Normally, I would sit down to write a blog of this sort saying I’d “just returned” from a particular conference. However, that language doesn’t really work this year as I was lucky enough to move to Atlanta just before this year’s National Women’s Studies Association annual conference. This year it was a 20 minute train ride (and an hour getting lost my first day—the Sheraton is hard to find!) Good location luck aside, I thought I’d offer a few comments on the conference and the connections to our digital humanities world at Georgia Tech.
NWSA is a great conference. Really great. Panels are interesting, people are both smart and pleasant, and there’s an excellent sense of how much people from a variety of disciplines care about the connections between their teaching, scholarship, and activism. This year’s conference theme was “Feminist Transformations” and participants were in Atlanta to discuss a variety of topics under that larger heading. I was there to present on a panel called “Creative Interventions: Transformations in a College Setting” discussing how various creative techniques can be used to teach Fat Studies in the classroom. Even though the panel was at 8:00 AM on Friday, we still had a really nice turnout, another sign of a good conference.
Personally, I got some excellent ideas from my panel on the idea of “pedagogy of discomfort” from Purdue’s Michaela Null. One thing that pedagogy of discomfort does, according to Null, is to challenge us to experience more than a sort of passive empathy when dealing with difference. Asking students to be uncomfortable in the classroom and critically evaluating the world around them (such as when using something like Charlotte Cooper’s “Headless Fatties”) can help us create students who function as witnesses (acknowledging positionality and a historicized ethics) rather than spectators. This, I feel, is really integral to my work and my Spring 2012 course “Cosmopolitan Ethics” as I’ve been seeking for ways to ask students to engage with fiction in ways that ask them to do more than spectate on the lives of others before returning to their own subject positions and reaffirming their privilege. I’ll certainly be following up on these ideas of Null’s and her suggestions of looking at Megan Boler’s Feeling Power.
NWSA doesn’t include as many panels on Digital Humanities topics as, say, MLA did last year. I did attend a roundtable discussion of online teaching for Women’s Studies classes, however. The panel focused on philosophies and policies for online teaching rather than specific activities or “classroom” tactics. Women’s Studies departments, generally, tend to be very dependent on contingent labor. Many courses are taught by instructors, adjuncts, and graduate students as most departments have few Tenure Track faculty lines. (The department I came from at Bowling Green State University http://www.bgsu.edu/departments/wmst/ has one, despite offering 8-12 Intro sections of Intro alone a semester, a major and minor, and a graduate certificate). While WS departments draw from their affiliated faculty, they still need to rely on contingent labor to teach many of their courses. This coupled with the fact that more and more introductory classes in general are going online leads to important discussions on departmental philosophy and policies regarding online education.
Some of the primary concerns that were discussed were the need to make manageable course sizes, the acknowledgement of the amount of work course development is, and creating quality and consistent courses for students.. The course sizes for the panel members ranged from 20 students to 200 students. With the ongoing perception that online classes are in some way “easier” or less time consuming to teach, departments need to guard against 200 student sections for their Intro classes, as that significantly impacts the quality of the education provided. Similarly, in terms of adjunct labor, there is not any pay differential for the considerably front-loaded work of developing an online class. Finally, consistency in the quality of online education is essential to an overall successful program. One panelist from ASU noted an interesting aspect of her online classes, where different faculty took point on creating units for their particular specialties which were then integrated into one larger course. This seems like an interesting idea to keep students engaged in a 15-week overview of Women’s Studies.
This plenary was focused on interdisciplinary education, and how we can use interdisciplinarity to challenge and improve our individual disciplines. The overall discussion of interdisciplinary work was that it has the ability to bring your discipline outside of itself. This is an important point for collaborative work across the disciplines, I believe. Interdisciplinary scholarship isn’t designed to either a) make it so we need to hire fewer faculty or b) abandon the benefits of disciplinary methods. But what it does do for us is remind us of the interconnections between our disciplines and potentially give us new inroads to creative personal scholarship and activism. Trinh Minh-ha spoke about the functions of her teaching as a task that comments on the role knowledge plays in the world, rather than to transmit a body of knowledge.
I think we can view our WOVEN communication classrooms similarly, as we try to teach the role that communication has in the world, rather than transmitting the “right” way to communicate. This is why the Brittain Fellows and their individual 1101/1102 courses are really satisfying to teach. We get to teach the role(s) of communication and knowledge in various different historical and literary moments, rather than transmitting a rigid definition of how to communicate. Thinking about Intro courses in particular as places to question the role knowledge plays is a useful touchstone to come back to. I’m going to be taking several of these ideas from NWSA forward into my spring 2012 course, especially the ideas of Null and Boler on pedagogies of discomfort and how we can use those pedagogical approaches to encourage students to consider the role knowledge plays in the world.