This article takes up the question of how to develop effective strategies for engaging conservative students who feel under attack in feminist classrooms. Every semester I teach a Women’s Studies course that introduces students to the history and breadth of contemporary feminist social movements, with a focus on feminist struggles that center anti-racist, queer, and economic justice analytical frameworks. As a general education course, listed in the university course catalog under the rather generic title of “Introduction to Women’s Movements,” this class attracts students with a range of political perspectives from a variety of academic majors. While the majority of the students tend to enter the class with relatively liberal analyses of gender and racial oppression, a significant minority of students have more conservative views.
Dealing with resistant and conservative students in women and gender studies is not a new phenomenon, especially in my position teaching at a regional comprehensive public university in northern California. While the university administration is supportive of students of color and undocumented students, it is also heavily invested in discourses of civility and ‘free speech.’ The recent election cycle and the current Trump presidency have empowered the more conservative students in my classes to mobilize this language to claim that they feel ‘unsafe’ in class and on campus. The appropriation of feminist and queer discourses of ‘safe space’ by students on the right to position themselves as being under attack and vulnerable presents a series of pedagogical challenges. I challenge explicit racist, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic comments in class and my course readings rigorously challenge these forms of bias. Personally and politically I am committed to making sure that my students who are actually under threat – undocumented students, students of color, queer and trans students – are receiving the support that they need. However, I am also invested in challenging all of my students and trying to make my classrooms into spaces of transformational learning.
I explore the question of dissent in feminist classrooms through the problem of conservative students who deploy rhetorics of safety in ways that flatten out power relations and systemic oppression. How to respond to students who proudly proclaim they voted for Trump and consider themselves feminists, or to students who tearfully confess they feel unsafe on campus because of their political views? What pedagogical strategies actively engage conservative students rather than silence and alienate them? How can instructors problematize the notion of ‘safety’ for conservative students to help them develop more critical understandings of structural violence and precarity?
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