Let me begin this post with a little story. Once upon a time, Dr. Crazy was in her third year of college. She was 20 years old, and she had a baby half-brother who was born about 6 months before. She was at one of the high points (relatively speaking) of post-divorce relations with her father at that time, in large part because she wanted a relationship with her new half-sibling. In a realization that is horrifying to me as my 36-year-old self, my father was just 41 at the time.
So anyway, I was taking a seminar required of all women’s studies minors. By that time I know that I did self-identify as feminist, but I want to make it clear that the “real” reason that I ended up minoring in WS was more that doing so allowed me to take classes across lots of different disciplines, which I thought was neat, but I often felt like the required WS courses were really, really dumb. But so I was sitting on the floor of my father’s living room, and my little brother was on a blanket beside me, while I worked on this (stupid) journal for my women’s studies seminar. (Aside about the journal: it was stupid because it was… well, it was basically this scrap-book in which we were supposed to paste in advertisements that objectified women and all of that sort of crap and then use those as jumping off points from which to reflect on our oppression, which, from my perspective, is the women’s studies classroom’s equivalent of a circle-jerk and isn’t terribly interesting or educational, but I know other people would disagree with me.) But so anyway, I chose that moment to pick a fight with my father.
Now, you might wonder why that was the case. I mean, we were at a high point in our relationship, and we were hanging out together in front of the fire while I did my women’s studies homework. I was a young feminist woman with the support of her father, blah blah blah. Well. I picked the fight because my father had, the weekend before, taken my little brother to his “first auto show.” At that auto show, my father had gotten a playboy centerfold who was draped over a car or something to sign her autograph on a picture of herself in lingerie and to sign the autograph to my 6 month old baby brother. And then my father displayed that picture on my baby brother’s dresser in his bedroom.
Take a moment and think about that. Think about the incongruity of a father who tells his daughter that she can do anything she wants, but then who sees absolutely nothing wrong about socializing his just-out-of-the-womb son to see women as sex objects and would later socialize him to cat-call women when he first began talking, among other really super-duper awesome things. Think about the father who tells his daughter that she can do anything she wants, but who never contributed a dime to her education – any of it – because he expected that ultimately she’d just get married and knocked up anyway and so who really cared? Think about the fact that when his daughter picked this fight with him, he was utterly confused and seriously did not understand why she was upset. And by the end of the argument, he accused me of thinking that I was better than my station (basically) because I was in college but it was time for me to “grow up” and realize that I wasn’t anything special. I also believe there was something about him being the one who brought me into this world and he could take me out. And maybe something about the fact that my shit does in fact stink. Anyway.
This story came to mind as I was thinking about how to write this post, which has been brewing since Tenured Radical began her series on single-sex education for women, and since others have followed up on her posts, because for me it illustrates a few different things. First it illustrates for me the ways in which patriarchy begins at home – not in institutions or in “society” or in advertisements or in tv or movies. I’m not saying anything that revolutionary in saying that – at the very least Virginia Woolf expressed the same basic idea a lot more eloquently in Three Guineas. Second, it demonstrates to me the limits of a certain kind of educational context to protect women or to offer them a safe space within which to think and to learn. My WS seminar was a class of only women. We sat in a circle. We did not examine our vaginas with hand mirrors, but we did discuss the practice. At the end of the day, that seminar and the things I learned in it were in conflict with the expectations of my family – expectations not only about women but also about men, and, perhaps most importantly, about me. And I guess I tend to believe that I learned more about how to negotiate my own personal family context and my own life in general in my classes that were not specifically aimed at women but that were “feminist” in their pedagogy. (For the record, I very much support single-sex education for women. I just get sensitive when I feel like other educational contexts are discounted in the service of promoting it, as if those who don’t for whatever reason get a single-sex education are a) not fully actualized women, b) not fully actualized feminists, or c) not fully qualified to talk about women’s education because they are too mystified to understand their own oppression within hetero/patriarchal culture.)
So I want to talk in this post about co-educational environments and about the necessity of feminist classrooms – and by feminist classrooms I do not mean only those classes that instruct students in women’s and gender studies – for students who receive their education in those environments. I want to talk about the necessity of feminist pedagogical practice, and I want to talk about the necessity of including men in feminist classrooms and educating men through feminist pedagogical practice. I want to talk about the fact that some of the students who can most benefit from this are students who are not smart. (I know, it’s like this taboo thing for teachers to talk about, but some of my students are just not smart – objectively. You do not have to be smart to go to college or to get a college degree. These students do their work, and they do enough to pass, but they are not stellar students and they’re not terribly interesting or original or insightful. Some of them don’t even have common sense, so I’m not talking about them lacking in “book smarts” but being very wise in the ways of the world. No, some of them are just not smart. And those students need feminism, too. They aren’t lost causes just because they’re not terribly bright or motivated.) I want to talk about the fact that just as patriarchy begins at home, in really boring ways with really insignificant agents (like my father), so too might feminism. It doesn’t (at least from my perspective) begin with the best and brightest women going out and ruling the world, but rather, it probably begins at home, with really insignificant agents, who will never do anything noteworthy and whose names we’ll never know. I want to talk about the fact that while feminist pedagogy is activist, lived feminism isn’t always “actively” activist, if that makes any sense. One can live as a feminist even if one isn’t out protesting and fighting and raising hell, and one can be a feminist even if one doesn’t fit the stereotype of a feminist identity, and those are messages that I know I really needed to hear when I was coming into my feminism and
I know they are messages to which my students have responded.
But what is a “feminist classroom” or “feminist pedagogy” if that designation isn’t determined by course content?
In many educational settings – definitely co-ed ones but I’d venture to guess in many single-sex ones as well – course content determines which classrooms are “feminist” and which classrooms are not feminist. Now, I think in order to be fair, it is worth acknowledging that course content should drive pedagogical practice. And what many people perceive as the prescribed “feminist pedagogical practice” can appear to contradict the content-driven goals of a course. For example, a commonplace of feminist pedagogical practice might be to have students sit in a circle rather than in rows facing the instructor, a practice which is supposed to dismantle hierarchies, etc. Well. with my particular student population, I’ve found that sitting in a circle often isn’t terribly effective either in terms of teaching my content or in terms of creating a feminist classroom environment because it often silences female students and/or compromises my ability as a woman to run the classroom effectively. So, when I use the term “feminist classroom,” what do I mean? In no particular order, in a feminist classroom:
- All students feel authorized to participate, and they feel encouraged/expected by their professor to do so. In a co-educational environment, that can mean that the professor must ask male students directly not to dominate the discussion, must make an effort to provide different kinds of opportunities for participation than traditional question/answer, must sometimes meet with students individually to foster their engagement in the course. In other words, instructors have a responsibility to go above and beyond their own personal feminism or politics in order to make their classrooms feminist.
- Female instructors must model appropriate strategies for resistance when their authority is challenged on the basis of their sex, whether those challenges come from male students or from female students. One of the things that female students often learn in non-feminist classrooms is that they have to take those sorts of attacks meekly, or that they should ignore them, or that they should modify their speech in order to avoid such attacks.
- Course content – no matter what the course – can reflect attention to issues of sex/gender – and not just in a token sex/gender week – even if, and in some cases especially if, the course is not designated as a “diversity” distribution requirement. Because students – male and female students alike – often don’t see the relevance of feminism in their own daily lives when they are “forced” to take a “diversity” course. Often, it’s those courses that weave in issues of sex and gender as “normal” that are most likely to reach students who in a “diversity” context would have a knee-jerk reaction against them.
- Respect students’ resistance, and respect the reasons for their resistance. Now, this does not mean that one cannot lay ground rules about appropriate ways in which to resist – one can and one must – but casting students out of the conversation because they are homophobic, sexist, misogynist, conservative, naive, closed-minded, or traditional doesn’t create a feminist classroom, nor does it teach those students.
I’m sure that there are more that I could list, but those are the major ones that come immediately to mind, and I’m losing steam as I try to come to some sort of conclusion in this already way-too-long post. I guess my point is this: for me, as a feminist personally and as a person who believes in creating feminist classrooms for all of my students, I feel frustrated by conversations about educating women that leave so many different kinds of women out – that leave the kind of young woman I was out – and that leave men out. I took courses as a student that were single-sex – sometimes by accident and sometimes by design – and while there were some positive effects (class discussion tended to be more conversational and less adversarial), I rarely felt as challenged by those courses, or I felt as if I and my peers were “bashing” men or “male” points of view (whatever those are). I have also taught classes that were single-sex, or almost entirely single-sex, and as a teacher I have appreciated those classes because they were less work for me in terms of managing the course, less work in attending to making sure all students spoke and less work in creating conversation and stopping certain kinds of dominating, but I also have found myself irritated by needing to get students back on track toward the content of the course instead of rambling on about their inchoate and unrelated-to-course-content feelings and personal lives, which they somehow felt everyone was obligated to listen to because we were a room full of women.
Most of my students are never going to go on to do great things. Most will work in boring office jobs, will get married, will have kids, will live no further than a half-hour from where they grew up. Most of my students don’t want to change the world. Most of my students don’t want to examine either their privilege or their oppression. Or at the very least, that is where they start out. That is where I started out. But even with all that, I feel an obligation to create a feminist space for them. Because, at least for me, feminism is about fostering greater equality and understanding in one’s everyday life. Feminism is about learning how to stand up for yourself without dominating or belittling other people. Feminism is about recognizing difference while at the same time finding common ground. And so for me, if it’s that, we’ve got to think about how we can make those things happen at institutions like mine, with student populations like mine. We can’t just feel sorry for those students for being unenlightened and then ignore them like there’s nothing we can do.