Making Meaning: Angry writing, relatable writing

As a teacher committed to feminist pedagogy, my primary goal is to engage students in creating a classroom community that fosters two interrelated ideals: critical inquiry and collaborative exploration. Whether I am teaching a course in theater history, performance theory or women’s literature, I encourage students to think of our classroom as a malleable microcosm subject to many of the same dynamic social forces that exist in the larger world. Just as Augusto Boal conceived of theater as a forum to imagine and rehearse social change, the classroom, too, should be a space where students are empowered to rehearse new ways of understanding arguments, texts, and the world in which they live.

In order to make these larger questions more accessible to undergraduates, I try to scaffold our discussions with knowledge-bridging exercises. Since feminist pedagogy  always reminds us to attend to the learner’s point of view, I try to use real world examples in order to introduce theoretical concepts and critical arguments. In my course on Twentieth Century Feminism(s) and the Drama, I usually begin our first week by passing out an excerpt from the Declaration of Sentiments with the document’s date and title hidden from view. Without being told the circumstances of the text’s origins, I ask students to work in small groups to consider the ways that the passage makes meaning: Who speaks in the text and who is silent or silenced? Who is represented and who is absent? Whom does the text address as its audience? What prior texts does it draw upon and what is the effect of that referentiality? This exercise helps to reveal students’ assumptions not only about the historical period in which our work is about to begin, but also about the heuristics they can use to articulate their own interpretations of a text.

At my previous institution in Birmingham, AL, this exercise tended to be successful in accomplishing at least two goals. First, it gave students a sense of what modes of textual interpretation I would be expecting from them throughout the term. Second, the reveal of the text’s origins allowed us to dive into first wave feminist history and its social context. For many students the Declaration of Sentiments was a new text, and it became a way to situate our reading of turn-of-the-century plays like Glaspell’s Trifles. At my new institution in Northern California, however, this exercise and its big reveal produced a different response, not only because this population turned out to be more familiar with the Declaration of Sentiments as an early feminist text, but also because some of them saw the document’s “angry tone” as outdated and off-putting. In fact, in a few of my classes this year (particularly in classes where we read female authors outside the context of a women’s studies framework) our discussions about women writers often turned to their expressions of anger. As I tried to guide discussions toward questions about anger’s dynamic rhetorical valences, its political strengths and weakness, and its justifications, “relatability” was a concept that often emerged in students’ critiques. I’m guessing that many of us are increasingly seeing texts’ “relatbility” as a new way that undergrad students index their merit, and I’m curious about how other people use feminist pedagogy to respond to students’ affection for the ‘relatable’ as well as their disdain for texts that they may dismiss as merely “angry.”

Theatre of Color for colored girls

In 2013, I taught a seminar entitled “Theatre of Color” at Baruch College that focused on race, racism, and representation but also addressed gender, class, and sexuality. This intersectional approach stemmed in part from my understanding of feminist pedagogy as collective struggle, yet in truth this emerged more because my students asked intersectional questions. When we teach about axes of oppression, we must take care to avoid prioritizing one axis over another and to implicate ourselves by remaining radically open to our students’ critical inventions. Inspired by bell hooks, I sought to create community, provide critical affirmation of feelings and experiences, and provoke critiques of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist hetero-patriarchy through education as liberation. Almost all of the students were of color and worked part-time jobs, many of them had been born outside of the United States, most of them were women, and some of them identified as queer. My students responded enthusiastically to the recognition of power structures—and themselves—in the texts that we engaged. In turn, they challenged my colonized assumptions about the potential of the class.

To exemplify this point, I remember teaching for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange and pairing up the students to punctuate and perform monologues. I realize now that asking students to punctuate Shange’s choreopoems arguably re-colonized her feminist, antiracist writing to fit a westernized order, but at the time I had thought this exercise would help students who had trouble understanding the play. In addition, I had figured with my heteronormative outlook that in the mixed gender pairs, the man would be reluctant to perform the piece due to patriarchal discomfort with performing femininity. I was very wrong. For all of the man-woman pairs, both students shared the monologue. The pair that chose Lady in Blue’s piece on abortion staged the monologue by having the male student recite most of the lines directly to the audience, while the female student turned away from our gaze, raising questions about power over voice and bodies. The pair that took up Lady in Purple’s monologue about two women friends who unknowingly date the same man made the story their own by queering it and embodying it with their own dialogue and dance. The students performed intersectional, thoughtful interpretations of Shange’s work and pushed me to imagine new possibilities for feminist pedagogy and practice.