One of the most difficult issues that I’ve personally come across as a graduate instructor, and which I believe other graduate instructors can vouch for as well, is the belief that, as college instructors, we instinctively know how to teach college courses. Why wouldn’t we? Most of us have spent at least four years in our undergraduate careers memorizing, researching, writing, taking detailed notes, and occasionally nodding off during our 15-hour or more course load each semester. The more fortunate among us have had the opportunity to be teaching assistants, but where the title implies some measure of teaching, the regrettable result is oftentimes being stuck with “grunt” work – grading, keeping attendance sheets, sending out emails, and maybe even assisting students with their in-class assignments. If we can survive the strenuous nature of undergraduate learning, the understanding is that we have accrued enough knowledge to be effective educators as well.
Sadly, this is more often than not a misguided belief. Those who are effective writers or test-takers may not be suited to the broad field of education. Those who received high marks as teaching assistants may be baffled by the sheer weight of running an entire course (or two, or three), resulting not only in a negative experience for the instructor involved, but the students who must suffer through yet another graduate instructor. Though universities laud their graduate programs for being effective at churning out future academics, the support for graduate instructors, be it at the college or department level, can be lacking for individuals who are themselves overwhelmed by their own research responsibilities.
As a graduate instructor for the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, I have noticed that the support that I receive from my colleagues here is atypical. While our practicum focuses on collaborative work for this broad introduction course (WGST 170), with the sharing of new pedagogical strategies and innovative teaching methods, graduate instructors in other departments are not as lucky – so I’ve heard. Instead of learning about the pedagogical nature of higher education, graduate students in their practicum meetings are taught how to utilize the campus-wide system of collaborative technology, host “grading parties”, and discuss the smallest minutiae of course-specific technicalities. The result is that teaching becomes a trial by fire for many graduate students, damaging their self-efficacy and their perception of this career.
The benefit that I witnessed at NWSA, then, was the supportive nature of Women’s Studies programs for introducing, researching, understanding, and discussing nouveau pedagogical strategies. Certainly the seminal works of Paulo Freire and bell hooks are a boon to any feminist teacher, but the difficulties faced in modern-day classrooms requires more than the ability to read about how these figures have understood education. The panels that I attended allowed me to witness and share in the conversations of these struggles without the fear of hierarchical boundaries. For example, the first panel on feminist pedagogy that I attended, entitled “Transgressive Teaching,” was set up in a discussion-based open forum where each individual shared their most pressing concerns about an introduction to women’s studies course at their college or university. After we went around the room and shared our fears and concerns, we broke off into smaller groups to discuss in-depth some of the issues that were brought up. I chose to attend the discussion on how to incorporate history into a women’s studies classroom effectively. From this group of scholars, I found new course texts that I have decided I will use in my class in the Spring semester. One of these texts, Joane Nagel’s Race, Ethnicity, and Sexuality: Intimate Intersections, Forbidden Frontiers (2003) will now supplement our intro-wide course text Threshold Concepts in Women’s and Gender Studies (2015), which will allow me to better relay the concept of intersectionality with a historical focus on gender and sexuality. The individuals in this group also encouraged me to discuss more in-depth the concept of Americanism and citizenship as it relates to historically marginalized groups, examining the suffrage movement as a case-in-point for intersectionality. After a disastrous attempt at cramming together the entirety of the history of the feminist movement into one day this semester, I will certainly use this strategy to my benefit in the coming years.
At another panel on feminist pedagogy, this one entitled “Feminist Classrooms,” I found new strategies for incorporating concepts of privilege and inequality into the classroom that went beyond the (sometimes overused, and occasionally biased) privilege walk. Physical simulations, like the privilege walk, allow students the opportunity to learn more about their classmates and to get them motivated and engaged with the material. The downside to them is that, once completed, students may forget the powerful impact it had on them, or tokenize students who felt it would have been better not to attend class that day, presenting their inequalities to others in a physical location. Instead, one of the presenters, in response to my inquiry, suggested using a strategy of identity displacement, whereby students must write down 10 identities that they hold, crossing off first 5, and then leaving only one on their page. The benefit of this strategy is that students realize what it will feel like to be seen as only one of the many identities that they may claim, introducing them more to the idea of intersectionality in the process and making sure that students do not feel pressured to participate in sharing their inequalities at the beginning of the semester.
The final panel on feminist pedagogies that I attended, entitled “Feeling Feminist Pedagogy,” was perhaps the most influential for me in terms of developing a better recognition of the interconnections between assessment methods and the creation of a feminist classroom. Our syllabi should reflect the feminist classroom that we seek to create, and this can only be done by incorporating a holistic approach; from the texts used, to the topics discussed, to the assignments given, and the requirements for completion, feminist pedagogy requires us to re-examine what it is our students will receive, and want to receive, from their time in higher education. Moreover, the women’s studies classroom must be a space where the assignments given reflect the core message of feminism, namely, recognizing the epistemological creation of knowledge and our own engagement with this knowledge. Daily reflections on readings, current events, and the like can allow students a greater ability to have their voices heard, allowing quieter students the chance to speak up more and other, more reactive students, the opportunity to reflect deeply on their interpretations of the material. The panel ended on a high note, with one panelist focusing on the use of humor to disrupt daily classroom drudgery, as feminism is more than academic and activist work; it is also about self-love, self-care, and utilizing laughter as an appropriate response to this need for self-care.
In the end, my journey in Puerto Rico at this year’s NWSA Conference taught me more than I had initially hoped for. Although not mentioned above, the other panels not directly connected to feminist pedagogy were equally enlightening for me and provided me with a greater foundation of core, feminist work in the field today. I have already utilized several case studies and gendered frameworks for deconstructing everything from modern-day activism to orientalist twists on Middle Eastern masculinity. Those panels that centered on feminist theology were equally beneficial for me, not just for personal reasons, but also in aiding me develop a more coherent course framework for my future class on feminist theology (to be taught in Summer 2015). My networking and the connections I made at NWSA with feminist theologians provided me with a greater understanding of the needs of students for a course such as this, which course texts will be most effective, and how to utilize fully an online classroom framework for discussing feminist theological issues. All of this, and more, will be beneficial when finalizing the details for this course.
I am forever indebted for the funding that has been provided by the gracious donors to the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies so that I could attend this year’s NWSA Conference. After having gone to the conference, I firmly believe that such professional development is critical to the creation of feminist scholars, new to the field but passionate about their subject matter. When such passion is mixed with the community created by these scholars, the impact that comes about cannot be denied.