Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Up to My Old Procrastinating Tricks

You know, those ones where I make myself believe that wasting the afternoon and avoiding tasks that I should not avoid is ok because I'm doing other work - generally, work that needs to be done in approximately 3 months.

That's right, folks. It was a day of syllabus design. For Spring. Why did I decide to do this today? Well, I have been receiving desk copies of anthologies for a couple of weeks now, and I have wanted to look through them. And also we got an email that we needed to get fliers advertising our courses in by Friday if we want them posted on the bulletin board. And how could I possibly do a flier if I didn't know what I was teaching? How could I attract students when I had yet to design the course? And don't forget, I've got a stack of papers to grade, and what's more fun than writing a syllabus when one should be grading?

But so yes, I spent approximately 3 1/2 hours figuring out readings and a course schedule and methods of assessment - the whole shebang. The only stuff I didn't do was the narrative parts of the syllabus, with learning objectives and such. And can I just say, that this course will be a TON of work (for them and for me), but it's going to be so awesome! Soooo so totally awesome!

Now, the rest of this post is going to go poof in a day or two because I don't want the specifics of the course to be out and about on this blog for all eternity, but I do want to tell you all about what I've done specifically.

*poof to the specifics*

But so I'm pretty happy with how the assignments fit together (really, all roads lead to the final paper and exam) and I'm super-happy with the way I've divided up the readings and the units. The one thing I'm not terribly happy about is that the syllabus is pretty white, but one course cannot do all things, and of course they could explore multi-culti issues in their paper if they want to do so. Edited to add: I addressed this last comment that I made about the "too-white" syllabus in comments. I sort of misrepresented myself. If you're concerned that I'm marginalizing issues of race/ethnicity in the course, I'll direct you to the comments to see my fuller explanation there.

But so yeah. That's what I've been doing today. Because I'm a fool.


"Maude Lebowski" said...

what an exciting course!! i'm sad i can't sign up for it myself!

Someday_phd said...

Fessing up....I'm printing this post. Not to steal your course, but as a TA who deals with a lot of theory (feminist and otherwise)I'm always interesting in seeing how other people approach this kind of course with undergraduates. My own attempts have been spotty.

Rokeya said...

The one thing I'm not terribly happy about is that the syllabus is pretty white, but one course cannot do all things, and of course they could explore multi-culti issues in their paper if they want to do so.

I'm nearly speechless after reading this, but I'll try to articulate my response.

You equate including women of color feminists on your syllabus to adding in a multicultural component to your class--and an optional component, at that. This in spite of the ways in which women of color feminists have argued against the kind of liberal multiculturalism that tokenizes inclusion while simultaneously reproducing a racial hierarchy of knowledge production by maintaining, like your syllabus, a set of white authors and theorists. So not only is the exclusion of women of color feminists alarming, but your characterization of their work as a multicultural add-on is insulting and patently condescending.

Additionally, women of color feminism has a history and relevance that is inseparable from the feminism that you seem to be teaching (from the authors you've mentioned), if for no other reason, because the claims of white feminists (particularly second wave) have been coded by the racial construction of whiteness. This was so true that something called "womanism" had to emerge. This doesn't mean that women of color feminists have left the building and you teach your white feminists. It means that race is irrevocably and irreversibly written into the history of dominant, white, second-wave U.S. feminism.

Furthermore, the concepts covered by some of the theorists you mention--performativity and abjection, for instance--are a huge part of what women of color feminists have been theorizing before there ever was Judith Butler or a Julia Kristeva. While one cannot teach all theorists whose work engages with a particular concept, the systematic selection of white authors over others reflects a disturbing marginalization.

How will that marginalization play out in the classroom? I do not know much about your campus, but at my university, it would be very surprising to teach a course like this and not have any people of color in the class. The fact that your syllabus reproduces the epistemic violence of dominant white U.S. feminism will alienate any students of color you might have. Or render the experiences of feminist theorists of color as add-ons and, subsequently, marginal.

I know how difficult it can be to select a range of texts for a course like this (a subject of endless debate in Women Studies and Critical Race Studies for many years). I can say that the add-on method has been largely condemned for very, very good reason. Approaching oppression as something that is produced by interlocking systems of oppression seems key for getting away from a notion of "feminism" that looks very white and very normative. For example, I am not just a woman, but also a woman of a particular class, race, etc. A "critical engagement with feminism" is a very poor exercise indeed when it does not consider what is basic to the experience of oppression.

I truly hope you reconsider how you are thinking of framing this class, for the sake of your students (not just those of color), for the sake of how your university advertises a course in "feminist theory," for the sake of what students who read your course description understand an engagement with feminist theory to be, and for the sake of doing good to the field.

kermitthefrog said...

You think you're procrastinating -- I started designing the syllabus for my *summer* course this afternoon.

Dr. Crazy said...

I somewhat misrepresented myself. The syllabus is NOT all white, nor does the syllabus entirely neglect addressing issues of race/ethnicity in feminist theory. What I wish there were time to include, though I couldn't see a way to do it given time/preparedness-of-students constraints, was a whole unit unit that specifically addressed issues about the intersection of race/ethnicity and gender. This is a weakness, and it relates to my own predilections and weaknesses as much as anything else. There are selections integrated within the units that address these issues, but fewer than I'd like. The difficulty is that most of my students will have pretty much no experience with the basics of feminist theory upon entering this class, let alone with the basics of theory generally. Many are likely never to have heard the words "subjectivity" or "epistemology," let alone to have a sense of what those words mean. In other words, I felt like I couldn't leave certain things off in favor of including MORE texts that address issues of race/ethnicity. Moreover, I can't expect them to be able to handle a heavier reading load than I'm giving them (most work at least 30 hrs. a week and taking a full course load) and to really delve into the material.

As for the makeup of the class, the likelihood is that there will not be a single person of color in it. This semester, with around 70 students, I have not a single person of color in any of my three classes. My campus is VERY white. This does not mean that issues of race/ethnicity should be an add-on or that they are supplementary or somehow extraneous to a course on feminist theory. That said, it does mean that they are not as central as they might be with another student population. (On my campus, issues related to class probably take on that more central position, which, aside from the pandering, is another reason that I'm doing Fight Club as one of the "literary" texts.)

Another thing that I should note is that the course is very much designed to my strengths, as I think most courses that faculty design are (and probably should be). Because of that, I'm committed to introducing them in particular to things that I feel most "expert" in. I don't think that this prohibits a discussion of race/ethnicity oriented around those texts that don't explicitly deal with race/ethnicity AT ALL, and I typically do bring those issues into play in the classroom. But I'm seeing the course as part of our whole curriculum, and no, I can't do the job that, for example, my colleagues who specialize in postcolonial or multicultural American literature would do (and DO do) with addressing those issues. And so yes, issues related to race/ethnicity will come up at various points in the semester, but in the version of the course that I'm qualified to teach and in the version of the course that I can legitimately present to my student population, those issues won't be central.

To give you a sense, some things that are on the syllabus and that will receive a lot of discussion time are excerpts of Barbara Christian's "The Race for Theory" and Patricia Hill Collins' "Toward an Afrocentric Feminist Epistemology." I also think that I have one of the two selections from bell hooks on the syllabus (I was going back and forth and I don't have the document at home with me, so it may well be that I'm including both. I love that bell hooks). I believe three of the five units have texts that address the intersection of race/ethnicity and feminist theory (and those units that don't do so in part do not because of the limitations of the anthology). I left Spivak off not because they shouldn't read her but for reasons of accessibility, which is the same reason why I left off the selections by Carol Gilligan and Alice Jardine, just to give an idea of where I'm coming from here. At any rate, I fear my closing comment came off as flippant, when really what I intended was to express my genuine distress that I don't believe I can adequately cover more in the space available and with my areas of expertise. I recognize it as a gap, but I also recognize that I really can't do it all.

My intent is not to tokenize: but NO course can happen unless difficult choices are made about texts to include. I regularly include texts that are outside of a canon that only acknowledges middle-class protestant white people (or, Dead White Men plus some token WASPy ladies) in my courses. But still, I know that this is a weakness of mine, that I don't do MORE related to areas of race/ethnicity in the courses that I teach.

I think that this weakness actually has a lot to do with my research interests and pursuits, which are largely centered on The Canon of Great Literature and assimilation into that canon, as opposed to integrating those texts that have been excluded from the canon into some kind of expanded canon. And being at a teaching institution, the only way I can manage research plus teaching (which is a necessity) is to teach to my strengths.

Your criticism was a good one, though, particularly for a course of this kind, and given my lack of clarity. What I wonder, though, is whether a similar criticism would be leveled if it were a different course and if it were a man teaching it? (I'm not saying that you wouldn't have leveled such a criticism.... I'm just throwing the idea out there: do we hold female faculty, feminist faculty, to a different standard of inclusion than we do to male faculty, non-feminist faculty? Do we have the same expectations of inclusion in all courses by all professors, or do our expectations differ?)

Rokeya said...

That is an excellent question. In terms of male faculty who might be teaching courses that deal centrally with the issue of gender, I would say they are subject to a much higher level of scrutiny and criticism (see the case of David Allen, white male Chair of Women Studies at the University of Washington, for one example--scrutinized by people at the university, as well as the popular press!). In terms of non-feminist faculty who teach courses that bring up questions of gender in very central ways, I think discipline makes a big difference here, so in a way the question would need to be a little more specific, I think.

I understand the difficulty of trying to teach a course like this, and to give the level of critical attention necessary to race, when your own work does not tend to lend experience to such an undertaking. What I have seen other faculty do in such a situation is to actually have a guest lecturer/speaker/discussion leader (a colleague who *does* work on those issues) on a relevant class day in order to get that expertise as a voice in the conversation. This has several positive repercussions: 1) you model feminist collaboration in your teaching, 2) there is an awareness of a feminist critical perspective as something that is practiced and taught not just by their professor, but by another real person, and 3) you give the class a chance to ask questions of, and interact with, a "real" feminist scholar (besides yourself and the folks they are engaging with through the readings). This last one can actually be really exciting for students who want to expand their questions/discussions beyond the immediate classroom group.

Dr. Crazy said...

Your suggestion about bringing in a colleague is a good one, and one I may try to implement in the course. The difficulty, though, is logistics. Remember: my colleagues and I all teach a 4/4 load. I think that the likelihood is that the colleagues that I could ostensibly bring in to do this kind of guest lecturing won't be available when the course meets (in fact, I'm almost totally certain that this is the case, though I'll need to check the teaching schedule for next semester, and even if people are technically available in terms of "not teaching at that time," they still may not agree to serve in this kind of capacity, as I feel they'd have every right to do).

Most of what I'm up against here has to do more with logistics than anything - logistics related to student population, type of institution, type of colleagues (and number of colleagues) I could call on to supplement what I'm already doing (another important issue: is it right to add to the workload of already overburdened colleagues who work on race/ethnicity stuff, overburdened in part because all faculty at this institution are overburdened but even more so because they are called on for such "extra" - and totally invisible - work related to increasing diversity?).

This is not at all to dismiss your suggestion. It's just to say that there are practical considerations that don't necessarily mesh with one's vision for how things should go. The situation would be completely different were I at a different sort of institution with a different make-up of faculty and students.

One might argue that even with these logistical difficulties that it's my responsibility to somehow make it happen. Maybe that's true. What I'd say, though, is that while such responsibilities are possible to fulfill in an ideal world, it is not always possible to do so in the world in which I actually live and work. I choose to forgive myself for that. All one can do is the best one can do. Sometimes that means giving short shrift to some things (like, for example, the short shrift I give to the Victorian period in my survey course, which while not "right," does mean that I can get us all the way to the end of the 20th century). I make trade-offs. I try to do so consciously and sensibly, and I try to have good pedagogical reasons for the trade-offs I make. If I can meet that mark - consciousness, sensibility, having good pedagogical reasons for my choices - then I let the rest go. If I didn't, I wouldn't be able to survive in the job that I've got.

Belle said...

Well, dang. I came in post-poof. You didn't procrastingate (it's all in the phrasing, you know) - you were proactive and moving forward as you allowed the grading stack to mellow and mature.

Rokeya said...

Your response gives me a lot to think about. Before I get there, though, I'm wondering if getting a colleague who works on race to give a guest lecture/lead a discussion is something in the service of "diversity." Again, I'm troubled by the use of language that gets called up by a liberal multiculturalism; wouldn't enlisting the help of such a colleague be in the service of rigorous and well-grounded inquiry into the racial logics that inform feminism, rather than trying to "represent" or include diversity? There is a strange way in which this is still being framed as an tokenizing add-on of sorts (that's my perception as a reader, anyway, and I might be misreading you completely).

Moving on, I am curious about the etiquette at your institution in terms of enlisting the help of colleagues for these kinds of teaching-related issues. For instance, would it necessarily be read as a burden if you approached a colleague about this, or would your colleague feel honored that you would try to draw on his/her expertise and thus be likely, time permitting, to agree? The reason I ask is that this seems to be something very much determined by institutional and departmental constraints that I would like to hear more about. If the answer to the above question is "it would be seen as a burden," this brings up a really interesting and important question about what kinds of limits one finds at a teaching-intensive (here I mean 4/4 load) institution for feminist collaboration, or collaboration period, especially with regard to teaching.

Dr. Crazy said...

Quickly: I actually used the "add diversity" language because this is what my colleagues who work on this stuff get enlisted for All. The. Time. And it is a total burden, and something that makes the tenure process very difficult in many cases.

More later.

Dr. Crazy said...

Ok, that comment was sort of cryptic. What I was trying to say (but running late for an appointment) was that I was using the "add diversity" language ironically - that colleagues are burdened by such requests, and they feel pressured to attend to those requests or they don't look like team players. I probably should have put quotation marks around it or something to try to indicate tone. Were I to invite somebody into my class that would not be my intention - it would be to give students more access to the material.

I'll tell you: at my institution, nobody I know would be honored by such a request. They might do it as a favor for somebody, but they would not see it as an "opportunity" or something that would necessarily be rewarding for them. This is not because my colleagues are an unfriendly or uncaring or unthoughtful bunch. None of that is true. What is true is that we're all totally exhausted and totally over-committed time-wise. Anything extra feels like a burden.

The only collaborative teaching I've done here has been in relation to teaching in First Year Programs, and that collaboration has been mightily limited and has nothing to do with feminist pedagogy but rather with retention efforts blah blah blah. Other colleagues of mine have done some collaborative teaching through honors, but again, I don't think this tends to be about modeling such things for students or in practicing feminist pedagogy so much as it's about doing something fun with friends.

I'm in a brand new feminist pedagogy reading group. We've met one time. We haven't gotten it together to schedule a second meeting because our schedules are so crazy. It is already midterm. We'll be lucky if we meet just one time before the semester is over.

I'll do a fuller post about this stuff later. I think that it's worth more than these comments.

Sisyphus said...

I'm glad I saved this post before it went poof! It sounds like an awesome class.

Do you like teaching excerpts? Do the students have access to the whole essays? I've been frustrated by the excerpted essays in, for example, the Norton Critical Editions, but haven't taught from them.

A mini-conference can be exciting and wonderful for all involved but it takes lots of work to really be on them to get them to that point.

BTW, I know someone who wrote a cool article about queer theory and FC the film if you want a tip.

And I don't see this as procrastinating at all either --- you're so on top of things you're ahead! (and by letting the grading hit critical mass, it intensifies the impetus to work under deadline.)

You'll have to tell me how they deal with feminist psychoanalysis --- I tried really hard setting up some Freud for the students, expecting them to hate him ... they accepted my point that he was historically important and went after the Doane and Mulvey and Adams instead. Huh. But my class will be a _really_ different demographic from yours.