Less Beyoncé. More Katharine Hepburn.


Opinions vary on how a woman should be a woman.  How a woman should be in the classroom might be a topic that’s just as broad.  This broad however, from her study on theory concerning the practice of writing, tutoring, and conferencing, has something to say about it.

A friend told me, “There’s no one I could agree with, but be irritated by more than a feminist.”  I can also attest to that.  So when Meg Woolbright talked about tutoring and teaching with a feminist agenda in The Politics of Tutoring: Feminism Within the Patriarchy, I questioned it.  Sure enough, her account of the feminist tutor who embodied her institution’s patriarchy instead of overcoming it verified my doubts.

Do today’s composition study classrooms need a feminist “revolution” in teaching and tutoring philosophy?  Is the goal to stamp out patriarchy in the classroom with a  Birkenstock-clad, feminist foot?  Or does the classroom need a slighter woman’s touch?

In today’s gender politics,  patriarchy is king.  Society is male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. Globally, societies value masculine qualities such as “competition, individualism, invulnerability, rationality, and physical strength” (Kuypers, 2009). This is the patriarchy Donna M. Nudd and Kristan L. Whalen say is “entrenched in our political and value systems” (Kuypers, 2009).  In The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, Allan G. Johnson says, “Perhaps the bedrock of patriarchal ideology is the belief that it is necessary, socially desirable, and rooted in a universal sense of tradition and history”  The patriarchal world seems an automatic given because of it’s long-standing sovereignty.  Nudd and Whalen (2009) say,  “Male centeredness is so seemingly natural in our society, it remains unspoken.”

In silence, under the shadow of male domination, femininity is marginalized.  Our socially constructed conception of the female gender connotates women as temerarious, irrational, over-emotional, hormonal, weak, and submissive.   Nudd and Whalen say, “The qualitites commonly associated with feminitity, such as cooperation, nurturing, emotionality, and care, are undervalued or trivialized,” in Why Feminism? (Kuypers, 2009).

Though the profession of Teacher has largely and historically been dominated by women, female tutors and teachers struggle against patriarchal, hegemonic control in writing and composition study. Struggle against masculine pedagogy and against conceptions of teaching norms are just two examples of the power conflicts females encounter in their academic institutions.

How should a woman overcome this struggle?  With this small bit of advice: Less Beyoncé.  More Katharine Hepburn.

Horse Stomp

Horse Stomp

Teachers and tutors of the fairer gender should first understand the definition of feminism.  In the song Flawless from Beyoncé’s epononymous album, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie narrates, “Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

Not only through her music, Beyoncé expresses a strong feminist voice and image.  She has an alter ego named Sasha Fierce who does not hesitate to horse stomp over any patriarchal oppression in her way.

For Yoncé and many feminists, power is equality, and empowerment comes from combating against the status quo alongside strong-willed sisters who negate common conceptions of what it means to be a woman.  Some exude feminine extremes, like Beyoncé’s super-sexuality, and some forsake femininity completely in exchange for “pants.”  But all are after power equal to men’s.

Power struggles occur in the composition classroom, but Beyonce’s feminism has no place in it.  The most effective power is cognitive, not physical, and in a place where thought is constantly reshaped and developed, there is a danger with teaching or tutoring with an overly-feminist agenda.  No doubt a female teacher faces challenges from hierarchical, authoritative, convention-enforcing patriarchal values of the academy.  However, a female teacher missteps when she thinks “Western male (academic) discourse is empowering,” which Michelle Payne describes in Rendering Women’s Authority in the Writing Classroom.

Audrey Petty

A woman can don the pants of a man’s world, but she can’t grow a pair.  In a revealing, retrospective look at her journey through academia in Who’s the Teacher?: From Student to Mentor, Audrey Petty recalls her failure to take on a man’s role in the classroom.  During her undergraduate education, Petty fell under the wing of a mentor.  He was a young, Caucasian, and favorite professor of many students in her major.  Petty emulated this professor in her career and became a teacher.  She says, “While I enjoyed teaching composition and literature that first year at Knox College, I felt inept and awkward in my creative writing class.  The roots of the problem lay in my desperate attempts to impersonate my most influential undergraduate teacher, whose colleague I had become.”

When the objective becomes to imitate, or even assume a man’s power in the classroom, a teacher or tutor’s feminist agenda will fail.  No matter how strong her will, a woman will most likely encounter an identity crisis in the classroom.  Payne says, “Together, we are asking: What is a teacher? What does she or he do? Why? What is her or his relationship to students and their relationship to her or him?”  As she answers these questions, she will be caught in a place between the patriarchy and her own feminist leanings, where “If she chooses the [feminist] non-directive approach and works to share authority, it might reinforce men’s devaluation of her as an authority figure,” yet if she takes a masculine, directive approach, “she might create resistance in the men at a ‘woman’ holding power over them and resentment in the women for disturbing the relationships with them and the men,” according to Payne.

Payne says, “As much as I wish this weren’t the case, my power and authority– my effectiveness as a teacher– is dependent on how much power and authority my students grant me.”  This is the true nature of a classroom.  It is not a place where a tutor or teacher, especially a female tutor or teacher, walks into the room with power and authority inherently secured.  Tutors and teachers who mentor under the opposite impression of this power relationship will alienate their students.  The patriarchal tyrant of a tutor described by Meg Woolbright led her student into inferiority: “Instead of seeing herself in relation to others, she is hurling headlong into the realization of her otherness.”  Power is granted to a tutor or teacher by the students.  A feminist seeking a man’s power will take too much of it.



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