The Academic Feminist: “The feminist know-it-all” and other classroom challenges

headshot.cropped.AHAWelcome back, Academic Feminists! As you will recall, I, along with Feministing’s leadership team, went to the National Women’s Studies Association’s 2014 conference in November. I met and reconnected with many amazing feminists there, including some folks from Butler University in Indiana. One of those feminists, Katherine Schweighofer, will be guest posting today about one of her panels at the conference. Katherine is a doctoral candidate in Gender Studies and teaches Gender and Women’s Studies courses at Indiana University and Butler University. She can be contacted at

This November, the National Women’s Studies Association held its annual conference under the theme of “Feminist Transgressions.” Inspired by the work of keynote speaker bell hooks, a group of feminist faculty gathered for a roundtable entitled “Teaching to Transgress: Theory and Practice Across Feminist Classrooms.” The roundtable included university instructors from different professorial ranks, ages, racial and economic backgrounds, sexual identities, and disciplinary backgrounds, all of whom currently are part of Butler University’s Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies.

The roundtable participants shared reflections on the ways feminist theory shaped and continued to inform their classrooms. There were personal stories about coming to feminism, reflections on how race and sexuality mark our bodies and classrooms, and accounts of struggles with administrators and fellow faculty over whether feminist scholarship belonged in non-GWS departments (yes, that happens). Added to these longstanding challenges for feminist teachers were more recent expansions in feminist theory, including the rise of Queer Theory, Transgender Studies, and different understandings of gender, bodies and desires. Yet the topic that dominated much of the open conversation in the second half of the session came from an audience member. This instructor from a large Midwestern public institution asked the room about a different challenge in her classrooms: the rise of the feminist “know-it-all.”

This faculty member explained that her introductory Gender and Women’s Studies classes frequently included a small number of students already strongly invested in feminist, queer, and other radical identities, perhaps engaged in activist work outside of the classroom, and often with a GWS course or two already under their belts. This seemed like a teacher’s dream — a few students who “get it,” can be counted on to more quickly understand feminist concepts, and maybe even take a leadership role. Yet these young radicals had set a classroom tone in which sharply interrupting classmates using unexamined privilege, aggressively arguing down conservative viewpoints, and insisting upon radical social change, anarchy, and revolutionary politics as the only viable solution became the norm. Having had similar dynamics in my own classrooms, I recognized the type, and recalled my concerns that students would leave with the misunderstanding that these perspectives defined feminism, leaving no room for them to engage in the issues that had resonance for them. Judging by the nodding in the room, this is a dynamic that appears in many settings.

Thinking more about how this plays out in my classroom and others I’ve observed, I know that sometimes the feminist “know-it-all” is responding to anti-feminist language, messages, or comments from their classmates that definitely should be immediately countered. Or they can be protective of what is too often the one space on campus where their voices and politics are validated. Some of them may be defensive about feminism in response to the onslaught of misogyny, racism, and heteronormative beauty culture from family, friends, media and culture. It’s not always easy to be passionate about feminism on campus. But as an instructor, I see my responsibility not only to enable students to come to feminist consciousness, but to help them harness those energies for the greatest possible social change. It would be great if we could simply read bell hooks, or Judith Butler, or Sandy Stone, and “get” how systems of oppression operate, what gender performativity is, and how trans* can be a disruptive and creative modality. Better yet, if those complex theories were integrated into our culture so that all children were raised to challenge oppression, undo gender, and design their own bodies and desires. But that’s not how it works. Coming to feminism, as many of the senior faculty presenting bravely shared, often involves missteps and stumbling through times of confusion and uncertainty. It involves mistakes, moments that you’ll recall years down the line, wishing you’d made another choice. This is how learning happens, and this process is even more central to feminist learning. I might not even remember mistakes I made converting fractions to decimals in mathematics, but I am haunted by the moments in my past when I didn’t speak truth to power.

So how do we embrace and encourage all students in their path toward feminism? How do we push advanced students further, while allowing beginners space to let life-changing ideas take root? How do we keep the “know-it-alls” from shutting down their classmates’ learning experiences, even when they correctly identify sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism in their peers, and are rightfully angry about it? Instructors must create a safe classroom space while also stepping back so students see each other as sources of knowledge. How do we enable students to learn from one another without creating a Gender Studies deathmatch between students on different ends of the political spectrum each week?

In her keynote that weekend, bell hooks gave her audience an important reminder. Accounting for her own success, she reminded us of the value and importance of a “caring, critically engaged community,” urging us to further develop our connections to one another. Caring and critically engaged community is a part of feminist learning too often forgotten in today’s fast-paced, individualistic, return-on-investment focused culture of higher education. Creating a community in which students are responsible for, care for, and invested in one another teaches feminist lessons equally important as defining “heteropatriarchy” — that we rise and fall together, that seeing from someone else’s perspective can be eye-opening, and that change is so much easier if we convince rather than crush the opposition. While I’d love to inspire whole classrooms to radical feminism, realistically I’m more likely to bring the uncertain middle to a mainstream feminist position, and there is important work to be done nationally doing the same. As senior and brand-new faculty alike began sharing strategies for connecting students, I envisioned my own classrooms: what if my radical, anarchist, genderqueer students and my heteronormative, conservative, Republican students were all able to leave our classroom feeling like they’d learned something new and valuable, and felt good about doing so?

Now that would be teaching to transgress.

Were you at NWSA? Let us know about your experience in comments.

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

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