Radical Possibilities: Feminism, Pedagogy and Visual Culture

By Parsons, Sarah | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Radical Possibilities: Feminism, Pedagogy and Visual Culture


Parsons, Sarah, Resources for Feminist Research


This paper addresses assumptions made in feminist pedagogical literature by considering the author's experiences in teaching courses in visual culture.

The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.

-- bell hooks (1994)

Locating a space of radical possibility is an exhilarating discovery for many teachers. For many feminists, the classroom has served as a crucial place of exploration and often acceptance for feminism in the academy. By example, an issue of Women's Studies Quarterly (1993) brought together writings on a wide range of experiences in feminist teaching. The various authors differ in their material but they seem to agree that teachers and learners are rotating positions. The feminist classroom is pictured as a liberating place where everyone is responsible for the enrichment of the learning process to the eventual goal of social change. However, there is a trend in this issue, as in other writing about politicized classrooms, to conceptualize that space in utopian terms. Like many of her fellow WSQ contributors, Carolyn Shrewsbury assumes that her students are both "like" her and each other and that these commonalties, of gender and/or race, class, politics and sexual orientation, will form the basis of empowering connections. When Shrewsbury answers her own question, "What is feminist pedagogy?" she neglects to take into account issues like the size and character of classes and the material to be covered, as though these variables are either irrelevant or obvious. While I have serious doubts about the perceived homogeneity of any group, I do agree that feminism has an integral place in every radical classroom. However, in order to realize its potential for intellectual and social change, it needs to be critically situated.

For good reason, many discussions of feminism and pedagogy have been aimed at, and based on, the proportionately limited experiences of teaching introductory women's studies classes. While some of the insights offered in these accounts carry over to different contexts, feminism offers particular challenges and possibilities to every discipline and every classroom. Drawing on the feminist tradition of building knowledge on personal experience, I want to reflect on my own experiences in teaching visual culture. These experiences continue to shape my pedagogy in which feminism is a primary, formative and active discourse. To be useful, this theory needs to consider a wide range of practical and conceptual issues. In the scope of this short paper I address the selection and structure of course material (in consideration of contemporary epistemological shifts), institutional issues, dynamics and erotics of the classroom, negotiation of discussion and participation with reference to the messy, difficult stumbling blocks along the way.

In an increasingly visual world, art history offers students important critical tools for engaging with images and cultural issues. It asks: How do images function? In what ways do they inscribe/resist cultural values? How do they function in the cultural politics of vision? Who gets represented, by whom and to whose ends? The discipline is in the midst of radical changes in epistemology, methodology, and pedagogy. Postmodernism, feminism, poststructuralism, postcolonialism and other cultural discourses have shifted the focus away from the teleological canon of masterpieces towards the ideological functions and social histories of art. In accord with these changes, certain teaching goals are highlighted. Students should leave the classroom with an enriched ability to read images critically and to express those interpretations verbally and in written form. They should also depart with a better understanding of the participation of images in histories of oppression and of resistance and agency, and how images can represent and invite different subject positions inflected by historical moment, gender, race, sexual difference, class, or nationality. …

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