Feminism as an Inciting Scene in My Class

The use of drama as a method of inquiry has the potential for opening up and transforming community dialogues, making them more inclusive and participatory. Through the performance of provocative texts on the classroom "stage", ideological differences among students become visible, and societal fault lines are revealed. The challenge then is to use these aesthetic expeirences as the basis for public deliberation of issues usually discussed in less public places, such as lunchrooms, subways, and lavatories. This can lead to difficult instances of dissonance – moments when there is an eruption of deep emotion and true feeling on the part of the students and the teacher. A few of these moments are documented here as "inciting scenes."

One of the most disturbing instances of dissonance occurred during our discussions about feminism. Early in the year, I had identified myself as a feminist teacher, believing that it was important for me to make explicit my beliefs about teaching and learning. My definition of feminism was closely aligned with Shrewsbury and other feminist educators, who described feminist pedagogy as, "engaged teaching/ learning – engaged with self in a continuing reflective process; engaged actively with the material being studied; engaged with others in a struggle to get beyond our sexism and racism and classism."

What I didn't understand at the time was that my students did not share my definition of feminism. The word feminism resonated very differently for them than it did for me, a woman who came of age during the women's movement of the 1970's. Subsequently, my students' hostile reaction to feminism that erupted in class after a women's history program took me completely by surprise. While the class was generally polite and careful in their conversations about race, social class and sexual orientation, they became vocal in their disdain for feminists. While I was distressed by the anger expressed by many of the young men, who saw feminism as "men-bashing," I was even more upset and confused by many of the young women's equally negative reactions.

Through journal group responses to the plays we were reading, and through in-class discussions, I was able to look more closely at my students' views of feminism, their conflicting definitions, and their lived experiences as young men and women in their social and political context, which was different from mine. My student Stan, in an email, explicitly addressed this.

I think that the reason that we were "politically correct" when we discussed racism and other issues is that all of these topics are clear cut. I mean it is very clear that we should not treat people differently because they belong to a different racial group or have different sexual preferences. That we know and that is what we were taught. Femenism is a completely different issue. First of all, it is an issue that we never defined and so there is no "politically correct" way of talking about it. That is what I think caused a lot of arguments. If I recall correctly, Jake said something like this, "just tell me how you want to be treated." (I don't know if I should use
quotes in this case) The second difference is that there were disagreements amongst the girls in our class how they think they should be treated. The biggest contrast was probably between Jessica and Tess.

In another email, my student Zach revealed the sources of some of the young men's anger.

i felt like the girls in our class who spoke the most strongly about feminism, were not people who were faced with the everyday hardships that they were angry about, tess and ariel were both very lucky to be in the life situation that they were in, and for them to constantly complain about how they weren't treated right, made me angry, because they did not treat me right, and it was because i was a white, rude, male, and if all women deserve equal rights, then so do all men, whether they consider us to be ignorant, obnoxious, or just overall offensive. i just feel like the world will never be perfect, and when nothing too drastic has been going on in a environment such as masterman, the only thing that will be accomplished by people complaining about sexism, is that people will be more likely to say sexist things just to get others angry.

Through careful selection of readings, and questions leveled during class discussions, I was able to expand their current understandings and help them rethink their defintions of feminism. My own views were challenged and transformed by this dialogue, because my definition of feminism was tied to my own experiences as a woman and as a "critical feminist educator."

For their final performances, students were asked to write and perform scenes and/or monologues that addressed issues or events relating to the work of this class. Several students chose to address feminism.

Because I had conceived the class as a site of collaborative inquiry, I wanted to include the students in the analysis and interpretation of the inciting scenes that represented the “data” of this project. During the summer, I emailed a link to an interactive web-page to all of the students who had been in the class. This page allowed the students to view video of the inciting scenes relating to feminism and asked them to write their responses to those videos and the sense they made from our often contentious classroom discussions about feminism. While the web-page was not successful due to the students’ limited access to sophisticated technology on their personal computers, I believe that this methodology of involving the students in the analysis and interpretation of data has the potential to make inquiry into practice a truly collaborative endeavor between teacher and students. Just as we read the text of plays and responded to them individually and collaboratively, teachers and student can read the “text” of the class through viewing these inciting scenes and respond in the same ways. Thus teaching, learning, drama and research are inextricably linked.