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  • Intersectionality and IdentityCritical Considerations in Teaching Introduction to Women's and Gender Studies
  • Sri Craven (bio)

This article offers and discusses a prototype syllabus for teaching the course Introduction to Women's and Gender Studies (henceforth abbreviated as Introduction) that simultaneously mobilizes and operationalizes intersectionality's critical power as tool and method, which explicates individual and collective experiences in societies and cultures. The article exemplifies a practical approach to getting past the impasse created by intersectionality's deployment in the Introduction classroom, positioned as it is either as an identity-based critical lens, which poses the familiar problem of essentialism, or as different from deconstructive critical approaches that then produce confusion regarding its critical value. Starting with a review of intersectionality's relationship to identity in theory and in pedagogy, I move on to make a case for why Introduction is a unique space for feminist/queer interventions and then offer a model syllabus grounded in decolonial history, which helps frame the critical and methodological rigor of intersectionality appropriately. The syllabus also leads directly to another goal in the article—and, dare I say, of Introduction—namely, the importance of integrative learning in introductory courses. Integrative learning is defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities as "an understanding and a disposition that a student builds across the curriculum and co-curriculum, from making simple connections among ideas and experiences to synthesizing and transferring learning to new, complex situations within and beyond the campus."1

The emphasis on integrative learning is, in fact, critical to the pedagogical project of intersectionality-based teaching, because integrative learning speaks to the demands of our current historico-political moment, particularly in the United States, when two worldviews dominate regarding feminist and queer work. The first is the undermining of women, gender, and sexuality studies departments (WGS) within academic institutions.2 The second is public [End Page 200] culture's representations of feminist and queer ideas. These include ideas similar to David Horowitz's much-publicized "101 most dangerous US academics,"3 among them several gender and sexuality studies professors who are signified as damaging to learning and knowledge, and also generalized comments in various media forms that ignore history and relegate feminist and queer work to divisive identity politics with limited relevance, and then only to specific communities and groups.

This article is especially concerned with Introduction, which, in its very content and framing, can serve as a helpful starting point in challenging such worldviews. But the success of this goal is best achieved when students are able to operationalize their learning outside the course and the college classroom. With this in mind, an ongoing concern among WGS faculty teaching Introduction is with facilitating analyses and critiques that are able to explain human experiences as the complex result of competing ideologies of the body, competing and co-existing ideas of selfhood, the taking up of subject positions by individuals as and outside identity categories, and of course the navigation of any identity politics. Often, however, intersectionality becomes reduced to identity categories in the general terrain of feminist and queer practitioners, whether they be students, teachers, activists, or scholars. The pedagogical concern, then, is how best to achieve the political and critical promises of intersectionality, which continues to slip into signification as identity politics rather than as critical tool and method for explicating human experiences.

This pedagogical concern was framed in faculty discussions at the National Women's Studies Association's (NWSA) Summer Curriculum Institute, 2014, a three-day workshop where to primary goal was to discuss and compile strategies for a pedagogy that facilitates intersectionality-based understandings. As faculty from across North America, our conversations at the Curriculum Institute centered on a pedagogy that would redirect our students' tendency to perform "additive" rather than intersectionality-based analyses even when gender and sexuality are at the heart of critical focus. The challenge of additive analysis seemed especially concerning when, as faculty, we were in consensus that most of us did not merely teach "gender and sexuality," but rather how gender and sexual experiences are shaped in a given society, and a historical moment. Yet many of our syllabi suggested that we were inadvertently...