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I am obsessed with timekeeping. This is because, for me, timekeeping is a feminist issue.
I first learned this from personal experience in a graduate seminar that was, in many ways, fantastic, but it had one major flaw. When the end of the semester rolled around, the final few classes were dedicated to people sharing the progress they had made on their final research essays and getting feedback from our brilliant classmates and professor. As someone who is constantly begging for people to engage with my work, I could not have been more eager to present my ideas thus far and see what suggestions my classmates would provide. All semester, our discussions had been so interesting, and I knew that their engagement with my ideas would push my research to the next level. They brought with them knowledge from many different disciplines and were always recommending additional readings that brought the class material to life in unexpected ways.
In each of our final classes, during the last hour, three students would present their work, which meant we each prepared for a 20-minute conversation composed of brief remarks followed by a discussion. Given that limited amount of time, I painstakingly decided which sections of my project I wanted to share and framed questions that I thought my classmates would be able to help with.
But the day I was scheduled to present my work, I was assigned to go last. (By now, I’m sure you know where this is going.) I remember sitting in my seat and watching the hands of the clock tick by as the students before me shared their work and engaged our seminar in a lively dialogue. But apparently I was the only one watching the clock, because before I knew it there were only 10 minutes left in the class, and it still was not my turn. And then there were only five minutes.
I will never forget the feeling of sitting in that chair, fidgeting with sweaty palms and unable to contribute to the conversation because I was so anxious that my turn would never come. And that’s basically what happened.
I share this anecdote not to blame anyone, but as a reminder that timekeeping is not something that comes naturally to any of us. Following this experience, I began to recognize the ways I was guilty of neglecting time, and therefore not equitably distributing it, in my classrooms as well. I became determined not to ever leave my students or colleagues feeling like I felt that day.
It turns out that research supports my sense that time is not equitably distributed in classroom settings. This survey of research on gender bias in classroom participation describes how professors call on male students more frequently than female students and give them more attention. Male students also speak for longer than female students (further confirmed by research here, here, here and here). Students of color experience microaggressions in the classroom, reporting that their class contributions are ignored or minimized and that they are made to feel inferior because of the ways they speak (read more here and here). Over all, classrooms reproduce social hierarchies, so that those same voices that are privileged in mainstream media, culture and politics are also those that get the most speaking time in class.
I discussed some of this before in my post “Creating Spaces for Conversation: Three Strategies,” which describes what facilitators can do to create an environment in which everyone speaks and is heard. I want to elaborate on what I began there by adding timekeeping, and explaining why, for me, it is a feminist issue.
By timekeeping, I simply mean deliberately structuring how much of a given amount of time is allotted to different tasks, communicating this information to participants, helping participants prepare to work within these time constraints, helping them stay on time in the moment and encouraging an awareness of time constraints in others. While this can take many forms, I’ll share some of the ways timekeeping has shaped my own recent work.
This past year, I helped the graduate students in Cathy N. Davidson and Michael Gillespie’s seminar Teaching Race and Gender Theory in the Undergraduate Humanities Classroom at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York prepare to give a 40-minute presentation at the Futures Initiative year-end symposium. There were 12 students in the seminar, and we wanted to make sure everyone had a chance to participate. Twice before the event, we met as a group to figure out how the 40 minutes would be distributed, down to five-minute increments. Everyone gave their input, and we came up with a schedule that they all agreed upon.
In theory, because we had deliberately structured this schedule together, one might assume that everyone would prepare with these time constraints in mind. However, in the weeks leading up to the workshop, I repeatedly communicated this information with the graduate students and reminded them to time their presentations. When they sent me materials, I provided feedback and let them know when I thought they had too much to cover in the allotted time. More often than not, they timed their segments, realized I was right and condensed their material. (The same goes for my undergraduates when we do presentations.) Without micromanaging, I try to make myself available to help students prepare to work in these time constraints, which is often way more difficult than it initially seems.
As the person facilitating a meeting, class session or workshop, it’s almost impossible to do your job well while also keeping an eye on the clock and calculating how much time is remaining. It’s simply too much for one person to think about. For that reason, I often delegate the responsibility of timekeeping, or take on that task myself, provided it is my sole responsibility (not, say, in addition to delivering a good talk). In the moment, the day of the symposium, I informed the participants that I would be strict about the timekeeping we had agreed upon. I held up time cards (like many of us do at conferences) letting participants know when they had five minutes, then two minutes and then one minute left.
In my classrooms, I teach students to be aware of time constraints through the class facilitations they lead throughout the semester. Each student has 10 minutes to facilitate a lesson in class, and many choose to share their minutes and facilitate as a group (so a group of three students gets 30 minutes). Students are taught from day one to bring a timer (usually a cell phone) up to the front of the class so that they can be mindful of how much time has elapsed. Without a doubt, the No. 1 mistake students make in these facilitations is trying to cover too much material in too little time. By the end of the semester and with lots of practice, students learn to scale back their plans and cut back from three activities to two, or from two discussion questions to one.
Whether we are facilitating a class, a meeting or a workshop, we do so in spaces that typically privilege some voices over others, whether that’s the teacher over students or a supervisor over employees. Race, gender, ethnicity, linguistic background, ability and many other factors predictably map onto who asserts themselves and gets the most time to speak. This does a disservice to everyone, as no one benefits from all of the knowledge that goes unspoken.
Feminist pedagogy teaches that silence is not an absence but the effect of power. It encourages us to listen to those voices that have historically been silenced and to change the structural conditions so that their voices are heard. Equitable timekeeping is one way to achieve this.