One of the most important boundaries that I transgress is by bringing feminism into the classroom. In this post, I would like to think about what feminist pedagogy entails.
I think that at the heart of feminism is a commitment to seeing all people as ontologically equal, and thereby being equally capable of contributing to society and to others. With that commitment in mind, there are some principles I use (or hope/try to use) in my classes:
- I do not lecture. My offer information and my perspectives, but in conversational form. I acknowledge that I have more background information to bring to the class, but I am explicit that each person in the course can contribute and that each contribution is equally important.
- We sit in a circle. I do not sit at the front, and I do not stand. I am one among all those contributing to the class. This is a visible demonstration of our equality.
- Students lead some part of every class session. No one wants to listen to me talk through a whole class session. Plus, it seems to me that students learn more from each other and than they do from me anyway. Additionally, this again allows each person to bring some information and personal perspectives to the class.
- If the culture of the university allows it, I have my students call me by my first name. Using a title for only one person in the room creates a clear hierarchy, which I oppose. It would also be possible for everyone to go by their last names (again without titles). I had a professor in undergrad who did this, but at the end of a semester I would know classmates perspectives on really important issues but not know their first names, and I found this to stifle outside-the-classroom relationships.
- I try to get to know students as people. I ask them about their weekend plans; I discuss TV shows with them; I ask to see pictures of their pets. I do this because I think that real education occurs in real relationships. And I do not know how to have a real relationship with someone while also restricting our conversations to purely academic topics.
- I encourage students to let the course material impact their daily lives. This can take many forms. In its simplest form, I challenge students to look at the media more closely to analyze the subtle messages that they may be receiving. In a more complex form, specifically in religion and/or ethics classes, this can be more delicate. I, of course, do not want students to feel pressured to change their personal religious or ethical beliefs, but I do want them to be able to look at their personal beliefs from new perspectives. For example, today in class, I was asking students to use gender neutral pronouns for god, and there were a few students who felt very uncomfortable with this. One student in particular was very brave and was able to articulate why she felt such discomfort. As a result of her explanation, we were able to more fully address the way that academic pursuits have the potential to change personal beliefs. In that conversation, I re-emphasized that the purpose of the class was not to get students to change their religious beliefs, and I went on to explain that the purpose of the class was to get students to see and be able to ask the questions that they never knew existed. I explained that this may (and indeed probably will) bleed over into their personal lives. I believe this is another characteristic of “real” education, namely that you cannot leave it at the classroom door.
- As mentioned above, I encourage students to ask the questions that they never knew existed or were never before able to ask. At the end of today’s class session, the student who had expressed such discomfort with gender neutral pronouns for god stated, with a slightly shaky voice, that she had never even thought to question god’s gender or what it might mean that religions have traditionally used male pronouns for god. Because of our class, she was able to ask the question… and I consider that a success. It is also important to note that this goal is not content specific, I work toward that goal in all of my classes–ethics classes, religion classes, gender and women’s studies classes, even critical thinking classes. If students leave the class able to ask new questions, it means that their perspectives have been challenged and their worldviews expanded.
You may notice that these teaching methods seem to require a small, liberal arts type environment. Thus far, I have taught courses with between 10 and 32 students….so yes, I have only used these methods in small(ish) classes where sitting in a circle and having a discussion is possible.
I have applied for a job teaching at a large state university, where one section of a course may have 70 students. If I do obtain a contract to teach in this setting, I wonder how I will be able to enact my feminism in the classroom. Kevin and I have discussed this a bit. We’ve consider how technology can help with this, and we’ve thought about some other creative ways to let students contribute…. but we haven’t really come up with any ideas that feel “right” to me. Perhaps that will be a post for another day….
Thanks for reading.
And please leave comments if you have any additional suggestions about how to enact feminist pedagogy or if you can share your experience with “real” education or with classes that impacted your life outside the classroom. See what I did there by suggesting that you, dear reader, have as much to contribute as I do? 🙂