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Sociological Thoughts

The case of the syllabi kittens

By April 5, 2024No Comments

Two years ago, I started hiding Easter egg extra credit in my syllabi. This is something I stole from the internet. Buried somewhere in a fairly boring paragraph about plagiarism, there’s a line that says if you email me pictures of kittens at any point in the semester, you can earn extra credit points added to your final grade. Extra credit that’s about equivalent to a couple of journal assignments, so not nothing extra credit.

I did the kitten extra credit because I’m a softie and I don’t care about grades and because the person who posted this idea on Twitter or wherever was describing the delight of randomly receiving kitten pictures in their inbox, long after they forgot about the extra credit. And it is delightful when the kittens appear. I’ve seen other people repeat with otters. Pick whatever woodland creature you like, though the creature you pick probably has important consequences, as we’ll see below.

I picked kittens because I like kittens. I am one of those people who scares the shit out of my husband because every time I see a kitten, I moan loudly, “Oh, no!” As in, Oh, no, this animal is so adorable that it is physically painful to look at. This is absolutely how I feel.

Diluted tortoise gray cat, curled up with eyes closed looking adorable.

I’ve been doing the kitten extra credit Easter egg for six semesters now. Some semesters I get kittens early in the semester, after the first day of class. Sometimes they appear around the time mid-term grades go out or during finals week. I get pictures of kittens from the internet and pictures of my students’ actual pets. Recently, I got a lovely pic of a student’s kitty perched on top of their open refrigerator door.

I’m not sure how many kitten pics I’ve received, but say an average of 10 per semester would be a total of 60 kitten pics. I have about 24 students in intro every semester, so that’s a total of 144 students. The percent who send kitten pics is low (42%) because the memes don’t lie—students really do not read the syllabus. They didn’t read the syllabus before the increasing use of online learning management systems, which often take the place of a syllabus. They read them even less so now.

Here’s the interesting thing though—over the course of those two years, I haven’t received a single kitten picture from a male student. I’ve gotten kitten pics from female students and trans students and nonbinary students. But not a single cisgender man1 has sent me a kitten picture. Not a single cis, male student has availed himself of a very easy way to get extra credit toward their final grade. Why?

It could be that the cis, male students are less likely to read the syllabus. This is a definite possibility. When you teach college students for twenty years like I have and you study gender, like I do, you notice some very interesting gender differences over time. For example, cis male students are much less likely to have planners than women or trans students or nonbinary students. The women/trans/enby students have their planners out ALL THE TIME. They are elaborate, these planners. They write in them in different colored pens and highlight with different colored highlighters. When you announce a due date, the whole classroom rustles with the sound of planners being pulled out of backpacks. The dates go in. Text is highlighted. Perhaps stickers are employed. As someone who has neither a planner nor multi-colored pens or highlighters, it is impressive.

a planner with two pens sitting on top of it

Of course, not all women/trans/enby students have planners. And a few cis men will pull out a planner every now and then. It’s also absolutely possible that many of the cis men do have planners and it’s just not cool to, you know, use them in public. Which is a whole other interesting dynamic. Research shows that doing well in school is something that’s seen as an increasingly feminine trait. Men are ceding academic excellence to women. After all, some men don’t need a college degree to make as much as women with a college diploma.

So it could be that I haven’t gotten any kitten pics from cis men because they’re less organized in general, which means they’re also less likely than other students to read the syllabus in the first place. This might be true. It’s hard to know for certain who has read the syllabus and who hasn’t, but I would say that cis men tend to ask the kind of questions that suggest they have not looked at the syllabus slightly more often.

The other possibility is that cis men are looking at the syllabus. They read it and they see the kitten Easter egg. They know they could get extra credit for kitten pictures. But kittens are girly and they could not possibly find a picture of a kitten and send it to their professor, even if it means a better grade in introduction to sociology. Kittens threaten their masculinity. Just typing that sentence breaks my heart for these men a little, because, kittens!

I suspect it’s a combination of both these factors that results in the absence of kitten pics from cis men. The question then is, what do I do about it as a professor? Is extra credit as kittens discriminatory against cis men? Do I change the content of the extra credit Easter egg to something more gender neutral? What would that be? Puppies? Would more cis men send me pictures of puppies? Or would it have to be dogs? Or wolves? Dragons? Cars? Their favorite athlete? I like Steph Curry and all, but I’d much prefer kittens in my inbox.2

It’s such a small thing but so revealing of both how omnipresent gender is in our lives and how difficult it can be to negotiate. I’ll admit that, even as someone who studies gender, the gendered nature of kitten pictures didn’t occur to me when I put the Easter egg in the syllabus. It took a few semesters to become aware of the trend. I’m still not sure what to do about it. Part of me obviously feels that cis men should be able to…what?…man up?…woman up?…and send me a picture of a fucking kitten. That gender is a made-up and an often oppressive social construct is part of what I’m supposed to be teaching them, after all. The kittens are part of that lesson.

Part of me really wants kittens in my inbox and would be a little annoyed that masculinity deprived me of them. Providing more than one option…kittens or a dragon…seems to take all the fun away. You see how I feel, a lot of times, that gender is why we can’t have nice things?

This semester is almost over so there’s still a chance that I might receive my first kitten pic from a cis man. Hope springs eternal and it’s 2024, after all. Surely there are some cis men out there who are secure enough in their masculinity to brave a kitten.

In the meantime, I still have time to decide what to do in the fall, to solve the eternal question—to kitten or not to kitten?

1

I don’t say cis straight men here because I can’t know their sexual identity. For that matter, I don’t know for sure that they’re cis men, but they are clearly male-identifying people.

2

On the other hand, maybe I could require a picture of either Joey Votto or Joe Burrow, which would be almost as satisfying as kittens to my inner sports fan, but also still sort of gendered and now, also, heterosexist? Maybe Benedict Cumberbatch, though I think he’s about the same as kittens, really.

 

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