What We Talked About At ISA: Teaching Gender and War: Some Reflections on Negotiating the Five Stages of Feminist Consciousness/Grief in Undergraduate Students

Victoria BashamA guest post in our current series on ISA presentations from Victoria Basham, who is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Exeter. Victoria’s research draws on feminist and sociological theory to explore militaries, militarism and militarization. In War, Identity and the Liberal State (Routledge, 2013), she draws on original fieldwork research with members of the British Armed Forces to offer insights into how their everyday experiences are shaped by, and shape, a politics of gender, race and sexuality that not only underpins power relations in the military, but the geopolitics of wars waged by liberal states. Victoria is also a working towards the launch of a new interdisciplinary and global journal called Critical Military Studies which seeks to provide a space for dialogue among scholars questioning the very idea of military organisation and armed force, and seeking to offer new insights into organised and state-sanctioned violence by exploring its wider significance and effects.


Despite the burgeoning literature highlighting the significance of gender to global politics, research into international studies curricula suggests that gender is rarely dealt with extensively or even adequately by ‘top ranking’ UK Politics and International Relations (IR) departments. A cursory glance at popular, introductory undergraduate textbooks in Politics and International Relations also reveals that whilst feminism may be included as an approach, accounts of power as institutionally situated remain dominant. As such, many undergraduates only experience brief introductions to feminism, gender, and issues of sexual identity, if anything at all. So when I was given the chance to design and teach two research-led undergraduate courses in 2009, I saw it as an important opportunity: both to provide students with insights into how gender animates global politics, and to engage in a form of ‘feminist pedagogy’ by encouraging students to look at themselves and the world around them critically and analytically, through the interlocking lenses of gender, race, class and sexuality.

My experience of delivering these courses over the past few years has been largely positive. On more than one occasion students have commented that engaging with feminist theories and praxis had ‘opened their eyes’. However, in other students the experience of studying the global through gendered and postcolonial lenses elicited confusion, anger and pain on their part, at least initially. Indeed, as I have continued to teach these courses, I have often thought of student reactions as akin to Kübler-Ross and Kessler’s five stages of grief or what Patti Lather has aptly called ‘stages of feminist consciousness’.

One possible reason for this is that for feminists, the question of ‘What is Politics?’ necessarily includes accounts of power that are personal, emotional, and everyday. Given that trying to account for how power shapes and is shaped by people’s daily lives is not always readily accessible through a focus on institutions and the like – the usual stuff of politics and IR analysis – many feminist teachers are likely to encourage their students to think through how ‘the personal is political’ in their experiences and to re-personalise an often depersonalised and sanitised set of issues including war. Many of my students (though not all, and rarely, it should be said, in a linear fashion) experience moments of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance when taking my courses. Moreover, in reacting to their comments and in trying to anticipate their turmoil I often find myself angry, disbelieving, in negotiating mode, saddened and sometimes having to accept, and very grudgingly I’ll admit, that not all of them believe that gender is as significant to war as I do.

Over the years, I’ve come to reflect on how I can try to negotiate these various stages of grief or feminist consciousness so that my students are able to consider the wider significance of what they have learnt whether they are fully convinced by it or not. One such method is what I call ‘riding it out’ when faced with denial and bargaining. Though optional, my courses in gender and global politics are usually well-populated, taken by a good mix of men and women and receive positive feedback. However, I still begin every teaching year with a sense of trepidation; a feeling that I have to start these courses by ‘proving’ the value of gender as an explanatory variable and an empirical reality to my students. IR, like any other discipline, is not a culturally neutral terrain; it projects and reinforces particular ideas about men and women, about masculinities and femininities that make feminist approaches to the study of war and other global political issues so pertinent in the first place; and students are just as situated within disciplinary contexts as their teachers. In my first classes on the two research-led units in question, it became very clear that I was introducing an approach that was rather novel for most of my students, and as I have already mentioned, feminist research and syllabi are not mainstream aspects of the discipline or indeed my University.

One common reaction I have observed among students in almost each and every new cohort, especially in my Gendering World Politics course at level 2, is that whilst many recognise differential power relations between men and women, they see them as biologically given or as immutable psychological traits. My assertions that there was little to no evidence for this came as a shock to many who insisted on the significance of protective and randy ‘cavemen’ and submissive women. However, some of the most effective interventions on this seem to come from students themselves who, in my experience, get very good at pressing one another on how they have reached such conclusions and what evidence they are basing them on. As such, denial often dissipates within the first few weeks of my courses, though sometimes a linked stage of consciousness/grief, that of bargaining, suggests that doubt, if not outright denial, can still recur at later stages of the course even after sustained exposure to feminist theory, empirical evidence and sustained debate and discussion.

In my first year of teaching Gendering World Politics I remember feeling especially perturbed by the kind of ‘denial’ outlined above but also much relieved at its seeming disintegration as the course proceeded. However, this meant that I was especially shocked when in week nine of a ten week course, in a seminar on gender and the environment, my students began to question the validity of using a feminist lens not only to consider questions of environmental displacement and insecurity and matters of environmental degradation and women’s health, but of a gendered lens more widely. Such reactions from students might be explained, at least in part, by a common challenge that many feminist teachers face: though students may have already been exposed to normative perspectives on how society ‘ought to be’, telling students that there is nothing inherent or natural about the way that men and women are socially situated is not always an easy thing for them to hear.

Feminist Consciousness Diagram

When discussing issues such as equal pay, it’s always interesting, and often disheartening, to see tell-tale signs of disappointment in the faces of my women students and confusion in the faces of my men students; this tends to occur as the women realise they are unlikely to be paid as much as the young men sitting around them regardless of ability, and as the men realise that not every advantage they get in life may be fully ‘earned’ by them as individuals. Though denial and bargaining often slip away after the first few weeks of a gender course, feminist teachers perhaps need to be aware that moments of anxiety can resurge, and often unexpectedly. In light of the transformative possibilities of ‘opening one’s eyes to gender realities’, we need to be mindful that this can be alienating as well as liberating for some students.

The potential alienation of ‘opening one’s eyes’ to gender and its personal implications may also account for feelings of anger among students. As something that often and almost universally ‘’strikes a chord’ with their experiences, at least to some extent, feminism and gender scholarship is perhaps that much harder to reject than some other normative approaches to political analysis. It can therefore elicit pain and anger and foster controversy between students who disagree. During one seminar in my first year of teaching Gendering World Politics, two students, one man, one woman, became involved in a heated discussion witnessed by the entire group. The man student complained about a focus on women as victims of violence in peacekeeping situations, that the course was supposed to be about gender not women. The woman student attempted to explain that this focus was because women were overwhelmingly victims of violence in such situations, at the hands of peacekeepers who were overwhelmingly men. The man student was very argumentative and dominated the space by talking over the woman student who became red with anger.

My means of intervention was to split the class into small groups and ask them to take up the dispute with reference to their reading. I told them to listen respectfully to each other and to focus on critiquing ideas not individuals. I not only separated the feuding pair, I put all of the women in the class into one group. I did this partly because I noticed that the confrontation had made other women in the class uncomfortable but also because the ways that women and men are socially situated can often lead young men to perform in particularly masculine ways in the classroom, such as speaking over others. Whilst I am not in any way suggesting that there is an essentially ‘female’ or essentially ‘male’ way of interacting, I believe that it can be difficult for women to challenge masculine performances because of the ways that they are socially situated. Importantly, I told the students why I had divided the class this way which they all seemed to understand and appreciate. Indeed, though the general consensus among the women in the class was that they would not want to be divided up this way every week, they all expressed appreciation at having an opportunity to debate these issues with one another, something they had not experienced in other courses.

Ensuring that I am sensitive towards cultural and social dynamics that may affect learning is integral to my teaching philosiphy. I try to foster a learning environment where all students can air and apply their ideas with confidence. I observe how students interact, paying particular attention to who dominates the classroom, who keeps quiet, and so on. Though I think it is valuable to mix students up so they can engage with a range of viewpoints, I also frequently place students in groups where I sense that they feel comfortable working with particular peers. Sensitivity does also involve challenging students on occasion though. As Lee Warren argues, avoiding a controvesial issue “has its own consequences. Students learn that such behaviour is OK and…They miss the opportunity to learn about their own behaviour and its consequences”. This became clear to me in a seminar discussion on Katherine Moon’s insightful work on relationships between South-Korean prostitutes and US soldiers when one of my students identified prostitutes as ‘bad women’. I was stunned by this comment but a graduate student auditing the unit stepped in. She asked the student directly why he felt that way and told him that she found his comments troubling. He proceeded to reflect and unpack his comments and realised why she was offended. This very well-articulated challenge to his comment reduced tension in the classroom and helped this student, and probably others, to think through its implications. Though I was aggrieved that I had not handled this particular situation well myself as the instructor, I learnt a lot from observing the graduate student’s astute challenge.

Another challenge is depression in students. At the start of the academic year, in the first sessions of my undergraduate courses on Gendering World Politics and Gender, Militarization and Resistance, I issue all of my students a warning and an apology that some of the material that they will be asked to read during the course may be very upsetting to them. I do this because one of the key challenges of teaching students who are primarily aged between 18 and 22 years of age, with very little past exposure to in-depth political analysis, is exposing them to articles on, and inviting them to discuss, rape, genital mutilation, torture and violence of various kinds on a weekly basis. Throughout the past few years of teaching these courses, students in different cohorts have expressed that such reading can be challenging, upsetting, disturbing and in the words of one third year undergraduate, can ‘make them cry’. Though students also often express that they believe that engaging with this material is an important way for them to understand the significance of making political and social interventions, the gender and war teacher needs to be mindful of the hazards of some course content. Warning that an especially harrowing reading may have been set that week and allowing students to unpack how readings made them feel in a supportive, non-threatening way are some of the steps we can take but ultimately, there will always be the potential for emotional pain in such courses.

Another issue that warrants further consideration though is the willingness with which some students embrace issues that are deeply upsetting, opting to perhaps complete an undergraduate dissertation on them. In these circumstances it is important to be wary of students engaging in the kinds of depersonalized approaches to global political issues that feminists are so often at pains to challenge, especially when depersonalization becomes a form of fetishizing. Whilst depression can be damaging to students, fostering empathy is an important part of feminist pedagogy on gender and war and of fostering feminist consciousness.

I would be being dishonest if I were to suggest that feminist consciousness is not my overall aim. Though I would hope that I am largely able to avoid “implying ideological correctness” in the classroom, not least because my own research involves critiquing humanist thinking that insists on the universality of something called ‘progress’ and its capacity to liberate everyone, I do want my students to see gender scholarship as a valid approach to the study of IR and to recognise gender relations as something that affects their own lives. As Cindy Rosenthal argues, though many students are now “enjoying the rewards of feminism, many of today’s twenty-something undergraduates resist any association with things ‘feminist’ and [may] consider gender as a largely irrelevant construct in their lives”. This is often my experience at the start of the academic year when denial, bargaining, anger and depression most often characterise the reactions of my students. Of course, some students begin my course as feminists and remain that way but these students are rare. Others will leave still experiencing aspects of denial, bargaining, anger and depression. I agree with Lather that feminist consciousness is a process and a non-linear one at that; so whilst I hope that most of my students reach the stage of ‘acceptance’, this is not something I can ever guarantee.

However, the most rewarding aspects of teaching on gender and sensitive issues such as war are those moments when you observe that students have not only come to realise the significance of gender to their lives, but also to the wider workings of local and global power relations and how they are situated within them. As bell hooks argues, Feminism is for Everybody; but this has often come as a surprise to my students in light of the supposed ‘post-feminist’ culture they find themselves in. For some of the young women who take my classes, feminism can equip them with the language and knowledge to challenge, something they begin to do in the classroom. Some of those women students have asked the men sitting around them in the class if they think it’s fair that the women students are likely to earn less money than them. For some of the men who have taken my courses the knowledge that most feminists would agree that ‘gender is not a synonym for women’ and that it is important to examine how men as well as women can be oppressed by salient assumptions about gender is often a revelation. For many of these young men, this realisation engenders reflection on the significance of gender to their lives and relationships.

Thus, although there are many challenges in teaching gender and war and gender and other sensitive topics to undergraduates, not least those emotions and pains elicited from exposure to emotionally arresting material, I remain optimistic about the value of feminist pedagogy and my focus on gender in my teaching. It seems that among my students at least, there is an appetite for courses that engage with wider understandings of power than those that the discipline has traditionally been concerned with; even if at times that process can be a painful one.

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4 thoughts on “What We Talked About At ISA: Teaching Gender and War: Some Reflections on Negotiating the Five Stages of Feminist Consciousness/Grief in Undergraduate Students

  1. Excellent piece – it is so important to take students out of their comfort zones but in “safe” ways. I had some great teachers at that age, and I like to believe they contributed to making me significantly less patriarchal than I otherwise would have been (I grew up in the 80s in Australia…) And thanks for the links to various essays etc- have downloaded

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  2. Wonderful read. Teaching gender and queer politics across many courses ‘not explicitly’ gendered this year produced many of the results you foregrounded. Crying is one that I have been struggling with, as it is an entirely appropriate emotional response to many of the issues of politics, but one that I am struggling to appropriately deploy. I have been on the verge of tears several times this year, but only once openly cried in response to a powerful video that was shown in class. The dynamics of crying in the classroom are compelling, in part because it is so disruptive to authoritative dynamics, with positive and negative consequences. I am not sure how that fits in, but I am appreciative of the reflection inherent in this piece. Lovely stuff.

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  3. Thanks all. I had hoped that these reflections might make some sense to others as well. I’m certainly finding it really valuable to hear about other people’s teaching and learning experiences, and about how they differ or resonate with mine – fascinating stuff! So thanks for the food for (further) thought and for sharing this piece elsewhere too.

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