classrooms · faster feminism · slow academy

What Is a Feminist Classroom?

We have been thinking a great deal about pedagogy in the last few weeks here at Hook & Eye. Aimée recently wrote about her experiences in a graduate seminar on public feminisms, Jana wrote a guest post that reframed reactions to David Gilmour’s statements as evidence of both theory and praxis, and a few weeks ago I thought about addressing misogyny, racism, and inequity in the classroom. Each of these posts were inspired by events happening outside the classroom space, and each of these events ask or argue for the importance of a pedagogical approach that is influenced by feminism. This has me thinking: what is a feminist classroom?

The answers will vary depending on who is asked the question, of course. If you asked my cousin’s class for first year students at a university in southern Alberta he would tell you that their reply was silence: they weren’t sure or weren’t willing to say. If you ask my third-year women’s literature course at Mount Allison you’ll get a variety of responses that will reference not just feminism, but anti-racist and post-colonial theories. And on and on the variations go. Given the number of egregious things that have happened in the first month of a new school year on campuses across Canada, I find myself wanting to think again about what a feminist classroom might look like, because here’s the thing: at its root feminism is about activism. It is about articulating inequity and working for generative solutions to those inequities. It is about education and about learning the ways in which we have — all of us — been influenced and informed by the inequitable systems in which we live. September 2013 on Canadian university campuses has been a month filled with rape chants, racist chants, and myopic views about Humanities education. It is a good time to rethink and reactivate discussion about feminist classrooms.

I have spent the better past of the last decade and change in university classrooms. Some have them have been clearly demarcated as feminist spaces, others not, and some in-between. Here is the start of a list of challenges and markers of the feminist classroom:

1. A feminist classroom acknowledges difference. In her post Aimée wrote about an experience of being in a classroom about feminism and how that classroom turned into an aggressive space. I had a similar experience in graduate school: the students in my class–myself included–were confronted our own assumptions in a devastating way. Few of us left the class unscarred, fewer of us finished the class without having broken down crying in the class itself. This is not always necessary or useful. A feminist classroom needs to teach its students how to acknowledge difference without translating it, without reifying it, and without vilifying it. This might seem obvious, but it is far far more challenging that I would like to admit. 

2. A feminist classroom is intersectional. This builds on point one: feminism–for me, at least–is a starting point for broad-scale activism. It functions as a starting point from which to address racism, classism, and sexuality. It is a site from which to think about the nation, globalization, and local concerns. It is not the only point nor is it always the best point, that’s why feminism it intersectional: it is a methodology that requires multiple lenses.

3. A feminist classroom is not a pulpit. All feminists are not concerned with the same things. All students do not have the same experiences. The feminist classroom is ideally built to provide students with the tools to analyze the social spheres that we live and operate in, but the feminist classroom is not a failure if all students don’t identify as feminists. Again, this seems to be obvious but it is another incredible challenge. My role as a teacher is to introduce students to tools and methodologies of analysis. My role is to provide a challenging and safe space for discourse. My role is not to convert anyone, much as I would love to have every student leave my classroom aware of and fighting against gender, racial, and sexual injustice and inequity. That’s not my job, and it requires that I check my ego at the door. 

Marusya Bociurkiw recently wrote a post for entitled “Six Reasons Why Calls to Fire David Gilmour Miss the Point.” Reading it was for me another iteration of what a feminist classroom looks like. You can find her list here. You can add your lists in the comments section.

Like Bociurkiw, like Melissa, and like Jana I am ultimately heartened by the opportunity to remind myself why I am a feminist and how I can take that research and activism into the classroom as praxis. And like Aimée I am acutely aware of how challenging that pedagogical move can be.