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Are Progressive Texts Necessarily Disruptive? Investigating Teacher Engagement With Gendered Textbooks in Ugandan Classrooms


by Lydia Namatende-Sakwa - 2021

Background: Undergirding the dominant research focus on gender representation in textbooks is the assumption that making texts progressive in their construction of gender is a panacea for equality in the classroom. As this study demonstrates, however, textbooks containing traditional representations of gender can be used to challenge biases, while textbooks with progressive representations can be undermined. This suggests that “fixing” gender in textbooks to make them progressive does not guarantee how teachers enact them in the classroom. Indeed, the predominant focus on texts, rather than teachers’ gender knowledge base, has had little impact on classroom practice. This justifies the shift to “teacher talk around the text,” which, as scholars argue, should be the focus of research.

Purpose and Research Questions: This study, which goes beyond the dominant focus on textbooks to draw attention to how teachers take them up, was guided by the following research questions: How do teachers use gendered textbooks in the classroom? What discourses and practices circulate? What informs teacher selection of textbooks? Is gender one of the considerations?

Context: The study was situated in Uganda, a multiethnic patriarchal developing country in East Africa.

Research Design: A qualitative case study approach was taken up with two cases, specifically an affluent girls’ single-sex school and a less affluent mixed school. This illuminated how gender is constructed in relation to other socially constructed categories.

Data Collection and Analysis: The investigation involved textual analysis, classroom observations, and interviews, which were analyzed using feminist poststructural discourse analysis to identify and name discourses and discursive practices cited during the classroom interactions.

Findings/Results: Overall, the teachers’ use of textbooks in both cases challenged previous research, which assumed that teachers necessarily take up gender as constructed in textbooks. This overlooked teachers’ gendered truths, which, as shown in my study, informed how they took up and/or rejected both traditional and transgressive texts. Traditional gendered texts, which illuminated dominant realities, surprisingly offered more disruptive potential for engaging with gendered hierarchies than did progressive texts, which constructed marginal realities and/or realities incongruent with dominant truths.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The study has implications for teacher education in Uganda, which should prepare teachers by unsettling the taken-for-granted gender knowledge base, through disrupting traditional gendered ways of thinking/discourses. This will create possibility for producing teachers who can critically navigate gendered texts, by deconstructing gendered power relations during classroom engagement with texts. Indeed, as research has indicated, teachers are capable of challenging gender bias if well prepared. It will also be useful for researchers to observe lessons in which expert teachers engage with gendered textbooks, providing a model to inform teacher education.


TEACHER TALK AROUND GENDERED TEXTBOOKS


The overriding research focus on how gender is constructed in textbooks is undergirded by the logic that gender is a not concern of readers (Appleby, 2015; Elgar, 2004; Pawelczyk & Pakuta, 2015; Porecca, 1984; Namatende-Sakwa, 2018b). The assumption is that gender equality can be attained through making texts “progressive” in their construction of gender. I draw a distinction between traditional gendered texts as texts that maintain a conventional representation of gender (Sunderland et al., 2001), and progressive/trangressive texts as those that disrupt this representation. Texts that produce women as nurturers, for example, can be categorized as traditional, whereas those that produce men as emotional can be categorized as transgressive, given how they unsettle a dominant discourse by attributing emotionality to men rather than women. I conceptualize this categorization as a continuum rather than as a binary opposition, recognizing that texts can fall along the traditional/progressive spectrum. The term “gendered,” pervasively used here, was taken from Sunderland et al. (2001) in regard to texts that explicitly cite gender, casting a binary between what is traditionally deemed feminine, and, as such, relegated for female, and what is considered masculine, as such, a male domain.


Undergirding the dominant research focus on gender representation in textbooks (Foroutan, 2012; Lee, 2014; Ott, 2015) is the assumption that making texts progressive in their construction of gender is a panacea for equality in the classroom. This overlooks the ways in which teachers and students can appropriate textual meaning (Bonkowski, 1995; Hutchinson, 1997; Nicol & Crespo, 2006; Sunderland et al., 2001). As Sunderland et al. (2001) argued, textbooks that contain traditional representations of gender can be used to challenge biases, while textbooks with progressive representations of gender can be undermined. Indeed, as Coffey and Delamont (2000) affirmed, “An increase in women’s names mentioned and in pictures of women in texts does not in and of itself fundamentally challenge the taken-for-granted knowledge base” (p. 35). This is because a teacher who “knows” that women cannot become pilots, for example, is likely to undermine progressive textbook images depicting women as pilots. This suggests that “fixing” gender in textbooks to make them progressive does not guarantee how teachers enact them. Indeed, Loewen (1995) affirmed that the predominant focus on texts, rather than teachers’ gender knowledge base, has “had little impact on classroom practice” (as cited in Kuzmic, 2000, p. 108). This justifies the shift to “teacher talk around the text” (Sunderland, 2000, 2015a), which, as scholars have argued, should be the focus of research (Namatende-Sakwa, 2019; Mustafa & Mill, 2015; Sunderland, 2015b). In taking up this imperative, Mustafa and Mills (2015) added, “It does not appear that text research has attracted scholars’ attention in Africa” (p. 17).


This study, situated in Uganda, focuses on how teachers engage with gendered English textbooks. I contribute to the paucity in scholarship on teacher talk around textbooks (Moore, 2015; Pawelczyk & Pakuta, 2015) using a discursive approach (Youdell, 2006). This approach, expounded later, allowed me to illuminate how the teachers’ gender knowledge base and/or discourses informed how they took up both traditionally and progressively gendered textbooks.


RESEARCH QUESTIONS AND PURPOSE OF THE STUDY


This study, which goes beyond the dominant focus on textbooks to draw attention to how teachers take them up, was guided by the following research questions:


1.

How do teachers use-gendered textbooks in the classroom? What discourses and practices circulate?


2.

What informs teacher selection of textbooks? Is gender one of the considerations?


In the next sections, I provide the context of the study; a feminist poststructural framework; methodological considerations; discussion of findings; and, finally, a conclusion comprising a cross-case analysis, implications, and limitations of the study.


CONTEXT OF THE STUDY


Uganda, located in East Africa, is a developing country with an economy based on agriculture (Nakayiwa, 2016). The population is multiethnic, with diverse patriarchal beliefs (Mirembe & Davies, 2001) in which women traditionally have been constructed as subservient to men (Bantebya & Keniston, 2006). These gender discrepancies are reproduced in pervasive gendered division of labor in homes, workplaces, and schools (Muhwezi, 2003). The Ministry of Education and Sports is responsible for overseeing education and registering teachers (S. K. Jones, 2008). However, the general aims and objectives of teacher education are silent about gender (Muhwezi, 2003). This study illuminates teachers’ gender knowledge base in order to inform teacher education.


A FEMINIST POSTSTRUCTURAL FRAMEWORK


Feminists in education increasingly use poststructuralism to trouble both discursive and material structures that limit the ways in which we think about our work (Baxter, 2003; Francis, 1998; St. Pierre, 2000; Walkerdine, 1998). Poststructuralism suspends belief in universal truth and perceives of knowledge as historical and socially constructed (Foucault, 1980; Ropers-Huilman, 1998; St. Pierre, 2000; Weedon, 1997). It therefore invalidates the idea of meaning as unitary, stable, and/or fixed, positing it as rooted not in the text, but in the interaction between the text and the reader’s ideologies/discourses. This theoretical perspective is informed by the postmodern move (e.g., undergirding reader-response theory), which explains the locus of text meaning as residing in the reader and/or a reader community. Meaning is, as such, shaped by what the reader creates, or brings to the text and/or chooses to do with the text. This illuminates the shift in focus, from formalist emphasis on objective text to the poststructural emphasis on the centrality of discourse.


Textual meaning, then, is a complex dialectic between the text and the reader. The reader brings particular internalized gendered ideologies/discourses regarding how to inhabit masculinity and femininity into the encounter with an encoded text. As an example, a teacher who “knows” women as inherently nurturers and men as providers is likely to deploy this discourse to undermine a progressive gendered text in which these traditional gendered roles have been reversed. Similarly, familiar traditional gendered discourses, which construct women as emotional, nurturers, and weak, and men as strong protectors and providers (Litosseliti & Sunderland, 2002; Namatende-Sakwa, 2019; Sunderland, 2004), can be challenged by a progressive teacher.


As Sunderland (2000) argued, therefore, “An agreed case of gender bias in a text, then, cannot be said in any deterministic way to make people think in a gender-biased way” (p. 153). Whereas some teachers may take up the gendered constructions, others may resist and trouble them. The ways that teachers use texts, therefore, cannot be predicted from the text; teachers have agency to take up and/or undermine both traditional and trangressive texts, depending on discourses available to them and/or their gendered knowledge. The feminist poststructural concept of discourse promises to illuminate the knowledge(s) teachers bring to texts, which shape how they take up traditional and/or progressive texts. This will inform teacher education in ways that trouble specific gendered discourses.


A CASE STUDY DESIGN


A case study design is suitable for uncovering contextual conditions, given their relevance to the phenomenon under study (Yin, 2003). I focused on two cases—Sinsa Girls’ Secondary, an all-girls school, and Byogo Mixed Secondary, a coeducational school (both pseudonyms)—because, as this study demonstrates, the ways in which gender is enacted in single and mixed schools is largely informed by this gendered composition (Namatende-Sakwa, 2019; Gibb et al., 2008; Jackson, 2010; Rujumba, 2012). Further, because gender is constructed in relation to other socially constructed categories, Sinsa and Byogo also differed in socioeconomic status, ownership, and religious affiliation, as summarized in Table 1.


Table 1. Cases of the Study

Cases

Sinsa Girls’

Byogo Mixed

Structure

All girls’

Coeducational

Socioeconomic status

Affluent

Less affluent

Religion

Muslim

Christian

Ownership

Public

Private

Rating

High

Low

Location

City

City


PARTICIPANT RECRUITMENT


Hassan and Aisha (pseudonyms) from Sinsa and Byogo, respectively, volunteered to participate in the study conducted in their Senior 3 (Grade 10) English classrooms. Hassan, a 40-year-old male, is a Muslim who has taught at Sinsa for 16 years and is considered a senior teacher. Aisha, a 50-year-old female, is a Christian who has taught at Byogo for 18 years. She is a senior teacher and head of the English department.


METHODS OF DATA COLLECTION


The investigation involved textual analysis, classroom observations, and interviews during the first term (three months) of the school year. The focus of this article, however, is the classroom observations, illuminating how teachers used gendered texts.


Textual Analysis


I examined each teacher’s scheme of work, identifying lessons with texts that could potentially elicit conversations about gender. The textual analysis as presented here is limited to two traditional female-dominated texts, one traditional male-dominated text, and one progressive text. I analyzed each text, identifying gendered discourses (expounded in the section on data analysis). Indeed, as Baxter (2003) noted, the author’s own voice is one of the powerful sources of data for a feminist poststructural discourse analysis. As such, my own author voice addressed the first research question, which required the researcher’s perspective on how the textbooks construct gender.


Classroom Observations


Observations allowed me to collect data on interactions around the textbooks. I used audio recordings and wrote detailed notes (Emerson et al., 2011) describing what the text was about and what topic was taught: Did the teacher stick to the topic? Did he or she illuminate and/or ignore the gendered constructions? How were gender roles allocated? Did teachers contest and/or reproduce the gendered constructions, and, if so, how? What questions were asked? How and to whom? I captured how teachers took up the textual gendered representations, illuminating resistance and/or acquiescence.


Teacher Interviews


To elicit an emic perspective (Reagan, 2002) showing “how, in principle, the teacher thought s/he dealt with . . . texts” (Sunderland et al., 2001, p. 262), I conducted two types of interviews with the teachers. The first comprised informal postobservation questions, and the second set was conducted at the end of the school term. The interview questions were based on the literature, classroom observations, and my own hunches about whether gender representation mattered for text selection and teaching. Was gender taken into consideration in allocating roles as taken from textbooks during role play? What were students’ responses? What were the key gender concerns?


DATA ANALYSIS


Sunderland and colleagues’ (2001) “working model of analysis of teachers’ discourses around gender in textbooks . . . takes account of both the text and what is said about it” (p. 246). First, I used the “text descriptor part” to categorize texts as “going beyond a traditional representation of gender roles” or “maintaining a traditional representation of gender roles” (p. 246). I then took up the second part, and/or “the discursive practice” part, of the model to analyze teacher use of textbooks. This part provides four verbs to show how teachers addressed the gendered representations in the textbook: exaggerates, endorses, ignores, subverts. Endorsement and exaggeration (differentiated by degree) were coded for when the teacher maintained/took up/affirmed the gendered representation in a text; subversion was coded for when the teacher undermined/questioned/troubled the textual representation of gender; and ignoring was coded for when the teacher overlooked the gendered representation in the text. I coded the observation notes accordingly, also drawing on feminist poststructural discourse analysis to identify and name discourses and discursive practices cited during the classroom interactions. Finally, I transcribed the interviews, illuminating teachers’ perspectives and discourses cited regarding text selection.


DISCUSSION OF FINDINGS


In providing insights into how the teachers used gendered texts in the classroom, I focus on Case Study 1, followed by Case Study 2. In each case, I first show how teachers selected textbooks, illuminating whether gender was a criterion. I then attend to how teachers took up the texts.


CASE STUDY I: SINSA GIRLS’ SECONDARY SCHOOL


Text Selection


In Sinsa, the more affluent school, Hassan used a variety of textbooks to teach: “We do have a variety. . . . The library is rich . . . we also have Internet.” The school also facilitated teachers to write curriculum materials. Textbooks were usually distributed to students during lessons, with most students receiving a text or sharing one between two.


In terms of text selection, Hassan’s choice was based on suitability for the topic: “I check for which book . . . can easily be understood . . . . It is basically about language learning . . . rather than gender issues.” He added that specific textbooks are good for specific topics: “Practical English for grammar . . . English in Use for comprehension . . . Head start for vocabulary.”


Hassan explained that while the Ministry of Education and Sports determined the curricula, teachers selected or developed teaching materials. As Hassan affirmed, teachers generally did not take the ways in which gender was represented into consideration during text selection. He explained nevertheless that in hindsight, some texts he had selected explicitly cited gendered connotations. He gave the example of a text in which a boy fell in love with a girl, giving her a love potion from a witch doctor so that she could fall in love with him, too. This storyline is potentially transgressive because it constructs the boy as emotional, counteracting pervasive narratives that associate love potions with women (Namatende-Sakwa, 2018b). Yet, Hassan’s reason for selecting it was that he “thought a text like this one would be very interesting for the girls because it was about a teenage boy.” He chose the text not because of the transgressive construction of gender therein, but because he thought it would interest the girls. Therefore, contrary to Hassan’s claim that gender was not a criterion for text selection, his choice of text in this example was implicitly informed by heteronormative truths about polarized gender interests. This shows that, contrary to the teacher’s claims, gender had implicitly informed text selection.


Teacher Use of Gendered Texts


I first show how Hassan taught using “Fatherless Girls,” a traditional female-dominated text, followed by “The Land Boat,” a traditional male-dominated text, and then “The Raffle,” a transgressive text. Finally, I recap the key findings before proceeding to the second case study.


“Fatherless Girls”: Teaching a traditional female-dominated text. This text, from the textbook Summary Skills, explains the precariousness of girls whose fathers are absent because of death, divorce, or abandonment. The writer argues that the absence of a father influences girls’ perceptions of males, the world, and their academic achievement. This text constructs women as vulnerable and in need of men for protection, providence, and moral and emotional growth. In citing dominant discourses of father as head of home, breadwinner, and disciplinarian, it constructs feeble femininities, legitimating the valorization of fathers. The father, as Marshall (1991) affirmed, is positioned as “responsible for the most positive aspects of childcare and the mother for the maintenance work” (as cited in Sunderland, 2004, p. 103). The mother’s role, as Lazar (2002) affirmed, “is taken for granted as part of their maternal ‘nature’ and therefore . . . unremarkable” (p. 123, as cited in Sunderland, 2004, p. 104).


Hassan introduced the text through a general discussion of single parenting, asking students to share their experiences. One student asserted that most single parents are female, citing discourses that construct mothers as nurturers (Connell, 2008). Hassan then asked students for experiences in which single parents are male. One girl gave the example of her friend whose father was a single parent. The girl’s response, derived from her experience, suggests that students have myriad resources from which they process gender knowledge apart from textbooks. Indeed, as Paechter (2007) affirmed, “For children . . . there are three key sites in . . . learning of masculinities and femininities: the family; the peer group; and the school” (p. 2).


Hassan then asked students to share their single parenthood stories. Eva stated that she missed the love of her father. To this, Hassan, drawing on a discourse of gender difference, responded that boys must be affected differently by a father’s absence. Hassan therefore inserted a discourse of male as unemotional, which was resisted by some girls, who chorused “nnnnooo,” as Tendo added, “Boys miss love too!” The girls resisted pervasive discourses that polarize female as emotional and male as rational, which have been problematized for making it difficult for men to acknowledge their emotions without threatening their masculinity (Mac an Ghaill, 1994; Walkerdine, 1990, 1998).


Citing a discourse that associates math with masculinity (Benbow & Stanley, 1980; O'Connor, 2000; Oslund, 2012), Hassan added, “Fatherless girls dislike math.” He also asserted that there is less control in the absence of a father—that these girls have difficulty relating to men, are promiscuous, have low self-esteem, and are emotionally stunted. While the textbook construction of women as vulnerable and in need of men is endorsed by Hassan, his students are conflicted—some taking it up and others resisting these discourses.


Jean: I agree. . . . Fatherless girls are not good at math . . . my dad concentrates on science and math . . . yet mum looks more generally.


Teacher: True. I am always in awe when my kids excel in math because it is hard.


Jean, as well as the teacher, drew on lived experiences to legitimate/endorse discourses within the text. As explained by Francis (1998), children draw on evidence from family roles to construct gender difference. Further, the narrative that constructs fatherless girls as immoral and/or promiscuous was also engaged:


Gwendo: I disagree . . . that fatherless girls are immoral . . . they empathize with their mothers and won’t make trouble.


Mary: I agree . . . fatherless girls can’t make decisions, especially in sexual matters.


Rene: When girls ask fathers for money, they ask many questions . . . but easily get away with lies to mothers.


Teacher: . . . fathers are more protective . . . and girls tend to be closer to them.


The class (chorus): noooooo.


The narrative that constructs fatherless girls as immoral, reinscribing the discourse that girls need men (Walkerdine, 1984), was rejected by Gwendo, citing the good girl and/or sensible selfless discourse of “maturity, obedience” (Francis, 1998, p. 40). However, Mary’s endorsement of fatherless girls as unable to make their own decisions, especially regarding sex, is linked to the disciplining and control attached to a father’s role, imagined as powerful enough to hinder girls from running “amok.” This father power to control is also linked to the discourse of men as breadwinners, invoked when Rene explained that the father reserves the right to refuse money to a disobedient daughter. She added that, unlike gullible mothers, fathers tend to question their daughters, constructing fathers as rational, cautious, and protective. As Foucault (1980) affirmed, however, dominant discourses can be rejected by drawing on alternative discourses, as some girls did, to resist this script.


Jan: I disagree with this. . . . It is boys who are unsteady in relationships.


Gilla: I disagree that fatherless daughters shy away from boys. . . . Most of my friends are boys.


Henrietta: I am a fatherless daughter, but I am close to boys since they keep secrets and give good advice.


Draru: I think a girl who loses her father will look to replace him and is likely to get closer to males.


Teacher: True. It is natural for girls who are fatherless to bond with male teachers.


Nyakato: I disagree that fatherless girls can’t make decisions. My dad does more male work. It is my mum who questions more.


Zinzi: I disagree with the text . . . I was raised by my dad but my mum is the provider . . . I don’t believe that women don’t influence decisions.


Gitta: I think it is all about personality.


Georgia: To me, a mother is more important, and it depends on one’s character how a father’s disappearance affects one.


Admittedly a fatherless girl, Gilla argued that contrary to the text, she has many male friends. This was reaffirmed by Henrietta, citing a discourse that constructs women as gossipy to explain her preference for boy friends. She also referenced a women-beware-women discourse (Litosseliti & Sunderland, 2002), suggestive of the envious female gaze (Sunderland, 2004), to explain that women hardly provide good advice to each other. Nyakato drew on mother-as-nurturer and father-as-breadwinner to punch into the valorization of father’s role. Zinzi disrupted this polarized discourse, affirming that her mother was the breadwinner and her father the nurturer. Gitta and Georgia illuminated the subjectiveness of narratives that valorize the father’s role, unsettling the universality of the dominant discourses cited in the text.


Rather than critically engage with gendered issues raised by the lengthy classroom discussion, Hassan apologized for its lengthiness, reminding students to “keep in mind that we have spent so much time on this but . . . this is for us to understand the passage.” He then pulled the discussion back to the “main” focus—summary writing. He told students to do an exercise focused on preparing them for testing on summary skills.


Overall, while the teacher largely endorsed this traditional gendered text, he used it in ways that allowed students to engage with its gendered truths. Rather than passively take up gender, as suggested in previous research, the teacher and students had drawn on myriad resources (such as their own material lives), taking up and/or rejecting gendered constructions. Nonetheless, in apologetically reverting to the “gist” of the lesson, the teacher demonstrated that gender was in fact peripheral to teaching/learning.


“The Land Boat”: Teaching a traditional male-dominated text. “The Land Boat,” a text from Skills of English, is about a man in Aniocha village whose car—named the “land boat”—was the first of its kind in the village. This narrative produces men as providers and women as nurturers who are also cowardly, trivial, and preoccupied with physical appearances. This male-dominated text is traditional in its maintenance of conventional gendered discourses.


Hassan gave the students 15 minutes to read the story individually. Using the story as a model, he explained the structure of a good composition. He advised that planning is the first step: “Make an outline, a mind map.” He then outlined some attributes of a good story: “beginning, climax and end.” He encouraged the use of “rich language so the story is not malnourished.” He gave students 12 minutes to develop an introductory paragraph of their own composition paper, which he then asked them to share. He provided feedback, emphasizing, for example, the need to tap into the senses: “Let us see and feel through reading your paper.” He reminded them to be descriptive and to appeal to the senses, affirming that “girls are good at describing feelings”—citing a discourse that produces females as emotional (Namatende-Sakwa, 2018b). He then wrote some topics on the blackboard:


a)

Fatal deception


b)

The first time


c)

My worst embarrassment


d)

Tit for tat


This was a homework assignment that required students to use the titles to write a composition. He mentioned, however, that because he knew that all females were interested in revenge, he was sure most would write about it. A few girls murmured disaffirmatively—resisting this discourse that interpellated them as emotional.


Overall, ignoring the traditional gendered constructions within the text, which dominantly produced men as providers and women as nurturers, Hassan focused on the “official” curriculum. However, he cited discourses of women as emotional and vengeful. In so doing, Hassan had drawn on his own gendered knowledge, inserting gendered truths in taking up the text.


“The Raffle”: Teaching a transgressive text. “The Raffle,” a male-dominated text from Integrated English that draws largely on discourses typically used to describe women, is transgressive. It picturesquely describes Mr. Hinds’s dressing: “shining shoes,” “roll up trousers neatly,” “wine-colored tie,” and “brown suit.” This notwithstanding, Mr. Hinds is athletic and “stylishly” wins the Teacher’s Hundred Yards. Also transgressive is how the description of this fashionable male teacher was undertaken by a male student, uncharacteristically constructed as “soft” and gullible. Mr. Hinds is also described using a narrative of “wicked/evil teacher,” transgressing the dominant script that associates evil with women—reminiscent of female wicked witches (rather than wicked wizards) in fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White, and Rapunzel, dominantly read in Ugandan elementary schools.


After reading the story individually, Hassan asked the students whether any of them had ever been in a class where the teacher had a favorite student. The students responded by calling out names of teacher-favorites. Hassan then asked if they thought it a good idea for a teacher to have favorites. The students collectively responded, “Nooooooo.” He asked for their opinions about the disadvantages of being the teacher’s pet:


Babirye: It creates enmity.


Tendo: Pressure from the teacher.


Byakika: Might cause suspicion.


Kariisa: The teacher’s pet may become complacent.


Nakato: Other students may not bother making an effort.


Hassan then asked them for advantages of being the teacher’s pet, eliciting responses: “It encourages hard work not to disappoint the teacher,” “easier to approach that teacher.” The discussion largely revolved around the ethics of favoritism. The class ended with students answering multiple-choice questions.


In summary, first, text selection in this well-resourced school was explicitly based on how well the text could address the “official” curriculum for students to pass their examinations. Yet, a closer analysis of the interviews provided insights into the ways in which text selection was, in fact, implicitly informed by the teachers’ gendered truths and/or heteronormative assumptions about polarized interests of boys and girls. This shows that, contrary to the teacher’s claims, gender had implicitly informed text selection. Second, the ways in which the teacher taught the three texts could not have been predicted from the texts. While he endorsed the dominant construction of women as needy in the traditional female-dominated text, he ignored both the dominant construction of men as providers in the traditional male-dominated text, as well as the dominant construction of men as invested in their physical appearances in the transgressive text. Also interesting was how he used the traditional female-dominated text—rather than the trangressive text—to incite discussions about gender. This suggests that the dominant focus on making textbooks transgressive does not guarantee a generative engagement with gender to trouble gender hierarchies.


CASE STUDY 2: BYOGO MIXED SECONDARY SCHOOL


Text Selection


Aisha usually distributed a book to be shared among an average of five students who crammed around it, some standing to get a glimpse into it. This scarcity shaped the method of teaching, as Aisha usually read to the students, and/or asked students to volunteer to read out loud so that those who did not have access to the text could follow the lesson.


Aisha’s choice of textbooks depended on availability in the school library. She explained, for example, that she has had to use Integrated English even if she preferred Practical English for teaching grammar because she had only one copy of the former. Aisha affirmed that in addition to subject content, moral lessons and contextual relevance were criteria used in textbook selection.


She also explained that while the Ministry of Education and Sports determined the curricula, teachers selected materials for teaching, and gender was not a criterion for text selection: “It has never been . . . but while in class, I try to make sure both girls and boys participate.” Citing an equal opportunity discourse (Smithson & Stokoe, 2005), Aisha’s perception of gender equality reduced it to visibility of male and female, disregarding how they participated or the gendered power relations at play. A discourse of gender equality may leave dominant gender norms untroubled while assuming male as the desirable subject position. Aisha also affirmed that gender matters, explaining, “I think in a way it does . . . if textbooks focus on boys, girls may be left out.” Aisha cited a gender differences discourse here, suggesting a polarized understanding of the interests of boys and girls, which is likely to inform her selection of texts that include the perceived interests of boys and those of girls. Evident here is how the teacher’s understandings of gender implicitly informed textbook choices, although she had explicitly denied gender as a criterion for text selection.


Overall, text selection in this poorly resourced school was informed by availability, subject content, moral lessons, and contextual relevance of the text. Although gender representation was not explicitly mentioned as a criterion, it was cited implicitly.


Teacher Use of Gendered Texts


I illustrate how Aisha engaged with “A Letter From England,” a traditional female-dominated text; “A Freedom Song,” a traditional female-dominated text; and “The Raffle,” a transgressive text.


“A Letter From England”: Teaching a female-dominated text. In this text from Practical English, Emma, an English student from Cambridge, writes to Koku, a student from Mwanza, whom she had visited as part of an exchange program. This emotionally charged text has a strong female presence; Emma, Koku, and most characters are female. The strong female presence, coupled with the sentimentality (Namatende-Sakwa, 2018b) within the text, firmly locates it within a traditionally female realm.


Aisha’s lesson started with a boy eloquently reading the letter aloud. Aisha complimented him for his good reading, eliciting a smile on the boy’s face. In the meanwhile, another boy copied the same letter from the textbook onto the blackboard. Aisha asked comprehension questions, such as what the letter was about, what activities the letter writers had enjoyed, and what new words they found in the letter. The first answer was from a boy, followed by a mix of girls’ and boys’ answers. Interestingly, while most students whom Aisha selected raised their hands first, she selected three girls who had not raised their hands. Aisha then asked students to volunteer to sing the song “Malaika,” cited in the letter, which a girl volunteered to do.


Aisha then asked the students to use the letter on the blackboard as a model to write an imagined response from Koku to Emma. After about 20 minutes, she asked them to voluntarily read their responses aloud, provoking some murmuring, especially from a corner dominated by boys at the back of the class. A boy and then a girl read their response letters. The seemingly shy girl’s inaudible reading was further drowned out by laughter. The interactions around the text cited equal opportunities discursive practices, in which both boys and girls took turns taking the lead in reading the text aloud.


Yet, the contrast between their engagements remained problematic, given the gender relations in which power was skewed toward the male students. The first reading was taken by a boy, while another boy copied the text onto the blackboard. The first respondent to Aisha’s questions and the first volunteer to read a response letter aloud were boys. Therefore, Aisha, ignoring the female dominance within this female-dominated text, enacted it using a strong male presence, in which boys participated more actively than girls. This substantiated Thorne’s (1993) claim that males dominate in public spaces, also evoking discourses of active boy vis-à-vis passive female (Abolaji, 2015; Paechter, 2007). The order of mention and/or male firstness (Porecca, 1984) in which men come before women, as demonstrated in interactions around this female-dominated text, has been problematized by scholars for inscribing gender hierarchical relations (Hideto, 2004; Moore, 2015; Porecca, 1984). Although Aisha taught a female-dominated text, it was enacted with a strong male presence. As such, “the add-women-and-stir method” (Gonsalves, 2010) of changing demographics in textbooks by increasing visibility of women, as shown in this female-dominated text, was not sufficient to change the classroom gendered status quo.


Further, Aisha asked comprehension questions that tested students’ understanding. She neither raised questions about the gender roles script, in which women were produced as nurturers, nor questioned the gendered division of sports (Hargreaves & Anderson, 2014; Messner, 2002), as reproduced in girls playing netball while boys played basketball within the text. Further, while the boys volunteered to take on tasks such as reading aloud and writing on the blackboard, it was a girl who volunteered to sing the song “Malaika,” a popular Swahili love song. The “choice” to sing this “love-sick” song, taken up by a girl rather than a boy, inscribed dominant constructions of women as emotional (Francis, 1998).


Further, gendered discourses that were absent in the textbook circulated within the classroom interactions around it. The disruptive boys discourse (Jacksona et al., 2015; Jonsson, 2014), for example, was evoked by disruptions caused in the male-dominated corner at the back of the class, forcing Aisha to remind the boys incessantly to observe silence. An equal opportunities discourse (Smithson & Stokoe, 2005) was also enacted in Aisha’s attempts to choose girls, even when they had not raised their hands, to ensure equitable classroom participation. Davies and Kasama (2004) attributed girls’ silence and shyness, even when they are offered opportunities to speak, to rules of correct behavior and propriety. Bantebya and Keniston’s (2006) historically informed study of Ugandan women problematized the norms of propriety for girls as obstacles to their participation in public spaces. In positioning themselves as not masculine—less self-confident, polite, and cooperative—the girls reproduced gendered participation patterns, securing hierarchical power relations.


Overall, Aisha ignored dominant constructions of women as emotional and as nurturers in this traditional female-dominated text. Also ignored was the female dominance in the text; it was taught with more male participation, reproducing gendered hierarchical power relations. The visibility of women in the text therefore did not change the gendered hierarchical order in which the text was taken up.


“A Freedom Song”: Teaching a female-dominated text. The poem “A Freedom Song” from Skills of English gives insights into the lives of domestic workers in Uganda, likely to be women and underage girls. These girls, embodied in Atieno, are usually overworked, deprived of an education, and denied necessities such as clothes and decent lodging. The poem is female dominated, probably because it is situated within the domestic location of care, traditionally associated with women. Women are constructed as vulnerable and as needing men who are their providers. They are also constructed as nurturers who are jealous of other women (Namatende-Sakwa, 2018b).


In introducing the text, Aisha asked students whether they would employ a family relation to help with housework. There were mixed responses; some asserted that there was no need to pay a relative, others disputed this, and still others affirmed that they would never employ a relative. It was a heated and loud debate for at least eight minutes. Aisha then chose a boy who volunteered to read the poem aloud. She then posed some questions:


Teacher: What is the poem about?


Ivan: Atieno who was mistreated.


Teacher: How is she mistreated?


Peter: She sleeps in the kitchen.


Violet: She was supposed to be in school.


Rita: She was too young for such workload.


Teacher: Why does the uncle think Atieno is bad? (murmurs from class)


Florence: She got pregnant.


Doreen: It was not her fault. (murmurs)


Teacher: It was not her fault. (more commotion)


Michal: she was enjoying. (sex)


Teaching: Where was her mistake?


Ben: Having a baby.


William: Is that a mistake?


David: Yes, she is to blame.


Teacher: Maybe she did not have any guidance. (commotion)


Teacher: OK, stop the discussion and answer these questions.


(Aisha writes questions on the blackboard as follows):


1.

Why is Atieno sly and jealous?


2.

What reasons does the uncle have for not paying Atieno?


3.

Who do you think is responsible for Atieno’s pregnancy?


4.

“Fifty-fifty it may live to repeat the life she had.” What did the author mean?


5.

“Meat and sugar more than all she ate in such a narrow life were lavished at her funeral.” What does this mean?


6.

If you were Atieno’s uncle, how would you have treated her?


7.

Write a poem about anything that really bothers you.


Aisha taught this female-dominated poem, in which women are largely produced as vulnerable victims, by raising questions that uncritically related the narrative to students’ lived experiences. Their discussion raised thorny gendered issues such as pregnancy, maternal mortality, child abuse, and school dropout. In discussing these, three boys blamed Atieno for getting pregnant through insinuations that she had “enjoyed” the sex that led to her tragic pregnancy. The boys draw on their own gendered truths, citing discourses that construct women as sexual objects (Hoffman, 1986; McLaughlin et al., 2012). Such discourses are bound up with a male sexual drive discourse (Phipps, 2014), which exonerates men from taking responsibility for losing their sexual control, blaming women like Atieno for it.


Overall, Aisha ignored the dominant discourse in the female-dominated text that constructed women as inherently victims. Nonetheless, she asked questions that allowed student engagement with gendered concerns. Rather than give her opinion, Aisha let students argue until she shifted to the next activity. This idea of remaining “neutral” and/or “not taking sides” (Barton & Sakwa, 2012) is a pervasive narrative in Uganda meant not to impose teacher’s beliefs on students. Aisha did not challenge pervasive discursive practices around life in Uganda presented in the text, reverting to business-as-usual to focus on the curriculum. Nonetheless, it is interesting that the traditional gendered text had generated conversation regarding gender—albeit uncritically.


 “The Raffle”: Teaching a transgressive text. This text has been described (in Case Study 1) as a male-dominated transgressive text from Integrated English, which draws largely on discourses typically used to describe women in order to talk about men. In this text, a soft and gullible male student describes Mr. Hinds, a male teacher preoccupied with his physical appearance.


Aisha opened the lesson by telling students to recall instances of favoritism in their school experiences, eliciting active discussion. One boy responded, “But male teachers always favor girls!” There was a chorus of “Yessss” and outbursts of laugher. Aisha then narrated her own school experience about a teacher-favorite girl who became unpopular because her classmates were jealous. Aisha added that the teacher who favored this girl was a woman. This seemed to surprise the students, eliciting laughter and general commotion.


More recognizable and/or intelligible within this mixed-sex group would have been favoritism that involved male and female. The pervasive discourse of compulsory heterosexuality (Rich, 1980) rendered nonnormative coupling arrangements unthinkable. While Aisha could have engaged with this conundrum, potentially inciting conversations around homosexuality, a thorny issue in Uganda (Namatende-Sakwa, 2018c; Chew, 2013), she quickly turned to passage comprehension. She asked a volunteer to read the story aloud—choosing a boy and then a girl—before posing some discussion questions:


1.

What was the name of the favorite student?


2.

What shows he was the teacher’s pet?


3.

Did he remain the teacher’s pet by the end of the story?


In summary, Aisha ignored dominant traditional and disruptive constructions of gender in both traditional and transgressive texts. It is interesting, nonetheless, that the traditional text rather than the transgressive text was more generative in discussing gender—albeit uncritically. Also noteworthy is how the female-dominated text failed to secure female dominance in terms of classroom participation, instead reinscribing active-male-vis-à-vis-passive-female discourses to reproduce hierarchical gendered power relations (Davies & Kasama, 2004).


CONCLUSIONS, IMPLICATIONS, AND POINTERS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH


The teachers from both cases affirmed that how gender was constructed in textbooks did not inform text selection because the focus was the curriculum. These findings, corroborated by Tainio and Karvonen’s (2015) study in Finnish schools, echo teachers’ assertions that gender is not relevant to subject knowledge (Eslami et al., 2015).


The push to “fix” textbooks by making them progressive in their representation of gender is but in vain if teachers do not take these constructions into consideration in text selection or use. Moreover, this fixation on texts alone is based on the assumption that teachers necessarily take up gender as constructed in texts. On the contrary, the teachers’ use of texts was informed by their own gendered truths, as summarized in Table 2.


Table 2. Summary of Teachers’ Use of Gendered Texts

Text Type

Case Study 1: Sinsa Girls’ School

Case Study 2: Byogo Mixed

Traditional female-dominated

Endorsed

Ignored


Traditional male-dominated

Ignored

____

Transgressive

Ignored


Ignored


              


The ways in which teachers in both cases engaged with texts were unpredictable. Whereas they endorsed some of the traditional discourses, they ignored others to focus on the official curriculum. Interestingly, however, the teachers in both cases used the traditional rather than transgressive texts, allowing students to engage with gender—albeit uncritically. The traditional gendered texts opened up the conversation, providing a “familiar” space in which the class engaged with dominant lived “realities.” The transgressive text, on the other hand, in constructing an “unfamiliar” reality, was disregarded. This unsettled the overriding assumption that progressive texts necessarily inform a progressive classroom. Therefore, Davies’s (2003) recommendation that teachers select feminist versions of old stories or new feminist stories, as well as Rifkin’s (1998) proposal to make gender representation a criterion for text selection, which has been taken up by German schools (Ott, 2015), is unlikely to provide the panacea for gender-sensitive classroom interactions around school textbooks.


Scholars remain conflicted regarding whether texts should reflect social “reality” or transgressive/social ideal (Gupta & Yin, 1990; M. A. Jones et al., 1997; Mustafa & Mill, 2015; Ott, 2015). Foulds’s (2013) study on Kenyan students demonstrated that the incongruence between transgressive gender roles in textbooks and students’ lived realities confused them. She affirmed that this disconnect culminated in “students’ inability to absorb textbooks’ images that fall outside their cultural experience” (p. 173). The disruptive potential of traditionally gendered texts as such lies in the congruence between how gender is constructed and lived experiences. As this study demonstrates, therefore, traditional gendered texts can be engaged in ways that deconstruct traditional gendered constructions, whereas progressive gendered texts can be undermined and/or ignored, especially when they contradict teacher and student lived experiences. Rather than passively consume gender, as constructed in textbooks, teachers and students draw on their own gendered truths, endorsing, ignoring, and/or rejecting gendered constructions.


Also interesting was how gender was enacted in the two cases. The students in Sinsa took on both masculine and feminine roles, while those from Byogo, the mixed school, largely took on discrete gender roles, with girls taking on feminine roles and boys masculine roles. This enactment of gendered texts with roles that “match” sex was also demonstrated in Moore’s (2015) study in a preschool in Russia. The contrast in the engagements in single-sex and mixed-sex schools suggests that mixed schools generally provide conditions to reproduce hierarchical gendered arrangements. The single-sex school therefore offered conditions for disruptive work.


Overall, the teachers’ use of textbooks in both cases challenged previous research, which assumed that teachers necessarily take up gender as constructed in textbooks. This overlooked teachers’ gendered truths, which, as shown in my study, informed how they took up and/or rejected both traditional and transgressive texts. Traditional gendered texts, which illuminated dominant realities, surprisingly offered more disruptive potential for engaging with gendered hierarchies than did progressive texts, which constructed marginal and/or realities incongruent with dominant truths.


This has implications for teacher education in Uganda, which should prepare teachers by unsettling the taken-for-granted gender knowledge base through disrupting traditional gendered ways of thinking/discourses. This will create possibility for producing teachers who can critically navigate gendered texts through deconstructing gendered power relations during classroom engagement with texts. They should be prepared in ways that equip them to focus on the “official” curriculum while also promoting gender equity in their classroom interactions. The tendency to remain “neutral” when gendered issues arise in the classroom, which has dominated teacher education, should be overturned. Teachers should instead use these as disruptive spaces in which they explicitly engage gender issues in ways that promote gender equity. Indeed, as research has indicated, teachers are capable of challenging gender bias if well prepared (Bag & Bayyurt, 2015; Tainio & Karvonen, 2015). It would also be useful for researchers to observe lessons in which expert teachers engage with gendered textbooks, providing a model to inform teacher education.


This study, limited to an examination of teacher practices around English textbooks, recommends studies in other disciplines, as well as studies that provide student perspectives about the gendered constructions in their textbooks. This would veer from the dominant focus on textbooks, providing greater nuance to inform teacher education.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 1, 2021, p. 1-26
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23552, Date Accessed: 9/27/2021 12:50:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Lydia Namatende-Sakwa
    Kyambogo University
    E-mail Author
    LYDIA NAMATENDE-SAKWA, Ph.D., is currently a lecturer in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching, Instruction and Media Studies at Kyambogo University in Uganda. Her areas of interest include gender and education, curriculum studies, educational technology, and poststructural theorizing. Her recent work has extended scholarship on gender representation in textbooks through a focus on implicit citations of gender. This scholarship problematizes work on gender and textbooks, which rides on the assumption that gendered arrangements are necessarily explicit and therefore visible, overlooking how power works both explicitly and implicitly through discourse to produce specific gendered subjectivities.
 
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