The 13th Annual Women’s & Gender History Symposium—theme: “Indecency”—went swimmingly. This is my fourth(!) year helping to organize the conference, and for the first time, a number of excellent undergraduates proposed papers. And so—in addition to happily accepting them to present—my Programming Committee co-chair, Ashley Hetrick, and I organized a roundtable discussion about women’s and gender history in undergraduate education.
With the invaluable assistance of all of the Symposium Executive Committee (and especially co-coordinators Emily Pope-Obeda and Scott Harrison), the roundtable ran today, and was, I think, remarkably productive. It consisted of seven extraordinary undergraduate students: Laura Stamm (Grinnell College), Robin Wetherill (Grinnell College), Christian Loggins (Grinnell College), Jasmine Newby (Michigan State University), Jessica Newby (Michigan State University), Maggie Lusher (University of Illinois), and Alexa Beller (University of Illinois). They included History, Anthropology, African American & African Studies, and Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies majors.
The panel began with the participants speaking briefly about their own experiences in response to some general questions: What first brought you to gender as an analytical category and women’s experiences as a subject of study? How has gender fit into your history education (or history in your gender studies education)? What pedagogical techniques have most helped you approach gender?
The participants then engaged in a lively discussion with the audience, which included other presenters, as well as faculty and graduate students from across the University of Illinois campus.
What I want to do here is just record some of the wonderful, insightful ideas the undergrads raised in the quest to think about (and perhaps even improve) our pedagogy and promote further engagement with gender and women’s history in the college classroom.
- Talk about gender more often. One history and painting double-major, contrasted her experiences discussing gender in History courses with parallel experiences in her Art History classes. Where women and gender only occasionally entered the stage of many History classes, popping up now and then for a single lecture then fading away, her Art History professors draw attention to gender regularly and frequently. Allowing gender to thereby “permeate” the conversation, her Art History classes better familiarized students with the terms for and stakes of taking it seriously as a constitutive part of the past and the present.
- Be self-conscious about representations. Another contrast with Art History—which confronts highly visible representations by disciplinary necessity—inspired a discussion about being even more conscious and explicit about primary historical sources as representations.
- Play with the narrative. When asked what kinds of techniques might be welcome in rethinking how to teach gender history, multiple participants encouraged, in various ways, a flexible approach to chronology and narrative. From a variety of directions, these participants called on professors to be open to patterns, repetitions, connections, and constructions that frustrate easy narration or straightforward timelines. We might more frequently make connections between our own moment and those under study, for example, or draw attention to the ways that stereotypes, assumptions, and oppressions seem to echo across time. (What makes certain ways of thinking so stubborn? we might ask.) Being even more explicit, too, about the construction of the narrative of the course and of the historiography on which it draws might also be helpful on this front, another participant added.
- Quickly engage offensive or insensitive comments. Asked how professors should handle the offensive, or at least problematic or ignorant, statements that come up with some frequency in the gender-focused classroom. The students all agreed that such statements should be quickly dealt with, in order to avoid souring the classroom environment for those at whom the statements might be (implicitly or explicitly) directed. Multiple participants suggested actually making such statements—and the ideologies that underpin them—the actual focus of class discussion, asking students to try to understand, analyze, and unpack them and their historical underpinnings.
- Crosslist and connect to other fields. One audience-member asked how professors might use gender history to influence the thinking and lives of students not planning on attending graduate school in related fields (our panelists were, after all, a rather exceptional bunch). From their experiences and from conversations with peers in advance of the roundtable, several reported that cross-listing courses into perhaps unexpected programs might help attract new students and open new pedagogical possibilities (a History/Gender Studies/Pre-Law course on the history of family law, perhaps, or a History/Gender Studies/Kinesiology on the history of masculinity in sport). Also, drawing frequent and explicit connection between course materials and the historical and present practice of various professions—from medicine to accounting to law to advertising—could help students integrate the intellectual work of gender history into the way they imagine their future lives.
- Make the omnipresent unfamiliar. On the topic of bringing contemporary popular culture into the gender history classroom, several participants highlighted how useful this can be for making the connections to the present discussed above. We might take a contemporary song, in one example, and pulling it apart to reveal the formal borrowings, influences, citations, and allusions that mark its relationship to music history while, at the same time drawing attention to the ideological history that also influenced it. This tactic is also related to another participant’s suggestion, which is to push students to read and reread and reread a familiar popular artifact from different perspectives, until that rereading calls forth new interpretations. This is a strategy for understanding how seemingly common-sensical gendered assumptions work in all sorts of historical contexts, so starting with popular culture might be a good place to begin.
- Teach intersectionally. Most of the participants repeatedly urged teachers of gender history to remember and be open and explicit about the fact that the history of gender is also and at the same time the history of race, class, nation, empire, religion, geography, and other categories. Many had, of course, taken classes that were premised on such intersectionality, but the participants wanted to see it happen more often in more general history courses. (By not relegating gender to a week and race to another, this would, for example, help achieve the goals of the first bullet above, especially.)
- Teach the history of the present. Inspired by helpful comments by our keynote speaker, Judith Surkis, the participants pondered how women’s and gender history might help reinvigorate the discipline of history as a whole. The participants reiterated their interest in seeing historical scholarship and pedagogy be self-consciously about the history and the present—or, perhaps, what Surkis reminded us Foucault called the history of the present. This would, a number suggested, help remind us of the political origins and potential continued political force of women’s and gender history and studies.
These are only brief sketches from an rich conversation, but I think they offer us many new ideas for teaching the history of women and gender. I, for one, am looking forward to thinking through them some more—and putting them into practice in my own classes.
NOTE: The symposium poster above includes art by by the incredibly talented Eszter Sàpi. You can see more of her work here.