Describing her experience of teaching a compulsory introductory class on gender theory, Australian sociologist Genine Hook recalled one male student's response in particular.
“We don’t need feminism. The sexes are already equal. Feminism is just women using their bodies for sex to dominate men,” the student said. Dr Hook, lecturer in sociology at the University of New England, Australia, said that it was clear that the young man was “not being ironic or devil’s advocate” but was “very, very serious” – and he went on to upload sexist, racist and homophobic YouTube clips to the course Moodle site.
Although the head of department asked her to take down this material, Dr Hook went on, “it was too late, the rest of the student cohort had responded and was alienated”.
In a talk at the University of Roehampton on 6 June, Dr Hook was set to call on universities to do far more to protect feminist academics from abuse.
When she spoke to female colleagues, she told Times Higher Education, Dr Hook discovered that all “have students they can’t manage at least once a semester, [students whose behaviour] I would regard as abusive. This is a serious and growing issue in university spaces.”
So what can feminists, queer theorists and others do to ensure that there is robust classroom debate around their ideas without it descending into abuse, and how can universities support them in this?
Wherever possible, Dr Hook believes, academics should “draw attention to differences in understanding” of contentious issues and use them as “teachable moments”.
“I would say to the student: ‘Unpack that!’ Why do you think what you think?’” she explained. “The other thing I try to do is open it up to the rest of the class, so instead of me responding, it’s the class. That gets you into critical thinking and their capacity to argue a point. Instead of the rest of the class just saying ‘That’s revolting!’ it’s asking why it is so.
“Get that argument and debate for those issues that are very difficult to tackle. If people think feminism is unnecessary and women are not as good as they think, let’s talk about the data, the statistics and the cultural influences. That’s what we do in sociology, it’s the opening up of the discussion.”
Nonetheless, in extreme cases such as the one described in her lecture, where a student is “co-opting and ruining the space”, Dr Hook said that discussion is never going to be productive.
She would like to see compulsory induction courses for students on “academic integrity” go beyond issues such as plagiarism and set out “a student code of conduct: ‘these are the standards we expect and these are the ramifications if they are not met. You will be excluded from class and asked to leave the university if you can’t abide by them.’” She would also like induction for academics to be much clearer about “how to respond to particular scenarios”, given that she had found herself “putting out the fire and then having to learn what the policies are”.
In her lecture, titled “Feminist activist academics: student intra-actions with queer and gender pedagogy”, Dr Hook was also set to draw on her experiences as a single mother who embarked on a degree in 2004 with a seven-month-old child – a topic which also formed the basis of her PhD thesis and then a book called Sole Parent Students and Higher Education: Gender, Policy and Widening Participation. Despite very limited childcare facilities on campus, compulsory classes scheduled in the evenings and expectations that they were free to travel to conferences, many postgraduate students, she discovered, didn’t even tell their supervisors that they were single mothers.
Dr Hook said that in order to spur universities to make greater efforts to widen access to single parents, their stories need to be told – stories of “people in charge of children 24 hours a day and still studying at a very high level”.
“They are people doing great things, so we need to look at where they have got to five or 10 years on, what they are earning, the life-changing effects of their education,” she said. “That could be part of the narrative about change.”