Exploring Feminist Teaching

Exploring Feminist Teaching

Evangeline Tsao

I started ‘teaching’ when I was also a student: an undergraduate in foreign languages and literature, tutoring high-school students English in Taiwan. I remember liking what I did most of the time. Teaching English, for me, was to offer a critical tool for students to explore the world ‘outside’ of the Mandarin-speaking societies; but I did feel rather dispirited when asked to cram vocabulary and grammar into students’ heads so they could deal with the endless exams at school. Now, almost 15 years later, I found myself in higher education in the UK having some negotiations not too unfamiliar to my experience back then. Teaching remains my passion, although both its meaning and my practice have drastically shifted as I acquired my identities as a feminist, an immigrant, and an early career academic who believes that education can bring about social change. I often wonder how I can help develop critical thinking skills, engage students more politically – particularly in the context of the current socio-political climate in the West – and encourage a more creative exploration of knowledge rather than focusing solely on ‘writing a good essay’. In this article, I offer stories and thoughts that emerged from my experience to reflect on how a feminist classroom is not only embedded within, but also evolving into a public and global context, within which interpersonal dynamics are situated and performed.

When discussing feminist teaching, some pedagogic discussion refers to respect as one of the key ground rules. While I appreciate the importance of respect wholeheartedly, I often think about how a supportive and respectful learning environment can be set up as ‘rules’. In fact, even the idea of setting up ‘ground rules’ used to be foreign to me. Throughout my education in Taiwan it had always been the lecturers who dictated what behaviours – and sometimes ways of thinking – were acceptable in class. This may sound like I should be accustomed to this practice; however, I had always been on the ‘other side’ of the table, told to be obedient. This changed in 2010 when I started doing my master’s degree at the Centre for Women’s Studies at the University of York. I was encouraged to question, and to actively contribute my cultural understanding and knowledge to the seminar discussion as well as in my later PhD research. The slightly shifted relationship between teachers and students generated in me an awareness of the power dynamics and an appreciation of differences – the two elements that I constantly mobilize and reflect upon in my own teaching.

Although there used to be a time when I hesitated about this, now I introduce myself as a feminist when I first meet a new group of students, often ‘outside’ of Women’s Studies. I was unsure how students might react to my proclamation; furthermore, I worried that this could give students the impression that I was using their limited seminar time to promote my feminist agenda. However, as my feminism informs my teaching, I think it is fair and helpful that I explain what being a feminist means to me. More relevantly, I emphasize what they can expect from me as a seminar tutor: an engagement of differences, because their diverse experiences, skills and knowledges, drawn from their multiple backgrounds, can contribute to the discussion. I hope that by doing so – and with a consistent practice – students will not only feel more comfortable bringing in different perspectives, but also respect each other’s ideas despite disagreements. This line of thinking also corresponds to my interests of foregrounding ‘multiculturalism’ rather than ‘integration’ (1) in higher education in the UK, considering how I can construct a learning environment that enriches learning and thinking by being mindful of social and cultural complexity, rather than expecting everyone to ‘fit in’ to the dominant social – and, perhaps, academic – norms. Ultimately, I hope this approach will also enable students to critically reflect on the Western-centric curriculum and challenge the meaning of ‘knowledge’ itself.

In addition to the more ‘directive’ introduction I give, students’ accounts of what they enjoy and dislike in a seminar are very useful materials for building support and respect in the first session. When asked, as part of the ‘ice-breaker’, students commonly expressed that the ‘best’ seminars were the ones in which people come well prepared and actively participate. Many of them find silence awkward; equally, they would feel uneasy when being shut off by a few people who dominate the discussion. These comments suggest to me that students want to have a voice in the classroom – and so they should. Nevertheless, as I would remind students and myself, in order for voice to be heard, it is imperative that one ‘listens’. To cultivate my listening skills, I often practice summarizing students’ comments to acknowledge their response and to confirm what they mean. Following this action, I raise additional questions to the group with the aim to elicit thinking. More often than not, I had to resist giving certain answers, to remind myself that my role was to help develop critical thinking skills – to listen, to suggest other approaches, and to challenge in a gentle yet productive manner. I hope that my practice demonstrates the respect and support that students and I agree to offer one another.

While all these sound hopeful and idealistic, there were, no doubt, times when my understanding and perception of identity were justly challenged. I had made the mistake of claiming ‘we, women’ without either contesting the broad claim of ‘we’, or knowing whether the people present identified themselves as women (and what does ‘women’ mean?). The misconception of identity – thus one’s experience and views – in teaching and supervision, not only risks disrespecting students, but also signifies a lack of careful analysis of the complexity and intersectionality of identity. Reflecting on my practice and research, I have learnt to be more sensitive when teaching. I am aware that slippages in language, such as using the wrong gendered pronouns, can evoke discomfort or even pressure students to ‘come out’ – to declare their gender and sexuality when they are not necessarily prepared to do so.

Even when a student is clear about their identification, it is important to consider their individual situatedness – that is, one should not make assumptions about their knowledge or expect them to speak for a social group. This, in fact, can be illuminated by my own experience in which acquaintances ask me to describe current feminist issues and politics in Taiwan – even though I identify as a Taiwanese, I have not lived or researched within the country for many years; thus, I felt that my response would be rather superficial. Situatedness also points to the fluidity of identity. This not only means that one’s identity changes, but also suggests that the experience and meaning embodied in the identity shift. Just as I have become a feminist and an immigrant, it is important to acknowledge that the meaning making, the learning and the political engagement within a feminist classroom are a process. To consider situatedness is, perhaps, to attend to the nuance of representation as well as considering how knowledge can be co-created rather than definitive.

Although the ideal of my feminist teaching was to create a more ‘equal’ and collective learning environment for students and myself, I am aware of my authoritative position, assuming a more knowledgeable role in the classroom (and evaluating students’ assessment outside). One telling story was when an undergraduate student called me ‘miss’ to get my attention in the seminar. I was startled at first, then slightly dismayed because I dislike gendered titles. However, even after I explained this, and reassured the group that ‘Evangeline’ would be just fine and preferable, the student told me that he would feel uncomfortable of calling me in such a ‘disrespectful’ way. The issue of ‘power’ in the classroom is much debated and reflected upon in feminist writing. Some feminists acknowledge and insist that the relationship between teachers and students are not equal in order to foster an awareness of social inequalities (see for instance, Bondi 2004) or to mobilize power as an approach to care (Ropers-Huilman 1999). The challenge is to raise this critical awareness of power in a way that can keep a conversation open and going, rather than turning the seminar into a lecture where I impose my views. Too often, I feel that the public discourse, which some students now participate in online and in other forms, appeals to divisive confrontation; whereas my philosophy is that the communication of differences and ideas can help raise questions about dominant ideologies and political beliefs.

While I appreciate that provocation can be generative and transformative in feminist teaching (Buffington and Lai 2011), my experience in Women’s Studies leads me to think that provocation is more effective when there are spaces and ongoing student support (see Pepeira 2012) for dialogue and reflection. This, however, has been more difficult when I teach in other departments where tutors have limited resources to engage outside of the seminars. More recently, in response to the political development in the UK and the US, I had blurted out a complaint against Donald Trump in a seminar. Immediately after the session, I reflected on this and realized how my action could shut off a discussion as well as stopping a potentially productive conversation from happening. In this respect, my action was very un-feminist. The next week, I described what had happened and apologized to students, restating that as a tutor, I should have ensured a space for conversation and different voices. Sometime after, a few students and I had an interesting discussion that demonstrated to me how people with different political views can still find common grounds – with curiosity and respect – and to understand each other more.

The conversation I had with students drew me to think about my political priorities in relation to theirs; and it made me re-examine what ‘feminist teaching’ can mean. Certainly, for me, feminist teaching requires one to be willing to actively approach and support students beyond the classroom. I have had the pleasure to discuss how a ‘selfie’ is gendered while walking with students after a social psychology seminar. I joined the aforementioned chat about politics – which lasted 45 minutes – because I overheard two students debating on Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, an example I used to draw attention to structure and agency. From time to time, I sit in the Centre’s common room to talk with our students about the challenges women face within and outside of the UK. These experiences not only allow me to exchange ideas with students, but also enlighten me of their insights into social issues and political struggles around the world. When I meet undergraduate students who show particular interests in gender, I forward them information about the open seminars and conferences run by Centre for Women’s Studies. Feminist teaching, to me, is to involve students in conversations and events that develop thinking, appreciate differences, and hopefully that inspire political engagement in a larger public and global context. Yet, I feel lucky that as part-time teaching staff, I can afford some time to indulge myself in these ‘extracurricular’ activities; meanwhile, many other full time members and postgraduate tutors are juggling their workload beyond normal working hours (2).

My exploration of ‘feminist teaching’ here focuses on how differences can be communicated within a supportive learning environment – a ‘classroom’ that is located in and extended to the public and global contexts – take into consideration the complexity and fluidity of ‘identity’. Macdonald and Sánchez-Casal (2002) argues for communities of meaning that teachers and students engage in, based on not only identities, but also their ‘shared experiences, ways of understanding the world, and political choices’ in a feminist classroom (p.11). I have observed that some students and I share the passion for knowledge; with others, we share the belief that research should aim to bring about social change. I feel that many of us also share the process of meaning making within and outside of the formal seminars. I hope that by constructing a supportive learning environment and relationship – one that is not without my awareness of the power dynamics – students and I will both be able to engage in dialogues and actions that evoke more compassion and understanding: things that the world is urgently needing right now.

(1) My approach to ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘integration’ corresponds to Berry’s (2011) theorization: whereas ‘integration’ signifies an ethnocultural group’s or individual’s strategy to seek interaction with other, often more dominant groups; ‘multiculturalism’ suggests a larger society’s strategies in its inclusion of cultural diversity.
(2) Pepeira (2012) draws attention to the constraints neoliberal universities in Europe can impose on academics who intend to adopt a feminist pedagogy – particularly a pedagogy of discomfort – in their teaching.

Berry, J.W. (2011) ‘Integration and Multiculturalism: Ways towards Social Solidarity’, Paper on Social Representations 20, 2.1 – 2.21.
Bondi, L. (2004) ‘Power dynamics in feminist classrooms: making the most of inequalities?’ In: Kath Browne, Jo Sharp and Deborah Thien (eds) Geography and Gender Reconsidered. Women and Geography Study Group of the RGS-IBG, 175 – 182.
Buffington, M.L. and Lai, A. (2011) ‘Resistance and tension in feminist teaching’, Visual Arts Research 37, 1 – 13.
Macdonald, A. A. and Sánchez-Casal, S. (eds) (2002) Twenty-first-century feminist classrooms: Pedagogies of identity and difference. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Pepeira, M.M. (2012) ‘Uncomfortable classrooms: Rethinking the role of student discomfort in feminist teaching’, European Journal of Women’s Studies 19, 128 – 135.
Roper-Huilman, B. (1999) ‘Scholarship on the other side: Power and caring in feminist education’, NWSA Journal 11, 118 – 135.


Dr Evangeline Tsao is a research associate at Centre for Women’s Studies, University of York. She conducted her PhD research with the application of auto-photography, a participatory visual method to investigate the ways women understand and experience their embodied sexuality. This project also develops her interests and ideas around the meanings of activism, empowerment and representation. She is currently exploring art-based research and ‘feminist teaching’. She achieved the status of Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy in 2014.