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Obstacles to Teaching Feminist Aesthetics
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Joshua Shaw

I was reluctant at first to offer advice on teaching feminism. For one thing, I only recently received my PhD and do not have a lot of experience teaching in this area. But I had a deeper reason for being reluctant. I’m often wary of teaching workshops. It’s not that I dislike teaching, but my sense is that the main obstacles to being a good teacher are often not pedagogical in nature. Most philosophers I know enjoy teaching. The main barrier they face in improving is that heavy teaching loads coupled with the research needed for promotion keeps them from devoting more attention to it. Pedagogical workshops often serve, I worry, to distract us from the larger, institutional obstacles to good teaching.

I was reluctant to advise on teaching feminist aesthetics, then, because my hunch is that the main obstacles to teaching in this area have little to do with teaching itself and more to do with larger, institutional biases against feminism. This still seems right to me, but it is wrong to think that we can do nothing to address these obstacles through our teaching. So what I want to do instead of offering a case study on how to teach feminist aesthetics, which Naomi Zack does admirably in her contribution, is identify what I see as the main obstacles to teaching feminism and offer suggestions for how we can address them in our teaching.

The main obstacle I face in teaching feminism is finding chances to teach it. I teach at a small school; our enrollment is under 4,000. Most of my teaching involves ethics courses that fulfill our students’ general studies requirements. My program was initially reluctant to let me teach feminism because it would not enroll as highly as my typical ethics courses. Now, this situation may seem idiosyncratic, but my sense is that it is not unique. Feminist aesthetics is a doubly underappreciated area. On the one hand, aesthetics is perhaps the least valued branch of philosophy; so aestheticians already face an uphill battle in finding chances to teach specialized courses. On the other hand, feminism is itself undervalued in aesthetics. I recently criticized Peter Lemarque for neglecting to mention feminism in a survey he wrote on trends in aesthetics. The omission is understandable, however, insofar as it reflects a widespread bias that feminism has little philosophic substance to it.

Thus philosophers interested in feminist aesthetics have a doubly hard time convincing their departments to take their interests seriously, and many of us smuggle what little teaching we do on it into other courses. For example, students in my ethics class are often interested in reading material on free speech laws and pornography. I have them read texts by feminist aestheticians on these topics. Another alternative is to teach courses on feminist aesthetics in English departments or women’s studies programs. The problem is that this perpetuates the original difficulty. The original problem was that it’s difficult to get opportunities to teach courses on feminism, let alone feminist aesthetics, because of the bias that they do not belong in philosophy curricula. Teaching in English departments confirms this bias.

The second obstacle I face is convincing students to study feminism. The first worry I heard when I proposed a course on feminism is that it would not enroll. I didn’t take this worry seriously until I began to pitch my course to my students. A surprising number of women students said they would not take it because they did not want to be associated with feminism. Some worried about the caricature of feminists as unfeminine, but more said that they thought of feminists as being close-minded in their myopic focus on railing against men. I should also note that these criticisms were raised by bright, engaged students who had defended feminist claims in my ethics courses. Their reluctance to study feminism was surprising because they seemed to be feminists at heart yet balked at the label.

How might we respond to these obstacles?

There is no easy solution to the first: we must simply plug away at convincing colleagues that feminism is worth taking seriously. That said, there are respected debates in aesthetics where feminists can make contributions. Consider the surge in interest in the junction of ethics and aesthetics. Feminists have grappled with the key puzzles of this burgeoning field since feminism became a self-conscious movement in aesthetics. Let me give an example. Consider the recent debates over what we should make of works that lead us to identify with immoral characters. One could argue that aestheticians have tended to adopt an overly black-or-white approach by assuming that we either completely identify with them or completely reject them. Now, contrast this with Susan Bordo’s approach in Unbearable Weight, where she is at pains to do justice to women’s complex relationships to high-fashion representations of women, where identifying with these representations can be at once both a source of empowerment for women as well as an act of colluding in institutions that maintain their disempowerment. How might this more nuanced, ambivalent analysis of identification be put to use in the former debates? One strategy for improving the reputation of feminist aesthetics, then, would be to teach courses that expressly focus on identifying contributions feminists might make to debates in aesthetics that are becoming popular, such as the cluster of puzzles that emerge at the intersection of ethics and aesthetics.

I have a few suggestions with respect to the second dilemma. Again, several of my students said they were reluctant to study feminism because they viewed it as dogmatic. I can assure them this impression is false and they will have a chance to see how varied it can be is if they take my course, but I have opted for different strategy in piquing their interests.

I have invited them to collaborate with me in designing my next course on feminism. I recently contacted students who expressed either hostility or mixed-feelings about feminism to ask for their advice, and I have begun conducting interviews to get a sense of their understanding of feminism, its shortcomings, and to collect ideas on how to improve my syllabus and make my course more interesting. The idea behind this approach is to undermine my students’ sense of feminism as dogmatic by being open-minded, by letting them air their worries and be explicitly incorporating them into my teaching. My further hope is that this will give them a vested interest in my course’s success. Having helped me design a course on feminism, and critiques of it, they will have a vested interest in seeing it succeed, which will make them more likely to enroll and actively participate in it.

2005 © Joshua Shaw

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