Transforming classroom norms as social change: pairing embodied exercises with collaborative participation in the WGS classroom (with Syllabus).

Author:Jones, Cara E.

Despite teaching topics in introductory Women's and Gender Studies (WGS) classes such as transgender theory, gender violence, and menstrual politics, I am nonetheless surprised by the post-feminist position students often take about housework. Housework, it seems, is an issue of the past, something too trivial to examine in the university classroom, too lacking in political implications. Those raised by single parents bristle at the suggestion that household labor is gendered: "My mom did everything herself. She never had a man around to fix things!" Other families are exceptions to the rule: "My dad does all the cooking because my mom is a terrible cook." Students from affluent backgrounds defend their families' reliance on domestic labor by insisting that they treat their maid as "part of the family" or reject an analysis of race in domestic work because "our maids are white."

During a summer class on Gender, Race, and Nation that I taught as a graduate student at a land-grant university in the Deep South, a student told this story:

"My mom and dad both go to work at 6:30, but my mom gets up an hour earlier to make breakfast, do the dishes, and get dinner started. She gets home at 5, cleans the house, and cooks dinner. As soon as my dad gets home, we [his kids] take his shoes off and rub his feet while my mom serves him dinner as he watches TV." His parents, a janitor and a housekeeper, occupied similar roles outside the house; however, for his mother, the work didn't stop at home. The entire family collaborated to make sure that "when he's at home, my dad's the king of the castle. He doesn't wait on nobody."

After telling his story, the student crossed his arms in front of his chest and leaned back in his seat, legs spread wide, defensively denying vulnerability. Even if his black working-class background would funnel him, like his father, into the often invisible, denigrated, and feminized labor of cleaning up after other people, he could claim male privilege within his home. Meanwhile, my queer-identified white femme body, which had resisted the lessons of a religious, working-class patriarchal upbringing in the art of homemaking, got the better of me. My already crossed legs wove even more tightly around each other as I leaned forward in my seat, physically contesting his claim to male privilege.

I want to push beyond easy analyses of this story as being about the gendered and racial nature of housework and instead reframe it as a starting point to think through how the labor of teaching and learning is done withand through bodies. In this scene, my student's and my respective body languages sharply accentuated our positions, which highlighted the racial, gender, educational, class, and sexual power differences between us. For my student's family, gender hierarchy within the home could reinstate his father's male privilege. My physicality spoke volumes about my refusal to accept housework as the dues of femininity. The politics of this embodied interaction made me question the work being done through and with bodies in classrooms. I wonder: how does classroom labor operate invisibly? How do bodies work in the classroom?


We teach and learn withand through our bodies, and our bodies operate as sites for accessing and expressing both dominant and subjugated knowledges. This essay examines two types of activities I use to access this knowledge in introductory Women's and Gender Studies (WGS) courses. The first are a series of embodied pedagogical exercises based on methods described in Brazilian theatre practitioner Augusto Boal's 1992 Games for Actors and Non-Actors. These "gamesercices" known as Theatre of the Oppressed (48) involve movement, role-playing, and making living "statues." (1) The second are collaborative methods I use to open up new avenues for class participation, including some portions of classroom management such as creating study guides, defining vocabulary terms, and designing surveys. These tasks, like housework, are often done invisibly by the professor but are crucial to the running of the classroom community.

While very different on the surface, both activities bring to the forefront embodied relationships between labor and power in the classroom. Students typically embrace embodied methods enthusiastically, while expressing skepticism or even disdain towards Collaborative Participation (CP). I argue that by redistributing the work that is done with and through bodies during and outside of class time, these methods can challenge the top-down power dynamic that often characterizes student-teacher interactions. I posit that these methods can shift status quo power dynamics and create local change in the classroom, thereby providing a model for large-scale social change. I situate these teaching methods within the neoliberal corporate university (NCU) because my status as a full-time, yet contingent faculty member brings up larger questions of power and labor. In addition to teaching as a graduate student at a state university in the Deep South, for one year, I was employed as a lecturer of Women's & Gender Studies at another state university on the east coast. There, I taught a 4-4 teaching load ranging from intro-level to graduate seminars. This is currently my third year as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Women's & Gender Studies at a private liberal arts college, where I also teach classes at all levels. I base the following observations largely on introductory Women's & Gender Studies classes taught in all three institutions with enrollments between 15 and 40; students at these institutions were primarily white, middle or upper-middle class, and of traditional college age. However, I also taught a sizeable proportion of students of color as well as first-generation, immigrant, and returning students, particularly at the state schools. All direct quotations from students are taken from in-class writings, institution-administered end-of-term evaluations, or personal communication with students.

Embodied Critical Feminist Pedagogy

Feminist pedagogical praxis emerged from a tradition of progressive, emancipatory education called critical pedagogy (see Luke and Gore, and Weiler) which "interrogate[s] the pedagogical interrelationships between culture, economics, ideology, and power" and "nurtures the development of critical consciousness" (Darder et al. 23) in order to effect social change. A central figure in critical pedagogical thought is Brazilian educator Paulo Friere, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed questions how educational systems reflect and reproduce social inequalities. One of Freire's most utilized concepts is his critique of the banking model of education, in which teachers act as deliverers of knowledge, and students operate as empty vessels who learn by absorbing specialized knowledge from an authoritative expert (72). In this familiar educational arrangement, the teacher is the active participant, the students acted upon; teachers set the goals, outcomes, topics, and schedule to which students must adapt. These entrenched power differentials, Freire argues, mirror inequitable social relations from which the oppressed can only break free if they see their oppression "not as a closed world from which there is no exit, but as a limiting situation which they can transform" (49).

Critical feminist instructors teach students how to harness their potential as active agents of social change who are also attuned to how gender, race, and other embodied markers of identity intersect to shape this emancipation (Cohee et al, viii). As Bernice Fisher shows, even emancipatory methods can reproduce oppression if students don't already have critical consciousness (190), and instructors need to approach embodied methods with caution when a class includes students from different social locations. Furthermore, because gender intersects with other embodied identities such as race, class, sexuality, disability, and nationality, power discrepancies between teachers and students are often amplified rather than remedied: a teacher's power is not simply institutional because the intersections of "race, sexuality, and geopolitics ... function in some cases to widen the power gap between the teacher and students, yet shrink it in other cases" (Ergun 88).

Feminist critiques of the "neoliberal, corporate university" (Coogan-Gehr 2) offer valuable insight into the institutionalization of students' and teachers' embodied identities. In operating as a "well-oiled corporate machine" (Weber 128), the NCU applies business models to education, relying on an increasing contingent body of academic laborers to prioritize profits by prizing "competition, self-sufficiency, and strict individualism" (Feigenbaum 337). Scholars of feminist pedagogy have expressed concern about the effects of the increasingly corporatized university (Brule, Byrd, Feigenbaum, Ginsberg, Mohanty, Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey, TuSmith and Reddy, Weber), often positioning emancipatory feminist goals as at odds with the hierarchical academic establishment (Ginsberg 46). This body of literature emphasizes the ways in which neoliberalism domesticates radical goals: "neoliberal intellectual culture may well constitute a threshold of disappearance for feminist, antiracist thought anchored in the radical social movements of the twentieth century" (Mohanty 970-971). By prioritizing a banking model of education that "de-historicizes and depoliticizes difference" (Bell et. al 26), the NCU can thwart critical pedagogical goals. Because neoliberalism's insistence upon free-market values of individual merit and effort operates to make "systemic injustices (like racism or sexism)" (Weber 127) invisible, pedagogical practices that reallocate institutionalized hierarchies may become suspect.

Nonetheless, feminist teachers continue to balance a commitment to social justice with content knowledge while appeasing an increasingly diverse...

To continue reading