Know Your Theory! – Feminist Composition Pedagogy Edition

This series of blog posts will provide an overview of the composition field’s relevant pedagogies. These posts will draw mainly upon A Guide to Composition Pedagogies by Gary Tate et. al. The book is divided into chapters based on the different pedagogies. The breakdown for each post will be around 1/2 summary and 1/2 my own reflections, analysis, anecdotes, and commentary. Although I’m writing these posts to help myself process through and reflect upon the field of composition, it’s my hope that any teacher of writing can find something of interest. Part 1 addresses collaborative writing pedagogypart 2 explores critical pedagogy in the writing classroom, and part 3 describes expressivist composition theory.


Feminist Composition Pedagogy

Just like critical pedagogy, feminist theory contains within it a broad range of practices, assumptions, techniques. However feminist pedagogies typically share a common goal of bringing about social justice through specific teaching and learning methods. Every wave of feminism has expanded and complicated the definition of social justice. In terms of composition studies, feminist pedagogy seeks to use literacy to “interrogate and transform social relations.” It is a practice well suited for investigating social and political categories of difference such as race, class, and gender. This post explores a number of important concepts in the feminist composition classroom.

Gender Differences and Experiences
Feminism’s primarily white/cisgendered focus came under attack during the 1960s when scholars and activists began elevating black and lesbian voices. What started out as a women’s suffrage and abolition movement in the 19th century now fights for social justice on issues of race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and migration. Feminism didn’t move into Composition Studies until the 1980s. Work during this early period focused on “experience as a legitimate form of knowledge, the inherent gender differences and effects on writing” as well as encouraging women to write from positions of power and authority. Early feminist compositionists wanted students to understand experience as a construct instead of some essential, private truth.


Diverse Discourses and Practices
In the 1980s and 1990s, postmodern and poststructuralist notions of subjectivity, agency, and textuality infused feminist composition with experimental prose and multilayered structure. Feminist pedagogues looked to complicate and subvert the single viewpoint approach favored by academic writing by introducing new methods of argumentation. Scholars like Catherine Lamb advocated for collaborative and cooperative academic discourse that valued and highlighted a panoply of voices and perspectives. Ann Berthoff  and Terry Myers Zawicki pushed students to write through hesitations and to use writing as a vehicle for knowing, rather than a simple method of recording thought. Students in a feminist composition class often mix genres, modes of writing, and perspectives in a single piece.

Feminist compositionists work to dislodge traditional univocal academic discourse. Through alternative models of composition and revision, these scholars brought attention to the difference and complexity of literacy. Collaboration and shared linguistic ownership undercut traditional notions of power and authority by “creating spaces for marginalized voices.” Donnalee Rubin’s important study Gender Influences: Reading Student Texts called attention to the the way gender biases affect the way teachers respond to student writing. Influenced by this study, many feminist educators engaged students in non-competitive activities and helped females to move from “private discourse to public pronouncements.”

Conflict and Difference
As mentioned in the introduction, feminist pedagogy is an “orientation to learning and knowing charged by social justice commitments.” Embracing conflict is a dominant theme for feminist compositionists. In “Feminism and Composition: The Case for Conflict” Susan Jarratt argues that feminist teachers should use conflict as a tool for calling attention to and ultimately challenging the racist, sexist, and classist foundations of the contemporary classroom. Similarly bell hooks views conflict in the classroom as a “catalyst for new thinking, for growth.” Conflict becomes a way to help students confront the dominant sociopolitical beliefs that help define and bracket their experience. Feminist compositions look to conflict to help disrupt and critique mainstream narratives of issues of race, class, and other categories of difference.

A portion of feminist composition’s use of conflict in the classroom comes from the notion that there is no “purely democratic, utopian space available to us in face-to-face or virtual realities.” Borrowing and continuing from Cultural Studies, feminist compositionists submit a wide range of textual objects and discursive practices to rigorous critique.


Listening to and Grappling with Emotion
In the late 1990s feminist compositionists began addressing the role of emotion in the classroom. They did so by situating emotion and affect in the social and political. Emotion is “bound up with judgment, belief, ideology, and social life broadly conceived.” Any investigation into larger issues of dominance, power, and identity must therefore progress in some way through the fabric of emotion. Feminist scholars like Michelle Payne call attention to the way traditional social construction theory has largely ignored emotion. As a result emotion is often seen as a private force bound up in the individuality of the body. Critical discussions of gender, identity, and emotion are crucial when dislodging stereotypes of female instability and irrationality.

The act of listening plays an important role in the feminist composition classroom. In Rhetorical Listening, Krista Ratcliffe uses listening to help students “recognize resistance, analyze it, and when necessary, challenge it.” It’s a way to identify and think critically about the narratives that shape our reality. The human body is not a hermetically sealed unit containing emotion. Instead feminist compositionists see affect as relational and social. The body is both a site of lived experiences and an amalgam of competing social forces. Teachers would do well to help students locate their own affective experiences within the larger social forces of the classroom and society.


Corporealities and Wrapping Up
The last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have witnessed the growth of queer and disability studies pedagogy. Like feminist pedagogy, queer and disability studies positions the body “as a locus from which to develop praxis.” Performativity, the way we express, reproduce, or subvert normative categories of identity, also plays an important role in the current feminist classroom. Feminist pedagogues use writing to help students contextualize their identity. What are our cultural norms regarding categories of difference? How do we choose to embody or disrupt them?

The feminist classroom should challenge, subvert, and push students outside of their comfort zones. There is no set of essentialist feminist pedagogical tools. This type of learning methodology poses active questions, questions norms, and views categories of difference through multiple perspectives. Students will collaborate to construct meanings and pursue critical inquiry. Although this book concerns college students, it’s never too early to introduce students to feminism’s critical perspectives.



  1. Pingback: Know Your Theory! – Genre Composition Pedagogy Edition | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  2. Pingback: Know Your Pedagogy! – Process Composition Pedagogy Edition | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes
  3. Pingback: Writing Resources from the Northern Virginia Writing Project | Mr. Anderson Reads & Writes

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