Feminist Pedagogy Now: A Graduate Student Dialogue

A Post-Event Conversation: Feminist Pedagogy Now, Zoom panel

Event date: February 26, 2021

From Colloquium Co-organizer Ami Yoon: A Note about the Event

As a part of our spring semester programming, the Pedagogy Colloquium co-sponsored a panel event on “Feminist Pedagogy Now” with the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (IRWGS), addressing how feminist perspectives and insights may be put into engagement with critical pedagogies. 

Intended to invite dialogue across disciplines and among both faculty and graduate students about shared commitments to pedagogical reflexivity and generosity, the panel featured faculty from different departments and a graduate student respondent: Professor Rebecca Jordan Young (Professor and Chair of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Barnard); Professor Tey Meadow (Assistant Professor of Sociology, Columbia); Dr. Darío Valles (ACLS Teaching Fellow, Columbia); and Tiana Reid (PhD Candidate, English and Comparative Literature, Columbia).

Our event title, “Feminist Pedagogy Now,” sought to convey both our motivations and interests in holding the event. We were interested in thinking together about questions such as:

  • How do we understand feminist pedagogy? What does it look like in action today, both inside and outside of the classroom? What specific practices enact feminist pedagogy?
  • What can principles and practices of feminist pedagogy do for us in our current moment—with its shifting political realities and new social movements within the US, the ongoing pandemic and its ramifications, the continued challenges of virtual teaching modalities, and the state of the academy more broadly as it is caught amidst these rapidly changing contexts?
  • What are the ways in which feminist pedagogy can help us foster solidarity and community among students, among teachers, as well as among teachers and students?
  • What is the relationship between feminist pedagogy and teaching toward emancipation?

Panelists shared their intentional and practical approaches to feminist pedagogy for both undergraduate and graduate student teaching. Speaking to ways in which practices can be shared across disciplines and also tailored to particular disciplinary contexts, our panelists broached topics that included

  • recognizing, disrupting, interrupting, and productively inhabiting hierarchies in the classroom;
  • collaborative work and creating spaces of/for transformation;
  • conflict and dissent;
  • “unlearning” as a process of reconstruction;
  • differentiated instruction; and
  • digital technology as a tool for enacting feminist pedagogy.

As this event was our last large-scale Pedagogy Colloquium event of the 2020-21 academic year, we have chosen to provide a different mode of post-event recapitulation, in contrast to our previous blog posts covering major colloquium activities (see, for example, our posts on “Antiracist Pedagogies in Literary Studies” and “Antiracism and Racial Justice in the Teaching of Writing”). In the wake of the panel discussion, colloquium co-organizers Ami Yoon and Diana Newby gathered with Mia Florin-Sefton, a current IRWGS graduate fellow and a collaborator in organizing the “Feminist Pedagogy Now” event, for a conversation that extended the ideas brought up by the panelists and audience members.

Mia: It seemed to me that there were two strands of questions that came from graduate students during the Q&A. You’ve got some that are kind of big-picture, really wanting to engage on a theoretical level with what feminist pedagogy looks like. And then you’ve got graduate students that really just want practical approaches, that have to teach classes that aren’t of their design, are given materials that they don’t choose, and are trying to make the most of the situation they’ve been given. And in some ways they have to negotiate with all that. It’s all very well talking about pedagogy in the abstract, but how do you deal with it as very material, set conditions? That tension is interesting: between the aspiration behind the idea of a feminist pedagogy, and simply wanting practical, concrete solutions.

Diana: I think you’re really smart, Mia, to identify those two strands. I know that in organizing this panel, and in organizing other Pedagogy Colloquium events, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on practical approaches. And I guess I personally have mixed feelings about both options: that is, this practical emphasis versus the big-picture, theoretical approach. For me, part of the value of keeping things grounded in the practical and the concrete comes from knowing that grad students in particular—but I think faculty as well—are really hungry for that kind of content, maybe now more than ever. I really appreciated when Rebecca Jordan-Young noted that this moment has forced her to be more reflective about both her teaching and her scholarship practices and how they could be revised. But then, on the other hand, I think the messaging around “we’re going to be practical and grounded” potentially suggests that pedagogy is just a matter of picking up little tips and tricks. 

In general, I’ve been wondering: how do we talk about pedagogy—and especially the political implications of pedagogy, such as feminism or antiracism—without suggesting that strengthening our teaching just comes down to going to a workshop and coming away with a new toolkit? 

Ami: A pattern I’ve noticed in many pedagogy-related events this past year—whether with our colloquium or the CTL—relates to the position of graduate students. My impression is that we talk a lot about pedagogy with relation to undergraduate students, and we prioritize that a great deal. Partially it’s inevitable because a lot of the important questions are being raised by graduate students in the position of teaching undergrads. And then very rarely do faculty specifically address pedagogy and the teaching of graduate students, or what they’re doing for graduate students to help enable all these new and wonderful pedagogies. Whenever the topic of teaching comes up, we say, “Yes! How can we better serve the undergraduates?” And it’s a conversation among graduate students and faculty. But it’s not often that we hear, “Well, how are the faculty going to address good teaching for the graduate students?” Graduate students are always caught in this middle position of being neither the ones really with the full power and control, nor the undergraduate students needing to have our hands held at every step. This brings up the question of where graduate student pedagogy really falls.

Diana: I think you’re so right. And you’re reminding me that one thing Tey Meadow did in her talk was to explicitly mention the graduate seminar she was teaching, under the umbrella of her discussion of designing creative projects and adjusting assignment practices during Covid, and how she encouraged her students to do an interview assignment regarding sex during the pandemic. But this example really strikes me as an exception to the rule; otherwise, there does tend to be this gap, as you’re saying, Ami.

Ami: Tey also spoke about differentiated instruction and learning for graduate students. Again, we quite often talk about differentiated teaching and learning for undergraduates, but less so for the graduate student classroom. Even in the Zoom age, we are still very much sticking to the Socratic seminar as the gold standard of teaching and learning.

Mia: One of the things I really valued about Tey’s presentation was that I felt she was giving us a performance of pedagogy in action: not only in what she was saying, but in how she was presenting her points. I felt I was getting a real lesson. One thing she made clear is that her classroom is a space of community-building. And if I want to think about what feminist pedagogy is, and how it differentiates itself from other kinds of pedagogy, I think it does offer a kind of place where you would find community, friends, solidarity, support—and that it should foster those kinds of communities as much as possible. I think this is something that Darío Valles is trying to foster in getting community online, by having students interact on Instagram, for instance. As someone who doesn’t have an Instagram, it’s not the platform I would choose, but I think there’s something to be said for forcing students to find different kinds of communities outside of the classroom, as well as making the classroom a kind of space where those connections can start to happen.

I was quite excited by the premise with which Darío started, which is that we’re very quick to moan about the digital interface that we now teach through, and that actually we should think about digital technologies as something that can be enhancing and exciting for our pedagogies, and how to make the most of them. But I do think there needs to be more critical reflection about which apps you use, which technologies you want to bring into the classroom. I’m not the most digitally minded or the most tech-savvy, but I know enough to know that there are reasons as a feminist to be pretty skeptical of certain platforms. I think it would be an exciting conversation, within the framework of feminist pedagogy, to think more about what technologies we want to endorse and what technologies we want to encourage our students to use.

Diana: I agree, although I’m someone who probably isn’t as actively skeptical of social media as I should be! And I think Tey also emphasized the importance of community building in the classroom. Something I generally noticed about Tey’s presentation was that some of what she was highlighting were pretty familiar tropes of teaching, but she talked about how she did them in such a way that both demystified them and I think made them feel valuable. The example that comes to mind is this idea of inviting students to rebuild the syllabus at the outset of a class, to involve them in syllabus design. This is something I’ve heard people talk about, but I’ve never heard anyone describe how you might actually do that in practice. So I really appreciated how she explained that, on the first day of class, she brings in copies of the syllabus along with scissors, paper, highlighters, tape, et cetera, and students literally remake it. I loved that she walked us through that, and how she called it a practice of “a queer relation to material in action.”

Ami: Rebecca, too, spoke about principles in practice: how she increasingly takes students into the process of things and shares works in process, and that that’s a feminist pedagogical principle that she follows. All this made me think that, when we talk about these principles in action, it’s actually quite rarely a matter of very big gestures or substantial changes. As Tey modeled in her presentation, minor moves of sign-posting, such as throwing in sentences here and there about her own graduate student experience to help orient us, make all the difference. I think sometimes we have this idea that when we implement pedagogical change, it should be on grand scales and with lots of obvious differences. But it seems to me, increasingly, that the most enduring change is actually on these small, everyday levels that everyone could easily adopt. 

Diana: This loops back to the original tension we were talking about, of theory versus practice. On the one hand, I think it does take years of thinking and practice before we can say that we’re effectively enacting a feminist pedagogy, or an antiracist one. But on the other hand, that’s exactly what it takes: the practice, and the reflection, and those can start with these small steps that, although they do require some real rethinking of assumptions, are not as impossible as some might believe or even insist that they are.

And this is side-stepping a bit, but I’m reminded here of the tension that seemed to emerge during the event between un-learning and re-learning. Where Rebecca spoke about teaching disrupting hierarchies—which for her means coming up with materials and activities that decenter normalized categories—Tey suggested that she likes to think about teaching in terms of not de- but re-construction. What did you both think about that?

Mia: With the question of hierarchies, I think in terms of trying to articulate exactly what feminist pedagogy is, coming up with any set of principles is obviously very hard. But I think the idea that you would dismantle institutional hierarchies, and that this would be the main practice of your classroom, is something that is maybe something of a cliche when we think about what feminist pedagogy entails. But I think the way Rebecca ended up putting it is that it’s about being able to identify those hierarchies, having control over them, and then using them deliberately so that students can see where and how hierarchies are at work. So in a way it’s a self-conscious and self-reflexive manipulation of the hierarchies, if you like, that will inevitably structure any institutional space, or any classroom setting. And I think that’s also what Tey was getting at: that you can never get rid of them completely, but you can try and control the way in which they function, and that they can be useful! Sometimes the teacher does know things that you as the student want to know, and it’s good to be able to recognize that. 

Ami: I wonder if it’s a matter of needing to think more about what we mean and what it looks like to talk about equality in the classroom, which is sometimes brought up as a discussion point. “Equality”—even by just looking at how general society works—does not mean that hierarchies don’t exist, right? Everyone is different, and we come with different abilities, so “equality” does not mean some kind of absolute leveling of all difference into a singularity or a monad. Perhaps we need to learn to think about hierarchy and equality in the classroom in other ways than just taking them as a negative power structure versus a positive dynamic to be embraced. We talk about equality in the classroom or democracy in the classroom in an abstract way, without putting it together with the dynamic of hierarchy that you were just talking about, Mia, as a potential to be harnessed.

Diana: To me, “equality” seems like potentially the wrong word because—as I think you’re both suggesting—to make claims for establishing total equality in the classroom is probably disingenuous. Perhaps this is where the word “equity” is more apt, in that it involves recognizing that everyone is coming into the classroom from a different place, and occupies different hierarchical positions both in the classroom and otherwise. So equity at least in theory requires us, as instructors, to put some structures in place to try to address those hierarchies, and as much as possible make it such that everyone can participate in a way where they feel like they’re on, if not a perfectly even playing field, at least one where they’re equipped with the kinds of tools that make them feel like they can participate from where they are. 

One opportunity to introduce that conversation and that toolkit building, I think, could be not only the re-making of the syllabus that Tey spoke about but also, in tandem with that, the activity of making community agreements at the start of classes. Of course, that activity is limited, but I think a good community agreement goes beyond, you know, “We’re all going to be polite and use the right pronouns for each other.” It could and should involve somehow naming these issues of equity, including what the position of the instructor is in that set of relations, and then identifying practices that maintain those kinds of awarenesses while also trying to address potential inequities.

Ami: I’ll admit that I am ambivalent about community agreements. Not about the idea and the intent behind them, but the fact of having some kind of document, some kind of written thing that you continually refer back to. It reminds me very much of, I don’t know, the U.S. Constitution. I am skeptical that drawing up a document, however collaborative and however often you return to it, is going to be the solution. I think I’m more inclined to embrace the model where you have the community agreement, but it’s an informal oral one rather than one you write down and set aside and then pull out repeatedly. Just something about the written form makes it feel like a contract and introduces a boundedness. I do recognize the usefulness of it, but I’ve always been hesitant to do them myself because of that. 

Diana: You’re making me think here, just speaking personally, that there might be a relationship between my interest in community agreements and my interest in rubrics. I mention rubrics because I’m recalling that when Tey outlined her approach to assessment as a relational project, she set off this approach against rubric-based assessment, but I’m not convinced that the two have to be mutually exclusive. I believe rubrics, or something like rubrics, can be leveraged toward equity in the classroom; I’m thinking here of Asao Inoue’s idea of labor-based grading contracts, for example. And I think I do believe in introducing certain forms of boundedness into the classroom, but as a way of establishing transparency and inclusiveness—although I realize there’s a little bit of a paradox there!

In any case, though, it sounds like we agree that some kind of intention-setting conversation, whether formal or informal, is important to have at the outset of a class. That way you’ve established a shared vocabulary for how everyone is going to occupy that space together, and you as an instructor—and students as well—can have that language to refer back to when it comes to negotiating challenging situations.

Ami: Because we’ve been speaking so much about community—and to go back a bit to what we were saying about hierarchy—I think we sometimes forget that hierarchies exist in good communities! And sometimes it’s quite necessary for the community to run. 

Diana: I think that’s what Tey was getting at with her comment that if we don’t acknowledge that there are hierarchies in the classroom and that some of those exist for a reason, then what are we doing here? We might as well have a reading group—I think that’s the way she put it. And I think that’s right: echoing Mia’s earlier point, students do come into most classes wanting and expecting to learn from the instructor as the “expert” of a kind. So it’s about being intentional about what are the moments in the class when I want to and can leverage my hierarchical position “for good,” or productively, for myself and for my students, and what does that look like, and how do I signal to them that this is what I’m doing and why?—versus what are the moments where I turn it over to them, and why are those the moments? What is the activity or learning goal that makes it such that it makes sense to turn the reins over to them?

Mia: This reminds me that several questions were asked about modeling vulnerability as instructors. I think there was a presumption somehow that an essential part of feminist pedagogy is being able to model that vulnerability for your students, and not being able to assume the position of expert or mastery. This seems related to this conversation about what it means to assume a hierarchical position in the classroom. Is that incompatible with a display of vulnerability? Why do we think that that exhibition of vulnerability is something that is symptomatic or an essential part of feminist pedagogy? I can see the impulse for demonstrating vulnerability, but I also think in some of the ways the questions were framed, vulnerability is taken to be a “default good,” and I’m just not sure that’s true. I think this conversation we’re having about how to deliberately mobilize hierarchy to your advantage puts pressure on this idea that somehow you should always be vulnerable, because that’s not always going to be to the benefit of your students. And it’s not always the learning goal. Sometimes it might be, but it can’t always be.

Ami: In fact, I would also say that vulnerability in the instructor should not really be the default mode in teaching. Personally, I think as an undergrad, if I’d had an instructor who was radically vulnerable all the time, I would have been put off, and backed out of the classroom. But the language of vulnerability brings me back to the language of hurt and conflict that both Rebecca and Tey broached: about how the classroom, in order to be a transformative space, has to involve some degree of dissent and hurt and conflict, and that we can’t just box all of that away. Maybe this impulse for vulnerability comes from a latent sense that, in order to be transformative, we have to in fact embrace that hurt and be vulnerable. 

Diana: A takeaway that I have from what you’re both saying to each other—and maybe this is obvious, but to me, the question that’s being raised is: what is meant by vulnerability? I don’t think it actually has just one meaning, and I think that’s what you’re both getting at. To call for vulnerability from an instructor might be interpreted in a variety of different ways. Just to give an example, I’m reminded of the fact that, with a group of graduate students that I’m mentoring at the CTL this year, we had a discussion of a chapter by Stephen Brookfield called “What Is Critically Reflective Teaching?” He talks a lot about vulnerability in it, but much of his emphasis falls on using personal anecdotes and examples in the classroom, and that was the thing that my CTL group kind of latched onto. But I just really don’t think that’s the only way to practice vulnerability. 

I don’t know if these are co-identical, but maybe transparency is a form of vulnerability—and this is related to what we’ve been saying about hierarchies. So, on the one hand, you position yourself as the person in the classroom who has done the prep work and is technically the expert—but also, on the other hand, you highlight the gaps in your knowledge or name where you particularly think you can learn from your students. Even just peeling back the curtain on the course design process and pointing out the choices you make as an instructor, or doing moves like having a mid-semester survey inviting feedback on what is and isn’t working for students, and then openly discussing that feedback with students and talking about how to make things work better: this is just me thinking out loud about some ways of understanding pedagogical transparency as vulnerability.

Ami: That makes a lot of sense to me, and it makes me think about what Rebecca was saying about explicitly confronting problems that come up in the class. She said that she now does what she termed “teaching into the problem” whenever it comes up, rather than trying to go for breadth in lieu of depth. So there’s that kind of vulnerability, where if something disturbing comes up—such as in the textual material and the themes that it raises, or historical contexts—to be vulnerable in the sense of being willing to dwell with it, and sit there with the terrible material rather than move on to the next step. That sense of vulnerability, I would embrace, but otherwise I think I would agree with Diana’s reformulation of vulnerability as largely a matter of transparency in the classroom.

Mia: I agree. I think the reframing as transparency in the service of being able to get collaborative feedback and also foster relationality—that makes a lot of sense to me. 

Diana: And maybe another version of vulnerability that can be leveraged productively—although I think I’m still figuring out how to do this, personally—comes from bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress, and her idea of engaged pedagogy. She talks a lot about the importance of recognizing the fallacy of imagining that we all come into the classroom and are just these floating brains that don’t have bodies and feelings and messy experiences: how the affective component of the classroom gets ignored too often. She wants her students to feel empowered to come into the classroom with their whole selves, and for her that means she has to do the same thing, in order to model that for them, and in order to be fair. In a way, this might just be recasting some of what we’ve already said, but I do think that there’s a political aspect to vulnerability, for hooks, that’s really important. 

So one version of this, for me as an instructor, would be to get better at openly acknowledging my whiteness and how that informs my position in the classroom as well as my experiences and the knowledge structures that are behind me and are going to inevitably come into the classroom. Of course, that’s not the only way to be and talk about “the whole self,” but I think that’s one thing hooks might have in mind. And one possible reason that I’ve been a little slow to figure out how to do this in my own teaching practice is that I personally haven’t seen many white instructors productively model that particular kind of vulnerability.

Mia: There should absolutely be more models for how to have that conversation. I think it was in the first antiracist pedagogy workshop that the colloquium hosted in the fall that one of the speakers talked about having a white male graduate student who works on African American literature, and how she invited him to come and present his research to her undergraduate class. I think the way she put it to us was: “This is the research he’s doing, it’s really valuable work, he’s one of my mentees, I’m going to invite him to my classroom, but we have to talk about the racial dynamics at play first.” That moment stuck out to me in part because so rarely are those conversations had, and so often is that question skirted around.

Ami: It was Brigitte Fielder. I remember because I also remember thinking: I wonder if there’s a field and disciplinary aspect to this as well. If you work on American literature, just the fact of slavery is such a huge thing that looms over everything that it’s impossible to not be talking about race and inequality, and so especially with younger generations of scholars, among the Americanists, I have seen good models of people being deft and also respectful about foregrounding where their own positionality is and how that relates to the material. That always is on my mind whenever I bring up things like Black scholarship with students in the classroom. I’m aware that I’m not even a native English speaker, clearly not white, gendered—but here we are speaking about these very difficult subjects, and it’s clear that we have to address these surrounding issues from the outset. But I agree that overall, in older generations of scholars in our discipline, I’ve often not seen a good model of them going about it, and it’s only lately that we’ve started to see some real cultural shift.

Diana: Ami, I think your point about disciplinary affiliation is really important. Part of the context I’m speaking from is nineteenth-century British studies, where only very recently there’s been a push by Alicia Christoff—another of our fall panelists—and others, particularly in the “Undisciplining Victorian Studies” special issue that came out a year ago, for more conversation and work in Victorian studies to recognize how whiteness, both implicitly and explicitly, has always structured the objects that are studied as well as the methodologies for studying them, and the structures of the field more generally. One thing I appreciated about the panelists of this feminist pedagogy event was that all three of them spoke pretty directly to how their teaching positions and practices are informed by their fields. 

I will say, though, that race and racism didn’t come up in this event as much as I might have expected, or as explicitly as it could have, not only given that racism is certainly part of what we should have in mind when we talk about “feminist pedagogy now,” but also because so much of feminist pedagogy is indebted to scholarship by people and especially women of color.

Ami: I think that’s really valid. A lot of feminist thinking and feminist pedagogy these days arises directly out of Black feminism. Even if we had to trace genealogies of feminist pedagogy, we would still circle back to Black feminist thinking.

Diana: I do think this is part of what Tiana was trying to get at when she prompted the panelists to say more about what we might mean when we talk about “emancipatory pedagogy.” 

Mia: Yes, and I don’t think that question quite got addressed. I don’t know if this is too much of a segue, but I’m thinking about something Tey said, which also speaks a bit to where this conversation began with practical approaches. She said that one of the ways in which she manifests her feminist principles and pedagogy is by thinking about priorities, like who comes first, where she spends her time. As she put it, and as anyone who fits within diversity and inclusion rubrics will tell you, she gets asked to do all sorts of things and she’s swamped, but she will always prioritize her students and make time for them. The reason I bring this up now is that I think there’s something to interrogate about this notion that a good way of enacting feminist pedagogy is to become a kind of untapped resource for your students, because there will always be gendered and racializing logics at play in the demand for certain instructors and teachers to serve as this untapped resource. 

Ami: That makes me think of something that came up in the Feminist Pedagogy seminar that I took with Saidiya Hartman. One of the students, who was a woman of color, said that she comes to Columbia in order to withhold. That was her phrase: that she does not want to give this institution anything, because if it does, it will take and take and take until it leaves her with nothing. She deliberately comes with the intent to in fact steal from the university as much as she can and take its resources, rather than be a resource for it. So yes, I think the question of race is really relevant in the sense of how we think about models of generosity in feminist pedagogy. What lines does the generosity fall along?

Diana: I totally agree that race is a crucial consideration here. We’ve seen this in our own department, where so much additional practical and emotional labor tends to fall on specific women of color faculty. I’m also thinking about the position of graduate students: we are so precarious! I feel like what I’ve had to learn from my teaching over the last few semesters is that I really can’t just give and give, or I won’t have any time left for myself and my own work. So the question of positionality really can’t be taken out of the issue of differential instruction.

Ami: And again, it comes down to how we want to talk about being generous to undergraduate students versus being generous to graduate students. People are quick to say yes, let’s support the undergrads—but we have to be supported, too! In different ways, but still supported. I have the sense that there’s a political element where faculty sometimes fall in with the administrative stance of ambiguously treating us as something between workers and students, without ever making up their minds about when and how to treat us as what.

Author profile

Diana is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature. Her teaching and research interests include the Victorian novel, histories of science and medicine, studies of the environment, and theories of gender and sexuality. She has taught literature and writing classes at Columbia University, Barnard College, and Mills College, and she is currently a Senior Lead Teaching Fellow at Columbia's Center for Teaching & Learning.

Author profile

Ami is a PhD candidate in the Department of English & Comparative Literature, specializing in American literature. Her research sits at the intersection of nineteenth-century literature, history of science, and environmental studies, with a particular focus on poetry and poetics. A current Lead Teaching Fellow with the Center for Teaching & Learning, she has taught classes in Columbia's undergraduate college as well as in its School of Professional Studies.

Author profile
Mia Florin-Sefton

Mia Florin-Sefton is a PhD candidate in English & Comparative Literature and a University Writing Instructor at Columbia. She works on 20th and 21st century Anglophone literature and culture with a special interest in feminist science studies and critical race theory. She was the 2020-21 Graduate Fellow at the Institute for Research on Women, Gender and Sexuality, and the 2019-2021 Graduate Fellow in the Center for the Study of Social Difference's Queer Theory Working Group.

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