What We Can’t See by Sara Frykenberg

As a professor, I find myself returning to a similar struggle again and again. I know what I know; and I know what I hope students will gain from the class, in terms of content knowledge, critical thinking, classroom community-making, etc. But often, I don’t know what they don’t know.

This might seem a silly kind of observation. No duh, Sara, you barely know this group of people. Also, this may seem an easy question to answer. And sometimes it is; and I do have part of the answer when I begin a class. My “Intro to Ethics” students, for example, will understand and be frustrated by the way people use the Bible to justify their own positions, but they usually won’t know the term “proof texting,” or easily understand “hermeneutics.” My “Women in Christianity” students will understand sexism and often, the idea of gender as a social construct, but they are usually unfamiliar with the dualistic gendering and ranking of larger social realities, like nature and culture, production and reproduction, etc.

There are obvious differences in academic training—that’s why I’m allowed to teach at a university after all. But I’m not really wrestling with what I can contribute in terms of content knowledge or historical/ theoretical contextualization. I think what I don’t know is what understandings of reality they bring into the classroom and what these realities have allowed them to see. Learning and/or teaching feminist theory and theo/alogy for the last fifteen years at least, I also often take my own reality for granted. I “know what I know,” after all—I just can’t always remember what it was like to learn it. And all of these classroom dynamics can make it harder to catch the realities we can’t yet know or can’t see.

I teach an “Introduction to Social Justice and Sexual Diversity,” class. It’s basically an intro to queer studies in religion, with an emphasis on social justice making. In today’s world of online activism, many of my students come into the class armed with a litany of language. They know (a lot) of terminology. They know the right answers—at least according to popular justice theory. And sometimes I feel like I am “preaching to the choir.” But teaching this class, I’ve also learned that they don’t always know where certain “answers,” are coming from, they don’t always know the larger implications of what they are saying, and they don’t always know how they actually feel; but they do know what they are supposed to feel or say. Sometimes this is obvious; sometimes it is all too confusing.

This semester I’m teaching “Women in Christianity” again. When I first taught this class, I was so excited. I told my class, “this is what I am trained in and I am excited to work with you all this semester,” and it was true. But as an agnostic who left Christianity myself, I have found this course more and more difficult to teach. I don’t know if what I am saying is obvious. I don’t know if I am too cynical. My first semester teaching this class, I received the best compliment I have ever received as an educator. A student told me: “I feel like, in this class, I found a place for me in Christianity” – she found a passageway back into the religion she was raised in, but had felt alienated from. The statement was a victory for me: confirmation that I could teach past my own rejection of the faith. I had facilitated the student’s own self-empowerment, which was different from my own. But in the past few years, I have had trouble seeing the “passageways,” my students may or may not be taking. I don’t know if my students want or know about the “doorways,” being opened to them, because I don’t know these passages any more. I don’t know “what I don’t know,” either.

This semester I shook up this class’ syllabus to shake myself out of the fog of what I couldn’t see, so I could dive into material I didn’t know. Then, we could all “start from scratch,” so to speak. I sometimes do better in this struggle “of not knowing what they don’t know,” when I start from scratch. The effect of this method, of coming to the class a new, engaging my unknowing with engaged unknowing? A re-acquaintance with the power of what we can’t (yet) see.

Discussing Musa Dube’s postcolonial biblical hermeneutics with my undergrads this semester, I asked them if they were familiar with the idea of the “dominant culture” (that is, the/a culture that dominates and enforces its own positionality— what Iris Marion Young defines as “cultural imperialism”). They all said, nodding definitively, “yes.” Which I was surprised by—as usually this takes a little bit of explaining ideologically even though most of my students, who are predominantly women of color, are intimately familiar with and have great experiential knowledge of this cultural domination. So, I moved on.

Two days later, we were reading a piece on critically deconstructing whiteness in the Pauline texts by David Horrell. The piece combines biblical hermeneutics with critical whiteness studies, which among other things, tries to deconstruct the invisibility and “normative” quality of whiteness—the way in which whiteness, in a white supremacist society, stands in for “normal,” and so isn’t seen or discussed as a racial construction. One student, very smart and insightful, pointed to a portion of the text and told me that she had read this selection (about four pages) multiple times and that she still didn’t get it. Other students agreed. The pages were those in which Horrell explains what whiteness studies is, and what this field of study is trying to do. She couldn’t read it—she couldn’t see it. She (and me, and others in the class) had been so trained to see whiteness as normal that even reading about whiteness as race was difficult to do. It wasn’t a matter of not knowing it, or not knowing what the dominant culture is—it wasn’t something they didn’t know. It was something they couldn’t, were trained not to, so were unable to see. And watching my students encounter what they could not see, challenged me to do the same.

From the second wave’s “problem without a name,” to consciousness raising or conscientization and Anzaldua’s “la facultad,” the phenomena of seeing differently is well documented in feminist literature. The unknowing of silence and un-name-ability, the re-knowing or re-membering of trauma is powerful, healing and so necessary. But seeing through these feminist lenses can also be a kind of unknowing that we must continually engage, lest we forget that what we’re taught not to see may still be with us or lurking close by.

I am grateful to my students this semester for teaching me this again, and for helping me to see what I could not see too.


Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

Categories: Academy, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, General

Tags: , , , , , ,

6 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this piece! Your writing describes so clearly something that is quite difficult to put into words.

    Your description of your experience gives me language for experiences I have as a teacher with students of very different backgrounds from those you teach.

    I’m remembering times when I’ve been astonished by a comment in class which demonstrated that the student did not “get” a concept I thought had been firmly established as foundational at the beginning of the term.

    And thank you also for the reminder of how powerfully being taught not to see has shaped me, despite my own years of intentional un-learning.


  2. Thanks Sara, great insight here where you mention your quest “to shake myself out of the fog of what I couldn’t see, so I could dive into material I didn’t know.”

    Recently I noticed some fascinating sculpture and photography by a contemporary woman artist who was entirely new to me, but apparently quite popular. Her name is ZOE LEONARD (born 1961) and she will soon have a one-woman show at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street) in New York City (opens Feb 28).

    Wikipedia.org also has an interesting webpage on Zoe Leonard with this quote, it says:

    “Leonard was active in AIDS advocacy and queer politics in New York in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1992 she wrote “I want a president” a poem inspired by Eileen Myles’s, run for president.”


  3. Very interesting piece, Sara. I would be interested I understanding what it was that both you and your students couldn’t “grok” about David Horrell’s writing on deconstructing whiteness.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Sara, thanks for this post. It reminds me of a book I read in grad school called “How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America.” I found it fascinating. It is by Karen Brodkin.

    I also can relate to your difficulties teaching about Women in Christianity. I had some problems with Christianity and they only intensified when I went to seminary. Fortunately I wasn’t planning on going into ministry, however I do lead Bible study at my church and it can be very hard to be true to myself and my beliefs and not upset the women I’m teaching.


  5. I encounter this problem of the politics of knowledge quite frequently: as a lesbian among those who assume the norm of heterosexuality and as an Australian among people from the northern hemisphere who can’t see that there is a difference. Men’s entitlement is also a major stumbling block for change. After wrestling with this for a long time I invented the term ‘Dominant Culture Stupidities’ while I was writing my PhD. I tested it against myself and others and what is useful is that it allows people to pick one area in which they are not part of the dominant culture and another in which they are. For example a Black student is aware of the ways in which ‘race’ affects her life experiences, but if she has no disability, is she aware of the steps on pavements that are an obstacle or the impossible packaging that makes life hard for those suffering from arthritis?

    My book is called ‘Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity’ and in the US and Canada is available here: https://www.ipgbook.com/wild-politics-products-9781876756246.php?page_id=21 and more information is available here for those outside North America: http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=171/

    Thanks for your posting, keeping oneself re-freshed is so important when teaching and it can be hard to find ways to do that. I always like the first time of running a course, excitement in the unknown.


  6. I use to think that teaching was about regurgitating information and/or just transference of information (all thanks to my poorly funded school system that I grew up with) but now I have realized that its more of a conversation and teaching students to critically think. Thank you for your piece!


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