall, progressive, hence will develop other facets of society.
AW: Let me share a story. My cousin has a master's degree. She is bipolar and takes meds. A year ago she got a boyfriend (sorry about that verb). Her boyfriend doesn't have the education she has. What might be a sticky situation--I don't think he has a college degree-is not, because he helps her around the house, even hauls wood, does things that must be done and my cousin can't do any more because she also has arthritis in her hands. He is a wonderful caring individual and "gets it" as my cousin says about her bipolar issues. I am so grateful that he is there and I don't have to worry about her. This may help the "head of the house" issues or the "more educated" issues. It isn't just education that has importance.
BWT: In support of the complexity idea, it is not just about “not having jobs” or economics. All the men in my study work and their wives are expected to stay home on their days off, keeping a clean house, to have meals waiting for them...And, yes, the patriarchal social structure of society (U.S. included perhaps more subtly than in the Latino culture) certainly creates and supports behaviors, expectations, and ideas. BTW my using the term patriarchy does not lay blame at the feet of men, it is a social structure that co-opts all of us (to a greater or lesser degree); patriarchy happens to place men in a higher position than women.
REBECCA: I keep thinking about TE’s earlier comment. She says: “If family members encourage the couple to work as a unit, provide emotional and financial support, and thus, do not expose what men are used to cover up, they tend to not see their spouses’ educational success as a threat.” Here, TE makes two points that stand out for me.
1) She emphasizes the importance of extended family and other support systems in framing the woman’s schooling as something that will benefit the whole family. The positive responses of a couple’s social networks can help alleviate a man’s insecurities over his spouse’s increased education, since he does not lose face if others see his support as contributing to the good of the family. PJ and several others also talked about the
importance of helping students to develop a support network or to become more aware of the networks they already have. Any ideas about how we might help our students to do this?
2) She is suggesting that men do not want their insecurities to be known. It is the exposure of these insecurities, brought on by the woman’s return to school, that may underlie their lack of support. Support networks that emphasize the positive contributions of the man allow him to keep his insecurities hidden. While this might help him to be more supportive, Suzie suggests that this may not be the healthiest way for him to deal with his
insecurities. What do others think?
REBECCA: Let me give you some more quotes from the men. During the interviews, virtually all of them insisted that they supported their partners wholeheartedly. But they also expressed frustrations. Here are some of them:
Ted: Once in a while I’d like her to say, "I appreciate the fact that you're working the hours that you're working for me to [go to school]." I don't hear that, though. I try to give her support, but I need a little bit too. I’m working double shifts for her. I'll sleep for an hour or two today and then go in there [to work] and it's just frustrating.
Javier: [Before she went back to school], when she went to bed, the house was clean. She used to start dinner at the same time starting dinner. She used to pick up her stuff, you know what I mean. Sweep, you have to sweep. Mop, you have to mop between the bathroom. You know. I’m not saying that she was doing everything. I used to help too. You see what I’m saying? But I
don’t want to do it all, but she wanted me to cook too. Eeeeiii, nooo, you know. You stop going to school, or you come from school and you do what you’re supposed to do in the house. You know the babies need to eat, the kids need to eat, I need to eat. You come from school, you set up dinner or whatever, and then you sit down. I’ll take care of the kids. And you sit down and you do your homework. You know. 7 o’clock every week. My stomach’s growling, you know grrrrrr. But she forgot she had a family.
Francis: If she was doing well [in a job], I'd try to be a little happy because I wouldn't feel as much pressure on me to keep the house going. But there again, if she got a job making better money than I am, I think my ego would be taking, have a bat taken to it right now. But I’d never tell her that. I'd just keep it bottled up inside of me. I'm not one to share my feelings. Everything stays inside. There's probably a lot of things she still doesn't know about me. I just don't talk a lot about my personal life. But I do have an ego that would be, ah, really more than a baseball bat, I think I’d be like getting hit by a Mack truck. But, you know, I would
never tell her that, though.
Does anything that these men say stand out for you? Do you get any insights
into these men’s concerns/fears? If their partners knew what they were
feeling, are there things they could do to reassure them? How could teachers
use quotes like these?
MG: I'm reminded of basic approaches to couples' therapy that includes "I statements" (so prevalent in ECE), mirroring, validation, and mutual adjustments that make each partner feel accommodated, understood, respected, and cared for (not to mention loved!).
AW: I reread this, substituting women's names for men's, and it works--I think this is about shifting relationships not so much male and female. Just a thought.
REBECCA: The women I interviewed were all in heterosexual relationships, and I found that issues around their femininity arose again and again in connection with their learning. They struggled to reconcile their roles as wives, mothers, and caretakers with their desire to do something just for themselves. And many seemed to compensate by getting up at 4am to clean the house, or by staying up late to finish their homework because they spent the afternoon and evening cooking and serving dinner. Many seemed to feel that going to school posed a threat to their femininity, and this was a source of anxiety for them. I wonder whether this pressure to fulfill specific gender expectations, and the guilt associated with failing to do so, is unique to women in heterosexual relationships. I wonder how it might look the same or different in lesbian couples.
SM: Hurdeck (2005) sheds some light on the interaction between partners in gay and lesbian couples that appears to be relevant to this discussion. Hurdeck asserts that gay and lesbian couples do not have the gender assignments that exist in heterosexual couples; therefore, there is more of an egalitarian focus in the relationship. Task and role division tends to be more focused on the ability to perform the task. He also asserts that gay and lesbian couples tend to define their relationship less in terms of rigid roles thereby providing the opportunity for sharing of tasks and roles. I believe this is pertinent to the issue we are discussing because role identification is significant in relationships that experience change with one partner or the other. Lesbian couples tend to experience role definition as it develops thereby deemphasizing the dominance of one partner over the other. This is pertinent to a change in educational status in that role identification is intrinsic to rigid expectations of one or the other partner. Lesbian couples appear to have fewer rigid expectations in regard to status of one partner over another. Hurdeck (2005) also asserts that lesbian couples exhibit more positive methods of resolving conflict than do heterosexual couples thereby increasing the possibility that conflict that arises over educational status may be resolved more positively. Hurdek, L. (2005). What do we know about gay and lesbian couples? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(5), 251-254. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00375.x.
DF: This is conjecture on my part, but it seems to me that if the 'roles' are not as defined as Hurdeck says, and that role identification is more fluid, that there is at least potential for the roles in the gay and lesbian household to be more agile to allow for one partner to grow educationally even if that brings change to the relationship. It is the rigidity of roles...and messing with those roles...that tends to bother a couple when one takes on education. The more supportive and agile a couple can be with roles, the better equipped they will be to deal with time constraints and changes that come with educational pursuit. This could be a good lesson for all couples.
MAS: The boundary between literacy learning and psychological or marital counseling should be quite distinct. In my graduate investigation of writing after trauma (particularly when the trauma is related to domestic violence and abuse) in the post-secondary setting, I concluded that assigning generic memoir writing in first year composition--for both the individual's and the institution's benefit--should be avoided. The chances of further shaming the writer--either by giving a poor grade to the writing of a heartfelt rendering of an incredibly important event, or by reinvigorating shame associated with the event that had been "put to rest" for the time--are just too great. I am concerned that directly addressing the learners' choices in response to escalating discomfort with a partner may, too, shame the learner as well. What value judgments--examined and unexamined--might the teacher impose upon the learner? Nevertheless, shoving under the rug the very real fears and problems that arise when partners shift the status of their literacy shouldn't happen either. My research suggested that literacy instructors have a real advantage with students that they could use more intentionally. Why not talk about the choices that characters in novels make and discuss/dissect/argue with/imagine alternative consequences to the actions and conversations that these fictional characters in situations perhaps similar but not the same as their own? In talking about fictional characters' choices, learners then use their experience as a competency--as evidence, if they wish--to support their arguments about what these fictional characters should or could do. They can identify with a character--but keep the discussion about choices outside their own persons and their own sense of uncertainty about what they should or could have done in their similar situations. I wish I could say I've tried this approach with literacy learners—but my job opportunities took me into the Writing Center of a regional university--a place and center for literacy activity I dearly love. The peer writing consultants who work for me and I see the difficulties students have when trying to writing something cogent and well developed about "a significant life event" (such as being shot in Afghanistan)--and I imagine that literacy instructors have similar problems as we do in trying to help writers to think of deeper, more complex meanings to important struggles. I am arguing that making the stories and concerns discussed fictional and not the same those belonging to the student makes it easier to get through fears and shame to an evaluation of the complexities of the situation--and to a broader range of possible courses of action and outcomes. Have any of the literacy instructors listening to this discussion used this approach in helping learners to discuss the relationship stresses related to changed literacy status?
CM: I think that using fiction as a learning tool and discussion aid is a great idea. What about Alice Walker's The Color Purple?
KW: I wanted to share the novel, Crybaby Butch by Judith Frank. The novel is about a butch lesbian who attends literacy classes, and a portion of the story focuses on the impact her learning has on her relationship with her more literate partner. It's a well-written and insightful novel that I would recommend instructors read. Because of the heterosexist nature of our society, lesbian relationships are often made invisible, and I think Judith's work has parallels to straight couples as well. Judith does a fantastic job painting the picture of adult learning as well as examining the complicated interplay between love,
literacy, and learning. Judith was a presenter at one of WE LEARN's conferences, and it was very interesting to hear the response of both learners and teachers to her work and her examination of the impact learning has on relationships.
REBECCA: Thanks for sharing this resource. You say that many of the issues Judith Frank brings up around the lesbian couple in her book may be applied to straight couples as well. What relational issues around literacy learning do you see as unique to lesbians? And what issues do you see as generally applicable to heterosexual couples as well? Also, can you share with us how learners and teachers responded to Judith's presentation at WeLearn?
KW: I think the most obvious additional issue for lesbian learners is the institutionalized heterosexism of our institutions, including educational ones. Lesbian learners - and teachers - may be dealing with whether or not to come out as lesbian, whether their relationship will be respected and recognized, and the lack of equal civil rights along with the host of issues that all students tend to be confronting. Sadly, not all adult education classrooms, programs, and staff members are safe for lesbians. Lesbians are also dealing with dual oppressions of sexism and heterosexism, and, depending on the woman, may also be facing racism, ablism, etc. The individual dynamics of how one partner's learning affects the balance of the relationship seems like it would apply to both straight and same-sex relationships, but I think the load is heavier on anyone who belongs to marginalized populations. So, if the partner(s) are gay, lesbian, people of color, differently abled, etc., the potential pressures may be compounded. Learners and teachers responded well to Judith's presentation, as I recall. There was some degree of shock at some of the content - a "you wrote about that??!!" kind of response - but, all in all, there was a lot of interest in talking about how and whether students are able to bring their full selves to class.
MM: Another view to consider might also be how women entering new relationships might "hide" their shame. I'm thinking of another fiction book about a lesbian who lies while going into a new relationship --hiding her shame in her lack of literacy. Working Parts: A Novel, by Lucy Jane Bledsoe (1997), considers this dilemma. It is also a good portrayal of a lesbian working with a tutor, and how the tutor works with her lesbian student.
As I recall, reactions to Judith Frank discussing her book also had some ramifications for the students beyond the conference (many of whom had come from the same program). The reaction was not so much to the book, per se, but rather that the topic of lesbian relationships had been opened, discussed respectfully, and given "legitimacy." A window had been opened -- allowing for fresh air. Women considered how to discuss their relationships (both gay and straight) with their peers.
REBECCA: Let me take a minute to summarize some of the different threads from the discussion. In the past five days, we have looked at the topic from many fascinating angles. Here are the ones that stand out for me:
1) The discussion began last Wednesday with people describing situations where their students’ learning was affected by their partners. The consensus was that the effect is substantial and needs to be addressed in some fashion within literacy programs.
2) People mentioned some of the issues that couples may face when one partner returns to school: issues of power and control; jealousy; fear by one partner of being left behind; fear by one partner that the other partner will leave.
3) Much of the discussion since then has focused on how programs might best address the issue. What kind of lessons might we devise? How might we structure our intakes or orientations or open houses to take partnerships into account? How can we inform students about potential problems without overstepping boundaries? What are our responsibilities if we believe a relationship is violent? At what point do we recognize that the issue is bigger than we are qualified to deal with, and what resources can we then refer students to?
4) One spin-off from this has been a conversation about the ways that sexual orientation might affect the partnership dynamic.
5) Another spin-off has been a conversation focused on the concept of the “dream stealer” that some programs have used to help students anticipate personal challenges to their learning. Some people have argued, from a counseling perspective, that we can best support students by adopting a more collaborative and less adversarial framework. These are just some of the highlights that stood out for me. Perhaps some of you could share what has stood out for you thus far. I hope you are learning as much from these discussions as I am. Thank you for all your contributions.
Thank you, Daphne, for inviting me to facilitate this discussion. And thank you to everyone who participated, whether through your direct comments or by simply following along. Your interest reinforces for me the importance of this topic, and I hope you came away with an increased awareness of the relational stresses that literacy learning can provoke. For my part, I will take with me many of your ideas and comments, especially those having to do with classroom interventions. It has truly been a pleasure to share my work with you, and I hope to keep in touch.
Wow what an interesting and informative Love and Literacy Discussion we have had! A heartfelt thank you to Rebecca Garland for guest facilitating, and helping us explore what happens when one member of a couple goes back to school. Another thank you to everyone who contributed by posting thought provoking posts. Last but not least, a thank you also goes out to those of you who did not post, but who read every post and thought about what was being shared. I know that I learned a lot by reading everyone's post, and I hope that you did as well.
Through the course of the discussion, several articles, websites, and books were mentioned. For those interested, the following includes information on how to locate these items.
www.karpmandramatriangle.com (Stephen Karpman)
www.powerofted.com (David Emerald)
Hurdek, L. (2005). What do we know about gay and lesbian couples? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14(5), 251-254. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2005.00375.x.
Tod, D. (Spring 1996) Diary of a Family with Dyslexia. Linkages. http://www.ldonline.org/firstperson/The_Diary_of_a_Family_with_Dyslexia
Bledsoe, L.J. (1997). Working Parts: A Novel. Seattle: Seal Press.
Frank, J. (2004). Crybaby Butch. Ann Arbor: Firebrand Books.
Walker, A. (1982). The Color Purple. New York: Washington Square Press