female student saying hello to someone who is online.

Book Clubs: feminist approaches to team-based remote learning assessments

In this year of extraordinary disruptions to teaching and learning, students have expressed their disappointment over losing the chance to develop deep social and intellectual connections with their classmates. To respond to that challenge, I set out to develop assessments that would create opportunities for dynamic group engagement.

I convene an introductory anthropology and gender studies course on Gender in Cross-Cultural Perspective, and was already retooling the content of the course to thematise the alarming effects of the pandemic on gender equity, including our university communities.

Beyond course content, I also realised that feminist approaches to assessments would be crucial in my COVID-impacted teaching practice. To respond to the challenges of pedagogy in pandemic times, I designed student ‘book clubs’ to discuss a pre-selected text and create a group-based assessment that builds out of those discussions. Importantly, book clubs aimed to create student-led social and emotional COVID support groups while also deepening their engagement with the course material. Students were tasked with self-organising to read the text together, assign discussion-leaders for each of the chapters, and choose themes that they would like to respond to.

Meme -young man with glasses saying: Hey girl, I got these glasses so I can join your book club.
Meme supplied by student Book Club

The assessed component of the project built upon the interactive and dialogue-based nature of the teams to produce podcast-style audio analyses as a summative assessment, as well as an individual reflective writing for students to evaluate their engagement with the book club. This peer-driven approach ensured that students actually did the reading, while also supporting them while they did it. Some students commented that this was the first academic book that they had read cover-to-cover in English – an accomplishment they did not think they could have achieved without the support and encouragement of their peers.

The book clubs manifest feminist pedagogy – a guiding principle to my teaching practice – in three ways. First, the project engages deep listening, from attending to the multiple voices in the text itself (Noelle Stout’s After Love, an ethnography of queer intimacy in Cuba), to listening closely to team-mates, to collaborating on the audio production. This approach builds out of the feminist classroom environment that seek to achieve a dynamic of mutual respect “through classroom relationships that don’t hide or gloss over the differences in experience and perspective within a community of learners” (Chick and Hassell 2009: 198).

Second, the book clubs draw on a long tradition of feminist consciousness raising through dialogue (Linabary et al 2017). Under COVID-safe guidelines, feminist scholars such as Miriam Ticktin have noted that human connection has been pathologised (including construing certain people, such as foreigners and people of Chinese origin, as invaders conflated with the virus). She advocates for a ‘feminist commons’ forged through ‘forms of togetherness [that] are about coexisting in ways that ensure everyone’s survival.’ The book clubs aim to create this sense of togetherness for students, and to generate a collective output from the whole group.

Finally, a reflective essay was an opportunity for students to engage the book club’s transformative capacity. Inviting students to evaluate their learning journey highlights the importance of reflexivity as a feminist pedagogical practice (Linabary at al 2017: 261), as it also provides a key modality for me to apply critical scrutiny to my own teaching practice.

Given that research is already revealing the pernicious gendered consequences of the pandemic, it is now more urgent than ever to develop feminist teaching tools. This should not stop at course content – feminist pedagogies are not just about including women, gender and sexuality on the syllabus. We need new assessment tools to rise to the challenges posed by COVID19.

December 2020

Dr. Caroline E. Schuster is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, in the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences.