Feminist Critical Digital Pedagogy: Why Our Stories Matter

Summary/keypoints of the talk by Alex Walker from the University of Highlands and Islands: Dr Koseoglu used her own stories and some of the stories from the aforementioned book as a lens to discuss a number of themes in relation to the theme #BreakTheBias.  This included the importance of male allyship.  That digital approaches to education have widened access but have not necessarily considered gender inequality as a structural and societal problem. That inequality is intersectional, and that knowledge and education should consider the whole person and that person’s lived experiences, and this should drive the pedagogy, not the technology or checkboxes. That institutional technologies used in learning and teaching don’t always offer freedom and agency.

Thank you very much everyone for being here today to celebrate this annual event marking the International Women’s Day. I’m very excited to be here with you talking about feminism, feminist pedagogy and feminist digital pedagogy. These all mean so much to me and I’m really grateful for Alex Walker and the University of Highlands and Islands to organise this event. I prepared for you some stories to share and I’m hoping that these will contribute to our understanding of feminist pedagogies and will be the beginning of a longer, larger conversation, and that together, with the stories I present here and other ones you might be sharing elsewhere, we’ll continue building collective knowledge on feminist critical digital pedagogy: what this might look like in post secondary (tertiary) and higher education spaces. 

The first story I’d like to share is about my auntie Selma, who is now in her early 70’s. She is a retired pharmacist and has three kids. 

At the age of 10 or 11, my auntie, Selma, found herself at a critical juncture in her life. She had just finished primary school, five years of compulsory education, in a small town in central Anatolia, in Turkey. My grandfather Yusuf wanted my auntie to continue with her education and start secondary school. But for my grandmother, Fatoş, the five years of schooling Selma had already had was more than enough for a girl. She insisted that she should stay home to help her with housework and to look after her brothers.  

My grandfather was a tall, gentle and kind man. My grandmother was very clever, and very stubborn, which was a source of misery and humour for the family. 

The story goes on like this: Fatoş, my grandmother, doesn’t want my auntie Selma to go to secondary school. But my grandfather Yusuf wants her to go to secondary school and they’re having an argument about this. Yusuf says to my grandmother: Selma is a little girl, what do you expect her to do for you if she doesn’t go to school! Fatoş replies: Well, she can at least wash a few cups. Yusuf says, well, I’ll wash your cups for you then. And he does. And Selma goes to secondary school and then high school and university.  A new path, a new trajectory in the family history, a new “orientation“, in Sara Ahmed’s words.

“Your grandfather” says my auntie, “was a true advocate of women’s rights. He fought for me throughout my education.” When my auntie tells the story over Whatsapp, I can see her eyes sparkling with excitement, with love and admiration for her father. She is describing an intense experience, with complex emotions, because she worked so hard to get to where she’s at now.

My grandfather, of course, wasn’t a feminist in a western sense. And his dominance in this short story, in my description of how he enabled a woman’s education, my auntie’s education, shows he was operating in a patriarchal society. He was a Kurdish man, born in a Kurdish village with little resources, and he was very much connected to his traditions, his language, and his religion. But at the same time, he carried with him an openness to different ways of doing things, an openness to how one could live her life, which is a legacy he left to our family. I believe, if my grandfather had lived in a different society, in different circumstances, he could have become a feminist, because I see in him, borrowing from Lev Vygotsky, “the buds” of feminism, the buds of feminist knowledge and practice. He wanted justice for his daughter. 

Reflecting on this experience, I see how important it is for people to have an open mind, openness to different ways of doing things and challenge, critique, and reflect on tradition, if tradition becomes a structure for inequality. In contemporary UK Tertiary and Higher Education, this might include traditions in classrooms, in our institutions, processes and systems. For example, when we think about teaching, how in the traditional behaviourist model, it is the teacher’s job to teach and the student’s job to learn—this is a very different way of thinking than Paulo Freire’s student-teachers and teacher-students, where student teacher interactions are a lot more democratic and horizontal.

“Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” (Freire, 1978, Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

Going back to my auntie’s story, we came across similar stories in another study exploring women’s experiences in open and distance learning programs in Turkey (Bozkurt, Koseoglu, Keifer, 2019). Close family members, fathers, brothers, husbands, mothers can enable and disable women’s education. (I use woman as a gender identity, as an umbrella term for anyone who identify themselves as a woman). Educators too can do this with their beliefs, assumptions, and methods. They can limit who women can become. And here in terms of enabling and disabling women’s education, we need to think broadly, we need to think about educational pathways, choices women make, how they are directed or misdirected in their education, and also professional outcomes.

In a follow-up study looking at gender inequality in open and distance learning programs, we identified similar patterns on a global scale (Koseoglu et al., 2021) because, of course, gender inequality is a structural problem and is connected to other inequalities in the society such as inequalities in income and resources based on one’s ethnicity, race, class or geographic location. These are unresolved issues. A recent UNDP report (United Nations Development Programme, Conceição et al., 2020) shows that there isn’t a single country in the world which achieved gender equality. The authors note:

“Despite remarkable progress in some areas, no country in the world—rich or poor—has achieved gender equality. All too often, women and girls are discriminated against in health, in education, at home and in the labour market — with negative repercussions for their freedoms.”

This is significant for all of us. Women’s oppression happens in every part of the world, in every country. This oppression may not be violent, may not be visible right away.

Hase and Blaschke write: 

[Oppression] can be a subtle, quiet voice, appearing in the guise of a gently paternalistic friend, one who is there to guide us and to ensure we stay systematically on track and don’t begin exploring the “wrong” ideas. We become passive, accepting, and unquestioning.”

The subtle, quiet voice could be the voice of institutions, methods we are supposed to follow, technology tools that we are supposed to use. I’ll come back to these later in this talk.

What is interesting to see in the wider open and distance learning literature is that distance education is often posited as a solution to gender inequality in education and in the wider society. Access to open and distance learning is seen as an opportunity, as a path for women’s empowerment. However, we know that access isn’t the only condition for empowerment. Feminist educators have highlighted the need for support, called for care in teaching methods, policies and approaches, in other words; they wanted institutions to recognise women’s many struggles in the society.

To illustrate this point, let’s have a look at two quotes I have taken from the studies we looked at for the 30 Years of Gender Inequality article (see below). In the first one, the authors argue that online education is a gift for women, or it’s a way for women to pursue the gift of knowledge, without contradicting any social roles and responsibilities they might have in their families or communities, for example as wives, mothers or caretakers. In the second quote, the author argues that we need to have serious discussions around women’s position in the society, around the gendered nature of roles and responsibilities, and how these might shape the choices women make.

Online education is a way for women “to pursue the gift of knowledge without contradicting any societal dictates.” (Olakulein & Ojo, 2006)

We need to think about how women’s “daily routines, family responsibilities, and socio-economic status position them as distance learners.” (Patterson, 2009)

Here, I’m also reminded of Kramarae (2001) who proposed the concept of third shift to critique romantic narratives of flexible, anytime-anywhere education. The first shift is working outside home, second shift as primary caretakers of family members, and a third shift as students. Just like Patterson, Kramarae argued that we need to discuss how we can reconfigure the family life or work patterns or the structure of education itself so that women won’t have to make individual compromises and can make good, informed choices in their Education.

“While Distance Learning allows women to squeeze in their studies around the seemingly immovable barriers of family and work life, this evades any general social discussion of how time and responsibilities, both in the workforce and the home, might be reconfigured to make fulfilment of educational goals a more humane and less taxing process. Instead, women make individual compromises and choices—as family members, workers, and students …” (Kramarae, 2001)

Connecting what I’ve shared with you so far with the idea of feminist critical digital pedagogy, our experiences as women, women’s lived experiences, is an essential source for educators to go about feminism in online spaces. I’d like share a few other narratives from a book George Veletsianos and I have recently edited on feminist critical digital pedagogy to show how this might work in practice. 

The first chapter in the book, The University Cannot Love You by Brenna Clark Gray is a call for care in academic spaces and structures. Brenna asks: How can we rethink how care is enacted within institutions so that we resist gendered participation in the academic labour force and unrecognized pastoral care at work?

Brenna openly talks about how she was burnout due to responsibilities both at home and at work. She says:

” One day, after a very kind colleague told me she always felt so much better after talking to me, the source of my impending burnout snapped into focus: I was absorbing the anxieties of an entire institution. Where was I meant to put my own?”

Next, in Reflection, Agency and Advocacy as Feminist Pedagogy, Patty Born describes how she changed existing traditional approaches in an online environmental education course to a more student-centered, care-oriented experience. This chapter is a very good example of how feminist critical digital pedagogy might work in online classes. Here she draws from her experiences in K-12 education in the US. (Note: in the talk I talked about how Patty used ungrading in her approach, which sparked some interesting discussions on whether this is possible in the UK.)

“I vividly recall what it felt like to really be seen: my fifth grade teacher seemed to recognize that I was happiest outdoors. She found whatever excuse she could to send me outdoors to take care of our school’s resident “pets”—the chickens and ducks who lived in a courtyard between wings of the school building. An animal and nature-lover from a young age, I felt most comfortable and free outdoors among the animals. Out there, no one was expecting me to sit up, keep still, complete the worksheets, or print neatly….But that memory of the ducks and chickens and my fifth-grade teacher continued to remind me that there was actually something beyond compliance and production.

As a final example for feminist critical digital pedagogy, in Sewing Lessons, Tanja Elias shares the lessons she learned while sewing handmade kamiks with her mother-in-law, an Inuvialuk elder. (The Inuvialuit are the indigenous people of the western Canadian Arctic region.) She compares these lovely handmade kamiks produced by women in families, in small communities, with store bought winter boots. Store bought winter boots look alike, they are disposable, can easily be replaced. The buyer doesn’t necessarily know how they are made, how the different parts of the boot are put together: the labour that produced the winter boots. Making kamiks, however, is much more than producing a technology for consumption. It is also a cultural practice, it brings people and different generations of Inuvialuks together. Drawing from the works of Ursula Franklin and building on her experiences making handmade Kamiks, Elias critiques mainstream technologies in Higher Education. Such technologies, Elias argues, normalize neoliberalism and a culture of compliance. We use them because they are “widely available, standardized, familiar, inexpensive, easy, disposable,” Elias says, but they focus too much on “efficiency, control, standardization, and maximizing gain.” 

Elias writes: 

“Kamiks offered a very different approach to winter footwear than the mass-produced winter boot of my childhood. They offered an alternative I could never have imagined. They were different, not only in terms of how they looked, but in terms of how they allowed my kids to move. In their kamiks, I watched my kids run freely and with a sense of possibilities that I could never have imagined as a kid. What, then, is digital pedagogy’s equivalent to running fast in the snow?” 

What would be, then, some digital technologies that give us—educators and students—a sense of freedom and agency?

If feminism is “a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression”, as bell hooks suggested, then feminist critical digital  pedagogy is about the values and worldviews we bring into education to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression; the approaches that help us connect with our students in deeply humane ways, in the online and hybrid spaces of tertiary and higher education, in teaching, learning, faculty support, pedagogical practice, and research. It is about how we build meaningful, empowering relationships in education, with our students and also with our colleagues.

Paulo Freire famously said “authentic education is not carried on by “A” for “B” or by “A” about “B”, but rather by “A” with “B”. The stories we share with one another, the many different connections we make, can be amazing resources for us to challenge oppressive systems of power, and engage in authentic education. In the context of sexism and racism, Sara Ahmed said:

“We have learnt to severe the connection between this event and that, between this experience and that. To make a connection is thus to restore what has been lost … It is to generate a different picture.” 

I hope this event today, and the sessions following my talk will be important opportunities for us to make such feminist connections. Thank you.

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