Thursday, March 16, 2006

Feminism in the Classroom: Why Feminism Isn't Just for Feminists

This post is in response to the following questions, which Derrick left in comments yesterday.

Derrick writes:

"I need to hear someone with skills articulate why "feminism isn't just for
feminists" in the world of education. At my school it is just dismissed.

We are undergoing our "self-study" for re-accreditation. I asked my
committee what part of that study examined diversity/equality issues. The
response? That would probably be the one which deals with fair hiring practices.

Obviously, my colleagues do not see this little community college as having
anything at stake in these discussions. We don't see ourselves as stakeholders
in gender/race discussions (let alone transformations).

I want to claim otherwise and when I read the third paragraph of your post
this was the bell it rung for me. You are writing about the impact of feminism
across the the curriculum (and beyond).

What would you say to me and my colleagues about our stake in this?"

Wow. Well, this is a lot to answer. I suppose the best that I can do is to tell you what I think, and then I'll leave the floor open for my fantastic readers to chime in with their thoughts on this, as I'm sure all of you will have something to say.

I guess the first thing that I'd say is that the reason that feminism isn't just for feminists, or shouldn't be, in the classroom is the same reason why the Holocaust isn't just for Jews or the Civil Rights movement isn't just for African-Americans or homophobia isn't just for gay people: because if as citizens we believe in equality and if we believe that all people should be treated in a fair and just way, that these issues aren't ones for special interest groups but rather that they are issues that have to do with the deeper values of our society as a whole. If we say, "oh, let the feminists teach feminism," or "let the lesbians teach queer theory," or whatever, then what we're doing is reinforcing the structures of inequality and the hierarchies in our culture that go against the "equality" we claim to value. Putting women or children or gay people, or Jews or Muslims or whoever in a ghetto of their own doesn't teach or increase diversity on a broader scale. I'm not saying that there isn't a place for special interest departments (like women's studies departments) or classes (like classes in Arabic literature), but if those are the only places in which these ideas and topics are explored, then those most likely to hear the message are those who need it the least. The student who needs feminism most is probably not the girl who will sign up for introduction to women's studies, you know?

But here's the problem. I think that because of the way that departments have developed at colleges and universities, it's not so easy as to say, "we all should teach about these things that are related to diverse groups and perspectives," and not only because of the curmudgeons who want to pass the buck to their colleagues in women's studies. Part of the problem is the way that as academics we like to take ownership over whatever our "thing" at the university is. For example, I've got a colleague who teaches [minority] literature. There had been a survey of this [minority] literature on the books for years and years, which was "my colleague's" course. We then hired another person who also wanted to teach the course, and my colleague's response was to split the survey into two halves, so that she could continue to be sure that she would teach it every semester, even though new colleague and she could have just traded off. Was there demand for this split by students? Not really. The point wasn't about bettering the diversity offerings for students; it was about marking intellectual territory. So before we chastise our colleagues who try to pass the buck about teaching about feminism or racism or whatever in their classes, I do think that it's important to see the ways in which they may have been discouraged from incorporating those things into their classes both by institutional structures as well as by those colleagues who "own" those topics.

So how to make one's colleagues see that they have a stake in race/gender discussions and/or transformations? Honestly, I do think that this begins from the ground up and not from the top down. I think it begins with one faculty member approaching some students who might be interested in forming some kind of a club, or it begins with one class developed by one faculty member and then those students going to the administration and asking for more classes like that class or for more of that material to be incorporated into other classes.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the way to make them see it is to look at the 4-year schools to which your students transfer, and to point out to them the diversity agenda of these universities, and to suggest that greater diversity at the community college would facilitate these students' success in their future endeavors.

I don't know. What do you all think?


Derrick said...

Thanks, Dr. C.

I am working up my reply and eagerly waiting comments from fellow readers. I will post my own comment later.

Your post is a gem!

Konibono said...

Sorry, I just lost a big response. I'll be brief. Great post. In dealing with these issues, I think a lot of the burden gets unfairly shifted to faculty. Ultimately the administration needs to put major muscle behind initiatives like diversity--you can't legitimately ask the medievalist in the English department to teach a course on contemporary Japanese lit. It just doesn't work that way in the Humanities. Individual faculty members need to push hard, but we need to get the administration behind up in a major way to achieve any real change.

Dr. Crazy said...

Kibono, I agree with you that the administration needs to be behind any diversity initiative that is going to work - not only philosophically, but also in terms of funding. The question is, how can that be accomplished? The reason that I think that a bottom-up approach, with students at the front of demanding more diversity, is that administrators tend to respond to "the customer" if the efforts of "the customer" are organized and public. Often, it takes a committed faculty member to spearhead that kind of organization, though I don't think it's the faculty member's job to make that happen.

I don't want to give the impression that I think that this is all on faculty, but I do think that if faculty are committed to increasing diversity on their campuses, probably they need to take some role in facilitating that (and in more than just the form of hiring a diverse faculty, as then the tokens get burdened with all of the diversity chores).

Konibono said...

Dr. Crazy, you're completely right. It'll be tough if students and dedicated students don't push for it.

I just think that the kind of real, systematic change we need seems to only be possible from the top down.

I guess it's tricky to start a revolution that preserves the status quo.

Konibono said...

Whoops. I meant "dedicated faculty" above.

Derrick said...

Dr. C.

Your first paragraph after the intro statement is pretty much where I have lived all my professional life.

Feminism gave me tools to think about being human. As a white middle class male from a conservative religious background I was more than a little uncomfortable with the discourse. But as someone from a working class poor family it enabled me to see how subtle oppression can be and how it simply diminishes human life. I learned to value being human. Ever since, that has been my stake in education. It is the only process I know which can introduce people to their protential selves. Feminism gave me the tools to be a humanist in practice.

So, I think the direction I have to take is to bring that material into my own classes.

As far as the college is concerned at an administrative level my folks have never been exposed to diversity issues. I don't believe they could think through the article you are writing. The gender/race elevator doesn't go past the first floor, intellectually speaking.

Their stake would be what you mention in your last paragraph and I don't really have a need for them to do more. I was trained that the real power of change is in the local group/community, which is your paragraph above the last.

Ironically, it is our social science department and not humanities that holds the most promise for that kind of faculty influence. Those faculty members seem most comfortable being uncomfortable with the status of diversity issues on our campus.

In the end, I think my biggest barrier is the absence of a liberal arts philosophy of education. I just may be at the wrong school. I can't tell you how many times I have found my self saying the exact phrase gingajoy left us with in that other post, "you've got to be freaking kidding me!"

Kate said...

Great post. I guess my only question is, is the only way to incorporate feminism into the curriculum to talk about obviously gendered things that may step on other people's toes? (The territoriality in academia is pretty ridiculous, by the way. Wouldn't one's field have something to gain by having more people thinking and working on it?) But taking people's touchiness into account, I still don't see why it would be so hard for the faculty to make some major changes.

I once took a course where the professor, at my request, added one week on women in the topic of the course. He did a total crap job, where he only found the feminist theories that were ridiculous and discounted (and of course, he didn't exactly point out that despite their being a little silly, they had challenged the field in significant ways). I wrote him that he totally sabotaged feminism by doing it. He was pissed, but I think he also understood.

One other thought: to those who want to incorporate feminism/diversity into their own curriculum, if you worry about stepping on toes, go to exactly that person. Say, "I don't like how white/male/upper class/straight my syllabus is, and I know you have the expertise to help me. What would you recommend I shift so that I can better complement your class?"

Finally, I do agree that student support is one way to solve the problem. Universities are accrediation machines more than non-profit centers where learning is an end in itself, and the customer is always right. But a long-term fix, rather than slapping a week on women to a few courses, would have to come from institutional change.

At my university, though the body of professors hasn't increased, the number of administrators (especially never-academic, MBA admin) has become bloated. They don't care about education, they care about budgets and cost efficiency and liability and appearances. Faculty do have the power to force out admin that do not actually have the best interests of students at heart. Just look at Larry Summers.

Derrick said...

Kate, your point about the bloated administration is priceless! We have less than 3K students and 8 v.p., one of which is the v.p. over all the other ones.

I also liked the comment about "how white/male/upper class/straight" my syllabi might be. I am pretty sure that kind of question would completely disorient our curriculum committee.

Dr. C., thanks once again!

George said...

The problem with the question is that you cannot avoid a definitional fight over the meaning of feminism. From a political science perspective, feminism as a movement largely acted like other movements: it created an elite whose power was supported by a mass grouping. That elite has more in common with other elites than their mass and as a result the agenda of feminism has moved beyond its initial thrust into arcane realms divorced from the concerns of most women.

Now, still want me to teach about feminism? Even though I don't buy the party line on it?

Thought not.

Dr. Crazy said...

See, but I'd say that it would be entirely valuable to have somebody teaching "feminism" against the grain of what students might typically encounter. Even if I disagreed with the perspectives of the faculty member teaching the course, I think that one of the problems with how feminism is disseminated to students is that they get one version of it and one version only, which creates "true believers" of those who buy it and alienates everybody else. My point is that the "true believer" model seems like a bad idea to me. So yes, I think that you'd be exactly the sort of person who should teach about feminism, George. But then, I'm not a party-line feminist myself on a lot of things.

Dr. Crazy said...
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