Despite its now celebrated status in numerous institutions of higher learning across North America, civic engagement remains a contested topic among feminist scholars and teachers. This is not because feminist teachers are unsupportive of engaged and experiential learning. In fact, “long before Campus Compact was even a gleam in civically engaged presidents’ eyes, the young discipline of women’s studies was designing community-based learning options for students” (Musil, “Educating” par. 7). As evidenced in previous issues of Feminist Teacher, women’s and gender studies (WGS) teachers and practitioners have successfully created and launched numerous courses, programs, activities, and events that illuminate for students how and why social problems manifest, how as members of this society they are implicated in those problems, and how they may practically and actively engage in addressing those problems.
Yet, feminist scholars remain highly suspicious of civic engagement projects advanced by university administrators and colleagues in other disciplines because of their perceived potential for reinforcing the very power inequalities that feminists have worked so diligently to expose and challenge. As some have noted, civic engagement discourse in U.S. higher education is rooted in a neutral and universalizing language that reinscribes forms of democracy and citizenship that erase difference, conceal power, and perpetuate social injustice (Verjee; Musil, “Remapping”). A critical feminist approach to civic engagement, then, requires more than simply “coming to terms” with different vocabularies or pedagogical practices (Orr). It demands sustained attention to the very epistemologies that underlie civic engagement discourse and projects as well as the pedagogical processes by which they are instantiated. In this special issue of Feminist Teacher, contributors explore civic engagement from a variety of perspectives and social locations and challenge us, and our students, to consider how women’s and gender studies practitioners may participate in the civic engagement movement in a manner that sustains feminist values, commitments, and solidarities.
Since its birth as a discipline within the context of the civil rights, women’s, [End Page 171] and student movements, the field of women’s and gender studies has always been civically engaged, founded upon a feminist epistemology of collaborative, community-based, engaged pedagogy rooted in an ideology of social justice for all (Naples and Bojar; Orr). Writing about feminist education, Leila Villaverde states that “ … feminist pedagogy insists on the conditions of a democratic education, such as learning must involve freedom, social justice, participation, and community (even with its varying definitions)” (127). WGS practitioners have been heavily involved in efforts to improve and democratize their own communities, whether in their hometowns, workplaces, religious organizations, or universities. It is this focus on the university itself as a location requiring change that makes women’s and gender studies’ contributions particularly relevant to any movement whose aim is to transform higher education. Yet for years, this engaged work by WGS practitioners was frequently branded as “activism” and therefore delegitimized by outsiders to the discipline as too political, resulting in the peripheralization of WGS within broader higher education debates (Naples 11, 12).
Today we find ourselves in the ironic position of persuading colleagues, university administrators, and educational foundations that WGS has extensive expertise in the pedagogy of civic engagement that has heretofore gone unrecognized, and that discounting such expertise wastes the resources and talent already present in numerous institutions of higher education. For feminist pedagogy values many of the same ideals put forth by scholars of civic engagement, including critical analysis, self-reflexivity, and active participation to accomplish the social good. Motivated in part by the desire to make visible the work of women’s and gender studies on particular university campuses, and in part by the desire to legitimate the ongoing presence of women’s and gender studies in higher education, several initiatives in the past decade have addressed the field’s contributions to advancing education for social responsibility (Balliet and Heffernan; Dugger; Kimmich; Musil, “Educating”).
Thanks to the support of the Teagle Foundation, the National Women’s Studies Association significantly advanced the conversation about civic engagement within the discipline through the activities of the Teagle Working Group and a one-day...