School Is InBeyond the Feminist Classroom

This article appears in our 2016 Winter issue, Nerds. Subscribe today!

One of my most striking lessons in gendered classroom dynamics came in a history seminar during my final year at a women’s college. The college allowed men into its graduate program in teacher education, and one of those men sat across from me in this seminar, dominating discussions even when he clearly hadn’t done the reading. Still, the nine women, including myself, who filled out the rest of the class found ourselves deferring to him: We gestured that, yes, he could speak before us; we quietly pursed our lips when he talked over us without realizing it, and we shifted uncomfortably rather than challenge him on questionable interpretations of history. Finally, the professor, a man and an avowed feminist, intervened. “Hey, let me stop you there,” he said to the student. “You’ve spoken a lot this class. You need to make space for the women in the class to speak.”

The professor enforced the policy for the rest of the class, and for the remainder of the semester actively intervened to prevent the male student from monopolizing the conversation. If he hadn’t intervened, the semester could have been unproductive, demoralizing, and incessantly frustrating. And it wasn’t just that one man in that one seminar. Since beginning my graduate studies in history at a major (coed) research institution, the same dynamic emerges, ever more fierce in an environment where grad students battle for professorial favor, and women, while increasingly present, still make up less than half of my department. From the time we were children, we have navigated classrooms that—from test questions that favor wealthy, white, male students to unconscious bias on the part of educators—too often reinforce society’s broader, structural inequalities.

Feminist classroom practices, when implemented, can play an important role in creating a learning atmosphere where students from all backgrounds can engage in critical analysis of course materials and in challenging prevailing modes of thought and discourse. Yet despite the importance of feminist pedagogy in combating structural oppression, we should also be clear: Feminist pedagogy alone is inadequate to the barriers facing women, people of color, and queer people in institutions of higher education. Instead, we should look toward changing the institutions that structure our teaching. Just as we teach students to contextualize the texts and people we study, we must understand our classrooms as products of the broader university environment.

Today’s universities are hardly the wood-paneled rooms filled with old men smoking pipes. Higher education has changed, but not in a singular direction. The legacies of the Black freedom struggle and the women’s liberation movement remain with us in the form of special departments devoted to the interdisciplinary study of race and gender. The pioneering approach of Black feminists—analyzing texts and history at the intersection of race, class, and gender—is now more or less standard, even if divorced from its radical roots. But higher education has changed in other ways too. Neoliberalism has wreaked havoc on the university by reorganizing the academic workplace and transforming funding structures. Political attacks on affirmative action have undermined its popular support, which emerged as a key method by which to enforce the promises of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination in employment.

Meanwhile, increasing hostility from both business and the government toward the unionized workforce has laid the way for attacks on tenure. Taken together, these forces have also subverted academic freedom, a cornerstone of critical inquiry and the academic profession. These two sets of changes emerged alongside one another, contorting each other in strange ways. Today, academic workers—including tenured faculty, adjuncts, or graduate workers—find ourselves in a highly contradictory, indeed bizarre, situation. Alongside university-sponsored workshops on navigating gender and racial power dynamics in the classroom, we also see an escalation of the budget cuts that disproportionately impact ethnic studies and programs on gender and sexuality—departments that emerged as part of a struggle to confront the asymmetrical balance of power in society. Deemed superfluous by administrations intent on providing students with job training, these courses are targeted with slash-and-burn austerity measures.

And, as history professor Katherine Turk points out in her dissertation “Equality on Trial,” the equal opportunity promised by Title VII turned out to be a framework particularly well suited for the neoliberal workplace. Equal opportunity, which feminists envisioned “as a part of a wider agenda of workers’ and human rights,” has actually helped “obscure deepening social divisions and curtail the utility of civil rights law for workers facing simultaneous and systemic disadvantages due to a combination of sex, race, and class status.” Thus, the entry in larger numbers of women and people of color into the ranks of academic workers accompanied the denigration of academic employment.

What emerged is what Walter Benn Michaels has called a “two-tier professoriat”:  a rapidly decreasing pool of tenured faculty on one tier and the mass of adjunct faculty, now fully 68.8 percent of the professoriat, on the other. These tiers are hardly egalitarian. Rather, steeped in the long-standing racist division of the American workforce, faculty of color remain severely underrepresented in the academic workforce. For example, despite making up 12 percent of the American population, Black academics make up only 5.4 percent of all faculty. Women are also greatly overrepresented in the adjunct tier. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce estimates that 61.9 percent of adjuncts are women, while the American Association of University Professors found that only 34.6 percent of tenured faculty members are women.

Our capacity to engage in feminist scholarship and pedagogy remains tied to our working conditions, to the political environment of our campuses. We are, in a very fundamental way, products of our material conditions. Adjuncts, who have no job security and heavy workloads that hinder professional development, struggle to prepare for class every day while meeting grading deadlines and providing student feedback. This is not a situation in which feminist pedagogy can thrive, particularly within institutions of higher education uninterested in promoting it in the first place. Under such circumstances, it will in fact wither. We need then not only feminist classrooms, but feminist universities. Not simply equality of opportunity, but meaningful equality—the kind that accounts for past injustice and takes active steps to rectify it. In the classroom, that means paying attention to power dynamics, encouraging our students to challenge sexist and racist forms of thinking, and preparing ourselves and our students to confront structural inequality. But if we consider that universities are not just classrooms but workplaces, what does a feminist approach look like when we leave the blackboard behind?

First, we must challenge the precarity of academic labor not only at an ideological level, but organizationally—namely, through the formation of unions. A wave of adjunct and grad-worker unionization has invigorated the academic labor movement even as much of the labor movement elsewhere has retreated under siege. Improved working conditions on an industry-wide scale (yes, higher education is now an industry), best secured through collective bargaining contracts, are the best way to eliminate the inequities of the two-tier workplace and improve the wages and working conditions of professors who face racism and sexism alongside the more generalized exploitation of the contemporary academic workplace.

Second, we must defend and strengthen affirmative-action programs where they still exist and institute them where they do not. With calls of reverse racism (see: Abigail Fisher before the Supreme Court), popular discourse is flooded with fearmongering and lies about affirmative action, particularly about quotas. But as Elizabeth Wrigley-Field noted when the fight over affirmative action came to a head at UW-Madison, “Quotas became a dirty word in the 1990s…. But what a quota really means is that there is accountability to stated diversity goals…. Without this accountability, it is far too easy to never question the basic operating and funding structures of the university, while bemoaning the lack of progress on diversity.” Bringing feminist politics into our workplace would highlight the importance of taking concrete action to rectify racial and gender inequalities. Right now, that means demanding that faculty from underrepresented groups, and especially women of color, be promoted into tenured positions, which provide the most job security, even as we fight to defend tenure more generally as a standard professional practice. The best way to defend and expand tenure for all is to demand it for those who are most often excluded from tenured positions.

Third, we must guard academic freedom as the cornerstone of our profession. The idea of universities as bastions of free and open inquiry is far messier in practice, as demonstrated by the several of cases of professors facing discipline or dismissal for their work on Palestine. However, just because the idea has been poorly implemented in the past doesn’t mean we shouldn’t defend and demand it. Finally, we must oppose, with our bodies as well as our words, the epidemics of police terrorism and sexual assault on our campuses and in our communities. Clearly these aren’t the only political crises facing us today—mass deportations and the epidemic of anti-trans violence spring to mind—but these are key movements already on campus (often student led) that academic workers can ally themselves with to challenge the administrations that simultaneously eliminate tenure and defend rapists, that in one breath justify their racist police forces and in the next cut graduate-worker healthcare.

The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions, an organization of Canadian and American graduate workers’ unions, recognized this interconnectedness when the delegates to its 2015 convention in Amherst, Massachusetts, passed a resolution this summer in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement which read, in part:

Police brutality against Black people reaches into every corner of the United States…. Because these instances of police brutality continued unabated across the U.S. and Canada, acts of protest, mobilization, and rebellion have resurged in a sustained way across the country, drawing on the legacy of the Black Freedom Struggle…. The labor movement, as the potential champion for the interests of the immense majority of our society, and as the most racially integrated movement in the U.S. and Canada, has an obligation to support the aims and means of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

CGEU then committed itself to material support for the movement as well as the project of political education on the necessity of fighting racism collectively, as a union in our workplace. Graduate workers in my union, Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago, continued this pattern of solidarity when we collectively joined the struggle to demand the Chicago Police Department fire Dante Servin—the police officer who murdered Rekia Boyd, a young Black woman—by mobilizing for rallies and becoming one of the first unions to sign on to a letter of support from organized labor to the Fire Servin campaign. Antiracism must be at the heart of our vision for the feminist university.
Beyond the broader social implications of these struggles, however, we must recognize their importance to our university community. Nowhere is this as clear as in the struggles of student survivors of sexual assault. Certainly, rape culture doesn’t end at the campus gates, but the rape statistics on campuses are truly staggering: 19 percent of women face sexual assault in their first year on campus. That’s one in five. Even with the best intentions of victim support services, survivors face an uphill battle navigating institutions that are neither set up to support them nor, at the administrative level, interested in doing so. Our institutions love to tout the increasing number of women represented in the college population, and especially in the coveted STEM fields. But this self-congratulatory posturing masks the fact that while universities love to recruit top women students, they are far less concerned with their retention, particularly when retaining women means taking concrete action against pervasive sexual assault.
A campus dominated by rape culture and its apologists cannot be said to be accessible for women, regardless of how many candidates are admitted. And feminist pedagogy in the classroom may be crucial for getting our students to understand rape culture in all its insidious manifestations, but it can’t provide resources for survivors, or offer funding for consent education. We need structural changes that will ensure that when our students are finished reading bell hooks and Tithi Bhattacharya in class, they can report sexual assault without fear of administrative reprisal. And of course, our visions of the feminist university must take special account of the needs of trans and genderqueer students, who face astronomically high risks of sexual violence and who have the fewest institutional supports nationwide.
Feminism, of course, is hardly a homogenous set of political ideas, or a prepared blueprint, or a set of assembly instructions. We have many debates about our struggles, and about the future of higher education as an institution, that lie ahead of us. As an advanced graduate student, my future is bound up with the future of our university system. As frustrating as it can be to watch my healthcare costs skyrocket, and as frightening as a potential future of eternal adjuncting may seem, I try not to lose sight of what drew me into the study of history in the first place: the conviction that history is a weapon in the struggle for a different world. Knowledge must be wielded with a vision of the future. My feminist vision is one rooted in the self-emancipatory traditions of Marxism: that workers and oppressed people, through collective action, can liberate themselves and transform society. Why not, then, begin by transforming our universities?
This article was published in Nerds Issue #69 | Winter 2016

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