The College Writing Class

/ February 21, 2011/ Gender, Teaching/ 0 comments

On Monday I’m presenting briefly at a class for Loyola master’s students preparing to teach college writing.  Instead of preparing a handout, I’ve decided to use this blog post.


What is feminist pedagogy?   
Feminist pedagogy has taken many forms and had many motivations for many different people.  It’s about ending gendered oppression, oppression in general, and also about valuing individual and group identity and experience (i.e. the personal is political).  Some of the commonly cited elements significant to feminism are gender (male vs. female), race, sexual orientation, and class.  The less common are becoming more common: gender (the vast variety of gender identities and expressions), ethnicity, place, sexuality (in all it’s canonized or uncanonized forms), materiality, bodies, and ability.  I’m probably missing quite a few others as well.  A feminist pedagogy is one that makes no assumptions about what is normal, so in your class you may be forced to have expectations about what kinds of reading and writing skills are necessary for being able to pass the course, but the identities and experiences of your students must be acknowledged as diverse.  For too long, men have been silently understood as the normal version of humanity, and women were those people who were different–had their own gendered experiences and needs.  A feminist perspective seeks to acknowledge the situatedness of all perspectives (especially those considered normative) and attempts to overturn the systems that grant privilege to some and not to others.

See also my musings on defining feminist pedagogy. 

Being a feminist/ally is not an option; it’s a requirement. 
Given the fact that the radical social changes of the 1960s and 70s have not resulted in widespread structural change that places all kinds of people on equal footing, change is long overdue.  Gendered oppression isn’t just about women being devalued in the media, it has to do with pay, job opportunities, job security, rape, domestic violence, gay bashing, suicide, depression, transphobia, access to health care, access to education, and even freedom to explore new ways of existing in the world.

I’ve heard (and been deeply disturbed by) colleagues dismissing queer theory, women’s studies, and ethnic studies as “trendy.”  I understand  that everyone must follow their own passions, even if it takes them to the most obscure of academic fields, but there’s no excuse for not enacting a justice-oriented pedagogy while teaching your passions.  Do you believe in justice?  If not, stop teaching.  If so, keep reading.  Do you recognize your own privilege in the world?  If not, read this and this.  If so, get to working on your feminist pedagogy.

Best pedagogical advice I’ve received: “You can’t just teach your students something, you have to tell them you’re teaching them something.” 
I kind of blame feminist pedagogy for screwing up my teacher course evaluations for the first literature course I taught.  I was very excited to be teaching a course cross-listed with women’s studies, and because I had also been very involved in Loyola’s Feminist Pedagogy Discussion Group, I’d been learning about the importance of decentering the traditional teaching model in which the professor is the source of knowledge and students are the passive receptors.  I’d also been learning how important it is to acknowledge the various identities and perspectives in the classroom–including one’s own.  This particular semester, I may have been too open about my situatedness and not careful enough to maintain my professorial presence of reliability.  Despite the fact that I was sure my students had been challenged, had processed through a lot of new concepts, and come out learning much more than they had before, I was shocked by the evaluations when they came back.    In the aftermath of that semester, one of my professors told me it wasn’t enough to just teach them, I had to tell them I was teaching them.  A much as I dislike the patriarchal nature of the traditional “professor” who spouts out knowledge for the masses, if I was going to bring my students into the process of how knowledge is produced, I was still going to have to maintain their image of me as “the professor.”

After I received that advice, I started voicing my intentions and relating them to the overall goals of the courses I was teaching.  We were not just sitting in a circle talking about the reading.  We were facing diverse perspectives about what the reading meant and how it ought to be applied.  We were not just discussing our reactions to a particular writing style, we were uncovering how biased even the language used to describe facts can be.  This kind of meta-narrative is important for reinforcing the questions, processes, and skills your students need to become familiar with, but it also maintains your position as the person enabling them to recognize these things–not so you can feel good about yourself but so that they get as much out of your teaching as you’re trying to offer.  When they respect you, they learn more.  When they recognize your reliability, they learn more.  A few years ago, I had mistook decentering power structures for taking a step away from leadership.  The difference is significant–both for your students’ benefit and yours.

Worst pedagogical advice I’ve received: “Buy a pair of [high-heel] boots.”  
Now I must acknowledge that this comment was a part of a larger piece of advice about the fact that women–especially small or young women–are perceived differently and may benefit from some kind of reminder of their self-empowerment.  This advice has worked great for some people that I greatly respect, but for me, it didn’t work.

I identify as genderqueer, and in my particular case this means I am almost always perceived as female but think of myself more as a conglomeration of gendered qualities and identities.  As I’ve been in the process of coming out as genderqueer, I’ve also been in the process of figuring out my teaching style.  I am fairly young, not extremely experienced, and often less than confident, and students easily pick up on that and are therefore more critical of my less than stellar teaching days than they might be of those of a 50 year-old cisgendered male.

I used to be very concerned with what teachers are supposed to wear because I wanted to signal my professionalism to my students (and colleagues), but as I’ve been slowly figuring myself out, I am realizing that the more comfortable I feel in my skin and in my clothes, the more confident I am in front of a class.  So I guess buying some boots is good advice, but for me it meant buying a pair of casual men’s shoes, cutting my hair, and wearing jeans and t-shirts.  The main point I’m trying to make is that the cliche that we’ve all thought doesn’t apply to the real world of jobs and professionalism actually does: be yourself–whether its about shoes, shirts, hairstyles (mohawks included), tattoos, or whatever else.  If you feel comfortable, you’ll be more confident, and your students will be too busy learning to even notice what you look like.

Being a hard-ass doesn’t make you a good teacher. 
Teachers starting out are always made to feel like they must grade harshly and be a hard-ass when it comes to enforcing class policies.  As far as grading goes, there’s a lot to be said, but for now I’ll just say it gets easier with time.  As far as your class policies, it’s a difficult balance.  If your young, female, gender variant, or have any visible difference that signals “less-respectable” to your students, it’s going to be very difficult indeed.  The common advice is “prove that you mean business from day one, and don’t bend.  You’re their instructor, not their mother.”

Well, I think their mother didn’t enjoy wiping their noses or picking up their laundry either.  Your job is to instruct, but sometimes things are not as simple as they appear.  Your student may have some pretty significant problems that they may not feel comfortable talking with you about.  They may be struggling with addiction, issues with sexuality, gender, immigration, family, physical or mental health, or any variety of serious concerns.  They may be hesitant or unwilling to admit to these things and instead hide behind “I was sick” or “I overslept.”  Are they lying?  Maybe.  Should you try to work with them?  It’s difficult to say, but if your only reason for not working with them is that you can’t bend, then you better rethink your motivations.

I once got pretty angry when it became painfully evident that a student had lied to me about why a paper was late.  I guessed the reason was that the student was getting used to college life, was socializing a bit too much, maybe drinking too much, but I let him turn in the work late.  But even if I hadn’t, remember, you are not a distributor of justice as you see fit.  Don’t get angry at students.  Don’t even get disappointed.  I can’t tell you how important it is for you to accept your students as they are.  If they were drinking, sleeping in, and skipping class half the semester and you are forced to tell them you cannot accept the first two papers, tell the student in a way that doesn’t judge them.  You are an instructor.  Students have to deal with enough judgment from their family and peers.  You don’t want to encourage students to get behind in the course or to be unfair to those who do their work on time, but enforcing class policies should not be about punishment or judgment.  It should be about providing your students with an environment conducive to their best work.

And sometimes just your acceptance and kindness during a very stressful time for your student can be enough to motivate them to work really hard to pass your course.  Sometimes not, but either way, your students deserve respect and understanding.

Teaching writing gives you more of an opportunity to change the world than teaching a women’s studies class will ever give you. 
There are very few students who enroll in a college writing course with excitement, but the skills they learn/tune can dramatically affect their lives.  At its simplest, college writing is about sorting through what has been said and deciding what you believe.  Yes, we’ve got to teach students about in-text citations, thesis statements, and topic sentences, but these are just the little things.  The big thing is helping students figure out why their gut tells them not to believe that pundit or how to win an argument with a family member.  Your students might be really great at winning arguments or picking out who’s untrustworthy, but there are many assumptions and logical fallacies that have also become second nature.  The writing process slows everything down, and encourages students to really analyze their views, their words, and those of others.

When it comes to passing along feminist content, teaching women’s studies courses is more like (but certainly is not) preaching to the choir, but in a writing class, each semester’s fresh group of faces is an opportunity to bring more options for valuing identity to folks who may not even like the word “feminist.”  Being purposeful about the texts and examples you bring up in class can also help, but be careful you don’t hijack the course and turn it into Feminism 101.  You can ruin your chance to subtly introduce your students to feminist ideals if they feel alienated or perceive that you aren’t really focused on meeting the goals of the course.  You are giving your students the tools to choose for themselves.  Hopefully they will learn about valuing different perspectives from their own, but even if they make the informed choice to become supporters of patriarchy, you’ve still done your job.



Lastly, here are some links and documents that you may find useful.  
How to support gender variance starting on day 1 – and it’s not just about being an ally to trans people.  It’s a different way of thinking about meeting the needs of your students
An introduction to challenges facing teachers using feminist pedagogy–includes detailed bibliography.
Loyola’s Feminist Pedagogy Discussion Group – The group isn’t meeting this semester but it will likely start up again in the fall.
This blog – I’ll be making updates from time to time with recommendations about resources and how teaching can be about meeting the intellectual needs of all your students.

My most recent UCWR syllabus (at Loyola University Chicago).
A sample assignment description from UCWR (the final paper)

My current English 101 syllabus (at Truman College)
A sample assignment description from English 101 (the first paper)

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