The Feminist Classroom

Frances A. Maher and Mary Kay Thompson Tetreault
NY: BasicBooks, 1994
251 pp., $25.00 hc

Deborah Schaffer

I confess to approaching this book with a certain amount of anticipation; any book entitled The Feminist Classroom and characterized (on the front cover) as providing "an inside look at how professors and students are transforming higher education for a diverse society" would seem to promise useful information to teachers who are working to make their classes truly inclusive and show their students the virtues of multiculturalism. The book's introductory chapter also led me to expect some practical recommendations, with the promise of conclusions "relevant not only to feminism and to pedagogy, but to the construction of knowledge in a more inclusive and democratic academy" (24). Unfortunately (for me and others of like mind), this book offers few concrete, transferrable ideas of value to professors seeking strategies for creating successful "feminist" classrooms, much less universally tolerant, multiculturally sensitive ones.

The authors' goal, as explained in Ch. 1, is to investigate "teaching and learning in the classrooms of seventeen feminist college professors" in order to arrive at an understanding of "the ways in which their commitments to the education of all of their students have led to educational approaches that break the illusions and silences, and transform the visions of students..."(1). The book is intended to fill a gap in feminist academics, as most recent attention has been centered on changes in student bodies (more diverse) and curricula (more inclusive of women and minorities), rather than on changes in the pedagogy of teachers dealing with those students and curricula.

To this end, Maher and Tetreault observed feminist-oriented classes and interviewed participating professors and students at six institutions ranging from predominantly white, liberal-arts colleges to a predominantly black, female liberal-arts school and large, ethnically diverse state and research institutions. These schools and the teachers observed are profiled in Ch. 2; then in each of the next four chapters, one of four "analytic themes"(15)--"mastery"(Ch. 3), "voice"(Ch. 4), "authority"(Ch. 5), and "positionality"(Ch. 6)--is used to characterize relationships observed between teachers, students, course content, the academic institutions, and society in general.

The last two chapters present the authors' conclusions: Ch. 7 provides "glimpses of, and barriers to, classroom constructions of...'pedagogies of positionality'"(203) (i.e., teaching strategies that will sensitize students to how their and other people's positions in a culture, determined by background factors such as gender, race, economic class and sexual orientation, affect what and how they learn); and Ch.8 recaps the participating teachers' reactions to the authors' analyses of their classes as well as the women's own concerns about their teaching, concluding with a call for further "collective work on pedagogy"(251) to promote more communal, empowering classroom experiences.

"Positional" pedagogies are the key, then, but what do they actually involve in the classroom? Here Maher and Tetreault are less than helpful. Certainly, they provide numerous descriptions of interactions between professors and students, with plentiful quotes both from the conversations themselves and from the participants' reflections on them afterwards. But these quotes are occasionally rambling and spotted with vague references (as natural conversation often is; some judicious editing for the sake of clarity and conciseness would have been beneficial), and the authors' own analyses of these vignettes so often state the same points in different words and at such a general theoretical level that after a while the reader is likely to shrug and say, "Yes, you said that before, but so what?"

For example, in Ch. 4 ("Voice") an incident is described wherein a middle-class black female student at Spelman College, Marta, became more reluctant to speak in class after other students (also black women) took issue with her (presumably middle-class) view that blacks and whites should strive to understand one another better. Maher and Tetreault comment that "some aspects of her identity, such as her class position, were muted as she struggled to shape a new and more politically conscious identity"(97), concluding that "the capacity to develop a sturdy and coherent voice can be threatened by a classroom environment that encourages students to talk about some aspects of themselves but not others..."(98). What might be done, then, to encourage tolerance of views that might not be held by the majority of students? Maher and Tetreault evidently have no ideas to share; instead, they go on to describe several more incidents involving the same sort of general characterizations of students, teachers, differences between classes at the various institutions, and so on, with recommendation-free final summaries of the various class situations described, and the occasional expert's quote tied in to provide theoretical grounding (but not necessarily enlightenment; how does the fact that Marta's situation reflects "hierarchies of identity within each speaking subject" [Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference, 1989] reveal anything useful about her predicament?).

It is true that a later vignette shows a more diverse class where students felt free to consider all parts of their identity in their discussions, but how does that example aid readers in finding ways to encourage their own students to speak as freely, especially if their classes are more like the homogeneous one at Spelman? It is unhelpful to state the same generalization over and over again (for example, that white feminist theory ignores issues of race and ethnicity; cf. pp.113, 114, 170) without also offering some strategies for improving the situation.

To be fair, I should certainly point out that this book does make clear how the stereotypes of the "male-dominated, 'traditional classroom'" ("authoritarian," "competitive," and "concerned with...'separate' and rational approaches to learning") vs. the feminist classroom ("democratic," "cooperative," and "concerned with 'connected' and relational...approaches to learning") are oversimplifications, and it does illustrate in a large number of thoroughly explored scenarios the key features of the successful feminist classes observed: taking students' questions and knowledge as a starting point, relying on students' personal experiences in jointly and cooperatively constructing knowledge (vs. treating learning as an individual struggle), and making students and teachers aware of the role which positionality (i.e., all the background factors which determine one's role in society) plays in learning.

The theory behind the interpretation of these findings, of course, comes from already-published research, and Maher and Tetreault clearly have done their homework here, even if they have little new insights to offer; their notes and bibliography are extensive and cover a wide variety of topics in feminist theory and feminist pedagogy. Moreover, their final call for more research into feminist teaching is one I strongly agree with; much more clearly needs to be learned about how to empower females--and many other diverse groups--in the classroom.

In the end, however, I am simply unsure what audience this book was intended for. It seems, on the one hand, too concerned with grounding every analysis in appropriate theory (but only at a general level) for those of us looking for a practical manual on feminist/multicultural teaching. Yet on the other hand, it spends too much time on classroom anecdote and existing theory to be of great interest to those who are already familiar with feminist research and are looking for new insights into feminist pedagogy.

Perhaps faculty who are interested in ethnographic classroom studies would find The Feminist Classroom as fascinating as did those authorities quoted on the back dust jacket. Or perhaps faculty who are unfamiliar with feminist literature and want to gain some background could find The Feminist Classroom enlightening, especially those seeking more resources on feminist pedagogy. Other readers might not find the repetition or inconclusive analyses as irritating as I have.

However, those of us in disciplines outside of women's studies who are looking for hands-on suggestions for building tolerance and diversity into our classroom climates and curricula will do better to locate books with that specific aim. One such might be Theresa Mickey McCormick's Creating the Nonsexist Classroom: A Multicultural Approach (Teachers College Press, 1994), which, according to Patricia P. Kelly's review in The Council Chronicle of NCTE (Feb. 1995), helped her "integrate issues of gender within [her] methods classes in a seamless way so that [the class] discussions [were] connected to theory and practice rather than limited to [the participants'] personal views" (9). It sounds like the next pedagogical text I will be reading.

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