The Difference a Feminist Makes by Elise M. Edwards
Of the many reasons I am grateful for feminismandreligion.com, I have to say that I am most grateful for the time it requires of me to reflect about feminism’s impact in my life, faith, and work. I decided it was time to reflect on this question: What difference does feminism make for the way I structure and approach my classes?
I recently started a new position as a full-time lecturer in the Department of Religion at Baylor University. Earlier this week, I attended a gathering for the department, where I was introduced, along with a few others, as new faculty. At the end of the evening, the wife of a retired male professor introduced herself to me and remarked about how happy she was to see more women in the department. (Four full-time faculty members were hired this year, and three of us are women.) She had been looking forward to this kind of change for quite a while. I was appreciative of her remarks, just as I have been generally pleased with the warm reception I have received around the University.
Her excitement about the increase in the number of women faculty provoked me to reflect on what I add to my department, particularly for my undergraduate students. I have thought before about how, from a purely representative standpoint, I bring something different to the faculty. I have thought about how my students may not have previously had a professor–especially a religion professor–who looks like me. Even if they had, I’ve had different life experiences than many of my colleagues, and that this bears on my approach to theology and ethics. Therefore, the research I do and share is distinctive in its approach. Yet, I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I have not given much thought about how my being a black feminist woman might impact my students. I am tempted to blame it on the fact that I have just been trying to keep my head above water in a new position. Of the many reasons I am grateful for feminismandreligion.com, I have to say that I am most grateful for the time it requires of me to reflect about feminism’s impact in my life, faith, and work. So I decided to reflect on this question: What difference does feminism make for the way I structure and approach my classes?
The answer I have come up with (so far) is that my feminist commitments inform the outcomes and expectations I have for my students. I seek to promote development of students’ critical thinking and writing skills and awareness of diversity within and between religious traditions through cooperative, dialogical exercises. I know I am not unique among my colleagues, feminist and non-feminist, for articulating goals about critical thinking and diversity. But I think the questions I challenge my students to address are different. This is particularly true in my Christian ethics class.
Last year, I came across an article by womanist ethicist Melanie L. Harris that provided particularly helpful questions for inviting students to begin to clarify their own positions on ethical themes raised in course readings. She has asked her students to think of the following questions, and I have asked my students to do the same as we discuss readings in Christian ethics:
- How does my race and racial history in this country impact the way I read this essay?
- How does my economic standing or class impact the way I respond to the authors’ assumptions about how class functions in our society in this essay? Can I relate to anything this author indicates about economic disparities?
- How might my experience as a gendered person living in this society impact the way I read and comprehend some of the points that this author is writing about? Do I connect with what the author is saying based on some part of my own experience?
- How does my sexual orientation contribute a perspective or opinion to how and what this author is arguing?
- Is there anything in this argument that allows me to engage my own connection and opinion about environmental responsibility where issues of sustainability?
Adapted from: Melanie L. Harris. “Womanist Wholeness and Community.” Chap. 8 In Faith, Feminism, and Scholarship: The Next Generation, edited by Melanie L. Harris and Kate M. Ott. 129-41. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 134.
I have been fortunate to learn from the classrooms, books, articles, lectures, seminars, and advice of many feminist, black feminist and womanist thinkers. I have adopted strategies presented by bell hooks, Traci West, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, Cheryl Kirk-Duggan and Melanie Harris in addition to the practices embodied by my former professors Rosemary Radford Ruether, Ellen Ott Marshall, Monica Coleman, and Grace Kao. So although my teaching style does not yet differ significantly from my non-feminist colleagues, it is my hope that I can provide my students with a transformative education in a way that represents my commitment to the shared humanity of all genders and sexes.
Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a recent graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.