‘Perhaps too Passionate’: An Introduction to Feminist Pedagogies

by: , January 14, 2020

© Photo by Jen Theodore

In 2015, with 12 months of my PhD to go and only a couple of years of teaching experience under my belt, I took up a position as a visiting lecturer at a nearby university. I was keen to test my skills as more than assistant (as described by the misleading A of the acronym GTA) [1] and to have the first opportunity of my fledgling career to convene a module. It would look good on my CV, and I needed the cash in the wake of the premature end of my doctoral funding. I sought guidance from friends and I threw myself into the process of syllabus design. Submitting to the sustained distraction from my thesis, I delivered a series of lectures and seminars that I thought were distinctive, provocative, fun, and political.

Reflecting on the module evaluation forms at the end of the semester, my confidence took a hit. One student wrote: ‘The only positive I can think of is that the lecturer is very passionate about her subject. Perhaps too passionate’.

How can you be too passionate? I asked myself. Surely, any student should feel lucky to have a teacher who is keen, attentive, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about her subject. I can now imagine some of my peers and colleagues, especially in the early stages of their career, reading these words not only with disappointment but also with bewilderment. And I can also imagine their first response: ‘Don’t take it personally’. It’s clearly just another symptom of the environment many of us already find ourselves bemoaning: that is, higher education’s insistent and intensifying path towards a neoliberal consensus. It puts it at risk of becoming an institution that encourages students to regard themselves as consumers and their studies through the lens of efficiency and productivity rather than criticality, depth, or, indeed, passion. Of course, the need to measure success by teaching evaluations is itself a symptom of a consumerist enterprise—though with future job applications resting on the ability to mine nuggets of quotable praise, this particular critique is often put on hold. The student produced in and through the neoliberal HE institution is subject to these trends whilst also being the face of them.

In this way, a comment such as the one above becomes just another example in a broader critique of the ‘contemporary university’. Nearly five years on, however, I can still remember the sting of reading this student’s words, just as I can remember their precise phrasing. This went beyond a mocking acquiescence to the inclusion of something in the ‘positives’ column of a teaching evaluation; the word ‘passionate’ was, for me, loaded with far more than the standard requisites of good teaching. In this case, passion was not something that should be found in excess. I knew that not everyone taking the class was happy—in part, I assumed, because of my inexperienced attempts at authority. I tried to cover too much, and I set large amounts of compulsory reading, insisting the students complete them or not bother coming to seminars. Over and above that, however, I also encouraged them to radically depart from their existing conceptions of gender, sexuality and other socio-cultural norms. The title of the module in question had been changed, before my arrival, from ‘Women and Culture’ to ‘Gender and Culture’. The rebranding had been designed, I was told, to incorporate material ‘not just’ about women but also ‘about men’—as one colleague put it, ‘to keep the boys in the class interested’. As far as I was concerned, however, as a queer-feminist theorist in training, my obligation to the name change would mean a much more profound shift. Designing the module almost from scratch, and stubbornly discarding many of the relics of its previous iteration, I introduced the students to a series of texts that would, I hoped, transform the way they thought about gender—from Orlando (1992) to Fun Home (2006) and Only Lovers Left Alive (2013).[2] Looking back now, I see that my endeavours fell short. Resolutely ensuring that the writers, artists and filmmakers I set for the students to read and watch weren’t too male or too straight, I neglected to realise how White and how Western they were. I had designed a course on ‘Gender and Culture’ around (what I thought were) my own concerns, revealing my own identifications. I troubled the notions of gender and culture that I had personally felt alienated by, provoking the students to see the concept of ‘woman’, and maybe also me, differently. In short, I de-centred those aspects where I am myself decentred; I left intact those in which I occupy academic norms. This is just one exemplification of feminism’s own ambivalent relationship to the ‘personal’. This is a word whose centrality to myriad feminist methodologies and feminist ambitions is most evident in the slogan ‘the personal is political’. But, as Victoria Hesford articulates in her analysis of women’s liberation, the ‘personal’ has proved not to be ‘the site of the movement’s becoming or future solution’, but rather its ‘problem’. (2013: 130)

Regretfully, this critique of my syllabus’ narrow grasp of gender intersections was not the one levelled at me by the participants in my class. Instead, several students protested on the basis that they hadn’t realised the module would be so concerned with ‘homosexuality’. This was a classic elision of gender non-normativity and sexuality, not to mention sex and desire, the discontinuities that Judith Butler exposes so vividly in Gender Trouble (1999 [1990]). I could have corrected them with the weight of queer theory behind me—these were queer texts, certainly, but not necessarily gay ones. My own research would have given me the tools, my work exploring the relationship between lesbianism, legibility and the ambiguous representation of desire. But I found myself discarding these critical-theoretical nuances in my knee-jerk anxieties. I still catch myself counting the number of queer texts whenever I embark on reading list design, as if desire’s representation lends itself to quantification. This student evaluation was my first experience of an implicit accusation that has stuck with me: that research under the banner of feminist and queer theory—in my case, compounded by lesbian studies no less—was too specific, too explicit, too biased, ‘too passionate’.

The described scenario is, of course, a manifestation of much more general trends, from the shortcomings of the consumerist impulses of the current higher education system to the systemic discriminations of canonical thought and the whitewashing of much queer and feminist critique. Even then, an experience such as this one can feel intensely specific and intensely personal. Later, when I wrote 48 job applications within a year of my viva, I asked myself: should I really be wearing my ‘passion’ on my sleeve? It hadn’t occurred to me not to be out since I abandoned (as a university undergraduate, for what it’s worth) my failed teenage experiments with the closet. I was shocked now to discover that I was pondering its merits in order to be perceived as a professional in the institution. Teaching can feel like an invitation to vulnerability, and my encounter with the punitive force of implicitly sexist and homophobic student evaluations was evidence to me that I’d accepted that invitation all too willingly. As teachers, we have the opportunity, as Olivia Khoo writes in this issue, to ‘make a difference through [our] various forms of difference’. But in this moment, my personal, research and teaching positionalities suddenly felt all too closely aligned. My teaching on unruly bodies just felt too embodied. Sometimes, for some people, just existing becomes in Sara Ahmed’s words ‘a form of political labour’. (2016: 115) Women of colour have borne the brunt of this labour, showing how it falls on some bodies more than others. As Samira Rajabi argues in her article in this issue, teaching can compound precarity in its emotional, economic, social, or political forms. 

There will be students who whisper behind your back, rate your teaching poorly, mistrust your authority and shy away from your classes towards the comforting ‘neutrality’ of normative positionalities. But there will always be others who discern your passion for your subject and are drawn to your classes because of it. They too will be motivated by the affective charge of political engagement, their experiences legitimised by the attention to different forms of knowledge. You have the opportunity to create safe spaces that allow for genuine dialogue, care and reflection: a classroom that matches feminist theory to the principles of feminist pedagogy. Not every student needs this space; but those who do, really do. This is simultaneously the challenge and the thrill. Teaching can be the space that gives momentum to our research. It is what makes us think differently about our research by telling us which questions we can’t assume the answers to and which questions we hadn’t even thought of. It is often what sustains us, gives us a community of thought, returns us to beloved texts or introduces us to new ones, pushes our thinking on, provokes and excites us. 

And yet, teaching is often marginalised in the academic imaginary. An ability to fulfil ‘research-led’ teaching is an essential criterion on many job specifications but a contract separates ‘research’ from ‘teaching’ with percentage points as if they are diametrically opposed. It is understood that we fulfil these roles in different spaces and in different moments. Many of us—and I am situated in the UK, but it is possible to observe parallels in the other national contexts explored in this issue—find ourselves seeing teaching, and the time it takes, as a distraction. This is a view rewarded by the recruitment and probation cycles of the humanities and social sciences that tend to privilege publication over all else. Scholarly reputations rarely develop on the basis of teaching commitments. PhD students and some recent postdocs will discover that the liminal space they occupy distorts the borders between the university’s different constituents but still subjects them to its hierarchies. In short: the amount of time we are expected to spend teaching seems to be ideologically set up alongside the curious expectation that we will resent the time we spend teaching.

In the face of this paradox, it can feel like a risk either to wax lyrical about our love of teaching—lest we concede to the structures that make us do too much of it—or, god forbid, admit that sometimes it is not just too much but too hard. But the feminist project has been vital both to endorsing the value of teaching as a valid craft, and to having the vocabulary to name the vulnerabilities that teaching can produce. Lauren Berlant calls it the ‘intimacy expectation that accompanies much politically engaged work in the academy’. (1997: 143) Teaching can be the thing that gives us passion for our work; it can also be the site of our professional precarity. Some people have the privilege to be passionate without ever being ‘too passionate’. Those who don’t will find their teaching more vital than ever while their ability to carry it out becomes more and more insecure. In her article ‘Remembered Rapture: Dancing with Words’, hooks recalls how, while studying at college, she learned that writing ‘was likely to be held in higher esteem if it conveyed a lack of passionate engagement with words. This dispassionate stance was most often heralded as more objective’. (2000: 2) hooks adamantly shuts down this perspective, reading it is simply ‘wrong’, a misguided strategy to champion so-called ‘neutrality’ in academic thinking. Neutrality functions, hooks writes, as nothing but ‘an assertion of the hierarchical divide separating critic and writer’ (2000: 2), which also holds up other such hierarchies of identity, privilege and experience. To be labelled as ‘too passionate’ is, then, not just a standard symptom of university marketisation. It is a symptom of an acute crisis in higher education and in other institutions—led by figures like Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonoro and many others—that has heightened the stakes of politically engaged teaching making it not only harder, but also more vital. If the work done by the scholars in this special issue can be read as ‘too passionate’, this is a critique that readily becomes a call to arms.

This special issue highlights  intersections of politics, passion and embodiment by documenting the stakes of politically engaged teaching in contemporary higher education. Ostensibly about ‘feminist pedagogies’, the pieces collected here together form a much broader account of the entanglements of precarity, privilege and labour as they inform, and indeed constitute, the state of feminist work in the classroom and beyond. As an account of pedagogy and/as feminist praxis, the issue brings together the rigorously theoretical and boldly personal; indeed, the contributors throughout stir us to reconsider the lines between the two.

I confess, I was wary of beginning this introduction with a negative anecdote that many will have read as a signal of a solipsistic pessimism, cynicism or despair. But, as two of our authors, Jacqueline Gibbs and Aura Lehtonen  articulate in  their mobilisation of Jane Gallop’s ‘anecdotal theory’ (2002), anecdotes can offer moments of solidarity across different classrooms and even across different institutions. When shared, they are proof of the surprising collectivity of individual experience. The contributors to this issue measure solidarity in group projects, research seminars, consciousness raising groups, dinners, lunches and tea breaks, book clubs, workshops, co-made zines and co-written articles, and sometimes—though evidently all too rarely—co-taught courses. Just as hooks asserts that the critical essay is a ‘way to extend the conversations with other critical thinkers’ (2000: 3), we teach students that they are entering a conversation when they write, when they theorise, when they share the vocabulary of this or that ‘studies’. This is not a method of critical engagement belonging to feminist theory alone. (See, for instance, Graff & Birkenstein 2014) But feminism has made citation of this kind a strategy of survival, a poetics of community, an object of revolution. The contributions to this special issue gather around them a dazzling set of influences, including not only scholars such as hooks, Ahmed and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick whose work is cited again and again in cherished cycles of tribute, but also novelists, YouTubers, gamers, artists and filmmakers: from Toni Morrison to Marge Piercy, Natalie Wynn, Judy Chicago, Lucrecia Martel and Anna Anthropy.

In his poem ‘A Kentucky of Mothers’ (2014), Dana Ward pays tribute to the ‘many gendered mothers of my heart’: among them not only his ‘bio mom’ but also ‘Allen Ginsberg’, a ‘childhood neighbor’, ‘Winona Ryder’s character in Heathers’ and ‘Ella Fitzgerald’. I first came to Ward’s poem and its characters through Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which stylistically, formally and thematically draws links from Roland Barthes to Sedgwick via myriad critical theorists, artists and writers of various backgrounds. (2016: 71-2) The reminiscence of Virginia Woolf’s call for us to ‘think back through our mothers’ (2000 [1928]: 88) is expanded and transcended there into a generous and generative citational practice that beckons interlocutors and inspirations across genders, generations, disciplines, formats and genres. In the same spirit, in Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed calls them her ‘companion texts’—from George Eliot to Audre Lorde, such texts guide her feminist life as one lived ‘in very good company’. (2016: 17) Similarly, So Mayer’s book-length manifesto of feminist film criticism Political Animals is energised by the of ‘nearly 500 films by filmmakers who identify as female, trans*, intersex, non-binary and/or Two-Spirit (among other non-EuroWestern gender identities), from 60 countries’. (2016: 2-3) Revelling in the ambiguities of this politics of citation is Mayer’s admission—‘That said’, the next paragraph begins,  ‘my first feminist film experience was probably Labyrinth’ (Jim Henson, 1986).

In ‘Where Do You Know From?: An Exercise in Placing Ourselves Together in the Classroom’, Eugenia Zuroski reroutes the prevailing methodologies of the classroom icebreaker. The question ‘where do you know from?’ asks: ‘what do you find yourself thinking about? what preoccupies you?’ It is an invitation to collaboration. When I use this exercise (which I first discovered via Twitter, a platform that, though not always, at its best can become a vibrant pedagogical space of sharing and care), I always find that my students—or most of them, or enough of them—are enlivened by the permission and the opportunity to give their own account of their own intellectual trajectories, finally allowed to understand citation well beyond the strictures of plagiarism avoidance. I ask myself the question first, out loud. I know from my mother’s second wave pamphlets, found excitedly on the bookshelves of my childhood home. But I also know from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon, 1997-2003).

Collectively, the contributions in this special issue provoke re-thinkings and retellings of pedagogical encounters, tactics and feelings in spaces from the classroom to the meeting room, the dinner table, the office, the cinema, the gallery, the screen, the pages of a zine and the picket line. For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, pedagogy forms a triad of embodied resistance in the very title of her book Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. But for her, the word refers not ‘to the academic institution so much as to a mode of relationality—not only in the classroom, but equally around it’. (2003: 640) In this way, this special issue aims to evoke feminist pedagogy’s intrinsic mode of relationality by drawing attention to conversations: those that have sustained, enraged, provoked and inspired us. And like its base of knowledge and the spaces it inhabits, the issue’s definition of pedagogy spills over the expected parameters of its terminology. The contributors employ different methods from different disciplinary contexts; this is an adamantly interdisciplinary issue. The ‘critical reflections’ are often as personal as they are theoretical; the ‘creative practice’ has profound implications for theoretical endeavour. Labelling the categories of these selections has been a pleasurable nightmare.

Zuroski’s icebreaker makes way for ‘The Undutiful Daughter’s’, one of the two digitised zines whose vividly collaged pages bracket the issue and frame its metaphorical collage of the personal, political, creative and theoretical. The vibrant pink pages of ‘The Undutiful Daughter’s’ trace its conditions of production, invoking collective resistance even within the institutional setting in which it was created. This zine was compiled collaboratively by the participants of a graduate skills workshop organised by Mihaela Brebenel and Megen de Bruin-Molé. In the article that follows it, Brebenel and de Bruin-Molé borrow the metaphor of the ‘carrier bag’ from a chapter of Ursula Le Guin’s book Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places (1989) to model a vision of what feminist training in the academy would need to contain in order for it to sustain our political and pedagogical work. Based on an ethos of ‘continuing process’ rather than ‘stasis’ or ‘resolution’, this is not a utopian vision but certainly an ambitious one, if only because of its clarity of need. The next article continues to set the terms for how we use institutional space and time to reimagine the parameters of pedagogy. Isabelle McNeill, Georgina Evans and Louise Haywood begin with an admission to finding the creativity with which they approach the work of craft outside of their academic lives to be at odds with the scope of their research and teaching personas. Their ongoing event series ‘Tactics and Praxis’, held at the University of Cambridge, rethinks the craft of work with a spirit of collectivity that is as exacting as it is simple: ‘bring[ing] people into contact with each other’. Thrillingly, what could have been a simple report on an innovative series of events is instead a manifesto: moreover, a manifesto not proclaimed with statements of intent and driven by bluster, but one of questions and interludes. From WhatsApp group chats to teatime expense claims, these are the tactics of collaboration. Like several other contributors to this issue, McNeill, Evans and Haywood’s intervention is to push against mandates of efficiency and production by enabling slowness and gentleness through creative encounters as measures not only for surviving but for thriving in institutional spaces.

Olivia Khoo’s contribution offers a personal reflection on critical pursuit. Her essay articulates the imperatives of performance and productivity and that seduce us into spirals of administrative labour under the guise of efficiency. The ‘strategic resilience’ advocated by institutional training programmes, supposedly designed to protect us, in fact prepare academics to be ‘battle ready’, inducted into complicity with the university’s gendered and racialised systems of demand and care. In defiance, Khoo experiments with the role of ‘tactics’, also central to McNeill, Evans and Haywood’s intervention, a set of unformed, dispersed tool that occupy ‘the space of the other’. (1984: 36-7) Khoo’s tactic here is to sharply ponder the short-term ‘joys of administration’ as antidote to scholarly imperatives, imagining what it would mean to embrace the failure that is always already presumed for queer female scholars of colour. With resistance a continuing theme in subsequent contributions, Jacqueline Gibbs and Aura Lehtonen articulate how we can understand the pushes and pulls that characterise resistance and refusal as prerequisites for pedagogy, as for social justice. Gibbs and Lehtonen share their experiences of a series of classroom encounters—all of which feel very familiar—that produce feelings of uncertainty, shame, frustration or guilt as they produce the inadequacy of response and the inevitability of failure: from the student who takes the role of ‘devil’s advocate’ in order to dominate discussion, to the student who rallies for curriculum reform. By undertaking and reflecting on the ‘anecdotal’ (Gallop, 2002) method of theorising through emotion (rather than by putting it to the side to get on with the real business of theory), Gibbs and Lehtonen narrativise these personal feelings, embedding them in broader institutional structures. 

Boldly intervening in the critical protocols of academic writing, the next contribution interrupts the constitutional norms of the institution by proposing a series of amendments to the ‘study regulations’ of the School of Graphic Research in Brussels. Co-authored by the ‘Teaching to Transgress’ collective (inspired of course by hooks’s beloved book), the manifesto uses satire to defy the oppressive norms of business as usual. If you don’t like it: in the author’s words, ‘go fuck yourself’. The accompanying essay by co-author Caroline Dath audaciously charts the manifesto’s proposals (and reactions to them), including the relatively straightforward instruction to punish the illusion of the ‘“objective”, “impartial” and “neutral” point of view’; the adjustment of tuitional fees to account for intersectional experiences of privilege; and a mandate to re-timetable the academic year according to the rhythms of the menstrual cycle. This is a provocative, at times violent and at heart entirely level-headed call to ‘sow’ the seeds of ‘trouble’. Continuing with the theme of trouble, in her interview with colleagues—teachers and students both—Alice Pember documents a study day entitled ‘Learning Is Dangerous’ held in the film studies department at Queen Mary, University of London. The interview unfolds to demonstrate how the ‘institutional (and attendant psychological) barriers to radical, feminist pedagogies’ make even self-reflection a difficult process to enable and then to sustain. Documenting the hierarchies of teaching and learning that manifest in spite of ambitions to interrogate them, the interview thoughtfully explores the need for, and obstacles to, a truly collaborative dialogue about the ‘technologies of power’ within which we work.

Foregrounding hooks’ commitments to the transgressive art of pedagogy (1994), Dath and Pember both begin to explore the implications of ‘dangerous’ learning. In their article, Morgan Bimm and Margeaux Feldman address the high stakes of transgression. Bimm and Feldman turn danger and discomfort on its head to measure the parameters of safe space. Critiques of trigger warnings can, in their disdain for anti-intellectualism, often be almost anti-emotional, reducing accounts of vulnerability to accusations of solipsism. Bimm and Feldman analyse the terms that underpin these debates, arguing that it takes privilege ‘not to need’ the structures of care provided by an attention to traumatic response in the classroom. Bimm and Feldman articulate the potential for a radical pedagogical softness in order to navigate the impossible harshness of the world.

Charlotte Morris’s article places this harshness into the context of the political climate in the UK that, in parallel with elsewhere, has become increasingly hostile to politically engaged research and teaching. Morris’s module ‘From the Cradle to the Grave’ combines the analyses of wellbeing, welfare and policy. As a ‘toolkit’ designed to offer detailed insight into a specific teaching setting, the article reflects on the module’s processes of explicitly introducing social justice into social sciences pedagogy. By advancing a thoughtful classroom politics, Morris teaches students to reconfigure their understandings of discourses from political correctness to precarity. In this way, she advocates a pedagogy of care that incorporates a rethinking of the ethics of engagement. Similarly charting the consequences of the ‘market values’ and ‘managerial practices’ of the contemporary university, Carly Guest marks out a temporality of resistance that counters the lack of time we are given to develop, and to experiment with, our pedagogical practices. Guest’s article recounts how a re-reading of Marge Piercy’s 1976 novel Woman on the Edge of Time functioned for her as a slowly productive tool to account for, reflect on and overcome a difficult encounter in the classroom. Guest outlines how the reading of the novel was for her, a sociologist, not a disciplinary inevitability but rather a supposed sign of a lack of productivity. Explicitly addressing the radical methodological potential of feminism’s interdisciplinarity, Guest signals the possibility for slow scholarship and/as slow pedagogy.

Departing from the slow pedagogical space of the reading chair to take up the rapid-fire citational practice of popular culture, the next contribution articulates how I Love Dick (2016-2017) appropriates feminist film theory for a broader pedagogy of feminist filmmaking. Sarah Sinwell’s video essay analyses Jill Soloway’s adaptation of Chris Kraus’s memoir (1997) and the cinematic techniques it mobilises to incorporate the gains of feminist teaching and research and to shout about them loud and clear. Discussing the tensions inherent in the representation of ambiguous desire, and the citational tricks that self-reflexively critique them, Sinwell draws out the revolutionary potential of popular media not only as an object of research but as a site of teaching. The next two contributions also use the video essay form, in order to advocate for pedagogies of care, exploration and feeling. Both Krista Grensavitch’s ‘The Supper Club’ and Briana Martino’s ‘Graphic Medicine’ invigorate the citational practice of the classroom by calling up artists and craftspeople in order to produce new forms of knowledge – or to uncover overlooked ones. In her tribute to Judy Chicago’s famous installation The Dinner Party (1974-1979), Grensavitch emphasises the ‘traditionally subjugated (read: feminized) forms of making (think: various forms of needlework including weaving and embroidery)’ that have paralleled the subjugation and marginalisation of women and non-binary people in the teaching of local history. The rethinking of knowledge practices through craft is also the site of Martino’s intervention. ‘Graphic Medicine’ reconsiders the language of mental health and mental illness and the institutional structures and parameters for thinking about mad/ness by bringing together the scholarly and the therapeutic. Following Bimm and Feldman’s radical approach to education and care, Martino encourages us to witness the experiences of mental health by working through the therapeutic potential of play.

Like Martino, Rebecca Rouse and Amy Corron think through the work of play in their reorientation of the discussion of game design. ‘Levelling Up’ responds to a ‘crisis of toxicity and harassment’ in both the games industry and in games pedagogy in which ‘tacit agreements’ underpin hegemonic pedagogies. Written from the positionality of the queer feminist lecturer who deigns to ‘walk into’ a space apparently not made for her, Rouse and Corron present a toolkit for teaching games design that reconfigures not only the syllabus but also the classroom. This approach dovetails with the ‘DIY Feminist Pedagogies’ that characterise the modules introduced in the next article, which encourage students in technology studies to analyse the gendered rhetorical strategies of specialised texts and objects from tampon insertion instructions and household appliance manuals to chatbots. Inspired by ‘resistive texts’ (Kempson, 2015: 460), craft praxis and grassroots activism, Missy Hannah, Nupoor Ranade and Melissa Stone advocate a ‘DIY feminism’ for the STS classroom.

Hannah, Ranade and Stone’s article further reveals the hazards of feminist teaching for PhD students with even more limited access to the governance of syllabus design. In this way, they reveal the necessities of DIY feminist placemaking to counteract the precarity produced by disciplinary and institutional hierarchies of knowledge. Similarly, in her personal reflection, Samira Rajabi engages the ableist discourses that resist the interventions of feminist disability studies as she re-occupies the space of the marginalised body in the classroom. Explicitly naming a powerful thread that runs through the whole issue, Rajabi articulates precarity as not only the simple product of temporary contracts and their economic consequences, but as a state compounded by the navigation of intersectional experiences of marginality. Rajabi concludes with optimism, recalling not only the defensive strategies induced by precarity, but also the learning it takes to overcome them.

The final section of the special issue further opens up an interrogation of the relationship between theory, creativity and self-expression. Addressing the processes of (and obstacles to) social justice in the academy, Roxy Hornbeck and Ki Wight creatively experiment with embodied ways of thinking about pedagogy. Roxy Hornbeck describes the ‘pursuit of justice’ as being ‘like breathing’. This metaphor for ‘social justice and/as ethical leadership’ encourages us to think about the attention and space we need to give to our feminist work. The ‘deep breath’ required for social justice requires energy, the courage of conviction, and the will to refuse. In Hornbeck’s piece, then, the vicissitudes of feminist pedagogy are evoked through a direct metaphor of bodily process; in Wight’s, they are spatialised in the analysis of an academic office that bears the traces of inhabitation. Wight works her way through a diffractive reading of her working space. Through the visual assemblage of a dataset of 24 images of her office, Wight articulates what it means to be ‘at odds’ with the institution in which she resides. Wight’s attention to the visual culture of the office, to its semiotics of social justice, reveals the high stakes of queer feminist visibility in the academy. Wight’s work is followed by ‘Fugitive Spaces’, the second of the issue’s collaboratively made zines, originally compiled as part of a symposium organised by Bimm and Feldman designed to reorient the discussion of social justice and/as teaching by explicitly generating a space for undergraduate and postgraduate students, precariously employed staff and ‘folks doing feminist/queer/anti-racist/anti-oppressive pedagogies beyond traditional classrooms’. Highlighting the precarity produced by hierarchies of experience and need, and revealing the tools with which we can continue to remember why we teach with passion in the first place, the issue concludes, then, with the fugitive spaces of education both in and outside of the academy.


I’ve finished writing the first draft of this introduction in the aftermath of the UK general election. This was not the first major election called since I began teaching in early 2013; indeed, it was the fourth in five years. It was, however, the first to take place during the teaching term, or with such close proximity to it. And it was the first in which UK academics were officially instructed, not (only) by our own political instincts, but by the terms of our institution’s bureaucratic membership of the ‘Office for Students’, to encourage students to register for a vote, and then to use it. So, fulfilling our duties to a Secretary of State guidance document ideologically undermined by the timing of a December poll, I made time in each of my classes leading up to the voter registration deadline for students to do just that. This was supposed to be an exercise in democratic rights, rather than political persuasion. ‘Who are you voting for’, my students asked me without fail, as they navigated the excitement and nerves building up to the vote—for many of them, this was their very first time. ‘I’m not supposed to tell you’, I replied. ‘Though you can probably tell’. You can probably tell, if you’ve selected my classes. You can probably tell, if you came with me to the Bishopsgate Institute to collect artefacts on the history of London protest movements. You can probably tell, if you’ve read my book—or my staff profile, or my Twitter feed.

But the teacher-student contract is premised on a microcosm of interaction designed to contain our perception of each other as humans with needs, with wishes, with motivations. And so I will find myself relieved, when the results come out, that teaching is finished for term. The students won’t need to see evidence of my heartbreak, my political beliefs underpinned by own vulnerabilities, my fears of how much harder it will be over the next five years to manage a precarious career position, a lesbian relationship, a frequent dependence on NHS services, all made more acute by the knowledge that I have it luckier than most. Stunned by the result, especially after a week of canvassing that now threatens to have been misspent time, misspent energy, misspent optimism, I find myself in a state of political grief. For weeks, I avoid the news and the Twittersphere’s ‘hot takes’. In the period of time when I would normally be rallying myself to look at the myriad leftovers of the term’s unmanaged projects, I find myself unmoored from critical engagement. Presented with writing an inspiring introduction that does justice to the politically engaged work represented by this issue, I feel unable to rise to the challenge.

But slowly I discover that, in fact, it is the final stages of this editorial process that give me the signs I need: that we are continuing on with our work even as many of us mourn the temporary loss of hope. The pieces collected here compel us to consider our situatedness as feminist scholars and teachers, temporally and spatially: on the ‘edge of time’, as ‘blockades’, in ‘fugitive spaces’. (Guest; Wight; Bimm & Feldman  in this issue) Not all of the contributors to this issue are based in the UK. But they are all based in systems of education that urgently need to confront the politics of competition, hierarchy, neutrality and supremacy. It is surely no surprise that so many of the contributors write of struggling to see through the precarity, overwork or pace of academia to the pedagogical practices they would cultivate if they could. For many, flourishing has become, rather than an inevitable affordance of academic life, an inconvenient state of defiance against the illusion of intellectual rigour and its systematic quantification. And so this is a collection of images of a better university as much as it is an account of them. The writers and makers collected here see teaching not just as a job or even as a practice but as an art and as an occupation. Yes, they labour at it, just as they feel it and embody it – its passions as well as its vulnerabilities, its challenges as well as its invigorations. They resolutely chart their failure to teach with steadfast objectivity; they combine the personal with the political; they make it pedagogical. Pedagogy is understood as the ‘theory and principles of education’. (Oxford University Press, 2019) But when these principles diverge from the strategic influences of the institution, from legitimate learning objectives or from canonical syllabi, they start to feel like manifestos of resistance. I hope that this issue helps to create the space for dialogue about the ways in which feminism informs, underpins and provokes the teaching we do and the teaching we want to do.


[1] In the UK, a GTA, or ‘Graduate Teaching Assistant’, is a PhD student who teaches in undergraduate classrooms; in many universities, GTAs teach the vast majority of seminars for a given module, while responsibility for lectures and convening duties is usually given to academic members of staff. Visiting lecturers are usually external hourly-paid members of staff (known in the USA as adjuncts).

[2] Here I would also like to cite the influence of my feminist teachers, in many of whose classes I studied, or co-taught, these texts.


Ahmed, Sara (2016), Living a Feminist Life, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bechdel, Alison (2006), Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, London: Jonathan Cape.

Berlant, Lauren (1997), ‘Feminism and the Institutions of Intimacy’, in E. Ann Kaplan & George Levine (eds), The Politics of Research, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, pp. 143-61.

Butler, Judith (1999 [1990]), Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 10th anniversary edition, London & New York: Routledge.

de Certeau, Michel (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life, translated by Steven Rendell, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

The Dinner Party, installation artwork, created by Judy Chicago. Brooklyn Museum: 1974-1979.

Gallop, Jane (2002), Anecdotal Theory, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Graff, Gerald & Cathy Birkenstein (2014), They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, New York and London: W.W. Norton.

Hesford, Victoria (2013), Feeling Women’s Liberation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press

hooks, bell (1994), Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York and London: Routledge.

hooks, bell (2000), ‘Remembered Rapture: Dancing with Words’, JAC,  Vol. 20, No. 1, pp. 1-8.

Kempson, Michelle (2015), ‘“My Version of Feminism”: Subjectivity, DIY, and the Feminist Zine’, Social Movement Studies, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 459-72.

Kraus, Chris (1997), I Love Dick, New York: Semiotext(e).

Labyrinth (1986), dir. Jim Henson.

Le Guin, Ursula (1989), ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, New York: Grove Press, pp. 149–54.

Mayer, So (2016), Political Animals: The New Feminist Cinema, London and New York: I.B. Tauris.

Nelson, Maggie (2016), The Argonauts, London: Melville House.

Oxford University Press (2019), ‘Pedagogy, n.’, OED Online, <https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/139520?redirectedFrom=pedagogy#eid> (last accessed 20 November 2019).

Piercy, Marge (1976), Woman on the Edge of Time, New York: Knopf.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (2003), Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Ward, Dana (2014), ‘A Kentucky of Mothers’, PEN America, <https://pen.org/a-kentucky-of-mothers/> (last accessed 11 June 2019).

Woolf, Virginia (1992), Orlando: A Biography, London: Vintage.

Woolf, Virginia (2000 [1928]), A Room of One’s Own, London: Penguin.

Films & TV Series 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), TV series, created by Joss Whedon.

Labyrinth (1986), dir. Jim Henson.

I Love Dick (2016-17), TV series created by Sarah Gubbins & Jill Soloway.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), dir. Jim Jarmusch.

Download article


Feeling inspired by MAI? Dedicated to intersectional gender politics in visual culture? Want to keep your feminist imagination on fire? MAI newsletter will help refresh your zeal for feminism with first-hand news on our new content. 

Subscribe below to stay up-to-date.

* We'll never share your email address with any third parties.


The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.

However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:

Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers

Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey