Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

REFLECTIONS FROM THE FIELD: Teaching Feminism/teaching as a Feminist in Politics Departments

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

REFLECTIONS FROM THE FIELD: Teaching Feminism/teaching as a Feminist in Politics Departments

Article excerpt


The academic discipline of politics1 in universities has been a male-dominated field until recently, and New Zealand is no exception. While the number of women teaching in the field in New Zealand universities has grown significantly since the mid-1990s, teaching about gender and feminism continues to occupy a marginal position in the discipline. Courses in gender and feminist politics are taught by individual academics, but comprise a small minority of what is offered to politics students, and feminist perspectives are, for the most part, only briefly discussed in other courses (Curtin, 2013).

In this context, feminists teaching in politics departments confront some key questions. Before even stepping into the classroom, we must consider whether the politics of gender should be taught in dedicated courses, or be 'mainstreamed' - i.e., integrated across the politics curriculum. As an academic discipline, politics is divided into several sub-sections, including political theory, international relations, comparative politics, media and public policy, and mainstreaming requires that feminism and issues around gender be incorporated into courses in all of these areas. This means, of course, that it must be taught by academics who do not primarily identify themselves as feminists. While mainstreaming addresses a question of how to teach feminism in politics, and who should do it, a further question emerges around what is to be taught. Here we might ask: is there a feminist canon or canons that should be taught to politics students? And further, how, in teaching politics, do we see the relationship between gender and other forms of social identity, such as race, class and sexuality? The theoretical framework of intersectionality accounts for the complex interrelationships between these axes of identity in different real-world contexts, and poses a challenge to feminists to re-examine the way in which we teach gender. Finally, feminism has always challenged the distinction between theory and practice, and a key question for all feminist teachers, but particularly those teaching politics, is: what is the relationship between teaching and activism? Is our teaching itself a form of activism?

All of these questions were discussed in a well-attended plenary session on teaching feminism in politics departments at the 2014 annual conference of the New Zealand Political Studies Association conference, held at the University of Auckland on 3 December, 2014. Chaired by Associate Professor Jennifer Curtin, a roundtable of speakers talked about the challenges involved in teaching feminism and teaching as a feminist (see Table 1). Participants and audience members responded with a keen sense of recognition of the problems and issues that we confront in classes, as well as with the pleasure and enthusiasm we feel for teaching feminism, and teaching as feminists. As the convenors of the roundtable, we report here on some of the responses and reflections of the participants to the issues and challenges involved in teaching feminism to politics students.

Feminism and the curriculum

We began by asking whether mainstreaming, i.e. integrating feminist perspectives and gender questions across the entire politics curriculum, rather than creating a separate sub-field for gender or feminism, is effective and what its limitations are. In general, the panel members found that a combination of mainstreaming and offering courses dedicated to gender and feminism is necessary. LS observed:

Yes, but it depends upon what our learning objectives are. From an international relations perspective, I want students to appreciate the work gender does in organising global politics. How do we get them to understand the assumptions we make about bodies and behaviour, and to think about how those assumptions inform our thinking about key concepts - power, legitimacy, authority? My main objective is for students to examine those assumptions. …

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