Feminist pedagogy is rooted in specific epistemological frameworks, or conceptions of knowledge. It critiques traditional notions of learning and knowing and offers an alternative epistemological framework that acknowledges the inherent connection between power and knowledge (Chick and Hassel).
In 1986’s Women’s Ways of Knowing, Mary Field Belenky, Blythe McVicker Clinchy, Nancy Rule Goldberger, and Jill Mattuck Tarule respond to the research of William Perry. His model of epistemological development is widely used to understand how college students think of authority, knowledge, and truth–even though his original findings were drawn from a limited sample in his study of 100 Harvard men. WWoK expands what they saw as an inappropriately universalized trajectory in Perry by studying 135 women in a variety of contexts (3). They found that, while the women in their research valued the academic work traditionally framed by masculine and rational disciplines, they also valued what they learn outside of the academy, such as in friendships, relations with teachers, life crises, communities, and elsewhere (4-6).
In addition, the in-depth interviews revealed the frequent metaphor of “voice” to represent their experiences, pointing to “a[n intricately intertwined] sense of voice, mind, and self” (18).
Despite the suggestion in their book title that all women share a collection of essential, inherent mindsets, this research troubles the simple hierarchy that characterizes ways of knowing traditionally labelled “feminine” as irrational, unreliable, irrelevant, and inferior.
From social constructivism comes the recognition that knowledge is socially produced, challenging the historical view of knowledge as the product of individual mental faculties (Barkley, Cross, and Major). This individualism leads to what philosopher and educator Paulo Freire famously described as the “banking” model of education: knowledge is “a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing,” teaching is an act of depositing, and students are empty, passive vessels that receive static information (Freire 72).
Instructors informed by a feminist pedagogy reject this point-to-point view of teaching and learning, in favor of a more complex and social process of knowledge-making through interaction, collaboration, and negotiation (Barkley, Cross, and Major). They strive to join students in becoming members within, not above or outside of, a knowledge community. Here, every learner brings a specific perspective (or “standpoint” [Harding]) shaped by specific experiences in distinct social locations and groups. As such, students and teachers ideally learn with and from one another, co-constructing knowledge–both communal and contingent–together.
Feminist pedagogy also breaks down the simplistic division of “classroom vs. real world” by involving the whole of one’s identity—student and instructor—in learning (Lal). Personal experience, for instance, is recognized as a valid and valued form of knowing. It doesn’t stand on its own as complete knowledge, but it’s also not seen as irrelevant or inferior. Instead, it works in conjunction with other forms of knowing.
This integration of lived experiences means that emotions are also acknowledged as part of what it means to know and how we know. This is where feminist pedagogy breaks away from Freire’s critical or liberatory pedagogy, an approach otherwise related in its disruption of forms of domination. He embraced the Western view that rationality is the pathway to knowledge and thus, he believed, the best response to oppression: opinions and actions should be based on reason, not on emotions. However, this privileging of rationalism has “set up as its opposite an irrational Other, which has been understood historically as the province of women and other exotic Others” (Ellsworth 94). Alison Jaggar explains that the goal of becoming a “dispassionate investigator” governed solely by reason and logic simply confirms the “epistemic authority of the currently dominant groups” and falsely masks emotion as “inimical to the construction of knowledge,” when instead it’s “helpful and even necessary” (495, 487).
To have beliefs, values, and convictions is to have emotions, and thus emotion must be recognized in the classroom in order to facilitate greater and more critical understanding. For instance, striving for equity and justice may lead to frustration, anger, stress, relief, joy, and pride. Identifying the relationship between experience, emotion, and action will help students bridge the classroom and the “real world,” the personal and the political, theory and practice.
It’s worth noting that, in an effort to resist simple all-or-nothings and either/ors, feminist pedagogy asserts that while perspectives, emotions, and resulting opinions are relevant to learning, they’re also understood as contextualized, limited, and bound to structures of power (Ellsworth). As such, feminist classrooms aren’t simply about uncritically sharing emotions but instead analyzing how they inform perspectives and actions (Ellsworth, Rabinowitz, Fisher). The critical engagement of different and even conflicting experiences and perspectives results in richer knowledge, so a classroom goal is communicating [across] differences (Ellsworth 115).