Naming our Pedagogies: Legitimising Feminist Teaching in the Media Studies Classroom

by: , January 14, 2020

© Photo by Wadi Lissa

On the screen at the front of the classroom, students find the words ‘FREE WRITE’ in big, bold, all caps letters. They see this before they see the slide that tells them who I am, or what the name of the class is. They see this before they see a syllabus. As everyone takes their seats, I ask the students to just write: ‘For the next two minutes you will write about what you think feminist media studies means, and later, we will discuss what it has to do with this class.’

So, they write, and in writing they articulate their various knowledges, situated in their diverse upbringings and lived experiences. This is their opportunity to communicate their misunderstandings, fuelled by the media’s production of misinformation.

For the last several years I have started my classes in the same way. I offer a primer in feminist media studies and feminist disability studies. I give the students terminology and engage that terminology in accessible examples from popular culture, in an attempt to highlight misconceptions stemming from the ways in which terms like feminism and identity are used colloquially. Though these theories cultivate a supposedly legitimate pedagogy for media studies classrooms, I frequently offer students a friendly caveat, both spoken and written: ‘These are my frameworks; they don’t have to be yours.’ I do this in an attempt to shield myself from my lack of privilege in the space as a non-white, disabled body teaching at a predominately white university.

In this essay, I reflect on the marginality and disconnection that can come from using a feminist pedagogy in a media studies classroom invested in critical media literacy. I argue that, even then, this classroom is perhaps the perfect space to engage a feminist community of empowerment. (Shrewsbury 1987) I consider what it means to find anxiety in the naming of pedagogy as a legitimising or delegitimising force in the classroom. I self-reflexively name my pedagogical framing for my students, which may give me power; but the way I am perceived by those same students reduces that power. Does this conjunction bring me into a deeply critical, human space of learning with students? Or, alternatively, does it give students the language through which to discredit and dismiss what I teach them?

These questions animate this essay. Throughout, I interrogate the fruitfulness of explicitly identifying pedagogical values to students based on a narrative of my own experience in the classroom. Working from scholars such as Jennifer Nash and Emily Owens (2015) and Tiffany Lethabo King (2015), I account for the way I, as an instructor at a large research university in the USA, grapple with the contradictions surrounding the dynamic of power between teacher and student. I discuss the way this power dynamic also depends on embodied identity. Through this interrogation, I do not offer solutions to the deeply confronting power dynamics I, and other instructors using feminist pedagogies, face. Rather, I offer my experience of explicitly letting students in on pedagogical discussions in order to foster understanding. In so doing, I argue that instructors may lessen the space between teacher and student with a gesture that, while risky, may offer fruitful engagement built on critical understandings of what a feminist pedagogy has the potential to offer.

King argues that ‘the neoliberal corporate university produces intersectionality as a passé analytic’. (2015: 115) This attitude is pervasive and offers a possible explanation for the hesitant reaction I feel from students, a reaction I read in the body language and eye rolls emerging in class anytime feminist theory comes up in any capacity. King notes that this type of data collected through off-hand student testimonies, though anecdotal, has been ‘legitimized by feminist scholars’ particularly when examining what is termed a ‘post-intersectional’, neoliberal environment. (117) Scholars seeking to implement feminist pedagogy use this data to engage the deeply contradictory messages they receive from their host institutions: that they are encouraged to create critical curricula and that they must meet the demands of the most important stakeholders in the neoliberal education system – students. Students are positioned less as eager learners open to a broad-based critical education in a social sciences-oriented media studies program, and more as consumers in a classroom where the instructor is in the place of a service provider that ought to meet their demands for services rendered. Students’ misunderstanding of feminist scholarship as a pedagogical tool, as understood through my embodied experience in the classroom, deepens the intellectual precarity encountered by critical scholars. This schism is deepened for scholars of colour like me who inhabit temporary, contract positions. Nash and Owens’ reference to the ‘ambivalent, contradictory and fraught’ feelings feminist scholars encounter highlights the way I, as an instructor, experience a ‘continued attachment to the university even as it is an agent of violence’. (King 2015: viii)

***

Returning to the space of the classroom with which I started this essay will help to situate the argument I make. In discussing feminist media studies and feminist disability studies with my students, I inform them that these theories do not simply inform the course content; rather, they inform the ethos of the course pedagogy. I let my students know that a feminist pedagogy, attuned to the specificity of bodies through disability studies, and dialled into media studies, enables this classroom to be a space for the exploration of ideas outside of the boundaries and confines of ableist, gendered discourses. A feminist pedagogy, I tell them, enables us to push beyond the power dynamics implied by the physical, mental, and intellectual positioning of students and teachers. I may stand in front of the class to speak, but when we are in here, we are co-constituting knowledge—through both personal experience and intellectual rigour. We discuss Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s theorisation of the impulse to ‘confront[s] the limits of the ways we understand human diversity, the materiality of the body, multiculturalism, and the social formations that interpret bodily difference’. (2002: 13) In this way, we locate knowledge in the room, in our bodies, in our mediated experiences.

This is the first day of class, and instead of an hour-long overview of the minutia of a new syllabus, I offer a brief theoretical and practical introduction to the orienting critical theory that guides my own feminist pedagogy. It is a self-reflexive decision to let students behind the curtain, in order that they endeavour to offer the same respect towards each other’s fluid personal and classroom politics. As Erin Castro and Michael Brawn note, ‘critical pedagogues aim to create classroom environments that embrace a democratic process of instruction, where students are empowered to act against oppression, both internal and external’. (2017: 102)

The class I reference in this essay is centred on technology and meaning-making. Throughout, the class is oriented around a feminist pedagogy that includes discussions of gender, ability, sexuality, race, class, power, and ideology. When the course interrogates hard-to-navigate issues, from racism and access in digital space to the navigation of gender identity online, I encourage students to remember that discussions of culture must attend both to issues of structure and agency. I frequently caution hesitant students that critical engagement with culture is not about guilt or apology, or individual culpability. I also emphasise that it is crucial to the course to invest in understanding the politics of each cultural engagement as well as the politics of who feels comfortable engaging within the classroom. Discussions of technology, meaning and access are structural, as well as political. For this reason, feminist disability studies offers analytical power to students. This pedagogical lens, in situating technology and media questions in a larger political sphere, can help us take the burden of an unfair and marginalising world off of the individual and instead enable a big picture view. The social world – particularly as it is enacted through digital media—has defined what we all think, and how we act on those thoughts and beliefs. This pedagogy brings that to the fore.

In 2018, this class received the highest ratings of any course taught during that semester. However, one comment in the evaluations disapproved of the course’s attention to feminist disability studies. This student argued that in using feminist pedagogy, I taught a course that was different than advertised. This student believed that I had misrepresented the course as for everyone. The comment read as follows: ‘My only criticism is I found the course syllabus to focus on Dr. Rajabi’s approach to memetic media and not a general overview. If the course was called ‘Feminist Disability Studies and Memetic Media’ I wouldn’t have an issue with the readings. I know ‘objectivity’ doesn’t exist and many people use the notion of objectivity to promote their agenda, but I left the course wondering if there were key texts on memetics that we didn’t have time to read.’

It is not my desire to teach a class palatable to the tastes and political leanings of all students; still, I found this comment striking. At no point did my students read any texts that would strictly fall within the disciplines of Feminist Media Studies or Feminist Disability Studies. It seems I had not made clear the purpose of a feminist pedagogy. Indeed, a feminist classroom is inherently for everyone. This left me asking myself whether our pedagogical frameworks are delegitimised by the self-reflexive gesture of naming them for our students. It also left me grappling with my own social location as an Iranian-American woman who identifies and presents as a woman of colour. Further, as an instructor with a disability, I wondered how I was being read in the context of the class. Does my social location, and the vulnerability of my intersectional identities, make it more challenging for me to offer an explicitly feminist classroom? Do we, as scholars and teachers, offer students the affective space to explore mediated boundaries that have material consequences for their bodies? Does my marginality in the university classroom benefit from the pedagogical lenses that feminisms offer? Do these pedagogies need to be named in order to effectively create space for debate, to foster a healthy relationship between teacher and student, or to cultivate counter publics in the classroom?

***

At a recent orientation at the new, large university in the USA where I would be joining the faculty, the representatives from the Diversity and Equity office gave a presentation on bias in the classroom. In this seminar, I learned that students make their minds up about their teachers within 60 seconds of seeing them on the first day. Measuring ourselves as educators against this immediate, if invisible, judgement is only complicated by framing courses through feminist lenses. I name feminist pedagogy to undo the biases that these terms often trigger among audiences who have not had a deep engagement with the underlying theoretical lenses that inform them. This becomes a precarious gesture in the first moments of meeting students, moments in which they are unconsciously sizing up their instructors.

Feminist pedagogy, however, belongs in media studies classrooms. Feminist pedagogy, as Carolyn Shrewsbury tells us, begins with ‘a vision of the classroom as a liberatory environment, in which we, teacher-student and student-teacher, act as subjects, not objects,’ and are ‘engaged with self in a continuing reflective process’. (1987: 6) In this way, the classroom shifts from being a space of individual learning to a space in which the material consequences of each students’ words, questions, and provocations influence and impact the education received by their peers. Self-reflexivity offers students a holistic approach to learning because it removes the impulse of right or wrong from student engagement and instead focuses on education being for everyone, rather than for those with a competitive advantage.

According to Shrewsbury, ‘The classroom becomes an important place to connect to our roots, our past, and to envision the future … to develop excellence that is not limited to the few’. (1987: 6) This process of ‘envision[ing] the future’ is particularly central to a classroom dedicated to the understanding of how digital media enable shifting landscapes of meaning-production. Inherent in media production and proliferation are the gender biases that generate and necessitate the development and persistence of feminism(s). Moreover, feminism has moved beyond the isolated pursuit of gender justice to an intersectional endeavour relating to broader systems of power and oppression, and a feminist classroom cannot overlook the unequal social formations that simultaneously undergird educational and media institutions. In my class, ‘feminism is a primary lens through which the world is interpreted and acted upon’. (Kenway & Modra 1992) Oppression doesn’t just exist outside of the classroom; it exists and is (re)produced within the classroom as well. While students may enter a space of discomfort in naming this oppression so explicitly, it is this precise discomfort that offers fertile ground on which to plant seeds of knowledge. Direct engagement with feminist pedagogy orients students in relationship to issues of power inside and outside of the classroom; but this can only function effectively if they can position themselves also in and through their own political and social locations.

Feminist pedagogies can enrich a media studies classroom by questioning the authority of the instructor, foregrounding personal experience as a source of knowledge, and exploring a diverse multitude of voices and perspectives. (Welier 1991) Students are therefore invited, first, to understand politics in terms of power; and, second, to share their experiences, to push knowledge through critical engagement with their daily media use. Paired with disability studies, such pedagogies then encourage students to explore the value of knowledge. The classroom becomes a space where ability can be questioned, and knowledge can be accessed in diverse ways. This gives students a place to reflect on their own abilities within the classroom. In my experience, despite best efforts from disability services teams on large campuses, the hurdle students must overcome to receive accommodations for varying degrees of ability can be quite large and cumbersome. Thus, a classroom space that offers reflexivity around ability benefits students who, without the institutional protections of Disability Services, bear the burden of ensuring that their education is accessible, and that receiving their education does not place a material burden on them.

Considering this, could I reasonably start my classes with a provocation around feminist media studies or feminist disability studies? Would this approach foster an affective relationship and encourage ‘an assertion of empowered creative energy’? (Allen 1981, quoted in Shrewsbury 1987: 7) I was never taught to approach classrooms with emotion when, as a graduate student, I learned how to teach. I was, however, consistently reminded of the political space of the classroom. The recognition of the politics of the classroom often seemingly coincides with a misrecognition of its affective dynamics. But Deborah Gould argues that emotions are ‘fundamental to political life’. (2009: 3) How people ‘come to their understandings of the world and their sense of what might be possible’ is a deeply emotional endeavour. (Gould 2009: 3) The affective politics of the classroom is a crucial space for learning.

Affective engagements, such as in feminist classroom spaces, can prompt visceral changes to ‘bodily capacities’. (Hickey-Moody 2013) These changes are then understood through power structures that place normative bounds on Othered bodies. A feminist disability pedagogy can shift the teacher-student relationship from one of authority to one in which both parties are moved and knowledge is discovered through embodied experience. Further, in feminist disability studies, bodily capacity is challenged through the political gestures that collaboratively break down various systems through which subjects are interpellated. (Garland-Thomson 2002) If ‘the human body is the indispensable medium’ in the Digital Age (Kraidy 2013), this affective relationship, in which the limits of bodies in classrooms are challenged, models more effectively for students a self-reflexive media critique. Central to media studies are ideas of structure and agency. To interrogate the ways in which power is limited by normative cultural frameworks and institutions of control requires ‘continuous questioning and making assumptions explicit’. (Shrewsbury 1987: 7) A feminist pedagogy, too, requires the explicit engagement of the assumed nature of the classroom. This empowers students to critically assess the assumptions that undergird their behaviour in the classroom and beyond.

It is challenging to create a feminist classroom in large research universities that often relegate gender studies to departments tidily named ‘Women & Gender Studies’ as though every field in the social sciences or humanities does not deeply engage gender, ability, and cultural diversity. I have also faced the challenge of being a woman of colour in classes where my insistence on feminism is sometimes dismissed by students as not for them, but rather about me. In naming my intersecting identities, my deafness, my health trauma that impacts my ability, my convictions around elevating voices of marginalised populations, and in inhabiting the classroom with my unchangeable bodily attributes, I give the impression, it seems, that feminist media studies, as a guiding theory of my pedagogy, only matters because my body is the way it is.

In media studies classes, where critical engagement with representation, culture, and power is crucial to understanding, it is important to give students the theoretical tools through which they can engage media in effective ways. It is also central to push students toward intellectual inquiry that names and asks questions about various forms of power – power that impacts both students and teachers constrained by the institutional confines of the modern university. I no longer offer the smiling caveat that ‘These are my frameworks; they don’t have to be yours.’ Instead, I explicitly let students know what a feminist pedagogy can enable, I honour their experiences, and I walk alongside them as we discover the breadth of meaning produced in a mediated world.


REFERENCES

Allen, Carolyn (1981), ‘Feminist Teachers: The Power of the Personal’, Working Paper Series 3.

Erin Castro & Michael Brawn (2017), ‘Critiquing Critical Pedagogies inside the Prison Classroom: A Dialogue between Student and Teacher’, Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 87, No. 1, pp. 99-121.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2002), ‘Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory’, NWSA journal, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 1-32.

Gould, Deborah (2009), Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight against AIDS, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hall, Stuart & Sut Jhally (1997), Representation & the Media, Media Education Foundation (DVD).

Hickey-Moody, Anna (2013), ‘Affect as Method: Feelings, Aesthetics and Affective Pedagogy’, in Rebecca Coleman & Jessica Ringrose (eds), Deleuze and Research Methodologies, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 79-95.

Kenway, Jane & Helen Modra (1992), ‘Feminist Pedagogy and Emancipatory Possibilities’, in Carmen Luke & Jennifer Gore (eds), Feminisms and Critical Pedagogy, London & New York: Routledge, pp.138-166.

King, Tiffany Lethobo (2015), ‘Post-indentitarian and Post-intersectional Anxiety in the Neoliberal Corporate University’, Feminist Formations, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 114-138.

Kraidy, Marwan M. (2013), ‘The Body as Medium in the Digital Age: Challenges and Opportunities’, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Vol. 10, No. 2/3, pp. 285-290.

Nash, Jennifer C. & Emily A. Owens (2015), ‘Introduction: Institutional Feelings: Practicing Women’s Studies in the Corporate University’, Feminist Formations, Vol. 27, No. 3, pp. vii-xi.

Shrewsbury, Carolyn M. (1987), ‘What is Feminist Pedagogy?’, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3 & 4, pp. 6-14.

Weiler, Kathleen (1991), ‘Freire and a Feminist Pedagogy of Difference’, Harvard Educational Review, Vol. 61, No. 4, pp. 449-475.

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