Feminist ‘Failures’ and Classroom Concerns

I’ve been a part of a few feminist reading groups in different UK-US institutions: lately this has posed a question of what kind of ‘feminism’ are we reading, evaluating and doing in these classroom encounters? Who can be the feminist-in-the-classroom and what efforts, labours and recognition come into play here? How do these encounters travel beyond the classroom and where, then, do we locate feminism? At Rutgers, I was lucky enough to participate in the Happiness reading group, where researchers across the career stage were encouraged to present their work-in-progress and to share views, critique and inter-disciplinary thoughts on the subject of ‘happiness’; how to get it, whether and where it arrives, and what/who sustains this, with the group facilitating its production as well as its disruption.  The explicit feminism/feminist(s) frequently arrived by virtue of certain bodies being in the room, declaring their presence and ‘outing’ their investments, often just by declaring their research interests. Happily or not, the feminist in the classroom cannot often be equally present or an unburdened absence (speaking only for herself) with the expectation too that she should take us, our feminism, to another level, revealing her feminist approach with her every articulation.

At the Beatrice Bain Research Group, University of California, I am lucky again to be part of a feminist reading group: but my queries about the labour, arrival and departure of feminisms have travelled with me in entering another classroom. In introducing my research on ‘queer suicide’ (Taylor, 2011), I was refusing the labour of ‘happy-or-not’ feminism, just as I had in speaking to my work on city-rural regeneration/degeneration in ‘Fitting Into Place? Class and Gender Geographies and Temporalities’ (Taylor, 2012): both encounters offered moments of challenge, identification and dis-identification and my question is, ‘what if we don’t find ourselves ‘happy’ in the feminist classroom?’ What if the location of feminism there, stifles and suffocates in a ‘spot the gap’ critique, bringing into effect an increased expectation from ‘the feminist’ who must cover all queries and concerns, all histories and possible futures, just to get to speak, to enter the classroom in the correct way. This, it seems, is a particular weight of feminism – which might also be articulated as promise or ‘cure’: the feminist cannot arrive without acknowledging the pasts and presents that have brought her into these spaces. But this can also be felt as a repeated reprimand, with the young feminist in particular out of place, not knowing what her mothers-sisters have done so that she can speak (the language of familialism again experienced as weight/cure). Perhaps like a bad daughter, there is a sense of guilt in expressing disappointments, a stamping of feet which doesn’t sound or feel like the good feminist subject.

There is a guilt in exposing our ‘failures’ and troubles in and through feminism. Over the years, I’ve railed against the positioning of women and gender studies as inevitably ‘biased’ and even ‘bitchy’ locations, with the expectation of fuelled emotions, heighted expectations and ‘over-ambition’ a regular feature in turning gender studies presences into potential absences, as something to escape from rather than be a part of. Within the feminist classroom – as well as outside it – I’ve heard defensive and mocking reactions which, for example, detach feminism from queer and lesbian identities, and re-situate this as ‘men friendly’ (as if ‘feminism’, ‘queer’, ‘lesbian’ cannot be ‘men friendly’ and as if being ‘men friendly’ was the political-professional-personal hope of all of those combined identifiers). As I side-step these mis-positions I tell myself to be careful not to overload feminism with potential and problems (squeezing myself into a small corner) or praise (taking up a large space). My colleague tells me she is responding to my paper ‘As an American’ and, for some reason, I want to escape (perhaps as a Scot). Again the ‘bigness’ and ‘smallness’ of space becomes striking, as we negotiate belongings and institutional-activist longings. Our identities travel in and out of our ‘homes’ and often collide rather than cohere, where returns to ‘our place’ can involve a claim and entitlement as well as a disavowal (e.g. of transnational or ‘Global’ feminisms).

Entitlements and disavowals are painfully felt in our ‘own’ classrooms, as well as in these ‘visiting’ spaces which I move through (Taylor, 2010). The classroom is often a very heteronormative location where students’ heterosexism and homophobia have to be managed. My perspectives on coming out vary by context of teaching (e.g. classroom environment, topic) and sometimes students can be left to ‘read between the lines’. Sometimes ‘reading between the lines’ is injurious and insulting, as made vivid in a partly adapted (to preserve anonymity) response from student feedback: ‘…I realize sociology is predominantly a women’s subject, hence the large amount of girls enrolled in the topic. But I have never come across a module leader with such a dislike towards boys … I’m sure having gone to a private school and studying ‘class’ didn’t effect her opinion of me but felt the slightly obvious feminist views and condescending attitude towards men was a bit too blatant. There needs to be a re-think in her approach towards the men in class as equals, not below women…’ (student feedback, 2009; see Taylor, 2012). That these words feedback to module leaders as part of institutional regulation of ‘standards’ itself speaks to the careful weighing-up of pros and cons that can be involved in classroom environments, where to ‘come out’ (or not) is a live dilemma; silence and articulation, tensions and contradictions, claims and denials, are all part of the intersectional slippages which are negotiated in academia – and by some (‘blatant feminists’) more than others.

So is ‘blatant feminism’, institutional cure or concern? Is it a laboured burden or a hopeful promise, that will often still ‘fail’ in its articulation and activism? If we don’t find ourselves ‘happy’ in the feminist classroom can we at least be present? How can we best carry the ‘girls’ (and ‘boys’) in our classroom, expecting more of them as well as more from ourselves as feminist researchers and teachers?

Yvette Taylor, GEA Member

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