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1 The “Linear Progress Narrative” as American Hopefulness

1 The “Linear Progress Narrative” as American Hopefulness

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Agency and Activism as Elements in a ‘Pedagogy of Hope’: Moving Beyond ‘This…


Part of the work of teaching these topics involves helping students learn to

distinguish between what they know and what they think they know. To this end,

offering evidence and examples that contradict the comforting idea that progress

has been made, that things have gotten better in all areas and are currently as good

as they reasonably could be expected to be in terms of gender and sex equity,

remains a powerful pedagogical intervention. Examples of this include teaching

students about the wage gap, or about gender bias in hiring, or about rates of violence against transgender and gender nonconforming people. By disrupting the linear progress narrative with discomforting examples and evidence, we expose

students to a series of “shocks,” which Adam Renner sees as “pedagogical possibilities from which resistance might emerge” (2009, p. 62). However, the problem with

disrupting this narrative is that it also disrupts students’ opportunities to feel good

about the world they live in. In essence, it tells them their hopeful outlook is wrong.

It’s a necessary intellectual intervention if students are to gain a more nuanced and

critical understanding of these topics, but we do our students and ourselves a

disservice if we fail to consider the emotional impact it can have.


Disrupting the Narrative by Reclaiming

an Inspiring Past

Interrupting the linear progress narrative at the other end – introducing inspiring and

often surprising examples from the past – offers a partial way of addressing the loss

students can feel in our classes. While students are learning to face the reality that

many gender- and sex-based inequities remain today, they can simultaneously learn,

for example, that a great many individual women, including women of color and

trans women, have accomplished a wide variety of important and exciting things, at

many different times in history. Upon learning that Sylvia Rivera played a role in

initiating the modern LGBTQIA rights movement, that Frances Clalin fought in the

American Civil War, that Junko Tabei climbed Mt. Everest, that Ada Lovelace was

the first computer programmer, that Madame C.J. Walker used her ingenuity to

become an entrepreneur and millionaire, or that Wilma Mankiller was elected Chief

of the Cherokee Nation, students often feel both inspired and intrigued. While such

a discovery can also elicit anger at having been previously “cheated” of this knowledge, it is a learning experience that allows for agency. Students who discover that

our gender system significantly affects whose accomplishments get taught in school

and whose are ignored can then come to understand that they have the power to seek

out additional knowledge. In addition to the meta-level lesson about the androcentric thinking and androcentric education systems that shaped their current knowledge, the central lesson, that the information is out there and they have the ability

and agency to seek it out, can be both exciting and empowering.

There are many strategies that could be used with equal success to do this kind

of work in the classroom as part of a pedagogy of hope. More important than which


M. Rehm

techniques or learning activities we choose or which elements of history we include

is that we find ways to make visible how much good is available in the past. This

challenges the social climate that “assures us that things can’t ever be substantially

better than they are right now” (hooks 2003, p. 11), thus offering students a view of

the past as more complex than the linear progress narrative leads them to imagine.

Whatever teaching strategies are used, the primary importance, hooks might suggest,

would be that we take care to create our materials and activities with a commitment

to reflecting diversity and exploring intersectionality. One approach I have used is

to have each student research a different woman and then give a presentation. In

preparing the list of names for topics, taking care to include women of color, women

with disabilities, trans women, lesbian and bisexual women, old women, young

women, women with and without religious affiliations, etc. is important. The result

is an extended period of class time during which the students listen to a series of

presentations on individual women’s accomplishments while seeing images of them

projected on the screen; many students have told me that this was a very memorable

and important experience. Unless we also include follow-up discussions about the

ways our cultural understanding of “progress” omits important accomplishments,

students may not explicitly make this connection, but even so, the dissonance

between what they “know” about gender justice and what they have learned about

specific historical examples that counter the linear progress narrative will facilitate

more complex and critical thought.


Creating Space for Emotion in the Classroom

Learning about gender and sex can have high affective costs for students. While

inspiring examples can help counter the depression students sometimes feel when

confronted with the reality of current gender-based injustice, the weight of these

emotions can still have an impact. Freire describes hope as “an ontological need”

(1992, p. 8), and hooks notes that “when despair prevails” it is impossible to “create

life-sustaining communities of resistance” (2003, p. 12). Their observations suggest

that it is singularly important to consider what students are being asked to give up

when they learn about social injustice. In addition to the reassurance that the current

era is the best and most fair, another allure of the linear progress narrative is that its

very momentum appears inevitable. This makes the work of individual activists

invisible and offers the luxury of imagining that forward progress can just keep

moving along on its own. Students can thus feel burdened by an awakened awareness of individual responsibility. It is little wonder if some become overwhelmed or

depressed, yet space to acknowledge this can be rare. As hooks notes, academia can

be a dehumanizing environment, where stoic detachment is seen as “professional”

and affective engagement of any type is suspect (2003). This can create challenges

for both students and instructors. If a pedagogy of hope is in part dependent upon an

ethic of reciprocity, as Norman Denzin suggests (2006, p. 330), then denying one

another the right to feel is destructive to the educational relationship. If detachment


Agency and Activism as Elements in a ‘Pedagogy of Hope’: Moving Beyond ‘This…


is the only acceptable way of dealing with the emotional crisis that our material

requires students to move through, who can be surprised if they find themselves

stuck in the overwhelm and become cynical or seem disaffected and apathetic?

Finding ways to create space for emotion in the classroom – simply allowing it

to be present, rather than operating under the pretense that none of us are moved to

anger, fear, frustration, or sadness by coming to understand the impact of gender

stratification on actual people – can be both practical and useful. One method is to

model self-acceptance as a feeling individual. If, as a teacher, I allow students to see

me engaging with course material on an emotional level by making small statements like “this fact really frustrates me” or “I would love to see this change in my

lifetime,” this can humanize the space and model that it is acceptable for the students

to exist on an affective level, too – that they are not failing at being professional if

they step outside of stoic detachment. A second method is to interrupt the content

focus and invite students to examine their own emotional experiences with the

material. An intentional pause in which to step back from the information can be

useful. For example, after learning from one student what a painful experience is

was for her to watch a film filled with potentially overwhelming statistics and

personal stories about the media’s effect on women and girls, I changed my approach

to teaching this film; instead of moving directly into discussing the content, I now

begin by asking students if they are feeling sad or “down” because of what they have

seen. This approach can validate the emotional crisis our teaching involves, and

students seem to appreciate the transition time. Acknowledging that there is a cost

to the work we are asking them to do in our classes, the knowledge we are asking

them to be burdened by, validates emotional agency and offers students the opportunity to feel “normal” for feeling.


Focusing on Feminism as Activism That Has Created

Positive Change

While it can be tempting to shy away from feminism in the classroom, since it

frequently elicits knee-jerk responses, engaging with feminism directly can allow

students to imagine and possibly even experience what Webb calls “transformative

hope,” the kind of hope that inspires individuals to envision a better world and work

for social justice (2013, p. 408–411). In This Bridge Called My Back, Cherríe

Moraga describes faith as “believing that we have the power to actually transform

our experience, change our lives, save our lives” (1983, p. xviii). Building on this

understanding of shared agency, Alison Piepmeier argues that “although feminism

can be understood as an ideology grounded in dissent and critique, the feminist

impulse is ultimately a hopeful one” (2009, p. 156). However, focusing directly on

feminism in the classroom is both challenging and risky. While part of the resistance

to accepting that our gender and sex systems are stratified can be attributed to a

culture saturated with American Dream rhetoric (which constitutes one of the

building blocks of the linear progress narrative), significant resistance also stems


M. Rehm

from the fact that students are very tuned in to cultural stereotypes that lead to a

distorted perception of feminism and feminists.

A strategy for dealing with this challenge is to provide a clear conceptual definition and identify some practical goals of feminism as a way of grounding in-class

explorations of successful social change efforts. A broad and straightforward central definition can be helpful to students learning to see feminism as a force for positive change, and the definition hooks offers in Feminism is for Everybody is both

non-threatening and wide-ranging: “feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist

exploitation, and oppression” (2000, p. viii). Even students who are suspicious that

equality means everyone has to be the “same” often support the idea of ending sexism and agree that sexist exploitation and oppression are both negative. While a

clear definition captures the ideals, students may remain suspicious if they can’t see

how those ideals translate into action. A description of feminist goals can offer students a way to imagine what feminism might actually look like. My own version

identifies two paired goals: (1) changing laws and practice so that nobody is denied

rights other people have because of gender, and (2) changing society so that women

and femininity are seen as valuable. Connecting the conceptual definition to practical goals for making the world better can overcome deep-rooted fear and mistrust of

feminism and thus facilitate learning. Follow-up activities can then ask students to

identify concrete positive effects feminist achievements have had on their own lives.

Whether this work is done through discussions, written assignments, or other activities, it invites students to perceive that sex and gender systems are malleable – that

they have been effectively changed already – thus making our classrooms, as Diversi

and Moreira argue we must, “sites of humanizing hope” (2013, p. 473).


Creating Change: Agency and Activism as Learning


Finally, hooks argues not only that hope is a necessity in education about social

injustice, but that an approach that focuses on solutions as well as problems is

important and productive. “When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus on resolution,” hooks says, “we take away hope”

(2003, p. xiv). Here, she is building on Freire’s claims that hope “demands an

anchoring in practice” and that “one of the tasks of the progressive educator…is to

unveil opportunities for hope, no matter what the obstacles may be” (1992, p. 9).

Learning to identify and appreciate concrete examples of ways feminism has

affected individuals’ lives can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of systems of gender and sex, but learning through doing, via some active component in

which students experience feminist work first hand, can further develop this understanding while also offering a moving and powerful academic experience. Since so

many students, particularly working class students and students of color, experience

academic life as alienating and isolating (hooks 1994), having the opportunity to

forge connections with classmates and/or community members through this type of

work can offer additional benefits as well, including assisting in retention.

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