Kathleen Rowe

Unruly Instruction: Pedagogy, Feminism, and the Unruly Woman

Hello world! It is a pleasure to be the blogger this month for Metathesis and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on a few different topics with our readers. Don’t forget—if you like this blog YOU, TOO could be a contributor. Check out our CFP here

For my first post I thought I would share a (very) condensed version of a paper I presented at Syracuse’s annual Future Professoriate Program Conference in Spring 2013. Last year, a colleague of mine (and, full disclosure, editor of this blog) organized a panel on “embodied pedagogy” and invited me and a fellow colleague to participate. I had never deeply considered the term “embodied pedagogy” before, yet a recent course evaluation had me questioning my physical presence in my classroom and its relationship to my pedagogical strategies. On an evaluation for my British Literature survey course, a student responded to a prompt to “comment on the quality of instruction in this course” with this remark: “She reminds me of Lena Dunham if she were a professor (This is a huge compliment).”

What was I to make of this?

Given my own research interests, I often discuss topics related to feminism and gender within my courses, possibly linking me with the self-proclaimed feminist Dunham.(For one of many examples of her discussing her feminism, you can read excerpts of her interview with NPR’s Terry Gross.) Yet I could not shake the feeling that, along with the contents of my course, my very body was enabling this comparison.

For in addition to her feminism, Dunham is also often discussed in terms of her physical appearance. A brief scandal erupted when New York Times writer Ruth La Ferla commented on Dunham’s “pulchritude” (a word associated with fatness) in relation to Dunham’s appearance at the 2013 Emmy awards, and it is perhaps no surprise that the artist’s rendition of this very photo which recently appeared above a critical essay of Dunham seems to exaggerate, among other features, her weight:

Horrible

 

Dunham herself has suggested that one of the most positive aspects of her show Girls is its refusal to hide the bodies of “women who are not a size 0” or restrict them to weight-loss driven plotlines . Dunham’s feminism is linked, for many critics, reviewers, and fans, directly to her body and her refusal to cover it up.

Like Dunham, I am frank about my feminism. And, like Dunham, I occupy a body that does not easily fit into the Western ideal of beauty. What caused my student to compare me to Dunham, I believe, is best described by the scholar Kathleen Rowe in her book The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter (1995)

Taking Roseanne Barr (among others) as a primary example, Rowe argues that women who refuse to bend to the will of patriarchy are ‘unruly.’ Specifically for Rowe, an unruly woman is characterized by her inability or unwillingness “to confine herself to her proper place.” She is often “excessive or fat, suggesting her unwillingness or inability to control her physical appetites,” speaks in an excessive “quantity, content or tone” and “makes jokes, or laughs herself.”  Her behavior might even be “associated with looseness and occasionally whorishness” and she is often perceived as a woman on the margins of polite society. I would argue that Lena Dunham, like the subjects of Rowe’s book, challenges patriarchal authority through her unruly behavior. Indeed, the recent outrage over some of her admissions regarding previous sexual experiences in her memoir Not that Kind of Girl underscore my point.

Now what does this all have to do with “embodied pedagogy?” From the tone of my voice and gesticulations to my dress size, my body’s unwillingness to be bound by patriarchal norms of femininity underscores the feminist commitments of my pedagogy. My insistence on voicing feminist challenges to patriarchy, particularly in a potentially unlikely class like a British Literature Survey implicitly codes my pedagogy as unruly for it refuses to limit conversations about gender to sanctioned academic spaces such as our Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Coupled with my occupation of a fat body, I signal as excessive and uncontained. By being a loud, large, female graduate TA who espouses explicit feminist concerns, I embody my feminist pedagogy. Thanks to Kathleen Rowe, I have a lens through which I might understand this at first perplexing, but now flattering, student response.

 


Melissa Welshans is a PhD Candidate in English at Syracuse University and is currently working on her dissertation The Many Types of Marriage: Gender, Marriage and Biblical Typology in Early Modern England. Melissa’s research is concerned with issues of gender and sexuality in early modern England, especially as it pertains to the institution of marriage. In her free time Melissa practices her nail art skills and snuggles with her husband and their two cats.