Trying is Not Enough: Toward Intersectional Feminist Pedagogy

-This blog is a portion of my talk at the 2016 Institute for Academic Feminist Psychologists in Pittsburgh, PA.
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Reading through your Institute participant survey responses, I was inspired by your pedagogical values, learning goals, and visions for intersectionality and social justice.

  • “…awakening students’ feminist identities and activism”
  • “…techniques for integrating feminist activism”
  • “…how to weave a feminist lens and perspective more wholly into teaching practices”
  • “…discuss issues of sexual orientation or gender identity in breadth classes”
  • “…teaching psych of human sexuality from intersectional perspective”
  • “…effective ways to use privilege as academics to live out social justice values”
  • “…incorporating community into research through a feminist, social justice lens”
  • “…integrating feminist theory, critical race theory, and queer theory into psychology”
  • “…applying intersectional theory”

Of course, we are quite often trying our best to accomplish these goals in hostile climates on campus and beyond. Just to name a few:

  • lower student evaluations,
  • alum threats to pull funding,
  • colleagues and admin tell us to be quiet,
  • stud disrespect such as being called Miss/Mrs.,
  • challenge you as authority figure and qualified professional in class,
  • microaggressions from all sides,
  • backlash against higher education, anti-intellectualism, rage against critical thinking,
  • being labeled as radical, bitchy, having an agenda, rude, unfair, and difficult by students ( and women of color get this at higher rates)
  • guns in our classrooms and in our offices
  • two-worlds dilemma: often feeling we don’t fit in Psychology or Women’s Studies

With all of these negative climate issues presenting serious obstacles to our learning goals for students, how do we let our feminist flags fly?
In constructing this talk, I looked back at some older talks and previous writing. What I discovered is that I typically open with some pedagogical failure of my own. And if the use of the word “failure” seems too judgmental, feel free to think about this moment in my life as a pedagogical mishap, letdown, or disappointment (though I don’t believe those words as strong enough).
So why do I tend to repeat this pattern of putting my failures out there for public consumption? That seems like a fair question to ask. Perhaps I’m subconsciously issuing a warning that you should not listen to anything I have to say. And if you do, this approach allows me to relinquish all responsibility because you were thoroughly warned. On the other hand, my hope is that I tend to do this as an act that counters the overwhelming pressure in the academy to pretend we have it all figured out, were teaching experts from birth, and have nothing new to learn. I share these pedagogical displays of privilege because we must out ourselves as lifelong learners of the profession of teaching, which is unsuccessful at times, freely admit we do not have all the answers, & normalize that process of striving for better. So here goes for today:

Excerpt from my book Intersectional Pedagogy (2016):

“The first time I taught Psychology of Women as a graduate student, the textbook was extremely narrow in focus, lacking any hint of inclusion outside normative and privileged identities within the vastly diverse group called women. Due to this shortcoming, I created a supplemental packet with readings to address race, sexual diversity, poverty, and non-western women’s experiences. This “solution” felt like a legitimate approach at the time to correct for the main book’s reinforcement of defining women via only white, heterosexual middle-class perspectives. On the first day of class, a brave student raised her hand to point out that the textbook did not represent her as an African-American woman and seemed focused exclusively on White women. She was right. My co-instructor immediately defended the text saying “no one book can cover everything.” I then agreed with the student and pointed to the packet as one way to include diverse viewpoints and avoid the idea that all women are White, middle-class, heterosexual, U.S. citizens.

Almost 15 years later, I view our supplemental packet and our response to the student as an insufficient, dismissive, and insulting Band-Aid that essentially perpetuated the marginalization of women outside the mythical norm, as described by Audre Lorde (1984). Just as Lisa Bowleg (2008) critiqued her previous research as additive in nature and lacking intersectionality, my original approach to teaching gender from a multicultural perspective served as a lesson in what not to do. At the same time, adding the packet allowed us to pat ourselves on the back as two White women instructors who believed we were acting as exceptional anti-racist allies. Not only was the packet an add-on afterthought residing outside the centralized text (in other words: important and legitimate textbook), but it also treated various social identity categories and their associated structural oppressions as separate considerations.”

So why do I label this a pedagogical failure? First, it wasn’t enough. Despite my good feminist intentions, despite my attempt to diversify the readings; despite my anti-racist and anti-heterosexist efforts, it just was not enough to prevent marginalizing students of color, poor and working class students, students with disabilities, and I could go on and on.
Excerpt from Intersectional Pedagogies (2016):

“Jones and Wijeyesinghe (2011) encouraged consideration of how teaching might be altered when instructors infuse intersectional theory. Without intersectional theory applied in the feminist classroom, educational spaces serve to both perpetuate invisible privilege by focusing on personal oppression and construct only mythical norms as worthy of earning valuable real estate within course materials and broader curricular designs. Valid pedagogies must stop pretending, for example, that White women possess no race, Latino men are genderless, or Black and Asian women embody mutually exclusive gendered and racial social locations. Even though some privileged women in my gender courses insist race and sexuality are irrelevant to the study of women while men of color often resist the deconstruction of gender and gender identity in courses addressing race and racism, intersectional theory demands attention to the mutually constitutive nature of these interacting and intra-connected systems.”

Therefore, I argue that feminist pedagogy deserves a more complicated and challenging application than we tend to enact in psychology. My next blog will address how we can go about moving toward intersectional feminist psychology pedagogy.

Posted in Feminist Pedagogy, Intersectionality, Intersectionality Pedagogy, Privilege, Social Justice, teach.learn.grow., Teaching.