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  • Potentialities of Participatory Pedagogy in the Women’s Studies Classroom
  • Julianne Guillard (bio)

I can't stress enough how much I ADORE that we aren't allowed to say "no offense" in class. Isn't it ironic that whenever someone says that phrase, what comes out of their mouth is usually particularly ignorant and disrespectful?

—Daria, Gender Studies Student

In my classroom, at the end of the semester there are a lot of hugs among peers, fist bumps, and cell phone numbers exchanged. The start of the semester, on the other hand, presents a very different scene, with a lot of cold stares, nervous toe-tapping, and eyes averted to more interesting media on cell phones. How did we, both instructor and students, manage to get to Point B (the former happy scene) from Point A (the latter beginning stages)? Much of the relaxed atmosphere of "Point B" owes itself to a loosely structured approach to student participation in my Introduction to Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies course. In this essay, I will describe this approach toward participation (which helps create a welcoming, "safe space" environment) along with feedback, both positive and negative, from previous students.

Within the first week of class during each semester, I ask my students to define their means and methods of their participation, how they are "allowed" or not allowed to participate in the class, as Daria mentioned in the opening quotation to this essay. Creating participation norms enables us to jointly develop explicit expectations of how we wish to interact with, and be treated by, each other in the classroom. Based on Don Blake's "Norming Exercise" and Jim Cummins's Negotiating Identities framework, this exercise destabilizes and refocuses power dynamics (student-teacher; student-student; safe spaces/unsafe spaces) and privileges (the speaker and the listener; agreement and disagreement). Sample questions from these frameworks that students use to construct their participation norms include, "What will we need to make our classroom discussions more effective?", "How will we handle conflict?", and "How will we build a positive climate where everyone feels listened to?"

Through feminist pedagogical (Maher and Tetreault) analysis of classroom behavior and student interviews, I will argue for a wide range of disciplines to employ this form of participatory pedagogy in their classrooms. This essay will detail why norming classroom participation is a necessary tool for a progressive learning environment; how individual classes have created different means of communication and the benefits and detractions of each method; how norming [End Page 50] benefits students (based upon student interviews); and possible areas of improvement for future implementation in different fields of scholarship outside the social sciences (STEM education, the humanities, etc.).

The Course

After welcoming my students to the first class of any new term, I first inform them that I do not view myself as a lecturer but rather as a facilitator of classroom discussion. I go on to explain that gender studies classes thrive through active discussion by all students and not only through listening to a lecture conducted by one person on a singular interpretation of a text or theory. I am occasionally on the receiving end of a few confused looks thrown my way; most of the undergraduates I have taught thus far in my career attend larger lecture-based classes during which they are mostly spoken to and not asked to participate beyond showing up at the correct time. In my classroom, however, the students' thoughts about the feminisms that we study are at the forefront. This gets to the core of my teaching philosophy: I am a firm believer in putting participatory pedagogy in action, and this essay can demonstrate how easily achievable it can be to incorporate elements of participatory pedagogy within your curriculum.

In an introductory gender studies class, our primary goal would be to source answers to the following questions: How do our experiences shape what we know? How do institutions like family, class, race, and gender position us within the American political system and, therefore, shape those experiences and our access in society? I am deliberate in the creation of my pedagogy and how it relates to my classes, since we not only...


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