September 29, 1997
Volume 50, No. 6
I have found great solace and comfort in what I understand to be feminist pedagogy. As both a student and a teacher who has struggled with an intuitive sense that all was not well in the classroom, I have found a "home" in the words of such scholars as bell hooks, Mary Belenky et al., Nell Noddings, Sara Ruddicks and Carol Gilligan, all of whom have written eloquently about transformative politics in the classroom. These scholars have radicalized the discourse on teaching by elucidating the power of pedagogy and articulating alternative and subversive ways of thinking about pedagogy. Concepts central to feminist pedagogy such as power, authority, hierarchy and voice have made for a familiar and comfortable vocabulary for many of us who write and teach in the area of women's studies.
However, there is often less comfort with the actual classroom practice of such concepts in the confines of the academy. I, like many of my colleagues, have been well
socialized in the dominant discourse of the academy and am well exercised in the behavior that reflects this discourse. While I take pride in my assumption of a feminist perspective in all my classes, I often find the theory-to-practice translation to be a formidable one. Like many of my feminist sisters, I argue for the decentralization of power in the classroom environment whereby all participants-including the teacher-are part of a community of teachers and learners. The classroom, then, is a place where the students are free to speak, contradict, challenge, disclose and thus become empowered.
Yet there are inherent paradoxes and questions with which I struggle. Does the creation of this type of space actually describe power relations and perpetuate the dominance and hierarchy which I, in fact, seek to limit? Certainly "to empower" suggests that there exists one who bestows the power. Is it possible to shift from the role of a "midwife," a concept employed by many of my mentors, to that of grader and judge without compromising my professional integrity and honest relationship with the student?
Perhaps the most striking paradox surrounding the discussion of teacher/student power and authority is the historical message given to women about power. If we are to encourage our students to assume their power, do we, as teachers, obscure our own? Is it possible that the feminist teacher's assumption of classroom authority and power is, in itself, liberating to her and her students? As bell hooks notes, we must acknowledge that as teachers we do assume a position of power over others, but the power can be used to diminish or enrich; the choice we make should distinguish feminist pedagogy from other teaching approaches that reinforce domination. Perhaps, then, one of the central and very difficult tasks for the feminist teacher is to claim her own authority and voice clearly and unabashedly while in turn encouraging her students to claim theirs. Such a dance between student and teacher can be fragile at best.
A second struggle for many feminist teachers involves this notion of "voice," a metaphor often at the heart of feminist discourse about pedagogy. What we as teachers think we mean by voice and what our students mean are often at odds. While many of us attempt to create a milieu where students might "discover their own voice," we are not always prepared for their voices, especially those that do not meet our unstated expectations.
Another difficulty centers on the tendency to define voice as the sole means by which women speak of their own experiences and thereby come into their own sense of authority and agency. Theoretically, silence in the classroom has often been treated as the opposite of voice and framed as "false consciousness," symptomatic of women's internalized oppression. Yet silence can also be framed as political resistance, a deliberate and carefully articulated choice. This tension, therefore, rests between two tenets of feminist pedagogy: (1) women's personal experiences and voices must be salient in the classroom as a means of validation; and (2) women's knowledge and their freedom to choose how they wish to participate in our classes must be respected.
Such struggles and paradoxes plague our discourse as we leave our lecterns to dismantle and reclaim. Yet as many feminist scholars have argued, the formulation of a feminist pedagogy is an act of social construction and as such is revolutionary. By necessity we find ourselves in an ambiguous place, but the debate is rich and complex and inevitably leads, I am convinced, to a transformed academy.
Patti Owen-Smith is associate professor of psychology and women's studies at Oxford College. This essay first appeared in the Autumn 1997 edition of "Women's News & Narratives," the Women's Center newsletter, and is used with permission.
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