Teaching to Transform: Reimagining Feminist Pedagogies in Contemporary Higher Education

by: , January 27, 2020

© Photo by Vonecia Carswell


Teaching gender-related content and deploying feminist pedagogies in higher education (HE) has been beset by multiple challenges over recent years; indeed it has been argued that feminist teaching is in crisis. (Wright 2016) The contemporary political environment, characterised by overtones of sexism and misogyny (Read 2018), is increasingly shaped by post-truth populisms (Burke & Carolissen 2018) and the rise of neo-fascist movements, aligned with extreme formations of masculinity. (Kimmel 2013) Precisely due to this current unfolding context, the task of feminist teaching in HE has never been more urgent, such volatile circumstances necessitating careful responses, strategies and interventions. Drawing on my own and my students’ reflections, I share some of my pedagogical strategies, developed as I navigated a highly charged political and educational environment, while teaching social justice-orientated content. My work is informed by an intersectional feminist approach. (Crenshaw 1990) Students are guided to engage in weekly reflective practice within and beyond teaching spaces to make valuable connections between course content and lived experiences, contexts and broader socio-political environments, in line with critical pedagogies. (Freire 1970) This activity is grounded in feminist assertions of the ‘personal’ as ‘political’ and Donna Haraway’s notion of ‘situated knowledges’ (1988) alongside pedagogical values of reflection as fostering deep engagement and making sense of complexity. (Parker 1997) While there is a danger of students self-consciously writing what they think their teacher wants to hear (Smith 2011), they have autonomy in selecting from a personal collection of regular reflections. As this process can initially feel unsettling, the work is carefully introduced, scaffolded and supported; students are under no pressure to disclose personal experiences. In a spirit of reflexivity, recognising the importance of attending to my own locatedness, I share insights from my own ongoing reflective practice as an early career feminist scholar.

I begin this paper by providing an overview of the context, introducing key theories which have inspired my practice, before moving on to outline the background to this study and its methodological approach. I explore positionings of feminist academics in contemporary academia, referencing the context specific to my own practice, before considering key themes to emerge from the reflective data. These include the importance of transparency in speaking back to reactionary discourses; enabling critical reflection; attending to positionality and intersectionality; potentialities of facilitating polyphonic (multi-voiced) classrooms and resisting single stories (mono-narratives), as well as developing the feminist HE classroom as a site of activism, collaboration, resistance and transformation while centring self-care and solidarity.


Burke and Carolissen (2018) have highlighted how the rise of authoritarian populism, alongside ‘post-truth’ narratives, has emboldened the legitimation, normalisation and frequency of articulations of misogynistic and racist discourses, undermining hard-won gains in relation to social justice. They therefore argue for a renewed sense of urgency of feminist critiques and pedagogies to address this context. Simultaneously, universities, academics, students and ‘experts’ (Read 2018) have been undermined within populist press while feminist scholars have fallen victims to targeted harassment and threats. (Ringrose 2018) In the European context, Hungary has banned gender studies programmes (Ahrens et al. 2018), positioning them as dangerous ‘ideology’. The UK has seen burgeoning hate crime in recent years, including in the university context. (Kayali & Walters 2019) This has been exacerbated by the ‘Brexit’ vote and set against the backdrop of a government-led imposition of a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. Expressions and acts of hatred particularly directed at women, gender-variant, migrant, Black and ethnic minority academics and students (Phipps & Young 2015; Ringrose 2018) have created a climate of fear. Ongoing concerns have been raised in relation to ‘lad culture’ and forms of ‘toxic masculinity’ (Phipps & Young 2015) involving open expressions of misogyny alongside racism, homophobia and classism.

Effects of this highly charged political climate are augmented in HE by the widespread adoption of market values and neoliberal managerial practices (Deem 1998) from the private sector, bringing in competitive audit cultures and diminishing care and empathy. (Koulouris 2018; Phipps & Young 2015) Reductive constructions of teaching ‘excellence’ (Saunders & Ramírez 2017) impose consumer-model student satisfaction scores as measurements of teaching quality. Yet, precarity and exploitative workloads corrode staff availability, preparation, marking and feedback time. (UCU 2019) It should be stressed that universities have long been sites of intersecting forms of oppression and epistemological violences (Ahmed 2012; Bhambra et al. 2018; Phipps 2017; Spivak 1988), which interact in complex ways with neoliberalism. (Morley 2012) Such forces combine to create a heightened sense of challenge and contestation to teaching gender, feminist, de-colonial and related social justice content. (Burke & Carolissen 2018)

Feminist Theory

Here, I draw on foundational feminist pedagogical principles, which can be applied across course content and are not gender specific. While it is not possible to fully summarise the diversity of feminist teaching here, feminist pedagogies build on epistemologies which question white, western, male-centred, heteronormative forms of knowing (Harding 2003) and values of disembodied objectivity, rationality and neutrality as sole ways of being and knowing. Rather they recognise caring, embodied, emotional domains of life (Motta 2012); understand knowledge as ‘situated’—context-bound, partial and contingent (Haraway 1988)—and disrupt power relationships by foregrounding previously marginalised voices and knowledges. bell hooks’ work (1994) comprises a useful touchstone in elucidating meanings and purposes of feminist pedagogies, drawing on feminist, critical and de-colonial approaches in paving the way for intersectional teaching. hooks (1994) draws on Freire’s critical pedagogy (1970) in disrupting what is defined as the banking system whereby students are positioned as passive recipients of deposits of knowledge, as opposed to active participants. Instead, the classroom can be a safe space in which students can raise critical questions and where teachers attend to their wellbeing. Within this current milieu where sexism, racism, classism and ‘anti-social justice’ attitudes are emboldened, it is not always possible to promise every student a safe space; indeed the very premise of safer spaces in universities is frequently derided within popular media. However, such discourses can be challenged; creating learning environments where open and meaningful discussions can take place without causing harm can be a shared endeavour wherein students take responsibility and co-create rules of engagement.

Within feminist pedagogical frameworks, teachers might not expect immediate gratification in student feedback as there may be an initial discomfort in relation to different ways of learning and thinking and students may not realise the benefits until years later. (hooks 1994) With students positioned as consumers (Brule 2004) there are now additional challenges to enacting such discomforting practices. National Student Surveys and Teaching Excellence Frameworks focus on immediate gratification, positioning students as passive recipients as opposed to co-creators of knowledge (Rohrer 2018) who undergo complex and uneven learning journeys. (Gale & Parker 2014) Current challenges inherent in approaching education as a ‘practice of freedom’, as hooks (1994) advocates, are invoked by recent commentators, including Toni Wright (2016), who suggests that feminist university teaching is in crisis: Following cuts to women’s and gender studies courses, gender content is frequently treated as an optional ‘add-on’. (Hinton-Smith et al. 2019) Others highlight a longstanding backlash against feminism and lack of time-space for developing feminist curricula. (Moss & Richter 2011) While this may be the case, perhaps the current moment of reactionary politics and neoliberalisation can be simultaneously viewed as an opportunity to rejuvenate and reimagine possibilities and potentialities of feminist teaching—to rebuild capacities, communities and solidarities.

Background to Study and Methodology

Feminist pedagogical strategies are particularly relevant in this case study wherein I teach social justice content on an interdisciplinary course for social sciences, business, arts and humanities foundation students from diverse backgrounds within a cohort of approximately 80 students. Foundation courses are geared towards non-traditional learners and in this cohort, 26.9% are from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds and 20.6% disclose disabilities, above the sector average. [1] This course, entitled ‘Cradle to the Grave’, explores themes of welfare, wellbeing and their interconnections, investigating how policy contexts shape life chances and experiences while taking different social locations into account. Inevitably, content interlinks with issues of equity and social justice.

Ethics approval was granted by the University of Sussex and permission was sought from students to draw on reflections as data with reassurance that no sensitive data would be used, all data would be anonymised and identifying features would be removed. All 80 students undertaking the course submitted regular short reflections on their learning through the course of the year (2018-2019). Many of the extracts analysed here were drawn from both formative and summative work gathered towards the end of this year at a point when the majority were now confident with the process of reflection; approximately 200 pieces of data were analysed in total. A thematic analysis of data was then undertaken with a focus on processes and shifts in learning. This is complemented by ongoing reflections on my own teaching practice. Before proceeding to an exploration of identified themes, I should acknowledge my privileged standpoint of being a white cis-woman and British citizen working in a UK university, a western context developed through histories of exclusion, coloniality and violence.

Being a Feminist Teacher: Attending to Transparency

Attending to teacher-student power dynamics has long been a concern of feminist practitioners (hooks 1994) and enabling students to hold more power in the classroom is potentially liberating. Yet, it is vital firstly to recognise the relative privilege students might hold and secondly, in a climate where precariously employed women teachers hold relatively little power there are continual anxieties about repercussions. Furthermore, gender-related content and feminism can be perceived alternately as threatening and not to be taken seriously in contexts where students are exposed to misogynistic, anti-feminist viewpoints and universities are positioned as full of politically correct feminist ‘lefties’. (Burke & Carolissen 2018; Read 2018) This situation is exacerbated by the consumer model whereby teaching is judged in accordance with student satisfaction (Rohrer 2018), further complicating teacher-student power dynamics. Navigating a route between setting expectations of professionalism and respect from students while maintaining a commitment to feminist practices can be fraught, so building trust and reciprocity over time and encouraging students to take ownership of their learning is crucial.

Positive pedagogical relationships can begin with transparency around our purposes, practices, politics, language and positionalities. This entails carefully referencing and critiquing contemporary discourses which seek to undermine social justice aims, meaningful discussions (Kouloris 2017) and scholarly critiques. Students may start university with (media-fuelled) concerns around academics fostering particular agendas; some may have been exposed to far-right propaganda circulating on many university campuses suggesting that education is increasingly founded on left-wing ‘dogma’; [2] indeed some students may identify as ‘alt-right’. Early conversations in teaching sessions about what we are and are not trying to do can help to build trust and provide a framework for quality discussions. I explain to my students that we will inevitably be touching on a range of political issues but, rather than supporting particular political parties or viewpoints, our purpose is to develop meaningful knowledge and understanding, building on high quality evidence and analysis beyond uninformed opinions and popular, common-sense reactions. Students are reassured that we welcome a range of perspectives—challenge, contestation and debate form an important part of our sessions. Despite unhelpful stereotypes of feminist university teachers, being open about our own positions and conveying a willingness to be vulnerable can be empowering for students who identify as feminists or may consider doing so, those who are marginalised and those who are working out their own positions while navigating complex environments. While some may push back against such openness to begin with, tired media tropes about feminists trying to ‘brainwash’ students impose particular theories or disempower male students soon dissipate.

Feminism makes an early appearance on the curriculum and forms an opportunity to address what it is (a wide-ranging global movement addressing sexism) and what it is not, i.e. ‘man-hating’; we stress that there is not a ‘single story’ of feminism. Students from all genders and backgrounds appreciate definitions, theoretical and historical underpinnings to inform their emergent understandings in the light of much misinformation. This moment provides an opportunity to introduce my own personal take on feminism, being transparent about my positionality, theoretically scaffolding this by introducing the concept of intersectionality at an early stage. Stereotypes about feminist academics can be addressed directly; for example, when the class discuss ground-rules to create a ‘safer space’ for discussion, I explicitly reference wider language used in popular press of ‘snowflake students’ and feminist academics ‘policing’ language, explaining that we have this initial discussion not in order to shut down conversations but to enable them to take place. It is much easier to share responses and perspectives if everyone in the room feels valued, equal, safe and respected. Resulting discussions are more likely to be more open, thoughtful and engaged without resorting to ‘common-sense’ assumptions or prejudices and causing those from less privileged locations to be silenced.

Language is always politically charged and arguably never more so than now. Tropes of ‘political correctness’ are explored and I tend to posit that, despite the unfortunate terminology, to be ‘politically correct’ refers simply to an awareness of the history behind words and the impact language can have on others. There are usually a variety of understandings and viewpoints on this, creating opportunities for debate and exploration. The notion of ‘free speech’ has increasingly been weaponised (Phipps 2017), conflated with a ‘right to offend’ as justification for sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia and other forms of hate. Discussing ‘free speech’, ‘hate speech’ and ways in which the latter can potentially impinge on the freedom of others is another valid discussion to have early on to scaffold discussions and set expectations. Likewise, it is imperative to carefully define and work with concepts such as ‘diversity’, always a ‘slippery’ term (Ahmed 2012), which has recently been invoked by the far-right as a way of shutting down conversation around race. [3] Similarly, ‘social justice’, my students report, is frequently being used as a term of abuse in social media; students can be important informants as to current uses and misuses of language and discussions around it can foster criticality.

Setting boundaries, encouraging thoughtful, open and professional approaches to communication and developing the kind of environment which will best enable meaningful learning sets the tone for learning. A ‘calling in’ rather than ‘calling out’ model can help in this: ‘Calling out’ means to adopt a blaming or judgemental stance if someone inadvertently uses language which may offend others, for example. Students may make mistakes or, due to social and previous educational contexts or media exposure, not realise what is socially acceptable or that certain language choices might be offensive. It is not necessarily helpful to castigate but rather to ‘call in’ what the impacts may be, raising and addressing any concerns in a sensitive manner. Dynamics of openness do not always make for ‘comfortable’ classrooms but ensuring everyone understands the ‘terms of engagement’ fosters respectful and meaningful exchanges, not possible in all settings. Often students draw on their own knowledge and experiences in contesting reductive and reactionary positions. However, in some cases, vulnerable and marginalised students may not necessarily have a level of confidence and articulation needed to challenge harmful, discriminatory comments. If this were to occur I would need to take responsibility, speak up and support these students. (Phipps 2017) Thinking cannot move forwards unless it is opened up to challenges and there needs to be a supported environment for this to happen. Due to the sensitive, often controversial, nature of many issues discussed in my classes (including gender-based violence, gender and sexual identities, attitudes to welfare claimants, migrants and other marginalised groups), it is imperative that students feel it is acceptable to make mistakes, take risks, question, speak out and share experiences so that they can undergo meaningful learning.

I make a well-timed statement to students about it being ‘OK to be political’: In my first year of teaching this group, I received several pieces of work decrying a particular author for not being politically ‘neutral’ in their left-aligned perspectives, echoing far-right sentiments. There were also several feedback comments indicating that the course itself was biased or not politically neutral. In epistemological terms, feminist thought has sought to challenge dominant constructions of knowledge which value objectivity, distance and neutrality (Stanley & Wise 1983) above intuitive, engaged, embodied, creative, situated knowledges. (Haraway 1988; Motta 2012) At the risk of undermining previous learning based on positivistic assumptions, academic positions are introduced which contest restrictive notion of knowledge and assert that it is considered important for good quality ethical research to be open about our positionalities and standpoints. (Harstock 1998) Above all, in academic writing it is important to take up a position and clear line of argument. I reassure students that no-one is going to be penalised for holding views which do not correspond to my own; as good academic practice work should be well thought through, evidenced by credible academic sources and rigorous analysis, clearly explaining how conclusions are reached.

A high degree of reflexivity is needed to reflect on my own political prejudices throughout the teaching and marking process, ensuring that I am listening and taking alternative perspectives into account; while challenging at times, I have found giving time to debating points of contention with Conservative students, for example, lifts the quality of discussions and creates opportunities for critique; [4] such debates may even shift positions in some cases. I reinforce to students that ‘party politics’ are not the object of our studies—I am not seeking to influence opinions but due to course foci, we inevitably discuss inequalities in relation to many contemporary social issues, necessitating critical rather than neutral stances. Part of our role in universities, I contend, is to scrutinise and critique dominant positionings and modes of governance. Following on from this, students are reminded that this is a learning journey we are undergoing that will involve questioning, uncertainty and sometimes vulnerability. Students are encouraged to bring their knowledges and experiences into the classroom and it is important that we as teachers, in a reciprocal relationship, are willing to do the same (hooks 1994), to open up about how we are affected by difficult issues and reflexively share our own uncertainties, experiences and learning where relevant. It entails acknowledging the limitations of our own knowledge, positioning ourselves as learners who may not know everything and who are open to different perspectives. While there is a risk initially of undermining our authority, this makes it more possible for students to ask questions and be open to complexities, uncertainties, not-knowing.

Reflections, Positionalities, Voices, Empathy

Students are encouraged to consider their own intersectional positionalities through written, spoken and visual reflections as a fundamental aspect of their learning. The concept of intersectionality (Crenshaw 1990) opens up opportunities to explore privilege and disadvantage and to develop enhanced self-awareness and empathy at a time when students are undergoing multi-layered transitions. (Gale & Parker 2014) All these factors are apparent in the student reflection below which encapsulates a student’s journey of developing awareness of self and others:

I come from a fairly privileged background, and through this position as well as my more ‘outsider’ perspective I think that I must be quite disconnected from topics such as poverty and the links between education and poverty, just because I’ve never even lived near any examples of those issues. I don’t like that thought but I do think that self-awareness is important, and I try to understand those who have lived experiences I never have. While I do think that my position in society has made certain topics less relatable, I do think that various aspects of my identity have shaped my experiences. Growing up, I was targeted at school for being foreign, for having certain features … I felt most judgement from boys, and I think that my experiences of being targeted was the result of the intersections of gender, race and nationality: my identity. This course has led me to believe that it was not one aspect of my identity that shaped what I went through, but the inter-sectioning of multiple ones. It’s also reminded me of my privilege and perspective and made me think more about my views on certain issues, like child poverty. I think this term has helped me to become more self-aware which will subsequently lead me to becoming a more critical and analytical thinker, and a more thoughtful and empathetic person.

In a marketised HE and set against a context of neoliberal austerity policies, it is important to explicitly value the emotional, caring domains of life, foster connections and recognise interdependencies. (Fineman 2004) Empathy is centred and shapes course content and pedagogical relationships. Part of this process is stressing the importance of understanding and empathising with lived experiences which, especially in the cases of marginalised groups such as migrants, benefit claimants and single parents, often elide limiting stereotypes. This extract from another student’s reflection describes a profound shift in their understanding:

I came to [the university] with what I thought were sound and consolidated political, social, and economic views, but in the past few months cradle to the grave has made me come to the realisation as to how flawed these views were. At the start of term, I was a strong conservative who believed in the free market and small government in which the focus of the government should almost entirely be the economic prosperity of the UK. I believed that if a working-class family like my own could live comfortably then what was stopping everyone else, a very naive and narrow-minded view I have come to realise. Furthermore, Cradle to the Grave made me release how much the welfare state has allowed me to have a good standard of living and make it to the position I am in today, from living in social housing to child benefit has all contributed to a childhood which I never have to worry about housing, food, or heat unlike millions of children in the UK. I have come to realise that where I have lived for the majority of my life has also had a profound impact on the economic prospects of my family. X today is a place with many jobs scattered across all rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Cradle to the Grave has made me understand how intersectionality plays such an important part in people’s lives such as how combinations of disadvantages are different to two separate disadvantages affecting the same person.

Alongside fostering intersectional self-awareness, a dialogic approach (hooks 1994) is adopted across the course, opening up multiple opportunities for dialogue within and beyond the classroom. Multiple perspectives are taken into account, brought into the room and also accessible in various formats. Digital technologies and media, while needing to be deployed with care, potentially open up further opportunities for a polyphonic (Bakhtin 1968 & 1981) (multi-voiced) learning space. The intention is to disrupt transmissive, monologic, hierarchical spaces fostered within the current ‘service model’ (Motta 2012), which assumes a transactional exchange of knowledge in order to pass exams. Over the year we work with multiple narrative, film, documentary and semi-fictionalised formats in combination with the introduction of theories and scholarly studies. Multiple formats often facilitate challenging preconceptions, opening up different perspectives and insights into lived experiences.

Questioning dominant representations is a key aspect of our learning: In the case of single parent families and poverty we interrogate representations in the media, look at government reports, discuss issues raised in films and in documentaries which provide a window into everyday lived lives. I also share findings from narrative research. (Morris 2019) These strategies have enabled bringing into the room narrations of the everyday realities of caring for children without access to sufficient resources, in stark contrast to negative media depictions of single parents as ‘scroungers’. We discuss the potential impacts of politically driven stigmatisation surrounding single parent families on the wellbeing of parents and children, enabling students’ empathetic imaginations to develop. A student here shares their reflections on these discussions and their process of interrogating misinformation, misconceptions and prejudices while developing an awareness of the importance of ethical, reflexive well-constructed research and more nuanced understandings of the complexities of lived lives:

Society’s perceptions of single-parent families have developed into strong assumptions and stigmas … When there are greater influences other than ourselves constructing misrepresentations of information, we tend to believe them because we lack the knowledge ourselves to understand it. Consequently, creating prejudice towards certain groups and circumstances. I feel that if more reports and articles are published, accurate representations will be more present in society, therefore alleviating the issue. This would be good for society, as it spreads awareness of accurate representations, leading to better social implications. However, the information has to be delicately handled, as these are real sensitive problems happening to real people. Stigmatisation negatively impacts these already vulnerable groups of people. Thus, it should be addressed more often to eliminate prejudice and provide a stronger basis of social support with the shared information. In conclusion, these stigmas are needless and can be avoided through increased sharing of accurate information. Reflecting on this experience, I will be more conscious of my preconceived perceptions, and take that into account when examining complex situations such as this.

Development of more nuanced understandings is further influenced by the inclusion of diverse students’ voices in the learning spaces. Supporting opportunities for different experiences to be shared within the classroom further facilitates engagement, although it is important to be alert to, and to manage, potentialities for experience to become decontextualised and for more privileged voices to dominate. (Phipps 2016) Contributions from students with experience directly relevant to our studies can be invaluable: for example, those who have grown up in single parent families or are single parents themselves. Inclusion of their perspectives further enables recognition, understanding and acknowledgement of differences within the learning space. Key to feminist teaching is fostering openness to sharing experiences (while explicitly not putting anyone under undue pressure to disclose) so that varied perspectives are included. In one class, a more mature students shared her experience of trying to live on social security as a single parent, challenging stereotyped representations. In line with feminist praxis (hooks, 1994) I have also referenced my own experience in this regard – for example, explaining how difficult it can be to access and afford healthy food when caring for children in under-resourced areas—to further contribute to shared knowledge of everyday realities shaped by policy contexts. Such learning processes enable learners and teachers to learn from each other, disrupting teacher-student binaries. Strengthening students’ emergent theoretical understandings of intersectionality and their emergent recognitions of privileges and disadvantage, a feminist praxis of connecting theory to lived experiences is key. It enables nuanced understandings, meaningful exchanges and insights with potential to inspire deeper learning, captured in the following extracts. The first of these underlines that such learning is not restricted to the formal teaching spaces and it moves beyond the purely instrumental gathering of a narrow skillset for employability but remains with students in their lives beyond the academy. The latter touches on the value of a diversity of voices, disciplines, locations, histories and geographies in the room:

‘In a more holistic sense I feel like I’ve learned a lot – learning to think in a wider societal context has helped me get a broader set of tools for looking at arguments and viewpoints in a more nuanced manner, and thinking about inequalities and discrimination in an intersectional manner which I feel is something both vital to learn and understand as well as something transferable to other aspects of my life, both academic and otherwise.’

‘The seminars are really nice, as I hear different opinions from my classmates on current issues involving the world, and that makes me much more open minded.’

‘The seminars are always filled with discussion and it’s nice to listen to other people’s opinions on the subject we are covering that given week, especially when they bring prior knowledge e.g. historical aspects or events going on in other parts of the world that relate back to the discussion.’

In line with feminist values, many of our discussions surrounding social inequities centre considerations of the experiences of those who are most marginalised, silenced and vulnerable in our society. Narrative telling provides an important lens through which to view and begin to understand such experiences: Written or filmed accounts of people relating their own perspectives help to disrupt dominant, exclusionary mono-narratives with which media are saturated. Students are invited to explore personal accounts of migrant experiences, and reflect on how these help to challenge dominant narratives and misconceptions. [5] Some students explained that, as with the case of single parent families, it helped them develop critiques, reflect on their own prejudices, questioning where their views had come from and considering why and how such discourses emerged in particular historical, social and policy contexts. Discussions are framed through considerations of the ‘dangers of a single story’ about groups of people; [6] rather, students have the opportunity to adopt a critical stance to reductive, monolithic narratives.

We together develop critiques of contemporary neoliberal discourses surrounding marginalised communities such as benefit claimants who are frequently vilified in the UK press. To enable this we draw on the arts, including a viewing of I, Daniel Blake (2016). This film highlights many of the everyday barriers facing, for example, older benefit claimants and single parents in accessing social security benefits in a context of austerity. It challenges neoliberal blaming and dehumanising discourses, emphasising structural inequities and experiences which are made invisible. Film viewings provide informal, social opportunities for learning outside timetabled sessions; this particular film complements our discussions around the welfare state alongside reductive media depictions of benefit claimants. At first, some students, while being moved by the film’s narrative, felt the situations of the characters to be ‘extreme’ and not fully believable; in the following session we viewed documentary footage of real benefit claimants talking about their experiences, echoing the themes of the film. Here a student shares their reflections on this learning experience; it should be noted that students have explained they would not have fully understood the film without first being provided with some background in the history and theories of welfare to frame their understanding:

Firstly, this film evokes an emotional response in me. I am very passionate about equality and the idea of people being overtly or covertly discriminated against like in I, Daniel Blake makes me angry. This comes from being a bought up by a working-class family, with a socialist worker father and a politically aware teacher/tutor mother. Seeing the real-life effects of the policies, which seem damaging and unfair to me, the movie makes me think about the millions of people who rely on the welfare state for not just their wellbeing, but their basic survival. I find it abysmal that there are people who can barely afford to eat, like the mother in the film who manically downs a can of beans from the food bank because she hasn’t eaten in so long. It made me think about how common this scenario must be now given the increase use of food banks.

Such representations of lived experience make course content relatable and frequently respond directly to students’ lives and concerns. They can be usefully juxtaposed with examples of negative media depictions, an example being the controversial TV programme Benefits Street, enabling further opportunities for students to build critical and empathetic capacities. Music and poetry, such as Ben Okri’s poem and performance of ‘Grenfell Tower’ (2017) [7] and Shareefa Energy’s ‘One Year Later’ (2018) powerfully highlight issues of inequality and social injustice in relation to housing safety. Varied media add colour and interest to teaching sessions, awakening students’ imaginations and stimulating in-depth discussions. Podcasts are another powerful way of bringing different voices into learning environments; for example, Children’s Society podcasts open up important debates on responding to vulnerable young people’s needs. [8] Focussing on recent and current issues keeps our studies relevant: for example, an issue which affects the lives of many students from London is that of gun crime linked to disaffected young people in disadvantaged communities. Inviting a lecturer from this community with expertise on these issues, bringing a focus on gender and ethnicity (Bakkali 2019), proved impactful, holding direct relevance to some students’ lives.

Incorporating personal testimonies alongside academic sources is way of including perspectives of marginalised groups. Students are guided that personal testimony alone is not usually accepted as evidence in academic work; however, they have myriad opportunities to share their own personal reflections. They also have opportunities to undertake archival research, linking life histories within broader social and policy contexts. Students are introduced, guided and encouraged to use the rich, local resources held in The Keep which houses the Mass Observation archive dedicated to capturing and preserving personal data which sheds light on everyday lives. [9] Alongside personal accounts, students are introduced to scholarly work and receive guidance on accessing quality academic sources. Taking care with using sources and understanding what counts as evidence is valuable learning in a ‘post-truth’ environment; students identify and bring media examples into sessions, collectively bringing more critical lenses to their viewing of media. Nevertheless, as previously discussed, positioning ideal knowledge as unproblematically neutral (Stanley & Wise 1993) is resisted. Gaining insight into others’ standpoints and perspectives can be a vital point of entry into understanding complex issues that frequently become polarised debates. Engagement with multiple texts, narratives and media allows students to draw on cultural references of relevance to them, stimulating further reflection and discussion outside formal environments where even richer learning can take place.

Creating spaces for reflection on topics which relate to students’ situated experiences enriches learning as does facilitating opportunities to develop self-awareness as learners: In relation to this, fostering reflexivity is facilitated through different lenses—looking back across lived lives and histories, looking at the present with a critical gaze, looking inwards to interrogate how views are formed and looking outwards to the broader context, making links in the process. Critical Reflective practice is explicitly positioned as a crucial component in students’ learning activities; as discussed, more empathetic approaches can follow from developing self-insights and awareness of positionalities and relative social privilege. Ongoing written reflections, often accompanied by visual materials such as collage and mood boards, provide insights into students’ development and, while self-awareness and empathy is not part of formal criteria (and this would be problematic and non-inclusive of neuro-diverse students), I offer praise and encouragement when students demonstrate this quality in their writing. It is rewarding to witness students’ personal and political development alongside their academic work: Following sessions on gender-based violence, linking to campus lad culture (Phipps & Young 2015), several male students reflected that they would reconsider their behaviour and challenge certain behaviours of their friends now they understood the impact on women, for example in the case of a student who here discusses gender-based violence and the lack of repercussions in university contexts:

Furthermore, it shows a tolerance of lad culture which promotes misogyny and for further unacceptable events to take place without repercussion. Being a twenty-year-old male, I can relate to the notion of lad banter but also the fact that there is a line that should not be crossed. In this case, in a sickening way, the students involved were displaying rite of passage, a feature perceived to be masculine with a need to show dominance. In relation to the suspension, the University must have followed the protocol set in place to deal with such events in order to issue temporary suspension as opposed to more severe consequences; as would be the case across universities within the United Kingdom. In conclusion, there appears to be a degree of tolerance towards lad culture in our country, as demonstrated by the light repercussions for the male students. Furthermore, the current measures in place within our universities for dealing with such issues do not provide a degree of punishment which instills confidence within female students. Moving forward I will evaluate any lad activity I engage in and ensure it is positive whilst additionally discouraging any negative actions amongst friends and males in general.

This extract illustrates the impact that teaching with and for empathy in the HE classroom can bring. It also speaks to the power of making course content relevant to students’ everyday experiences so they can begin to locate themselves within broader power relations and to empathise with those affected by violent systems of oppression. Ultimately, empathy can be understood as a powerful way of being-in-the-world with the potential to disrupt limited conceptions of self and others and binaries of rationality/emotion which underpin limiting male and western-centric conceptions of knowledge. (Shajahan 2014) Teaching with empathy fosters mutual interdependencies and connections, disrupting binary frameworks and enabling awareness of social injustices with potential to begin to challenge inequitable structures within the academy and beyond. It is necessary to role model empathetic behaviour and develop a caring classroom where students feel safe to discuss difficult issues and to come forward for help if their wellbeing is affected by the topics, discussion and/or processes of reflection which can invoke difficult past experiences and entail profound questionings of previously held convictions which may create initial discomfort. Nevertheless, students relish the deeper learning the process of reflection affords; students here articulate its personal and academic benefits:

[This course] has really enhanced my reflections on my life, giving me a chance to look back at what I’ve experienced and what has truly made me the person I am today. Firstly, I was given the opportunity to define who I am, starting from my background and ethnicity, having the chance to express my values both culturally and societal.’

‘I wanted to understand social issues that I could relate to the world I live in and how it is structured. I am happy that I chose [this course] as I feel it has triggered a lot of productive reflection in me. The module has pushed me to observe my own life experiences from a different perspective, factoring in the links between identity, wellbeing and welfare. I have acquired a better understanding of what welfare and the welfare state mean, how social policy affects real people’s wellbeing every day and how power imbalance among identities is created and perpetuated through discrimination.’

‘My learning on [this course] so far has involved being exposed to learning about topics that I have never deeply thought about or learnt previously during my past education. I have really enjoyed the reflective writing process as it is nice to have more freedom and creativity in how I write and think about a topic. I feel as though the reflective writing has allowed a more accessible avenue to learning and processing what I’ve learnt each week.’

Towards Transformation

There is much potential for fostering the classroom and curricula as sites of collaboration, problem-solving and activism. hooks (1994) stressed the purpose of education as contributing to change and transformation of unequal power relations, drawing on Freire’s (1970) concept of ‘conscientization’—the development of critical awareness and political engagement in order to reflect on and ultimately change the world. Transformation can occur in a multitude of ways for learners but whether one spectacular transformation or a small-scale shift in thinking, it should be recognised that cumulative micro-transformations can make a difference. In a turbulent climate of violences and precarities, dedication to social justice can be met be vitriol; in addition, given the challenging nature of the academies we work in, we may at times adopt despairing, complacent or fatalistic positions or paralysis. Yet, inspiring a sense of hope—however fragile—for a better world is a gift we can share with our students. Enabling students to avoid being overwhelmed by the ‘weight of the world’ (Bourdieu et al. 1998) in coming to recognise the extent of social suffering may entail realising and valuing the part we can all play in bringing about change.

Students respond well to problem-solving activities and engaging with ideas as to what solutions could be found to particular social challenges. Our session on meeting the needs of disaffected young people and communities in relation to gun crime involves students role-playing those in decision-making positions, stimulating meaningful discussions and recommendations. Beyond the classroom students are encouraged to take ideas forward through activism, writing letters to Members of Parliament, volunteering, getting involved in or initiating local and/or national campaigns, advocating for change and raising awareness among peers, communities and wider networks. A group project involved co-authoring a letter on the issue of child poverty, including recommendations generated through our discussions, which was sent to the government and local MPs. Receiving responses and gaining further insights into how this issue was currently being tackled, engaged students who may not have engaged in politics previously. It demonstrated that government is not removed from everyday life but has a duty to respond to public concerns and that it is possible to take action and hold those in power to account. It can be helpful to remind students that we cannot always find the answers but we can ask meaningful questions, problematise, challenge, disrupt, trouble, push boundaries, resist and be part of creating better conditions.

Final Reflections

These reflections on pedagogical processes, practices and strategies at a time which may be conceived of as ‘hostile’ to feminist academics are non-prescriptive and do not pretend to hold all the answers to the many complex and multi-faceted challenges we may face; they simply offer some ideas, drawing on a wealth of feminist epistemologies and practices. Revisiting foundational principles, practices and insights in the current moment opens up a space to reimagine the possibilities they hold for us to respond in a timely way to volatile political environments. They can support us in responding appropriately to the needs of students who may themselves fall prey to unscrupulous attempts to undermine social justice orientated teaching, cutting populist discourses off at their source through open contestation. [10] Creating open, inclusive, relevant, engaged, questioning, poly-vocal learning spaces and communities exposes the redundancy of such cynical posturings. Above all, the empathy we can foster is an important counterpoint to uncaring neoliberal institutions and multiple expressions of hate which affect many studying, working and living in our communities. One note of hope is a reinvigorated feminist movement among a younger generation, coalescing around social media driven campaigns and protests such as the Women’s March; most students already have an awareness of and interest in feminism and gender and enter discussions with genuine interest, curiosity and thoughtful contributions.

Of course, there are limits to what is achievable within the constraints of inequitable institutions where violences frequently occur. It is not always possible to reach everyone—as the feedback comments about ‘bias’ indicated. Achieving student ‘satisfaction’ is not always possible—and the realities of what can be achieved working with students, often managing their own complex life challenges, for a few hours a week should be acknowledged. The work of feminist teaching and speaking back to tides of misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia and multiple forms of oppression becomes ever more complex and exhausting, necessitating self-care. Lack of time, energy and burnout are common side-effects from heavy workloads, often exacerbated by precarity and the ever-present threat of losing our jobs if we fail to perform. Keeping abreast of shifting, unpredictable political terrain and language use is challenging work in itself and so sharing knowledge, insights and experiences with colleagues and students is imperative. The neoliberal academy can work to isolate us from each other so that we fall back on individualised responses which are difficult to sustain, underlining the importance of reaching out and finding allies. I am currently involved in forming a feminist teachers’ network at my university so that we can share practices and provide much needed mutual support and solidarity.

Developing ‘safer spaces’ in which students feel able to share experiences and learn from each other is foundational. (hooks 1994) However, misinformed discourses—which posit such practices as evidence that students are ‘snowflakes’ and evidence of universities threatening ‘free speech’—need to be openly challenged and exposed as empty rhetoric aimed at sabotaging attempts to critique those in power. Instead, teachers and students can work together in creating vital spaces where complex, uncomfortable but valuable discussions can take place. Key to this is providing students with practical and theoretical tools to respect each other’s differences, recognise their own privileges, develop empathy and take joint responsibility for ensuring sessions are inclusive at a time where some marginalised students are likely to be vulnerable. Opening up multiple voices and perspectives through a variety of forums disrupts a monologic, hierarchical, transmissive ‘service’ model (Motta 2012) alongside reactionary stereotypes of academics ‘brainwashing’ students with a monolithic agenda. Finally, modelling reflexivity and allowing time for students to reflect on their learning processes enables them to question deeply held assumptions about the purpose of education and their role as learners. While potentially discomforting, feminist pedagogies can equip learners with strategies to navigate, question, challenge and ultimately transform the world.

As a continually developing teacher, I have come to realise that there are no fixed rules for managing every situation but recognise the value of being present in the moment, maintaining a spirit of openness, noticing the language circulating, being responsive to students and resolving issues as they arise. Deep reflexivity around when to intervene and when to step back and allow students to take ownership of discussions are skills which develop over time. It is important not to overstate the difference we can make but nor should we underestimate the value of creating the right conditions for students to flourish, planting seeds of ideas, questions and critique. No two teaching sessions will ever be the same. Each class has a different dynamic and chemistry and students will all respond differently; feminist approaches recognise learning processes as contextual, contingent, ongoing, imperfect and messy. As humans dealing with other humans while trying to survive in a complex, unpredictable world, sometimes working under conditions of precarity, self-care is crucial. Managing our own expectations is part of this, remembering that no change or learning comes about immediately, contrary to short-termist attempts to measure ‘excellence’. In this vein, we only walk part of the way alongside students on their learning journeys and it is not down to any individual teacher to make the difference so creating and sustaining solidarities is essential.

Above all, as hooks (1994) contends, it is paramount that we as teachers attend to our own wellbeing and self-actualisation so that we can be present for our students. Self-kindness entails taking into account the many pressures faced, recognising and celebrating the courage to take risks and be open and vulnerable in learning spaces. In a context of continual scrutiny and surveillance, being rated and judged on our ‘performance’ when often our livelihoods and values are under threat, it is not an easy option to question and disrupt institutionalised ways of teaching and being and to ‘transgress the boundaries’. (hooks 1994: 13) Nevertheless, it is worth persisting for the transformative potential of engaged, thoughtful, empathetic pedagogies which lead to more meaningful, indeed joyous learning experiences and foster our own and our students’ capacities to respond and bring about change in our academies, lives, communities and wider world. The challenges of studying and working in the contemporary academy aside, the HE classroom can still be a unique space for intellectual, personal and political engagement and potentially provide opportunities to make a difference. As teachers and role models, we have a particular responsibility alongside students to critique, challenge and work towards transforming the world we live in. (Phipps 2017) This can be difficult, uncomfortable work, it can be a ‘site of struggle’, yet there is much pleasure to be derived from fostering meaningful pedagogical relationships, exchanges and solidarities. Despite the manifold challenges feminist educators face, there is much to be gained from facilitating even the smallest transformations that count for a lot.


[1] The sector average is 13%. (Higher Education Statistics Agency 2019)

[2] Turning Point UK now has chapters on a number of university campuses across the UK, one of its stated aims is to challenge what is perceived as a left-wing political climate and education system: https://tpointuk.co.uk/about/ (last accessed 14 January 2020).

[3] Far-right group Turning Point UK market themselves as ‘pro-diversity’ and ‘diversity’ was raised as a reason for book burning during a discussion on race in the US context, as reported here: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/11/us/georgia-southern-university-book-burning/index.html (last accessed 14 January 2020).

[4] By ‘Conservative’ I mean allied to the mainstream UK political party. Extremist far-right views or any expressions of hate are unacceptable in any learning environment.

[5] Available on the website iamamigrant.net (last accessed 14 January 2020).

[6] As elucidated by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED talk available online at: https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en (last accessed 13 January 2020).

[7] This widely reported fire in London in 2017 became symbolic of social inequalities, highlighting unequal life chances depending on postcodes and lack of investment in social housing safety.

[8] See https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-you-can-do/campaign-change/talking-change-podcast (last accessed 14 January 2020).

[9] Mass Observation Archives https://www.thekeep.info/ (last accessed 14 January 2020).

[10] For example, the infiltration into UK universities of far-right organisation Turning Point who are responsible for a website ‘Professor Watchlist’ in the USA— it identifies academics who hold anti-capitalist, anti-racist or feminist views, resulting in targeted harassment.


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Films & TV Series

Benefits Street (2014), TV series, Love Productions.

Channel 4 News (1982-), TV series, Channel 4 [episode including ‘Grenfell Tower’ by Ben Okri (2017)]

I, Daniel, Blake (2016), dir. Ken Loach.

The One Show (2006-), TV series, BBC [episode including ‘One Year Later’ by Shareefa Energy (2018)].


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