The concepts of “agency” and “intersectionality” are ones my students struggle with often. As they learn about these ideas, they tend to cling to what I call the “choosey-choice” and “list” methods. That is, students see agency as an individual’s unfettered ability to make choices and to take full responsibility for the choices they make. Choice is paramount, and a “personal choice” (much like a “personal opinion”) cannot be “wrong” and ought not to be analyzed or critiqued. The suggestion that choices are constrained is taken as in itself constraining choice.
The “list” method for incorporating intersectionality into students’ thinking looks just like its name suggests. As long as a bunch of identities are listed, we need not account for the material manifestations of oppression or exploitation. We simply take as given that identities are whole, coherent, fixed things, inherent to who and what we are, rather than a set of social forces convening in particular ways to shape our circumstances and experiences. Thus, they need only be mentioned, and never critiqued or analyzed either.
I came up with a couple of classroom exercises, using accessible, timely resources from the internet paired with academic readings to help deepen students’ understanding of these concepts. These are, obviously, most useful in seminar-style and “flipped” classrooms, since they take up more time than someone using the traditional lecture model might want to sacrifice.
Carastathis, A. (2008). “The Invisibility of Privilege: A Critique of Intersectional Models of Identity.” (p. 23)
Smith, A. (2013). “The Problem with Privilege.”
Online resource: Buzzfeed. (2015). “What is Privilege?”
- Participants in the video are asked to step forwards or backwards based on their answers to questions about privilege, such as “did your parents have to work nights and weekends to support your family?” or “can you kiss your partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence?” The list of questions used is in the summary of the video on Youtube.
Exercise: Watch the video with the students, then have them clear the desks (or move outside, if it’s a big class — they may be adults, but they still love having class outside) and recreate it. Ask them to make note of their own position, as well as the positions of their classmates. Return to normal seated positions to begin a brief in-class writing exercise. Here is the prompt (they shouldn’t try to answer all the questions, but rather use them as jumping-off points):
Based on your position at the end of the exercise, would you label yourself “privileged” or “unprivileged,” or would you say it is more complicated than that? What aspects of your identity and social position (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, class background, dis/ability, religion, age…) affected your final position? Were there experiences that compelled you to move forward or backward that did not seem to be tied to any one aspect of your identity, or which were tied to multiple aspects at once? In what ways does this exercise support or not support the ideas presented by Carastathis, Crenshaw, Puar and Smith?
As you read the papers (which should be short — I would give them no more than 15-20 minutes to write a reflection), collect the students’ most useful insights, compile them into one bullet list and distribute it on your LMS site as a study guide for when the term comes up on an exam.
I think this exercise could be adapted to an online class by having the students add or subtract points, instead of stepping forwards or backwards. The students could report their total points to the instructor, who could plot them as points on a graph for visual comparison.
Attwood, F. (2007). “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency.”
Showden, C.R. (2011). “Conceiving Agency: Autonomy, Freedom, and the Creation of the Embodied Subject.” In Choices Women Make: Agency in Domestic Violence, Assisted Reproduction and Sex Work.
Online Resource: Everyday Feminism. (2015). “Why Saying ‘It’s My Choice’ Doesn’t Necessarily Make Your Choice Feminist.”
- This comic depicts a person making a choice about whether or not to wear makeup as paddling a boat in the ocean. Strong currents and winds push the boat along in certain directions, while rough waters and storms make travelling in other directions more difficult.
Exercise: Ask students to draw their own sailing maps, either for a choice related to their research or interests or for one related to your course topic. I TA in courses on sexualities and sex work, for example, so I might use one of the following prompts (again, a 15-20 minute, in-class writing exercise):
- Create your own “map” of the ocean of choice. Remember a choice you made about your sexuality, sexual identity, sexual behaviours, gender identity, gender expression, “coming out” process or other issue related to this course. What social forces or institutions acted as “currents” or “good winds,” pushing you along certain paths? What social forces or institutions acted as “rough waters,” “storms,” or even “Bermuda Triangles,” making certain paths more difficult to travel? How does mapping your choice in this way help you to understand and analyze what we have read about “agency” and “choice” as feminist theoretical concepts?
- Create your own “map” of the ocean of choice, this time with regard to the decision to do sex work. What social forces or institutions act as “currents” or “good winds,” pushing actual or potential sex workers along certain paths? What social forces or institutions act as “rough waters,” “storms,” or even “Bermuda Triangles,” making certain paths more difficult to travel? How does mapping the decision to do sex work in this way help you to understand and analyze what we have read about “agency” and “choice” as course-related theoretical concepts?
Collect the best insights from the students’ response papers and compile them in one document. Post this document on your LMS site as a study guide for exam questions on the topic of agency.
Please feel free to try out these exercises in your own classrooms. If you do, I’d love to hear how they go! Please also feel free to comment with your own suggestions and exercises for getting students to wrap their heads around these concepts.