Reflections on Forming a Virtually Feminist Pedagogy
Niya Bond The University of Maine It seems like all of my internet clicking these days leads me to discussions about ongoing efforts to increase the effectiveness of online educational experiences. It is terrific to see online teaching and learning at the forefront of conversations about positive change and transformation in higher education. I can't shake enduring dismay about the issue underpinning these calls to action—notably, a recognition that a diverse range of virtual educational environments are still ineffective. I believe a large part of what is lacking in online spaces is rooted in uncertainty about how to consciously rework, revamp, or revolutionize pedagogy to mind the online enervation-empowerment gap. Too often, pedagogy can become exclusively philosophical, a beautiful manifesto to be appreciated during a hypothetical ponder, but never to be translated into a practical how-to. For me, feminist pedagogy provides a productive series of steps towards bridging this divide. This is because feminist pedagogy is a pedagogy that is at-once reflective and realistic in its relationship to empowerment. It provides a concrete pathway for educators by enabling them with the tools necessary to virtually practice what they preach. In this way, feminist pedagogy is doubly intentional—it is purposefully practical. Feminist educators have advocated for enacting this pedagogy in online spaces, emphasizing how feminist pedagogy can become a digital catalyst for positive classroom change (Chick & Hassel, 2012), enable educators to develop transformative tenets for social justice and self-advocacy (Turpin, 2016), and productively integrate an intentional and empowering element into digitized learning encounters (Blackburn, 2012). These scholars have inspired me to make intentionality the cornerstone of my own virtual teaching pedagogy and praxis. This intention helps me to maintain mindfulness about my responsibility for increasing empowerment in virtual teaching/learning encounters. I share two tenets from my own always-evolving feminist pedagogy that opens pathways for the positive potential of online educational spaces while recognizing the need for concerted efforts towards their transformation. Tenet 1: Promote Pathways To the Personal Too often, in my own teaching experience, I have entered an online classroom full of enthusiasm, but ill-prepared for the actual task of virtual engagement. This may speak to a secondary need for more effective online faculty development (another passion of mine). I believe that in a hurry to obtain legitimization for online education, we may have forgotten that all educational encounters start with an opportunity for intentional connection. As a passionate advocate for online teaching/learning, I have certainly felt this immediacy. Strangers are grouped into a classroom, virtual or otherwise, and tasked with creating a community, from scratch. As such, and in similarity to brick-and-mortar experiences, virtual communities must be mindfully constructed around social experiences that prioritize the personal. Here are several simple ways that I infuse personal connection into my online classrooms, as well as one way that I aspire to do so: Already In-Practice: ● I blur the boundaries between asynchronous and synchronous approaches, calling each student the first week to clarify the course expectations and to emphasize my investment in their learning journey. ● I am purposefully present when I enter the virtual classroom, asking community-building questions, creating connections through videos and hyperlinks, and consciously modeling my engagement and enthusiasm. ● I reward vulnerability, thanking my students by their preferred name, every time they submit an assignment. Aspirational: ● I continue to emphasize my experiences as a mother, wife, student, and employee, in addition to my role as an educator. I encourage students to bring their diverse lived experiences into the classroom as well. As a feminist teacher, I am mindful of the ways in which boundary blurring can be a break-through technique for encouraging virtual empowerment. I play productively with the assumed divides between f2f and online learning, creating a synthesis of connection that fosters success for both teaching and learning. In addition, I emphasize the personal and social underpinnings of virtual learning to facilitate community-building in shared online learning spaces better. Tenet 2: Shaking up Tradition and Shifting Agency to Students Even though I purposefully blur virtual boundaries to increase educational empowerment, I still maintain a bit of postmodern pessimism. I do not believe it is entirely possible to dismantle the power dynamics inherent to binary teacher/student dynamics. However, I do believe there are effective ways to mitigate them. To do so, I prioritize learner-centered approaches via two specific strategies: whenever possible, I shake up tradition, and I shift agency to students. These strategies allow me to remain intentional in my efforts to promote student agency in virtual learning environments. Here are several small-scale steps I take to shake up tradition and shift agency to students, as well as one way that I aspire to do so: Already In-Practice: ● I encourage video submissions for reflective or forecasting assignments, and I employ them myself for similar exercises. ● I create opportunities for collaboration each week—with students engaged in multiple discussion communities, peer-review processes, and sharing exercises. ● I ask students to create annotated bibliographies and outlines in PowerPoint, instead of Word, to provide new opportunities for form and function (and thus thinking and writing). Aspirational: ● Recently, I have adjusted my composition syllabus to leave one discussion open for debate. I hope that my future students and I can scale and scope the assignment together, maximizing its usefulness to our community, and each individual writer. As a feminist educator, teamwork really is my dream work. I know my online classes are enhanced because of their strong focus on community and collaboration, in addition to their innovative promotion of individual empowerment. Much of my strategy for increasing empowerment rests on shaking up the traditional submission standard, as well as building classroom spaces where students can be creators of curriculum and content. Final Thoughts To encourage effective and engaging online environments, we must develop more purposeful pedagogies and practices—those that prioritize empowerment as an essential element of successful online teaching and learning. I have integrated a virtually intentional feminist pedagogy that helps me promote the personal, provide students with a stake in course design, and shake up the form and function of assignments. While these smaller-scale and straightforward steps may not be radical, they have been revolutionary for my praxis. As such, I encourage all online educators to consider how to shift the paradigm of virtual teaching and learning success by infusing intentionality into their pedagogical efforts. It is only through careful and calculated change that we can bridge the empowerment-enervation gap in online educational environments. Discussion Questions: 1. What specific tenets are important to thread into a virtual pedagogy—feminist or not—and why? 2. What are some other benefits and drawbacks to blurring virtual boundaries in online educational spaces? 3. What are other productive and practical ways to give students a stake in the course design and shake up assignments? References Blackburn, J. (2012). Feminist composition pedagogy and the hypermediated fractures in the contact zone. Composition Forum, 25, 1-19. Chick, N. & Hassel, H. (2009). 'Don't hate me because I'm virtual': Feminist pedagogy in the online classroom. Feminist Teacher, 19(3), 195-215. Turpin, C. (2007). Feminist praxis, online teaching, and the urban campus. Feminist Teacher, 18(1), 9-27.