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Gender in the Classroom: Power and Pedagogy

reviewed by Abigail M. Harris - 1991

coverTitle: Gender in the Classroom: Power and Pedagogy
Author(s): Susan L. Gabriel, Isaiah Smithson
Publisher: University of Illinois Press, Urbana-Champaign
ISBN: 0252061101, Pages: 196, Year: 1990
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Are women and men more alike than different or more different than alike? Unlike recent publications that have emphasized the similarities between men and women1 or questioned the universality of a female voice,2 Gender in the Classroom highlights gender differences and their influence on teaching, particularly the teaching of English.

Following an introductory chapter by Isaiah Smithson, Carolyn Heilbrun sets the tone of the book by exploring how the patriarchal world of the university has reacted to both the intrusion of feminist criticism into the university’s “life of the mind” and the invasion of university classrooms by increasing numbers of female professors and students. She posits that what passes for the life of the mind is, in fact, no more than the politics of the mind and she ponders why it is that the female perspective is so threatening. As in the past, Heilbrun aptly challenges the university to open its mind—to understand why non-canonical texts must be read and canonized texts approached with new questions; to value the female perspective—in order that women might move from the margin to the center of intellectual life.

Several other essays also emphasize a “female essence” that they argue is missing in the academic value structure. Patrocinio Schweickart examines theories of reading and considers “what difference it would make if women’s distinctive subjectivities and social interests were fully incorporated in such theories” (p. 79). H e asserts that theories of reading and discourse need to be concerned with three issues-with truth and power as well as with an ethic of care such has been associated with female moral reasoning.

Susan Gabriel focuses on gender differences in the responses of college students who have been asked to describe in written form their reactions to specific reading assignments. Basing her argument on psychological theory, Gabriel proposes that men and women use different frames of reference or schemata to understand and respond to what they read. For example, the female schema focuses on relationships while the male schema emphasizes autonomy. Consequently, she hypothesizes that, because masculine themes are prevalent in the traditional literary canon, a male student typically receives affirmation from what he is assigned to read and write about, while a female student realizes no such empowerment, and, in fact, to be successful must learn to identify with the male frame of reference. What Gabriel finds from analyzing the writings of a small sample of students responding to two short stories is that the male and female students seem to be reading the same text differently and in accordance with a gender-based schema.

In a similar vein, Elizabeth Flynn draws on theoretical research on gender differences in social and psychological development—specifically Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, and Mary Belenky et al.'s Women’s Ways of Knowing—to interpret student writing. She proposes that developmental differences are reflected in the compositions of male and female students and asserts that a feminist approach to composition studies should focus on questions of difference and dominance in written language. She concludes that feminist teachers “must alert our women students to the dangers of immasculation and provide them with a critical perspective . . . for ultimately questions of difference are questions of power, questions of whose interpretation of reality will prevail and of whose decisions will construct that reality” (p. 124). She states that in order to rectify past inequities, writing teachers have an obligation to place women’s texts at the center of the curricula and to encourage female students to write from the power of their experience.

Two essays consider the impact of gender differences on the interaction between teachers and students. Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler focus on power relationships by analyzing student and teacher perceptions of classroom interaction. Linda Laube Barnes analyzes the interaction between the gender of the teacher and the gender of the student writer as the interaction is displayed in teachers’ written comments on student papers. Both essays look for and find gender differences that support separate male and female identities.

A theme raised repeatedly in these essays is that there are definable, qualitatively different attributes associated with males and females. Being male is associated with competitiveness, aggressiveness, and winning, whereas being female conjures images of connectedness, cooperation, and concern for others. The existence of an identifiable female “voice” is largely unquestioned.

Only two of the essays go beyond this perspective. Robert Con Davis discusses the impact of Helene Cixous (an avant-garde feminist theorist) on what Davis calls “the dominant culture.” Davis terms Cixous an “oppositional critic,” that is, “one who self-consciously chooses a style of confrontation with dominant cultural practices in order to understand and change the prevailing order” (p. 96). According to Davis, Cixous reads the discourses of contemporary culture to expose crucial oppositions, key binarities—such as man/woman, active/passive, nature/culture, superior/inferior—that govern the exercise of power” (p. 96). He illustrates how an oppositional stance such as this inadvertently supports the dominant culture it seeks to confront by lending it legitimacy. While some have viewed the failure of Cixous and other oppositional critics to move beyond male-centered, binary logic as an argument against an oppositional approach, Davis points to the utility of such an approach in generating discourse and offering new vantage points.

Nina Baym explicitly explores the limitations of a singularly defined female perspective. While she concurs with Heilbrun that feminism offers the opportunity for expanded inquiry, she expresses concern that feminist teachers may fall into the same traps that have been used to criticize the patriarchy, that is, they will impose a feminist interpretation and in so doing silence the student. Baym argues that “the position of certified interpreter is a political position, constraining those who occupy it in a manner that overrides their gender” (p. 71). She illustrates how the imposition of one feminist interpretation can serve to deny other interpretations including alternative feminist perspectives. Baym proposes instead that “to teach a wide range of works in a variety of ways, to rethink the dominance of interpretive activity in the classroom, to understand [that] all interpretations are contingent and none are correct, may allow a teacher to tap into the possibilities that feminism suggests” (p. 75).

Overall, this collection of essays is thought provoking and instructive. It is particularly important for teachers of literature and composition. By focusing on questions of gender differences, it alerts the reader to possible sources of bias in all aspects of the teaching process. Yet, as Baym’s insightful essay points out, when we are motivated by the desire to find two kinds of response that would fall out along stereotypical gender lines, that is what we are likely to find. Variability within gender must not be overlooked.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 1, 1991, p. 201-204
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 272, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 3:31:49 PM

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