On the Collectivity of Feminist Pedagogy: Reflections on Feminist Sharing in Delhi

Textile in red

Blog post by Dr Lisa Kalayji.

Some months back, I picked up Sara Ahmed’s eagerly-awaited most recent book, Living a Feminist Life. Opening it to the first page, I found the dedication:

‘To the many feminist killjoys out there doing your thing: THIS ONE IS FOR YOU.’

For several minutes I sat with the book open to that page, taken aback by how much it had moved me, and trying to figure out why. On reflection, it makes perfect sense. Feminist killjoys – and feminist teachers – operate largely in apparent isolation. We’re out there ‘doing our thing’, unyieldingly intruding on patriarchy’s otherwise smooth operation. It’s rich and rewarding labour, but labour nonetheless, and it’s often met with resistance, derision, ostracism, and sometimes much worse. We fight on anyway because it needs to be done, but the feeling of being an isolated feminist antagonist is lonely and exhausting.

When I read that dedication, I was immediately struck by a mental image of all of the other feminists out there, and just how vast a network we are. We each know that the others are there, doing the feminist work, pushing on patriarchy’s stubbornly solid walls, but that knowing is often not felt. For the most part, we don’t know who these other feminists are, where they are, or what they’re doing. We can’t see them, touch them, or hear their voices. We just have to keep pushing, and trust that the others are there pushing alongside us, even if they’re too far down the length of the wall for us to see them. Occasionally, though, there is a fleeting instant when our awareness of one another’s presence  – of the vastness of the feminist army – is really felt. Reading Ahmed’s dedication, I thought of all of the others holding that same book in their hands, strong and determined but weary from the long feminist fight we’re each fighting, each a one-person cell in a web too great to readily fathom. As individuals we do important work, but what makes feminism an unstoppable force in the world is that we are absolutely everywhere. That great web is indestructible and full of power and energy, reverberating with the passion, cumulative insight, and wilfulness of agitators, educators, and freedom fighters.

Fast forward a few months, and the Teaching Feminisms, Transforming Lives team is meeting for the first time in Delhi. We had only about a week together, which couldn’t possibly be enough time, but we made the most of it, sharing ideas, papers, reflections, travels, meals, and happiness. On one intellectually explosive day, we presented papers to one another and other interested attendees, and convened a roundtable discussion of our team as well as a range of other feminist educators. It would be difficult to convey the enormity of what a single conference room contained that day. Around a long conference table, and with a packed-out second layer surrounding it, was an assembly of feminist titans. By that, I don’t refer to the notoriety of some of those present (though some were widely recognisable), but rather to the immensity of wisdom, experience, conviction, and insight accumulated amongst the group present.

We shared reflections on feminist teaching and learning, and the challenging and ambivalent negotiations and travails that we each face in practising them. We were reminded that many of our students are led to feminist classrooms by deeply personal journeys, and of the incongruity of our responding by handing them overwhelming reading lists of esoteric theoretical texts. We heard about the difficulties of persuading women to pursue and finish their educations, and the disappointing concessions to patriarchal discourse that it sometimes requires. We examined the challenges of teaching anti-feminist men in a feminist classroom, and of being a pro-feminist man in educational spaces which mark feminist education as the sole purview of women. We explored productive and inhibitive forms of feminist and anti-feminist discomfort in pedagogical spaces, and sat with the encouraging but dissonant acceptance that ease and comfort are unlikely signs of transformation – feminism was never meant to be an easy ride. We shook our heads in frustration, laughed with glee, and nodded with fervent affirmation as we recognised one another’s feminist pedagogical journeys in our own.

What has most stayed with me after the event, though, was one particular narrative we heard near the end of the almost three-hour long session. After many interventions around the question of what we collectively called the ‘resistant subject’ – the mind which draws away from the threat of a burgeoning feminist consciousness – we were told about a young man in a feminist classroom who, after weeks of wrestling with feminist learning, submitted a revelatory essay at the end of the term. It began, ‘Let us imagine…’ before going on to engage in the vital practice of radically envisioning a more feminist world. There are infinitely many things to say about feminist imagining and what it enables us to do, but in the satisfied exhaustion of a long and enriching day, what most struck me was what this feminist teacher had to say next: She reflected that if our teaching leads to a student submitting an essay which opens with the phrase ‘let us imagine’, then ‘we’ve done our job’.

In that moment, the feminist super-network invoked in Sara Ahmed’s striking book dedication was present, not just through the experiences and reflections we had shared, but through the acknowledged collectivity of the pedagogical enterprise: ‘we’ve done ourjob’. Most of what we do as feminist teachers is, of course, teach. We enter classrooms, teach and learn, and are perpetually astonished at how much our students teach us. We, in collaboration and negotiation with students, do the on-the-ground intellectual, emotional, and relational work of bringing about the feminist world which we hope to co-imagine with them. But we do a lot of that work in isolation from each other, embedded in our classrooms and usually unable to see one another. With so many brilliant feminist minds gathered in a single room, the invisibility of the vast web of which we’re all a part was broken. We saw and felt the already-known reality that many of the thoughts, ideas, trials and tribulations, victories, defeats, frustrations, ambivalences, and pleasures that we each experience are ones that we all experience.

In our individual classrooms, compartmentalised and separated by university departments and national borders and the brute force of empire, we are collectively forging a groundswell of feminist consciousness. Political transformation cannot be stopped by walls or borders or boundaries, and though we always know that, the physical co-presence that our meeting in Delhi afforded us enabled us to palpably feel that knowledge, and to engage in a form of exchange which will fuel our pedagogical work and better enable us to continue the transformative feminist project that we, and our students, have embarked upon.