To open discussion with the attendees at a Feminist Pedagogy Teaching and Learning Conversation this fall, I asked the audience about ways in which they use feminist pedagogy in their classrooms. Their answers were inspiring: organizing the classroom space to encourage students to address each other; integrating active learning into class planning; and maintaining an awareness of historical power structures in syllabus planning. As they spoke, I was reminded of how much the instructional approach we call feminist pedagogy has in common with research-based methods of effective teaching. However, an understanding of the unique background and purpose of feminist pedagogy can help us see it as more than “good teaching.” Rather, feminist pedagogy asks that we interact with students in ways that encourage them to think critically and challenge the status quo.
Feminist pedagogy emerged from critical pedagogy ideas connected to Paulo Freire, the well-known critic of the “banking” model of education, wherein students are imagined as passive receptacles of knowledge. Freire’s critique is accepted in classrooms across TCU, where our students share papers at the AddRan festival of scholarship, get funding for their own research, and take on extensive internships. These alternatives to the banking model are “good teaching”: they increase student responsibility, encourage practical skills, and engage students. Some argue that since these classroom practices draw on those developed by feminist pedagogues, “We are doing feminism nearly every day in today’s classroom, but rarely calling it so” (Weber, et al. 10).
What changes, however, when we call feminist pedagogy “feminist pedagogy,” rather than employing it as a set of practices divorced from their history? First, feminist pedagogy is a political model of instruction. Freire aimed through his teaching to overthrow colonial hierarchies; in the same way, feminist pedagogues direct attention to issues of power in the classroom, at the university, and in the wider community, and bring those issues to bear on student learning. As feminists, we believe we can create a better world founded on equality, justice, and compassion, and as feminist pedagogues, we claim the right to believe those things in the classroom as well as on our own time.
Bringing one’s political positions into the classroom can be a fraught endeavor and risks reinforcing hierarchies between professors and students that feminist pedagogy seeks to complicate. One way I have balanced a feminist approach with respect for students’ own perspectives is to open up space for student-led small group discussion. As part of a discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel Herland, my students worked in groups to found their own imaginary utopias…and decide how they would enforce the “perfection” they created. Students’ utopian visions solved a variety of social problems; however, it was in their discussions of the government structures of their utopias that they struggled with problems of individual freedom, the collective good, and social justice. This assignment, while fulfilling an objective to teach the utopian novel genre, encouraged them to grapple with issues of inequality and power in a self-directed ways.
Second, feminist pedagogy foregrounds the subjectivity of professors and students. In public discourse about academia, the experiences of women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people who teach are designated as “special” or “different”; the subjectivity of professors who fit those categories is more visible and more subject to scrutiny. Feminist pedagogy, however, reminds us that EVERY teacher (and every student) occupies a subjective position in relation to their communities and the larger culture, suggesting that instead of obscuring those differences, we teach from them, and we encourage students to contribute and learn from their own subject positions.
One stereotype of feminist pedagogy is that it encourages a focus on emotions rather than intellectualism; rather, though, a successful feminist pedagogy leads students to take responsibility for in-depth learning. bell hooks describes it thus: “When I enter the classroom at the beginning of the semester the weight is on me to establish that our purpose is to be, for however brief a time, a community of learners together” (153). I have used a model for classroom community building inspired by the Koehler Center’s Amanda Irvin: in smaller classes, I ask students to set their own policies for interacting with technology and with each other during class. This shared leadership leads to a more egalitarian classroom that maintains the instructor’s authority—and, I would argue, enhances it, as I am able to refer to shared commitments when problems arise.
Finally, feminist pedagogy foregrounds gender as a category of analysis through curricular structure, lesson planning, and class dynamics. It is not sufficient to consider gender only: feminist pedagogues must be aware of intersections of gender, race, sexuality, and social class, and to direct students’ attention to the ways in which traditional hierarchies have affected the materials and attitudes we bring into the classroom. Incorporating material from a diversity of perspectives into our teaching takes effort: such material changes over time, and is often created in response to contemporary events. For example, the successful Black Lives Matter panel put on by TCU faculty in fall 2015 required faculty to act quickly to analyze media texts and plan an approach appropriate to our students. The ongoing revision of teaching, not to tokenize or nod to a global perspective, but to integrate the variety of voices and concerns in our fields into each aspect of our teaching, creates true feminist pedagogy.
Our mission statement at TCU is “To educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.” As feminist pedagogues, our commitments to critical thinking, sharing leadership with students, and bringing the global community into our classrooms uniquely position us to advance this mission in the twenty-first century. Moving forward, I am organizing a Faculty Interest Group on feminist pedagogy to begin meeting in fall 2015. Please email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like more information.
hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge: New York: 1994.
Weber, Jessica Ketcham, et al. “Risks and Possibilities of Feminism in the Academy in the 21st Century.” thirdspace 8.1 (2008): http://journals.sfu.ca/thirdspace/index.php/journal/article/view/weber/228.