Guest Post: Feminist Pedagogy within Constraints: Teaching Reflective Writing in a UK Higher Education Institution

Dr Cherry Miller
Dr Jenny Morrison

Today’s guest post is by Cherry Miller from University of Helsinki and Jenny Morrison from University of Glasgow.

Assessments are a core area for feminist teaching. Traditional assessments such as the essay or exam can reinforce gendered or other hierarchies in education through favouring ‘masculine’ forms of learning that prioritise disimpassioned objective expression. Thus, feminists have called for greater diversity of assessments in general, and assessments that value the personal alongside the ‘objective’ political in particular. While feminists engage with a range of assessments, the reflective journal (RJ) has become commonplace on feminist courses. 

Nonetheless, research cautions against the assumption that ‘alternative’ assessment automatically fosters more effective learning and teaching. Rather, all academic assessments include implicit expectations and exist within the constraints of the academy. That the reflective journal remains a less familiar – albeit growing – format in higher education means there can be greater uncertainty regarding the expectations of such an assessment. Therefore, we believe the drive to diversify assessments leads to certain tensions for feminist pedagogy.

Feminist Pedagogy

Feminist pedagogies are diverse – and the distinctiveness of such are contested – but tend to argue for empowerment across three facets: engaged pedagogy, the breakdown of hierarchies in the classroom and action-oriented learning. Engaged pedagogy involves engagement both from the teacher and the student and requires ‘teaching in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students…[and providing] the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin’ (hooks 1994, p.13).

Feminists aim to disrupt hierarchies by emphasising the classroom as a space of mutual learning and reflection to which we all bring knowledge. Yet, the difficulties of ameliorating hierarchies are not lost on feminist teachers who operate in an individualised, and marketized, sector where teachers hold institutional power, even if we may wish to reject it. Hierarchies also exist between students and may lead to tensions, shame or guilt that can raise conflicts rather than build solidarity.

Finally, feminist pedagogy is action-oriented, arguing for consciousness-raising. Consciousness-raising is informed by personal experiences and explores contradictions and injustices in societal power structures, captured in the phrase ‘the personal is political’. Consciousness raising aims for collective rather than individual change with an emphasis on lifelong learning. As feminists, we wish students to develop skills to continue engaging in feminist work after they have left our course and after leaving the university.

The Feminist Reflective Journal

We explore the tensions around reflective journals through a case study of a feminist undergraduate honours course – third and fourth year in the Scottish system –  at a Russell Group university. The course is assessed through a reflective journal that involved 4 entries of 400 words, with the first three submitted for formative feedback. Each entry responded to a set prompt such as ‘reflect on gender and capitalism’. Our reflection is based on an analysis of our own formative and summative feedback allowing us to consider how we guided – and constrained – students’ writing. We consider whether the journals reflect the three principles of feminist pedagogy outlined above.

Firstly, the journals showed, mediated, engagement from both ourselves and students. We highlighted much declarative intersectionality with our feedback trying to encourage students to go beyond mere statements of their positionality. A common feedback comment was also ‘we didn’t see much of you in the entry’ perhaps reflecting the difficulties of reflective writing for students who are trained to write essays and exams. We showed our own, engaged, learning moments from their RJ. ‘I especially liked learning about X and its transition from an activist space to a profit-making, consumerist space’. We also engaged affectively and at times lyrically: ‘There were compelling gems of reflective thinking stirred into this piece… e.g. that your family member was pitied for not having a man, not for the amount of care-giving and housework she was doing. The three opportunities for formative feedback also strengthened our engagement with their reflections allowing ongoing dialogue not found in traditional assessment structures.

Secondly, a key tension emerged between our intention to dismantle the hierarchy between student and teacher and our power as markers within the academy. A significant quantity of our feedback focused on academic writing skills with recommendations on focus, structure and referencing. After encouraging students to bring themselves into the entries, we critiqued them for relying on personal opinion:

‘At times you fall into personal opinion rather than personal reflection. While it is acceptable to be more informal in your reflective journal, this remains an academic piece of work and you should not give unsupported opinion’.

Such feedback, particularly when formative, can be positive. Actively teaching the usually unspoken expectations of academic work is a key way to reduce inequalities in education. We also want feminists to be able to communicate their insights effectively, something encouraged in activism as well as academia. However, it illustrates both our power to determine what is ‘good’ reflection and that academic hierarchies are enforced in journals as they are in traditional assessments without necessarily reflecting on which, if any, academic standards are valuable for learning and expressing ideas.

Thirdly, our feedback saw difficulties in connecting changes in understanding – and feelings of guilt – to changes in action. 

‘The example about turning to personal friendships for advice was also excellent. Could this dilemma have been explored further? Are turning to personal friendships consciousness-raising, or individualised responses due to a lack of state provision’? 

In terms of short-term actions, students discussed future structured pieces of writing, such as dissertations. The long-term aim of action-oriented teaching was more measured as not all students saw themselves as political actors and had a lower sense of their own agency. Any one assessment will likely be limited in what it can achieve for this long-term aim. However, institutional realities play a role here given ultimately RJs coincided with grading, which may distract from the broader aim to develop feminist praxis.

Reflecting  forward?

We still believe that the RJ is a valuable feminist assessment tool. However, its ability to drive feminist change is constrained by the institutional realities in which we find ourselves. Some of these constraints could be offset by embedding both feminist thought and reflective writing earlier in the degree programme. This would mean that students would not arrive in later years having to unlearn what they have learnt. Nonetheless, ultimately many of the tensions point to broader constraints of the academy in which grades, rather than learning or the development of praxis, risk becoming the focus for students and teachers alike.

Reference


hooks, b. (1994): Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York: Routledge