In the middle of the spring 2020 semester, when many of us crashed up against a massive teaching paradigm shift, the feminist institute where I work, Newcomb Institute of Tulane University, tasked a colleague and me with helping our fellow instructors rapidly shift to teaching online. Tulane’s Center for Engaged Teaching and Learning and Innovative Learning Center had launched a number of initiatives to transition faculty to teaching through the pandemic, so Jacquelyne Thoni Howard and I asked ourselves what unique perspectives and skills we might have to offer faculty that may not be available through existing resources. Given our training as feminist scholars and educators, the answer was clear: feminist pedagogy for online teaching.
As feminist educators, we had employed many tenets of feminist pedagogy in the classroom for years: treating students as co-educators; working to build equity, trust, mutual respect, and support; examining how knowledge is constructed and how gender, intersecting with other social categories, shapes our lives, learning, knowledge production, and access to resources. But in our new pandemic-induced context, the learning curve was steep to figure out how to create similar practices in distance education through digital technologies.
Luckily, Jacquelyne has a background in instructional design, and I have some familiarity and comfort with tech tools for teaching, so we began collecting resources and recommendations to share with our colleagues. Our goal was to provide online options for ensuring our time-honored, in-person feminist teaching practices were not abandoned in the switch to virtual classes. As our collection of resources grew, we knew we needed to house it somewhere easily accessible, and thus, our Feminist Pedagogy for Teaching Online digital guide was born in the fall of 2020.
Originally meant as an internal resource, the guide was shared on Twitter and soon we had thousands of views. There was a strong desire amongst feminist instructors, and instructors in general, to revisit their pedagogical priorities as they confronted new realities at work and at home. Indeed, as educators began to accept the new situation—no longer a sudden make-shift response to a temporary problem, but an enduring new normal—they were hungry for discussions about how to create communities of care, keep students engaged, and develop critical thinkers.
Of course, not only were instructors rapidly learning new tech skills, they were also home-schooling their own children, caring for loved ones, coping with loss, and other changes in their own lives. Much of this new labor (like care labor in general) has fallen on women, just as women, primarily women of color, have also suffered the greatest job loss. In higher education, women and people of color were already disproportionately represented among contingent faculty.
For many of us, this precarity drives home the point that feminist pedagogical theorists have made for decades: that we all, students and instructors, bring our lives with us to the classroom. In order to teach and to learn, we must be able to make connections between course content and our personal experiences. We must work to cultivate online learning environments in which we recognize how material circumstances (e.g., whether one has a job or job security, how hungry, stressed, or depressed one is, etc.) shape our ability to learn and teach.
We observed the difficulties our students endured as they were also torn from their sense of normalcy and thrust into learning from homes and dorms with varying levels of support and infrastructure for online education. We also saw how social unrest resulting from heightened awareness about racial injustice affected our students, especially our students of color, and how political unrest surrounding the 2020 election, infused with racism and misogyny, affected them as well. Feminist pedagogy, while not a panacea for solving all of our teaching challenges (how job insecurity affects our ability to teach, for instance), provides us with some strategies for making sure that our online teaching is not soulless, disembodied, and isolating for everyone involved.
We can utilize tech tools (preferably ones that are open-access and have ethical data privacy policies) to enable new forms of collaboration among students (critical social annotation is one of my personal favorites), to create opportunities for them to voice thoughts and concerns anonymously (I use polleverywhere and Jamboard, but there are many other options), or to create digital presentations to share with their peers (Adobe Spark is a good one for this). As many of us have discovered, tech tools can help us accomplish feminist pedagogical goals in fully online courses, hybrid courses, and the in-person classroom.
I recently had the opportunity to re-read bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress as part of a book club run by Tulane’s Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching. While hooks published this book in 1994, her essays on critical and feminist pedagogy are no less engaging and relevant than they were 27 years ago. She writes, “To teach in varied communities not only our paradigms must shift but also the way we think, write, speak. The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself” (11). As we become accustomed to hybrid and online teaching, more than ever we must continue to seek out ways to ensure that we are doing right by our students and providing them with meaningful, relevant learning experiences that engage and challenge them.
As Jacquelyne and I watched interest in our digital guide grow, we recognized the need to ensure that we practice feminist collaboration in its stewardship. For this reason, we have invited others, such as Niya Bond, Liv Newman, and Enilda Romero-Hall, to join us as co-curators and contributors who will help us ensure the guide meets the needs of various audiences in changing circumstances. Our hope is to continue to build out this resource for use far beyond the much-anticipated moment when COVID-19 no longer dictates our lives and professional practices.
As many have already noted, some of the adjustments brought on by the pandemic will endure because they are cheaper, more efficient, and sometimes even more effective. I believe my teaching has improved as a result of the challenges COVID-19 poses, despite ongoing concerns about health and job security. If it has improved, it is primarily because these challenges have prompted me to revisit and reinvigorate my love for feminist pedagogy and its call for us to think more deeply and teach more thoughtfully. This focus is one change I hope to bring with me into a future in which I freely breathe the same air as my students once again.
Clare Daniel is the co-founder of Feminist Pedagogy for Teaching Online and author of Mediating Morality: The Politics of Teen Pregnancy in the Post-Welfare Era. She is a member of Scholars Strategy Network. Find her on Twitter @ClareMDaniel.
Aviles, Gwen (2020, May 25). The coronavirus is threatening diversity in higher education. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-threatening-diversity-academia-n1212931
Boesch, Diana & Shilpa Padka (2021, February 1). When women lose all the jobs: essential actions for a gender-equitable recovery. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2021/02/01/495209/women-lose-jobs-essential-actions-gender-equitable-recovery/
Brown, Monica & Benjamin Croft (2020). Social Annotation and an Inclusive Praxis for Open Pedagogy in the College Classroom. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2020(1), p.8. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/jime.561
hooks, bell (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge.
Howard, Jacque, Clare Daniel, Enilda Romero-Hall, Niya Bond, & Liv Newman (2021). Feminist Pedagogy for Teaching Online. https://feminists-teach-online.tulane.edu/
Manfuso, Lauren Glenn (2020, April 30). Protecting Data Privacy in a Remote Learning Landscape. EdTech Magazine. https://edtechmagazine.com/higher/article/2020/04/protecting-data-privacy-remote-learning-landscape
Power, Kate (2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the care burden of women and families. Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy 16(1). https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15487733.2020.1776561