Gender, Institutionalisation, and the Feminist Curriculum, or, What is at stake in the development of critical feminist pedagogy?
Clare Hemmings, Gender Institute, London School of Economics, UK
Keywords: Critical Pedagogy, Knowledge, Intercultural Curricula
What I would like to do in this paper is highlight some of the questions that arise from teaching graduate Gender Studies students at the Gender Institute at LSE (London), and begin a conversation across some of the other position papers concerning questions of a feminist curriculum, critical feminist pedagogy, and the production of feminist knowledge (1).
Background to the Institute
The Gender Institute currently has between 70 and 80 Masters students annually, and approximately 25 Ph.D. students at different stages in their studies. The vast majority of these are from outside the UK, and are commonly studying in a second, third or fourth language, and bring with them varying degrees of expertise in feminist thinking. Since a one-year Masters at LSE is expensive, particularly for non-EU residents, students are predominantly either from upper-middle class or upper class backgrounds, and/or have scholarships that reflect the very high academic entry level to the university (2). Our recent increase in student numbers can be attributed in part to the expansion of the Gender Institute’s teaching programme from offering only a Masters in Gender, to offering a broader range of degree options in the form of joint Masters: Gender, Development and Globalisation, Gender and Social Policy, Gender and Media, and Gender and Social Research. While these degrees are not vocational as such, they offer students the opportunity to focus their studies in a particular direction that often is closely related to their desired professional development. This expansion and its popularity among students and the organisations that recruit them reflect the growing global marketability of gender analysis as a research skill and increasingly a professional category (Q: ‘What do you do?’ A: ‘I’m a gender researcher’). The contemporary professionalisation of gender, as well as the geographically, racially and ethnically varied (though, as suggested, class-specific) make-up of the student body offers interesting, and I think new, challenges for feminist curriculum, pedagogy and knowledge, and ones that call for international rather than simply national reflection and dialogue.
I. Internationalising the Curriculum
I want here to explore the issue of international curriculum in this context. Calls for an internationally-relevant curriculum have historically come from students frustrated with the lack of diversity of representation, and the homogeneity of theoretical frameworks represented within women’s and gender studies in the UK. More recently that call is echoed by university administrations concerned to capitalize on the global market that is currently the major source of income for elite British universities like LSE (3). To attract students onto courses in the UK, we have to give them what they want, which is frequently to say, what is familiar (4). The call for an internationally pertinent curriculum and pedagogic environment is an important one, and at the Gender Institute this has become the central focus for core curriculum development in the last 4-5 years. In the process we have had to read more widely, open ourselves up to differences that we might not understand, and think carefully about what we imagine a graduate feminist core curriculum to include, and its teaching to entail.
The call is important for a range of reasons, but particularly in light of the Gender Institute context that I have sketched above - if this curriculum extension does not happen, the context I/we teach in becomes (remains?) insufferably neo-colonial. The LSE context is indeed well known for providing a diverse range of class privileged international students with the (English) qualifications for becoming a new generation of ‘world leaders’, as of course do a range of other elite universities. And the Gender Institute records that alumni frequently find top-flight jobs (gender related or otherwise) nationally and internationally (5). This critical perspective is not meant to objectify students - my own position as a middle-class white woman confirms the demographic - nor to deny them the possibility of employment. But it does raise questions about our/my responsibility in terms of what it is that we/I want to teach students, and how we/I respond to the relationship between international students, (international) curriculum, and global employment in a profession increasingly dominated by market demands.
So I welcome the call to extend the curriculum, since this offers the hope of breaking with the time-honoured spread of a resolutely Western, English-speaking education via international absorption. But the call is also one that I am enormously suspicious of. How and in what way can curriculum expansion challenge or even foreground the structural power-relations I have been describing? I want to raise a few ‘suspicions’ here and would be particularly interested to hear other people’s suspicions or successes in comparable contexts. The first suspicion is simply pragmatic - since a curriculum cannot be endlessly extended, I am wary of a reading list that includes too much, is pages and pages long, and becomes a demonstration of teacher rather than student knowledge (no student could read all these examples in the context of a one-year Masters programme). My suspicion strikes me as lazy and disingenuous - is it really the students I am protecting here? I think not. The second suspicion is more heartfelt since it is methodological – as a qualitative researcher (6), I find it difficult to be persuaded that adding more to a curriculum does much more than preserve its parameters through the use of example and exception. It seems to me scandalous to include an article on women’s sexuality in China in a reading list on sexuality and gender, if I have no broader knowledge of the context of women’s sexuality in China through which to convey the construction and negotiation of sexuality that must of course be occurring in that context (in a national and international frame of negotiation). Do the work then, Clare - lazy and disingenuous again - am I really trying to protect my students from superficiality, and would there be ways of integrating this depth via innovation in assessment, for example? But should I then expand the curriculum to include enough examples of women’s sexuality in China to make this viable, and if so on what basis do I choose China? And if I do this, in what way is this not a reading list on women’s sexuality in China, which would require me to completely retrain (not being a Chinese specialist)? I have the feeling I’m being lazy and disingenuous again here, so I’m italicising this, but I can’t entirely work out why.
And so to another (certainly not my last) suspicion, the one I would stand by, lazy, disingenuous or otherwise - that without that depth of glocal cultural and political context, students ask quick questions and respond quickly to this curriculum expansion of international sources. The demand for more sources is frequently matched by a parallel statement (masquerading as demand) - for example ‘But what about China?’, where evidence of Chinese difference (from an assumed Western norm) can stand as evidence of the lack of usefulness of Western critical frames. Gender opposition is crap (and probably racist) why? Because gender is more fluid in China/Brazil/the Philippines. I am perfectly happy to accept that Western frames may indeed be useless, and gender fluid in a range of contexts (Western and non-Western), but what troubles me is that the effect of this citation of difference is more often than not one of glossing over the power-relations that the pedagogical context of LSE Gender Institute promotes and reproduces, and that the citation appears initially to challenge. Veronica Vasterling’s paper makes exceptionally clear that our responsibility to students is precisely to insist on what Kant refers to as ‘denkarbeit’ (the slow, painful, confusing work of thinking), if we are to imagine ourselves participating in something called critical pedagogy. In other words, my suspicion is that a focus on the extension of the curriculum frequently results in a reduction rather than an increase in critical thinking, with a concomitant satisfaction in having stopped being culturally exclusive. Students are by no means alone in this of course; many published articles cite ‘difference’ as transparent evidence of ruptures in power-relations, without looking at the theoretical dogmatisms that reproduce national and cultural boundaries while claiming to disrupt them (7). Veronica identifies this as postmodern dogmatism, but my sense is that the tendency is, sadly, broader than this.
These suspicions have forced me to think, productively I hope, about what it is that I want to teach students concerning difference(s) (of gender, race, sexuality, geography, class and so on). It is no good my having these ‘suspicions’ without thinking about the ways in which I think the curriculum should actively engage the extraordinarily interesting, vibrant and frustrating context in which I teach. I am desperate to carve a space for ‘experimenting with intercultural curricula’, as Liana Borghi puts it so beautifully.
2. From the International Curriculum and towards a Transformative Pedagogy
I want to take a twofold direction in thinking about the ways that ‘difference travels’. The first is rather pragmatic and concerns how difference (particularly of nation and culture) is cited in feminist curricula and pedagogy. What means can be, or have been, developed to evaluate the selection of texts in more than an additive way? How do we ensure that the rationale for international curricula is rigorous and not merely reactive? How, in other words, can we activate difference as a critical tool within feminist curricula? One test, presumably retrospective, might be which curricula (reading lists, lectures, discussions) facilitate, rather than hinder, understanding of the contextual power relations from which that curriculum arises. Or to rephrase in line with Eva Skaerbaek’s similar desire, I want to ask how we might ‘create a curriculum that strengthen[s] the link between epistemological and ethical thinking, thus generating at the same time an open and critical attitude towards different modes of knowledge production.’ Eva’s thinking puts a finger firmly on one of the central aims of a feminist curriculum – to generate critical attitudes to dominant modes of thought in context-specific ways. In this case, the context is pedagogy, and the critical attitudes I want to develop (in myself and others) are in relation to accepted values (feminist or otherwise).
In light of my reading with my colleagues I want to imagine contexts of ‘critical pedagogy’ (8) that reframe my/our (?) thinking of internationalising a feminist curriculum in thoughtful, sustainable ways, rather than in an over-worked rush in response to the demands of the institution I/we (all?) work at. As suggested, in the context I teach in, this is imperative in order to engage and possibly transform the dominant institutional reproduction of the LSE as particularly ‘open to difference’. I notice that our dissatisfactions follow similar lines, even if our solutions are not the same. Theodossia-Soula Pavlidou focuses on the consistent use of the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ to describe feminist work, but the concomitant lack of sustained critical reflection on the term and how it works. The same might be said, I think, of the drive for transcultural approaches and sources – frequently asserted as a good thing, but rarely (and here the exceptions prove the rule surely?) articulated as a transformative pedagogic project (9). Iris van der Tuin expresses concern at the uncritical adoption of Harding’s ‘famous tripartition of feminist epistemological schools of thought’ in women’s and gender studies, which acts as a shorthand that replaces engagement with the detail of feminist knowledge. Therese Garstenauer reflects on the limits of ‘East’/’West’ binaries within feminist thinking, emphasising again the lack of attention to specific sites of negotiation and transformation that are thereby flattened out. And Eva Skaerbaek articulates her concern in terms of the implications for our relationships (student-tutor; theorist-practitioner; doctor-patient) when one set of assumptions is prioritised. The conceptual frameworks and pedagogic practices we endorse need at the very least to be directed towards ‘recognising the knowledge of the other’ who may not ‘feel respected or seen’ within our frameworks of analysis. Eva’s return to ethics and accountability here help to frame my own critical and pedagogic interests more clearly – how do we develop a sustainable, critical, intercultural curriculum that respects our own and others’ needs?
My colleagues’ responses to this task currently focus in (at least) three simultaneous directions. The first is to work with existing concepts to revitalise them, or indeed, in the case of interdisciplinarity and diversity (of curriculum) to seek to ‘rescue’ them, or re-inflect them with political and critical energy. One way of doing that might be to revisit those concepts and provide an explicitly feminist history or mapping of their use and abuse (10). How do concepts like ‘East’ and ‘West’ become meaningful in context, for example? How is interdisciplinarity evacuated of progressive meaning in its institutionalisation?
The second response is to cultivate the use of feminist concepts that have been developed precisely in response to these problems. How do concepts such as situatedness or complexity help us both to generate new feminist knowledge and to provide a critical perspective on conceptual domestication? We could add to these of course. A third direction (not separate from either of these, so direction is probably not a very good word) is to develop vibrant sites of learning that explicitly challenge the ‘ivory tower’ nature of the academy. Eva Skaerbaek proposes to do this in ‘importing’ her observations and dialogues from the hospital ward into the curriculum, and Liana Borghi is doing this in her ongoing summer schools (11). Might I begin to de-colonise the site of intercultural learning at LSE in similar ways, respecting my students’ needs while insisting on critical accounts of the effects of our epistemologies?
1. For now the other papers I am thinking in and through are those by Liana Borghi, Therese Garstenauer, Soula Pavlidou, Eva Skaerbaek and Iris van der Tuin.
2. There are of course exceptions to this rule - students without scholarships or family/independent wealth who work part-time or take out huge loans to finance their studies. The educational context of LSE is not geared towards these students, however, and they are more likely to be Ph.D. rather than Masters students, the cohort this paper focuses on. In addition, those students are more likely to interrupt or abandon their studies for financial reasons.
3. For a useful discussion of the cynicism behind the commodification of knowledge for a ‘global market’ in an Australian contexts, see Margarey and Sheriden, 2002, and Rizvi and Walsh, 1998.
4. See Skeggs, 1995 for a devastating engagement with the constraints that a consumer culture in education has placed on under-resourced feminist academics in the last decade. ‘Women’s Studies is taking a kicking and we are the body bags’, Skeggs writes, ‘It is in these conditions that we will continue to fight’ (483). See also de Groot, 1997, for further analysis of feminist alienation and anxiety in the context of casualisation and competition in the UK academic workplace.
5. Harriet Silius and Salla Tuori point out that the development of students’ career paths is usually determined by broader economic factors in the particular national contexts of study, rather than by women’s studies training per se (2003). This is also reflected at an international level, where gender and women’s studies students entering NGO and non-governmental as well as academic jobs are dependent on broader ‘popularity’ of gender research and perspectives. To give one example, the number of women’s studies centres in India rose from 4 to 32 in the 1990s, largely as a result of funding from the University Grants Commission in order to meet externally mandated targets for development of gender equity. With that development come women’s studies jobs, but of course withdrawal of that support would also be likely to result in closure of those centres, where local (i.e. university) funding had not been secured (Jain and Rajput, 2003).
6. The term ‘qualitative researcher’ is uncomfortable, as it fails to do justice to my own intellectual biography through literary criticism via langauges, and into women’s studies (humanities moving to ethnography), to say nothing of the pedagogical contexts of sociology and media studies, in which I learned to call my own approaches ‘qualitative’. I am taken by Iris van der Tuin’s introduction to me of the term ‘empirical philosophical methodology’, since it seems to capture my interest in empirical research through a critical theory lens.
7. The easy slip of ‘difference’ into ‘separation’ is one of the main reasons for the increasing interest in concepts that indicate both difference and connection within feminist epistemology. The popularity of the term ‘complexity’ for example, as Liana Borghi suggests in her paper here, represents a desire for dialogue within and across heterogeneity.
8. Liana Borghi insists on this term.
9. This is a curiously isolating feeling – when something is spoken or written about, but it feels like there’s no ‘there, there’. Like Soula, I am interested in exploring the ‘possible existence of inherent reasons’ for this absence, rather than an assumption that it is simply something waiting to be done. Interestingly, ‘interdisciplinarity’ has become the other ‘buzzword’ for greedy vice chancellors in the UK, for the primary reason that students can share modules with students from other courses in the name of expansive epistemology, dramatically cutting the costs of teaching provision to students in the process. In that sense, the expansion of education on the backs of a low-paid workforce might be said to be an ‘inherent reason’ for a lack of sustained discussion of exactly what we mean by interdisciplinarity, or in this context, international curriculum. It is enormously significant that so many of us have reaffirmed the link between transformative pedagogy and epistemology in these position papers. It is perhaps this focus that marks the difference between an ethical or progressive interdisciplinarity, and an expedient or institutionalised interdisciplinarity concerned with time-and-cost-cutting.
10. This is an important task in light of Joan Anim-Addo’s observation at the Trento meeting that we need to account for silence and exclusion of concepts both within and outside feminist practice. Theodossia-Soula Pavlidou’s suggestion of this kind of work on a concept like performativity brings in important questions of theory/practice so central to debates about ‘gender theories’ in feminist academia currently.
11. But I would also want to be careful, here, not to reify a theory/practice divide in this endeavour, where going ‘outside’ the academy is overvalued in relation to the denkarbeit of the academy.
De Groot, J. (1997). After the Ivory Tower: gender, Commodification and the ‘Academic’. Feminist Review. 55: 130-142
Jain, D. and Rajput, P. (Eds) (2003). Narratives from the Women’s Studies Family: Recreating Knowledge. New Dehli: Sage.
Margarey, S. and Sheriden, S. (2002). Local, Global, Regional: Women’s Studies in Australia. Feminist Studies. 28. 1: 129-152.
Rizvi, F. and Walsh, L. (1998). Difference, Globalisation, and the Internationalisation of Curriculum., Australian Universities’ Review. 41. 2: 7.
Silius, H and Tuori, S. (2003). Professionalisation of Women’s Studies Graduates (including the academic profession) in Europe. A Report of the EU-funded project Employment and Women’s Studies Training on Women’s Employment in Europe. The University of Hull.
Skeggs, B. (1995). Women’s Studies in Britain in the 1990s: Entitlement Cultures and Institutional Constraints. Women’s Studies International Forum. 18. 4: 475-485.