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Dear ______

skumar's picture
Dear Self,

At the beginning of the course I took this semester, Introduction to Critical Feminist Studies, my professor said: “my intent here is not to make everyone a feminist;” yet, there have been numerous times when I actually found this to be the motive that drives the class. I have found myself extremely uncomfortable in these situations. Additionally, the professor's intention to “empower everyone in the class” seems too idealistic to be effective. I say this because there have been several occasions when I felt an inescapable sense disempowerment. For someone still trying to understand the expansiveness of a feminist agenda and what it means—or what it does not mean— to be a feminist, the course was confining. So, self, this here letter is a sprinkle of the few instances when I questioned the feminist pedagogy of Critical Feminist Studies. Please note the list is in no particular order of prevalence or importance.


1. Web Papers & Comments

What I found to be particularly ineffective with Serendip is the obligation to post papers online as a means to entertain e-conversations with classmates and general Serendip users. I have found this idea to be wholly counterproductive. This is because I have not had conversations; maybe a post or two back and forth between people but never more. Despite several—no, excuse me, more than several—attempts to post comments on people’s papers, I have had little success, few replies. When I say this, obviously, I want you to know that I am not suggesting that my peers do not sufficiently respond to my obsessive posting behavior. Instead, I am critiquing the strained aura that permeates the web forums on Serendip. Initially, Serendip functioned as an online extension of the classroom, inviting us into a place where we are free (?) to address questions, concerns, or simply post comments on anything related to the course.

Instead, the forum has unwillingly and unintentionally transformed into an additional external/ “counted” assessment for the course where students are posting to be recognized that the assignment was completed. This idea is difficult for me because I know I take full opportunity of Serendip in order to continue thinking about the complexities we discuss in class and I often feel lonely and seeking more people interested in exploring feminism in the way that interests me. At the same time, it seems that some people feel disheartened, feel disempowered by the overwhelming nature of online conversations and fret about posting the “required” weekly posting. The sort of inactivity has made Serendip for me public metacognition; Serendip has become my online therapeutic journal. In class you said: “I would like to hear from you once a week.” Thus, it is the insistence of your wanting to read what we wrote online that inaugurates weekly postings as an external assignment. However, as someone who forthrightly (seeks to) converse on Serendip and for someone who often articulates even the most the free-floating thoughts, I find Serendip too formal to be an effective exchange forum for the course. Thus, I have now started Serendip to archive my thinking throughout. I no longer use it as a way to communicate with classmates.

Additionally, posting papers on Serendip are meant to allow us to “continue conversations” with you in certain realms of feminism and to track the progress of our thinking throughout the semester. I have two issues with this. First, the responses to your initial comments in regards to the web papers do not incite additional conversations. You comment on our papers and ask us to respond on Serendip. After the two postings, the conversation ends. It is over. What’s after that? Because you want us to respond to your comments, I get the sense that the exchange is just a formality and our responses to you are, again, “counted.” It is for this reason I get a sense of unfulfillment after I write papers, knowing that there is not enough time in the semester or in the class day to talk about the unique issues—such as the mind-body problem that most interests me.

I write the papers I write because I find them exhilarating. I want to talk about the issues more with you, with interested readers— with anyone. For our papers, it is only you that comments on the forum. This not only irritates me as someone who frequently initiates conversations about web papers, but also completely defeats the purpose of uploading the papers online for others to read, for others to engage in discussion. Because of the dearth of posts, or physical engagement, in regards to the web papers, it seems the class is not interested in reading each other’s papers. The point of this class, though, is to understand together, to seek for some understanding as a whole body of individuals. At this point, the thought processes are internalized if they are not posted.

Moreover, the varying topics of the four web papers—whose prompts encourage dissimilar explorations— contribute to the inadequacy of online, or in-person, conversations. What would be more effective, according to me, is inviting students to explore one topic throughout the semester with opportunities to revise and rethink about topics as we pick up different lens of feminism on the way. With this, I know I would have much preferred writing a single paper in depth, with different lens; it would feel more empowering to know that I, single-handedly, explored one feminist issue. When we are asked to write four 5-page papers on four completely different angles, it is like we are skating through an arena of miscellaneous feminist schemas. This is extremely disempowering—to know that I spent three months in the course and, still, feel confused about feminism.


2. E-class participation on Serendip

I remember at the beginning of the semester I came to your office to discuss my discomfort. Coming from an upper-class, conservative family, I found the topics discussed in class as surprisingly foreign to me. To this, you encouraged me to “spend more time on my web postings if I didn’t want to speak in class.” That is what I did. Later, when bits and pieces of my web postings were featured on class notes, I felt empowered; I felt as though my e-thoughts were being given a soundless recognition, a compliment.

On the whole, though, I do not think the featured postings were given enough value in class discussion; student read—or sometimes do not read—his or her comments quickly and rarely get a chance to speak in detail. This, to me, seemed unnecessarily transient especially since the additional theories and lens you used to steer class discussions were less productive and less helpful. I think it would have been more efficient to focusing on our voice Wouldn’t that be more feminist? The short time spent encouraging this democratic system of student’s voices actually suppressed our voices as it failed to give ample time for the student to explain the motivation that drove what he or she said on Serendip. I know that suppression does not in any way equate to a sense of empowerment. So, by asking us to quickly go over what we wrote just to how are you empowering us? As a consequence, Serendip posts inherently became a competition to say something valuable enough to be discussed in class. I mean, who would not want a little fame? It is because of this, I presume, Serendip became a formal exchange. Now, posting on Serendip I put the same amount of effort as I would in a paper. I write, reread, edit, and rewrite if necessary. Often times I found myself reading other’s posts not for content so to expose myself to new things, but for quality of content and writing style in order to distinguish how tenaciously I would need to write my post that week. I read posts just so my post could effectively compete with other posts. For someone who once appreciated the essence of Serendip’s productive exchanges, the underlying sense of rivalry on the class forum make the required weekly posting a hindrance to the entire online experience.


3. Class Participation

I found the air space in classroom conversation to be overwhelming. It was clear to me that the feminists in the class outnumbered the non-feminists or undecided feminists. In this way, my minority status as an undecided feminist encumbered my freely floating, impulsive thoughts during numerous class discussions. I don’t think the discussion of how to make classroom more inclusive of various thoughts and ideas worked all too well. I did not bother to contribute my opinion on that day, refused to speak up as a marginalized voice, because I do not think a feminist class can ever be inclusive. It is the nature of uncomfortable and complex topics we discuss in the course that make it impossible to make every student comfortable. It is not that I am shy or scared to speak in class discussions, but I find that differing opinions are rarely used constructively to advance discussions. In other words, deviant thoughts are seen as disruptive. Every time I festered up the courage to say something in class or on the forum, my comments were dismissed as useless. Disempowering, I’d say. For example, I raised a concern on the forum about not reading enough heterogeneous male perspectives in class about feminism. Since we were taught that feminism was an umbrella term that features race, gender, and identity, I thought this comment was a valid critique. You referred to my concern as “bitchiness.”


4. Learning and Teaching

You write, in the interdisciplinary paper with Professor Grobstein and Professor McCormack, that “[you] teach to learn and learn as [you] teach.” The amount of theory that is introduced at the end of the course gives the impression that you are instructing us. It seems to me that you are no learning here, that you are understanding our reactions and comments, but not learning. On the day we explored Gertrude Stein’s lesbian love poem, “Lifting Belly,” in class, you had us get into groups and essentially decode what Stein said in particular parts of her thirty-page poem. At the end of the class exercise, you suggested reading the words in Stein’s poem with sound. Firstly, I wonder what you learned on this day other than the fact that students find Stein’s poem incomprehensible. There was no conversationon this day; the majority of the time was spent listening to your interpretations and analysis. Secondly, the initial activity that we set out to perform prefaced the conclusion you later made that “Lifting Belly” can be read using sounds. This left inadequate time to test the claim you proposed. The fact that we did not test your claim made it seem like your prospective was the “right” reading of the text. But, then, did not we conclude in this class that nothing is certain, that there is no fixedness? Generally, I feel like the surplus of information that is introduced during class generally inhibits the overall education experience for both parties. I do not feel like I am learning. I feel like I am being instructed.







skumar's picture

Dear __________ (Part II)

The Anger:

Six days ago, you replied to the exhaustive survey I prepared for our project together. Since then I have been cogitating. I’m stuck-quite literally-at home, pondering. Sifting through some readings—some Luttrell, some Maher, some Foucault. No inspiration. I did not feel a strong impulse to write back with something analytical. I just wasn’t feeling it. Then, I started to read your book, “Teaching to Learn and Learning to Teach.” I read Chapter 3, the co-written piece with one of your former students, Abby Reed. Hm. Fascinating. I know I said I would not read the piece you wrote with Abby, in fear that our project here would resemble something you have done before. (This is, after all, a collaborative effort—one in which “both parties are engaged” and actively learning and most importantly, listening). I realized, though, that reading Chapter 3—doesn’t it sound thrilling when I call it that? — won’t hinder my masterpiece or suppress my voice. I am verbose, as you say; thus, I can talk—or write, in this case— for hours on end. Oops! Here I go talking again. Like I said, I did read Chapter 3. I read it and I loved it. So, I guess I’ll start my piece:

I did not know how I felt, after leaving your dinner party. I think Abby so gracefully summed it up for me: anger. Am I angry? But, see, the thing is…I am not sure if I am even angry, really. I got mad when you said certain things in class. I got mad, again, reading your reply. Don’t get me wrong. I mean, there is a part of me—the less sarcastic, less witty part of me—that enjoyed your dinner party; there were times when I cherished the variety of food that was available to me. This is why I am not sure what provoked this anger in me. I mean, I know I was never bored; your dinner party was undoubtedly entertaining. The only peeve that incites anger in me, other than boredom, is hunger. You know, it’s funny. Every since I was a young tomboy, my mom used to feed me dinner before I went to dinner parties. “You have a tendency to eat a lot,” she told me, “and I get embarrassed when you eat too much at the dinner parties.” When I come home from college and I am being dragged to a dinner party, I still ––like always—eat before I go.

I am aware of my unfeminine appetite; yet, for some reason I never expected my bottomless pit to growl at the sight—and sounds— of various feminists genres. Anne, you see, the problem was that I came to your dinner party unprepared to attend a dinner party; I came with an empty stomach. I never thought I would be staying at your party as long as I did, intensely engaged and often illuminated by the offerings you made to all your guests. I just thought I’d chit-chat and eat later—eat after your dinner party. (I do this sometimes too. If the food is bad, I just don’t eat and pretend I did). What angered me, Anne, about your dinner party was that I actually enjoyed the dishes you cooked. It angered me that I wholly appreciated your preparations and yet I never got enough food. I never actually ate the food; it is like I just inhaled the aroma of some of the food.

I’m writing to you now—with a snarling stomach. I am going to illustrate how I was maddened by your dinner party recently. First off, the reply you send to me was frustrating, not encouraging. I made a list of several times in the dinner party I felt disempowered, neglected, and unacknowledged. In your reply to me, you did not address any of them. You did not mention that you learned something new about your classroom pedagogy. Have you heard it all before? I’m confused, here, especially since you specifically mentioned that you were “(more than) game” to work together. When you make a list of all the things I could talk about, you are doing exactly what I wrote about in my previous web paper: being an instructor. If you do not think discussing the concerns I raised about feminist classroom are productive or helpful, I would have appreciated you telling me. However, I thought we agreed on
I’m left wondering how my observations of the classroom surprised you, angered you, or taught you. I wish your reply included such of this information.

My motive for this experiment was to engage in a conversation. However, your reply was something a little more structured, a little more focused than I had hoped. In doing this, did you imply that I could not handle steering the conversation? I wanted the project to be a conversational—public, yet conversational— and it is for this reason I wanted to write in the form of a letter. Why must everything have a purpose? Why can’t I write my paper in the form of a letter without being asked about the purpose of the genre? Cannot we find beauty in ambiguity? I thought this was what we were learning all semester. Correct me if I am wrong.

Well, this is why I got angry. I wanted to let you know. I also would like to know how you feel when students tell you your class makes them angry. How is this empowering for you, as the teacher? What do you learn given this feedback? Anyway, now that you know, I guess I will expand our conversation on a few of the arenas you suggested we explore. You said “you hoped some of this opens up further conversation.” Hmph. What I initiated—a discussion of feminist pedagogy in our Feminist Studies course—not a conversation? I’m assuming from your reply that the questions you posed were the ones you wanted me to think about further; thus, to continue our conversation, I will delve into them. After all, “we can't force others to read or to respond to something.”


In reading the questions you posed, I could not help but want to talk about all of them. However, the most productive thing would be to go in depth on two of the four potential areas of inquiry. Here goes:

1. You asked about the genre I used to structure this project. I think a letter, unlike an academic essay, is more personable and amicable. There is more bluntness and candor in a letter to a friend, a family member, or in this case, a professor. I can say that I was inspired by the questions—Janet’s questions[1], in particular— to Jessy Brody. Writing philosophy papers—in which it is necessary to have clear, concise language with clear direction and focus—prompted me to locate myself or acknowledge myself in all my writing. Since the reader of the letter knows the writer of the letter, there is almost the sense that you do not have to locate yourself. In a letter then, you are exposing yourself in a whole new way. What intrigued me most about Janet’s second question was the notion of writing for yourself, but with an audience, especially because that is exactly what I seek to do here. I am writing for myself in the sense I am expressing my, voicing my opinion in hopes to better understand the journey I have taken this semester. The project is also public as the forum is an unrestricted discussion, inviting people to comment on his or her own accord. Since no one has commented thus far—except for the reader of the letter herself—it is almost as if there is but one audience member watching me performance: self-inoculation therapy?

When Jessy visited she asked the class who kept a diary or wrote for themselves or kept a blog on which they frequently updated, I was amazed at how many people did. I, on the other hand, never wrote unless it was necessary—writing contents, academic assignments, journal articles for the newspaper. While I have written in different genres, I have always had an audience— contest judges, teachers and professors, newspaper readers, respectively. To go back to the motivating question raised by Janet, I think it is possible to write for yourself even if there is an audience. Despite the fact that the letter is being addressed—Hm. Maybe I should change that— I am writing for myself. It just so happens that the entire internet can read it and respond, if desired. The fact that there is an audience, though, does not change my tone of voice. I am typing exactly what I am thinking in my head. (Thus, no transitions). The letter, then, is a little more organized than stream-of-consciousness. That is only because I am an organized, controlled thinker.

Before I end my discussion of genre, I wanted to talk a little more about my intentions for the letter-project. I purposefully did not include a brief description of the motivation for the project. I wanted to see how many people and who among the class would notice and comment on my peculiar web paper. In doing this, I was playing with the concept of writing for myself. Obviously, when you write for yourself you know what you are writing about and there is no need to explain what and why you are doing something. I think locating yourself or locating the intentions of your project, in this case, is necessary only when there is an intended audience. Then, your reply, Anne, started off with the fact that my last web paper motivated a real, not pseudo, conversation. That move made this conversation a little more mysterious, a little less exciting. While it made our conversation less exclusive, more inclusive there is a way in which we are losing the privacy of our conversation. As a feminist, though, I’m guessing you do not believe in private conversations. Do you think that conversations are better off more inclusive to everyone, more inviting so to invite further discussion and further exchange of ideas? After all, you strongly advocate Serendip Exchange forum, and I think that is prompted my assumption. Of course, I cannot say for sure. So, what do you really think?


4. I do not have a working definition of feminism, simply because I refuse to regress to a “feminism is…” I thought some more about your working—or perhaps, committed and rather stable— definition of feminism. You say “[feminism] involves seeking multiplicity and difference” and you also say “[feminism]… more about pushing people out of the spaces where they feel “at home.” I am wondering how this definition ties in with a feminist pedagogy, particularly the feminist pedagogy of Critical Feminist Studies. What if, multiplicity and difference does not “push people out of [comfortable] spaces?” For example, the students in your classes—such as Abby and myself, for example— who rather not speak in class (for differing reasons)? In a feminist classroom, where impulsive speakers reign, are the quiet ones considered ‘different’? What if silence is a reaction to the “pushing… out of [comfort]”? What is to be said about this?















































[1] Where do you think the boundary of public/private should be in academic writing? Is it possible to write for one's self when inherently there is an audience?

Anne Dalke's picture

Dear Sonal,

in response to your last paper, I'd suggested that we make this one into an experiment of a real conversation, a dialogue that works the way you are challenging me to make my classes work: not as a scripted activity designed to lead students to my conclusion, but an interactive engagement in which all parties participate, working together towards an as-yet-unknown conclusion. I am still (more than) game for that....

Here are some possibilities. Do any of them interest you?

1) Might we talk some more about genre? You frame this essay in the form of a letter, in which you question the ideal of a feminist pedagogy. You end it with the paired claims that neither of us is learning, but rather instructing/being instructed.

So: how does the form of this letter operate, in those terms? Is it a genre of instruction? (If so), what do we gain by using this particular form of very public instruction? There's an interesting on-line essay by Laurie McNeill, Teaching an Old Genre New Tricks: The Diary on the Internet , which might help us think through the old and new implications of this new form of the letter: once a private genre, now an insistently public one. How do its generic qualities add to the conversation we are having?

2) Might we also talk some more about conversation? Your paper highlights the fact that neither you or I can force a conversation to happen. We can't force others to do something, to say something, to read or to respond to something (especially to us....) So: what can each of us do ourselves? Why should/might we expect something particular of classmates? If the trick of conversation is to focus not on what people can't agree on, nor on what they can agree on, but rather on issues/questions/problems that have the potential to generate ways of thinking that no one has thought might we better enable this process?

3) Might we also talk some more about power (what it is) and empowerment/disempowerment (how they happen)? You describe your experience as one in which the class structures deprive you of power, but I'm wondering if power really is a "thing" which can be "given" or "taken away." In a 1992 essay called "Why Doesn't this Feel Empowering?" Elizabeth Ellsworth argues that classes such as ours can only begin to work together through a mutual concession that all our knowings are and always will be not just "partial, interested" but "potentially oppressive to others."

As another of my students explained in a paper she wrote a few years ago, Foucault has a very useful way of talking about power, as existing always in a relationship, and as always fluctuating. Foucault argues that power is
not simply divisible between the dominators and the dominated. It is exercised in interchanges, inseparably linked to the ability to participate in the formation of discourse....One cannot have power without having resistance...

Foucault would say that your sense of disempowerment in this class was anything but "inescapable"; rather, that in choosing (for instance) silence in the classroom, and extended postings on line, you entered into, and very much helped to construct, the dense web of power that was operating in the course. Choosing to make the postings a formal site for "public metacognition," a competition to be recognized, is one (quite rivalrous) way of keeping a certain sort of power in play. Why might you chose to play that game, and how might we go about altering it?

4) Might we also talk some more about feminism? You begin your letter by saying that you felt confined in a course that said it didn't (but actually did) want to make everyone a feminist; you end it by arguing that it would be both more efficient and more feminist to give more attention to our own voices, rather than focus on the work of theorists. Do you have, @ this point, a working definition of feminism that is driving your critique?

I certainly have one: it involves seeking multiplicity and difference, weaving our voices into a larger on-going discourse to which we need to be responsive. It has much less to do with mastery than with what you describe as "skating through an arena of miscellaneous schemas." It certainly doesn't have much to do with making anyone comfortable--it's much more about pushing people out of the spaces where they feel "at home."

Hoping some of this opens up further conversation--
Your turn!