Feminist Pedagogy as Secret Weapon

by Anne Moore

This weekend, I gave a talk at a conference panel that focused on “Innovative Approaches to Addressing Student Resistance.” Most of the talks (including mine) were about what you do when you’re teaching texts by underrepresented groups and your students get “oppression fatigue” and start trashing the book in class or, worse yet, just check out entirely.

My friend who was organizing the panel had issued us strict instructions not to read a paper–we were supposed to give talks from notes, and approach it more like teaching a class. Ironically, as you’ll see when you get to the content of my paper, I found myself entirely unable to write a “talk”–I just wrote a paper. At the panel, I just told the stories below instead of reading it–the good news is that now I have something to post here!

I can’t help teaching women’s studies classes, it seems. Even when the explicit aim of the course has been writing instead of feminist theory, the authors and theoretical apparatus I use is nearly always feminist. At the state university where I started my graduate career, I would often get course evaluations that would say things like “I didn’t sign up for a women’s studies course,” so I became preoccupied with how I might address this problem.

My first time out the gate, I tried to deal with the issue head on, in the kind of in-your-face manner that had characterized much of my activist work. At my graduate institution, intermediate writing courses are structured around a series of topics. My first year, I got “Family Ties,” and decided to design a course around the theme of sisters, especially competition among women. On the first day of class, I announced to a mixed-gender classroom that they’d essentially signed up for a women’s studies class and that if that wasn’t what they were interested in, there were lots of other writing courses that were available to them. The next day, my class had shrunk by 50%, and (unsurprisingly) all the remaining students were women. The class was disastrous. The students seemed sullen, were reluctant to participate even though it was a section of only four, and my course reviews were brutal—much worse than any I’d received at my previous institution

The next year, I was determined not to make the same mistake again. The theme of the course was “Other Worlds,” a science fiction course, and I’d structured the class around the concept of fandom. The feminist texts and theory were still present, but nested within this hopefully less volatile container. The novel we were reading was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’d essentially chosen because it was a personal favorite. When I arrived on the first day, my class was made up of five young men, four white and one black—after missing his in-class presentation in the first week, the black student dropped and I was left with the remaining four white boys as we launched into Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of a world where the Christian Right has taken over the US and women are reduced to their capacity as bearers of children.

The strongest remaining student in the class (in that he was the one with the greatest command over traditional rhetorical argument) was also the one who was openly hostile to the novel, and to any feminist theory we would read. In class and in all his reading responses, he tore the book to shreds, and did so in a way that was ultimately based on the argument that it was dull and unrealistic, a value-based argument that left little room for other students to counter, even if they wanted to. I tried to lecture more in an attempt to retrench my authority, but he just wouldn’t stop countering—as the other students checked out. From there, we went on to a theory section in which we read, among other things, sections from Orientalism and Playing in the Dark. After our discussion of Orientalism went about as well as could be expected, essentially degenerating into an argument between the two of us, I turned to one of my favorite professors for some pedagogical triage.

I was thinking that what I needed to do was find a way to reassert my authority in the classroom; I felt that I was being “beaten” by this punk kid, this misogynist, and the only way out would be to be more convincing, more authoritative—to find better ways to out-argue him. But her answer was surprising—she suggested I sit down with the students and acknowledge the difficulty of being in such a small class, and discuss together how we might alter the expectations given this changed set of circumstances. Ask them what would be some of the other elements of the class that we might revise in order to make up for the increased demands re: conversation and engagement. (This wasn’t a class you could hide in, the way it might be even with two more students). Instead of taking more power, the answer, she stressed, was to give up some of the power I had. Because, of course, regardless of the gender dynamics or the force of this student’s argumentation (in the cruelest of ironies, he remains to this day my only student who has become an English major), I was still the one with the power because I was the one with the grade book.

And it worked. Their revisions to the syllabus were unsurprising—extended deadlines, fewer response papers, less reading. But, the students’ renewed engagement in the course led to stronger (if less) work, and more serious engagement with the central ideas of the course. They were willing to take greater risks, and the remaining presentations (one on a reading of Batman Begins using Freud’s theory of the uncanny and another on The Lonely Island as fan art) were engaging and theoretically rigorous. While my jerky student didn’t stop being jerky, his final paper (an analysis of a fan community) was a critical engagement with the rewards of “anti-fandom,” in which he was at least self-conscious about some of the rewards and costs of “hateration.”

The thing that matters here is whether I’m trying to come from a place of strength or a place of vulnerability. In the previous class, I’d tried to confront the anticipated problem of classroom misogyny head on by preemptively asserting my authority. I started by essentially saying: “This is feminism—if you don’t like it, you can lump it.” With such an approach, it’s hardly surprising that the dynamics in the class negatively reproduced the competitive relationships among women around which the course’s content was organized. I think part of this tendency to conserve authority is the natural result of how we’re socialized as graduate students and the place of grad students within the larger hierarchical system of academia (I know, this is hardly news, but it’s worth restating). Gender presentation, race, and age are also important factors to consider. When you’re coming into a classroom insecure about your authority (and what is graduate school but an insecurity-producing machine?), it’s challenging to allow yourself to give up any of that power. But vulnerability was the very thing that made the difference in that class and was the central strategy around which I organized my pedagogical approach for the rest of the time I was teaching composition.

STRATEGIES THAT WORK:

  •  Giving students agency over nature and/or frequency of assignments
  •  In-class writing exercises in which you fully participate
  •  Beginning the class by talking about writer’s block and the emotional challenges of writing, then establishing ground rules
  •  Transparent or co-authored grading rubrics
  • Co-teaching and student-led presentations (for instance, the students led the discussion of Said and Morrison the following year, not defining the important ideas to take away, but asking the questions that started the discussion. Since they’d established the terms of the conversation, arguments of “irrelevancy” were undermined—they had to figure out how the texts were relevant in order to structure questions).
  •  Asking for help—bringing in guest lecturers, asking for help from colleagues and professors

Like any good feminist scholar, though, I’m uncomfortable with the implied “happy ending” of this narrative. Don’t get me wrong—these were and continue to be incredibly useful strategies, but I think it’s important to emphasize that they’re not always easy to carry out. Five years after the course I described, I had the opportunity to work for the first time in a women’s studies department. The department at my graduate institution was temporarily without a chair, so there was no one to teach the research methods course that had always been the responsibility of the chair. I was recruited at the last minute to teach it, only realizing after I’d been offered the job that the outgoing chair had bypassed the traditional process when offering it to me. Needless to say, the ensuing political consequences were messy to say the least (the extent to which has only become clear to me since I’ve taken on an administrative job at that same institution). To give you a sense of the context, here’s a brief list of the things that were going on in my life at the time:

  • I had a two-week old baby on the first day of classes
  • I was finishing my dissertation
  • I was on the tenure-track job market for the first time

To top it off, one of my advisors was the interim chair of the Women’s Studies program at Tufts, and she had made it very clear to me (and, if indirectly, some of the students in the class) that she didn’t think it was good for the program for a graduate student (AKA me) to be teaching courses in it. The course was probably the most challenging one I’ve ever taught—not only was I teaching my first ever upper-level seminar, but to a group of students who saw the department in which I was teaching as being in dire straits, and who in all likelihood interpreted my presence in the classroom as a symptom of those dire straits. That’s certainly what I would have thought as a feminist undergraduate. I tried to utilize many of the feminist pedagogical tools I described earlier, but they could only take me so far, especially since I didn’t have a particularly clear sense of what the agreed-upon goals of the course were, and wasn’t part of the department culture. (My advisor was, as usual, right but not super tactful—I was indeed ill-suited to be teaching this course, at least within the department the way it was being run.)

I mention all this not to complain (well, kind of to complain, but whatever) but to drive home the point that vulnerability necessitates considerable resources. When I didn’t have enough support or energy, I found myself falling back to more traditional ways of thinking about classroom dynamics—feeling threatened by the student who clearly felt the responsibility to “co-teach” the class with (or for) me, finding myself lecturing even when I didn’t plan on it. I attempted a similar intervention as the one I described earlier a few weeks into class, setting aside a day in which we came up with a working set of ground rules which had some of the desired results—other students seemed to not get shut down quite so easily—but I was never able to shake the feeling that the class had slipped out of my control. And the course evaluations said I wasn’t far off. I got a lot of “Anne was great, but this class wasn’t what I needed.” “This class should not be taught by a graduate student.” And so on.

It’s easy to think that vulnerability is the easy way out, or that sharing power with your students is a sign of decreased theoretical rigor—you’re less worried about them getting the content just right, which could lead introductory students to lack the strong foundation they need to move on to bigger and better things. The truth, of course, is considerably more complicated. Sharing responsibility in the classroom takes more time and, perhaps more importantly, more energy. (Case in point: the only way I could prepare for this “talk” was to write this paper. Years of training to claim authority over my own intellectual domain die hard.) And I suppose this is my final point: it takes great personal and emotional resources to take the leap of improvisation. Without a base line of structural support (from my experience, this might have included paid parental leave for graduate students, departmental support, a non-contingent job, health insurance) marshaling those resources becomes much, much more difficult. Just as we can’t aim for some perfect specific insight that my students might take away from my class, nor should we expect that our teaching style will reach a predetermined “happy ending” of nonhierarchical utopia. As feminism teaches us, the truth of lived experience is considerably more complicated.

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