Fleming, M., Habibi, N., Horley, N., Jones- Caldwell, S., Moules, K. Waserman., & Wehbi, S. (2001). Gender, Power and Silence in the Classroom: Our Experiences Speak for Themselves. In Newton, J., Ginsburg, J., Rehner, J., Rogers, P., Sbrizzi, S., & Spencer, J. (Eds.), Voices from the classroom: Reflections on teaching and learning in higher education (pp.7-17). Peterborough: Garamond Press
The authors of this article ground their research with an initial recognition that whether it is recognized or intentional or not, “students and professors bring into the classroom attitudes that reflect their gender, race, and class”, which are non-neutral systems based on power dynamics (Fleming et al., 2001, p. 8). These systems are “reinforced by legislation, economics, cultural roles, social interactions, political systems, and sexual taboos”, all elements present in schools and the classroom (Fleming et al., 2001, p. 8). Thus, teachers need to challenge the traditional understanding of power in the classroom that claims it “originates with the instructor and is directed towards a room of non-gendered, non-classed, non-raced ‘learners’” which is masked under the idea that the classroom is a free and democratic space”(Fleming et al., 2001, p. 8). Claiming that the classroom is a neutral space is part of the practice that claims ‘objectivity’ often reflected in “curriculum [privileging] the experiences and validates the intellectual concerns of white, middle-class, heterosexual men”, for example (Fleming et al., 2001, p. 8). How do we make teachers more aware of how their actions can implicitly perpetuate gendered preferences in the classroom?
The authors contend that the “male model that views knowledge as ‘objective’ prevents women (and men) from truly learning because it rejects experience as a necessary tool to synthesize theory” (Fleming et al., 2001, p. 12). Thus, female experiences are dismissed as irrelevant because they are subjective and personal, differing from the normative male experience. As a teacher, we can create activities that validate student experiences as relevant and important, giving voice to their lives. For example an assignment that asks female students to share their lived realities is empowering because it validates their experience and identities as women, as opposed to limiting themselves by how they are seen in relation to men (Fleming et al., 2001, p. 16). Their experiences as women are the focus. The author suggests that in order to make men aware of gendered biases (in the classroom), they must implicitly challenge their self-perception (Fleming et al., 2001, p. 15). Perhaps such a challenge isn’t just limited to men, but everyone.
Often, interactions between students and teacher in the classroom can “often reinforce sexist, racist, classist and heterosexist beliefs because differences among all participants… are not questioned or recognized as pertinent to classroom interaction” (Fleming et al., 2001, p. 14). Claiming that classrooms are neutral spaces reifies hegemonic practices as okay and natural: it is natural for boys to speak out more often and with authority than girls, it’s okay for teachers to give more positive feedback to male students. These “dynamics are seen as natural because they reflect what happens outside the classroom” (Fleming et al., 2001, p. 14).
It is worth noting that the account described in this article is based on the experiences of one individual. Moving forward, while these insights are useful, it is equally necessary to not assume an essentialized perspective when considering the experiences of female (teachers) of colour who are racial minorities in the classroom.