By LINDSAY ONUFER AND LIZETTE MUNOZ ROJAS
For decades, feminist scholars have worked to challenge traditional patriarchal constructions of higher education. Feminist pedagogy arose from the struggle to build praxis that acknowledges and values women’s contributions and lives and creates an emancipatory, humanizing learning experience for students.
In her seminal 1987 article, feminist educator Carolyn Shrewsbury described feminist pedagogy as, “a vision of what education might be like but frequently is not.” It is a philosophy of teaching, including beliefs, values and approaches about and to epistemology, content and teaching practices, informed by multiple feminisms and critical theory.
Given the breadth and complexity of the topic, this article is meant to serve as an introduction to an approach to teaching that values the experiences of women, centers students, makes space for dialogue and reflection, and upends instructor/student power dynamics of the traditional classroom.
Our discussion of feminist pedagogy will be predicated on the a few basic premises of intersectional feminism:
We live in a world in which people experience systemic inequity at various levels ranging from individual to structural. Members of dominant groups have access to privileges or (often unasked for) benefits or lack of barriers or challenges conferred by their identities, whereas members of minoritized groups experience systemic oppression or disadvantages, barriers, and challenges related to their identities. As members of a patriarchal society, men are members of a dominant group; women are members of a minoritized group.
As Kimberlé Crenshaw asserted in “Mapping the Margins,” her foundational article on intersectionality, gender is only one aspect of a person’s complex identity. Gender intersects and interacts with other identities like race, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation to create unique experiences of privilege and oppression.
Key tenets of feminist pedagogy
Although feminist pedagogy resists tidy definitions, there are several key overlapping tenets that distinguish this teaching approach from others:
Knowledge Co-Creation: Knowledge is socially constructed and, in the classroom, students should engage as equal partners in the co-creation of knowledge and the learning experience with instructors. Instructors should foster students’ critical thinking and independence and actively seek to collaborate with them in class.
Community: The classroom represents a learning community in which students should be able to develop autonomy and support one another. Connection-building and diversity are valued.
Empowerment: Feminist pedagogy critiques the notion of authority as domination and instead seeks empowerment of all. We may achieve this, as Shrewsbury suggested, by engaging in deep learning, connecting with others, and acting to create a more equitable society. Empowering students involves incorporating opportunities for students to exercise choice and agency, building student self-efficacy and confidence, developing a shared stake in creating a meaningful learning experience, and acknowledging and actively seeking to dismantle evidence of systemic inequity.
Voice/experience: Feminist pedagogy attends to whose voices are heard. Experiences are shared in the classroom. This means examining course materials to ensure that the work and contributions of women, people of color, queer people and members of other minoritized groups, which are frequently left out of the curriculum, are centered. It also involves making time and space for all students to speak and be heard. Instructors who adopt a feminist pedagogical approach may act more as facilitators than experts or leaders in the classroom. Dialogue replaces lecture as the primary means of communication.
Reflection: Instructors and students should regularly engage in critical self-reflection and reflective practice. This involves examining one’s own and others’ assumptions, biases and positionality. The instructor and students should have frequent opportunities to receive and act on feedback from one another.
What might this look like in practice? Chances are that you already employing some feminist pedagogical techniques in your classes. Below, you will find some suggestions for fostering a feminist approach to teaching.
|Tenets||You’re probably already…||Expand/refresh/rethink by…|
Asking students what they
expect from class as an
icebreaker during the
first day of class.
|Creating an online poll to gather these responses, identifying a pattern in the responses, phrasing the most common answer as a measurable learning objective with the aid of Bloom’s taxonomy, and adding it to the online version of your syllabus. You may revise assignments and class activities to align with this outcome. As the semester progresses, make sure you remind your students how a specific classroom activity or assignment connects to the objective they proposed.|
Trying to remember your
students’ names to convey
you value their presence in
|Using handouts during small group activities that prompt students to write down the names, contact information, and contributions of all group members. While you may or may not collect this handout at the end of the session, students will cultivate the habit of seeing the value in their peers’ ideas and develop a sense of the classroom as a learning community.|
Having your students engage
in pair or small group
discussions to avoid straight
Considering how traditional desks force students into an upright, forward-facing position that physically defines where their attention should be set (the lecturer, not their peers). When engaging in Think-Pair/Group-Share activities, even in the most inflexible classroom settings, emphasize the importance of facing their fellow classmates and move around the room to prompt them to sit closer to each other if they awkwardly remain on the outskirts of a group. Facilitate and model effective interaction in pairs or groups so that students learn that all members can and should have the opportunity to contribute
to group discussions.
Welcoming students’ own
experiences as they relate
to the material at hand.
|Allowing space for students’ unique perspectives and opinions, even when covering highly structured topics. Particularly in content-heavy courses, you may want to offer outlets for dialogue and creativity. Ask students to connect course content to their own life experiences and use pedagogical techniques like “Impress me!” This activity, designed by Lauren Herckis, Pitt grad and faculty at Carnegie Mellon’s Simon Initiative, involves granting students extra credit for generating artistic representations of real-world application of concepts they have learned in class.|
Carrying out short, individual
writing exercises to bolster participation.
|Turning moments of silence into moments of self-reflection. Encourage students to write down thoughts, impressions, and questions about new topics anonymously on note cards, then exchange randomly with other classmates. Volunteers are asked to share the ideas that differ the most from their own views and consider how those ideas expanded or challenged what they thought about the topic. In her essay “A Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” black, queer, feminist scholar Audre Lorde encourages us to view our differences as crucial strengths.|
What if students resist?
As with adopting any nontraditional approach to teaching, if you begin utilizing a feminist pedagogical approach in your classroom, students may express resistance. To review some strategies for preventing or combatting student resistance, please see our previous UTimes article on teaching resistant students. Members of Pitt’s teaching community who are themselves at the intersection of minoritized identities may find Johnson-Bailey and Lee’s 2005 article about the authority of women of color in academia particularly insightful.
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Bostow, R., Brewer, S., Chick, N., Galina, B., McGrath, A., Mendoza, K., …Valle-Ruiz, L. (March, 2015). A guide to feminist pedagogy. Vanderbilt Center for Teaching. Retrieved from https://my.vanderbilt.edu/femped/
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241-1299. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1229039
Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Johnson-Bailey, J., & M. Lee. (2005). Women of Color in the Academy: Where’s Our Authority in the Classroom? Feminist Teacher, 15(2), 111-122. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/40545917
Light, T.P., Nicholas, J., & Bondy, R. (Eds.). (2015). Feminist pedagogy in higher education: Critical theory and practice. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: Wilfried Laurier University Press.
Lorde, A. (1984) The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. In Sister outsider: Essays and speeches (pp. 110-114). Trumansburgh, NY: The Crossing Press. Retrieved from https://lit.alexanderstreet.com/blww/view/1000060654
Shrewsbury, C.M. (1987). What is feminist pedagogy? Women’s Studies Quarterly, 15(3/4), 6-14. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/40003432