On Feminism In The College Classroom

Lecture at university.

Am I trying to turn my students into feminists? No. But nor do I think they can clearly see their own worlds, and their own fights, without feminism as a lens.

With 10 years in higher education under my belt, and a near-lifetime before that as a student, I still get excited about the first day of school. As a professor of English and creative writing, I get especially jazzed about making the reading lists for my courses. Oh, what discussions these books will generate, oh, how they’ll change us! I think as I jam paper in our department’s copier. Nothing brings out the optimist in me like the dawn of a new academic year.

This year, my employer, Suffolk University, convened the fall semester in downtown Boston with our just-hired president, Margaret McKenna. McKenna’s hire marked the fifth presidential turnover at Suffolk since 2010, but also the first time a woman was hired to the top office in the university’s 110 years.

In a speech delivered to the faculty after convocation, McKenna, a former civil rights attorney, implored professors across the university to be brave in their classrooms. Discourses on racism, sexism, economic disparity, and other forms of inequality aren’t easy, but they’re necessary in educating a generation with a deep sense of civic duty, she said. In a climate of fear and even despair throughout higher ed—tenure under fire, academic freedom threatened, tuition soaring, adjunct professors living in poverty—McKenna’s speech was energizing, a mandate to teach our hearts out and shy away from nothing this year.

After convocation, I called my mother on my way to the train. “I have a good feeling about this year,” I told her.

Though she has no formal training in education, and dropped out of college herself during the height of feminism’s “second wave,” my mother worked for 35 years as an administrative assistant in a local school district, and has a special fondness for teachers. We chatted about my fall courses, and my mother asked what books I had assigned in my first-year writing class. I went down the list, which included two books by African-American writers, and three books (out of four total) by women.

There was a pause on the line. Then my mother said carefully, “I don’t want you to take offense to this question, but I have to ask: Are you trying to turn your students into feminists?”

I laughed.

I’m no gender studies expert, but some of us still say that word—feminist—like it’s Voldemort. In my classes, I’ve had students, men and women alike, write papers against it, arguing that their own opportunities overturn feminism’s archaic claims about inequality. Even though they belong to one of the most feminist generations of all time, it can be surprisingly difficult to convince them of feminism’s necessity; the personalization of learning, the self-as-lens, often obscures what students don’t find “relevant” (read: reflective) to their own lives. And let’s face it: On a college campus, where women often make up more than half of the student population, the idealistic lean of academe can make feminism appear less urgent even as statistics about rape on campus betray the sexism and violence lurking beneath a university’s progressive marketing.

Their dismissal of feminism as a cause with constantly renewing relevance comes, of course, from a misunderstood definition of feminism. I do the best I can to give those students the proper definition—a movement concerned with equality of the genders, and in our current wave, the intersectional forms of oppression as impacted by race, class, religion, and other demographics, not man-hating—but it can take time for a new and discomfiting idea (that women are still marginalized in ways both explicit and insidious, and women of color even more so, and trans women most so) to replace an old and reassuring one (that everyone has the chance to reach their full potential in America). I don’t convince everybody by the end of the semester.

The interesting thing is that students—even progressive students who identify as feminists—often carry an inherent gender bias with respect to their professors. NPR recently reported on a new study that claims female professors receive consistently lower scores on student evaluations, an idea that surprises no woman who has ever stood at the front of a classroom. A cursory glance on Rate My Professor corroborates the study, with female professors ranking lower than their male colleagues, and all manner of derogatory phrases (many of them including the words “crazy” and “feminist”) used to explain why students earned unsatisfactory grades in their courses.

Last week, Suffolk University made headlines when the university’s Board of Trustees attempted to oust President McKenna over what they called her “unauthorized spending” and “abrasive” style of leadership that the chairman of the board later dubbed a “bad cultural fit” for the university. Alarmed by the prospect of yet another presidential turnover and its destabilizing effects on the university, not to mention the damage to the school’s reputation as a result of the ensuing media fray, the students of Suffolk University launched a very public campaign not only to save McKenna’s job, but also to turn criticism of university governance back on the Board. And there are many reasons to criticize the Board.

As a Suffolk employee, I spent every day of last week on campus, going to meetings and demonstrations sick with walking pneumonia, because I felt a responsibility to show solidarity with my students and colleagues. But I also couldn’t resist what we in the biz call the “teachable moment.”

In my classroom, concerned primarily with language, this meant unpacking words like “abrasive” and “confrontational” when applied to a woman in power, and to situate what was happening at the university in a bigger, more complicated context where feminism means different things to different people, where its very evolution to be more inclusive can bring division over how to combat sexism that sounds so remarkably the same.

This week, feminist icon Gloria Steinem said that young women flock to Bernie Sanders’ campaign in an effort to impress their young male counterparts. The “Bernie Bros” of social media got a smack down from their own leader. Carly Fiorina was kept off the stage of the most recent Republican debate, despite calls from her own presidential opponents to bring her aboard. Many feminists feel their feminism attacked when they publicly support Sanders, while many other feminists feel attacked when they publicly support Clinton. The conversation has turned so dynamic that the teachable moment for me has become about multiplicity and nuance. Calling oneself a feminist does not automatically eliminate inherent gender bias. A vote for any president—of a college, of a country—is a complicated thing.

This is why I love literature. When I teach Eula Biss’ Notes From No Man’s Land, or Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, or Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, I’m not given an easy thesis, and neither are my students. Dwelling in ambiguity, where meanings are multiple, is where discourse gets interesting, and ultimately, urgent. Policy matters outside of gender. Gender matters regardless of policy. Neither issues of policy nor gender can be properly considered without context that’s as much individually experienced as it is culturally shared.

The playing field is never, ever equal. The words we use in defining a stance—abrasive, confrontational, establishment, socialism, revolution, corporate, strident, shrill—matter because their meaning changes with the people they describe.

Am I trying to turn my students into feminists? No. But nor do I think they can clearly see their own worlds, and their own fights, without feminism as a lens.

Amy Monticello is an assistant professor at Suffolk University. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, and at Salon, The Rumpus, and The Nervous Breakdown. She currently lives in Boston, MA with her husband and daughter. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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