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Feminist Pedagogy: Habits of Hand

What do we do?
How do we act on our beliefs & values?

As a theory rather than a set of strategies, feminist pedagogy doesn’t “automatically preclude any technique or approach” (not even lecture) but instead highlights “the relationship that specific techniques have to educational goals” (Shrewsbury 14). In other words, its habits of hand take many forms, though they all express its habits of head and heart–an alignment that helps us maintain a critical awareness of our actions and a commitment to our goals. This intentional alignment occurs from the macro level (course design, learning environment) to the micro (specific classroom activities and assignments).

Course Design

Well before the first day of class, feminist pedagogy informs course development. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s theory of backward design guides instructors through the process of aligning the particularities of a course with its goals, beginning with the desired  “enduring understandings” and then working backward to identify authentic evidence of learning, and finally activities that facilitate students’ production of such evidence (Wiggins and McTighe 17).  In addition to the calibration of intentions, values, and beliefs with course design, this learning-centered approach tailors courses to the specific contexts created by content, students’ needs, and outside forces such as institutional requirements. The goals of backward design resonate with feminism’s attention to differences between and among people, specific contexts, and long-term goals.

Chandra Talpade Mohanty demonstrates how courses communicates issues of power, outlined in three models of syllabus design. While she focuses on women’s studies courses, her resulting categories are useful across the curriculum.

Tourist Model: A course designed according to this approach uses the experiences of an exotic Other  as “spice” to diversify a traditional curriculum. No matter how positive the intent, this strategy tends to reproduce normative assumptions about the dominance of some groups over others. Students see themselves as fundamentally separate from their objects of study, thus reiterating existing hierarchies. In others words, students “visit” content matter without having to engage with it on its own terms. In this way, “power relations and hierarchies” remain intact, while “ideas about center and margin are reproduced” (546).

Explorer Model: A course with this design foregrounds the exotic Other, often recognizable by its very title. (Think “Women in Asia” or “Literature of the Third World.”) In this type of course, the experiences of an Other are always already established in contrast with the normative experience. That is to say words, students understand what they do as normal and what others do as exotic or strange. While these courses have a positive intent—to dedicate time and space to understudied content—they end up positioning students as an “us” and other groups as a “them.”

Solidarity Model: A course designed with this model focuses in on the links and intersections between different groups, topics, histories, et al. It stays true to the complexity of knowing and being, and emphasizes “relations of mutuality, co-responsibility, and common interests, anchoring the idea of feminist solidarity” (548).  This last approach ultimately helps students see the connections between the classroom and real-world struggles. By focusing on solidarity across traditional divisions of class, nation, and race, for example, it helps students grasp the interconnectedness of the human experience.

While Mohanty’s models help instructors plan relevant content most effectively, the precepts and values of feminist pedagogy can inform course design, regardless of content or discipline. For more information on how different disciplines construct knowledge and how to teach accordingly, see Chick, Haynie, and Gurung’s “From Generic to Signature Pedagogies: Teaching Disciplinary Understandings” (2009).

Learning Environment

Feminist pedagogy’s value of community is translated into classroom practices that nurture a sense of dialogue, belonging, collaboration, and coalition. These practices develop not only out of feminist values (habits of heart) but also the recognition that knowledge is constructed in community rather than in isolation (habits of head).

“Safe” Space?

The term “safe space” suggests a classroom free from threat or harm. Ideally, a safe space is one that facilitates discussion of social justice issues without endangering its participants by way of judgment, coercion, or pain.  This ideal of “safety” has long been a concern for the feminist classroom and has been recently critiqued as paradoxically counterintuitive to the goals of feminist pedagogy. As Jeannie Ludlow notes, the very existence of feminist courses is itself perceived as threatening to some students (Ludlow 12). “Safety” is a mutable concept that will mean disparate things to people positioned differently, so the question becomes: when we say we are committed to creating safe spaces, whose safety are we concerned with? Pedagogies seeking to interrogate privilege may feel threatening to those who benefit from the privilege, and dialogue regarding sexual and racial differences risk discomfort (Porter and Leonardo 153).

Rather than seeking to construct a safe, conflict-free zone, we should be focused on generating a dialogue open to tension and disagreement–what Ludlow calls a “contested space,” a classroom supports rather than staves off conflict (Ludlow 40; McIntyre 88). This “an atmosphere of risk” challenges students to rethink structures of privilege and their own role within those structures, acknowledging the difficulty and inherent risk of such a process (Ludlow 45). Social inequalities are not risk-free to those who are subject to them, and to prevent discomfort is to sanitize issues that do harm. Attempts to make “comfortable” discussion of structures of inequality thus reifies those structures and can invoke the psychological violence feminist pedagogy aims to end. In turning instead towards spaces of contestation, we open our classrooms to a discourse that engages inequity in all its brutality. This does not translate into a “free for all” in the classroom, in which all experiences and opinions are equally valid. Instead, each classroom community must map out the limits of valid contributions and appropriate speech for itself. This can be done through explicit discussion on the first day of class, syllabus statements, instructor modeling, and meta-discussion, in which a class turns its attention to the quality and tenor of its own in-class discussions.

Silence & Reflection

Feminism, as an approach that critically interrogates systems of inequality, is well aware of the ways in which silence has been used to oppress others and suppress the spread of awareness, coalition across difference, and transformation in our society. Therefore, feminist pedagogues must be careful not to reproduce the same marginalizing silences that maintain existing power structures and prioritize passive tolerance over active solidarity.

Silence and self-reflection often go hand-in-hand, ideally allowing students to individually review class discussions and practice critical introspection. However, as Megan Boler warns, during these moments of quiet thinking, self-reflection (like passive empathy) may enable us to circumvent dealing with our discomfort by allowing “simple identifications” that “reduc[e] historical complexities to an overly tidy package that ignores our mutual responsibility to one another” (Boler 177).  Additionally, Shafali Lal notes that silence can threaten the critical nature of the classroom by making some topics off-limits. This in turn may jeopardize the intimacy and trust shared between students and instructors (Lal 12).

While silence and self-serving reflection may facilitate disinterest and subordination within the classroom environment, feminist pedagogy seeks alternative approaches to silence as an  opportunity to transform and even foment change. Feminist pedagogy values meaningful change that comes from destabilizing “truths,” exploring ambiguity, harnessing difference, and learning from individual vulnerabilities. Within a classroom that views contested spaces as places for growth, certainty and quick responses may inhibit students from wrestling with the analyses, opinions, and testimonies of others and challenges to their own thinking. Crucial parts to discussion, then, are the purposeful acts of listening, thinking, and internalizing. Noting that the goal isn’t “complete agreement,” Berenice Malka Fisher points to Susan Bickford’s notion of “political listening”:

the effort to focus attention on each speaker as a full participant in political discussion and on aspects of her speech that we may be inclined to misread or dismiss because of how relations of domination distort our expectations and interpretations.  (142)

According to Eunice Karanja Kamaara, Elisabeth T. Vasko, and Jeanine E. Viau, intentional silence also allows us “to refrain from imposing our viewpoints on the words of another…[and] create[s a] space for that which has been spoken to sink into our minds and our hearts” (59). When political and traumatic issues are part of a course, we know that students—like ourselves—come into the classroom with emotionally charged experiences and perspectives. As such, the feminist classroom becomes a simultaneously private and public space where we assume both “the agency of speaking subjects” and, as Lori E. Amy states, “the responsibility of ethical witnessing”(Amy 58). To avoid passive listening, moments of silence should become moments of active reflection for students and for ourselves, deliberately engaging with the unsettling ideas of others, interrogating our personal responses to the discussion, and analyzing how our individual subject positions influence our reactions to the conversation. By utilizing the productive potential of collective silence and collective reflection, feminist pedagogy places value on thinking as a process and provides the time for beginning the effort toward meaningful change.

A Few Examples

On Our Syllabi

In a syllabus, the principles of feminist pedagogy might be realized with a section dedicated to an explicitly transparent commentary on course design and pedagogical choices, a statement on classroom dynamics and implicit values or assumptions, a description of an effective critical discussion (including the role of silence), providing a list of sources other than the campus bookstore to acquire course readings, a list of relevant resources of community organizations and allied university resources, and a section that addresses options for alternative forms of participation in discussions and stimming.

Googling “syllabus statements of diversity” or “inclusion” will result in some templates, such as these from West Virginia University, California State University Chico, and the University of Northern Colorado.

In the Classroom

Ming-yeh Lee and Juanita Johnson-Bailey recommend the following specific actions in class for those “concerned about creating a space in which to examine our power structures, address societywide -isms, and validate and affirm our learners’ voices” (61):

  • questioning students and using group debriefing
  • using technology to manage sensitive discussions
  • claiming our authority
  • facilitating the process of understanding new and contradictory knowledge
  • selecting culturally diverse materials

Their annotations of each recommendation (61-63) are critical to understanding these practices further.

Handbook of Examples

Students in the spring section of Vanderbilt’s Gender & Pedagogy graduate seminar (WGS 302) developed a course handbook of specific activities that emerge directly from the principles in their readings. The collection here represents those who’ve granted permission to share publicly.

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