From "Why Don't We Offer ..." to Teaching Global Feminism This Year

Watching Kaljah's music video, a feminist remake of Timbaland's Carry Out ft Justin Timberlake. Kelsey, on screen, is the one with her head down. Sometime last fall, a couple of students asked me why we don't offer any classes on women's leadership. First, it's a privilege to teach in a public school where questions like these can be taken seriously and acted on (we also offer classes like Activist Art, HIV/AIDS and Philosophy), and second, why don't we offer any classes on women's leadership?

I'd been aware of Half the Sky for some time, and began to think about that book as a way of grounding a new class in global women's rights and leadership. I've now taught four sections of Global Feminism with about 100 kids since January, and the 8-week course is generally organized like this:

~ 2 weeks: Examine our own understanding of feminism and sexism in the United States; read Audre Lorde, bell hooks and others; what does "global feminism" mean, and how do we think about that in the context of cultural relativism? ~ 3-4 weeks: 1 week on each of three themes (gender-based violence, women's health, and trafficking/prostitution), combined with watching the Half the Sky documentary, discussing the book, and contrasting with case studies in the United States (like the rape case in Steubenville, OH) ~2-3 weeks: Final project, which asks students to respond to the problems/themes in the class in some way (examples include funding a classroom library of feminist books; writing a research paper on gender and toys; launching a girls cross country team in the fall; designing and silk screening a t-shirt line; and creating a feminist music video, among others)

Really amazing, successful things:

  • Student feedback has been quite positive - and if not positive, then very useful. ("It was honestly one of the most serious and life-changing classes that I have ever taken here at the iSchool" ... "I do suggest that we go to trips to learn more, talk to feminist groups and do more activities outside of class."
  • The class was a space to share stories and experiences that are otherwise invisible. Throughout the course, students would talk about moments when they really connected with these (difficult) themes and I realized that there are very few occasions where we can talk about, say, street harassment in the classroom.
  • The final projects truly allowed students to investigate feminism from different perspectives and in different mediums.

Less successful things:

  • The structure of the final project is too flexible and poorly-defined for some students, and that resulted in some projects that lacked specificity or difficulty.
  • Students did 2-3 brief research presentations on a country of their choice to respond to the themes that we were discussing, and I/we saw a lot of value in the presentation itself (design of slides, confidence, etc) but I don't think we got much from the content of the presentations.
  • I think that calling oneself a feminist is also an announcement that one is actively anti-sexist - which means, for example, that I don't think you can call yourself a feminist and also affectionately call your friends "bitches." I know that the same students who were talking about patriarchy might also have been drawing penis graffiti for fun. How do we assimilate our words into our way of being?

So, what's next?

Based on student feedback and my own feeling that there's just way more here than we were able to touch on, I'm going to change this from being a 27-hour "global history elective" to a 60-hour "module" in September 2013. We'll be able to go in greater depth, and will also have time to plan some sort of conference/event for January 2014 that builds on the questions that have come out of the class. I want to do more trips and host speakers, which is something that Morgane and Allison worked on for their final project. I want to possibly do away with the presentations, and instead ask students to read Half the Sky with a friend or family member and document or share the conversations that they have. I want to build on Chanel and Medina's NYC iMakers project (inspired by MAKERS) and have us all do an ethnographic project with women in our lives. I want us to make our way through the new feminism library, built by this year's classes. And .. we'll see!