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5 Creating Change: Agency and Activism as Learning Strategies

5 Creating Change: Agency and Activism as Learning Strategies

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


Such active/activist learning components can take many forms. One I’ve found

particularly rewarding is to assign a community action project (see Appendix A)

that puts the responsibility on the students to identify a gender-related problem in

their community and come up with a creative project that can help address that

problem in some way. This is very open-ended, but with guidance through the steps,

students can come to a deeper understanding of gender as a system that affects

individuals in their own communities while enjoying the feelings of agency, camaraderie, and community inherent in effecting positive change in the world. Whatever

learning activities we create, there are a number of things students can learn from

engaging in feminist efforts to address gender-related problems in their communities.

Perhaps most importantly, they can learn that these inequities need not be simply

depressing or overwhelming. Activist learning projects offer students an opportunity to harness the very hopefulness that sometimes blinds them to gender and sex

stratification, and to apply it to developing a deeper understanding of those same

systems by engaging with their shortcomings directly, head on, in an effort to make

the world a better place. High school graduation speeches send them into college in

a heady state of possibility, and while our job is in part to make limitations, systems,

and hierarchies visible, it is not to teach despair and leave the students thinking

that after all, nothing is possible. When we take away one kind of hope, we do a

great service to provide access to another.



A pedagogy of hope as an organizing principle in a feminist class dealing with

gender and sex can be a gift, a way of filling the void left when students are asked

to relinquish the comforts of the linear progress narrative with something that sustains their individual aspirations, their psychological well-being, their motivation to

continue learning, and their conceptions of themselves as existing in community.

This may seem a lofty goal, on top of teaching concepts such as the difference

between sex and gender, the realities and effects of social stratification, and the

historically- and culturally-embedded ways gender norms are constructed. But

when we ask them to take on the burdens such knowledge carries, offering guidance

toward new forms of hope seems only fair.


Anzaldúa, G. (1999). Borderlands/la frontera: The new mestiza (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Aunt

Lute Books.

Denzin, N. (2006). The politics and ethics of performance pedagogy: Toward a pedagogy of hope.

In D. S. Madison & J. Hamera (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of performance studies (pp. 325–

338). Thousand Oaks: Sage.


M. Rehm

Diversi, M., & Moreira, C. (2013). Real world: Classrooms as decolonizing sites against neoliberal

narratives of the other. Cultural Studies—Critical Methodologies, 13(6), 469–473.

Foley, D. (2005). Reflections on the field, Enrique Trueba: A Latino critical ethnographer for the

ages. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 36(4), 354–366.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Continuum.

Freire, P. (1992). Pedagogy of hope: Reliving pedagogy of the oppressed (R. R. Barr, Trans.).

New York: Continuum.

Guajardo, M., Guajardo, F., & Casaperalta, E. C. (2008). Transformative education: Chronicling a

pedagogy for social change. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 39(1), 3–22.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York:


Hooks, B. (2000). Feminism is for everybody: Passionate politics. Cambridge: South End Press.

Hooks, B. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge.

Moraga, C., & Anzaldúa, G. (1983). This bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of

color. New York: Kitchen Table, Women of Color Press.

Piepmeier, A. (2009). Doing third wave feminism: Zines as a pedagogy of hope. In A. Piepmeier

(Ed.), Girl zines: Making media, doing feminism (pp. 155–191). New York: New York UP.

Renner, A. (2009). Teaching community, praxis, and courage: A foundations pedagogy of hope and

humanization. Educational Studies, 45, 59–79.

Webb, D. (2013). Pedagogies of hope. Studies in Philosophy & Education, 32(4), 397–414.

Part IV

Teaching About Gender and Sex

in Broader Contexts

Chapter 22

The Pedagogical Challenge of Teaching

Privilege, Loss, and Disadvantage

in Classrooms of Invisible Social Identities

Traci Craig

Teaching about differences often highlights the presumption that the majority of

students are white, heterosexual individuals, with some class privilege. Our media

and classrooms are pervasive with presumptions about which identities are defaults

and which are exceptions. From the moment I begin to describe a student in my

office most people immediately conjure a picture that is likely to be a white, male,

traditionally aged, able-bodied, average height and weight, heterosexual, and cisgender individual. Every descriptor I use to convey information about this student is

meant to disavow you of the assumption about who the “default” student is. In order

to effectively communicate with one another, we have, as a society and culture,

developed a shared reality with shared meanings and shared default assumptions

about the world (Echterhoff et al. 2009). In many cases these defaults reflect some

base rate information so that probabilistically our defaults are likely to be somewhat


Social identities whether self-proclaimed or presumed vary in terms of visibility.

Race, sex, and age are largely visible social identities. Sexual orientation, religion,

and some disabilities may be relatively invisible. When we are discussing social identity groups that are visible we may be more aware of what sort of representation any

one group has in a room. However, invisible social identities may be harder to ascertain. Often our presumptions about our students and our students’ presumptions about

both their peers and professors drive the framing of information about difference.

I have taught a course entitled Psychology of Women for more than 15 years.

During that time it has become increasingly clear that discussions about sex and

gender have shifted. On the first day of class, I ask the students to spend 5 min writing a definition of woman. Some focus on the biological aspects of sex (e.g., has a

uterus, vagina, breasts), reproduction, or more recently, “anyone who identifies as a

T. Craig (*)

Department of Psychology and Communication Studies, University of Idaho,

Moscow, ID, USA

e-mail: tcraig@uidaho.edu

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

K. Haltinner, R. Pilgeram (eds.), Teaching Gender and Sex

in Contemporary America, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-30364-2_22



T. Craig

woman is a woman.” I challenge all of these definitions asking whether hysterectomy

or mastectomy would make a person no longer a woman, or if women who are not

able to bear children or who choose not to have children are not women. Challenging

the “anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman” leads to a much more interesting conversation. We discuss whether once someone has identified as a woman

would it be reasonable for that person to re-identify as a man later? Are these categories as fluid as gender expression? I often ask if it might be alright for me to

identify as a man when collecting my paycheck but as a woman in other aspects of

my life. This usually draws a laugh making it clear that the boundaries are not as

fluid as first claimed.

Early discussions often focus on sex and gender as distinct and then begins the

work to demonstrate the fluidity of gender. Trans* identities also create examples of

how sex and gender can be fluid as people identify themselves beyond the binary.

However, there must also be an acknowledgement that sex is not quite as fluid as

gender, particularly when it comes to how we are perceived and treated by others.

Students often conflate the concept that fluidity allows for infinite iterations of sex

and gender across time and context with the idea that gender and sex “do not matter.” Our socialization along with our sense of self is rooted in many ways to a

gendered and sexed understanding of who we are. If sex and gender truly did not

matter, there would be no reason to identify as trans* or beyond the binary because

it would largely be inconsequential to our lives. Student responses often make room

for people to identify however they would like, but are quick to hold the person

accountable for conforming to that identity. This is particularly true for male and

masculine identities. Tomboys, for example, are always at risk for losing access to

male privilege if they fail to be masculine enough (Craig and LaCroix 2011).

Biological males and transmen face the risk that others will strip them of a masculine identity if they fall short of the masculine imperative. Conversely, biological

females are not easily stripped of femininity for taking part in masculine endeavors

and indeed are often “privileged” by being referred to as “one of the guys.”

Transwomen, on the other hand, are held to a standard that demands hyper femininity. Students will publicly voice all of this understanding and yet often conclude that

for them (personally) gender and sex do not matter. Yet, their own sex and gender

identity are closely tied to their core sense of self.

Even within a binary understanding of sex, students still struggle to find an identity that fits for adult females. For males (both biological and trans*) the adoption of

“man” as a way of seeing oneself is almost universal. Females, particularly cisgendered women, struggle with whether they are really women. Undergraduate students demonstrate time and again that many of the female adults refer to themselves

as girls and do not actually identify as women, even while the male adults would

consider themselves men. Indeed many women in their 20s report they feel uncomfortable claiming they are women (even when they meet the definitions they wrote

themselves on the first day). Some report that in order to be a woman you must be

older, a mother, or financially independent, but the same simply is not true for men.

Even when male students are financially reliant on their parents, this in no way

precludes them from identifying as men. Women, on the other hand, feel there is a


The Pedagogical Challenge of Teaching Privilege, Loss, and Disadvantage…


special burden of proof to claim this identity and in fact report they think of themselves as “girls” (and so do the men in the class). When you ask the people who date

females in the room how they feel about dating adult females who identify as girls

vs. women, it is clear that “dating girls” (note the plural) is desirable but largely for

fun and “dating a woman” (note the singular) is serious business indeed. Congruent

with Butler’s (1990) conceptualization of gender as performance, it seems that

casual dating requires the performance of “girl”, but long term relationships that

might lead to lifelong commitments require performing gender associated with

“woman.” Rules around “dating” emphasize the importance of female sexuality and

chasten females to be “good girls” with little mention of women at all (Armstrong

et al. 2014). Though both girls and women are perceived to be the audience of texts

and admonitions about how to attract or keep men (the inherent heterosexism, also

presenting a problem).

Butler (1990) introduced the idea of “doing gender” and discusses the many

ways in which gender as social construction and performance are entangled in one

another. The conversation in the classroom during the girls/women dialogue often

begins to incorporate intersectionality (particularly if there are women of color in

the room). Hispanic women will often point out that they became women at 15 as

part of their quinceañera and at that point were in their households given other

responsibilities and privileges. Congruent with Tsuruta’s (2012) description of

black females entering adulthood, black women in the course will discuss being

called out as children for acting “womanish.” A term that has a double intention of

making sure young females do not grow up too fast and recognize they are crossing

a line into adulthood and also acknowledging that a young female is taking on adult

responsibilities. It is both warning and respect depending on the context and the age

of the female. It is clear that at some point they were in fact being acknowledged as

women when they entered the workforce, moved out of the family home, or took on

more responsibility. “Womanish” is often used to denote when Black girls are demonstrating “wit, will, grit, smarts, empathy, curiosity… active not passiveness…as

necessary to remain strong against attempts to undermine her intelligence of kill her

spirit” (Tsuruta 2012). We are then left to ask, “Why do some women feel uncomfortable identifying as women?” What about being a woman in U.S. culture is so

challenging that females, who clearly meet the definition, refuse the label?

Indeed many students on assignments given a few weeks later will proclaim that

they “know” they are men or women, because they have always known. Reifying

the idea that these social identities are not nearly as malleable as first proclaimed.

The same is true for sexual orientation, when asked how they knew their sexual

orientation heterosexual students claim that they “just knew” while non-heterosexual

identified students often have much more thorough accounts of how they came out

as queer. Clearly queer-identified individuals have been challenged to justify and

legitimize their difference, while simply claiming a heterosexual identity is taken at

face value and rarely questioned.

Keeping these examples in mind I am going to discuss three ways in which

default assumptions about sex, gender, and sexuality can be disrupted. The strategies

include practices that I refer to as: naming, framing, and gaming. Naming refers to


T. Craig

explicitly naming the default presumptions. Framing refers to providing a common

context for all members of the class. Finally, gaming refers to the use of activities

or games to engage students and to demonstrate a particular concept through some

action or play. These strategies call attention to default assumptions and encourage

students to consider intersectionality. However, these activities are not without consequences for students in the room, who are the lived embodiment of what it means

to not fit the assumptions. It is my intent to highlight some of the challenges of using

common methods and exercises to teach topics related to gender, sex, and




One way to disrupt assumptions is to name default assumptions explicitly. Rather

than saying “research on romantic relationships finds…” being explicit about the

research and the real possibilities for generalization, “research on monogamous heterosexual romantic relationships finds…” By naming the heterosexual default

explicitly it highlights what relationships might not fit the findings and opens up an

opportunity to discuss how and why those relationships might (or might not) lead to

different results. It is often the case that when research shows that heterosexual

relationships function in a particular way that it is heavily based in the sex and gender of the couple members rather than in heterosexuality. I have also employed the

naming technique without calling direct attention to it. When I do this without

explicitly noting I am doing so, my teaching evaluations indicate that I am always

“calling out” heterosexuals and the perception is that by naming it explicitly that

heterosexuality is getting a bad name in my course. When I follow up with students

about why they believe that being explicit about naming defaults might at first feel

like being called out, they indicate that we only name explicitly when we are “othering” or “differentiating them” from what is normative. For students accustomed to

always being the default this experience is deeply troubling. I have begun to make

it clear that naming the defaults also demonstrates the limits of our knowledge about

others types of relationships or identities. Naming clarifies what we really know and

prevents over generalization. Students who are non-heterosexual, trans*, or identify

as people of color note on their evaluations that it was refreshing to be told explicitly when research did and did not include or generalize to their identity groups.

Naming the default (which will happen at a relatively higher frequency than

naming the exception) also highlights the invisibility of the non-heteronormative

representation in our textbooks and journals. Non-heterosexual, transgender, and

female students are doing the most cognitive work in our courses from managing

invisible social identities, to doing the mental gymnastics to determine if a statement that does not name the default and made about the “general” case would apply

to their own identities. For example, a conclusion from Harrison and Shortall (2011)

often cited in texts and lectures indicates that men fall in love faster than women.

Without reading the entire article, do the labels men and women here include


The Pedagogical Challenge of Teaching Privilege, Loss, and Disadvantage…


transmen and transwomen? Does this apply only to heterosexual relationships? If

this is true as a finding associated with sex, do cis-gendered lesbians take longer to

fall in love than do cis-gendered gay men? I often tell my students the best way to

learn material is to try to apply it to your own experiences. However, for students

who do not fit the “default”, the application may be much more trying. A careful

read of the article would find the sample was heterosexual, but this is mentioned

only once during this article and not at all during the discussion about implications

for the finding.

While naming highlights the limits to our assumptions, it is negligent to believe

that naming will be sufficient to create an inclusive environment. Naming is likely

to highlight to students who do not fit assumptions or generalizations that they are

not being included. It will take extra work to find the research that will be inclusive.

In some cases it is a matter of small numbers of populations in our participant pools.

In other cases, the research that does exist problematizes rather than provides parallel results. Research that compares gender queer identities to cisgender identities

may set up the genderqueer participant as the exception rather than simply a different lived experience. In the minds of some students (though I suspect their numbers

are dwindling) understanding how non-heteronormative experiences occur means

that they can be “remedied” or “made more heteronormative” through changing

their identities rather than changing situations or perceptions.



One pedagogical strategy to deal with difference is to provide a common frame on

which students may situate their knowledge. For example, this framing might be a

common understanding of how one becomes a parent. For many students their parenting frame is that in order for procreation in humans to occur sperm must be colocated with an egg. A common frame for how such a co-location can happen is via

heterosexual coitus. It is then possible to talk about other ways that sperm and egg

might meet beyond heterosexual coitus (e.g., artificial insemination, intrauterine

insemination, etc.). Pushed a bit further, we might consider other ways in which

people become parents (e.g., adoption, marriage). However, when teaching about

gender, sex, and sexualities it may require that the frames be first rebuilt. Often we

begin with a definition of a construct and then elaborate on that construct for our

students. Yet socialization has already embedded in the student a framework of sex

and gender that will be challenging to dismantle. There are several ways in which

you can call into question the frame that exists.

Finding some topic on which most students can agree can be a good first step for

dismantling the frameworks to accommodate the complexity of identities. Domestic

violence in the form of patriarchal terrorism is one such topic. You will be hard

pressed to find a student in the typical U.S. college classroom who believes that

husbands (heterosexual male identified) should beat or physically abuse their wives

(heterosexual female identified). Once this is established, then ask the women in the


T. Craig

room how many of them have hit a man in the last year. Chances are that women

will smile and raise their hands. Ask them why they hit these men. Reasons tend to

be specious, “He was being annoying.” Now ask them to consider whether we

would see this behavior as acceptable if a man reported he had a hit a woman

because she was being annoying. Most students will experience some discomfort.

Some will defend themselves by stating they were just playing around. Again posit

the question, “Would it be okay for a man to hit a woman with similar force in the

context of just playing around?” Follow this with a discussion about the norm that

men should not hit women or even boys should not hit girls. What is the purpose

and origin of the norm? Why do we believe men cannot be injured by women? Is

this embedded in a weak woman stereotype? Does this lead to an inherent belief that

a person should not date someone they cannot defeat in a fight? How does this work

in non-heterosexual couples? Why do females need this protection and how is this

embedded in a presumption that males are inherently violent? Student discussion

often evolves to consider other norms that might be more useful if the goal is to

reduce violence. Often, “do unto others” becomes the frame everyone can agree

upon, though there is still a lot of clarifying to ensure that others is all others (not

just others like you).

Next, complicate the conversation by asking about norms regarding girls fighting with other girls or boys fighting with other boys. The goal should be to highlight

that these norms are based upon stereotypic presumptions about masculinity and

femininity that are harmful to everyone. Have students consider how we move from

telling toddlers it is not nice to hit, to the gendered version of the message that boys

should not hit girls. Why do we believe that past toddlerhood hitting same-sex others is now warranted? Why does the message get gendered? The norm provides

some modicum of protection to women in heterosexual relationships and no protection to women in lesbian relationships nor to men at all. Do we believe that it is okay

for both heterosexual and lesbian women to abuse their partners? Is this based on an

assumption that women are weak and cannot really do any damage? Is domestic

violence only about physical injury? How does this address domestic violence in

gay male relationships? At the conclusion of the discussion, most students begin to

generalize this reframing technique to other discussions, are more inclusive of nonheterosexual relationships and begin to question stereotypes underlying many normative socialization messages. Non-heterosexual contexts allow for exploration

about whether a sex difference is about biology, socialization, or relationship context. For example, do bisexual women dating men experience their gender the same

way when in relationships with women? Students begin to reframe their understanding of research findings: If a researcher concludes after examining heterosexual households that women tend to do most of the housework, are lesbian homes

cleaner and who does the housework in gay male households? Indeed some findings

may well be better framed as “people who date men” or “people who date women”

rather than conflating heterosexuality with sex and gender.

Starting on common ground and then asking how gender, sex, and sexuality are

implicated can often provide a way for students to engage in self-reflection on a

topic. However, they now see the frame through which sex, gender, and sexuality


The Pedagogical Challenge of Teaching Privilege, Loss, and Disadvantage…


create different vantage points. This new frame may quickly get boiled down to

humanist ideals with concluding remarks like, “people shouldn’t hit people” or

“violence is bad.” It is precisely at this point that it becomes important to re-frame

the conversation. Being gender-blind or “not caring” about sexual orientation or

gender identity is not going to lead to the richer discussion that occurs when these

identities are valued in their own right rather than dismissed as “not different” from

any other experience. This is when the hard work begins. Continuing with the violence example, when a man is hit by a woman it challenges his masculinity if he

cannot make her stop hitting him. On the other hand when a woman is hit by a man

it makes her a “victim” (or “survivor”) of domestic violence. Even if she leaves the

relationship it becomes part of her relationship history that she was with a man who

battered. She may now be viewed as a woman who “let” a man beat her if she stays

for “too long.” She will not simply break up with him, she will “escape.” In samesex couples where there is domestic violence, there are added issues about whether

having something bad happen in the relationship will be used by others as a way to

indicate that “same sex relationships are wrong.” The reasons the abuse is occurring

could be similar to the reasons we see patriarchal terrorism (sexism, insecurity,

challenges to masculinity), but may also include internalized homophobia. How

does early socialization change a gay transman’s experience of domestic violence?

How does it challenge both one’s identity as a man, but as a man who was socialized as female during childhood? Domestic violence is never acceptable and social

identity does not make any case worse than another, but these experiences are

deeply shaped by our social identities.

For some learning groups, the topic of gender and sexuality has already drawn

students who are more progressive in their thinking on these issues. Yet, the challenge remains to encourage students to embrace diversity and not to lump together

everyone under a superordinate “human” category that erases the ways social identity matters. People often do this work well when it comes to their own identities,

but often fail to see the importance of intersectionality for others. Many students

report they “don’t care whether someone is gay or straight.” This statement is often

lauded by their peers as a good non-prejudiced response. The frame here is that in

order to not be viewed as prejudice one should “not care” about a particular social

identity. This can be a difficult frame to disrupt. However, discussions around sexual orientation can provide one way to demonstrate social identities do matter.

For non-heterosexual individuals the telling of one’s coming out story is one way

to lay claim to an important part of identity. It is embedded in queer culture and an

experience unique to those who are non-heteronormative in gender or sexual orientation. Herek and Capitano (1996) found that having someone directly disclose a

non-heterosexual sexual orientation led to more positive attitudes towards nonheterosexual individuals. While it is increasingly less likely that coming out will be

met with negative responses, there are also some ways in which a lack of response

can also be experienced as painful. To deny that this identity warrants some attention (hopefully positive) also implies that it is not an important part of a person’s

identity. When heterosexuality is celebrated in every cologne, restaurant, and

jewelry commercial, telling someone who is non-heterosexual that their sexual


T. Craig

orientation is inconsequential seems like an odd response. The intention of statements that downplay coming out experiences may be to see this difference as “not a

big deal”. However, research has shown that with regard to racial difference having

a best friend who is of a different race only decreases racism if you talk about race

(Shook and Fazio 2008). It seems reasonable that having a non-heterosexual friend

is only going to decrease bias related to sexuality if that difference is discussed.

Likewise for women, being seeing as “one of the guys” provides some access to

masculine privilege and this dismissal of “woman-ness” is meant to be complimentary while embedded in misogyny. Women who self-proclaim they were tomboys

and not “girly-girls” are inherently rejecting femininity in ways that can be cutting

to females who are feminine. Indeed having a friend of a different sex or gender is

unlikely to decrease bias based on gender or sex unless those differences are


Providing a common framework can be an effective way to encourage students

to see how easily (or uneasily) they can incorporate sex and gender identities.

Setting a goal that encourages students to engage in the struggle of understanding a

wide array of different viewpoints and experiences is often a better choice, than to

let them try to create summative blanket statements. Understanding intersectionalities can create unique experiences and allow us to appreciate the domino effect of

policies that are often written with a singular frame in mind. I often remind students

from the helping professions that the people they will help are not always going to

fit their particular frame. The broad blanket of color-blind, gender-blind, or we are

all human platitudes strip away the dignity of having all of one’s social identities

acknowledged. Indeed being seen as who we are, as we are, and all that we are is

one of the ways in which we begin to feel we are understood.



Using warm-up exercises or participatory activities is often used as one way to

highlight privilege in classrooms, student affairs, and team building retreats. In this

section I explore how activities are used to address issues surrounding privilege. In

many cases, the end goal is met but only for those who are of the most privileged

group. Those individuals who do not fit default presumptions about who is in the

room are often left to feel invisible or in some cases pained by the exercise. The idea

behind activities is often to engage all students and to break up the monotony of

lecture-style classrooms. In some cases, the goal is to allow students to “discover”

through their own experience in the game something critical to the lesson at hand.

However, sex and gender (and social identities broadly) are not so easily gamed.

One popular iteration of a privilege exercise is to have everyone line up and then

take steps across the room each time a description fits them. Facilitators read

descriptions so that privileged people end up across the room from the underprivileged people in the room. As a student I was in a room where this game was being

played and having seen it before I was prepared to take my few steps forward for

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