With "feminist pedagogy," Laurie Finke practices what she professes.
"I begin each course," says Laurie Finke, "by telling the students that there is not a certain amount of material we have to cover. Rather, our task is to construct some kind of knowledge as a group."
Insisting that students actively spin the web of ideas that make a class work, refusing herself to play the role of omniscient authority, and thus refusing to let her students lapse into passive listening: for Finke, this stance not only cultivates more effective learning but also exemplifies the principle of questioning power relationships — in the classroom, in life, It is "feminist pedagogy," a way of practicing what she professes.
Professor and practitioner Laurie Finke has won a good deal of admiration since she came to Kenyon in 1992. A medievalist who is as conversant with contemporary literary theory and feminist scholarship as she is with the tropes of courtly love poetry, Finke directs the College's interdisciplinary concentration in women's and gender studies.
The job is a multifaceted one, and Finke brings extraordinary energy to every part of it. She serves as teacher, administrator, advisor, impresario, and resource person-often astonishing her colleagues with the breadth of her knowledge as well as her prolific use of e-mail and the Internet. Finke is equally prolific as a scholar, one who can range far from the medieval world but who frequently returns, employing new approaches to shed light on old texts.
And she does it all with an openness and good-humored manner that make it look, if not effortless, at least enjoyable.
The concentration, instituted in 1990, encompasses courses specifically in the discipline of women's and gender studies along with cross-listed courses from a wide range of other fields, Faculty members in anthropology, biology, economics, English, French, German, history, music, and religion all contribute to an understanding of gender as a central phenomenon in human experience, one that influences personal life as well as the social and cultural institutions that shape society.
When she teaches "Introduction to Women's and Gender Studies," Finke takes up many of the issues that define the field, from discrimination and sexual harassment to images of sex and gender in the arts and the media, To help convey the concept of gender as a "social construction," she has students keep a twenty-four-hour "gender diary," recording every act and experience that "genders" them, or assigns them a male or female role, whether it be the way they dress or the way people speak to them,
"I want to shake up their notion that gender is a fixed, unchanging quality," Finke says, "I want them to see it as a verb, not a noun; as a process that goes on all the time," The diary, she believes, can help students analyze the cultural forces that influence gender roles and gender relations.
If gender is the organizing concept of the field, then the methods of feminist scholarship define its approach, For example, this spring's senior seminar in the concentration, entitled "The Streets," explores the ways that public and private spaces become gendered, The course looks at such topics as homelessness, prostitution, welfare, and urban planning. In keeping with the interdisciplinary character of women's studies, the reading list includes novels and social criticism along with works in art, geography, history, philosophy, sociology, and theater. The course reflects feminism's interest in throwing into relief social structures often taken for granted, as well as in revealing links between everyday life and broader political and economic forces, Implicit, too, is a focus on social injustice and the possibilities for change.
Above all, the course was conceived and planned by students; and students, through a process of negotiation with Finke, determined the course requirements, As Finke sees it, what better way to make the senior seminar a "capstone experience" — challenging students to integrate research skills, prior knowledge, critical thinking, and intellectual imagination in a project of their own-than by having them design it? Thus, every fall Finke gathers the senior women's and gender studies "concentrators" and asks them to choose a topic, pick readings, and draft a syllabus for the coming spring's seminar.
"The Streets," for example, grew out of a student's thoughts on what it felt like, as a woman, simply to walk down a street. Finke helped the group amplify and extend this original concept, suggested possible readings, and provided guidance on theoretical underpinnings, But the course belongs to the students.
When Finke talks about "feminist pedagogy," she is referring to this transformation of the classroom from a "teacher-centered" to a "studentcentered" place; from a place where the teacher imparts knowledge, sets expectations, and controls discussion to one where students actively participate in formulating questions and seeking answers, While Finke acknowledges that she, as the professor, retains various kinds of authority in her classes, she believes in "de-centering" that authority, Feminist pedagogy entails "a recognition of how power works in the classroom," not only the teacher's power but also the competition among students; how a particular situation can silence some people and embolden others.
In practice, this approach means that Finke insists on and respects student participation — through discussion, group projects, and individual presentations, for example. And she insists that students talk not only to her but also to one another. "She treats us as equals," says Lesley Wiseman '95, who took several courses with Finke. "She's as interested in our work as she is in her own. She doesn't condescend to students, and she encourages others not to, either."
Professor of Anthropology Rita S. Kipp, who has seen Finke teach, notes, "She doesn't spoon-feed students; she expects them to construct their own understandings of things. And that's not always comfortable or easy. It's easier when somebody tells you, 'Here's what I want you to learn. Memorize this."'
Why is this emphasis on more active, less teacher-directed learning necessarily "feminist?" Finke's response is that while this approach doesn't belong to feminism, it is integral to feminism. "It's how things are done within the field," she says. "Other fields may use this kind of pedagogy, but feminism as a kind of community does things in this particular way."
She makes the same point about feminist methodologies — for example, the practice of identifying with one's research subjects or reflecting on one's own position as a researcher, rather than striving for a distanced, objective viewpoint ( which many would dismiss as an illusion in any case). "Feminist research is not only about women," she says, "but also in some ways for women."
Finke grew up in Dayton, Ohio, with a sister and six brothers. "I was sort of raised as a male," she recalls with amusement. "I never had the sense that there was some female role I had to fit into." Her background, she says, influenced her view of gender as a fluid set of relations rather than a biologically predetermined trait. She tends to resist strands of feminism that posit some immutable essence in the female as opposed to the male. "It's just not that simple," she asserts.
Having always been drawn to "old history" and romances, Finke designed her own major in medieval studies at Lake Forest College in Illinois. Although her bachelor's degree as well as her Ph.D. (from the University of Pennsylvania) are in English, she studied a good deal of history and philosophy, along with, as she recalls, "at least nine dead languages," including Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Old Icelandic, Old Irish, and Middle High German.
Emerging from graduate school during the glutted academic job market of the late 1970s, Finke spent five years in temporary jobs, teaching primarily English composition. She found herself increasingly interested in feminist scholarship and literary theory, so that by the time she landed a job in medieval literature — at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon — she had effectively retrained herself. She had become a medievalist who loved teaching feminist theory as well as Chaucer. And her expertise in women's studies had grown to the point where she was able to help the college design and administer a gender-studies minor.
It was at Lewis and Clark, too, that she began juggling the demands of parenthood and a "commuting marriage," thus experiencing firsthand a particularly intense version of the professional and family pressures faced by many women today. (Finke's husband, Robert Markley, currently teaches English at West Virginia University; their son, Stephen, and daughter, Hannah, live in Gambier with Finke.)
Despite a hectic daily routine that typically includes driving kids to basketball and swimming practices, Finke sustains an impressive pace of scholarly activity. She writes numerous articles and reviews, frequently delivers papers at conferences, and serves as an outside reader for nine journals and five publishers. She has coedited three books and published one of her own, "Feminist Theory, Women's Writing" (1992).
A summer stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled her to spend six weeks in Great Britain last summer, researching a book on English women writers in the Middle Ages. She is also working on a book about the Arthurian Chronicles, examining the Arthurian legend as "an imperialist myth" of the Normans who conquered England.
Finke is interested in the economic, political, and social contexts from which literature arises-the historical conflicts and "local controversies" surrounding writers. She analyzes the troubadours' poetry, for instance, in terms of the individual poets' aspirations for economic and political advancement: courtly love was a coded way of establishing a relationship with a woman of higher rank, whose husband was in a position to dispense patronage.
Finke's wide-ranging scholarly activity makes her a valuable resource for women's studies at Kenyon. She seems indefatigable about keeping up with current developments in both feminism and literary theory, and she continually passes along information she knows will be of interest to individual faculty members and students. She also maintains an electronic bulletin board on the College's computer network, where she lists bibliographies, calls for papers, conference announcements, graduatestudy opportunities, and upcoming events and exhibits.
In addition, before classes begin every August, Finke organizes a workshop for her fellow faculty members on some aspect of women's studies. Last year's session was devoted to gender and science, for example. The year before, the discussion was on feminist methodologies.
Many faculty members have come to rely on her. They consult her if they want to incorporate gender issues in a class. They ask her to read papers they're writing. They ask for suggestions on reading. They refer students to her with questions.
They also feel inspired by her. She is a catalyst for them. "Laurie is continually pushing me to think about what I'm doing as a writer and a teacher," says Professor of Psychology Michael Levine. "She instills in me a confidence to experiment in teaching, a confidence that these seemingly radical experiments in the classroom can work, in terms of students learning more and in terms of my learning more about teaching."
She pushes, moreover, without being dogmatic — pushes by the example she sets. "There's this stereotype of the feminist," Levine continues, "as a strident, bitter woman who imposes her opinions on others. But Laurie isn't propagandistic or totalitarian in the least. I would want my children to study with Laurie, not because she would tell them the way things are but because she would stimulate them to keep thinking about the way things are from a variety of perspectives."
Professor of Psychology Linda M. Smolak, a veteran of the original faculty battles over women's studies during the 1980s and one of the designers of the concentration, praises Finke for making the program a dynamic and highly visible one on campus and, through her scholarly activity, for making Kenyon visible in the realm of feminist scholarship. "She's a strong teacher-scholar in the College's tradition," Smolak says.
Smolak also points out that Finke has been able to build bridges between the different factions within the feminist community at Kenyon-chiefly, between those who want the women's and gender studies program to be primarily scholarly and theoretical and those who want a more practical, activist role for it.
Indeed, Finke believes that if the College's program is developing a distinctive character, it involves "a foregrounding of the conflicts that feminism encompasses." Feminism "is not a monolithic stance," she notes. "It has lots of conflicts, and conflict can be a very productive thing."
Rather than try to avoid or resolve all conflicts, Finke says, Kenyon's program serves students best by acknowledging conflict. Study conflicts. Probe them for the underlying assumptions they reveal. In Finke's words, "Let students grapple with them."
For readers interested in women's literature, feminist theory and the insights that feminist scholarships brings to medieval studies, Laurie Finke recommends the following books:
A wonderful novel about growing up as a Chinese-American, blending American realism and the fantastic world of Chinese legends.
A story about two sisters attempting to discover purpose in their lives, one in Nicaragua, the other in their small home town in Arizona.
A novel, in the style of magical realism, telling the story of three generations of women from a wealthy Chilean family.
An unflinching story about childhood abuse that also sensitively humanizes a group often vilified as "redneck" or "white trash."
A study, by Finke's favorite theorist ("because she takes so many risks"), of the field of primatology as a site of struggle involving race, gender and colonial domination. One chapter, "Teddy Bear Patriarchy," tells the story of the making of a gorilla diorama at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
An unorthodox look at gender and race from both a personal and legal perspective, with commentary on Beethoven, Bennetons and polar bears, with a chilling discussion of the original bill of sale for Williams's enslaved great-great-grandmother.
An important critical examination of the scientific research on sex difference — a "must-read," says Finke, "given the hold that sociobiology still has on the popular imagination."
A well-written, lavishly illustrated introduction to the life of medieval women. It is the second volume of Harvard's admirable "History of Women" series.
A fascinating study of how the Middle Ages viewed the body, including the idea, so contrary to modern thinking, that biological sex is fluid rather than fixed, while gender is an immutable given.
Dan Laskin, a freelance writer, is a member of the Contributing Writers Group of the Bulletin. He lives near Gambier with his wife, Associate Professor of French Jane Cowles, and their sons, Alex and Gregory.