Unbinding


“… poststructuralist feminism’s appreciation of the psychic coordinates and repetitions constitutive of gender

locates much of its production in social norms and deep processes of identifications and repudiations only intermittently knowable to its subjects, even less often graspable,

and thus unsuited to a paradigm of transformation premised upon seizing and eliminating the conditions producing and reproducing gender …

conditions that are no longer posited as outside of its subjects … are not ours to mastermind but at best only to resist or negotiate”

–Wendy Brown, “Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics”

I re-start my story (where I start most of them): in a classroom, in the recent past. In Fall 2013, I offer (as I have several times before) an introductory course at Bryn Mawr College called “Critical Feminist Studies.”1 This is an English class, which focuses on questions of representation, and queries what it might mean to “unbind” feminism from what Wendy Brown calls “the big bang theory of social change,” an unbinding which she also offers as an “opening of possiblity to live and think differently.”2

Among the twenty-five students enrolled is a queer woman from Texas who writes, early on,

nia.pikeI honestly grew up in a box. It was a box with walls of expectations. I was never comfortable in that box. Yet it was not until I was old enough to think for and make significant decisions by myself that I began to question and tear apart my box. I wish I had begun this process earlier because I know now how much of an impact those walls had on me as a person. Our childhood molds us, but it does not make us who we are.3

… my previous name was too identifiable as me …. the distance is necessary because I do not perform … the same for everyone because I am afraid of the conservative, close-minded society I come from …. I do not want my resignification … to be revealed preemptively. I am not ready to face the music if certain people happen upon this forum ….I  would rather do it in my own way and in my own time.4

I’ve moved around quite a bit during my 20+ years. I never felt connected enough to a place to call it home, I also never trusted a place enough to call it home.5

As we transition into the second half of the semester, the syllabus shifts from “engendering ourselves” to “engendering our institutions,” and Nia re-directs her focus from her own emerging identity to that of the college:

nia.pike… there are many cases where Bryn Mawr with its “progressive” and “open-mindedness” has stifled the cultural identities of students …. The student body at Bryn Mawr has become a close-minded place, focused on the advancement of certain cultural identities. Bryn Mawr like any other cultural hub has norms: white, queer, upper middle class, atheist, liberal, etc. If one does not conform to these norms, they are looked down upon, there exists societal pressure to conform to the cultural identity of Bryn Mawr …. Bryn Mawr is above all else a sisterhood, a home, a community, and we must foster this sense of togetherness, by coming together and not isolating and discrimination against the variety of cultural identities which exist on our campus.6

I propose a mandatory seminar for first years … important for fostering inclusion, and will open dialogue within the community ….7

She closes the semester with a prediction of individual change that will have implications for the college:

nia.pike

Nia’s banner image from her end of semester portfolio.

I will never hide behind the expectations of others again …. I take from this class I greater understanding of myself …. accepting, and being proud of who I am ….This semester I unbound myself … just as the flowers use the wire as vines to grow up, I am going to use the bounds that once held me to blossom.8

Two semesters later, Nia and her roommate, who is from Georgia, hang a rainbow flag out of one of their dorm windows, and also display a Confederate flag, first in the hallway and then, after efforts to seek its removal, from their second window. They also lay a line of duct tape labeled “Mason-Dixon Line” in the passageway leading to their room.

Multiple dialogues — as well as lots of protesting, and lots of posturing — ensue. The media — first local, then national — picks up this story.9

Sara Ahmed writes, “The media is crucial … as the interface between an organization and its publics.”10

How much of what happens is the result of this interface? How might we speak to one another, in ways that are not driven by the framing of the news stories? How to make sense of the many narratives being generated, off-campus, on, and in-between?

What do they call for, by way of response, continued dialogue and learning?  And what are the sites where such conversations might be most productive?

An unlikely space for any sort of important-or-productive speaking is the monthly Bryn Mawr faculty meeting. And yet, in mid-September, as the president is describing various  interventions — she proposes, for instance, that we devote one day during the spring semester to “campus professional development” — I find myself on my feet, trying to puzzle through, in public, some of my most pressing private questions. In the company of more than a hundred colleagues, I ask how much power I-and-we have to direct the course of action here:

Anne DalkeI was raised in the rural South, and have long quipped that the longest trip I ever took was crossing the Mason-Dixon line.

This week I have been thinking that I hadn’t gone far enough.

Several of the student leaders are in my classes, and I have been spending lots of time, in class and outside, dealing with what has happened here. Colleagues and I have been talking about our role as faculty, thinking together about curricular changes that might address some of the gaps in our students’ education, how we might have failed to teach them ….

But this morning I learned that one of the students who displayed the flag had taken my introductory course in Critical Feminist Studies. I spent this afternoon re-reading her papers, and I began to see how the ideas of  identity, intersectionality, representation and signifying, which I had been talking about in that class, might been taken up very differently than I intended; the uptake was quite other than what I meant.

And so — as we plan these educational interventions, and I am all for them — I also want to add a note of humility: we do not know how our students will make use of what we give them. The gap between intention and uptake can be huge — as they struggle to make sense of their identities … and as we struggle to make sense of ours.

we do not know how our students will make use of what we give them. The gap between intention and uptake can be huge

Afterwards there are hugs from half-a-dozen colleagues, notes and verbal affirmations from a dozen others, and an emotional testimony from the president, who thanks me for what I said: “It’s something I will carry with me forever….”

I am more interested in how to carry this idea forward institutionally, in how to incorporate such awareness into the structures in which we teach. The wise advice of the educational theorist Elizabeth Ellsworth, regarding the unpredictable “uptake” of our “teaching positions,” is not to try and control the responses they evoke, but rather to activate, explore, even celebrate the multiple subject positions that are called into play in such pedagogical exchange. It is an ongoing challenge for me to join Ellsworth in embracing varied uptakes, as palpable spaces of diversity, unruliness, and fertility where the “monstrous” can enter (and leave!) the classroom, in the guise of hunger, desire, fear, “ignor-ance” — and so be taken up, perhaps revised.11

  1. Critical Feminist Studies” (a course offered at Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2013), accessed July 17, 2015
  2. Wendy Brown,  “Feminism Unbound: Revolution, Mourning, Politics,” Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 115.
  3. nia.pike, “Breaking Down Boxes,” September 7, 2013 (3:51 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  4. nia.pike, “Avatar Name Change,” October 6, 2013 (9:04 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  5. nia.pike, “What is home?” November 6, 2013 (12:41 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  6. nia.pike, “Web event #2: Bryn Mawr: Community? Empowered? Sisterhood?” November 14, 2013 (11:56 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  7. nia.pike, “Final Web Event – Addressing Exclusiveness at Home at Bryn Mawr: A Seminar,” December 18, 2013 (11:03 p.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  8. nia.pike, “Unbinding Myself to Blossom,” December 19, 2013 (5:50 a.m.), accessed July 17, 2017
  9. Students Rally After Confederate Flag Display,” NBC10.com (September 19, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Dave Huber, “Confederate Flag at Bryn Mawr College Dorm Causes Uproar,” The College Fix (October 5, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Susan Snyder, “Confederate Flag in Dorm Roils Bryn Mawr Campus,” Philadelphia Inquirer (October 6, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Katilin Mulhere, “A Flag and Race at Bryn Mawr,” Inside Higher Ed (October 6, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Andy Thomason, “Confederate Flag Raises Controversy at Bryn Mawr College,” The Chronicle of Higher Education (October 6, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Steven Conn, “Callous or Callow: Waving the Confederate Flag at Bryn Mawr College,” The Huffington Post (October 7, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Eric Owens, “Tolerance and Diversity Cause FREAKOUT Over Confederate Flag at Fancypants Womens College,” The Daily Caller (October 6, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Nicole Lopez, et. al, “Petitioning Bryn Mawr College: Take the Necessary Actions as Requested by Current Students to Confront Issues of Institutional Racism on Campus, and to Create an Environment Safe for All Students” (October 8, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017; Jennifer Wilks, “Lessons of a Flag Flap,” Philadelphia Inquirer (October 12, 2014), accessed July 17, 2017
  10. Sara Ahmed, On Being Included, 143.
  11. Elizabeth Ellsworth, Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997),  accessed July 17, 2015