Evidence of Teaching…Resistance

Much like trouble, evidence of teaching resistance abounds in my teaching experiences and materials. This evidence includes examples of not only how I taught methods for resistance to and with students in my courses, but how I tried to make room for paying attention to and thinking through their reluctances, refusals, and discomfort within the class. And it includes examples of how I was resistant to certain ways of teaching and to claiming the role of all-knowing Expert.

Teaching Methods and Tools for Resistance

As a queering feminist teaching in a Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies department, much of my time in the classroom was devoted to introducing and experimenting with important critical concepts within feminist and queer theories and movement (26). I also taught various methods for engaging in feminist resistance including: 1. challenging what is normal and why, exposing what is constructed and at whose expense and 2. resistance through spreading critical awareness and feminist education.

Method One: Challenging What is Normal and Why, Exposing What is Constructed and at Whose Expense

One way in which resistance can be possible is when we dare to ask Why?, that is, Why are things the way they are and could they be different?, and At Whose Expense?, that is, Who benefits with the system as it is and who gets exploited? I designed many of my courses around posing, exploring, and developing ways to understand and respond to these questions.

In my Politics of Sex class, we studied these questions within the framework of why certain things are accepted as “natural” and “normal” while others are deemed and dismissed as “unnatural” and “deviant” (27).

The first section of the course included explorations of how a logic of “naturalized heterosexuality” (28) becomes hetero/normative through rituals and repeated practices, like those for Valentine’s Day (29), and how our meanings of the “normal” are predicated on the oppressing of certain experiences, identities, bodies and the privileging of others (30).

My approach to this unit was influenced by my vision of feminist/queer thinking as resistance, which combines making trouble for—questioning, unsettling, exposing, challenging, resisting, reframing—categories, ideas, practices, norms, institutions with developing and promoting a critical awareness of how our everyday practices are shaped by and contribute to larger structures of oppression, power and privilege. Midway through the unit, I described feminist/queer thinking to the students briefly in class and then illustrated it through the posing of a series of questions about Valentine’s Day in a blog post on TROUBLE (31).

Method Two: Resistance Through Spreading Critical Awareness and Feminist Education

Engaging in and spreading awareness about feminist education through the use of social media is another important form of resistance that has enabled feminists to share resources, challenge unjust practices and institutions, mobilize individuals and communities for reflection and action, and cultivate feminist pedagogical practices.

After my success with blogging in my 2009 Queering Theory course, I increased my focus on social media and on exploring and experimenting with forms of online feminist resistance in my courses. In addition to building training sessions on how to use blogs and twitter into the class (32, 33), I made social media and its usefulness for feminists and their projects of resistance through feminist education the focus of the final versions of two of the classes that I regularly taught: Feminist Pedagogies (34) and Contemporary Feminist Debates.

For the final time I taught Contemporary Feminist Debates, I wanted to encourage students to critically reflect on the role of social media in feminist activist and education projects. Building off of some of the core principles of the class that I had previously taught, like curiosity and feminist debate, and key readings that I had regularly assigned, like bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody, I made feminist critical media the focus of the class.

Here’s how I described that focus to non-class visitors on our public course blog (35):

In Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks argues for the importance of feminist mass-based education in order both to counter mainstream media’s overly negative representation of feminism and its goals and for sharing the positive contributions that feminist principles have made with as many people as possible (including those outside of the academy). In a chapter entitled, “Feminist Education for Critical Consciousness,” hooks imagines this feminist education being spread through pamphlets, buttons, t-shirts, children’s books, and television networks.

But what about feminist blogs (and social media tools like twitter) for spreading awareness?

Students in GWSS 3004: Feminist Debates will be using this blog and the hashtag #femd2011 to explore the limits and possibilities of developing and spreading mass-based feminist education online. In addition to contributing their own content to the meaning of feminist education (through blog posts, comments and tweets), they will be critically reflecting on a wide range of ways in which networks of feminists are already using the internet to develop and share their feminist principles and projects (as they relate to our 4 key clusters of issues: street harassment, reproductive rights/justice, domestic labor and education).

Over the course of the semester, students reflected on feminist critical media (36), read critical essays about different campaigns (37, watched and discussed interviews with feminist media makers (38), explored a variety of feminist activist/education sites (39), and completed critical assessments individually and in groups (40).

Student Resistance

My evidence of teaching resistance is not just about how I taught my students feminist and queer tools and methods for resisting, however. It’s also about how I tried to make room for paying attention to and thinking through my students’ reluctances, refusals, and discomfort within the class and with the things we were reading, watching, discussing, and doing.

As I learned through my time as a student and as a teacher working with students, encountering new ideas, especially unsettling, rebellious, provocative, world-shattering ideas like the ones you encounter in almost every class period in a GWSS course, is difficult and uncomfortable. Students will be resistant. Angry. Dismissive. Defensive. Overwhelmed. Scared.

In my classes, I worked to foster an environment where students could express and wrestle with those feelings. I did not present this environment as a safe space (41), but as a space of respect, where we (the class) wouldn’t immediately dismiss their feelings or opinions, but encourage them to work on and through them (42, 43).

BESIDE/S: This working through could be tricky, especially when some students’ resistance involved struggling with how to confront their own highly problematic—racist, sexist, transphobic—beliefs and ideas. As the teacher, it was difficult to find a balance between respecting their working through this process and respecting the other students who were potentially being harmed by those students’ problematic statements.

I approached our critical and somewhat fraught discussions with the attitude that my goal was not to be right, or to prove my students were wrong, but to pose questions or present answers that opened up our discussions, enabling us to be curious and to take seriously the ideas and experiences of others (44).

BESIDE/S: Of course, being curious and attempting to “open up discussions” wasn’t helpful in all circumstances, especially when students felt extreme discomfort, hurt, and most often, in my predominantly white classes, guilt from problematic ideas that had been circulated. In addressing these situations, I tended to be abstract and theoretical as I tried to help students get some critical distance from their feelings. Oftentimes this worked, especially when contending with young white students who would start crying as they confronted racism and their white privilege for the first time and felt overwhelmed by guilt. I’m sure this happened in many of my classes, but the only one that I can recall is my Feminist Thought and Theory course. But, “going abstract,” which allowed me to stay in my own comfort zone, was more effective as an immediate and temporary response; on it’s own it rarely allowed the class to collectively work through resistance and connect on deeper levels.

BESIDE/S: But, even as I feel some sense of failure for having been unable to push through bad feelings or directly confront/call out certain students for their claims or their behavior, I still want to claim a space for being generous to people, not assuming the worst, but working with them to challenge their perspectives and to transform their beliefs. I tried very hard not to shove my ideas down others’ throats, shaming them and trying to force them to take my perspective. Instead, I worked to plant a seed, to invite them to join me/us in an exploration of new ideas. Sometimes I am too generous. Sometime people need to be called out. But, that has never been the work that I’ve been able to do and not because I’m lazy or scared…well, I might be scared sometimes. But, because I am committed to generosity and respect and seeing the best in people. This belief in generosity, and a willingness to not judge, is a difficult one to have in social justice education and can piss some people off. I’ve struggled feeling like a failure because I wouldn’t confront people…sometimes it is a failure, but not always…

I used in-class activities, like free-write exercises, to give students space for thinking through their immediate and sometimes troubling reactions to class topics and readings. These exercises had some parameters—a time limit, a few key passages to write about (45), or specific questions (46), in order to focus the students’ reactions. But, they were also open-ended, with broad expectations so students could write or draw, as I added in later classes, in ways that were helpful and meaningful to them.

I also made our course blog a space for continuing to process discussions by posing query/queeries (47) and starting open threads (48, 49).

Finally, I assigned readings on discomfort and pedagogy so that we could read, theorize about, and discuss, in-class and online, the value of resistance and discomfort in feminist and queer classrooms. I did this in many of my courses, including Queering Desire (50), Feminist Pedagogies (51) and Queer/ing Ethics (52). These discussions not only gave us some language and theories with which to understand experiences of resistance and discomfort, but it encouraged us to pay attention to and ruminate more and more often on that resistance and its significance.

My Resistance

Students were not the only class members that experienced and expressed resistance within the classroom. I did too. My resistance came in many forms, some more fundamental than others. Resistance to writing on the chalkboard/whiteboard. My handwriting was too messy. Sometimes I couldn’t even read it. Resistance to assigning only one reading per class. I was too scared that we would run out of things to discuss and I liked putting things into conversation with each other too much to not assign two or three or more readings. Resistance to using powerpoint. I hate powerpoint and I don’t like using slides. I’d rather post everything on a blog, making it more accessible and less powerpoint-y. And, resistance to faithfully and properly complying with standard academic practices and expectations for a teacher.

This last form of resistance is the most important, and caused the most trouble for me: “good” trouble, as in enabling me to challenge, question, disrupt, and reject harmful academic practices and expectations and “bad” trouble, as in making it difficult for me to keep teaching within the academy, both because I no longer wanted to and because I wasn’t marketable enough to find a permanent position.

List! Behaving Improperly in the Classroom

  • De-emphasized grades, not because I hated grading, but because I strongly disliked how grades were so often the single most important motivation for why students actually completed assignments and I was frustrated by how students seemed to rarely look beyond the letter grade or point total to the feedback that I was giving them (53)
  • Replaced assignments designed to prove mastery, as in the ability to regurgitate the teacher’s beliefs, which were themselves expected to regurgitate the accepted disciplinary canon of ideas and authors, with assignments that encouraged engagement and enabled students to actually apply what they were learning and maybe even use it after the class was over (54, 55)
  • Avoided giving in-class lectures and having to stare into the dead eyes of students who weren’t listening because they’d mentally checked out of the class the minute I started talking by using the blog for posting my notes and summaries, by distributing lengthy handouts (56) and by devoting most of class time to small group and large group discussions (57).
  • Refrained from giving easy (or any) answers that could shut down curiosity, opting instead for posing questions that invite students to think, rethink, and expand their perspectives, which could be frustrating for some students and exhilarating for others (58).
  • Pushed at the limits of what counted as appropriate “academic” reading/content by favoring online readings over “traditional” academic articles (59), analyzing popular culture like The Brady Bunch (60) and cooking magazine ads with images of brussels sprouts that look like penises (61), and discussing theories and projects that involve a lot of swearing, like shit studies (62), FCKH8, and fuck reproductive futurism (63).
  • Tried, not often that successfully, to be a person in the classroom (64)*
    Persistently worked to de-center myself as the (only) Authority in the class and repeatedly rejected the role of Expert by encouraging others in class to be mentors and sources of knowledge (65), avoiding preaching or presenting material as the Truth, refusing to pretend that I knew everything, or almost everything, and encouraging, almost to a fault, feedback from the students on what did and didn’t work in the class (66).

All of this de-centering was mostly good, but it sometimes made me look like I didn’t know what I was doing, which I did. Or that I was disorganized or unprepared, which I was not. And it sometimes made me feel inadequate or that I wasn’t deserving of being a teacher, which I was. But no matter how hard I tried and how much I recognized that sometimes I needed to be the authority and expert for the students’ and my sake, I resisted it. Why? Because I hate experts.

I Hate Experts, a Mini-Rant

I stubbornly refuse to be an Expert. When I was teaching at the University and searching for academic jobs in women’s studies this was a bit of a problem. Students and Faculty want you to be an Expert. Isn’t that why you spent so many years in school?

I’m suspicious of Experts who tell you what you’re supposed to think, what you’re supposed to know, what you’re supposed to do. I don’t like being told what to do. And, in my experience, telling someone what to think, usually encourages them not to think at all. I’m annoyed by Experts who claim that they know more than you and then spend more time lecturing you on how little you know then on sharing what they know. I despise Experts whose “brilliant” pontifications and overly erudite language dazzles their students into submission.

My distaste for and rejection of Experts has a long history, one that is longer than me. I’m not sure how far back in my family it goes, but I know that my mom didn’t like experts, at least the kind that claimed to be Experts and that used their “advanced knowledge” to persuade people to listen to and follow them. She called these people bullies. And, as the wife of an academic administrator, she had seen and experienced more than her fair share of them.

Instead of being an expert, I like the idea of being a flawed but slightly wiser role model who demonstrates one approach to learning, engaging, and making and staying in trouble. Not a Sage on the Stage, or a Guide on the Side, but a Wiser Advisor.

*Additional page on Being a Person

“The Day She Died”

As I was sorting through a ginormous pile of papers from classes over the past few years, I came across my lecture/discussion notes for the graduate class on Feminist Pedagogies that I taught on the day that my mother died–September 30, 2009. I feel compelled to post them here today.

First, a set-up. My mom died in the very early morning (I don’t know the exact time) in the living room of her house in Illinois. My dad called me at my home, over 6 hours away in Minnesota, around 8 AM. I taught my graduate class that afternoon, starting at 2 PM. It was an intense class; while I didn’t cry, I do recall at least one other student did. We spent the first half of class discussing what it means to be a “person” in the classroom and the second half of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I began the class by announcing that my mom had died that morning. Here’s what I wrote down to discuss in relation to that announcement:

Theoretical: What does it mean to be a “Person” in the classroom? What is demanded of us as teachers? How do we represent our vulnerability—when we are in grief, when we are upset, when we are hurt, when we are passionately committed to our ideas?

Fisher encourages us to, “bring our most authentic selves into feminist discourse” and feminist classroom (51). How do we do that?

What sort of space is there/should there be for thinking about teachers as people with feelings, who have experiences that influence their teaching? How do we perform/represent that in the classroom? How does the classroom become a space for the teacher to learn and critically self-reflect—as a fellow classmate instead of “the teacher”?

What sort of resources does/should feminist pedagogy give to the teacher (as a learner, student, member of the class)? How and when should we, as teachers, shift the focus on ourselves—our own care, our own need to be challenged, our own willingness to engage in critical self-reflection?

Rosa Pugueras writes about her belief that “she is the decisive element” in the classroom, that her mood affects her student’s mood, that she has the power to hurt or heal them. Is this true? If so, does the professor have a responsibility to be aware (and make others aware) of their mood? When is this admission a performance that is authentic and that helps to create a dialog (co-intentional education) between the teacher and students and when is it too confessional and merely personal?

Application: Practically speaking, as teachers should we try to “leave our worries at the door” and perform as selves who are lighthearted and upbeat? Or, should we tell them when we are having a bad day? Should we remind them that we are people too? If so, how? Is one more authentic than the other? What are some strategies you can think of for bring our “authentic selves” into the classroom?
I can’t remember what I exactly said about how these questions were so compelling to me on that day. I do remember feeling that I had to teach. Teaching that semester–both feminist pedagogies and my undergrad class, queering theory–was what helped me through those gut-wrenching months of my mom’s dying/death.

These questions of authenticity and navigating the personal and professional/academic have been central to my classes this year. In my 2010 Feminist Pedagogies class, we talked a lot about whether or not social media (twitter, in particular) could help us to access our authentic selves, or at least authentic moments of our selves. And in my queer/ing ethics course this spring, we repeatedly reflected on how to put the personal and academic beside each other.

As I read these last lines I wonder, is it possible for me to be a person in the academy? Are the methods and practices within the academic industrial complex fundamentally harmful to me and my ability to flourish?

Continue Reading: Evidence of Teaching…Exuberance
Return to Table of Contents