As an undergraduate student at the University of Winnipeg, my relationship with feminism and women’s studies was paradoxical: I was deeply committed to, yet fiercely critical of, both domains. Later, as a teaching assistant in women’s studies at York University, my fundamental attitude towards feminism had not changed.
The course at York was very similar to the introductory women’s studies class I had taken as an undergrad – both covered the basics of feminist theory, analyses of oppression and a sprinkling of the history of the women’s movement. The only difference was that first-year students at York are required to take a nine-credit foundations course, and this course, Women and Society, was one of them. Many students enrolled, not because of their budding interest in women’s studies but because they thought it might be easy, or a bitch session, or therapy. Perhaps it was, in part, narcissism: I’m a woman, so why not study me?
My practice of simultaneously questioning feminist principles while maintaining a steadfast loyalty to them both helped and hindered me as a TA. On the one hand, I was open to the students’ own criticisms of the course material; on the other, I found myself in the precarious position that TAs often face: needing to cultivate my students’ critical thinking without undermining the course director. Moreover, I was reluctant to air my own criticisms of the material and run the risk of fostering an unwarranted antipathy to feminism.
My approach to the women’s movement differed from that of my students. I treated the field like an old friend – something I love and want to be a part of, but achingly aware of its flaws . For most of my students, feminism was like a nasty rumour, something you hear about but you’re pretty sure you don’t want to be associated with. Anyone who has had to teach the sometimes obligatory one-class-per-year-on-gender will know that students are notoriously resistant to feminist ideas. Some refuse to see the concepts as being in any way applicable to their lives. Some may fear that holding feminist beliefs will jeopardize their standing in family or social circles. For others, it’s evident they find it difficult to distinguish between feminist analysis and simplistic male-bashing.
But this isn’t all necessarily about a student’s intellectual failure. Although I was deeply frustrated by my students’ generalized reluctance to grasp – let alone embrace – analyses of sexism, white privilege and heteronormativity, I also felt a deep current of compassion for those who chose to sign up for my class. A discipline like women’s studies, which is distinctly political, presents students with the problem of having to change and take action. Allyson Mitchell, a long-time women’s studies teaching assistant at York who is now a course director, puts it this way: “I always tell my students that what really sucks about having your consciousness raised is that it hurts. It’s awful because you can never really see the world in the same way again. And also, once you have had it raised, it’s very difficult to return back to some sort of ignorance.”
When my students raised what I perceived to be entirely legitimate critiques of the material they were studying, I felt challenged to come up with an appropriate response. Although I had very different feminist beliefs than the course director did, it was her advice to “start from where the students are” that I put into action. The fact that she and I had divergent understandings of “where the students are” did not dilute the wisdom of the advice.
For example, when students persisted in asking why the course director did not include narratives and representations of women’s resistance to oppression, I decided to get the students involved in creating that narrative. I introduced the “pro-woman show and tell” (deliberately staying away from the “f” word to make it as non-threatening as possible). For the first five minutes of each tutorial, one or two students gave mini-presentations on song lyrics, books or visual images of powerful women who resonated in their lives.
This strategy, underpinned by a “yield to win” philosophy, paid off. Instead of resisting and rejecting their complaints, I was able to model good listening skills, validate their concerns and show that I cared about what they thought. Turned out that both my criticisms of, and my passion for, the material served as good pedagogical tools. The bonus? Balancing both turned out to be the most feminist thing I could do.