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  • You Can’t Be Old Before You Are Young:Aging and Pedagogy
  • Carey Kaplan (bio) and Susan Kuntz (bio)

We begin by stating the obvious: getting old is scary; getting old in the classroom is also scary. Our effort here is to inscribe ourselves and others like us within a narrative of aging and pedagogy that mitigates the terror by contesting and refuting cultural stereotypes.

The force of our narrative is, we feel, enhanced by recent research into the physiology, neurology, and psychology of aging, especially of women's aging. Our story of change and development grows not merely from the experience that comes with years. We are not merely experienced pedagogues and humans, garnering knowledge from years of attentive living, although we are that: we are also different mentally, emotionally, and physically than we were thirty years ago. Recent studies of female aging suggest that there is substance to Margaret Mead's formulation of "post-menopausal vigor." In the 1970s we rejected the reductive formulation "biology is destiny," and we still reject it when it is used to mean that women are purely reproductive entities. We feel empowered, however, by new research that suggests that female biology is sufficiently rich and complicated to allow for physical, mental, and emotional changes that encourage new and powerful priorities and understandings of the world and our place in it (see, for example, Brizendine, quoting Protopopescu; Motzer; Morgan; and Labouvie-Vief).

While many women in the reproductive stages of life are vulnerable to mood-altering hormonal shifts, are emotionally labile, and are easily distracted by cultural as well as physical/neurological pressure to mate and procreate (Brizendine, quoting Light and Tang), postmenopausal women can be less subject to such messages. Indeed, despite the plethora of crippling cultural messages that women's worth begins with sexual attractiveness and ends with menopause, many women with high career momentum at our stage of life view their work as more central to their identities than the beauty/mating/motherhood paradigm of their twenties, thirties, and forties. Such women also demonstrate higher levels of self-acceptance, independence, effective functioning and physical health than other women (Helson 2001, Helson and Soto 2005). [End Page 125]

Non-gender specific studies of aging also support the notion that the aging process itself helps produce qualities that enhance certain mind-sets. For example, many studies suggest that emotions and emotional sensitivity increase with age (Carstensen and Charles 1991; Carstensen 1992; Frederickson and Carstensen 1990). This sensitivity contributes to measurable levels of emotional understanding and responsiveness (Labouvie-Vief and DeVoe 1991; Labouvie-Vief, Devoe, and Bulka 1989), the very qualities that enhance our present pedagogy and that we were not able to achieve when we were younger. There are, moreover, studies that suggest that older people maximize positive feelings and minimize negative ones (Carstensen 1993; Lawton 1989). Finally, there is considerable evidence to support our sense that older women frequently want to continue nurturing and helping, but with age this impulse is directed outside the family and expressed in a less personally engaged way than in youth (Shellenbarger 2005).

We embrace these studies of complex age-related changes as part of the story we want to tell. Like many, we are complex mixtures of nature and nurture, animal and machine, growth and decay. We know that our experiential lives in the world are endlessly modified by our bodies' biologically-influenced changes. There are no binaries to explain us. We know, furthermore, that we are encountering a period in life that has rarely been accessible to women, who historically have not lived beyond or even through their childbearing years, and have certainly not had the education, health, wealth, leisure, and technological and medical possibilities available to us. We have variously benefited from such interventions as birth control, hormone treatment, exercise regimes, healthy diet, eyeglasses, mammograms, knee surgery, and gall bladder surgery, to name a few, most of which were unavailable to our mothers and grandmothers. Inspired by Donna Haraway, we know we have new stories to tell. Postreproductive, postmenopausal, we experience ourselves as closely allied with Donna Haraway's imagined cyborg: we are "creatures simultaneously animal and machine, who populate worlds ambiguously natural and...


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pp. 125-144
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