Feminist studies and related fields, including queer, postcolonial and critical race studies, are under persistent fire. Such fire has, for example, led to an attempted, but failed, ban on gender studies in Romania in 2020, elected parliamentarians discrediting the research of named (often female and precariously employed) scholars as ‘pseudo-science’ in 2021 in Denmark, and – at this moment of writing – library shelves in the US are presumably being stripped of literature around race, sexual and gender diversity and other ‘divisive concepts.’ In the Netherlands, an array of newspaper columnists, politicians (including the minister of Justice and Security), and academics (including the rectores magnifici of Utrecht University and the University of Amsterdam) have been fanning the flames by painting ‘wokeness’ as a major threat to academic freedom. Indeed, conservative politics and media across borders have adopted the ‘anti-woke’ agenda, often centering their critiques on the academic sphere, for instance, presenting the introduction of trigger warnings in teaching as the unreasonable demands of ‘snowflake’ students, or claiming a funhouse-mirror power reversal whereby the threat of presumed ‘woke’ research disciplines (such as gender studies) purportedly police the ‘objective’ sciences. This mainstream uptake of ‘anti-gender’ and ‘anti-woke’ tendencies increasingly affects university teaching.
These circumstances cannot be fully understood without considering the neoliberalization of universities, that is, the transferal of neoliberal-capitalist political and economic ideology from the governance of states to the governance of higher education, centering privatization, profit motives, competition, and individual (rather than collective) risk (Gill, 2009). This neoliberalization of universities has heightened the precarity of academic jobs (Herschberg, Benschop & van den Brink, 2018), increased the use of surveillance and quantification practices (Tzanakou & Pearce, 2019), and generally fostered a managerialist, uncaring climate – even ensuring that widespread ‘diversity, equality and inclusion’ efforts often end up protecting the center of power (Ahmed, 2021). This uncaringness has been exacerbated in the Covid pandemic, among other things, through the insistence that teaching is ‘simply’ moved online (Plotnikof & Utoft, 2022) followed by the equally simplifying insistence, later in the pandemic, that we return to business as usual. The impact of the pandemic has fallen most heavily on women and other minoritized academics for many reasons, including skewed teaching responsibilities, skewed care burdens at home (Hjálmsdóttir & Bjarnadóttir, 2020) and gendered dynamics regarding emotional care for students (Gaudet, Marchand, Bujaki & Bourgeault, 2022).
In spite of these contemporary contextual factors, teaching about gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, socioeconomic inequality, and many other critical, social-justice related topics is still happening at universities. And rightly so. Our classrooms are filled with students with increasingly diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, with gender and sexual identities that do not fall neatly within heteronormative binaries, and who are vocal about their mental health and accessibility needs. They are critical thinkers through their connections with communities with which they identify and they have a vocabulary to match. They bring their struggles for social justice into the classroom, understanding knowledge production as inherently political and calling for a decolonization of university curricula (De Jong, Icaza, Vázques & Withaeckx, 2017). Nevertheless, our curricula will sometimes confront them with (canonical) materials that are now deemed offensive or hurtful to specific groups of people or confront them with perspectives that do not always neatly align with their own political positioning. The classroom is the space where these frictions play out, since as teachers, we need to also allow room for those students who are more conservative, or even reactionary in their views. To be a university teacher in 2023 means having to navigate all these political and ideological positions with care and empathy, while critically reflecting on our own traditions, the canon and our relatively powerful position as teachers.
Therefore, in this double special issue, we zoom in on the classroom as a space of teaching feminism and feminist teaching in light of the mentioned contextual circumstances. What does it mean, and how do we manage to teach feminist theory and to practice feminist pedagogy (as well as related critical theories and pedagogies) in times of ‘wokeness’ and ‘anti-wokeness’, neoliberalization, and the (presumably) late stages of a pandemic?