Teaching feminism/teaching while feminist

‘How it works’. Image credit to xkcd.

As teachers, we all kind of hope that what – and how – we teach matters. We hope that students will journey with us through our classes and by the end of the journey, perhaps think a little differently about the world. I teach in the discipline of International Relations, so I have taught large survey courses on theory, and smaller courses on peace and security, international law, international organisations, and so on. And as a feminist, even when I’m not ‘teaching feminism’, I hope that my students will think a little differently about the ways in which gender matters in and to their everyday lives when they have finished with my classes.

I want my students to appreciate the work that gender does in organising global politics: how the assumptions we make about bodies and behaviour inform how we think about power, legitimacy and authority in local, national, and international contexts. Consciously or otherwise, for example, white Anglo culture associates white Anglo middle/upper-class men with authority and legitimacy. In turn, this means that bodies which perform these identities can access certain spaces and be heard while their many others cannot. Consciously or otherwise, white Anglo culture associates women with maternalism/nurturing and life-giving, which means that women who take life or perpetrate violence are problematized as women and made into a spectacle(even when the violence is state-sanctioned, e.g. women in the military) in a way that male perpetrators of violence are not.

I want my students to examine these assumptions and all the other assumptions and associations that are usually left unexamined and therefore are rendered invisible in the study of politics and international relations. I want them to develop these critical insights because I think that learning how to examine what we take for granted is a profoundly powerful political force in the world – and I think gender is one of the most ‘taken for granted’ categories that we use to think with (Judith Butler rather more eloquently described it as the ‘founding interpellation’ that in very material ways renders us human).

In my teaching practice, I find a dual approach helpful: I include a week on feminist theory (how to think with gender as a concept) to give students a framework to use; and I ‘mainstream’, by making sure that each ‘topic’ week has feminist work in the required or supplementary reading. I think that the worst approach is to ghettoise feminist work in the last/penultimate week of the course in ‘the week on gender’. In a chapter I co-wrote on this topic, my colleague and I argued that teaching is about engendering curiosity and that we need to include (‘mainstream’) strategies to facilitate the development of curiosity about how gender works. Having ‘the week on gender’ is problematic not only because it encourages students to compartmentalise gender, but also because it is so often relegated to the latter half (or even the final week) of the course and therefore is represented as marginal.

The question remains, though: how much of what we teach challenges students to think differently about our subject matter? For me, in International Relations, how much does teaching feminist work destabilise or decentre the disciplinary canon? There is definitely a feminist canon in my discipline (and I am thinking here of the works of Cynthia EnloeAnn TicknerChandra Talpade MohantyMarysia ZalewskiChristine Sylvester; I consider their scholarship canonical because I cannot imagine teaching without making reference to it) and I teach it, because starting from Enloe’s ideas about militarism and masculinities and Zalewski’s ideas about theory as a verb enable really interesting discussions about gender, power and knowledge.

It is important to teach the disciplinary canon, but it is important that the canon is subverted to teach feminist work as well. One way to do this is to read Mary Wollstonecraft alongside classical texts on liberalism, to read Ann Tickner alongside Hans Morgenthau. And we need to choose our textbooks carefully as well. Using a textbook that represents gender as an ‘add on’ to a predetermined field of International Relations – for example, through only making reference to feminist perspectives in a chapter entitled ‘Postpositivism in IR’ – is troublesome for scholars seeking to devise good pedagogical practices, both because it is inaccurate and because in its inaccuracy it perpetuates the idea that feminist work is either new or marginal or both.

Feminist insights do change the nature of our discipline; they fundamentally change how we think about global politics. Following Christine Sylvester’s (1994) formulation of International Relations as relations international creates space for recognising other kinds of relations such as gender relations – which also enables nuanced discussion of power (because students can usually acknowledge that gender is a power relation, they can then more easily interrogate international relations as power relations).

In a discipline that values theory-building and modelling to generate general principles, feminist scholarship is sometimes critiqued for not providing a general theory, which I don’t understand. ‘Gender makes the world go round’ seems like a pretty robust theoretical statement to me, and it certainly helps me make sense of how the world works. Whether I’m teaching feminism, or just teaching while feminist, this the idea that I try to explore with my students, to encourage them to think differently about how gender matters not only to international political life but to their own everyday life experiences.


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Teaching feminism/teaching while feminist by Laura J Shepherd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.