Originally published on Ravishly and republished here with their permission.
With the school year gearing up again (and, um, my amazement at the space-time continuum at an all-time high), more and more listicles are coming out on how to get ready for Back to School.
And while I know how important it is to finish your summer reading list, find the best textbook deals on Amazon (pro tip: rent instead of buy), and score the greatest office supplies, I also know that sometimes, for us feminists, there’s something else we need help with: figuring out how to use our feminism to advance (or, hey, interrupt) the classroom environment.
Here are five ways to start:
1. Go Out of Your Way to Study People Who Aren’t Straight, White, Cis Men
Straight, white, cis men as a whole clearly aren’t a monolith of a lack of insight, but as the most privileged group in the world with the most power, they sure as hell have ruled the academic airwaves, so to speak, for—um—ever.
And especially here in the West, every academic canon lazily prioritizes their work as the be-all and end-all – hence why you can take a “19th Century American Literature” course, but also “African-American Lit” and “Women’s Lit,” as if the latter two didn’t contribute to the former.
So when it comes to your electives, choose the ones that pay homage to groups of people that don’t regularly get credit for existing. And when doing your own research projects, dig deeper to uncover more than, perhaps, what your library or JSTOR has on the surface to offer. And for goodness sake, choose classes taught by marginalized people.
We get enough free education from the straight, white, cis, male status quo. It’s time to broaden those horizons.
2. Speak Up More When You’re a Marginalized Person in the Room (And Shut Up More When You’re Not)
If you’re the only woman in your engineering or business class, raise your hand more. If you’re one of three people of color in your drama program, go for those lead roles. Make it abundantly obvious that you are in that space – and you deserve to be (and if any motherfucker brings up affirmative action, hand their ass to them).
Learn how to say “Excuse me, I’m not finished” when you get interrupted. Ask people to step-by-step clarify their oppressive statements (a la “I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I understand what you mean”). Allow yourself to be present and active in the setting.
And if you’re someone with more power than others (like, ya know, a straight, white, cis dude), and especially if you’re in a space where your power is more evident (like a white person in a Latin American history course), please do shush a little more.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t ever speak. You’re allowed to ask questions and participate in class discussion because you’re there to learn, too. Just remember that when it comes to sharing, the likelihood is that more learning will happen if you’re listening rather than talking.
3. Be ‘That Person’
Last school year, in a doctoral level class that I was taking, we were asked to shout out a list of words that we associate with scholars. It was an activity to get us thinking about why we were there, in a PhD program, and what we understood about scholarship.
The list on the board filled up with words like “ambitious,” “curious,” “intelligent,” and “dedicated.” And as my professor was wrapping up the activity, I sighed and raised my hand.
“Look, I don’t want to be ‘that person,’” I said, “but what about ‘privileged?’”
The two other known feminists in the room sighed with relief and shouted, “Yes! Thank you!”
And yet, every situation in which it’s time to say the thing that everything expects me to say and I don’t want to be the only one bringing it up, I feel awkward and uncomfortable – and then I say it, anyway.
A friend of mine in my program, a black woman, who frequently brings race into our class discussions once told me, “I don’t want to be ‘that person.’ I really don’t. But if no one else is going to say it, then I guess I have to.”
It’s annoying to others, but often times, it’s necessary. So go ahead and say it.
4. Own Your Academic Bias
There’s this myth in academia that all of our ideas are supposed to be unbiased.
“Unbiased” (or “objective”), in this case, is often an adjective openly used to describe the work of straight, white, cis men. But when you’re not of that group – and especially if you’re studying or arguing something related to your marginalization – people are quick to assume that your viewpoint is too biased or subjective to be taken seriously.
Remind folks that there’s actually no such thing as unbiased opinion because we’re all prey to socialization, which affects our understanding of the world, even in the quote-unquote “hard” sciences.
Remind folks that that there’s also no such thing as objective research because everyone brings values to the table in their work, regardless of how hard they and their team try to leave them at the door.
And remind folks that it’s actually perfectly, exactly, necessarily academically sound to work within a theoretical framework – and that perspectives like feminism, social constructivism, and radicalism are legitimate ones.
5. Turn Any Field of Study into a Feminist Field of Study
Often, I’ll get messages from folks telling me that they want to turn feminism into a career for themselves, but are already halfway through college, and are studying _____, where the blank represents some field that they think isn’t inherently feminist: like advertising, finance, or graphic design, for example.
And to that, I say: Make it feminist, then.
I don’t have a degree in Women’s Studies. My Bachelor’s degree is in English Education. And while English (as a liberal art) and education (as a social science) seem easy enough to mold into feminism, that definitely wasn’t my plan when I started school. I just wanted to be an English teacher.
But as my interests in gender and sexuality started to come up, I simply turned every possible assignment into a study of those subjects. I analyzed how Hemingway’s use of female sexual liberation in The Sun Also Rises as a plot device was actually actively anti-feminist. I studied how eating disorders affect academic performance in students – and what are schools are(n’t) doing about it. I made my chosen fields of study work for me.
And you can do that, too! Take the skills that you’re learning – like advertising, finance, or graphic design – and apply them to feminist efforts. What kind of ads can you envision that might help end rape culture on college campuses? Or what might being the Financial Director of a domestic violence organization look like, for instance?
Make your chosen fields of study work for you. Let your academics and your feminism collide.
Because if you ask me, there’s nothing more feminist than taking a space traditionally dominated by oppression and throwing your middle finger at it.
Melissa A. Fabello, Co-Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, is a body acceptance activist and sexuality scholar living in Philadelphia. She enjoys rainy days, tattoos, yin yoga, and Jurassic Park. She holds a B.S. in English Education from Boston University and an M.Ed. in Human Sexuality from Widener University. She is currently working on her PhD. She can be reached on Twitter @fyeahmfabello.
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