Feminist Classrooms as Counterpublic Spaces: Notes on the Education They Provide and the Challenges They Face
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Feminist Classrooms as Counterpublic Spaces: Notes on the Education They Provide and the Challenges They Face

I wish to thank Rosemary Carbine, Laurie Cassidy, Sarah Azaransky, and Jennifer Reed-Bouley for inviting me to respond to their work. This is an especially challenging time for feminist pedagogy when the national security state [End Page 189] is promoting hypermasculinity everywhere in the culture. From waging wars abroad to destroying unions and reproductive rights at home, dominant voices are centered everywhere, and society flees from critique through the power of positive thinking. Yet through various forms of feminist pedagogies, we manage to create and implement counterpublic spaces that inspire critical analysis into complex dynamics of difference and inequality. We foster progressive imagination and learning that connect students’ embodied selves to political struggle for more just social and ecological relations.

I have taught in ten departments of religious studies, primarily on the East Coast—from Maine to western Pennsylvania—for over thirty years. Here, I focus on aspects of these scholars’ work in feminist liberation pedagogy that I find affirming of my own work, as well as what I find that is of inspiration to me in moving forward. The experience of reading Laurie Cassidy’s emphasis on breathing in such an unfriendly environment sometimes took my breath away! After I identify some of the gems my sister scholars have put before us, I will end my comments with a brief reflection on my experience of the challenges feminists face in the classroom today. Although I find feminist pedagogy a joy, I also find it increasingly difficult to implement given the obstacles this pedagogy encounters in the larger academy.

First, to identify what the four preceding essays have to teach us. Each understands feminist classrooms as spaces focused not only on a critical analysis of the outside world but also on students’ deepening connections to their embodied selves. Each understands that the power of feminist pedagogy lies in its ability to explore personal identity and moral agency in the context of a world that normalizes unjust social relations. Analysis, however insightful, will not lead to political action if outrage is not experienced in the moral emotions. Each scholar uses a concrete medium to achieve these goals, including interreligious dialogue, contemplative practice, the performing arts, and community-based service-learning.

Through the use of meditation and contemplative practice in her classroom, Cassidy challenges the notion that reality is a spectacle to be studied and observed from afar, not a moral challenge that requires an embodied response. Ethics needs grounding in embodiment because knowing what is ethical to do does not necessarily generate the passion to follow it through. Passion comes from a moral source that must be elicited from within. Through breathing exercises, Cassidy invites students to become aware of their agency by immersing themselves in the present moment. Such self-awareness is disallowed in a culture and political economy that demand the constant distractions of overwork, exposure to endless streams of information, shopping, and entertainment, and for our students in this particular time of economic insecurity, building their resumes through endless activities. Meanwhile, researchers are providing increasing evidence that the distancing from reality required by multitasking in [End Page 190] the technological age may erode our capacity to be empathetic.1 Moments of contemplative pause give us opportunities to examine how we have been taught to dance to a tune constructed by outside authorities and to withhold sympathy from ourselves and others. Breathing in and breathing out, a reverent acknowledgment of bodily existence and vulnerability, allows us to connect with our hearts and experience compassion. Students learn that we can engage reality only to the degree that we are in touch with ourselves. For we recognize the needs of others only to the degree that we recognize our own.

Interreligious dialogue is Azaransky’s medium for feminist pedagogy that heightens critical analysis and an awareness of the connections between self and others. Through the challenges in this endeavor, students become aware of their social location and the particularity of their own perspective. The degree to which we are out of touch with the challenges and realities of people who...


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