Monday, December 29, 2008

The Out-of-Control (Feminist?) Classroom

Control freak kitteh from I Can Has Cheezburger?

Historiann raises an interesting question of where professors experience the most control: research or teaching. In response to an MLA survey that contends professors, and especially women, may overinvest in teaching because it offers them a sense of control, she writes:
At least in my experience, research is the only area in which I have near complete control–not in the classroom, where someone else designed the rooms, and someone else determines the number of students and the number of courses we teach.
I agree completely. If I'm researching and writing, it's just me, the sources, and my ideas. Sure, someone else will eventually judge my work, but the process feels like it's within my own control. If I produce good work, it redounds to my credit. If it's crap ... well, there's no one else to blame. (Hmmm ... academic writing is a whole lot like blogging, that way.)

But teaching? There, the lack of control goes far beyond the conditions that Historiann mentions. Most importantly, the process of teaching escapes our control. We can steer, nudge, cajole. We can't totally direct it, however. In fact, I'd suggest that relinquishing control is sometimes necessary for effective teaching.

Teaching women's studies has forced me to wrestle with my inner control freak. (So has parenting, but that would be a whole 'nother post.) Let's just say my control freakery is not vanquished, but most days it's, well, under control. When I was interviewing last spring for my current job, the hiring committee posed this question, which I've been mulling over ever since:
How has your teaching changed now that you're in women's studies instead of history?
The big difference, for me personally at least, is that I've put more emphasis on discussion. In my lectures, I've increasingly taken an interactive, Socratic approach. I'm actually not convinced that such an approach is at all specific to feminist pedagogy. I think it's often just part of good teaching, period. But feminism definitely demands that the instructor repeatedly question the basis of her authority and how she expresses that authority in the classroom. This doesn't imply the professor has no special authority, a point that the occasional student - willfully? - misunderstands, only that she's obligated to draw on her education and experience to make that authority transparent and legitimate.

Teaching in the humanities often feels risky and humbling, anyway, because what you know is always dwarfed by what you don't. This is exacerbated when you throw touchy subjects such as sexual violence and abortion into the mix. I'm not saying that German history (my other areas of expertise) is uncontroversial, but at least there's a basic consensus that the Holocaust was a Bad Thing. There's no such consensus in women's studies.

It's often those out-of-control moments, though, that allow everyone to learn - me included. This past quarter in one of my intro classes, when one of my male freshmen boys insisted that being gay is a "lifestyle choice," other students had to articulate why they disagreed. My role was to make sure no one got hurt - including the guy who sparked the discussion - and otherwise to keep out of the way. This, by the way, is something I learned years ago as a T.A. in grad school, the first time I had to deal with a homophobic comment: other students can be far more effective teachers than me if I stay off my soapbox. That original incident actually occurred in a history course, which underscores the point that voluntarily and mindfully "losing" control can be useful in lots of different settings.

Or take the "cunt" discussion that erupted on the last day of my other intro class this fall. I'd previously talked with my theory class about reclaiming it and other pejorative terms, such as "bitch" or "queer," and we'd had the kind of reflective that made that group a huge pleasure to teach; they were advanced students with a basic commitment to feminist politics. But the intro class is a different beast, full of freshmen and business majors with little previous exposure to feminism. And so I was totally taken by surprise when one of my students - an outspoken Evangelical Christian feminist, and no that's not an oxymoron - wanted to end the quarter by discussing what's so offensive about "cunt" and why women might be able to use the word proudly.

I'm not sure I nudged that particular discussion in a fruitful direction. The other students weren't quite ready for it, and I really was ambushed by it, myself. A few of them were visibly embarrassed. And yet ... I'm willing to bet that at least one of them, sometimes in the hazy future, will think back on that discussion and feel just a bit less shame about her body.

Of course, none of this means you can just walk into a classroom unprepared. Quite the opposite. You need experience, confidence, and a pretty solid knowledge base.

And of course, I'm probably bloviating about the control issue precisely because I'm not prepared for winter quarter, which starts a week from today. :-)


Ann said...

Thanks for commenting over at, Sungold, and for your post in response. I totally agree with your elaboration on the not-in-control in the classroom issue. I've always taught women's and gender history courses alongside "straight" history courses, but I think my practice has a teacher has been similar in both: as you say, the humbling knowledge of just how much you don't know and can't share with your students, and centering the class on discussions and interactive lectures are strategies that intentionally cede some control.

I should add, being (or feeling) "in control" is not the be-all and end-all of either teaching or research. Maybe what the original article (and I) were writing about more specifically is a feeling of instant payoff, versus the more delayed gratification of publication. I've always enjoyed archival research, reading, thinking, and writing, and I've always been confident that my scholarship will find A publication outlet (if not always THE publication outlet of my first dreams), so by and large research has been fun and less complicated in many ways than teaching is. (Although that's fun too, except for the grading.)

Good luck getting your syllabus together for the winter quarter! We just finished last week (!) and so we're off till after MLK day.

Sungold said...

Oh wow, I can't believe you went all the way up to Christmas! Ohio University is planning to convert from quarters to semesters; we've been spoiled up to now with a *very* long winter break. (The semester conversion is a whole 'nother issue, of course. It's sheer lunacy given our budget woes.)

I think you nailed it here by reframing the issue as one of instant versus delayed gratification. I too enjoy the research process - probably too well, if you look at the amount of time I've invested in it compared to my published output.

As for control, both teaching and research offer a lot more of it than parenting does ... so it's all relative, isn't it.

Thanks for stopping by. Here's wishing you some serious R & R during the next few weeks.