The Possibilities of Teaching and Learning Feminist Critical Skills
by Diana Gibaldi and Rachel Hurst
from CORE Volume 14 Number 2 (March 2005)

This article is a conversation between Diana Gibaldi and Rachel Hurst, who both teach in Foundations course teams. Diana teaches in a second year course titled "On Women" and Rachel teaches in a first year course titled "Women and Society." In this article, the authors set out to expand on a conventional understanding of critical skills (as active reading or note taking, for example) and discuss the process of teaching students feminist critical skills in first and second year Foundations courses. Women's Studies has roots in feminist organizing, and a commitment to validating women's experience as a source of knowledge and as a locus for effecting change. In the "Women and Society" course, students learn how to recognize their personal experiences as a legitimate form of knowledge, and a valuable position from which to begin research. In the "On Women" course, students are challenged to go beyond validating their experiences and towards contextualizing these experiences as part of a larger collective struggle. Through this conversation, we will discuss the challenges and rewards of teaching feminist critical skills, students' resistance to learning these skills, and some strategies for teaching feminist critical skills.

The Courses

Rachel: "Women and Society" begins by addressing topics that appeal to students' experiences as girls and women, such as media, the family, work, and education. A primary focus in the fall term of the course is to urge students to problematize common sense ideas about gender, race, sexuality, class, and ability, and to ask themselves to locate where they have learned these ideas. Students can relate to much of the material we cover in the first half of the course, and will share their experiences as they address the topics we study in tutorial discussion, in weekly in-class journals, and in their study groups. The winter term of the course covers theories of gender stratification, violence, sexuality, feminist theories, and women's organizing, and encourages students to begin thinking about their experiences as collective, rather than individual moments. The course continually emphasizes women's agency through their organizing for change, which addresses students' pessimistic feelings about the possibilities for women's full liberation and gets students to imagine themselves as change agents in their own lives.

Diana: My course is a second year Foundations course titled "On Women: An Introduction to Women's Studies." This course tends to be seen as the flagship course which functions to bring in new majors and minors, as well as establishes a cohesive overview of the discipline for those students who chose this course to fulfill a university requirement. Being that it is the introductory course for the entire discipline, it covers a wide variety of topics, which include a chronology of feminist theory (ie: liberal, radical, socialist, postmodern, third-wave, queer theory), as well as framing the issues and concerns that feminism and Women's Studies have taken up. The way the course is set up lends the first semester to more historical material and theory, which provides the context and groundwork out of which the feminist movement sprung. The second semester of the course focuses on more recent feminist debates and undertakes the infiltration of current social and political theory as a tool for helping students understand their lives and the world around them.

Feminist Critical Skills, Student Resistance and Strategies

Rachel: The majority of the students in my tutorial have just completed high school, so they are around seventeen or eighteen years old. Their understanding of knowledge and research is largely positivistic and privileges the scientific method as the best model of intellectual inquiry. They avoid writing in the first person, they strive for "objectivity" in their work, and these factors result in a hesitation to express their political views. They are quite skeptical of authors who write in the first person, who discuss their personal experiences or their personal connections to their work, and frequently dismiss articles that make a strong political argument. Most of the students think about their lives in individualistic terms, and express many common sense stereotypes about gender, race, class, sexuality, and ability in tutorial, and in their written work. They resist feminist ideas because they consider them to be "biased," and they resist using the knowledge they have from their everyday lives because they also view this knowledge as "biased" (and therefore irrelevant). This resistance among students to firmly express a political view in an academic setting is supported heavily by their high school education, the news media, and sometimes their other university courses.

The course stresses personal experience as a useful place from which to start thinking about a subject. However, our first task is to challenge students' relativistic worldview ("Everyone's entitled to their own opinion") and support them in problematizing their responses to difficult material in order to persuade students to use personal experience effectively. Professor Linda Briskin, the course director of "Women and Society," structures the first assignment to include a section in which students reflect upon and problematize their responses to an article about colonization in Canada and First Nations women, and the three-part major essay assignment includes a component of self-reflection and analysis that flows throughout all the steps of this assignment. Using the instructions for these assignments as a guide, each week in tutorial my students write in journals for about five or ten minutes on questions that I have prepared. These questions often focus helping students connect their experiences with the course material, and prepare them for the self-reflective writing they are required to do for their other written assignments. Another effective strategy for teaching this feminist critical skill to students is by structuring class discussions that seek out personal experiences relating to course readings and lectures. However, these discussions have a much different effect than the journals. In these discussions, students begin to appreciate the collective nature of their experiences as girls and young women, as well as the differences between these experiences, which can lead them into discussions of how we can find effective strategies for sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, and ableism. In their final assignment, students perform a "gender violation" or a protest against sexism, racism, and/or homophobia, which facilitates an understanding of the gendered expectations they face in their everyday lives, as well as an understanding of how they might challenge these expectations.

Feminist Critical Skills and How to Deconstruct the Hierarchy of the Classroom

Diana: Like Rachel, my students are young, though most of them are second year students and have had the time to get used to university-style learning. This aspect makes my task as a TA of a Foundations course quite precarious, since the students all feel that they come into the course already knowing how to be a university student, and that I will not be telling them anything new. As opposed to first year students who need to be taught about correct styles and methods of citation, my students are past this stage and are asking more critical questions like, "How do you quote last week's lecture correctly?" This presents an interesting opportunity for me to present "feminist critical skills" as opposed to standard critical skills which are required of Foundations courses. I can take students' "I did this last year" attitude and attempt to persuade them that the skills they learn at university don't only have to be about writing papers and passing exams (though these skills can be feminist in and of themselves). Though it may sound old-fashioned and idealistic, I really try to embody the philosophy that the university functions to offer students the opportunity to become better thinkers and people, as opposed to giving them a piece of paper that will help them get a job. I attempt to provide a space for students where they can figure out the answers themselves, as opposed to other disciplines or spaces (like many work places) that require them to be receptacles of information and followers of proverbial orders. Through this, I attempt to break down the hierarchy of the classroom and explain that I don't have "the answers" and that they in fact have answers of their own, and I may be a catalyst of sorts to help give language to these answers. The way this plays itself out is actually quite interesting from class to class. For example, one of the critical skills that I am to teach students is how to read theoretical texts and take notes on what they have read. This seems like an easy task at first, and my students look to me to tell them how they are "supposed" to go about doing this. First I deflect the questions and ask students to talk about the ways that they learn and what helps them understand the materials that they read. After a few answers, I go up to the board and take down all their different ideas. What I end up with is a list that tells us that some students are visual learners and take extensive notes about every aspect of an article. Other students are audio learners and claim that their notes are sparse until they come to tutorial and talk out all the ideas that they got out of the material. One or two science students admit to making charts or graphs which plot the points of an argument in a much more ontological manner. At the end of the day, I explained to them that they already have a lot of the information that they need to "get by" and that perhaps I am here to give them the language to make sense of that information. I push the students to ask questions about their readings, for instance, what wasn't there? Did the author account for race or sexuality? Was the author's subject position present? And I further ask them to think about their other classes and other readings, and push them to ask the same questions there, all the while, never having given instructions on what actually is the "best" way to take notes since they have answered their own questions. It is through valuing their knowledge that I feel I am giving them feminist critical skills.

We hope this article can open up some possibilities for conversation amongst feminist teachers to further articulate the category of critical skills that we are calling "feminist critical skills." Teaching feminist critical skills engenders a different response from students than teaching conventional critical skills, because often the lessons of feminist critical skills run contrary to mainstream values of "objectivity" that seek to erase the author's position in the world. Our courses both encourage and support students in recognizing their experience as a reasonable position of knowledge from which to begin scholarly work and as a site of continuous critical self-reflection. Though we recognize our courses happen to be in the discipline of Women's Studies, we also hope this article motivates and inspires teachers from other disciplines to think about their teaching strategies as well as the possibilities and potentials that lie in their hands.