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Feminist Pedagogy: Habits of Heart

Critical View of Power & Authority

At the heart of feminist pedagogy is concern about notions of power and authority. Since its inception, feminism has been critical of power, in all its iterations. While to define a specific feminist position on power would surely be overreaching, it is possible to locate within feminism a general critique of the structural subordination of women, people of color, queer subjects, and the differently abled. Feminist pedagogy, in turn, compels instructors to consider the complex dynamics of power within the classroom. Who has power? How is power deployed and to what end? How does power influence the teaching and learning processes?

To be clear, feminist teaching does not deny the effects of power or naively envision the classroom as a space without the complexities of power relations. Elizabeth Ellsworth cautions against this kind of repressive idealism in “Why Doesn’t this Feel Empowering?: Working Through the Repressive Myths of Critical Pedagogy”:  she finds that critical pedagogies (including but not limited to feminism) often give the “illusion of equality” through techniques such as open discussion and students-as-teachers while inattentively leaving the institutionalized power differences between instructors and students in place (99). Instead of this power-blindness, feminist pedagogy–in its attempts to merely decenter the instructor and recognize students’ personal histories–acknowledges the classroom as a space historically rooted within systems of power. Like it or not, the role of the instructor comes with plenty of authoritarian trappings, and the role of student is wrapped in assumptions about deferential status and behavior.

It should be noted that feminism does not reject power wholesale as a destructive and domineering force (Young 155). Rather, many works of feminist theory identify the possibilities for power to be understood as a generative force, crucial to the empowerment of historically marginalized populations (Okin 136; Lorde). After being “deeply afraid of using authority in a way that would perpetuate class elitism and other forms of domination” (187), bell hooks comes to recognize the productive uses of power. Simply put, power’s effects depend upon who has it and her intentions. Empowering students to reflect upon their positions in the classroom, to consider themselves as holders of knowledge, and to consider their implicit authority all represent valuable moves in the right direction for they a promote students’ consciousness of a power. They are not, however, ultimately corrective of imbalances in the socio-historical distributions of power. Being conscious of power is not the same as having access to it.

The Complexity of Identity

Feminist pedagogy is committed to a nuanced understanding of identity that acknowledges, for instance, the differences between and among the students, between herself and the students, and between the class and the authors on the syllabus. This critical recognition of differences between and among people’s lived experiences (McLaren 43) leads us to believe in “equity-mindedness,” a desire for justice and fairness that’s attentive to the specific identities, histories, and needs of students within a specific context, rather than assuming that everyone in the classroom is the same, this view leads to (Peña, Bensimon, and Colyar 48).  Instructors informed by feminist pedagogy also address those identities and voices that are erased, silenced, absent, or otherwise excluded.

This approach to identity informs feminist pedagogy’s fundamental belief in the contextual and social nature of knowledge and the particular and partial standpoints that make up knowledge (Haraway 412-414). Additionally, this awareness of identity promotes students’ awareness of the positions that lie behind all knowledge. In other words, we strive to make it clear that knowledge is neither neutral or sterile.

The notion of “intersectionality” pushes our understanding of identity by taking into account the multiplicity obscured by the very concept of identity (Crenshaw 1242-1243). That is to say, an individual may embody various social positions which may be overlapping and variable depending upon context. All aspects of identity that relate to status, power, and authority are relevant to classroom interactions. Some of these identities include gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, language, immigration status, age, ability, and religious affiliation.  While some identities are perhaps readily apparent (e.g., language), others must be revealed (e.g., sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or oftentimes, race).  Even identities that are not readily apparent may influence how an individual chooses to engage with others in the classroom or how she accesses the space of the classroom.

This valuing of identity often translates into content and course activities that explicitly address issues of identity and identity formation. This type of conversation involves intimacy and requires delicacy. Just as instructors choose what aspects of their identity to make explicit, the forcible “outing” or externalization of an identity that a member of the classroom has not chosen to share on her own should be avoided. While personal experience informs knowledge creation, a violation such as outing another detrimentally affects feelings of community, trust, and shared endeavor.

Failure to consider the role of identity allows existing social structures to operate without interrogation. Jerrie Cobb Scott refers to this as “uncritical dysconsciousness”—a term which defines a passive acceptance of society’s hierarchies as fixed and immutable (qtd in Highberg 58). The multiple identities that an instructor, her students, and the course texts bring to the classroom are always present and active. We strive to be as aware as possible of these identities. We believe that through awareness and recognition, we not only create a deeper sense of community and solidarity in the classroom but students also achieve a better sense of the world around them and the contingent nature of its truths.

The Importance of Community

Community, understood in conjunction with solidarity and coalition, lies at the center of a feminist value system (hooks 43). As a concept, community refers to the understanding that members of a group have of themselves as a collective and how they relate to each other based on that understanding. Feminism holds that patriarchy has socialized women and other historically marginalized groups to fear one another, and to believe they are “valueless and obtain value only by relating to or bonding with men” (hooks 43). Community stands as a tool for the theoretical and political goals of feminism, and the value of solidarity likewise guides feminist pedagogy.
Group and Community

Feminist pedagogy, then, deliberately addresses notions of listening, speaking, risk-taking, respect, reconciliation, and mutuality as central to its success. The classroom offers opportunities to model the interactions that can embody the values of solidarity and shared power, and facilitate the goals of unveiling and dismantling oppressive structures and organizing for action. Practices of community building include discussion-based learning, collaborative assignments and assessments, consciousness-raising exercises, and activities and resources that tie classroom learning to activism in the outside community.

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  • Last Updated: Jul 27, 2022 4:35 PM
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