Dealing with hostility to progressive ideas in the classroom

This is the script of a talk I gave at an “Everyday Sexism” event at Loughborough University, 1st May, 2013

How can we deal with hostility to progressive theories when teaching and studying gender equality?

I am going to be talking about sexism in the classroom. The thoughts I’d like to share are specifically about how we teach and study such things as equality, feminism, and progressive ideas – where they come up in our modules, whether in social sciences, politics, arts… I am a teaching fellow in Sport and one of the things I teach is gender equality in sports and physical education.

My journey towards being an academic began when I got my Masters degree in Gender Studies. Among my fellow students, we all “got it” – we understood gender inequality, we identified it, analysed it, and denounced it.
This was a positive space to be a student of progressive ideas. I hope that there are many of you in this room today, whether you study gender inequality or just talk about it, who have spaces where you can identify and talk about gender inequality with people who “get it” just like you.

As I have become a university teacher however, I have come to recognise that sometimes progressive ideas are not the norm in the spaces in which we study and teach. Not everyone has had exposure to progressive ideas, not everyone understands gender inequality or denounces it. I’m going to give a few examples that colleagues of mine at other universities have told me, when they have tried to teach gender inequality, feminist ideas or just raise issues of sexism, in their classrooms.

The first thing I would like to say is that my feminism is intersectional. What that means is that I believe that our gender identities and experiences cannot be separated from our experiences of, for instance, sexuality, ethnicity or body size. So I am not just going to talk about sexism as affecting women, but as intersecting with how people are treated for their sexuality or their body size, for instance.

Sometimes there is passive hostility, such as when beginning a lecture by saying “I’m going to be talking from a feminist perspective” – and some students groan and bang their heads on the desk.

Sometimes there is disbelief, one lecturer in management told me. Women students have remarked to her that if women don’t like to be harassed in the workplace then they should just leave their jobs. “Being groped in the office is normal”. “If an office affair is found out, the woman should be sacked but the man should keep his job, because she enticed him”, some students said.

Sometimes there is a hint of evolutionary psychology. “Boys will be boys”, I hear when I teach inclusion in sports. “Boys are just more competitive than girls, that’s why they shouldn’t play sports together”. Just yesterday I was reading something about how teachers need to use different language when they speak to boys and girls just because of gender difference.

Then there are the times when sexism, or something similar, can be triggering or harmful either to the teacher or a student. A friend of mine who lectures in media, gender and sexuality at another university, gave a lecture on fat activism and health at every size to her students. In the discussion time afterwards, she encountered fat phobia, which she found personally triggering. She asks, how could she negotiate and challenge this fat phobia in her classroom in ways that were safe for herself and for her students?

This is just one perspective on sexism in the classroom. I do not mean to sound like I think that the only problem is with students. Certainly not. I have encountered professors who need to consider the ways in which their language can be exclusionary or plainly sexist. There are many students who have the drive to work to end discrimination and oppression, and many who want to understand it and are learning.

Sometimes there is shock. People sometimes just are unaware that sexism occurs in the everyday world – they have never come across it themselves. To me, sport is a very gendered arena, but some people just don’t see it that way, or they see gender difference as natural and normal. Sometimes it can be a very great hurdle to roll a century or more of knowledge on gender inequality into the type of knowledge that students can make something of in order to get their degree. Everyday sexism, fat phobia, homophobia – these things can affect our classrooms when we try to raise issues of equality, to theorise and analyse the world through a progressive or a feminist lens.

I’d like to offer you next some questions that I have, that I wonder whether we, as a community of teachers and students, might work to answer to find best practice in studying issues of equality.
What responsibilities do lecturers have to educate on sexism and other inequalities? If we choose to do so, what are our responsibilities then?
By teaching and studying inequalities, do we risk creating spaces in the university that are potentially triggering? Spaces where students and staff with personal experience of sexism or fat phobia, say, encounter denial or hostility to their experiences?
Do we need our students to subscribe or to respect progressive ideas?
What strategies can we have to work towards safe, supportive and progressive spaces in our classrooms?
What are the best ways to ensure that the students who “get it” and those who don’t all gain the education they need to get through the course?
And as students, do we have responsibilities to call out our classmates? How can we do so safely?

I’d like to finish by saying that if it were not for studying inequalities at university, I wouldn’t have the feminist knowledge I have today, and I continue to grow through my engagement with the students I teach and the personal knowledge and experience they bring to our discussions of sexism, equality and inclusion in sport. I hope that these are ongoing conversations and I look forward to hearing answers to these questions that I’ve raised.


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