Feminist Pedagogy and the Decentered Classroom

My English 611 Seminar Paper: a work in progress 

Understanding Internalization
Language, and even more specifically the word, is a social construct. This means, as educators, teaching in schools that are shaped by society, we are faced with the reality of language and the implications and repercussions this patriarchal creation has on our students. Thus, it is our responsibility to provide students a space to learn about language, where it comes from, how it affects us, and how we can go about changing its course.  Because we live in a patriarchal society where men hold the majority of authority, there are, and always will be, students using an authoritative language that keeps them in an inferior position. That being said, it is imperative teachers take a look at the negative impact language has on many of our students, specifically women, in order to construct a composition classroom that is free from language’s repressive nature. It is in the best interest of students and teachers to model composition classrooms after feminist pedagogy. A feminist approach to teaching writing will not only benefit women and make them equal, but the entire class can come together as equals to deconstruct a language that adversely affects everyone. 
Feminist pedagogy stems from a desire to bring equity among genders. Proponents of feminist pedagogy do not in any way want to diminish the differences that naturally exist; on the contrary, they want to create an environment where differences are nourished and respected rather than overlooked. Feminists are interested in looking at and understanding the way a patriarchal society has shaped women and what we all can do to challenge this dominant ideology. In order to break down the patriarchal structure of language, teachers have to share with students writing that oppresses women and allow students a place to discuss the affect this kind of writing has on their identity. Elizabeth A. Flynn, in her insightful article “Composing as a Woman” argues “Women’s perspectives have been suppressed, silenced, marginalized, written out of what counts as authoritative knowledge. Difference is erased in a desire to universalize. Men become the standard against which women are judged” (425). Yes, women’s voices have been suppressed, but women are fully capable of lifting the oppression off the backs of those individuals inside the classroom. By giving voice to the students in a classroom, however, teachers infuse authority into students’ voices. As educators, we acknowledge the diversity in the classroom and embrace its ability to create new knowledge and understanding.
Feminist pedagogy is not only beneficial to women, nor does it have to be taught by women to be successful. Arguably a man who teaches using feminist pedagogical approaches can be more effective because his students won’t be able to discredit his practices based on personal gender bias (Jarrett 116). It is also imperative that all students, both female and male, come to understand that the gendered roles that shape them become barriers between genders; these roles devalue the individual by trapping him or her in a specific gendered framework. This can be accomplished by initiating class discussions where students talk about the differences in gender roles when it comes to images in advertising and literature, attitudes toward work, success, competition, relationships, and sexuality. By looking at language in different contexts, both female and male students recognize the biases of language.
Many of the traits associated with feminist pedagogy can be traced back to Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and theorist, and Paulo Freire, a Brazilian activist and educator; both recognize language as socially constructed by a hierarchal society and therefore as inherently un-equal. This is not to say that those forming the framework for feminist pedagogy drew specifically on Vygotsky and Freire’s ideas. However, as more and more educators strive for an equitable classroom amidst a longtime patriarchal society, we look to models of instruction and development by theorists such as Vygotsky and Freire; we combine their theories with others such as feminist pedagogy and implement it into our classrooms because of a need to embrace more radical and egalitarian approaches to teaching. By showing a correlation between Vygotsky, Freire, and feminist pedagogy, readers will recognize that feminist pedagogy is not just for women; many of the approaches used are just as liberatory for men.
However, in order to truly understand the origin and implication of language in an effort to liberate ourselves, we must first study the socio-historical constraints in which it resides. By acknowledging that society creates language, our own thoughts and actions (as unique as we might believe them to be) are seen as mere constructions of the thoughts and actions of others. Vygotsky, who was interested in how people achieve consciousness, began looking at children and their ability to take the external (what they hear around them) and make it internal (what they choose to believe).  He called this process internalization. After much observation, he notes,
When children develop a method of behavior for guiding themselves that had previously been used in relation to another person, when they organize their own activities according to a social form of behavior, they succeed in applying a social attitude to themselves. The history of the process of the internalization of social speech is also the history of the socialization of children’s practical intellect (Vygotsky 27)
Our consciousness can be described as a product of our social environment as well as communication. Thus, if we are to truly teach our students how to deconstruct language and make it their own in a composition classroom where each student is creating a voice through his or her writing, it is important to look at where a student’s ideas stem from and who (authors, parents, peers, teachers, community) affects a student’s sense of voice. By doing so, we are allowing our students a space to recognize their own voice in all its multitudes of meaning in the context of a language they are attempting to understand.
 For many students, creating this awareness is no easy task; no one wants to believe that they are speaking another’s words or that their ideas are reproductions. Thankfully, according to Vygotsky’s study of internalization, we do not simply take in everything from the outside world and make it our own. We internalize by gaining control over and learning to mediate external sign forms, thereby manipulating the external signs to make them fit our individual schema. In other words, we decide what we want to believe, and can agree or disagree with what we hear. We then take that which makes sense to us and mediate and change it a little, make it our own, and internalize it. Internalization is, as Vygotsky states, “quasi-social;” it is, socially rooted and historically developed. Therefore, what we internalize is part ours and part someone else’s. We (teachers and students) may need society in order to reach a higher level of mental functioning; but at the same time, we need to constantly reevaluate the so-called truths we have internalized from society; we need to match them up against our more recent internalized notions.  Sometimes it becomes difficult to keep from internalizing the negative and authoritative discourse we hear over and over. This is why it is extremely important to be conscious of what voices we’ve internalized and why. For students in a composition classroom, learning that their voice might be riddled with authoritarian and patriarchal beliefs, may lead to anger and frustration, or as Freire and feminists would hope for, action.
Action begins with acknowledgement that our language is social in nature. Educators have to choose a suitable pedagogical approach that helps students take back control of their language. Freire, a long time advocate of literacy, referred to knowing as a praxis. Knowing is not only a reflective process but an active one as well. “Knowing demands a curious, attentive, restless attitude toward, and interaction with, social reality” (Roberts 38). Freire developed a method of teaching where students interacted with their “social reality” and it is known as the problem-posing method. In stark contrast to the classical banking or top down method, problem-posing places the student in the center of the classroom thereby decentering the authority of the teacher. His method advocates student questions, curiosity, and probing that eventually leads to the creation of a better world through resistance against oppressive practices, ideas, and structures. On the other side of the coin is the banking method which places the teacher in the role of authority; he holds all the knowledge and distributes it, a little at a time, to the students who sit quietly, taking notes, at their individual desks. There is no collaboration or time for student interaction. Freire’s method and feminist pedagogy support liberation through interaction – the notion of praxis. The idea behind his approach is to awaken in us an understanding of our consciousness; in order to take action and liberate ourselves, we must think critically about our place in the world, through dialogue. Knowledge is not something bestowed on an individual but rather is something always in the making, something that teachers and students create together through their exploration of the world around them. Students and teachers alike need to think critically about the context in which they live in an effort to become aware of the relationship between “consciousness,” “action,” and “world.”
In a Freirean model classroom, this awareness is achieved in the three stages. The first is listening. Both inside and outside the classroom, it is important for students to look at and investigate the themes of their community in order to gain a better understanding of the values of their community. Second is dialogue; through dialogue and the creation of a code (a depersonalized representation or problem that has emotional or social impact on students’ lives), students are able to discuss heated issues and include their emotional connection to the topic. Students do not generally want to speak out about a personal experience (with topics such as abortion or racism) because they don’t want to make themselves vulnerable to attack. By creating a hypothetical scenario, or code, students are more comfortable speaking their minds and adding to the discussion without fear of personal assault. Thirdly, and most importantly, is action. Through discussion and forming their own ideas about a given topic, students begin to see ways of rectifying the injustice they face; this is otherwise known as a praxis. These ideas turn into plans on a chalkboard and then into role-playing in class and finally into real live lobbying, such as writing letters, or joining social action movements in their own communities.
Ira Shor, a Freirean scholar and composition teacher, believes in liberating oneself through action. He contends, “Action for students means learning to see themselves as social and political beings, with rights to access to the political systems in their workplaces or their cities” (Shor 42). In a classroom where students have the ability to buy into existing social forces (passive) or challenge them (active), it is vital that we as teachers do not interrupt the formation of their ideas and the life decisions they make. In an effort to allow students’ voices and opinions to grow and be heard, the problem-posing method takes the teacher and places her on the sidelines, thereby decentering the classroom. The focus on the student and her ability to transform social structures are concepts Freire and Shor share with feminist pedagogy.
By using a feminist pedagogical framework and looking at school as a social setting, a setting that perpetuates the very authoritarian constraints so many educators are trying to help dissolve, teachers and students can begin to deconstruct their position in this setting through discourse, through group work, and through action. Vygotsky agrees that if we study the socio-historical context of language and our actions, if we come to understand that dialogue reinforces our vision of reality, then we have the capability, in time, of changing our perception of reality. He argues, “Instruction is one of the principal sources of the schoolchild’s concepts and is also a powerful force in directing their evolution; it determines the fate of his total mental development” (Vygotsky 1962, 85). School is a power place of transformation for the student’s mind. Student’s can, y understanding their position in society through language, make a change, liberate themselves, and take action in their community. In a feminist pedagogical framework, this would mean a teacher could bring to the forefront, through dialogue, the authoritarian role language plays thereby attempting to question and change students’ perception of reality and to hopefully move them toward a desire to take action.


Decentering Authority
In a composition classroom that follows feminist pedagogy, teachers are not seen as authorities nor is the classroom set up as a hierarchy. Feminist pedagogy is very much student centered just as in a Freirean classroom. It is not the responsibility of the teacher to bestow knowledge onto the students (as in the banking system), but rather it is the students and teachers who work together, as co-learners. “The teacher no longer has the Truth about writing. The student has the truth as she makes the writing her own. The new writing teacher questions and suggests, but rarely mandates. The teacher is a resource person and a guide” (Frey 97). By making these changes, students are empowered and this empowerment is reflected in their writing. For example, no longer does the teacher need to decide if the student’s paper is a success or a failure; it is up to the student to decide if she has achieved her goal and reached her audience. Also, more types of writing (journals, diary entries, free writes) besides just the academic essay are seen as legitimate ways of expressing one’s voice. These more personal types of writing, once devalued because of their association with the female gender, are finally being appreciated as valued forms of writing. There are also those methods, like one-to-one (teacher to student) tutoring, that are cast aside and seen as detrimental to students’ writing achievement.  One-to-one tutoring doesn’t enhance students writing because the relationship is a hierarchy between teacher and student; the students lose authority over their writing, and usually, the students’ audience is not the teacher. Teachers who do not attempt to disengage themselves from a traditional authoritarian role will only perpetuate the very structure of language and instruction that needs to be transformed. What we as teachers should strive for is a classroom that becomes a venue for liberation through knowledge and action, a classroom that advocates for collaborative learning, not one-way education -- a classroom modeled after feminist pedagogy.
The teaching of writing is not like other disciplines; it requires collaboration, small groups, class discussion, and peer editing. Writing cannot be taught through lectures as history or economics can. It is about the teacher and the students sharing the power of authority. Writing is a process that teachers and students go through together. This is an idea that Vygotsky embraced. Not only did he believe that the mind mediates learning and interactions but he also believed “that other people—teachers, parents, and peers—mediate learning and enculturation through cultural tools because knowledge and language preexist and are external to the individual. The process is two-way” (Lerman 213). Given that the process of learning can be seen as a two-way street, Vygotsky formulated the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD brings thought and language together in order to aid the process of internalization.
The Zone of Proximal Development is a way of looking at childhood development in a social setting. Vygotsky explains it as, “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky 86). Envisioning learning stemming from the social to the individual, Vygotsky saw the ZPD as a way for adults and more capable peers to instill in younger members of their community the values, skills, and knowledge necessary to be a productive member of their particular community. In a school setting this means that by placing students in groups with more capable peers, they are able to increase their developmental level in ways that would not be possible individually. It is a teacher’s duty to educate and be educated thereby placing herself on the same plane as the students, in a ZPD if you will, allowing learning to go in either direction.
In a composition classroom, a teacher has the ability, through feminist pedagogy, to create an environment that is conducive to an approach of reevaluating oneself and one’s voice through the use of the ZPD. This environment is known as collaborative learning. By placing students, both male and female, in a position of authority in relation to their text, students begin to discover where their voice comes from, what it is influenced by, and how it is shaped. Collaborative learning is based on the assumption that writing is a social act. This belief goes hand in hand with Vygotsky’s ZPD. By placing students in groups and allowing them to share their writing, they are able to enhance one another’s intellectual growth. In Andrea Greenbaum’s work entitled Emancipatory Movements in Composition, she notes that feminist pedagogy embraces collaborative writing because it’s able to disrupt power relations in a classroom and it mirrors the idea of language as social construct. It is a practice that works against the more traditional approaches to teaching writing, such as the banking or top down method, that do not recognize collaboration as a legitimate teaching practice. Kenneth Bruffee, a proponent of collaborative learning, argues in favor of its ability to motivate writers.
…the writing which students do as peer critics tends to be the most “real” writing they ever do in college. The task is clear-cut and unequivocal. The audience [the peer critic] is [immediately at] hand and deeply interested. The effect of this immediacy is that students who have never learned, or never bothered, to write with care, learn in a hurry as peer critics, because of the feedback from what they write is strongly reinforced by the peer influence of the increasingly tight-knit intellectual community of the class (Bruffee 459).
The reason why students who never bothered to put any effort into their work now struggle to produce something acceptable stems from a desire to fit in with their peers. This one reason collaborative learning, in the form of groups, is successful. Also, collaborative learning works because not everyone in a group shares the same ideas and opinions. In a group setting where students are in a position of workshopping a peer’s paper, it is the varying opinions they hold and their ability to come to a consensus on comments that provides their peer with the richest most invaluable feedback available. 


Feminist Pedagogy in the Classroom
Looking at the way a feminist composition classroom is set up, with its student-centered, collaborative learning model, it can be argued that feminist pedagogy is more of a practice than a theory. This makes it easier for teachers to see the connection feminist pedagogy has with the theories and practices of Vygotsky and Freire. Susan C. Jarrett supports my assertion by adding, “these basic principles of feminist pedagogy are ones it shares with the pedagogical innovations of the process revolution in writing instruction: the decentering or sharing of authority, the recognition of students as sources of knowledge, a focus on processes (of writing and teaching) over products” (Jarrett 115). It is this belief that no one acts alone in their transformation of the world through words that brings Freire and Vygotsky together with feminist pedagogy. Vygotsky says, “Word meanings are the threads by which society weaves itself into one cloth” (Gallimore 193). Universally, they believe you cannot look at the individual without looking at the society and culture surrounding her; they also believe in the value of dialogue and language as paths to connectedness and reform.
Adrienne Rich, an author, educator, and long time feminist, believes in the idea of re-vision, a concept that closely ties in to the notion of society as the creator of language. Re-vision is a way of critically looking at an old text in order to understand its assumptions as steeped in a patriarchal society. Re-vision is a way for women to take back the power that has been stripped of them. “We need to know the writing of the past, and know it differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us” (Rich 19). Re-vision is just one way, through a process of understanding word meaning and language construction, for women to recapture their identity. Feminist pedagogy is very much a process that brings to the surface ideologies and value systems that have been engrained in every student’s life. In many ways, it proves the very theories of Vygotsky and Freire by exposing society’s influence over us.
Many components of feminist pedagogy are similar to those found in Freire’s approach and Vygotsky’s theory. Like feminist pedagogy, Freire argues for shared authority and process building through his problem-posing method as a way to foster students’ knowledge and build a community of thinkers and doers. The whole idea that students learn best and are most successful when they are in a cooperative learning environment can be linked back to Vygotsky’s ZPD where students advance their development by working with others who are at or above their own skill level. However, the distinguishing quality of feminist composition pedagogy from other composition pedagogies is its vested interest in recognizing society as sexist and patriarchal and the collusion of reading, writing, and teaching in those conditions (Jarrett 115).  Adrienne Rich explains how this looks in a classroom.
A radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us; and how we can begin to see—and therefore live—afresh. A change in the concept of sexual identity is essential if we are not going to see the old political order reassert itself in every new revolution
(Rich 18).
It is through feminist pedagogy that teachers and students can re-situate themselves in the text and in their lives; and it is by looking closely at a text that students begin to read the meaning between the lines. Like a Freirean approach, feminist pedagogy is also a way for students to find their own voice, their own mission, and their own political course of action.
Students can find their own voice thorough participation in the ZPD during whole class discussions. For example, George Hillocks in his work Teaching Writing as Reflective Practice, describes a teacher by the name of Diekhoff who substitute taught a class for a few days that was in the middle of discussing Milton’s Paradise Lost. Instead of talking at the students as the previous teacher had always done, Diekhoff asked the students what they thought of the text. His question took the students by surprise, but after their initial shock, a discussion emerged stemming from questions by the students. Because the students were able to flush out their confusions and thoughts, the reading became that much more accessible to each one of them. One student reflects on his experience by saying, “He allowed our ideas, no matter how poorly conceived, to become a legitimate part of the conversation of Paradise Lost. In doing that, he allowed us an important degree of control over classroom events as our ideas became the focus of discussion” (Hillocks 55). This is an example of teaching that creates a ZPD, an environment that supports the active learning of complex strategies that students may not be capable of using on their own. It also demonstrates the importance of sharing authority in the classroom. Though their regular teacher may have been a Milton scholar, lecturing to a class without allowing for organic discussion to take place, leaves students’ voices, questions, and ideas out. It is very difficult for students to learn when they are not able to express their opinions and hear others. This example and the ZPD demonstrate that teachers do not have to wait for students to develop before they are able to learn. On the contrary, we should create a ZPD that heightens their understanding of the material. As Vygotsky notes, “learning precedes development.” Therefore, when teachers place students in groups and recognize the knowledge they have to share with one another, teachers are able to shine a light on the reality students perceive and the differences in each of their perceptions. Whole class discussions and group work prove important avenues for development and understanding.
Pattie Cowell, in her article “Valuing Language: Feminist Pedagogy in the Writing Classroom” discusses how the patriarchal nature of language is illuminated through class discussion. She writes words on the board and the class discusses their connotations: bachelor, spinster, or master, mistress, or illegal alien, undocumented worker. Then she asks her students to answer questions like “What do changing connotations imply about our cultures? Can we use language to re-vision our cultures ourselves?” A discussion ensues in which many students’ ideas and prejudices arise before some clarity and understanding is reached. Another way to reinforce the fact that our own writing, as well as others, is shaped by conscious and unconscious preconceptions is to practice critical reading. By bringing in advertisements and asking different students to identify the assumptions behind the ad, Cowell’s students were forced to look at the ad for what it was, a selling tool. Students who vocalized the appeal of the ad, the stereotypes, and assumptions made of different genders become increasingly aware of language’s persuasive nature. Classroom activities such as these get students to think about the implications of language and what we notice and don’t notice. It makes students more critical readers and writers; they are more apt to look under the surface at what other writing as well as their own writing is actually saying.
Journals can also be used as a way to re-identify with language. James D. Reimer, a composition teacher and author of “Becoming Gender Conscious: Writing About Sex Roles” assigns journaling as a way for students to flush out their ideas about particular readings as well as peer writing. The journal is personal and only read by the teacher, thereby enabling students to write about things they might not feel comfortable sharing with the entire class. Reimer asserts, “The journals also gave me an opportunity to stimulate students to look deeper into their own experiences to validate or challenge their views and values as well as those expressed in class readings and discussion” (Reimer 159). By deconstructing text and language, by looking at authors’ underlying motives, students can begin to see through those barriers and beyond to an identity that is no longer based solely on gender but on a critical understanding of the world around them.
By acknowledging the biases we all possess, students and teacher can work toward breaking down the patriarchal school system that oppresses so many and liberates so few. Ira Shor reflects on his class, “If they seriously study racism or sexism or the arms race, I read this as a starting point of transformation which may develop in the long-run into their choices for social change” (34).  Feminist pedagogy cannot work alone; it is part of a universal struggle for social justice, a struggle that empowers educators and students to take action. No matter what resistant form of pedagogical practices a teacher chooses, her motives remain the same—to understand the injustices we face under patriarchy and to use that knowledge to fight, change, and reform our reality.

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