On the first day of “Gender Trouble: Introduction to Feminist Theory,” my students and I watch the music video for Beyoncé’s internationally acclaimed song, “Flawless” (2013). In this song, Beyoncé samples a short selection from Chimamanada Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.” While Adichie speaks about the importance of equality for understanding feminism, Beyoncé sings about her own “flawlessness,” making special reference to her appearance and her marriage. The entire song is framed by an archival sample from a game show that Beyoncé participated in when she was a child, which lauds the all-male, all-white garage band “Skeleton Crew” while sidelining the all-girl, all-black “Girls Tyme”. While my students have all heard this song dozens of times, few have thought critically about what it communicates to listeners about feminism. Heard in the context of a gender studies classroom, they are often surprised by their own reactions: “Are Adichie and Beyoncé saying the same thing?” one student asks. “Beyoncé talks a lot about her marriage,” another rejoins. “Is equality the same thing as feminism?” Collectively, we discuss how these questions are vital to feminist theory as both an intellectual inquiry and a political practice. Through this text, we begin a semester long conversation about the history of gender studies and the many paradoxes and discontinuities that subtend our current conversations about equality and difference.
As with my “Gender Trouble” class, I strive throughout all of my courses to create a classroom environment that does not simply teach students about the history of a field or concept, but rather uses the knowledges of the past to help illuminate, expand, and complicate the exigencies of the present. To do this, I draw from an array of texts—from music videos, to novels, to scientific case studies, to analytical articles—that encourage students to think between past and present. For instance, in “Gender Trouble” we return to Beyoncé’s “Flawless” frequently, using the song and video as a touchstone to map the difference between liberal feminism and theories of sexual difference. By bringing the material of each class into conversation with some aspect of contemporary social life, I find that students are more engaged and are ultimately better learners. Similarly, in my course, “Criminal Minds” (see sample syllabus), which underscores the importance of gendered and raced identities for the construction of “criminal psychology,” students engage with contemporary as well as historical material to unpack the political implications of narratives about criminality that many assume to be benign. My commitment to feminist pedagogy is thus wedded to the inherently political nature of the interdisciplinary, intersectional, and profoundly transferable questions it raises. With these questions, I seek to challenge students to reassess their habituated narratives about identity and subjectivity and imagine both discomfiting and inspiring alternatives.
To foster this process, I implement different activities that ask students to explicate and interpret the language of the text as a way to understand the relationship between writing and broader critical thinking. For example, when dissecting dense arguments, I arrange students into groups and assign every group a section of the text to explicate. Each group then presents their explication to the class as a whole, thereby generating a nuanced and comprehensive reading of the article that is actively constructed and delivered by the students. From this close reading of the text, the class can then engage in a larger conversation about the importance of the text’s claims, its ethical and political implications, or how it speaks to or complicates our sense of our own social environments. This emphasis on close textual explication and student-based knowledge production galvanizes more active student interest, redistributes authority to the students, and hones the kinds of analytical and interpretive skills that are vital to every student’s scholarly success.
In this way, students understand that writing is the means to thinking and participate as active and diverse writers throughout the semester, learning how to craft free form in-class thought pieces, weekly blog posts, critical summaries of articles, close and comparative readings of texts, and larger research papers. I provide models and rubrics for all major assignments because I believe that “good writing” does not occur spontaneously but is the product of specific attention to different disciplinary conventions. In all of my courses, I therefore respond to students’ weekly blog posts (see sample responses), facilitate and participate in peer-writing workshops, and offer in-line and global written feedback on each draft of students' larger assignments (see sample paper). This practice models for students my own investment in the kind of writing-as-thinking that I aim to facilitate and helps them to better understand and implement disciplinary conventions. Late in his life, Sigmund Freud famously quipped that education (like psychoanalysis and government) is one of the so-called “‘impossible’ professions in which, even before you begin, you can be sure you will fall short of complete success.” Although many have read this as a profoundly pessimistic remark, I take inspiration from it. The impossibility of education—the interminability of teaching (like learning)—is a vital part of my commitment to pedagogy. The value of the classroom is that it maintains a space dedicated to the continued analysis of our own struggles and failures, at an individual, societal, and global level.