50 Years of Feminist Classrooms

Marta Kowalewska

As we have shown in previous posts, the early scholars of WGFS at the University of Edinburgh played a vital role in introducing gender into the university’s curriculum – not just through the inclusion of gender-focused courses, but through their push to weave gender through all parts of the curriculum with the understanding that ‘gender is everywhere’. Yet the impact of the introduction of WGFS has not only been at the level of what is taught but also at the level of how it is taught. This blog post focuses exactly on this ‘how’ – on how, through the work of WGFS academics, feminist pedagogies and practices entered and transformed university classrooms.

When asked about teaching and feminist pedagogy, interestingly none of our interviewees could identify a particular moment or conscious decision-making process whereby they took upon themselves the task of creating or establishing feminist classrooms and/or pedagogical strategies. They all found it difficult to answer whether or how they might have tried to make their teaching practices explicitly feminist. Yet when framed in terms of questions of how these WGFS scholars brought feminist ideas into the curricula, the emergence of feminist pedagogies and classrooms becomes clearer. The very introduction of ideas about gender and feminism into a space where these ideas were not in the lexicon required the creation of new curricula and teaching strategies around this knowledge – what we now consider or identify as ‘feminist pedagogy’.

As Radhika Govinda summarises, principles of feminist pedagogy include (but are not limited to) student-centred and student-led learning, co-construction of knowledge, peer-to-peer learning, disruption of the teacher/student binary, understanding experience as knowledge and taking into account the notion of situated knowledges, and reflexivity. [1] In the histories recounted by our interviewees, we see these practices in action.

For example, Alice Brown recounts her academic and activist work on the 50-50 Scotland campaign, aiming for the equal representation of women within Scottish Parliament, as well as the Gender Audit, looking at the underrepresentation of women across all spheres. She was at the time teaching the course, Scottish Politics and later Women in Politics, and explains how she would bring her research and political experience of working on these projects and campaigns into the classroom, teaching her students through her own contextual practice and knowledge of activism and politics. This was not only a way for students to learn how things happen in practice rather than just in theory, but also a way for them to get involved themselves – Alice tells us that quite a few of her students became involved and went on to play active roles in in the projects and campaigns.

The idea of student-led and student-centred learning also comes up in a number of the interviews. Rather than the classic lecture-style classroom where the teacher lectures and the students listen, our interviewees stress the importance of participatory classrooms and student engagement – for example, Patricia Jeffery notes how important it was to her that all her students speak and contribute in class. A number of the WGFS scholars we interviewed also mention how, in the time of the ‘with gender’ degree options, the most successful element of these was the core seminar. Liz Bondi describes the seminar as a ‘flexible kind of responsive space’, and others also note how it was a smaller, more student-centred and engaged learning space than usual. This seminar, as discussed in the previous post, has carried on in SPS in the form of Contemporary Feminist Debates, and this seminar-style of learning can also be seen across other contemporary courses at the university in WGFS and beyond.

Alongside being student-centred, the gender studies seminars, as well as most WGFS courses at the University, were co-created and co-taught by academics from across different disciplines. As we saw in the first blog post of this series, the early WGFS academics at the University of Edinburgh arrived along different paths, and from and into different disciplines – this interdisciplinarity became a strength of WGFS at Edinburgh, one that carried over into pedagogical and research practices through co-creation of knowledge and co-teaching. This set the path for future collaborative endeavours such as the Understanding Gender in the Contemporary World course, which was co-designed by students and staff through a participatory project involving the School of Social of Political Science, Edinburgh University Students’ Association, academics and students from across the University.

Perhaps these examples and approaches do not seem out of the ordinary. One might even wonder how and if these are specifically ‘feminist’ pedagogies at all, given how some of these things – co-teaching, student-led learning, small seminar style classrooms, reflexivity– are now quite standard practice throughout academia. Yet as Patricia Jeffery says in her interview,

‘I think also in general people have been much more reflexive in the way they approach teaching, not just in relation to gender studies. I think some of that has been inspired by feminist discussions and if you think about some of the feminist interventions in discussions about methodology and the interview, the politics of the interview and things like that, a lot of that has started with feminist interventions, and now people are much more inclined to say “but that’s just good practice”. It’s gone back the way into a more general approach, and it can no longer be claimed as specifically feminist and I think that pretty much the same could perhaps be said about a lot of the ways in which we deal with teaching, not only ideas about active learning and so on. They’re not specifically to do with gender studies teaching, I think.’

Much of the pedagogical practice originating in WGFS has over time become part of general good practice, given the wide-ranging applicability across disciplines and subjects. This is, in our view, something to be celebrated, as these practices can make for more inclusive, engaging, and critical learning spaces. Even as these pedagogical principles and practices have expanded and become more general, it is important to remember, acknowledge, and reflect on their roots in the work and practices of feminist scholars and activists.

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You can access excerpts from the audio-recordings of our interviews with Liz Bondi, Alice Brown, Mary Buckley, Lynn Jamieson, Patricia Jeffery and Fran Wasoff here. If you have memories to share of early women’s, gender and feminist studies teaching and research at University of Edinburgh, please contact genderED: gender.ed@ed.ac.uk

[1] Govinda, R. (2020) ‘Fifty Years of Doing Feminisms in the Academy – Where Do We Stand? Reflections from Britain’, in R. Govinda, F. Mackay, K. Menon and R. Sen (eds.), Doing Feminisms in the Academy: Identity, Institutional Pedagogy and Critical Classrooms in India and the UK, New Delhi and Chicago: Zubaan Publications and The University of Chicago Press.

Featured image: ‘Feminism is spoken here’ by gaelx sourced from Creative Commons.


Author Bio

Marta Kowalewska is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on Romani women’s activism and feminist politics in Poland. Tweet her @MartaZofia