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Pedagogy in Reactionary Times

A note to readers: I have chosen to put hyperlinks at the end rather than throughout the post. For me, links add to the jumping mind and difficulty focusing that I experience online. I am trying this method as a small way of inviting us to instead sit with one concept at a time.

I am currently director of two programs, both of which exist only because of political struggle. Like other dissident disciplines, Women’s and Gender Studies and LGBTQ+ Studies entered universities on the backs of student activists. I draw on many decades of gender and sexuality scholarship when I encourage my students to think critically not only about the world but also about the University; as poet Adrienne Rich put it, to actively “claim” instead of passively “receive” an education.

bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of Hope are elders among the books on my shelves, wizened and wrinkled from years of continuous use. A sticky note in my home office reads, “make the people you love feel strong.” I wrote this one day as my point of focus for the week. It is perhaps the best shorthand for how I think about teaching and learning. I love my students; I want them to feel strong.

Lately, I have been thinking about this disciplinary history and about my core values and pedagogical choices in relation to a different political struggle, one that is also often student led.

It is by now well-documented that attempts are increasing to alter college curricula, to cancel (in the bureaucratic sense) classes about race, gender, and sexuality, and to cancel (in the social sense) the instructors who teach them. For those who wish to read more: Chen and Cui (2022), Jayakumar (2022), Perez (2022), Pfeifer (2022), and Stanfill and Zwilling (2023) analyze this trend and its effects on our learning communities; Burkhard (2022), Dej and Kilty (2023), and Ferber (2018) provide recent case studies that show, in intimate detail, the psychological and spiritual toll of this trend on faculty. Lorgia García Peña’s Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color does both. (This is a small sample of a much larger literature.)

There are, as I write, 160 bills advancing through state legislatures that the ACLU defines as attacks on LGBTQ+ rights in education. A majority of these directly target our children and youth. A smaller but still significant number encompass higher education and seek to restrict college professors from teaching LGBTQ+ content. Simultaneously and sometimes in the same bills, attempts to control what students can learn about race and US racial history are rampant. The particularly infamous Florida House Bill 999 instructs universities to remove “any major or minor that is based on or otherwise utilizes pedagogical methodology associated with Critical Theory, including, but not limited to, Critical Race Theory, Critical Race Studies, Critical Ethnic Studies, Radical Feminist Theory, Radical Gender Theory, Queer Theory, Critical Social Justice, or Intersectionality.” The bill authorizes the Board of Governors to review tenured faculty every five years and any time with cause; included among causes are insubordination and violation of any applicable law or rule (such as this one).

Clearly some of this is posturing by politicians who have no knowledge of who we are or what we teach. But students are also invested in these movements and at times drive the political outcry. One of the first conference talks I attended for chairs and directors of women’s studies programs was on the growing practice of students secretly recording our classes in order to expose feminist indoctrination. This can result in intense harassment of the faculty member, including a landslide of physical and sexual threats; universities have, overall, placed reputation over faculty safety in such cases (Ferber 2018, especially pp. 314-316, “Universities Respond”; Peña 2022, especially pp. 11-12; Perez 2022, especially pp. 191-193).

The curricular consequences are also real. In 2021, a student allegedly recorded a portion of a diversity course at Boise State University and provided it to lawmakers to show that the course degrades white people. Although such a video was never procured, the resulting backlash resulted in all diversity courses being abruptly canceled mid semester. The classes were later restored but only as online, asynchronous classes with prerecorded lectures instead of discussions (see Flaherty’s 2021 coverage for Inside Higher Ed; this case is also mentioned in Pfeifer’s 2022 study analyzing over 40 new bills seeking to control what university faculty can teach about race, racism, and gender).

Within the disciplines, we recognize these as reactionary movements, rooted in established histories of opposition to our programs and the social changes they/we represent. In contrast, the students who take these actions against our programs understand themselves to be marginalized and devalued, whether on account of their race (white), gender and sex (cisgender male), sexuality (heterosexual) or some combination of these.

I want to be very careful here not to create an archetypal white, cisgender, heterosexual, and otherwise advantaged male student as representative of this point of view. Students and faculty alike are much more complicated in our relationships to power. Concerns about the roles of men and women in society, LGBTQ+ social integration, and critical race theory are held by diverse people. This is important to acknowledge if we are to have a nuanced conversation about where these different claims of oppression are coming from and how we can address them.

How, then, do we engage pedagogically with students who are “claiming an education” on this basis, speaking up for themselves and their groups to us, to upper administration, and at times to lawmakers? The language of power and privilege is double-edged; today, in many people’s minds, power and privilege reside with women, feminists, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and those of us who live and teach from these perspectives. And so I find myself thinking about how to love my students and how to strengthen them intellectually in this cultural moment, when claims of epistemic harm are launched from every corner.

This includes thinking about what we do in the classroom, about ways that pedagogy may need to shift or contract. My classes are highly interactive. I give students a wide berth for discussion and invite them to respond candidly and critically to the readings I have chosen. In one upper-level course I have students co-create a portion of the syllabus. Simply put, I place students in the driver’s seat as much as possible. This means that students can take detours. At times it means we will drive off an ideological cliff. This is not always a bad thing. With tools provided by the course, we examine the ideology and address it. But there are also times that the crash is too violent; it harms too many people on the way down. When and how do I make this call?

Absorbing this, both through reading and in my person, has filled me with a desire for something more than words, for something I can put my fingers around, can reach for and hand to others. What this can be or should be, I do not yet know. I started my fellowship year with the Hub with a very long meandering list of questions and gradually whittled these down to three.

  1. How can we effectively teach students who enter our classes believing, sincerely, that men are oppressed by women, that society does not care about men, that white people are political targets, that white voices are increasingly silenced, that cisgender women and children are vulnerable to LGBTQ+ grooming and predation, and that heterosexuals are losing rights and freedoms as LGBTQ+ people acquire them, among other narratives informing the attempts to censor and shut down our programs?
  2. How can we, at the same time, preserve an environment that is conducive to learning for other students, particularly students who are under daily assault by the ideologies above and have very few other spaces where they can breathe and think?
  3. How can we better support one another as we do this work – whether as friends, colleagues, mentors, chairs/directors, or in another role?

I have no illusions that my fellowship will answer all of these questions, or answer any one of them fully. This is something I expect to think about for the rest of my career. I do hope, though, that something concrete can come from this project.

For now, this is a conversation – one I am having with the authors I am reading, with students, with friends in and out of academia, and, I hope, with some who will read this blog post and want to talk. Rereading Peña’s book, I am struck anew by the necessity of collective action, community, and mutual aid around these and other issues in higher ed. Patrick’s blog post preceding mine speaks to this as well.

So here is the invitation.

If you, too, are experiencing or thinking about these things, I welcome your input. I am interested in hearing from anyone for whom this struck a chord, including people whose concerns and understandings differ from mine.

Honestly, if you have made it this far in what is admittedly a too-long blog post, you probably have something to say that I would love to hear. My only request is that our conversation be in person; I have high levels of email and Zoom fatigue and do not have the ability to listen as deeply through these mediums. Let me buy you a drink of your choice (or, for colleagues and students who are observing Ramadan, offer you an IOU for the same) and hear what has been happening for you, whether as a student or instructor. How has the backlash to critical race, gender, and sexuality studies touched your education and your life? It is a simple thing but I think an important one, to sit down and continue this work in the only way it can be done: together.


[UMD students: all articles are available through Mardigian Library if they are not already free online]

Burkhard, Tanja (2022), Facing post-truth conspiracies in the classroom: A Black feminist autoethnography of teaching for liberation after the summer of racial reckoning, Departures in Critical Qualitative Research

Chen, Feifei & Cui, Xi (2022), Teaching controversial issues online: Exploring college professors’ risk appraisals and coping strategies in the US, Teaching and Teacher Education

Dej, Erin & Kilty, Jennifer (2023), “Die alone and old and let the cat eat your face”: Anti-feminist backlash and academic cyber-harassment, Feminist Media Studies

Ferber, Abby (2018), “Are you willing to die for this work?” Public targeted online harassment in higher education, Gender & Society

Flaherty, Colleen (2021), Ethics and diversity course on hold, Inside Higher Ed

House Bill 999 (2023), Postsecondary Educational Institutions, The Florida Senate:
Follow this link to track the bill
Follow this link to read the original filed version in full

Freire, Paulo (1994), Pedagogy of Hope: Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Bloomsbury
See also Freire, Paulo (1970), Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Bloomsbury

hooks, bell (1994), Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, Routledge

Jayakumar, Uma Mazyck (2022), CRT in higher education: Confronting the “bogeyman” bans, censorship, and attacks on racial justice, Philosophy and Theory in Higher Education

Peña, Lorgia García (2022), Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color, Haymarket Books

Perez, Ebony Nicole (2022), “Talking about race is exhausting”: Social work educators’ experiences teaching about race and racism, Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Social Work

Pfeifer, Heather (2022), Combatting misinformation and the assault on academic freedom with research, education, and advocacy, Justice Quarterly

Rich, Adrienne, (1977), Claiming an education, reprinted speech delivered at Douglass College

Stanfill, Mel & Klean Zwilling, Jillian (2023), Critical considerations for safe space in the college classroom, College Teaching

For an interactive map of current anti-LGBTQ legislation, see Bills can be filtered by state, issue, and status.

Feature image by Michel Wolgemut (1493), CC0 1.0, credit Rijksmuseum