Official Pedagogical Question for 10/14


This line of questions continues some of the thoughts from hooks and last week's online discussion, but also takes them in a new direction.

  1. Do you think it is appropriate and/or useful to present material related to pedagogy, and particular feminist and/or liberatory pedagogy in the classroom? If so, when? What kinds of classes or for what kinds of students? And, have any of you had instructors who intentionally included readings or lessons about collective learning and pedagogy? If so, how did it work out?

I ask this because it seems to me that, if one truly wants to have a more democratic classroom, then it might be both ethical and useful to actually bring this to your students in a more formal way. I am torn between two different sentiments about the instructor/student relationship in this context. On one hand, I fee that it's an instructor's decision to decide how best to achieve the aims of the class, and perhaps that means not having students know why they are doing certain things (like group projects, sitting in a circle, blogs, grades for participation, etc), that in some way maybe knowing the ends would jeopardize being able to achieve them. On the other hand, it seems that this is a very instructor-centric and undemocratic way to go about it. Particularly when "normative" education does not often articulate the why behind its methods, perhaps incorporating pedagogical strategies into our classes will help students think more critically about education as a process.

And it also would demonstrate that some things that "we" do differently than hegemonic education processes are not merely the whim of an instructor, which I think they are often viewed to be. I think that maybe we should be more transparent about why and how we use feminist/liberatory pedagogy. And perhaps it is a bad assumption that the moves we make to democratize the learning process will be understood (correctly) by the students. Finally, what kinds of challenges would this present in different kinds of classroom environments? What would it mean to communicate to and with students of all ages and locations about why we are doing things one way instead of another?

I have only had a couple, very brief encounters in which the instructor shared literature and/or ideas about pedagogy in the classroom, and I was a Women's Studies major. I was fortunate enough to have classes that generally did things more progressively than is typical, but it wasn't until one instructor actually articulated the why behind it that I understood these choices as political ones, and not necessarily about the disciple or teacher's preference.

  1. Along the same lines, what are your experiences as a student or teacher with collaborative syllabus planning? Have you ever had an opportunity as a student to revise or contribute to a course's plan? As an instructor, have you ever opened the door to this kind of input? Do you think that this is a logical extension of democratizing the learning experience? Or is it foolish or unfeasible or something else all together?

In high school, I spent a year as an exchange student in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I attended a Danish high school I was confused and a bit shocked when, in the first week of school, we helped decide what it was we wanted to learn that year. Yes, there  was a lot less flexibility in Physics and Pre-Calculus, and other classes had certain requirements. For example, in Art we had to choose one technical skill (we chose figure drawing - yes nude models in the high school!), one 19th century movement (Pre-Raphealites) and one 20th century (Graffiti). The same happened in our geography, Danish lit, English lit, and French courses. I can't really explain how bizarre yet wonderful this felt to me, as a 16 year old who had come from a very tightly controlled public school system.

What possibilities do you see for this in your own field and with your own students? Clearly there are some technical difficulties in different locations (like preparing students for mandated exams), but I wonder if our hesitance to do so comes more from fear of losing control or the fear of acknowledging the limits to our knowledge and expertise?





I love these questions! To your first question on when may it be appropriate to include pedagogical texts on a syllabus, I am hoping to do this in the syllabus that I am constructing for this course. I think that it absolutely is appropriate, especially when we are trying to illustrate to our students how/why our learning is constrained by immediate institutional structures.

My imagined course (although one that might fit with "contemporary women's literature" or "women write the world" in the GWSS curriculum) seeks to make students constantly aware of the politics of our reading literature by disparately positioned women, and the ways in which our reading is constrained by our individual social locations, the collective dynamic of the class, and the fact that we are encountering these texts as assigned readings that I have picked out for us for the semester while at a university. Connected to this is prompting students to think through questions of audience and power on the part of the writers themselves, and how they negotiating questions of language and representation when writing for diverse audiences who will all encounter their work quite differently.

Much of my pedagogical approach comes back to this quote by Piya Chatterjee: "Classroom pedagogy is the medium through which power, agency, and historical practice ‘out there’ are linked to the immediate ontologies of difference within the borders of the classroom…Pedagogy becomes a medium through which these larger scripts are translated into the microcosm of classroom culture" (“De/Colonizing the Exotic: Teaching ‘Asian Women’ in a US Classroom.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies. 21.1-2 (2000): 87-100). And if I want my students to really think about the affects of this, then it seems vital to include them on the pedagogical issues we collectively face in our course meetings.

One thought of mine is to include Chandra Mohanty's "Under Western Eyes" on the syllabus in one of the beginning weeks to get students to think about the power relations involved in looking/reading and what we have invested in certain representational constructions. I plan to follow up this conversation with Mohanty's "Under Western Eyes Revisted" in which she re-engages her earlier points and connects them intimately to questions of power dynamics within the classroom, discussing "add and stir" methods and a gesturing towards more "comparatavist" models. In this sense, I don't just want students to understand why I have them break up into small groups, etc., but to enable them to begin theorizing our relations to the texts we read and to imagine ethical forms of engagement within the asymmetical conditions in which we encounter the readings.

I think that if this works, it will help us to collectively pursue course goals, and make visible the power relations happening within the classroom that too often go unnoted. By giving them tools to imagine the classroom, students, teachers, as "texts" that collectively inform the ways that we encounter the assigned readings in the classroom, this encourages a critical reflexivity that encourages them to continually interrogate and ask more challenging and productive questions. If it doesn't work, then I have at least enabled the possibility for a few students to engage with the course in this fashion, and provided myself with a semester long project on thinking through why it didn't work and attempt to re-enage these issues.

In terms of when is this appropriate, I think that in my lower level courses I do try to make transparent why we do what we do, always letting the students know what's at stake in individual exercises and assignments. I think that this method of including pedagogical texts in the syllabus might be more suited for upper level courses (at least the way in which I am imagining it) where students are working on further developing their critical thinking instead of just learning these skills.

To your point on collective syllabi construction, my first feminist theory course involved this, so that the first week was spent with students working in small groups to assign readings for a couple of weeks during the semester. The professor did suggest that this was a feminist classroom and that this demonstrated that fact, and yet it still didn't register for me until years later ("oh yeah, that's what we were doing"). This makes me think that applying a particular feminist "method" is not the same as creating a feminist atmosphere in the classroom. The professor herself tried to do so, and yet her questions and posturings frequently stifled conversation and student input. In contrast, while my undergraduate mentor consistently publishes on feminist pedagogy, she never explicitly brought up these issues in the classroom. Yet, whenever I sat in her classroom I felt that I employed a dual lens, one through which to understand the material being discussed, and one through which to understand her purposeful pedagogical maneuvers that at once left course discussions feeling undetermined and fluid, and yet still enabled her to shape the discussion around the points she wanted to address. All this to say that I do think collective syllabi construction is a valuable idea, and yet one that might not always work, or be necessary when professors are able to fluidly manuever through students points in relation to the material they assign.

I sense there are many contradictions between my points, and in a pedagogical spirit, I am going to let them co-exist :)

This second question is one I've been thinking about a lot lately, as I look toward next semester and teaching my own creative writing class. Collaborative syllabus planning isn't unheard of in literature/CW departments, but I've never personally been a student in such a class and haven't before implemented it as a teacher. Collaborative syllabus planning goes beyond “democratizing the learning experience” to address an ever-looming issue in these fields (and certainly in other fields): the canon. Most students in lit/CW classes, especially surveys or other courses with a wide scope, wind up reading “the classics,” which are inevitably slanted toward white, middle-to-upper class, heterosexual, Judeo-Christian men. People like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Updike, Cheever, and Irving are rightfully considered in these classes, because they are such pillars of their genre and they have made important contributions. It’s always at the expense of other voices, however, and it’s a kind of vicious cycle, a tautology of sorts: writers enter the canon when they are taught as canonical; they are taught as canonical when they enter the canon. Issues of canonicity are far more complex, of course, but it remains that diversity—not for its own sake, but for a fuller understanding of the social, cultural, and historical forces that have shaped literature and ways of writing—must be considered in the classroom.

So, one way to address the problematic canon in the lit/CW classroom is through partial collaboration on the syllabus—that is, stocking the syllabus with the “must-reads” and introducing some traditionally marginalized voices, but then allowing for a significant portion of the class readings to be decided by the students. (This often works well when using a comprehensive anthology, but can work without one as well.) Students need to understand why they’re giving this opportunity and responsibility, so discussing the strengths and limitations of the canon is an essential first step. Also important is addressing why, in anthologies, works are often divided into categories like “women’s voices,” “African-American writers,” etc. This division can be useful in pointing to groups who are finally being offered a presence alongside more traditionally read writers, but this division also unfortunately underscores a kind of ghettoization. I wonder how to handle this kind of situation: how to confront the historical oppression of certain voices without further marginalizing them.

Though collaborative syllabus planning clearly won’t fix all the problems of canonicity, it is a step toward addressing them. It is a kind of democratic process and allows the students to really be invested in their reading, writing, and classroom experiences. It opens up a space for dialogue between students and teacher and among students, as well as an internal dialogue between the students’ former expectations and his/her new perspective. It also suggests to students the true range of creative expression—that it has roots in every kind of background and experience, and that all personal experiences are valid lenses for looking at the world and, as literature and writing aim to do, posing probing questions to and connecting meaningfully with that larger world. I’ll probably be posting related questions and comments as I start planning my syllabus, with these issues in mind.