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How I Engage Difference in the Classroom as a Gender Studies Professor

What are the advantages of diversity in the classroom at Georgetown? This is a question we still have to address in 2018, as the value of diversity is always being challenged. Once we build our argument for diversity’s advantages—that diversity uses difference to seek commonality, that diversity strengthens institutional identity, that diversity is the embodiment of our Jesuit values, especially of cura personalis (care for the whole person)—we see that as professors we are forwarding Georgetown’s mission by engaging difference in the classroom.

In this essay I discuss tactics specific to the discipline of gender studies in religion and the methods I use to engage difference with intentionality and integrity. 

Subvert the Paradigm

Challenging unconscious assumptions is critical to engaging power dynamics inherent in the world of gender. In my gender courses Politics of Gender in World Religions and Feminist Theology, I have students start with Gayatri Spivak’s seminal article “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Spivak attacks the idea that oppressed voices can be accessed using the tools of the system of oppression. Her case study is the Indian practice of sati, a rare but real Indian cultural practice of encouraging widows to commit suicide on their husband’s funeral pyre. She asks: “Can colonials ever understand this practice on its own terms?”—and she answers an authoritative “no.” 

The shock of this “no” awakens students to their own Western preconceptions that cognition is a universal tool to acquire and commodify knowledge. Spivak argues that in the West education is never innocent, that the manufacture of ideas and information is always tainted with the power imbalance between knower and known. To her, ideas and information are commodifiable and sold in the service of power players and knowledge brokers. Thus, humility is necessary, as well as the intentional positioning of oneself alongside the other to build on commonalities rather than exploit categories of exoticism and otherness.

Starting with this article accomplishes 65 percent of the educative gain I wish to realize during a course on gender: it conveys that we come to the material to learn, to broaden, to build bridges, and to develop the ear to listen to difference in voice and experience. 

Use Tasks to Model Difference 

The single most effective assignment I give students in my gender and religion courses is the "Experiential Exercise." They are given a sheet with two tasks on it—“Write down 10 ways in which—apart from biology—you know you are your gender,” and “Write down 10 ways in which—apart from biology—you know you are NOT the gender opposite your own.” Students have three weeks to note how in their daily environment they perform or have their gender performed toward them. For example, a woman may find herself not getting up to help another woman stow her bag in the overhead compartment on an airplane, while three men jump up to help. Why the gender difference? Is this an instinctive role performance?

Such an exercise generates self-awareness of gender as a performative behavior, and of the ways in which students have been trained to be their gender. This task brings about huge insights into where gender comes from and how it is unconsciously adopted or performed, and thus, how gender behavior can be unlearned, revised, and made intentional. Thus, this task teaches difference experientially. 

"Engaging difference" as a pedagogical philosophy allows the teacher to be anchored in the value of difference while wildly creative in expressing it.