Ideas on teaching with and for intersectional gender justice

Teaching about gender violence and injustice with and for intersectional gender justice is a process of constant learning and becoming and it requires a curriculum, pedagogy and teaching practice that go beyond the development of students’ theoretical knowledge and critical analysis skills.

How do we teach about violence and trauma in ways that are ethical, inclusive and accountable? Which knowledge and skills do students need to learn so they can contribute to achieving greater equality and justice in their lives? How do we teach with care given that many students are motivated to study these issues because they themselves have experienced violence and injustice?

These are questions I have been grappling with since 2015 when I set up the MA on gender, violence and conflict at the University of Sussex.

As I have engaged with student hopes, needs and feedback, drawn on my wider experience as a feminist practitioner, read and reflected more, I have endeavoured to respond to these questions in three ways:

• To create a curriculum which embraces diverse knowledges and decentres perspectives which can produce violence;

• To create a pedagogical approach that is inclusive of students from multiple backgrounds, which itself generates intersectional gender justice;

• To engage with the violence suffered by others – and ourselves – in ethical ways that do not propagate further harm.

The curriculum: Teaching about gender violence, injustice and justice

I believe that it is important to involve students directly in discussions about the politics of knowledge; to be transparent about how we have tried to address these in our teaching; and to invite students to co-create, challenge and extend the curriculum.

At the start of the academic year, I invite students to think about which knowledges are generated, how, where and by whom; which become dominant and why; what and who is silenced and what the implications are. We agree to think carefully about what we read, considering where each author is speaking from and whom to, for and about, acknowledging this is more complex than a binary North-South or coloniser-colonised divide.

We then talk about power, privilege and oppression. We discuss how human experiences are shaped by multiple and intersecting social categories like gender, race, class, sexuality and (dis)ability, and how the significance of these identities can change across time and place. We agree to avoid generalising about gendered experiences and to consider how they are shaped by personal trajectories, multiple identities and socio-cultural contexts.

Thirdly, and relatedly, we talk about the politics of representation and discuss how words and images define, reduce and essentialise bodies, actions and spaces and how this has tangible impacts in the world, shaping what people say, do and experience.

Following this, I give students an overview of the curriculum, how it was put together and the aspirations behind this. I share what I plan to teach and why and I invite students to bring in their own material and examples each week to shape topics and co-create parts of the curriculum.

I find that this serves to validate diverse knowledges and perspectives, to strengthen module content in areas where I have less direct knowledge – for example, certain country contexts and authors – and to bring in subjective experiences – for example, identifying as queer, indigenous, a person of colour or with a disability – that I do not have due to my own positionality as a white, able-bodied, straight cis woman born in the UK.

In the core module I teach in the first term, we engage with a diversity of feminist, intersectional, postcolonial and decolonial literature about gender violence, injustice and justice, alongside what are often considered the ‘main’ texts in this field.

In the first two weeks, we unpack different concepts – ‘gender’, ‘violence’, ‘conflict’, ‘peace’ – reflecting on how definitions and meanings vary across disciplines, institutions, time and space. I encourage students to view these terms as contested, to think about their origins and translatability and to challenge the European colonisation of terms by considering related concepts in non-Western languages.

We then look at various theoretical perspectives on the relationships between gender, violence and conflict from different disciplines and authors from different parts of the world, acknowledging the limitations of each approach. We study different examples of gender violence globally, and diverse ways to analyse their causes and consequences and the subjective experiences of those involved.

Towards the end of the module, we look at examples of local and international initiatives that aim to challenge and prevent gender violence and injustice. We look at activism by women’s, queer and intersectional movements, as well as projects implemented by international development organisations.

We question who leads these initiatives, whether and how they are rooted in local contexts and needs, how they understand gender violence, who they work with and how they judge success.

Pedagogy: Teaching with and for intersectional gender justice

With respect to the ‘how’ of teaching, I endeavour to create a learning space that is inclusive of students from all socio-cultural backgrounds and identities, in which there is an awareness of the intersectional dynamics of power, privilege and oppression.

I aim to support students to engage respectfully in self-reflection, dialogue and disagreement, including around difficult and uncomfortable issues. I believe this is central to transformative learning that models and contributes to ‘intersectional gender justice’ – which I define as the equitable distribution of rights, opportunities, resources, status and power between people of all genders and intersecting identities, their ability to live free from violence and discrimination, and redress for past inequalities and violence from which they have suffered harm.

During the induction session, I first invite students to map and share their own journeys to studying the masters in gender, violence and conflict. We then do an exercise to think about who is in the room and I encourage students to think about and value the multiple experiences, social positions and knowledges of everyone present.

We also acknowledge that the diversities and inequalities – and experiences of violence and injustice – we study are not somewhere outside the classroom, but in the room, amongst us, whether disclosed or undisclosed.

We then do a collective brainstorming where students add their ideas to a board entitled ‘Co-creating our learning space’. We discuss issues that come up around how to engage consciously and respectfully with each other; how to ensure everyone can participate; how to support those studying in their second or third language; how to bring in student knowledges and experiences; how to deal with sensitive material, different viewpoints and disagreements; and how to reject oppressive language and call out harmful behaviour.

We make an initial set of agreements that we publish in a shared learning space and can revisit throughout the year.

Ethics: Teaching about gender violence with and for gender justice

There are numerous ethical issues to consider when teaching about gender violence and injustice, especially when most students have direct experience of or have witnessed gender violence. Almost all the material we discuss is sensitive and this raises difficult questions about how to engage respectfully and compassionately with the violence suffered by others – and ourselves – in ways that do not propagate further harm.

First, by acknowledging that survivors of violence and injustice are not ‘others’ or ‘somewhere else’ but are among ‘us’, this prompts discussion on how to make the classroom a supportive space for survivors.

During the first term, we talk about the responsibilities of witnessing, the issues of (dis)identification with others and the importance of acknowledging victimisation without reducing the lives of survivors to this.

We also discuss how receiving testimonies of suffering can trigger intense traumatic responses in ourselves whether through vicarious trauma – resulting from engaging empathetically with traumatic stories – or because these stories may retrigger our own experiences of trauma. We discuss that individual reactions may vary from social withdrawal and non-attendance to displays of emotion and disclosure of personal trauma.

We talk through how to handle this. I commit to forewarning students about materials we will discuss, but I encourage them to attend rather than avoid sessions that they feel might be difficult, in the knowledge that they always have options to tune out with headphones, leave the class, seek my support or access a support service.

I also provide space and time in the classroom for students to reflect on their thoughts and feelings in response to difficult material. In addition, we discuss further coping strategies such as students ‘buddying up’ so they can check in with each other before, during and after class.

Last word

The MA students I teach come to learn about gender violence and injustice and develop the knowledge, emotional capacities and practical skills to work for greater gender justice. I believe that this requires a teaching practice that goes beyond developing their theoretical knowledge and critical analysis skills.

This means supporting students to embrace different ways of knowing about gender violence and injustice across the world, to look at how people resist and challenge violence and to reflect on what gender justice means and for whom.

It means encouraging students to reflect on their own position, power and privilege and consider how to actively work for intersectional gender justice in their daily lives.

It requires providing opportunities for students to contribute to the degree and supporting them to build skills in self-reflection, empathetic communication and collective witnessing. It means making space for students to work through precarious moments and to process their own encounters with gender injustice and violence.

Overall, it means recognising that teaching about gender violence and injustice with and for intersectional gender justice is a process of constant learning and becoming.

Lyndsay McLean is senior lecturer in anthropology and international development at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom. She has conducted research and published on gender-based violence and women's empowerment. She is the convener of the MA in gender, violence and conflict at the University of Sussex. She also works as a part-time consultant to support the development of programmes and policies to prevent gender-based violence in various countries in Africa and Asia. This article draws on her study, “Teaching about gender violence, with and for gender justice: Epistemological, pedagogical and ethical dilemmas”, which has just been published in the journal Gender and Education.