GEA Policy Report – June 2013 – Reporting from AERA
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting held in San Francisco in late April-early May 2013 held much of interest to GEA members, targeted as it was on “Education and Poverty: Theory, Research, Policy, and Praxis,” and to other critical issues in education. Other critical issues to education, for once, included gender, as well as race, ethnicity and class. Policy and praxis were also treated as expansive concepts and not confined to governance or government only. Interestingly, too, the conference meetings were truly digitized and there was much use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter and we were invited to see conference highlights each day with a daily email reminder through our own programmes and emails etc.
At times, it began to feel as if paper and the presentation of papers might be from a bygone era. This did not quite happen as there were a multitude of paper sessions and presentations, mostly using power point in one form or another. Nevertheless, whilst sessions were in progress people would be tweeting and commenting into the ether, making for a much wider, richer and fuller experience (although I still have not [yet] mastered the intricacies of twitter and so do not know quite how widespread the practice has become).
Most importantly, however, there were several sessions by GEA members, and associates, including regional representatives from around the world. One of the co-organisers of the next interim GEA conference and co-editor of Gender and Education – Julie Mcleod – also gave presentations, making it feel as if our presence was well and truly on the map. Advance notice of our interim conference to be held in Melbourne Australia at the University of Melbourne in November-December 2014 was made, making it feel as if it was already becoming a reality and would be both a virtual and a real experience if AERA is anything to go by.
Feminist activism and pedagogy in diverse contexts: revisiting the paradoxes of feminine educational ‘success’ became a critically successful session, chosen as it was for special review and evaluation by the AERA team. It was organized by Jessica Ringrose (a GEA executive member) and included in the Women and Education sig (special interest group). It reprised and extended the symposium presented the previous week at the GEA biennial conference at London South Bank University. It was an altogether bigger event than in London, although the room allocated was probably much smaller it was packed full of feminists, and over 100 attended the session, despite the early (Monday) morning start of 8.15 am. It did feel a bit as if we were going back to school!
Jessica presented an extremely lively and spirited argument about the objectives of the session being about the politics and practice of gender equality in education in the 21st century (despite her severe illness). The papers were to, and did indeed, range across the challenges surrounding and sustaining feminist engagement in educational spaces, given ‘post-feminist’ assumptions that feminism has already achieved its aims in the ‘global north’. Together we were to and did explore diverse femininities and how different girls face different paradoxes in negotiating the reactive discourse of feminine educational ‘success’. We also all engaged with a mass of empirical data on women and girls from a range of international locations and the panel presenters included contributors from international projects. As Jessica argued collectively the papers demonstrated how feminist activism is challenging a range of raced, classed, gender and sexual inequalities and the dilemmas facing different girls and women as they struggle to achieve and succeed in the new global marketplace. The question of understanding and challenging what is meant by success is becoming increasingly problematic in a commodified and commericalised marketplace of education across the board and sexualisation.
In the US, the panel included Ileana Jimenez, a feminist high school teacher from New York who had been unable to afford to come to England, and Marnina Gornick, the Canadian feminist educator, was the discussant of all the papers (who had also not come to the UK). Neither Jane Kenway from Australia nor Debbie Epstein from the UK were well enough to come to the US (although Debbie had presented the paper in London at the GEA conference) to present on Classy girls and not so classy politics from their international (Australian-funded) ethnographic study of 9 elite independent schools with 2 girls and 1 boys, and the rest co-educational. The schools are located variously in the UK, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Barbados, Hong Kong, India, Singapore. (I therefore presented the paper that Debbie had given in London).
In both the US and UK, I set the scene with my paper on my forthcoming book entitled Feminism, gender and universities: politics, passion and pedagogies. I reflect upon feminist activism in global academe over the last 50 years to consider what has been achieved by academic feminism as both a political and educational project. Has feminism transformed women’s lives in the direction of gender equality and gendered power relations? What remains to be done, given paradoxical social and political transformations in neo-liberalism, and what should be undone and refashioned towards a more feminist-friendly future? I have developed a collective memoir and life history drawing on the stories and narratives of over 100 international feminist academics and activists from the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, USA etc and drawn into social and feminist networks, including education feminism through AERA. The stories together mount a critique of what can now be seen as a misogynistic numbers game with the claim that gender equality in education has been achieved in higher education, given the majority of women undergraduate students in universities in the global north as shown by UNESCO’s Atlas of Gender Equality in Education (March 2012).
Ileana Jimenez followed with a most engaging presentation on her work on Teaching Feminism In High School: Moving from Theory to Action. She showed how teaching theory provides students with scholarly frameworks for understanding systematic oppression along lines of race, class, gender and sexuality and gave us numerous examples of how she succeeded with doing this in her classrooms in NYC and Washington. She also added examples of creating partnerships with local and national women’s and girls’ activist groups to allow students to apply intersectionality as a feminist theory to real-world issues, including the sexualisation of girls in the media, the commercial sexual exploitation of children, as well as street and school harassment. She argued that students not only learn to analyse these issues but also act on them by leveraging a variety of platforms, ranging from blogging to direct advocacy and activism. She also showed us how these practices impact upon student empowerment, as they find both their written and activist voices as social change agents on the ground, online, and on air.
Emma Renold (also a member of the GEA executive) presented the joint paper with Jessica Ringrose entitled ‘Disengaged’ girls doing teen feminism: mapping the contradictions in a feminist pedagogical-research assemblage (Jessica having presented it in London). They show the limitations and possibilitiers of a girl power group in a Welsh school that was organized to raise the achievement of ‘disengaged’ girls. They presented an analysis of the group activities which included girls’ teaching about domestic violence, ‘sexualisation’ and healthy sexual relationships to younger students, as well as participating in activist events and conferences. They also showed the contradictions and difficulties girls face in doing and becoming teen feminists and becoming part of a feminist pedagogical assemblage. They also illustrate the ‘schizoid’ condition of being positioned simultaneously as ‘underachievers’, ‘feminists’ and ‘teachers’ but also having to teach about healthy sexuality whilst simultaneously being embroiled in their own complex ménage of gender and sexual teen relations/hips.
Victoria Showunmi from IOE London gave the final presentation of the AERA session on her work entitled Using feminist critical race theory and intersectionality to explore Black girls’ narratives about the British education system. She presented another extremely lively and thought-provoking paper about how the continuous surge of focus on boys’ [under]achievement and girls’ success has erased the classed, racial and gendered complexities of educational achievement. From a research, policy and activist perspective this has left a significant gap in understandings around Black Minority Ethnic (BME) girls’ experiences in the UK education system, she argued. She therefore explored why some BME young girls appear to succeed and achieve in education, whilst others may find the pathway too stressful and ‘drop’ out. She took the opportunity to explore the issues raised to find a way of creating a voice for BME girls in UK schooling, challenging the longstanding myth that ‘all black girls’ are achieving in education. Her paper provided some wonderful examples of these contradictions. (At GEA in London Emily Henderson also gave a spirited presentation on her thesis work on gender theory replacing Victoria who was unable to attend).
Marnina Gornick drew the threads together of the session by asking several pertinent questions about feminine educational ‘success’ in the current neo-liberal context and inviting further contributions. The session ended on an inconclusive note as we were out of time, but excited by how we were bringing together theory, and praxis around these challenging and difficult issues for the future.
Miriam E. David
June 7th 2013