by Anastasia Kayiatos, Slavic
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2010
Problem. At its utopian center, feminist theory holds a “dream of a common language for women,” in Donna Haraway’s words, the antidote to Western phallogocentrism and its attendant epistemologies. But what does that mean to the college freshman? And what in the world is phallogocentrism?! More simply, I explain to the students in GWS 10, Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies, feminist theory challenges us to think outside of our customary categories of knowledge. By realigning the way we see the world, feminism brings new things into view, and these formerly unnoticed things often lack names or require renaming in order to remain in our sights. Students encounter a lot of new vocabulary in the GWS classroom: some scholars on our syllabus coin new terms (“phallogocentrism”) or create new idioms (“compulsory heterosexuality” or “strategic essentialism”); others place a heavy conceptual load on familiar words (“discourse” or “intersection”). As the students of the introductory course (many of them first-years) sift through these dense texts (for many, their first brushes with theory), it is easy for them to feel alienated by the language. As their section leader, my job is to make sure they know that feminist theory’s difficult lexicon is not an exercise in esotericism designed to disempower them. On the contrary, I strive to demonstrate throughout the semester, feminist scholars invent new vocabulary with a deliberate political aim of empowerment.
Approach. In order to empower the students in their grasp and application of feminist vocabulary, I tasked them with maintaining a weekly “common language journal” into which they entered brief, original definitions of a minimum of two key terms that they had identified as crucial to the most recent readings. This ongoing exercise laid emphasis on the process of understanding as much as the result of being able to coherently restate another scholar’s concepts in their own words. The “common language” definitions often structured participation in section discussions and served as the conceit for many instances of group-work. In one repeated exercise, groups of four shared their individually crafted definitions and then selected one student entry to collectively work through during the period. The group discussed and debated the term for fifteen minutes, reasoning through its contexts, applications, and limitations. Finally, each group shared their well considered and stylistically refined definitions with the reconvened class, which offered up another round of constructive criticism. I entered the individual and class-approved definitions into a master-copy of the GWS glossary after each week’s sections. I kept the most up-to-date master-copy on the class bSpace site where the students could continuously access it. They reported having referred to it frequently to prepare for lecture and section, and they were especially grateful for its availability when midterm and final examinations were scheduled and papers came due.
Assessment. By semester’s end, the ongoing keyword assignment culminated in a collaborative dictionary co-authored by 50 students comprising more than 60 pages and hundreds of entries and subentries arranged alphabetically. On the last day of section I passed around a hard copy of the document, which I emailed to them that day as a pdf. The students were astonished to see the sheer heft and conceptual sophistication of the work they’d accomplished together throughout the semester. They were proud of themselves and impressed with each other. The Collaborative Glossary of Feminist Terms oriented the students’ introductory encounters with new and dense theoretical material; enabled their assimilation of difficult concepts by filling in the larger context of gender theory; enriched, informed, and inspired their out-of-class writing assignments; operated as a study guide and a retrospective overview of the curriculum; and organized foundational material covered in the introductory class for those students continuing on in the department as minors or majors, and for those pursuing feminist analysis in other disciplines. I still receive emails from GWS 10 students who are using and even adding to the glossary to this day!