At the beginning of the course I took this semester, Introduction to Critical Feminist Studies, my professor said: “my intent here is not to make everyone a feminist;” yet, there have been numerous times when I actually found this to be the motive that drives the class. I have found myself extremely uncomfortable in these situations. Additionally, the professor's intention to “empower everyone in the class” seems too idealistic to be effective. I say this because there have been several occasions when I felt an inescapable sense disempowerment. For someone still trying to understand the expansiveness of a feminist agenda and what it means—or what it does not mean— to be a feminist, the course was confining. So, self, this here letter is a sprinkle of the few instances when I questioned the feminist pedagogy of Critical Feminist Studies. Please note the list is in no particular order of prevalence or importance.
1. Web Papers & Comments
What I found to be particularly ineffective with Serendip is the obligation to post papers online as a means to entertain e-conversations with classmates and general Serendip users. I have found this idea to be wholly counterproductive. This is because I have not had conversations; maybe a post or two back and forth between people but never more. Despite several—no, excuse me, more than several—attempts to post comments on people’s papers, I have had little success, few replies. When I say this, obviously, I want you to know that I am not suggesting that my peers do not sufficiently respond to my obsessive posting behavior. Instead, I am critiquing the strained aura that permeates the web forums on Serendip. Initially, Serendip functioned as an online extension of the classroom, inviting us into a place where we are free (?) to address questions, concerns, or simply post comments on anything related to the course.
Instead, the forum has unwillingly and unintentionally transformed into an additional external/ “counted” assessment for the course where students are posting to be recognized that the assignment was completed. This idea is difficult for me because I know I take full opportunity of Serendip in order to continue thinking about the complexities we discuss in class and I often feel lonely and seeking more people interested in exploring feminism in the way that interests me. At the same time, it seems that some people feel disheartened, feel disempowered by the overwhelming nature of online conversations and fret about posting the “required” weekly posting. The sort of inactivity has made Serendip for me public metacognition; Serendip has become my online therapeutic journal. In class you said: “I would like to hear from you once a week.” Thus, it is the insistence of your wanting to read what we wrote online that inaugurates weekly postings as an external assignment. However, as someone who forthrightly (seeks to) converse on Serendip and for someone who often articulates even the most the free-floating thoughts, I find Serendip too formal to be an effective exchange forum for the course. Thus, I have now started Serendip to archive my thinking throughout. I no longer use it as a way to communicate with classmates.
Additionally, posting papers on Serendip are meant to allow us to “continue conversations” with you in certain realms of feminism and to track the progress of our thinking throughout the semester. I have two issues with this. First, the responses to your initial comments in regards to the web papers do not incite additional conversations. You comment on our papers and ask us to respond on Serendip. After the two postings, the conversation ends. It is over. What’s after that? Because you want us to respond to your comments, I get the sense that the exchange is just a formality and our responses to you are, again, “counted.” It is for this reason I get a sense of unfulfillment after I write papers, knowing that there is not enough time in the semester or in the class day to talk about the unique issues—such as the mind-body problem that most interests me.
I write the papers I write because I find them exhilarating. I want to talk about the issues more with you, with interested readers— with anyone. For our papers, it is only you that comments on the forum. This not only irritates me as someone who frequently initiates conversations about web papers, but also completely defeats the purpose of uploading the papers online for others to read, for others to engage in discussion. Because of the dearth of posts, or physical engagement, in regards to the web papers, it seems the class is not interested in reading each other’s papers. The point of this class, though, is to understand together, to seek for some understanding as a whole body of individuals. At this point, the thought processes are internalized if they are not posted.
Moreover, the varying topics of the four web papers—whose prompts encourage dissimilar explorations— contribute to the inadequacy of online, or in-person, conversations. What would be more effective, according to me, is inviting students to explore one topic throughout the semester with opportunities to revise and rethink about topics as we pick up different lens of feminism on the way. With this, I know I would have much preferred writing a single paper in depth, with different lens; it would feel more empowering to know that I, single-handedly, explored one feminist issue. When we are asked to write four 5-page papers on four completely different angles, it is like we are skating through an arena of miscellaneous feminist schemas. This is extremely disempowering—to know that I spent three months in the course and, still, feel confused about feminism.
2. E-class participation on Serendip
I remember at the beginning of the semester I came to your office to discuss my discomfort. Coming from an upper-class, conservative family, I found the topics discussed in class as surprisingly foreign to me. To this, you encouraged me to “spend more time on my web postings if I didn’t want to speak in class.” That is what I did. Later, when bits and pieces of my web postings were featured on class notes, I felt empowered; I felt as though my e-thoughts were being given a soundless recognition, a compliment.
On the whole, though, I do not think the featured postings were given enough value in class discussion; student read—or sometimes do not read—his or her comments quickly and rarely get a chance to speak in detail. This, to me, seemed unnecessarily transient especially since the additional theories and lens you used to steer class discussions were less productive and less helpful. I think it would have been more efficient to focusing on our voice Wouldn’t that be more feminist? The short time spent encouraging this democratic system of student’s voices actually suppressed our voices as it failed to give ample time for the student to explain the motivation that drove what he or she said on Serendip. I know that suppression does not in any way equate to a sense of empowerment. So, by asking us to quickly go over what we wrote just to how are you empowering us? As a consequence, Serendip posts inherently became a competition to say something valuable enough to be discussed in class. I mean, who would not want a little fame? It is because of this, I presume, Serendip became a formal exchange. Now, posting on Serendip I put the same amount of effort as I would in a paper. I write, reread, edit, and rewrite if necessary. Often times I found myself reading other’s posts not for content so to expose myself to new things, but for quality of content and writing style in order to distinguish how tenaciously I would need to write my post that week. I read posts just so my post could effectively compete with other posts. For someone who once appreciated the essence of Serendip’s productive exchanges, the underlying sense of rivalry on the class forum make the required weekly posting a hindrance to the entire online experience.
3. Class Participation
I found the air space in classroom conversation to be overwhelming. It was clear to me that the feminists in the class outnumbered the non-feminists or undecided feminists. In this way, my minority status as an undecided feminist encumbered my freely floating, impulsive thoughts during numerous class discussions. I don’t think the discussion of how to make classroom more inclusive of various thoughts and ideas worked all too well. I did not bother to contribute my opinion on that day, refused to speak up as a marginalized voice, because I do not think a feminist class can ever be inclusive. It is the nature of uncomfortable and complex topics we discuss in the course that make it impossible to make every student comfortable. It is not that I am shy or scared to speak in class discussions, but I find that differing opinions are rarely used constructively to advance discussions. In other words, deviant thoughts are seen as disruptive. Every time I festered up the courage to say something in class or on the forum, my comments were dismissed as useless. Disempowering, I’d say. For example, I raised a concern on the forum about not reading enough heterogeneous male perspectives in class about feminism. Since we were taught that feminism was an umbrella term that features race, gender, and identity, I thought this comment was a valid critique. You referred to my concern as “bitchiness.”
4. Learning and Teaching
You write, in the interdisciplinary paper with Professor Grobstein and Professor McCormack, that “[you] teach to learn and learn as [you] teach.” The amount of theory that is introduced at the end of the course gives the impression that you are instructing us. It seems to me that you are no learning here, that you are understanding our reactions and comments, but not learning. On the day we explored Gertrude Stein’s lesbian love poem, “Lifting Belly,” in class, you had us get into groups and essentially decode what Stein said in particular parts of her thirty-page poem. At the end of the class exercise, you suggested reading the words in Stein’s poem with sound. Firstly, I wonder what you learned on this day other than the fact that students find Stein’s poem incomprehensible. There was no conversationon this day; the majority of the time was spent listening to your interpretations and analysis. Secondly, the initial activity that we set out to perform prefaced the conclusion you later made that “Lifting Belly” can be read using sounds. This left inadequate time to test the claim you proposed. The fact that we did not test your claim made it seem like your prospective was the “right” reading of the text. But, then, did not we conclude in this class that nothing is certain, that there is no fixedness? Generally, I feel like the surplus of information that is introduced during class generally inhibits the overall education experience for both parties. I do not feel like I am learning. I feel like I am being instructed.