Dropping the F-Bomb

What’s the point of employing feminist pedagogy, asks Christine M. Nowik, if we don't explain what it is?

October 5, 2018
 
 

Responses to the feminist pedagogy in my classes have been consistently glowing for 20 years. Often it is the young male student who approaches me directly or via email to say, “I have never been in a class like this before” before sharing details of how he has benefited from my approach in developing skills as a thinker and writer, describing but not naming feminist pedagogy.

Typically, I am explicit about how both learning and writing theory underpin what I do in the college composition classroom because I want students to understand the why that guides our work. I am not, however, explicit about the fact that those theories are deployed in our classroom under the umbrella of feminist pedagogy.

At no time in my career have I explained to students that I have systematically and deliberately used a theoretical framework that provides a power structure more conductive to learning -- one that, as Carolyn M. Shrewsbury argues, is liberatory: “A classroom characterized as persons connected in a net of relationships with people who care about each other’s learning as well as their own is very different from a classroom that is seen as comprised of teacher and students.” In my college writing classes, I take special care to build such a net, something students can often describe but not define.

Given that I continue to hear students in passing characterize feminism as “anti-male,” coupled with the ongoing characterization of feminism as “man hating” in various media corners, I decided that now is the time: if we are operating under a feminist framework, failing to connect students’ growth as thinkers and writers and their satisfaction with the learning environment to feminist pedagogy is a disservice to them.

Thus, I decided to be explicit for the first time this summer in an introductory writing class at my home institution, a large, multicampus community college in central Pennsylvania. Before sharing the result of that effort, here are the ways in which feminist pedagogy drives my decision making in the context of teaching academic writing.

Three primary assumptions underpin my teaching: 1) that a power structure promoting agency and collective responsibility is the best environment for learning, 2) that community development is essential to individual growth and development in the writing classroom, and 3) that the development of good thinking is essential to liberty.

Shifting the power dynamic in the writing classroom does not mean that I abdicate my role as a teacher and evaluator. Instead, it means that I create a classroom in which I am part of the processes that create stronger thinkers and writers, not the sole orchestrator of such processes as the font of all relevant knowledge. Operationally, that philosophy means that my syllabus refers to “writers,” not students, and that I consistently refer to our group as a “community of writers,” of which I am a member. We are a net of interdependence with genuine investment in our collective learning.

It means that I talk frankly about my weaknesses as a writer, share my own work and acknowledge that I, too, continue to refine my writing and thinking skills. It means that I encourage writers to challenge the authority of other writers -- including myself -- with questions about premises, logic and evidence in a manner that reinforces developing writers’ individual ways of knowing. It means that I am attentive to their individual needs as writers, coaching them not from the perspective of one who has arrived at writing competency but as one who is also on the journey. It means that I provide them with as much agency as possible within our structural confines.

Ultimately, I cannot ignore power in the classroom, so I don’t. I do, however, use power as a means of promoting equity, which is the “difference” students describe after experiencing my teaching. My authority is grounded in my authentic care for them in the learning space, which provides psychological safety for their risk taking and experimentation as they develop and refine their writing and thinking skills. Practically speaking, it means that I meet their perspectives and their writing with questions instead of judgments, as we work together to refine their approaches, logic and expression.

On the last day of composition this summer, I launched our final discussion by informing the class that I was about to drop the dirtiest F-bomb in our culture on them. For the first time in a long time, I was nervous about a class discussion, because I had no means of predicting the trajectory. A conversation like this one could turn very bad very quickly.

I explained the framework -- power, community, liberty -- and linked my approach to feminist pedagogy. Reactions were not extreme: confusion from some, knowing glances from others. One dually enrolled high school student shared that she is irritated by a culture that views feminism as “man hating” and was relieved to hear me explain otherwise.

The most poignant response was from a man who had served prison time and was returning to community college to find a career. A strong reader and solid writer, this student informed the class that he realized that he is a feminist, believing that equity is the path to an enlightened society and that current gender-based societal norms disadvantage men as much as women. He supported his assertion with evidence from his own experiences and readings, as any good composition graduate would.

Ultimately, I hoped to achieve three things: first, I wanted students to know that what they experienced in our class was intentionally designed, that my approach is thoughtful and based in theory. Second, I wanted students to expand their understanding of “feminist” in the context of their learning. Finally, I wanted them to walk away with a mental link so that they next time they read or hear the F-bomb in a negative context, they can associate the term with our learning environment and their relationship with me and fellow writers. I encouraged them leave our class reflecting on who might find my approach and a more equal balance of power threatening and why.

Now that I have been explicit with students about my pedagogical choices, I will probably continue to close the semester with the same discussion in all of my classes. I feel a responsibility to explicitly discuss power and authenticity and love and liberation in a manner that encourages thoughtful reflection and discussion, even in courses where those themes are not the subject of our academic inquiry. Providing an opportunity for such discussion can help students see the disparity between their lived experiences in our classrooms and the popular notions attached to the F-bomb. At the very least, they will have little choice but to move past “man hating” as a convenient association with “feminist.”

Bio

Christine M. Nowik is the chair of English at HACC, central Pennsylvania’s community college. A 20-year veteran of higher education, she has taught in the community college and private liberal arts settings and has served as the assistant dean for student success at Cedar Crest College as well as the dean of student and academic success at HACC. She is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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