'Let feminine side of learning thrive'

The limiting effects of the 'male' nature of higher education are challenged. Hannah Fearn reports

December 10, 2009

The process of learning is being held back by the "masculine" nature of higher education, and universities should create "feminine spaces" to allow knowledge to flourish.

So says a paper due to be presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education conference at the Celtic Manor resort, near Newport in South Wales, this week.

In a paper that she recognises "steps outside conventional discourse", Elizabeth Hoult, director of regional academic development at Canterbury Christ Church University, applies feminist literary theory to the higher education sector.

Basing its argument on the theories of Helene Cixous, a French Algerian feminist, the paper says that "ideas about knowledge, teaching and learning have come to be tied to 'masculine' concepts of property and ownership".

Professor Cixous' work focuses on economics and the structure of society, but Ms Hoult suggests that these ideas can be transferred easily to the university sector.

"Economic metaphors proliferate in the modern entrepreneurial university," says the paper, The Feminine University, co-authored by Ian Marsh, senior lecturer in the department of allied health professions at Canterbury.

Higher education involves "production, exchange and transfer of knowledge" and is based on "nostalgic notions of a liberal education", the paper says.

Teaching is linear, knowledge is considered property and competition between universities is rife, it states, and such an approach "maintains traditional hierarchies and limits our ability to imagine and construct different ways of working and practising".

In her work, Professor Cixous proposes the "feminine economy" as an alternative to masculine economics, based on "generosity, hope and transformation".

The paper says this theory should be applied to universities. "Through the creation of 'feminine' spaces within universities, new ways of thinking and acting can begin to flourish and the modern university can become a place where real transformative learning can emerge."

At the feminine university, identities such as academic, student, manager and administrator would be broken down. "Work takes place across and beyond separate fixed identities," Ms Hoult writes.

Differences between students, academics and other university members would be celebrated as a "source of creativity" and knowledge would no longer be considered the property of one individual being passed on to another.

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

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