Interactive Resource: Feminist Pedagogy

Expanding upon the Pedagogy Colloquium’s February event, “Feminist Pedagogy Now,” this resource on feminist pedagogy seeks to both engage lines of thought surfaced by the event’s topic and offer material for further reflection or action. Without claiming to be exhaustive in its coverage, this resource gives an introduction to feminist pedagogy as a philosophy of teaching and a critical praxis, and suggests some options for practical follow-up activity in the form of independent research or institutionalized programs. Principles and practices of feminist pedagogy may resonate familiarly with those promoted by programs at the Center for Teaching and Learning, with their focus on affirmative, student-centered, and inclusive pedagogy. As such, the reflective questions and suggested readings below may be of interest to graduate student instructors who are invested in innovative teaching and representing their pedagogical commitments, even if not in feminist pedagogy per se.

Questions included in the resource may prove productive starting points for graduate instructors who are new to undergraduate teaching and are thinking actively about the kinds of spaces they want their classrooms to be. This resource aims to demonstrate some of the uses of articulating a teaching philosophy within a critical framework, so as to begin clarifying personal and professional stakes in teaching and learning, as well as to cultivate reflexivity and intentionality.

What is feminist pedagogy?

Feminist pedagogy refers to organizing principles for teaching and learning that are based in feminist thinking, motivations, and values. Accordingly, it recognizes that knowledge making happens in socially and politically inflected ways. As a pedagogical philosophy, it affects course organization; classroom activities and learning modalities; and interactions between the instructor and students, as well as interactions among students.

Carolyn Shrewsbury, in her seminal 1987 article “What Is Feminist Pedagogy,” defines feminist pedagogy as

“engaged teaching/learning—engaged with self in a continuing reflective process; engaged actively with the material being studied; engaged with others in a struggle to get beyond our sexism and racism and classism and homophobia and other destructive hatreds and to work together to enhance our knowledge; engaged with the community, with traditional organizations, and with movements for social change” (6).

As Shrewsbury’s emphasis on engagement suggests, feminist pedagogy takes seriously the premise that teaching and learning transpire within complex multiplicities of relations, and within structures of power, necessitating conscious efforts toward cooperation and reciprocity. “In the feminist classroom,” Shrewsbury continues, “students integrate the skills of critical thinking with respect for and ability to work with others.” This “requires continuous questioning and making assumptions explicit, but … in a dialogue aimed not at disproving another person’s perspective, nor destroying the validity of another’s perspective, but at a mutual exploration of explications of diverse experiences” (7). Related to this, bell hooks’ arguments for teaching the whole self and amplifying knowledge that comes from lived experiences in Teaching to Transgress (1994) has often been cited.

đź’ˇ Reflection exercise: What does it mean to teach as a feminist? What makes a teaching practice or approach “feminist”? How might the construction of the academy itself, and the norms of higher education pedagogy, create challenges for classroom communities or environments that encourage mutual social and intellectual development?

Feminist Pedagogy in the Classroom

Yet as Geraldine McCusker (2017, 446) states, “[l]ike feminism, feminist pedagogy is not a monolithic and unitary concept”—it is, rather, “a movable, tractable and dynamic practice. There are multiple feminisms and multiple feminist pedagogies.” Common key principles, however, include empowering students’ voices (especially in relation to the course content), affirming and building on individuals’ experiential knowledge, and collaboration and community building. In The Feminist Classroom, Maher and Tetreault (2001) outline four themes of feminist classrooms that work together in composing an interactive learning community: voice, mastery, authority, and positionality.

    • What new forms of learning take place if we unsettle the notion that mastering knowledge means attaining a standard expertise? Feminist classrooms strive to encourage students to seek knowledge on their own terms as well as in collaboration with others; individual mastery of course topics are woven into the social construction of knowledge within the class. The idea of mastery and normalized standards (including whiteness as the default perspective and intellectual canons) may become troubled, or invite questioning.
    • The classroom space allows students to hone or develop, rather than “find” their critical and/or personal voices as thinkers and doers in the world. As a concept, voice allows teachers and students to situate individuals and groups within complex relations: voices converge, diverge, conflict, and interact—and through interactions, voices also change. The idea of a classroom community, made up of a multiplicity of identities (related to gender, sexuality, culture, race, ethnicity, class, etc.) as shaping and mutually influencing the voices of individuals who comprise it also displaces the narrative of students’ voices as static and inherent formations.
    • What happens to the teacher’s authority when knowledge comes from multiple sources, including students’ experiences and questions? How is a teacher’s authority also co-constructed by the teacher, the students, and the university? Despite feminist commitments, cultural norms of the academy tend to reinforce structures that place the teacher as the centralized source of knowledge within a class, especially given the significance of grades. This may, in fact, relegate into the background students’ sense of responsibility for their own learning. To address this, feminist instructors intentionally make room for discussions that encourage participation among the students without intensive instructor direction, while they facilitate or support such conversations. A part of building an interactive class community involves, too, cultivating an environment in which students feel that they are able to ask questions, including ones that may seem uncritical but in fact address salient issues—for example, why is it important to study what we are studying? Ultimately, the class understands responsibility for learning to be shared between the instructor and the students.
    • To support multiple ways of knowing, learners take into account how positionality informs specific course materials, contexts, and interpretations. Recognizing shifting positionalities depending on contexts connects to the idea of knowledge as constructed within shifting networks of power, and inflects the ways in which the other three themes of mastery, voice, and authority play out in the classroom. Maher and Tetreault observe, for example, that “[t]he construction of voice is also partly a function of position,” as “students fashion themselves in terms of their awareness of others in their particular classroom and institution, and in terms of their individual or group relation to the dominant culture”; “feminist teachers [also tend] to make their authority positional, rather than externally imposed, by grounding it in personal experience, knowledge, and situation” (165).

Such themes indicate critical reflexivity over norms of knowledge creation and dissemination. Although feminist pedagogy is not monolithic, its tenets highlight the potential of productive disruption of normalized learning behaviors and practices of knowledge production.

Sara Ahmed (2015) points out, however, that challenges persist for feminist instructors, given lingering “stereotypes of feminist spaces as soft, cozy, easy, which are … sexist stereotypes.” But as Ahmed adds, “[t]he very perception of some spaces as being too soft might even be related to the harshness of the worlds we are organizing to challenge”—further, she suggests: “We need to be too sensitive if we are to challenge what is not being addressed.” Here, what Ahmed calls attention to is how the classroom can easily be a space for violence of multiple kinds to take place: epistemic, gender-based, sexual, or racist violence. Given the uneven structures of power undergirding learning practices and environments, the emphasis on building a mutually formative community of learning that feminist pedagogy prioritizes can offer one method of countering institutional and institutionalized violence.

💡 Reflection exercise: What is the difference between feminist pedagogy and engaged pedagogy? What are the goals of feminist pedagogy, as methodology and practice?

Practical ways to start thinking about and implementing feminist pedagogy

  • A graduate course, WMST GR6001 “Theoretical Paradigms in Feminist Scholarship” focuses, in part, on feminist pedagogy and typically brings together an interdisciplinary range of participants. This course is a part of the graduate certificate program offered by the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality (IRWGS), although graduate students are not required to complete the certificate program in order to enroll. Specifics of the course’s coverage may vary, depending on the faculty instructor; updated course descriptions are available each semester on the “Courses” page at the IRWGS website.
  • The Center for Teaching and Learning offers a variety of workshops and events that dovetail with principles of feminist pedagogy. In the past, there have been pedagogy workshops on topics such as active learning, addressing diversity and inclusivity, and “Learning Communities” hosted by graduate student teaching fellows that attend to feminist pedagogical practices. For example, in Spring 2021, SLTFs Cat Lambert and Diana Newby led a two-part series on “Citational Practice as Critical Feminist Pedagogy.”
  • The Barnard Center for Research on Women, although it may not feature programming primarily focused on pedagogy, often addresses the intersections of feminist scholarship, teaching, and activism in events.
  • Please don’t hesitate to suggest an event to the Pedagogy Colloquium via its open survey, if you are interested in seeing, proposing, or leading a relevant event! Colloquium events range from informal and casual discussions for graduate students only, or more formalized events that are open to the larger Columbia community, and may provide a helpful platform for continued engagement.

Prompts & tips

đź’ˇ Reflection exercise: How can classroom communities be made inclusive and receptive to feminist methods and theories? What practices have you previously implemented that sought to consciously cultivate such dynamics or learning spaces?

  • Inclusive syllabus-building
    • Curriculum curation may be the easiest area of teaching in which to intervene in advance of any class sessions, on the part of the instructor. Questions to consider may include: Whose voices are centralized or amplified in the course materials? How will they be represented or contextualized? What things can be communicated in a syllabus, what what things cannot? How might principles of feminist pedagogy be enacted beyond the curation of course readings—for example, in deliberating on the weight given to requirements and procedures? (To that end, see also Professor Carmen Kynard’s comments on syllabi and their politics here.)
  • Managing broadly interactive class discussions
    • The Harkness Method is a popular technique for encouraging inclusive discussions, and the process of adopting it for a class session has been helpfully glossed and modeled by Diana Newby in a previous LTF event, which may be read about here.
    • Alternative seating arrangements to increase or enhance student interaction and familiarity: if students tend to sit in fixed seating arrangements, the instructor may organize students into varied permutations of small groups for discussion throughout the semester.
    • Nonverbal cues that encourage participation: nodding, smiling, and eye contact are minor but effective promoters for participation and contribute to an open, non-hostile classroom climate, especially with students who are less inclined toward vocal participation.
  • Collaborative work

Bibliography and further readings

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.

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