Teaching Theories of Gender, Race, and Literary and Expressive Culture
Maxine Krenzel, Chy Sprauve, Anna Zeemont
In Cathy Davidson and Michael Gillespie's course "Teaching Race and Gender Theory in the Undergraduate Humanities Classroom," our group was assigned the task of creating lesson plans and student-centered learning activities that engaged both literary and expressive culture through the teaching of the following texts: Claudia Rankine's Citizen and Sarah Ahmed's How To Live A Feminist Life. In the following blog post, you will find several lesson plans and activities we designed to make these rich and also difficult texts come to life for our students. Following the lesson plans, you will also find a brief dialogue between the three of us, reflecting on the assignment and the process of collaborative teaching as well as learning.
Part 1: Have students draw their feelings (will need blank paper and (optional) color pens/pencils)
- Open ended prompt: draw how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking about.
- Play Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair" while drawing
- Take volunteers to share their drawings and what inspired them
- Briefly reflect on the purpose of using drawing in the classroom
Part 2: Free write (Maxine leads)
"It wasn’t a match, I say. It was a lesson."
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is hard to categorize. As a text, it cannot be pinned down by a single genre or mode of writing: Rankine weaves poetry, prose, essays, paintings, photographs, and scripts together and into a single work. Thinking through Citizen as a text that inspires learning—as a text that announces itself as “a lesson” (159)—we can also think of Citizen as offering a theory of pedagogy.
Take a moment to free-write about the following questions: if Citizen was a teaching guide, what would its pedagogy be? How would Citizen think about the process of learning? What can we learn from not just the content, but also the structure of the text? How does the inclusion of different genres and modes of expression affect its pedagogy?
* * * * *
Part 3: Close Reading activity (Anna leads)
“if we start with our experiences of becoming feminists not only might we have another way of generating feminist ideas, but we might generate new ideas about feminism . . . Ideas would not be something generating through distance, a way of abstracting something from something, but from our involvement in a world that often leaves us, frankly, bewildered . . . trying to describe something that is difficult, that resists being fully comprehended in the present.” (Ahmed 12)
“Even as I have labored in this way, I have noticed . . . signs of not quite being able to admit a difficulty . . . when I discuss some of my own experiences of sexual violence and harassment, I keep using you and not me, allowing the second person pronoun to give me some distance. I tried putting in me after it was written, but that me felt too strained, and I let the you stay but with qualification. Feminism: it can be a strain. This strain is evident as tension in this text, sometimes revealed as a confusion of pronouns and personas; a tension between telling my own story of becoming feminist, being a diversity worker, handling what you come up against, and making more general reflections about worlds.” (Ahmed 14)
In pairs, select a passage of text from the first half of Citizen that interests, confuses or excites you in its formal or aesthetic choices. Then, close read the passage, writing down observations with your partner that you can share back with the class. We will come back as a group to read and discuss everyone’s chosen passages.
As you work through your close reading, you are welcome to think through the following questions to get started or if you get stuck (though you certainly do not have to):
- How could you read your passage through or against the Ahmed quotations above?
- Who is the passage addressing? Who might be the imagined audience of the passage?
- What type of reading experience, textual engagement, or pedagogy does your passage encourage? Would you consider your passage to be didactic?
- How does your passage depict violence?
- When do you think your passage is taking place? Does it use repetition or otherwise connect to other passages within the book?
- Who/what is/are the subject(s) of your passage? How does the speaker position herself in relation to these subject(s)?
- How might you characterize the implied narrator/author of the passage? What type of tone/language does the narrator use?
- Where do you see Rankine herself fitting into the passage?
PART 4: Dramatic Reading & Discussion of Microaggressions (Chy leads)
“Not About” Swaying.
My tears stupid?
The swaying of her body,
back and forth,
to the rhythm of his fall
How trepidatiously she held
righteousness’s hand that day.
get to have a say bout what feels real
valves are the only things
you can’t quantify and extrapolate data from Because you wanna look at vandalism accessorized by
a state-sanctioned nihilism use that as an excuse to vilify waking and moving people
My tears stupid? Not that. Not
again. You don’t get to do that
again To use My vulnerability as an excuse to commit murder.
My openness in this field of blood
We believe despite what history has shown us.
in spite of
being strong-armed into tailor-made pipelines
That just not good enough for you?
You want more?
reck-less. The way in which
starched ironed shirts from us
The way in which you demand that we
fold our arms and legs into ourselves as we walk.
How you talk
some of us into believing that we somehow biologically unsuited for love.
because you kick us outta class.
’cause we loud (read: restless)
’cause our clothes (read: expression)
’cause we shoot (read: escape)
’cause we shoot (read: escape)
’cause anything but capable of contradiction we an
we an abandoned prototype
too hard. some of us try
too hard to shape our bodies into custom-fitted buoys and large-breasted caterers
still some of us,
not wearing those starched shirts, are forced into those pipelines, so painstakingly created by those that would have us be a whisper of a scent on this Western skin
‘Cause we lawless.
‘Cause we sideshow.
‘Cause we express our boredom too ostentatiously in that room,
tightened by all those damn desks
Can’t breathe with all those desks.
throwing a lifeline out
to those young men that be choking on the hot air in that room
You tell us,
with the conviction and angst of a swelling, Southern mob
the rhythm of our swaying bodies is not held up by
any applicable data.
-You (irresponsible television news journalist)
ask her (black woman who lost a son / partner/ father)
questions (Do you feel for those who do not feel for you? How long do we have to give you cursory condolences?)
you wouldn’t fathom asking her (any white woman, anywhere).
-He (our Black president, seemingly drowning in studies
upon studies that analyze structural racism)
full earshot of the American public,
that Micah Xavier and the man who murdered
black Charleston churchgoers had the
same kind of hate in their hearts.
-On Facebook, black people plead endlessly for
and disparage “militants.”
-I look into the eyes of every black boy I see on the street.
I wish them a forcefield.
Part / section I of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen explores microaggressions. Per professor Derald Sue, microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Reading this section inspired me to think back on various microaggressions performed against me as well as people who look like me in the world.
I wrote the poem “‘Not About’ Swaying” when I was working through what Mike Brown’s mother might have felt when media personalities and others began questioning, it seemed, the very veracity of the notion that Mike Brown had a right to life. This is, to me, both a microaggression and an aggressively violent practice of erasure that appears to be commonplace when black people are victims of racially charged / racially motivated crimes.
When the families of murdered or otherwise abused black people express fury, anger, or sadness over their murdered or injured loved one, reporters seem to pick apart their reactions. If a family member seems angry or vengeful, some reporters use that as an opportunity to disparage the family or the victim, or otherwise shame the party. It is as if black people are not allowed the space to express a full range of natural, human emotions (when their loved one is murdered by a seemingly racist police force—or, at the very least, by a police force employing practices that disproportionately target black people) when their loved ones are the targets of state-sanctioned violence. These sorts of criticisms function as a kind of psychic violence against black people who have already been harmed by the state’s often violent disciplining practices.
Both poems speak to the media’s role in performing psychic violence against black people who have suffered at the hands of the criminal justice system. However, “the facts” also addresses the lingual violences that black people have performed against other black people, in the form of tone policing. Finally, the last line in “the facts” describes the helplessness often felt by those who have been overburdened with both racialized “micro” and macroaggressions. The only thing the speaker can do in “the facts” is wish for the black boys seen on the street to be protected.
How might we speak to our students about microaggressions? Do we have to speak directly to microaggressions if and when we choose speak about it or is a discussion of stressors in general also a viable way of examining microaggressions with students?
How did Rankine’s exploration of microaggressions speak to you, if at all? Perhaps you might write a creative response to a section of her text.
 Chy Sprauve, “‘Not About’ Swaying,” last modified June 18, 2015, chy-sprauve.com/portfolio/swaying/.
 “Pipelines” are an important visual in “‘Not About’ Swaying” because of the imagery of both literally and figuratively being forced into pipelines. Pipelines are also a reference to the “school-to-prison pipeline” so often mentioned when discussing criminal justice.
 Chy Sprauve, “the facts,” last modified August 28, 2016, chy-sprauve.com/2016/08/28/facts/.
 Heben Nigatu, “21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis,” Buzzfeed, last modified December 9, 2013, https://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/racial-microagressions-you-hear-on-a-da....
 Some argue that the term “microaggression” minimizes the sometimes very painful indignities that members of marginalized communities contend with. Because the term “microaggression” is somewhat commonly understood now, however, I choose to use this terminology here.
 “Tone policing (or tone trolling or tone argument or tone fallacy) is an antidebate appeal based on genetic fallacy, which attempts to detract from the validity of a statement by attacking the tone rather than the message.” (Wikipedia, s.v. “Tone policing,” last modified Dec 22, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tone_policing).
Part 1: Start with free-write we didn’t get to last week: What kind of learning does Citizen inspire? (Maxine leads)
a. Play “Weary” by Solange in the background
b. Students share back & discuss responses
- Relatedly: brainstorm and discuss lesson(s) or idea(s) people might have to teach Citizen to their undergrad students.
Part 2: Dialogue with Sara Ahmed (Maxine and Anna lead)
This dialogue was printed on a handout and given to each student to fill in...
While reading bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress, we saw how the practice and performance of an interview—whether you are interviewing yourself, a mentor, or a friend—is an important part of a feminist pedagogy. Feminist thinkers and teachers like bell hooks and Sara Ahmed understand that a feminist community should offer a place where not one, but multiple voices can be heard and spoken. Sara Ahmed writes, “Feminism as a collective movement is made out of how we are moved to become feminists in dialogue with others. A movement requires us to be moved” (5). (The second-person voice and questioning form of Rankine’s Citizen might speak to this too.) Engaging in a dialogue with each other is crucial to developing a feminist pedagogy and practice. In the spirit of feminist conversation, we have created a space for dialogue in our own classroom.
SA: “What do you hear when you hear the word feminism? It is a word that fills me with hope, with energy” (1).
MK: I love that Ahmed begins Living a Feminist Life by asking what we hear when we hear the word feminism. It becomes more and more apparent throughout her text that the act of listening is part of living a feminist life. Her response to her own question is also so significant; she immediately brings in the importance of feminism as “sensational,” or calling up embodied and felt responses to our environments. What do you hear when you hear the word “feminism”? What feelings does the word bring up? Do any particular passages in the text come to mind where you felt your understanding of feminism changed, inspired, or challenged?
SA: “Feminism needs to be everywhere because feminism is not everywhere. Where is feminism? It is a good question. We can ask ourselves: where did we find feminism, or where did feminism find us? . . . I ask ‘from where?’ but also ‘from whom?’ From whom did I find feminism?” (4).
MK: Sara Ahmed talks about moments in her life when someone or something revealed a struggle to be at home in the world. Thinking back to the story Ahmed tells about herself in conversation with her auntie, Gulzar Bano, who she describes as one of her first “feminist teachers,” I want us to think a little bit more about what it means to be a feminist teacher. Have you had any person in your life who you consider a “feminist teacher”? Has there been a moment in your education—maybe in our class, maybe while reading Ahmed’s text—that has helped make feminism part of your life? What about that experience made learning and thinking about feminism possible?
SA: “In this book I want to think of feminist theory too as homework, as a way of rethinking how feminist theory originates and where it ends up. What is this thing called feminist theory?” (7)
AZ: Ahmed (as well as hooks, Rankine, Christian, and others scholars we’ve encountered) questions what we think of as a theory -- what is or is not theory, where theory takes place, who writes theory, it relationship with the academy, etc.
How might you answer Ahmed’s question: “What is this thing called feminist theory?” How do you see Ahmed defining or questioning “theory” as a genre”? What experiences have you had with feminist theory as student? As a teacher? What is the value of using feminist theory in the classroom?
SA: “If a world can be what we learn not to notice, noticing becomes a form of political labor. What do we learn not to notice?” (32)
“Documentation is a feminist project; a life project. When did you begin to put the pieces together? . . . Feminism is DIY: a form of self-assembly . . . Becoming feminist: how we redescribe the world we are in.” (26-27)
AZ: This reminds of the processes of “self-actualization” that hooks describes in Teaching to Transgress as a goal for both teachers and students participating in an “engaged” pedagogy. For hooks, engaged pedagogy “seeks to transform consciousness, to provide students with ways of knowing that enable them to know themselves better and live in the world more fully” (194) and, relatedly, frames the classroom as a "space of possibility” (12).
How can we support students in “putt[ing] pieces together,” “self-assembl[ing],” or “redescrib[ing[ the world we are in”? How can we enable students in the process of “notic[ing]” structures that they may have “learn[ed] not to notice”? What sorts of activities or projects have you done in your classes, experienced as a student, or heard about that could enable this sort of self-actualization?
Part 3: Creating a class toolbox / feminist killjoy survival kit (Chy leads)
“The materials are books, yes, but they are also spaces of encounter; how we are touched by things; how we touch things. I think of feminism as a fragile archive, a body assembled from shattering, from splattering, an archive whose fragility gives us responsibility: to take care.”[1 Ahmed]
I hope this text finds you well. I hope that you have texts that help you into wellness. Let us work on building something together. You do not need to know; take what speaks to you. Also, take what rattles you. Drop things that hurt too much when you need to.
This is a thing: don’t let anyone but you regulate what you can carry.
And so, we begin:
- How can we create a (physical?) space for feminist documentation?
- Or, we will create a space for feminist documentation.
- What objects touch you (in the classroom and beyond)? What do you wear to remind you to take care (is it a protective armor, like a sharp blazer or coat, or a gem you chant with)?
- Why are some archives just so strong, while ours (our feminist, our black-brown-other-archive) is a loose bundle of threads?
- The need demand to document; to bear witness.
- The need demand for strategic essentialism.
- The need demand to discover the questions the answers hide.
- If we don’t document, they don’t remember. And we don’t remember (remember what?).
- There is something to be said for mis-remembering and for forgetting. This is an art.
- Just what exactly are we responsible for when we talk about putting together the fragile archive? There can be pressure to do this right.
- We can come apart but still be as pointed (sharp tools: think Audre Lorde) as we want to be. Maybe this is a requirement. (Are there requirements?)
- Teaching as a fragile archive. Bent records as pedagogy. Celebrate the breaking!
- Let us work with our archive all the time. In love and in friendship. And at dinners. We can dance while we teach. It can be fun. We can make our theories move.
- This container, this box, must be flexible, limber, nimble. To account for all things in a feminist’s experience. To account for failings. To account for a learning curve. Learning curves. Learning curves are a thing.
- Curve this box just so, then.
- Let us come undone!
Please think of the exercise below as a ritual or practice. A feminist ritual. Or a becoming-feminist ritual. Or a coming-to-feminism ritual.
- Are there any quotes, people, books, objects, memories, that make you feel at home as a practicing feminist? Or as a coming-to-feminism practitioner?
- Are there any objects you reach for again and again in the classroom?
- Is there any practice, object of clothing, pattern of speech, that you employ / use in the classroom to establish trust and / or pattern(s) in the classroom?
- What things do you hold on to in your life and in the classroom? Tactile things. Things you touch. What do you touch that brings you joy, makes you feel strong? Sensational things.
ACTION: Please write and / or describe any of the above things and put them in the box (on the table; the box below is yours). So, at the end of this session, we will have a toolbox to work with.
You might think of the above space as your own personal toolbox or a practicing box. Whatever it is, it is for you.
 Ahmed, Sara (2017-01-13). Living a Feminist Life (Kindle Locations 411-413). Duke University Press. Kindle Edition.
 “We think not just with our brains but with our bodies…and our thought processes are based on physical experiences that set off associated abstract concepts…[I]t appears that those experiences include the clothes we wear.” (Sandra Blakeslee, “Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat,” The New York Times, March 6, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/03/science/clothes-and-self-perception.html.)
 In his essay, “On the Creative Process,” essayist and novelist James Baldwin exhorts artists to expose the “questions the answer hides.” (James Baldwin, “On the Creative Process,” James Baldwin: Collected Essays: Notes of a Native Son / Nobody Knows My Name / The Fire Next Time / No Name in the Street / The Devil Finds Work / Other Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (Library of America, 1998), 670.)
 What might “they” forget?
 You (I) don’t always want to think about all of these heavy, breaking things. Sometimes you (I) want to pretend. Pretending can be self-care. Make-believe is not just for children. The sensational can also be protective.
 “[C]ome celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” (Lucille Clifton, “Won’t you celebrate with me,” 1993.)
 See: Solange, A Seat at The Table, Saint Records/Columbia, 2016.
 Might you use a toolbox in your own classes? Or, do you already have something of a toolbox? If you do have a toolbox (or something like it), how do you ask your students to take care of it? How does it represent a fragile archive (if it does at all)?
Chy: On the material → I was really inspired by how art can be a useful entry point into discussions concerning often fraught topics like race and gender. I was also moved by Sara Ahmed’s prose and encouraged to embrace affect as a viable form of pedagogy. Focusing, for instance, on things like style and aesthetic are not secondary or marginal, rather, they can undergird and focus a discussion. I am taken with objects and the affective power they can have in the classroom. I am incredibly inspired by our toolkit. Healing can be a part of one’s pedagogy. Being psychically fortified by the members of your classroom--be it colleagues or students--can be a part of one’s work as a pedagogue. I am fascinated by the tactility and the glamour, if you will, of the object (let’s say, again, for instance, the toolkit). Taking the time to examine the shape and texture of something--truly engaging one’s senses in an examination of an object--is an important educational act. We can appreciate glamour and still be critical, engaged pedagogues. When I talk about glamour, I am referring to the fantastic, the marvelous--the unspeakable. What is it about looking at something beautiful (be it a decorated toolkit or a line of Claudia Rankine’s prose) that moves us? What does it do to (notice I did not say “for”) us? And why are we sometimes afraid to engage this as pedagogues (and students)? What does holding an object in our hands do to us? How does that tactility engage our senses? Why does it? I truly have been moved by both Ahmed and Rankine’s prose and have been inspired to continue looking for the “fantastic” in our pedagogical work.
On our group → Working as a team felt comfortable. I felt we all focused on things that interested us and I appreciated how open our group was to perhaps what some might consider “non-traditional” pedagogical practices--drawing, listening to music in class, etc. I think we considered what we wrote on our cards about an ideal working group. Sometimes our activities ran a bit long, and we were not able to complete all of our tasks, but this is a very real reality for most teachers, I think. I also learned (or re-learned, rather) that our plans as pedagogues are often very ambitious, and we must accept the fact that not everything gets done (thinking about “failure” again--see post on F.I. blog). Co-teaching was fun and also educational--I can keep our successes and not-successes in mind as I plan and teach.
Anna: Like Chy, I am captivated and inspired by how both the Rankine and Ahmed made a case for the importance of the narrative, the personal, and the affective when it comes to issues which might on the surface seem like we could think through them in a purely “academic,” “theoretical” sense. This brings me back, too, to the Barbara Christian, in her assertion that there are alternative, equally valid forms of theorizing outside of what we might call “academic theory.”
Indeed, in a similar vein to what Chy notes, it seems to me that there is sometimes pressure within academic discourse (and by extension, the classrooms we teach in--per bell hooks) to avoid the sensual, personal, or aesthetic. I also tend to feel some pressure within the academy to examine texts and create classrooms that cater to a very specific type of “rigor”--one that’s centered on using jargon, avoiding subjectivity, mostly is text-based (i.e. doesn’t integrate other types of literacies such as drawing, movement, etc.) Through both their form and content, Ahmed and Rankine suggest that the personal can be (or perhaps always is) theoretically rigorous. I think we tried to keep these things in mind in crafting our in-class activities, as well.
Maxine: In the planning stages of my group’s presentation, I realized that this project marked the first instance in graduate school where I have had the chance to collaborate with my friends/colleagues. Outside of class discussion, the bulk of the work I have completed so far has been more or less independent work. I’m thinking of the solitary nature of the seminar paper, response paper, or more standard seminar presentation. The opportunity to work with my group on a project that explored Rankine’s Citizen and Sarah Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life helped me understand more deeply the importance of collaboration as a creative endeavor as well as part of a feminist pedagogy. Chy, I love how you say that a teaching community can be healing and “fortifying”; that building a community with these restorative capacities is precisely the work we have to do as teachers. I certainly felt that playing around with different ways of presenting our material was a creative and experimental practice that helped me to be more comfortable taking risks with my lessons. I think we so often write and think and present our ideas without collaboration, which I think can make us too careful as students and teachers and scholars. I want to take more creative risks in my classroom, and I want to continue to find ways to be playful about teaching by collaborating with my students and other teachers.
Thinking of Citizen and Living a Feminist Life as multi-vocal pieces of writing—they each include and invite multiple voices onto their pages—shaped my approach to teaching them. I was very happy I had the chance to think more with our class around the idea of how the form of a text can inspire its teaching. I think particularly when approaching a text like Citizen, which offers many different directions in terms of how to teach it, allowing our “students” to lead the discussion by choosing what they found to be important was a very generative. Handing off authority to students also demonstrates an important trust and breaking down of the student/teacher hierarchy.
I also am so happy that my group experimented with using dialogue not just in terms of discussion, but also as a written activity. I was so inspired by bell hooks’s use of the interview form in Teaching to Transgress and thought that tracing the importance of interviewing/written dialogue between different writers would offer an important continuity in our class for us to explore. Writing together, as I see it, is also part of a feminist practice that builds community through dialogue; I hope to continue to find ways to create more dialogue between myself, my students, my friends, and my colleagues. I also had to let-go of some of the disappointment around not being able to do everything my group had wanted to do. I agree with Chy that, as teachers, we certainly need to expect that we cannot always do or say everything we want to do or say. But again, thinking of our classroom and individual classes as cumulative--their meaning building over time--is something that not only takes the pressure off of time constraints, but, again, lends a certain degree of trust to our students that they will take what they want from our teaching, and bring that with them beyond the classroom.
Chy: Yes, I agree Maxine, working in the academy can be very solitary. I would also say that it can be lonely. Do we talk about loneliness in the academy (enough)? Scholarship can be collaborative and can be a source of healing and strength. I am thinking of teaching as a life practice, or as a life philosophy. Also, thinking of our classes as cumulative does help when we might feel frustrated about not completing an assignment. That’s really helpful.
Anna: Ditto to all of the above. What a pleasure it was to work with both of you! I felt grateful that we were all excited to take risks, experiment with/against more “traditional” approaches to pedagogy, and play with the dialogue form. I learned so much from both of you--I plan to take a lot of the activities we tried out in the course and bring them into my writing and English classes at John Jay.
Moreover, as you both say, the academy can indeed be an isolating place--we can feel isolated from each other as scholars, as well as teachers (for instance, I had no real sense of Chy or Maxine’s teaching philosophies until working with them). I agree with Maxine that writing together--as well as teaching together--can be a feminist practice: it works against or challenges the competitive, neoliberal/corporate, patriarchal structure of the traditional university.
I want to continue to work through all of this with both of you and others once this class ends, but am still figuring out where and how we can do that. In the spirit of Ahmed, I want to find space in the academy for feminist solidarity--even when it feels like the structure of the university might be directly at odds with creating this sort of radical, collaborative, and/or feminist space.