Searching for Openings: Institutional Politics and Feminist Pedagogy

Leslie Gates
Millersville University, USA

Citation: Gates, L. (2019). Searching for Openings: Institutional Politics and Feminist Pedagogy. Transdisciplinary Inquiry, Practice, and Possibilities in Art Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Libraries Open Publishing. DOI: 10.26209/arted50-04

The work of June King McFee, published in the proceedings of the 1965 Seminar, includes a call for art educators to attend to issues of culture and power in both the field of art education and the society. McFee argued that social problems do not belong only to political scientists and sociologists, but also to art educators. Decades of feminist theory and history demonstrate that one of the central social problems present between the 1965 seminar and this 50th anniversary is the issue of equity related to gender.

A number of art education scholars have attended specifically to issues of gender and sexuality since 1965. Through the National Art Education Association’s Women’s Caucus (established in 1976) and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Issues Caucus (established in 1996), issues of sexuality and gender are now more formally recognized as issues requiring special attention within art education. McFee’s recommendation that art educators need “greater flexibility in our use of categories,” and “more awareness of the possible alternatives to our assumptions than ever before,” can be applied directly to issues of gender and sexuality both in and outside of art education.

In the time between the 1965 seminar and today, scholars have applied feminist theory to many fields, including education. Feminist pedagogy, a “particular philosophy of and set of practices for classroom-based teaching that is informed by feminist theory and grounded in the principles of feminism,” (Crabtree, Sapp, & Licona, 2009, p. 1), is often enacted through deconstructing hierarchical relationships, creating community, and questioning assumptions. These goals, when applied to education, at times conflict with the policies and expectations of the institution in which I work. This paper presents my personal search for “openings,” inspired by the work of Maxine Greene.

Specifically, this paper critiques the patriarchal characteristics of institutions and presents my search for openings that requires me to negotiate my feminist pedagogy and institutional expectations. This works in attendance to McFee’s recommendation that we “do a great deal of research… as a basis for evaluating what might be possible…”

I share my experiences based on the belief that lived experience is legitimate knowledge through which we can “’test’ the adequacy” of systemic and institutional knowledge/expectations (Smith, 2008, p. 42). Furthermore, formal inquiry into one’s personal experience can function as research: questions can be both found and answered by observing and asking questions about everyday activities (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). Finally, by considering the contemporary challenges of enacting a feminist pedagogy within the current social and institutional structures, this paper argues that a search for openings becomes a necessary part of enacting a feminist art education pedagogy within any institution.

As a teacher educator working in the field of art education, there are aspects of my practice that seem inherently feminist. For instance, a tenet of feminist pedagogy is engaged, community-based learning. Students in programs of education engage directly with the field and intern in educational communities in various capacities throughout their certification programs. However, many aspects of my position make the practice of a feminist pedagogy more challenging and the conditions do not presuppose a feminist pedagogy. Some of these challenges are overt, and some are far subtler. Feminist pedagogy includes consideration of what is taught as well as how things are taught.

Feminist Pedagogy: How

First, thinking about how things are taught, there are a few challenges that immediately present themselves in educational institutions. Feminists seek to queer power relationships and create non-hierarchical relationships with their students. However, in institutions where feminist educators are required to give grades, have and police published attendance policies, and pre-determine learner outcomes unilaterally, one must search for “openings” that allow for the feminist educator to negotiate “what they believe is best and what they actually manage to practice” (Crabtree, et al, 2009, p. 1). Maxine Greene provided a model for those seeking to find ways forward. Greene wrote,

I am moved to resist walls and barricades, to discover openings somehow, to bring in sight the visions of justice and freedom that occupy me — and to do it without impinging on the dignity, the integrity of the art forms we are working…” (2009, pp. 9–10)

So, how does one go about finding these openings in an institution without impinging on the dignity and integrity of a feminist pedagogy?


The university where I work requires that a professor “establishes his or her own grading policy and states it clearly and in writing at the beginning of the course.” However, this policy does not prevent me from consulting with my students at the beginning of the course to see what they would like the grading policy to be, and turning their ideas in as my official policy. This opening allows me to capitalize on the fact that my students are future teachers, and engage them in a broader, critical conversations about grading practices using prompts such as:

  • Philosophically, why do we assign grades?
  • How are grades helpful and/or harmful?
  • How do you think grades should be determined for this course? Some options to consider:
    • Grade all or some assignments on their final “quality” (as defined by who?)
    • Grade all or some assignments based on students’ effort (measured how?)
    • Grade based on the presence or absence of the committed and required assignments regardless of quality?
    • Give unconditional As, Bs, Cs, Ds, or Fs to all students?
    • Other potential ideas?

Facilitating a conversation about the point of grades and adopting students’ policy as my own helps to queer the power relationship inherent in the teacher/student role and provides my students with the ability to question the assumptions that have surrounded grading practices for most of their educational careers.

Establishing Attendance Policies

The university where I work publishes guidelines about attendance policies and “supports departmental and faculty class attendance policies that are reflective of and consistent with university approved policies.” The list of excused absences from the university lists the traditional reasons: personal illness, death or critical illness in the family, participation in a university-sponsored activity, jury duty, military duties, and religious holidays. However, policing attendance seems antithetical to a feminist educator who desires not to hold their position of power over students. If I must create a class attendance policy, a feminist attendance policy that privileges relationships and is absent of teacher-imposed penalties might be a way of fulfilling university policy while enacting a feminist pedagogy. An example attendance policy from my syllabus reads,

This course will provide you with many opportunities to have conversations with your classmates about ideas. The opportunity to give and receive feedback in real time cannot be made up. If you are continuously late to class, frequently leave early, or miss class completely, your lack of participation will affect your relationship to our community and likely the quality of your work. Prioritize your attendance knowing we cannot recreate what you miss. When you are present in class, be physically and mentally present. Your classmates and instructor lose out when you “check out.” Use any technology you have available to assist in your learning rather than to distract you from it.

Such a policy does not outline specific infractions and penalties. Instead, missing out on class naturally penalizes the student for not coming to class. The effects of the student’s autonomous decision to not to attend class hurts the entire community, but mostly limits the student’s own learning. I choose to not demonstrate my power by penalizing the student for making decisions based on their wants and needs.

Developing Learner Outcomes

Perhaps one of the most daunting tasks of teaching is the idea of creating goals or outcomes for the students before ever having met them. This issue must be attended to on two levels for teacher educators. For instance, I am expected to teach courses with defined course outcomes that have been approved through our university governance process. Students only inform those outcomes insofar as the author of the course takes into consideration the needs of the students present in the program as the course is re/written. However, one of the central tasks of teacher educators is preparing teachers to design curricula and lessons for their future students, whom they do not yet know. Just this past week in a methods class I teach, a student critiqued another student for not identifying specific artists she might use to exemplify the concept of her unit plan she was drafting. The accused student responded by stating that she felt uncomfortable choosing artists without knowing the students and their interests. Worth pointing out is that no one in the class then critiqued my teaching practice or the assignment itself. The class discussion could have turned to the merits of writing a unit plan without any particular considerations of the students for whom the learning experience is designed, and the quality of my teaching for not facilitating such a conversation. However, the power dynamics present in the institutionalized teacher/student relationship might have prevented students recognizing their own agency to question the tasks or the pedagogy of their teacher.

One opening I have considered as a way of potentially mitigating this difficulty is for me to provide the students with the university-approved goals of the course and allow them to design their own learning experiences and timelines for meeting those goals.

A further complication related to pre-determined learner outcomes are the additional non-negotiable mandates for students seeking certification to teach. These mandates from certification and accreditation agencies may further limit the authority students have about their own learning. While one could argue students could also be presented with these non-negotiables and decide individually how to meet those requirements, allowing students to make individual arrangements to “complete 120 hours of field experiences during this course” may complicate the relationship between the professor and field placement offices on campus as well as relationships with local schools.

Feminist Pedagogy: What

Similarly to a feminist pedagogy including how things are taught, what is taught also can create tensions within institutions. The question, “Did she just go there?” is a (likely outdated) colloquial phrase or question used when someone challenges socially accepted norms while speaking. Feminist practice is doing just that in many ways — going there, whenever “there” happens to be speaking up for marginalized groups, criticizing oppressive people and structures, and pointing out issues of racism/sexism/classism, etc. However, if social problems belong to art educators as McFee suggested, this is an essential part of feminist pedagogy in art education.

Recently I have spoken more freely both in my classroom, in public forums, and with the press about harmful educational policies related to standardized testing and the corporations that benefit from those educational policies. In so doing, my work as a feminist educator attempts to decolonize minds and hearts. My feminist pedagogy includes a movement against education practices that “tacitly accept or more forcefully reproduce” current conditions of schooling that privilege some by oppressing others.

I have observed that some of what results from “going there” aligns directly with other tenets of feminist pedagogy. For instance, one student this semester wrote a monologue to read at a local school board meeting that challenges the teacher-shaming narrative present in the mass media by celebrating the dedication of the teachers in the urban high school in which he is placed. It seems to me that an affirmation of a well-enacted feminist pedagogy is students taking action without being assigned or getting credit for doing so.

Talking with students about the dangers of standardized testing and the way tests further marginalize students of color, students with various dis/abilities, students learning the English language, and students from poverty raises the collective conscious. Unfortunately, a university professor speaking out against policies enacted by local schools in the press and in community forums also threatens relationships between the university and the local schools. The effects of a broken relationship between a local district and a university could be numerous, and include students being counseled away from attending our university or the district refusing to accept teacher candidates for field placements.

The opening here is perhaps more difficult to find. My current strategy has been to provide my department chairperson and a dean with my written works before they go to press. However, I still recognize that enacting a feminist pedagogy while affiliated with an regional institution that exists in large part because students from the local school districts choose to attend, I wonder if this activism on a topic so close to home could have serious consequences for me at some point.

Feminist Pedagogy: Institutional Oppression and Activism

One final area of feminist pedagogy that I think should be considered beyond the how and the what of teaching is the responsibility of a feminist to work toward social change in the institution where they work. As a teacher educator, I also want to encourage my students to do the same. One of the challenges in teacher education is knowing how to talk with students about the systemic sexism and other forms of oppression present in K–12 schools (in which most of my students will work once receiving their degree). Since 1980, the United States teaching force that has had a steady increase in the proportion of teachers who are female. Today, 76% of the United States teaching force is female according to NCES data. However, only 14% of United States school district superintendents are women. Similarly, I work at a university where the president, provost, assistant provost, and three of four deans are men. The following short examples provide experiential examples that further build a critique of the institution.

After working beyond my contractual teaching load each semester (and summer) for the first three years of my appointment, I announced to my department chair and dean that I would not be taking on work above my contractual duties during the 2016–17 academic year, citing an attempt to establish a healthier work/life balance and spend more time with my family. The dean’s first response was to try to negotiate with me. I stood my ground, wondering the whole time if my announcement would have been seen as negotiable had it been delivered by a male professor. Dads who set boundaries at work and attempt to prioritize their family life are often commended; I was asked if I was sure this is what I wanted to do.

This year, the university did not grant me the one-course release for which I applied in order for me to engage in participatory action research with local art educators. The rationale for their decision described that other proposals would affect more people than my small study. How the university conceptualizes research, determines potential impact and awards course releases especially privileges large-scale studies (typically completed in the sciences).

Finally, tenure and promotion at my university is based heavily on teaching effectiveness, as measured by colleague observations and student evaluations. However, the student evaluations do not assess many of my goals as a feminist educator, including whether I increased students’ sense of social responsibility or contributed to their personal growth. In general, the promotion and tenure documents are relatively unfriendly to the evidence that may speak most directly to successful feminist pedagogy: the unsolicited cards, emails, and visits from students that continue long after the course has ended, or the social actions taken by students to confront issues of injustice in their communities.

Negotiated Pedagogy

In my experience as a teacher educator, a feminist pedagogy is a negotiated pedagogy. Art educators who aspire to enact a feminist pedagogy have to be transparent about the “walls and barriers” (Greene, 2009) to doing so within educational institutions. Sharing our experiences and looking together for openings both within and across our institutions is one strategy, and, I would argue, part of the necessary work of art education. However, these acts of institutional subversion will likely be more effective if we simultaneously and overtly challenge systemic oppressions we identify within the institutions where we work.  In so doing, we continue to work of June King McFee who asks art educators to “do a great deal of research… as a basis for evaluating what might be possible… ” The collective voices of feminist art educators must lead a critique of oppressive systems and institutions, including the ones in which they work, while continuing their experiential research on how to practice a feminist pedagogy within existing constraints.


Crabtree, R. D., Sapp, D. A., Licona, A. C. (2009). Feminist pedagogy: Looking back to move forward. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Greene, M. (2009). The arts and the search for social justice. Retrieved March 14, 2011 from

Merriam, S. & Tisdell, E. J. (2015). Qualitative Research: A Guide to Design and Implementation (4rd ed.). SanFransisco: Jossey-Bass.

Smith, D. (2008). Women’s perspective as a radical critique of sociology. In A. Jaggar (Ed.), Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader (pp. 39–43). Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Leslie Gates

Dr. Leslie Gates is Associate Professor of Art Education at Millersville University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include art educators’ professional learning, assessment in the arts, and postmodern and choice-based approaches to teaching art. Her research, using participatory and feminist approaches, often involves working alongside art educators to identify problems and work towards possible solutions in their own classrooms. Leslie has served as a curriculum consultant to public school districts, given a number of invited lectures, and facilitated opportunities for professional learning at various conferences, seminars, and workshops. Leslie serves on the editorial board of Art Education, published by the National Art Education Association. In 2017–18, Leslie was named the Pennsylvania Art Educator of the Year.