By Kristi Kaeppel
In honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to write a post that explored the contributions of feminist pedagogy. As has been said with other “alternative pedagogies” (such as culturally relevant teaching), feminist teaching is not an outlier approach with radical ideas but rather incorporates sound, evidence-based practices. Many of these ideas, such as the use of participatory methods, are now widely accepted as we move away from the information-transmission methods of teaching of yesteryear (think, lectures with no student interaction–Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off droning on in a monotone voice as students sit half comatose). Even though many of these practices will be familiar to readers, it’s still worth noting how the ideas of feminist teaching can provide insights to make our practice more empowering. Below, I name a few of the characteristics of feminist pedagogy and discuss their contributions to college instruction.
- Centering relationships in the classroom: In a feminist view, relationships “are more than a set of interactions among people. They are the web of existence” (Shrewsbury, 1987). While many instructors might regard building relationships among students and themselves as a nice secondary outcome of their courses, feminist pedagogy puts it at the center. In practical application, this means developing a rapport from the first day of class. Some teachers use check-ins at the beginning of class to gauge how students are doing before moving onto academic matters. I like to arrive a few minutes early to chat with students informally. I often learn valuable information during these chats about personal issues students are facing that can impede their attention and learning in class. In these examples, the focus is recognizing our common humanity first and then using that as a springboard to developing the intimacy and trust that allows for authentic learning from each other.
- Recognizing the social change dimensions our courses: We often cite goals of critical thinking skills such as recognizing assumptions, understanding multiple viewpoints, and weighing the credibility of evidence in our learning objectives, but these skills can devoid of a social context (Giroux, 1994). In feminist teaching, overcoming oppression is a central purpose (Shrewsbury, 1987). As such, it reminds us to think about how our coursework and learning outcomes can contribute developing students’ critical consciousnesses (aka how to get our students woke). It may sound idealistic but incorporating real world social issues into our classes fosters engagement and deepens learning (Samson, 2015). As an example, a biology class might incorporate a social dimension by studying the AIDs crisis and the issues of power and oppression within it.
- Empowering learners to recognize their potential: In a feminist classroom, learners are empowered to set their own learning goals in addition to or in place of instructor-prescribed goals (Shrewsbury, 1987). This indicates a trust and recognition of the potential of learners to have power over their own learning and actions. It also develops valuable skills of self-directedness that call on students to evaluate their own learning. In such classrooms, the teacher is a leader–leadership, in this context, means the empowering of others (Shrewsbury, 1987). By allowing students choice in goals and the direction of their coursework, the instructor instills a sense of confidence and transmits the message that students are capable of constructing their own learning. Discussing this point, Shrewsbury (1987) quotes Hannah Arendt, who so aptly said that “power arises from the collective self-confidence in a people’s capacity to act and effect their fate”. Feminist pedagogy asks us to think about how we can instill a confidence in our learners to take power over their lives.
The above characteristics are hardly comprehensive of feminist pedagogy, but they highlight some of the key contributions that continue to be relevant to college teaching. A feminist lens to teaching reminds us to center relationships and community in the classroom, to consider how our coursework connects to social change, and to view our role as leaders who can help students recognize their power to effect change in their lives and world.