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Teaching Courses on Gender In Russian Institutions of Higher Education: Investigating Cases of Student Resistance

Teaching Courses on Gender In Russian Institutions of Higher Education: Investigating Cases of Student Resistance
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  Natalia NovikovaDepartment of HistoryYaroslavl State Pedagogical UniversityYaroslavl, Russia Teaching Courses on Gender in Russian Institutions of Higher Education:Investigating Cases of Student ResistanceAbstract This research is focused on students’ reluctance to participate in class work and the impact that reluctancehas on student learning. This paper attempts to explore the motives behind this reluctance along with theways students have to express that reluctance to studying gender issues. In this paper I will look at variousstudent learning “strategies” of open and hidden resistance to course material, and how students’particular ways of resistance affect their learning process. The data has been collected during the 2007-2008 academic year at the History Department of the Yaroslavl State Pedagogical University. This studyhas reasserted that university discourse reflects and reinforces patriarchal social structures and ideologies.This is particularly visible in classrooms where students study gender issues – the inquiry area thatchallenges existing social hierarchy and questions the ways of production of knowledge. The classroombeing not a gender-neutral site becomes an arena where hegemonic and critical ideologies encounter eachother and this often results in students’ resistance to the course content, methods of its presentation andmessage. In these particular cases, reluctant students show their opposition to studying in ways thatconform to established models of exercising power, representing dominance or subordination. Introduction The trajectory of women’s and gender studies in Russia has made almost a fullcircle during my fifteen years’ teaching in the university. “Democratic euphoria” of early 1990s helped with establishing these research fields. A. Posadskaya-Vanderbeck,a pioneer in the discipline, wrote in 1997 about strong need ‘to develop a Russian-basedbody of research, conducted under the auspices of the Academy of Sciences, that can be  2the core of women’s studies educational programs’.1She optimistically spoke about theproblem of bringing feminism into the curriculum and proposed a strategy for thepromotion of women’s studies in schools that she called “go slow”. As she put it,‘finding a theory of feminist education seems to be a step that requires a lot of carefulthought because the consequences, positive or negative, could be very crucial for thewhole agenda of feminism in Russia’.2Today, the entire social and political environment is not so friendly towards theadvance of gender issues while many scholars speak about a patriarchal revival in thecountry. In her recent book, N. Pushkareva, a leading expert in the women’s and genderhistory, has noted that ‘again, gender studies have to reclaim its right to be anacknowledged academic area’ and ‘gender is not a fashionable topic any more’.3Although women’s and gender studies have became a recognized part of theuniversities’ curricula in Russia, both models of training and content of courses arestrongly determined by dominant academic discourses and women’s and gender studiesplay minor role in historical education. Consequently, all attempts of scholarly analysisof gender courses’ implementation and teaching strategies in the Russian context havebeen reduced to examination of various institutional difficulties which impede thediscipline’s progress (see Shnyrova, Pushkareva, Sukovataya, Trubina).Being far from the idea to dismiss these considerations, I would propose to shiftthe focus from the power institutions’ politics or university curriculum development tothe issues of interrelations between students and teacher in the class, students’ 1 A. Posadskaya-Vanderbeck, “On the Threshold of the Classroom. Dilemmas for Post-Soviet Russianfeminism,” in Joan W. Scott, Cora Kaplan and Debra Keates (eds), Transitions, Environments,Translations. Feminisms in International Politics (New York and London: Routledge, 1997), 380. 2 Ibid., 373. 3 N. Pushkareva, Gendernaya teoriya i istoricheskoe znanie (Gender theory and historical knowledge) (StPetersburg: Aleteya, 2007), 7.  3perception of courses on women and gender and to the process of learning. As we allunderstand, sexism, ethnocentrism, other dominant ideologies which R. Ng calledpower dynamics,4operate in everyday life and affect how our formal authority asfeminist teachers is perceived and received by students as well as in actual students’learning outcomes. Such a perspective seems to be even more relevant to the situationwhen successful development of gender studies depends not on administrative measuresbut on the efforts and determination of all interested educationalists and researchers (aswell as activists) in the field.My own experience has forced me to think about these problems. I startedteaching various courses on women’s and gender history about ten years ago; then suchcourses had been placed into the curriculum as elective ones. Therefore, for quite a longtime, I had been meeting in my class many students highly motivated to study theadvertised topics. Only recently I faced the problem when some students demonstratelack of understanding or even unwillingness to accept the course material. Indeed,sometimes we are too certain that the ideas in the core of our teaching are so attractivethat it would be no problem to convert students to our beliefs, which, of course, is nottrue. Some cases in the class which I immediately identified as my professional faultstimulated my interest in the nature of students’ learning. This research is focused onstudents’ reluctance to participate in class work and the impact that reluctance has onstudent learning. This paper attempts to explore the motives behind this reluctancealong with the ways students have to express that reluctance to studying gender issues.In this paper I will look at various student learning “strategies” of open and hidden 4 R. Ng, '”A Woman Out of Control”: Deconstructing Sexism and Racism in the University’, Canadian Journal of Education , 18:3 (1993), 190.  4resistance to course material, and how students’ particular ways of resistance affect theirlearning process. Theoretical framework There is a body of scholarly texts and educational literature devoted to reluctantlearners and various ways of handling difficult situations in pedagogical practice. Manylook as practical guides aimed at providing teachers (especially of high schools orcolleges) with tools and recipes for classroom success.5Another, reflective approachdiffers by its close attention to a variety of expressions of students’ oppositionalbehavior, contextual analysis of the motives behind their reluctance and its effect ontheir learning.6The concept of resistance has been emphasized in the framework of critical theory, poststructuralist and feminist theory and has constituted an essential lineof argument within critical pedagogy. The study of that many-sided phenomenon inNorth America, for example, has helped to develop the resistance theory which initiallyhad been applied to the experience of minority students who, as the theory asserts,actively or passively resist and reject the implicit and explicit messages attacking theirethnic identity.7There is no consensus today on whether feminist pedagogy is conceived ashaving strong ties with or even being an example of critical pedagogy in action, orbeing an autonomous trend opposed to “paternalistic” critical pedagogy in general, and 5 See, for example, Billie Donegan, Coaching Reluctant Learners, A Practical Framework for ClassroomSuccess: Engaging the Brain & Heart of Today’s Student  , Greenleaf & Papanek Publications, 2006. Forthe most part such a literature srcinates in North America. In Russia, there are some translations of thatsort of writing. 6 Arleen Lyda Pare,  Attending to Resistance: An Ethnographic Study of Resistance and Attendance in an Adult Basic Education Classroom , MA Thesis… Retrieved 27.09.2007 from  7 Trainor, J. ‘Resistance Theory and Classroom Dynamics: What Research Tells Us About Students’Responses to Critical Pedagogies’, Abstract of the paper presented at the annual meeting of the AmericanStudies Association. Retrieved 27.09.2007 at http://www/  5Paolo Freire’s version in particular. However, for the purpose of this study, it isimportant to accent some prepositions common to the practice of critical and feministpedagogies as these teaching principles I have been trying to put in the center of myown educational activity. According to Kathleen Weiler, “Feminist theory, like othercontemporary approaches, validates differences, challenges universal claims to truth,and seeks to create social transformation in a world of shifting and uncertain meanings.In education, these profound shifts are evident on two levels: first, at the level of practice, as excluded and formerly silenced groups challenge dominant approaches of learning and to definitions of knowledge; and second, at the level of theory, asmodernist claims to universal truth are called into question”.8Obviously, criticalpedagogy and feminist pedagogy share the assumptions about oppression and the visionof social transformation and about “women and men as conscious beings, andconsciousness as consciousness intent upon the world”.9Among other characteristics of the feminist (and critical) approach to teaching one must name the understanding of education as the practice of freedom – as opposed to education as the practice of domination, cooperation between class participants, power-sharing, negotiation andconscious-raising activity – all that can provide an academic environment stimulatingmeaningful learning.P. Freire was convinced that “students, as they are increasingly posed withproblems relating to themselves in the world and with the world, will feel increasinglychallenged and obliged to respond to that challenge. Because they apprehend thechallenge as interrelated to other problems within a total context not as a theoreticalquestion, the resulting comprehension tends to be increasingly critical and thus 8 Weiler, Kathleen, ‘Freire and a Feminist Pedagogy of Difference’,  Harvard Educational Review 61: 4(November 1991), 449-450. 9 Freire, Paolo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed  , New York: Continuum Books, 1993….
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