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Dialogues at A&H: Teachers College Feminisms

On November 18th, 2015, TC Feminism(s), a new student group “dedicated to creating dialogue using a feminist lens in academia and in practice,” presented a panel entitled Feminism(s) in Practice/Research: Formal/Informal Education. The panel brought together facilitator Karishma Desai, TC Doctoral student in Curriculum and Teaching, and panelists Dr. Sandra Schmidt, Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education at TC whose research focuses on geography, gender, and queer studies; Ileana Jiménez, a leader in the field of feminist and social justice education who works to bring intersectional feminism into k-12 classrooms on a global scale through her blog, Feminist Teacher; and Jess Simon, Coordinator at GenSexNYC, an anti-oppression sexuality workshop for all gender identities.

As members of the TC community with active Feminist backgrounds Elyse Blake and Alyson Greenfield were both particularly interested to attend the panel. The following is a reaction to the panel in conversation form between Elyse, who has a Masters Degree in Women’s Studies and Feminist Research from the University of Western Ontario and has presented at conferences including the National Women’s Studies Association and National Children’s Literature Association on girlhood and identity formation through literary online community engagement; and Alyson, who is a former Education Fund Board Member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), founder of the Chicago NOW Young Women’s Empowerment Project, and founder of the Tinderbox Music Festival (2010-2014), an event which showcased female artists and female fronted bands from around the world while giving proceeds to NYC nonprofits that empower young women through the arts.

Elyse Blake: Last night’s panel discussion, “Feminisms in Practice/Research,” touched on many important issues facing feminist and progressive thinkers, from claiming or dis-claiming the language of feminism, to the unlikely tools of presence and absence used for troubling or queering work space (whether physical or intellectual), and even all the way to the revolutionary power of love and trust. A lot of ground was covered. I have strong feelings about the issues surrounding language and a few observations about presence, but much less to say about love and trust. Alyson, you were pretty fired up last night when we parted ways, what has stuck with you to this morning?

Alyson Greenfield: Elyse, I was pretty fired up last night for many reasons! I was particularly excited and inspired by the work Ileana Jiménez (@feministteacher) is doing in high schools and around the world, however, I noticed myself having a reaction to the main word she was using to incite change. She used the term “troubling.” While I understand and have similarly utilized the concept of “troubling” the classroom through Feminism, the term wasn’t necessarily sitting right with me. It also brought to mind a recent talk with TC Professor Yolanda Sealy-Ruiz, who spoke about a similar notion, but with a different name. Her chosen word for disrupting the status quo was “interrupt.” It made me think about, how we choose the language for our activism and how there is the potential for language to create barriers where it is meant to break them.

You mentioned you had strong feelings about the issues surrounding language. I’m wondering what those strong feelings were about, and if they had anything to do with the term “troubling?”  

Elyse: I’m glad you bring up the concern that language can create barriers unintentionally. To include “feminism” or not to include “feminism”: that is the question… It took up (in my estimation) way too much space during the panel. I think your concern over the term “troubling” vesus, say, “interrupt,” is a concern over precision. What does the verb “to trouble” mean precisely? When I think of “troubling,” I think of discomfort. The idea that I may have left the oven on troubles me, that is until I get home and see it was off the whole time. The word “interrupt” seems stronger, packing more of a punch; it implies a full-stop. I’m interested to hear more about how you see the difference between “troubling” and “interrupt” in terms of the panel discussion.

My main thought is that sometimes these exciting, and incredibly important, conversations can get waylaid by the term “feminism” and steer participants away from the point of the discussion — how to use feminism (as a set of values, loosely defined) in practice and research. Using the term “feminism” does not make the organization feminist. The TC Feminism(s) was created as a way to broaden the discussion beyond the white, liberal feminism of the second wave, and, more recently, of the lean-in variety. I took issue with the way that this question of whether to use feminism folds the conversation in on itself — because there is no definitive decision to be made.

Alyson: “Troubling” vs. “interrupt” could certainly be seen as a concern of precision, but to me it brings up an inquiry regarding our emotional reactions to language and how terms can make us feel invited or rejected from a group, space, or movement.  For some reason “trouble”– to “distress” or “agitate”– seems more harsh to me than “interrupt”– to make a “break in continuity.”  “Interrupt” seems clear to me while “trouble” feels more veiled.  I found that my emotional reaction to that word caused a feeling of separation to some of what was being discussed.

I definitely hear you when you say that these important conversations can get waylaid by terms such as “feminism.” Sometimes there is a tendency to get wrapped up in promoting/discussing a term or an identity that the potentially changemaking thoughts and actions that could fit under the umbrella of the term do not get as much time as the term itself.  While I think Feminism is a helpful category it is certainly true that just proclaiming a term does not equal living it.

I felt like some concrete examples of how to use feminism in practice and research, were actually addressed by Jiménez. I was thrilled to learn that Jiménez is teaching writers and thinkers in her high school classes such as Gloria Anzaldua, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and more.  It was also wonderful to see how her students take feminism and intersectionality into the world outside the classroom through blogs and videos.  When I was a high school student,  I remember reading two Audre Lorde poems and feeling so thirsty for more ideas and conversations from that sort of perspective. However, it was not until my undergraduate and graduate studies that I was able to delve deeper into the cannon of such writers, which helped create a wider landscape of what was informing my thoughts and expression. While I do feel like Jiménez very importantly introduced how to start bringing feminism into the classroom, I do feel like it would have been wonderful to dig deeper into the guts of how to do this on a wider scale, and not just at a school that is very open to these kinds of ideas and classes.

Elyse: I agree that Jiménez brought up a lot of great examples of how she introduces issues surrounding gendered iniquity in the classroom. I would have liked to hear more from Jess, the representative from GenSex NYC, about the activities that the participants engage in as part of the workshop. I was interested to hear about how the workshop has evolved from FemSex to GenSex to be inclusive of all gendered identities, which relates to your point about how language can invite as opposed to bar people of all backgrounds and identities to participate.

Also, Professor Schmidt provided a really interesting overview of her own research on the “It Gets Better” Campaign and how it creates a very narrowly defined queer experience. This campaign is a great example of how supposedly liberating narratives end up defining what is supposed to be liberating, which can be disempowering. This point, for me, connects to the the introduction by Karishma Desai to TCFeminism(s). As an organization, it looks to create an inclusive space for the many identities at Teachers College — not simply repackaging white, liberal feminism that is often presented as the only acceptable feminism.

Alyson: What struck me the most about Professor Schmidt’s presentation was her discussion around space, subjectivity, safety, and discomfort. Schmidt discussed how all space is subjective and that when safety is discussed in schools it is predominantly viewed from from a straight, white, male perspective. It takes into consideration what feels “safe” and “comfortable” for that narrow “norm.” Schmidt mentioned how groups like “Gay/Straight Alliance” are created inside closed doors and extracurricular spaces, and are separated from what is seen as core subjects/parts of the school. I have found that Feminisms and “otherness” of any kind, even the arts, are usually relegated to these spaces which keeps them marginalized and separated into the “extra” (or unnecessarycategory). I remember writing a paper on Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences in high school, because I felt so strongly that more types of subjects and intelligences needed to be placed into the framework of necessary parts schooling. In schools and as a society, we “Other” so much that what is normal, necessary, funded, or deemed important, often lives in such a narrow space.

I think the Feminist perspective is very important to include in curriculum. I see it not so much as pushing only the “agenda” of Feminism in the classroom, but trying to equalize content and curriculum to become more intersectional. Clearly, some educators are doing this work, and, like Jiménez brought up, at her school there are specific classes devoted to race and feminism. But my question remains as to how these threads can be weaved into the educational system as a whole? How can these ideas, thinkers, writers, etc. become more a part of the “standard” curriculum?  

Elyse: Going back to what Dr. Schmidt was discussing in terms of safety being equated to comfort, which posits discomfort, therefore being dangerous or safety’s inverse. The question becomes whose comfort are we privileging? I think Dr. Schmidt was a great representative for the TC faculty because she’s also engaged on the Social Justice and Diversity committee — largely created to make sure TC is a safe space for everyone.

I was excited to hear from Jiménez that there is a global movement geared towards including feminist pedagogy within K-12 curriculum. If you check out her blog, Feminist Teacher, where she discusses this topic more at length, I was struck by an open letter to President Obama calling for feminist curriculum written by one of her students. As the vastly interesting and wide ranging work of the panelists demonstrates, there’s no such thing as a single, feminist agenda. Rather, I see this issue of feminism in curriculum as a broader motion to consider diverse perspectives as well as encourage intellectual vigilance to question the status quo. Similarly, I think any teacher does something similar, regardless of beliefs or positionality — we don’t teach or learn in a vacuum. Ultimately, when Jiménez spoke about going to conferences and working with teachers across the globe, she described this moment where teachers who bring feminist pedagogy into the k12 classrooms look around and realize they’re not alone. I think there is power in knowing that you’re not alone in this work, and I saw that as a major takeaway from the panel discussion as a whole. I looked around the room and saw that, just like me, there are students at TC interested in similar lines of inquiry and levels of engagement, something I hadn’t seen before. That’s one reason I proposed that we write this piece as a dialogue, because the conversation didn’t end at 9PM on November 18th, 2015.

Alyson: I was also struck by the letter to President Obama written by Jimenez’s student, as well my reaction to it. Even though I would be over the moon if feminism were able to be included into the curriculum from 4th to 12th grade, as the student suggested, I found myself questioning Could this ever really happen? Would the powers that be of the educational system really go for this? I think there is still fear around the term “feminist,” and around naming things as “feminist.” I wonder how the fear of these labels and titles, which can also help empower, can become less threatening to the culture at large. It reminds me of something Roxanne Gay wrote in her recently released book of essays entitled, Bad Feminist. Gay writes, “I hope someday we will live in a culture where we don’t need to distance ourselves from the feminist label, where the label doesn’t make us afraid of being alone, of being too different, of wanting too much.” Being a Feminist, I identify with Gay’s notion that proclaiming feminism can create distance and separateness. From this perspective, I do wonder what it would take to have a national mandate to include feminism and women’s studies in the k-12 curriculum.

What is encouraging is that we can start somewhere! I was excited to see that a course is being offered at TC in this spring entitled “Feminist Methodologies in Curriculum Research and Teaching” which “is a research course for the exploration of gender and sexuality in everyday curricular practices.” In my short time at TC, I have found that it is an institution that does not just talk about taking action, but actually takes action to create change.  

Have a dialogue you and a colleague would like explore further? Wish there was a forum at TC beyond ephemeral, in-person events? Interested in long-form blog conversations, a la Gail Collins and David Brooks’ “The Conversation” in the New York Times Opinionator blog? We do too. Contact Carie Donnelson, A&H Content Coordinator, to be included in the next installment of “Dialogues at A&H.”


Picture of Alyson GreenfieldAlyson Greenfield is a writer and composer living in Brooklyn, NY. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Alabama, is an adjunct lecturer at Brooklyn College in the School of Education and Hunter College, and is the Event Producer for the A&H in the City series at Teachers College.

 

Photograph of Elyse BlakeElyse Blake is the Department Secretary for Arts and Humanities and an M.A. student for the Counseling & Clinical Psychology Department at Teachers College. She also has an M.A. in Women’s Studies and Feminist Research from the University of Western Ontario.

 

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