New leaf growing
06
Nov
2014

Designing Critically: Feminist Pedagogy for Digital / Real Life

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Reviewed by Marisol Brito and Valerie Robin
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fertilize” by Fio; CC BY-NC 2.0

This article is a response submitted for our series about critical digital pedagogy. See the original CFP for details.


I’m a feminist teacher of writing and literature of over 25 years and, amazingly, I still love it. I love the transformative nature of critical feminist pedagogy, the dialogic classes where meaning is created together, and I am always learning from and with students. Having cultivated my teaching style around fostering close relationships and community in the classroom, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would be expected to teach a 100-student class like Women in Literature, and in a hybrid setting no less. At my core, I believed that such a setting was, by its very nature, antifeminist. How could such a classroom support the breakdown of hierarchy and foster a space where everyone is invested in and responsible for the content, process, and learning? Where I could serve as a facilitator rather than lecturer? Where every student’s presence is recognized and our evolving knowledge is incorporated in the direction of the course?  My modus operandi is to nurture trust among students but also to trust in them. How could this be accomplished when confronted with an endless column of faceless names and numbers, numbers that students themselves have become accustomed to being? Was there really such a thing as feminist learning (and teaching) online?

Like most university educators in the United States, I have had to adapt, like it or not. Administrators view online and large classes as cost effective while teachers are constrained by ever-increasing demands at the same time that funding remains stagnant. We are limited by having to follow a top-down, capitalist model requiring proof of our “efficiency” (accommodating large class sizes, often in online settings) and “effectiveness” (high student evaluations) in meeting the needs of public higher education. This leads inevitably to risking the quality of, and to the commodification of learning. So why did I accept the large, hybrid Women in Literature course assignment? I could say I was being a good citizen by helping the department meet the institutional directive of more FTEs — taking one for/with the team, which was partially accurate. Having tenure meant I did not have to say yes. Admittedly, I wanted to better position myself for the enticing possibility of teaching awards that carry salary increases, but ultimately, I did want to stretch my teaching skills. Given the trends, teachers like me have to find a way to incorporate their pedagogical ideals in these new educational environments, or miss out on the possibilities to revitalize their teaching and pedagogy. I had to believe I could pull off feminist teaching in this new and unfamiliar environment, especially since it looked like it was here to stay.

In this article, I want to offer hope to others undergoing these challenging trends in higher education by suggesting tangible ways to incorporate a feminist pedagogical approach in large, hybrid courses, which I believe humanizes students and their teachers. Using a collaborative method, I include instructional designer Aimee deNoyelles, whose voice joins mine making the first person point of view communal, like the “I” narrator in much writing by American writers of color. It was our class — Aimee’s patience, expertise, cheerful encouragement and tenacity helped make the experience of the Women in Literature class much more feminist than I ever could have imagined. It’s supportive relationships like these that are the core of the feminist beliefs I hold so dear, and one reason why I no longer dread teaching large, hybrid courses. Until students can richly express and evaluate what they have learned in ways less dependent on the teacher, and when online classroom experiences can be more adapted to each learner, I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for the teaching of large lecture and/or hybrid classes; rather, I’m suggesting ways to make such environments more dialogic, inclusive, and student-centered.

As soon as I accepted the assignment, anxiety started building. I don’t exaggerate when I say that I had nightmares weeks and even months before the first day of class. Nervously I embraced the challenge, promising to stay true to my feminist and critical/liberatory teaching approach. For others facing a similar challenge, it’s important to think first of the core pedagogical principles that will drive the structure of the course from the outset.

Three feminist tenets that define and drive my classroom are: (a) breakdown of hierarchy, with students and teachers setting the curriculum and engaging in critique and assessment; (b) participatory learning, with the emphasis on learning for students’ own purposes and goals; and (c) the belief that knowledge is socially constructed and evolving. This kind of classroom climate requires a sense of community and collaboration which includes not only me and my students, but other supporting figures like Aimee, other colleagues with large hybrid classes, and teaching associates.

Months before the class was to start, I sought out Aimee. I agree with scholars (most notably Chick and Hassel, 2009) that the embodiment of feminist pedagogy within the digital realm is absolutely indispensable and that we must critically consider how the technology selected mediates the experiences of learners (Davidson 2008). It took many meetings, emails, and conversations to thoughtfully design a large hybrid class based in the feminist tenets I espouse. Aimee’s input and support — from the creation of the class, all the way through finals — was crucial to making the digital aspect of class as feminist as possible. It wasn’t at all easy but it was worthwhile — and gratefully, the nightmares subsided.

Before completely committing to any particular technology, I believe, like Freire, we must begin where the learners are; we must know/learn about the students and their lives before any transformative learning in the classroom can occur. What are their social/demographic characteristics? Then, in the beginning via an online survey, question them — not just about what they know about the content, but what kinds of tools they use in and out of school. This aids in obtaining a holistic view of the students. Gauging students’ perspectives, especially during the semester, demonstrates concern and respect for the students. Students’ experience in the knowledge factory we call school inculcates attitudes that may pit them against us when it is the system that is the antagonist. My work with my students aims to present an alternative to teacher/technology-centered learning.

After initial considerations of my learners, I began choosing tools that at least had the potential to maintain the pedagogical tenets that I considered “core” to the feminist learning experience: breakdown of hierarchy, participatory learning, and social construction of knowledge. As Stommel (2013) shares, “the digital can function both as a tool for and an obstacle to liberation,” so choose wisely if you have the opportunity to do so. Initially, I thought that the classroom response system called i>clicker could be fun. I envisioned educational trivia quizzes and “audience” participation à la Who Wants to Be a Millionaire that would both entertain and engage students in class content. Friends, it was a lot more work than fun. Learning and managing the technology was one challenge; the other was supporting students’ engagement in complex thinking about values and practices, which is challenging even in traditional size classes.

I found that open-ended (and ungraded) questions had the positive effect of driving discussion, while ones that had right-and-wrong answers were problematic, especially in the analysis of literature, thus rendering the technology as an unintentional “obstacle to liberation.” Ultimately, clickers were used to ensure that every person in the room had a “say.” Some may see this as limited kind of participation, but in this case, where class only met once a week, it was the most expedient way to acknowledge and share so many voices. Their responses served as springboards for evolving discussion in the classroom. Come grading time, the clicker software saved class participation scores that were importable to the LMS gradebook, making my life much easier. While there are other tools that can foster everyone having a voice (literally in technologies such as VoiceThread), the ease of grading such a large class was a legitimate, pressing concern for me. I found that clickers can indeed be “hacked” enough to support a feminist environment, but also preserved my sanity when faced with hundreds of grade columns.

A foundational element of feminist pedagogy is to conceive knowledge as evolving and social, and this often requires us to think or communicate in new ways. When selecting a technology, I considered if and how it would change the way that students think or communicate, especially if they haven’t had experience with a dialogic model. For instance, the first week of class I created online discussion groups as a forum for students to discuss their top 10 authors that would be explored — leading to their contributions to the class content — alongside my “teacher-selected” texts. The most popular authors were displayed on the screen in class, and students voted using the clickers on those to include these as required readings. This facilitated the deconstruction of the authoritarian role of teacher and passive student, as well as built community via discussion groups. Students have more time to gather themselves in an online discussion, to reflect on their own learning, and everyone gets a voice. Students develop trust in each other and themselves if discussion forum questions evoke thoughtful exchanges; ideally, writing “for the teacher” or a grade becomes inconsequential.

We educators must select tools that enable students to take risks, create, express, explore, and learn for their own purposes. These opportunities exist, but they do not come without effort. A good example of this is the reimagining of an in-class group author presentation into an online one where students taught each other (as well as me) about other student-selected authors. The presentations were anonymously peer-reviewed using a feature in the LMS, with the students having a say in the overall assessment of each group’s grade. Unfortunately, the LMS would not allow the students to earn points for reviewing their classmates’ presentation — a benefit of completing the assessments — leaving me to print all 17 group presentation scores and manually tally each student’s completion rate. Did I mention there were 100 in that class? Then there was the issue of averaging each group’s score from their classmates with mine and the teacher associates’ scores, so Aimee took the charge on creating an Excel formula. Converting the assignment was quite a production, by no means a perfect translation, but ultimately, a valuable and successful exercise because it upheld the pedagogy.

As you can tell, support is a theme here — some will need little; I needed a lot. One of the main reasons I chose to use the clickers was the availability of support by someone on campus because the company’s virtual support was not really helpful. I depended on face-to-face help in the form of the educational community implicit in this article, and it included not just technical, but pedagogical and instructional design support as well. Aimee was the technology expert but she was also co-educator who sat next to me and held my hand when I faced mystifying LMS obstacles. Initially, I was hesitant to relinquish complete control of the course but then I realized that letting people with different expertise in was a feminist way of sharing the responsibility. Seek out the support you need on campus but also explore other possibilities. The technical support offered by companies might be fine for you, but there are also user communities that answer questions and discuss concerns. Know that you may reluctantly become a support source for students even when provided a list of links/sources for tech support; enlist tech-savvy students as resources for classmates by creating an open troubleshooting discussion forum — mine was called Help Yourselves.

Don’t give up hope that your pedagogy can’t be realized in these new environments. If I could pull it off, anyone can. There are ways to reduce those nightmares; for me, it meant seeking out a community and resources at my disposal. Know your students before the class starts, then gauge their attitudes and experience with technologies. Inform them early on of the feminist pedagogy. More often than not, students unfamiliar with this approach may not immediately trust in other students to assess them or understand their role in driving the curriculum; this is especially so at the K-12 levels. Informing them early helps begin these conversations.

Trust students and let them choose multiple ways to express themselves since they will be using these things long past the course, and it’s important for them to see how these tools extend beyond the university, for their own sakes and interests. They might even come to expect that they’ll have higher levels of input in future classes. I, for one, expected more from myself and technology after that semester. Though challenging, selecting technologies that uphold feminist pedagogy while reducing practical barriers is a rewarding task. Any tool selected should be accessible, usable, and offered with support, and more importantly, used in a feminist manner to build trust, collaborate productively, and break down hierarchy.

Through these lived experiences, I can affirm that large hybrid classes are not unequivocally anti-feminist. And while I cannot say that I am thrilled when a large hybrid class appears on my schedule — the tension between a dialogic and teacher-dominated class remains — I can say with an earned confidence in my ability to uphold feminist pedagogy: bring it.

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6 Responses

  1. Thanks for this article. I had never (for some reason) considered naming the communal, participatory non-hierarchical approach you describe as “critical feminist” even though I can now see why one could call it that 🙂 Your article comes at a good time for me because it helped me think of ways to support a couple of other people at my institution who maybe striving for similar goals but looking for new ways to approach them. So thanks again 🙂

      1. thank you both – I shared your article with a faculty member and today she expressed an interest in trying out clickers 🙂 to give students voice and open up controversy – I’ll see how it goes 🙂

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