I did! That’s how this whole feminist friendship thing started. But I’m no longer teaching my regular courses, which created the perfect opportunity I’ve been waiting for to change my methods and try something new!
* * *
In the spring of 2016, I introduced an experimental course I had just designed called, “Feminist Friendship.” It was to be a follow-up course, of sorts, to the feminist theory and feminist philosophy courses I had been teaching for years.
I love teaching theory because it has the power to change your perspective, to add language to experience, to shape how you see the world in new ways. For me, and for many of my students, an introduction to feminist theory was a life-changer.
But students would consistently end the semester with an air of concern and alienation. They would report, “I feel like this has changed my whole way of thinking and I feel very passionate about these issues, but I just can’t figure out how to talk with my friends and family now. I try to tell them all these things I’ve learned over the semester, but it’s just so hard and frustrating for me to connect with them when they haven’t been in all these class discussions.”
It can be very hard to share a sense of understanding with others if we don’t share similar language, values, and concepts. Even more so if we don’t have the same background knowledge, readings, or cultural context.
Still, I felt like I was leaving my students hanging without giving them the proper skills they needed to connect. We stressed that the learning process must be open-ended and on-going, but if they were unable to connect theory to living – connect those ideas to meaningful practices and communicate with others – then I wasn’t taking them far enough.
The feminist friendship course was my attempt to highlight where and how so much feminist theory has been insufficient for making deep, lasting change, even in how feminists do their work for liberation (including in my own journey and process of learning). It was an effort to bring the insights of feminist theory back to some basic practices so that we might really make sense of Maya Angelou’s famous quote, “When you know better, you do better.”
The question was, “If now we know better, what sort of feminist practices might we engage in for the sake of solidarity, support, and strength across our differences?”
Of course, the key takeaways of feminist friendship were never terribly esoteric:
- Engage in genuine dialogue with those who are different from you.
- Seek to understand the nuance of another person’s experience before you offer support.
- Learn to see oneself as others see you, especially if you have privilege, and even when it is an ugly view.
- Listen to others and let them speak for themselves.
- Remain critically reflective about one’s own biases, prejudices, fears, and insecurities that inform how one sees the world and others.
- Check your arrogance and defensiveness – work through your own ignorance.
- Respect and learn from the historical wisdom of those who have been doing this work for decades before you. It may be new to you, but that does not mean that the wisdom or insight is new. (One should wonder, “Why have I not known this already? Why didn’t I learn this earlier?”)
- If you do not genuinely care about others and support their liberation, then the best thing to do is just get out of their way. Do not make it harder for people to live.
- Don’t assume people will invest in supporting your growth until you engage in the hard work of reflecting on how you oppress others and demonstrate that you are worthy of someone else’s friendship.
Truth be told, the course was never designed to make students become friends with one another. We didn’t even engage in much genuine, reciprocal dialogue since we were largely focused on working through historical texts that named persistent shortcomings among white women and women of color to connect. But I don’t think that made it a failure of a course.
Instead, the feminist friendship course was designed to help students see why it is so difficult to connect across difference by reading personal essays and letters about how we (continue to) fail each other. We harbor oppressive beliefs about others. We harbor oppressive beliefs about ourselves. And there are many prior conditions – like trust, humility, self-reflexivity, honesty, and care – that need to be realized before we are likely to build revolutionary types of intimate relationships with those who are different from us.
The feminist friendship course set out to consistently remind students that there is so much work to do within ourselves and our own personal relationships to genuinely approach one another from a place of love and caring, which is a crucial starting place for our activism, our political struggle, and for the sake of our collective healing.
* * *
After almost ten years of teaching undergraduate courses and three years of learning with students about the nature of feminist friendship, I’ve reached a point in my life, in my career, and in my own personal journey where I’m seeking to expand myself as an educator.
I want to experiment with pedagogy. I want to explore new platforms for doing engaging work. I want to connect with more student-teachers and teacher-students beyond a classroom on a college campus. I want to continue believing in the transformative power of sharing ourselves with those who care and want to learn, even if we never meet in person.
I want to ask questions like, “What potential is there for raising a critical mass of social and political consciousness? In what ways can we share our collective knowledge, wisdom, insight, and experience to change ourselves and the world? How hungry are we, as people living in this particular historical moment, to learn how we can do better?”
For this project, I’m inspired by the work of others like Frank Leon Roberts with the Black Lives Matter Syllabus. While the nature of this online endeavor is different, it is rooted in similar goals of critical, liberatory, and public pedagogy.
If you would like to see the structure and reading schedule for the feminist friendship class, here is my course syllabus for Spring 2018: Feminist Friendship Syllabus – Dr. Cori Wong (Please give credit if you use this as a resource.)