by Aiko Holvikivi & Niharika Pandit*

This piece is a part of our Strike Archive, the only content we will be publishing throughout the UCU strike in February and March 2022. In it, we publish teach-outs delivered by our friends and colleagues at the LSE Department of Gender Studies in December 2021, as they withdrew their labour from the LSE in the first week of the strike against casual work, crushing workloads, pay cuts, gender, disability and racial wage gaps and pension cuts. Our archive joins existing initiatives like the LSE Strike Diaries in ‘collective memory making and memory preserving’ of our historic industrial action. As the strike resumes, we stand in solidarity – and ask for yours – with our colleagues at universities across the UK and workers beyond academia, who struggle for better, more equal futures for all.  

Why feminist pedagogies?

We have been heartened to see the solidarities expressed over the days of strike action – both between staff and students, as well as between staff in different positions and with varying stakes in the fights we are engaged in. We see and appreciate you all.

For this teach-out, we reflected on what are some of the commonalities on which these solidarities are forged, and we felt that the spirit of this action could be summarised in the strike slogan: Another university is possible.

Because we think that another university is possible, we wanted to take this opportunity to engage in some conversations about pedagogy and what those of us engaged in teaching and learning see as the politics and potential of education.

We want to start our intervention with a recognition of the ambivalent political potential of education. Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire famously argued that education can serve either as a tool of domination, as a system which perpetuates oppressive structures; or as the practice of freedom.

On the former, many different philosophers have drawn our attention to the potential of education to uphold structures of domination. Schools, as Michel Foucault drew our attention to, have been honed by surveillance techniques to ensure the permanent visibility of students and have developed modes of measuring and quantifying achievement as a disciplinary technology. Such systems produce what Foucault (1991, 153) calls ‘docile bodies’ – subjects that are productive citizens in the realm of the economy and in the paradigm of heteronormative reproductivity.

Freire highlights that one of the mechanisms of education as a tool of domination is based on the ‘banking system’ of educational practice. The banking system sees students as empty vessels and the teacher as a jug of knowledge, who fills these empty vessels with information. This paradigm of education assumes that pedagogy is about transferring knowledge from one container or account into another, aptly using a monetised metaphor.

In contrast to this mode of education, Freire and the many strands of liberatory pedagogy that draw on his work see political promise and possibility in developing a mode of education that works as the practice of freedom. In contrast to the banking model of education, education as the practice of freedom recognises that students, too, are subjects with their own life experiences, hopes and dreams, all of which they bring to the pedagogic encounter. In this model, education is less about transfer of knowledge than about seeing knowledge itself as co-constructed and intersubjective. This mode of education requires disrupting traditional hierarchies of knowledge in the classroom; it requires unlearning entrenched habits and questioning received truths. It is not always a comfortable process, but one that calls for an ethic of care as we question structures of power that we ourselves may be deeply implicated in.

This mode of education, liberatory pedagogy argues, doesn’t transfer pre-existing knowledge to students, but rather enables people to ‘develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but a reality in process, in transformation’ (Freire 2005, 83, emphasis in original). Seeing the world as reality in process, in turn allows us to recognise that the world is not only changeable, but that perhaps it ought to be changed (Milliken 1999, 244). Therein lies the liberatory potential of education as the practice of freedom.

protest sign reading Another university is possible

Photograph by Aiko Holvikivi

Dismantling, Rebuilding: A feminist pedagogic approach

We want to hold onto this ambivalence that education can both be a tool of domination but also a practice of freedom and ask: What can feminist thinking and feminist approaches to pedagogy bring to the table in imagining worlds, universities, institutions, ourselves and how we relate to each other differently? How can we then collectivise to build these spaces that we are insistently imagining and often daydreaming about? As Black feminist scholar bell hooks, who recently passed away leaving behind a rich legacy of thinking and being for generations of feminists, writes in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom:

My commitment to engaged pedagogy is an expression of political activism. Given that our educational institutions are so deeply invested in a banking system, teachers are more rewarded when we do not teach against the grain. The choice to work against the grain, to challenge the status quo, often has negative consequences. And that is part of what makes that choice one that is not politically neutral. In colleges and universities, teaching is often the least valued of our many professional tasks. It saddens me that colleagues are often suspicious of teachers whom students long to study with. And there is a tendency to undermine the professarial commitment of engaged pedagogues by suggesting that what we do is not as rigorously academic as it should be. Ideally, education should be a place where the need for diverse teaching methods and styles would be valued, encouraged, seen as essential to learning (hooks 1994, 201).

We now want to highlight three practices of dismantling and rebuilding that feminist approaches to pedagogy offer us: critique as praxis, solidarity and coalitional thinking and use of bodies, affects, knowledges and lifeworlds that challenge capitalist and colonial ways of thinking and being in this world. We remain indebted to Black feminist, postcolonial, anti-imperialist and anticolonial thinkers who have created this philosophical and political foundation for us, and on whose shoulders we stand and agitate here today.

Feminist pedagogies provide us with the tools to unpack and critique how existing structures we inhabit and are aligned against or at times may even benefit from are built on logics of exclusion and oppression. In the context of our university strike action, it tells us how institutions like the university too are built on legacies of exclusions — these are histories and presents of British colonialism, coloniality, scientific racism, exploitation of marginalised communities, academic extractivism that in ongoing ways reify racial, gender and class hierarchies. In thinking with Audre Lorde (1984), the university can be seen as a room of the master’s house. And as such, we need tools, strategies, practices that are not from the master’s arsenal but built on philosophies of care, coalition, radical solidarity and collective thinking that do not paper over or seek to erase differences but teach us how to work with them as we develop our critique (Nagar 2018).

Feminist critique allows us to see the strike as a result of and collective response to neoliberalisation of higher education, casualisation of labour, systematic devaluing of teaching, quantification of research and marketisation of the university. These processes are not seamless but built on contradictions and tensions. But unless we can identify them, how do we build a critique and imagine differently? To cite hooks again:

If we examine critically the traditional role of the university in the pursuit of truth and the sharing of knowledge and information, it is painfully clear that biases that uphold and maintain white supremacy, imperialism, sexism, and racism have distorted education so that it is no longer about the practice of freedom. The call for a recognition of cultural diversity, a rethinking of ways of knowing, a deconstruction of old epistemologies, and the concomitant demand that there be a transformation in our classrooms, in how we teach and what we teach, has been a necessary revolution- one that seeks to restore life to a corrupt and dying academy (1994, 29-30)

Which brings us to our second point on how feminist pedagogical approaches open up space for solidarity building through differences and with coalitional thinking. Regardless of our work contracts or our status in the university; some are permanent staff, others are students, many others are on precarious fixed term contracts. We are also joined by and join our library and administrative staff and contract-based cleaners and other workers at the LSE. Postgraduate research students like me (Niharika) who are also teachers occupy an in-between space — as neither staff nor students yet both staff and students. These structures thrive on different forms of access to material resources. They survive on added, unrecognised and devalued workloads. But as feminists, we recognise and practice that indeed OneofUs is AllofUs. As thinkers, teachers, activists and researchers we reject thinking in silos but recognise the interconnectedness of our struggles as we imagine radically different worlds. After Lorde (1984), we too believe that “coalition-building is not easy. You don’t make coalition because you like those in the coalition. You make coalition because none of us are going to triumph alone.”

Finally, feminist pedagogical approaches centre and make use of affects — our responses, feelings of discomfort, alienation, dissonance and anger as we inhabit different spaces. These are not emotional excesses to be shed but acknowledged and used as productive ways of seeing the world. If we are overworked, underpaid and exhausted by the university, our feelings of exhaustion, as feminists tell us, are not individual or pathological but built on structures that run and thrive precisely because they can exhaust us. In this way, recognising our experiences, listening to struggles, collectivising across issues can happen when we channelise anger, exhaustion, alienation as generative resources and means to imagining and realising these worlds. These worlds do not just exist, they are possible!

Arundhati Roy (2014) articulates it beautifully: Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing. 

Practising feminist pedagogy in the neoliberal university

Of course, we must recognise that we continue to live and work in institutions that were not and are not made for this kind of project – and for many, not made for people like us, with bodies like ours. How else could we explain that the sector has a 17% pay gap between white and Black staff; that it has a 15% gender pay gap; and a 9% disability pay gap? No, these figures tell us about who these institutions were made for.

But in spite of that, we work on carving out spaces for imagining another kind of university. Sometimes it is through stark embodied and material acts such as walking out of our classrooms; withdrawing our labour in collective strike action. But this project continues through our conversations every day. After all, an important prerequisite to doing any of this is creating the conditions of thinkability of such collective projects in the first place. The work of building another kind of university begins in imagining it. We imagine it every day in the conversations we have in our classrooms and offices, in the continuous work of negotiating how we – staff and students – carry out the collective labour of building learning environments that reflect our theorisation and our political commitments.

As feminist pedagogies in their multitudinous incarnations remind us, here, as everywhere, positionality matters. There is no action from nowhere. We are not coming to this fight from the same positions. We know so intimately how different the world looks and how differently the world looks at us depending on how our bodies are marked in terms of race, gender, ability, and class position. But the hierarchies of academia also place us in different positions. From struggles with student debt; to precarious – or perhaps more accurately, precaritised employment; to falling pay; to overwork; to gender, race and disability pay gaps; to cuts to pensions: our struggles could be seen as distinct.

But if we focus our analyses on the marketisation of education, on the neoliberal paradigm which figures students as consumers from whom evermore profit can be extracted; and staff as education entrepreneurs from whom ever more productivity can be demanded; if we focus on the practices which hinder our attempts to create spaces of collaborative knowledge production and learning that feminist pedagogies call for, we can build solidarities. Indeed, this strike action really has been a pedagogy of solidarity and collective action. For that we thank you.

In the feminist tradition of coalitional thinking, we’d like to end with a part of ‘Diving Into the Wreck’ (1973), a poem by feminist poet and author Adrienne Rich:

I came to explore the wreck.

The words are purposes.

The words are maps.

I came to see the damage that was done

and the treasures that prevail.

I stroke the beam of my lamp

slowly along the flank

of something more permanent

than fish or weed

the thing I came for:

the wreck and not the story of the wreck

the thing itself and not the myth

the drowned face always staring

toward the sun

the evidence of damage

worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty

the ribs of the disaster

curving their assertion

among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.

And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair

streams black, the merman in his armored body.

We circle silently

about the wreck

we dive into the hold.

I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes

whose breasts still bear the stress

whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies

obscurely inside barrels

half-wedged and left to rot

we are the half-destroyed instruments

that once held to a course

the water-eaten log

the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are

by cowardice or courage

the one who find our way

back to this scene

carrying a knife, a camera

a book of myths

in which

our names do not appear.

Aiko Holvikivi is Assistant Professor of Gender, Peace and Security at the LSE Department of Gender Studies. Her research examines how gender is conceptualised, taught and learned in different spaces. Aiko’s work appears in Signs (forthcoming 2022), International Peacekeeping (2021), European Journal of International Security (2020) and European Journal of Politics and Gender (2019). She tweets at @aikoiiris.

Niharika Pandit is a doctoral researcher and teacher at the LSE Department of Gender Studies. Her research is an anticolonial feminist enquiry into everyday politics of living under military occupation in the Kashmir valley and analyses (post)coloniality in relation to space, time, embodiment and counterpolitics. She has published with Feminist Theory (forthcoming 2022), Kohl: A Journal for Body and Gender Research (2021), Economic and Political Weekly (2019). She tweets at @nihaarikaan.

Photograph by Nazanin Shahrokni. December 3, 2021, outside LSE Library

* Author names appear in alphabetical order. Both authors contributed equally.