Teachable moments are sometimes incredibly ironic. Last week, when leading a discussion on feminist criticism for a literary theory class, I began by asking my students what questions they might pose when taking a feminist approach to a fictional text. I am often met with an awkward silence at the beginning of a lesson, and so, as usual, I waited next to the chalkboard for someone to respond rather than providing an answer for them. One of my male students finally said angrily, “I feel like you’re mocking us when you stand there waiting for an answer. You look sardonic.”
I was, of course, quite taken aback. I am certainly not mocking my students by waiting for them to answer. I like to think that I am making them articulate ideas about what they are learning in this class. In hindsight, I know now that this would have made an intriguing, albeit ironic, teaching moment: I simply ask what a feminist approach entails and a male student responds with frustration and calls me sardonic without further prompting. What does that reveal about the need to spend more time discussing the realization of these theories in practice, beyond their usefulness in approaching literature?
I told the student plainly, in front of the rest of the class, that the comment was irrelevant and somewhat rude, and that we needn’t consider it further, though now, I wish we had. I recalled, too, that when I taught the same class in a previous semester, reactions to feminism had been disagreeable then. The consensus that semester had been that feminism was something obvious that need not be taught alongside other types of theory, something most of the class rolled their eyes at and requested to ignore in the weekly discussion sections.
I relayed the story to a male colleague the next day, who has taught the theory class as well. He seemed less surprised by my student’s comments than I was, and when I questioned whether he is often met with resistance to a conversation about feminism also, he said, “Well, no,” and then asserted that he only hears of such troubles from female instructors because he suspected students have “less respect for women in that position of authority than they do men.”
This leads us to question whether we really have come “so far” with feminism. I often hear the argument that women in this country are now equal with men, and always treated so. Indeed, student reaction to reading Showalter or Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” is often met with the reaction, “this is outdated.” I have to disagree. Even more than the incident with my student, my colleague’s contention that female instructors get less respect from students generally is testament to this. Wasn’t it just this year that Michael Sanguinetti suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” in order to remain safe?
I invoke this year’s SlutWalk alongside my teaching experience because not only do both events demonstrate that the problem of a strong aversion to feminism persists, but with each, a great deal of resistance to change exists as well. On my campus, SlutWalk was publicized, a small version was also organized, and I heard a great deal of male students mocking it and many of the fliers for it were torn down, drawn on, etc. As we try to draw attention to these issues, they are often oppressed. So I question how we can capture positive attention to an event like this and how we might, in higher education, get students to recognize that Rubin’s work is still pertinent, as are other founding works of feminist thought.
Attempting to explain to my student that his balking at my teaching style on a day when we were supposed to be learning feminism, and that he likely wouldn’t address a male professor in such an impolite way, would have been ironic, and probably would have further alienated him from the lesson as well. Is there actually a way to go about addressing it, and actually getting him to realize, without sounding like a martyr, or without having him dismiss me as a martyr and then, of course, the lesson as well? I think one of the biggest matters at hand for young women teaching at the college level now is precisely this one – and how, exactly, do we get the message through to our students and know that they’ve heard us?
Melissa Sande is a doctoral student in the department of English, General Literature and Rhetoric at Binghamton University, where she recently began work on her dissertation, titled: Decentering Genealogies: Alterity, the Nation and Women's Writing of the 1960s. She specializes in Caribbean literature and postcolonial theory and can be contacted at email@example.com.
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