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Report Back: Feminist Pedagogy Conference

Submitted by alycia on Sat, 11/07/2009 - 12:32

I had a moment at the both the beginning and the end of the Feminist Pedagogy Conference yesterday; I relished in the fact that I have the ability spend a day listening to feminist scholars talk about the intricacies of their "intellectual signature"* (and I get paid to do so to boot). I felt really lucky to be at the conference, and savored the feeling of being able to sit and absorb the work of these speakers.

Victoria Pitts-Taylor started the day off with the Opening Remarks. Her talk was really great because there was so much self-reflection. This approach was one thread that ran through the day; scholars talking about the craft of teaching and research in a personal, inviting and explorative way (the theme of this year's conference was “The Praxis of Feminist Pedagogy”). Pitts-Taylor talked about her past explorations of the body as a social construction, and how she now is taking a step away from her former approach to this subject and instead is embracing a study of the body through intuition, immersion and intellectual sympathy through her own personal experiences as a being within a body. She showed the work of Jenny Saville and talked about the visceral nature of her work that goes beyond reading the body as a text that is meaningless without cultural influences. It was a great talk to start the day; academically rigorous and yet grounded in the tangibility of the body and our shared experience thereof.

The first panel I attended was "Artists, Activists and the Academy." Eleanor Whitney and Sarah Giovanniello were the first panelists, and they talked about the mission of the Brooklyn Museum and the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and how both of these separate systems work as a bridge between art, feminism and community. What I had not realized was how new and anomalous feminist curating is to the art world (although I must admit I am in no way surprised by this), and how easy it can be to illustrate different perspectives on feminism (by feminist artists or otherwise) via their work. As a long time admirer of the events of the Sackler Center, I think this talk made me realize that the work that is being done is extremely radical and important.
Pauline E. Bullen was the next panelist (who I am proud to share an institution with). She spoke about Sandra Brewster, a visual artist, and Faith Nolan, a musician, and the impact of their work. Both of these women are artists who she has brought into her classrooms. Bullen was a fervent speaker and I particularly enjoyed what she had to say about herself and how the parts of her really inform her teaching (as a radical, working class, African woman).

Courtney and Jaime Weida are feminist teaching sisters (complete with matching outfits!) who both spoke about the lack of the work of women in their fields. Jaime used South Park to illustrate the disparity of women’s voices in English curricula (the characters of Token and Wendy are peripheral; there are episodes that feature them, but you are never guaranteed to see either of these characters in every episode like you are absolutely guaranteed to see the four white male characters). She talked about her experiences teaching English and the dead white male canon (her stats about her students knowledge of male vs. female writers and the numbers of works by women, women of color, men and men of color in English textbooks were really informative). Courtney spoke a bit about women in the field of ceramics, how the history of the field really ignores the boom of women (apparently once the spinning wheel became accessible, women ceramicists outnumbered men, but male artists are the more prominent and this part of art history is glazed over). and what I wish she had had a bit more time to talk about was perhaps how the nature of craft vs. art weighs into the perception of ceramics as a predominantly “male” or “female” field (should have asked her about this!).

After lunch (for which I was lucky enough to get a free meal ticket, and got to spend a bit of time chatting with the organizers of the conference as well as Eleanor and Sarah), I went to the panel “Feminist Research Methodologies.” I had a hard time choosing most of the sessions I attended (as I mentioned in an earlier post, too many looked good), and I think that I felt that I should attend this session because of its potential to talk about research in terms of libraries, but I found that the panel spoke more to my situation as someone about to enter a masters degree program (my second) and will soon be doing a great deal of my own research.

I must admit I came a little late from lunch and missed the very start of Annie Balocating,
Katerra Billy, Sarah Ryan’s presentation on their field research work in Rwanda. While the work itself was very compelling and intriguing, I found that together they were really inspiring in the whole of what they have achieved; graduates, undergrads and advisors/professors all working alongside the Rwandan people. As Balocating said, even after interviewing many people from the Rwandan diaspora in America, “Literature reviews are ok, but Rwanda is an education in itself.”

Jessica Kindred spoke about the “being her” project that she constructed with students in a variety of classroom settings. She cited that the work of Lev Vygotsky (who, as she also pointed out, was unfortunately a dead white man) “saved her life” and inspired her to use feminist pedagogy, and active/embodied learning to create the project. Students choose a woman (based on critera such as: a woman you admire, someone from your future field), research the life of this woman, and then they impersonate and interact with all of the other students in their class as this persona. In the first assignment, the students would act as themselves (for example, a 19 year old asian female, a 20 year old white male, etc.), and this got them to know one another in ways that they did not get to know their fellow classmates in other classes (and Kindred cited the tragedy of this in large classes and schools where students graduate without making any friends). In the course of the class, students would be, for example, themselves, their mothers or grandmothers, famous and achieved women, and they would then have to interact with others from different time periods and cultures. Portraying the person requires that they do research, that they see the world from this person’s perspective rather than their own, and that they really think about this person when they interact and answer questions from their classmates. Kindred pointed out that the best way to learn is to teach, and that we keep this activity from our students most of the time. She also mentioned that it is easy to teach feminist history in this way since many of the students had no background on any of the women they studied; this lack of information worked in some ways to help them. And the responses of the students in the class are phenomenal; they love what they learned, they grew as people and developed relationships, and they were stretched to be and do new things-one student talked about her shyness and how she was helped to overcome it through this class (Kindred spoke about how this student was allowed to get out of their “cloak of femininity”), and one male student talked about his aversion to want to portray a woman initially, but actually found in the process that it was freeing. I am still mulling over potential ways that this exercise could be applied to library instruction.

The final panelist from this session was Mohan Krishna. I found Krishna’s presentation to be really fascinating. He spoke about his process, as a gay man who intends to adopt a child in the future, of researching gay and lesbian parenting. He was careful to explain what he was and was not researching (intentional, planned gay and lesbian parenting vs. men who had children then came out of the closet, etc.), and he talked about how he thought about his talk within the context of the Feminist Pedagogy conference and the role of the researcher within the research. Krishna talked about doing research, successfully navigating literature reviews and preparing work for his dissertation, but also about being emotionally engaged within his work. He talked about his advisors assertions that even though he was able to do research well, there was something of himself that was necessary to be present emotionally in order for the work move forward (and especially for him to begin involving and interviewing others for his dissertation). Which meant to him that he would need to face issues that his research brought up that might frighten him personally (is a mother’s mothering essential?). Krishna’s talk was very impressive in that it exemplified his goals-the talk was present and emotionally conscious. It gave me thought for moving forward with my own work and how I can engage with feeling in the research and writing that are ahead of me.

The final panel I attended was “Social Justice, Activism, and Transformative Politics: Bridging the Divide Between Academia and Community.” Dana-Ain Davis began with her work, “Feminist Ethnography and Activism in the Intersection of Neoliberal Policy in the US.” Davis talked about her abilities to use scholarship to affect social change and her studies of battered women in NY state. She spoke of the relationships between theory and practical power struggles. She talked about the insistence of the women that she spoke with and interviewed to turn her work into something more than an academic paper-they wanted the data she collected to be used to make change, and they insisted that she provide details about the realities of their situations. Davis spoke a lot about the governance of these women by the state, and the effects of neoliberalism on this governance.

Sujatha Fernandez spoke about her experiences working academically in studying Venezuela. She told us about how the people of Venezuela demanded that her work be immediate; and so instead of working on an article for a scholarly press that might take years to be published, she has sought alternative means to share the stories of the people of Venezuela, including through recording radio segments with them and sharing the work through WBAI. She also talked about how the people’s critique of her (she had visited and written about the struggles of many countries) prompted her to get more involved with activism in the US and to share the stories of organizations of struggle with the folks in the US or 1st world with those she is able to visit elsewhere. She also talked about her ability to be the one who travels, and how her goal is to make it so that she is not only empowered to do this but so that those who are activists in struggling nations can also move and share their work directly instead of through others who have the (financial) ability such as herself (she called this the transnationalism that she would like to see happen). She also spoke about performing collaborative ethnography, and including participants in her work-allowing them to tell her what their perspectives on her writing are (in one example, she characterized a woman as looking frightened in an interview situation, and the woman insisted upon reading the work that she was not-and so Fernandez changed the piece). She spoke about how our own voices get mixed into the representations of others that we create and the process of allowing your subjects to be free to tell you that you are wrong.

Finally, Premilla Nadasen spoke about “Social Reproduction, Activism and the Political Uses of the Past.” Nadasen talked about how domestic work and housework are work, and how this type of labor has been virtually ignored by labor activists and reformers. She spoke about the struggles of these individuals (who are not allowed to unionize, for one example) and how these worker are the backbone of the economy and yet that the issues that arise are largely limited due to the color and gender of the workers. She talked about the project that she undertook while at Brooklyn College (yay!) called “Maids and Madams;” which consisted of a series of events highlighting the struggles of domestic workers. The students were able to relate very well to this topic since it touches everyone’s lives-they see their mothers or siblings or they themselves must make time to care for the household (on top of everything else) or they themselves or those they love are professionally involved in domestic work. The project involved Domestic Workers United, students created a website, held talks and screenings and radio shows and really took over the project. Women’s studies majors on campus doubled out of this project. The final topic that Nadasen addressed was whether it is wrong for feminists to hire someone to help with social reproduction. She reframed the question in that she insisted that consumption as a whole leads to worker exploitation; from daycare to bagged lettuce, a worker was involved, and we are hiring someone to help us whether we eat out to avoid dirty dishes to hiring someone to clean our homes. The question she posed as more important is whether the quality of the workplace of those who we are hiring are supportive and fair work environments (with benefits and sick days). One of the things that Premilla mentioned during the Q&A after everyone spoke, also, is that she is an activist first and foremost and that the scholarship follows behind. The women on this panel all seemed to identify with this and worked these activist goals into their research and study, and it was very refreshing to see and hear how they tailored both of these interests together.

By 4pm I was feeling pretty tired, and headed to the auditorium for the Keynote Address. Earlier in the day, one of the conference attendees I’d had lunch with mentioned that she had thought about skipping out after she presented, but thought better of it after hearing that the speaker was Michelle Fine. The way that she said Michelle’s name (with a bit of awe and importance) made me know that I too should stick around. And I think now, after having seen her speak, I may also refer to her with this same sense of awe.

Michelle Fine started her talk with a writing exercise. She told us to write starting with “When I look into your eyes, my students, you want me to see…” For a few minutes at the end of a long day, all the conference attendees silently completed this phrase. After a bit, Fine had a few members of the audience read their pieces out loud, and I was surprised how different the pieces were (I was somehow imagining in my head that we would all be somehow completing the sentence in a similar fashion for some reason). Fine’s talk was amazing. It was poetic and slow and yet full of life and chutzpah. It was inspirational for me since she spoke so much about CUNY, the infrastructures of education in New York City, and to the body of students I have come to start to know through Brooklyn College. She talked of her experiences resurrecting college at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility (“feminist pedagogy dances at borders”) and the women there who are thirsty for their own “intellectual signature,” despite the fact that education for them in many cases is in no way a place for upward mobility. She talked about the collaborative research and analysis processes she shared with the women in the prisons so that all of them, together, could save college. She told stories about these women’s lives and shared startling statistics. Outside the prisons, she talked about the buying and selling of education as a commodity and the problems of higher education being “sold as an answer.” She acknowledged the ways we as educators know it is an answer and how we know that it is also a lie. She talked about her work with the youth of NYC to study the denial of High School diplomas, which led her into places she had not thought of looking (rough notes: the teens, in a survey developed for their peers, insisted that questions of police harassment be included. Large numbers of kids who were otherwise doing great were being harassed by the cops. Fine talked to a friend who is a judge and learned that overtime for cops was to blame. She got the teens to talk with the judge and into the courtroom). Throughout the talk, she spoke of women as those who step in when the state or other support systems step away, and ended by talking about neuroscience; how there is something called the allostatic load; which is the way that socio-political stressors can move into the body. The presence of the mother, it has been found, can alleviate the allostatic load. She said that the great thing about participatory research is that everyone gets involved (everyone “grows nipples”-a continuation of her good breast/bad breast analogy that ran throughout the talk). Fine wondered if it might be possible that the state could help our students; that we can step in to help alleviate this alostatic load as well. Can state institutions be our safe place to land?

In the few days since, this conference has stayed with me and I am still synthesizing much of it. It has already helped me in collection development (I collect for economics, and it got me wondering as to how many books we have about labor and domestic workers, for one thing), and I have been thinking a lot about how my own work-my work of scholarship, labor and my own projects-can be applicable to the forces of the academy (tenure) but also to better the world around me. As I heard Michelle Fine describe the day’s events before her talk, it was a great day filled with the topics that you always want to get the chance to talk about.

*concept expressed by a woman from the Bedford Hills Correction Facility relayed by Michelle Fine.


Thanks for the report back. I had wanted to attend the conference, and I'm glad I could at least get the high points and flavor from your perspective.

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