Exploring gender in the classroom: Columbia students seek feminist education

By Managing Editor

As the millennial generation ages, many are hopeful that long-standing societal problems including sexism will no longer be barriers to progress.

However, some Columbia students fear that might not become reality.

Gender equality within higher education has long been both a subject of interest and a goal of colleges across the country. Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Catherine G. Krupnick published a watershed study in 1985 titled “Women and Men in the Classroom: Inequality and Its Remedies.”

The study suggested that female students with female professors felt more comfortable speaking up in class, but male students still typically spoke about two and a half times longer than female students did—a result even more likely to occur in classes with male professors.

“The advantages of classroom discussion, long considered to be an integral part of education in sections and tutorials, are unequally distributed between the sexes,” the study concluded.

Sarah Dallaire, a junior public relations major, said she often observes situations described in the study in her current classrooms.

“Every time a girl gets passionate in class and a guy tells her to calm down, that’s just underlying sexism,” Dallaire said. “I’m a very combative and aggressive person, so I get told to calm down a lot when I get passion- ate about things.”

A New York Times op-ed titled “Speaking While Female,” written by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, shared Dallaire’s concerns in the context of the workplace environment.

The column, published Jan. 12, tells a story from when American television producer Glen Mazzara was working on the set of the hit TV show “The Shield.”

Mazzara was allegedly concerned that two female writers were not participating in discussions during meetings and was surprised at their reason for staying quiet. The two young women told him, “Watch what happens when we do.”

After carefully observing the interactions between male and female staff members at the next staff meeting, Mazzara said the young women were interrupted or their thoughts were rejected nearly every time they spoke up.

Sandberg and Grant claimed they have both watched this type of scenario play out in professional settings and suggested that women choose to speak less often because they find themselves in a bind between feeling “barely heard” or being criticized for speaking too aggressively.

“Women who worry that talking ‘too much’ will cause them to be disliked are not paranoid; they are often right,” the column argued.

Many students suggested that better education efforts at the college level could foster gender equality in classroom settings, which could lead to the next generation also having a more equal workplace environment post-graduation.

For some students, feminism is a lifeline. Marisa McGrath, a senior at Ohio State University, was featured in her college’s Feb. 14 TEDx event earlier this year. The event focused on the human narrative, with McGrath’s talk titled “The F Word: How Feminism Saved My Life.”

During her talk, McGrath said she always considered herself a feminist while growing up, but that changed when she began classes at OSU and heard for the first time the many stereotypes people believe to be true about feminists.

Fearing that boys would reject her and she would be seen as radical if she continued to call herself a feminist, McGrath dropped the term altogether.

But after struggling to cope with a sexual assault, McGrath said it was reacquainting herself feminism that helped her deal with her trauma and realize she was not alone.

“Feminism is for everybody, and at most has the capacity to change the world and at the very least—feminism, the F word—it saved my life,” McGrath said.

Unlike McGrath, some students are unfamiliar with feminism prior to college. Sharon Powell, adjunct professor in the Humanities, History & Social Sciences Department, teaches the “Human Sexuality Seminar” and “Women’s Health Care Issues” courses at Columbia.

When discussing topics surrounding gender, feminism and sexuality, she said students are not always uncomfortable with the subject matter itself, but are some- times being presented with issues relating to gender for the first time.

A fellow adjunct in the HHSS Department, Juliet Bond teaches “Women in U.S. Society,” and said she thinks most college students have not had much exposure—if any—to women’s history as well.

Bond said it is unfortunate, but women have been left out of the history books, so she sees gender studies and women’s history as important topics to learn about during the college years.

“If you’re a dancer, you should learn how to dance; if you’re a film major, you should learn about film, but the rest of the world intersects with everything you’re going to do as an artist,” Bond said.

Bond added that any student planning to enter the business world is going to run into race and gender, which is why learning about these topics before entering the workforce is crucial. Even the method of teaching these classes is instructive.

“It is important to have a comfort with discomfort in the learning process both for instructors and students,” Powell said. “As a class, we always develop class agreements so that we can try to make the discussion and learning space more open.”

Powell added that most of her classes enforce a class rule preventing anyone from interrupting a fellow student, so any concerns regarding female students being interrupted in class more than their peers are not an issue.

You Mei-Hui, a professor at the Graduate Institute of Gender Education at the National Kaohsiung Normal University in Taiwan, published a 2014 study titled, “Teaching About Love and Practicing Feminist Pedagogy in a College Classroom,” which debated best practices of feminist teaching and discussed her methods of teaching about feminism through discussions of love and romantic relationships.

You Mei-Hui said in the study that her goal as a professor is to raise students’ gender consciousness by exposing them to new topics or issues they have not been faced with previously.

She said she also develops her teaching strategies in ways that she hopes will help empower her students both in and out of the classroom.

“I identify myself as a critical feminist teacher as well as a responsible educator,” You Mei-Hui said in the study.

While Powell said she does not identify as a feminist, she said her teaching methods use an intersectional framework that comes from both a sociological and feminist perspective.

“Feminism is a concept and a movement with a variety of theories, perspectives, practitioners and outcomes,” Powell said. “By exposing students to an intersectional approach that includes a deeply historical perspective, students get the opportunity to craft their own definition [of feminism] and understand their own perspective about it.”

Powell said Columbia students in general are receptive, thoughtful and creative, but she always has trouble relaying information on topics of gender, sexuality and feminism to them.

“It is the tension necessary in learning, I think,” Powell said. “New information can shake our existing knowledge or closely held values.”

Kayla Katz, a junior fashion studies major and co-president of The F Word, one of Columbia’s two student organizations that advocates for feminism and gender equality, said she thinks students would benefit from learning about gender equality, among other social issues, early on in their college experiences.

Katz said she wishes gender equality had been brought up more across her college curriculum, adding that first-year courses should offer this option to future students so they can identify which subjects interest them and learn more about those topics throughout the rest of their educational careers.

“I think the best thing Columbia could do is have an entry-level course [during] freshman year about equal rights to educate kids on gay rights, women’s rights and get them passionate about something as freshmen,” Katz said.

Powell suggested that millennials seem generally receptive not only to discussing basic issues surrounding equality, but also evaluating their own notions of society and adjusting those that might be unrealistic.

“I think that the current generation of students I see in classrooms are open to discussing feminisms,” Powell said. “They recognize that it is hard work to live your politics and to defend your life choices. I find that younger people who are considered to be third-wave feminists or living during third-wave feminism may be more open to how your life may not measure up to your politics and that they may be way more forgiving about that than previous generations.”

Men who take these classes are often a minority. Luis Perez, a senior business & entrepreneurship major and transfer student from the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he was one of only two male students in his “Women in U.S. History” course, an experience that has caused him to pay close attention to the way he and other students express their thoughts regarding women’s issues.

He said he is interested in learning about feminism and women’s issues in general, but there are times he feels like he cannot or should not participate in certain conversations in the class because he worries that his words could be misunderstood or misconstrued.

“I feel like I have to be mindful and not say something that can come off as inflammatory because I’m a man saying it,” Perez said.

Perez said he hesitates to identify himself as a feminist, but that is not to say he isn’t supportive of his female peers.

“In many ways I’m not sure if this is my fight,” Perez said. “I definitely would say I advocate for women’s rights—I’m at the very least an ally for equality.”

Andrew Millman, a freshman fashion studies major, said he is undecided on whether he considers himself a feminist because he feels that he has not been properly educated on the subject, which he said is an aspect of his education at Columbia that he would like to change.

“I think there’s a stereotype of feminists, but there’s a stereotype to any sort of subculture like that,” Millman said. “I don’t personally believe that those are true be- cause I understand that stereotypes are 99.99 percent of the time always false. I see some behavior of feminists that I don’t agree with, but most [feminism] seems really positive and it helps out the female race, so I’m all for feminism. I don’t pay attention to the stereotypes.”

One concern Powell said she has for the younger generation, however, is that millennials may not be educated enough on feminist history to prevent historical lessons and patterns from repeating in the future.

Perez also said gender, women’s issues and feminism should be introduced to students more directly during their time in college. He pointed out an April 17 collegewide email announcing the college’s new online program, “Think About It,” which aims to prevent sexual misconduct on college campuses and will be mandatory for all current students to complete by May 30.

He said although he thinks implementing such a program at Columbia is a positive step, it does not do quite enough to educate students about other gender and equality issues that extend beyond sexual assaults.

“On the one hand, I’m like, ‘Great, I’m glad that there’s a conversation about sexual assault happening in a very direct way with each student,’” Perez said. “On the other hand, I’m a graduating senior. Why is this happening now?”

Perez said he felt like the emailed announcement came at a random time, which made him question whether the new program was selected because it was prompted by an incident on campus or if administrators just felt strongly about the cause.

Whatever the case may be, he said he thinks more courses surrounding gender studies, sexuality and women’s issues should be made available to students.

“At a liberal arts school, the whole point is to have a broad understanding of the world around you,” Perez said. “That includes diverse perspectives from different people in your culture [and] outside of your culture, people around the world, and that includes a sort of gender shift as well.”

He said he thinks the college should consider new incentives to encourage all students to take courses outside of their comfort zones, such as allowing gender studies courses to count for additional types of credits students might need.

Whether changes in the way students learn about gender equality occur organically or through planned academic shifts, Powell is optimistic about the open attitude she sees toward gender issues among her millennial students.

“I do believe that students’ openness and acknowledgement of shortcomings and how hard of a struggle it is to live in line with your values and politics moves us forward,” Powell said.