The invisible labour of academic feminism

Image: Flickr/University of Michigan School of Natural Resources & Environment

I’ve had the distinct honour of teaching in the field of Women’s Studies for 15 years. I’ve been lucky enough to see students transition from first-year students to a wide variety of fulfilling paths. I’ve stayed in touch with many of them and have been able to bear witness to their personal and political evolutions. It may come as no surprise to Feminist Current readers that many of my former students embraced radical feminism after college. When we cross paths later in life, they’re eager to ask me about feminist politics. Perhaps more to the point, they’re eager to ask me why we didn’t talk about radical feminism in class. I have a few responses, but more than anything these questions make me consider how the feminist community views the labour of an academic feminist.

Women’s Studies professors often try to meet students where they’re at in the learning process. We ask probing questions. We facilitate Socratic dialogue. We might even privilege students’ understanding, processing, and cognitively dissonant wrestling over our own personal politics. On most days, this is the labour of facilitating a productive, academic discussion in a Women’s Studies classroom. We acknowledge learning preferences, set community agreements, and come together to try and test the boundaries of our understanding. Most days. Today, I’m going to lecture.

“Why didn’t we talk about radical feminism in class?”

I am asked the following questions almost weekly: Why weren’t my Women’s Studies professors more radical? Why didn’t they tell me about the importance of dedicated, woman-only space? Why did they let me think anyone could “identify” as a woman and then send me out into a world where lesbian feminists and trans activists are duking it out over whether a penis is male or female?

There are lots of reasons students might not remember talking about these things in class. The first and most simple one being that there might not have been time. On average, instructors get about 15 weeks to teach introductory Women’s Studies students all woman-related things. The second reason is that we’re human, and instructors make choices about what to teach based on areas of specialized research and personal comfort level with the material. Third, it might not have fit in the curriculum. We all answer to someone, and Women’s Studies professors answer to university programs, departments, and accreditation standards — it’s education, after all. (More on this later.) Finally, it may have been part of the curriculum, but students forgot. (Or, they weren’t quite ready to hear it.)

Even though higher education has a reputation for pushing an agenda, the vast majority of academics aren’t evangelical. Just because instructors present particular information doesn’t mean they want to indoctrinate students. Ideally, if they’re following the best practices of teaching and learning, they present you with lots of disparate, differing information and then facilitate a process to help students work through and apply it. After all, the brain that does the work is the brain that does the learning. I don’t always agree with the information I present to students (hello, totalitarian views of gender identity), but that’s okay. I’m trying to teach students how to think for themselves.

This is not to say that I don’t ever share my personal views with students; I come out to students as a lesbian, as a radical feminist, as a recovering Republican, as a survivor of abuse, etc. every semester. Scholars of feminist pedagogy are divided on this front, but I am a firm believer that it’s hard to be what you can’t see. So, all of this is to say that if you graduated and then encountered a text listing the 343865 gender identities and thought to yourself, “This is crap!” Well, then, I consider the system to have worked. It says to me that you developed a skill set for weeding through the information you agree with and the information you don’t. If that seems like a copout, I hear you, but it’s also the truth.

For those not persuaded and still wondering why Women’s Studies professors don’t present radical feminist views: we do! Well, some of us do... The unsatisfying news, though, is that on the whole, introductory students don’t gravitate towards radical feminist texts. Indeed, some of my former students who are now radical feminists didn’t like those texts when I assigned them 10 years ago. Education is a long game. We can’t go from “Does this mean I have to stop watching The Bachelor?” to “Burn the system to the ground!” in one week. The radical feminist texts we read aren’t the ones students identify with because they’re hard to incorporate into an existing worldview. As many readers know, they require one to fundamentally change a worldview. Rather than finding creative ways to work inside an existing system, radical feminism requires that we abolish the system altogether. For many undergraduates, liberal feminism — and the bending over backwards one must do to accommodate its politics — is a stepping stone to more radical politics.

“You’re not interrupting my real work. You are my real work.”

What does all of this mean for the way we think the labour of an academic feminist? If we coalesce the above examples of building students’ critical thinking skills and meeting students where they are in the process of discovering feminism, a primary theme emerges: teaching is student-centered and often requires privileging student process over the instructor’s political agenda. It’s all about the students.

I include a line in my syllabus that reads, “You’re not interrupting my real work. You are my real work.” And that’s where the divide between the visible and invisible labour of an academic feminist breaks down. The students are the real work. It’s impossible to belabour this point. There’s this myth that teaching is a vocation — that people do it because they love it, and if you love your job you’ll never work a day in your life. But I’m here to tell you that it’s hard work. Students — and the rest of the feminist community — often don’t see it as such because it looks like real life. Stay with me here…

In some disciplines, students easily separate classroom content from the “real” world. For example, when I took Algebra I spent most of the semester wondering how I’d ever use that information in real life. Women’s Studies doesn’t often have that problem, because we talk about real life. We bond. We share and struggle together. It’s even sometimes fun. But those classroom experiences don’t happen organically. We design and curate learning experiences for students — those “ah-ha” moments in class don’t happen by accident. We read student writing, carefully crafting comments that will both encourage them, correct logical leaps and sweeping analyses, and (sometimes) gently steer them away from stuff that’s just plain wrong. We sit on curriculum committees, advocating for inclusive courses and diverse learning experiences for students. We fight like hell for students to be able to sit in a Women’s Studies classroom, because that opportunity is almost always under attack. Much of this work is invisible to students and the larger feminist community, who are often disappointed in the way we show up (or don’t) in more visible activist circles and online debates. But here’s where the proverbial rubber meets the road: our labour is present, even when we’re not.

I have a dear friend and colleague who also works in higher education, teaching students to be activists and community organizers. When her students post on social media about their activism, she’s started responding with #JanesLabor to make the work she does visible. The students are our real work. I’m not trying to take credit for the work students do — rather, I’m making visible the product of the biggest time and energy investment made by many academic feminists: students in the world making a difference. You are the work we put forward in the world. And we love the work we do. We love you! But give us a little credit. If only because much of women’s labour goes unrecognized and is undervalued. We taught you that — it was on the exam.

Amanda Irvin, PhD, lives in New York and works at Columbia University. She is a feminist who specializes in women’s writing, active learning, and student success.

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