Exercises for Teaching About “Intersectionality” and “Agency”

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. Wooden signpost at crossroads or intersection

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.

Intersectionality

Readings:

Carastathis, A. (2008). “The Invisibility of Privilege: A Critique of Intersectional Models of Identity.” (p. 23)

Crenshaw, K. (1989). “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.”

Puar, J. (2011). “‘I Would Rather be a Cyborg than a Goddess’: Becoming-Intersectional in Assemblage Theory.”

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.

Agency

Readings:

Attwood, F. (2007). “Sluts and Riot Grrrls: Female Identity and Sexual Agency.”

Gill, R.C. (2007). “Critical Respect: The Difficulties and Dilemmas of Agency and ‘Choice’ for Feminism.”

Murphy, M. (2015). “Feminist Opposition to the Sex Industry has Little to do with Women’s ‘Choices’.”

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):

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

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4 comments

  1. yalinidream

    Hi Sarah M. I’ve been using an adaption of this Ocean of Choice exercise and would like to credit you or the original author of this exercise. Can you please advise how I should credit it? Thank you YaliniDream

    • sarah m

      Hi! It’s nice to hear from someone using the exercise. How is it working out?

      The ocean metaphor comes from this comic by Ronnie Ritchie at Everyday Feminism: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/choices-not-always-feminist/

      The writing prompts are my own creation, designed with the hope of getting students to move beyond simply agreeing or disagreeing with any given perspective on agency towards an understanding of how personal and social forces produce various forms of and limitations to agency. I would be very interested to hear about your adaptation, your goals for the exercise and how it has played out! If you want to link back to my blog, that’d be great, but I’m not terribly worried about being credited.

  2. kate lambert

    Hi Sarah, this is beautiful and i would love to use this activity with my students. do you have a list of the statements you used in order for the participants to move backwards or forwards? I would be very grateful.

    • sarah m

      The original list of questions are in the description of the Youtube video. I’ve pasted them below here. I remember that we adapted them to add some that were more relevant to the Sexuality Studies class we used the exercise in. And it was a bit of an odd experience–with very few exceptions, most of our students had experienced enough privilege to be packed up at the front of the class with nowhere else to go. Only a few racialized and working class students were farther back. We ended up having a good chat about how the advantages the students had experienced had allowed them to become post-secondary students and be present for the exercise at all.

      Here are the questions copied from the Youtube video:

      Questions:
      If your parents worked nights and weekends to support your family, take one step back.
      If you are able to move through the world without fear of sexual assault, take one step forward.
      If you can show affection for your romantic partner in public without fear of ridicule or violence, take one step forward.
      If you have ever been diagnosed as having a physical or mental illness/disability, take one step back.
      If the primary language spoken in your household growing up was not english, take one step back.
      If you came from a supportive family environment take one step forward.
      If you have ever tried to change your speech or mannerisms to gain credibility, take one step back.
      If you can go anywhere in the country, and easily find the kinds of hair products you need and/or cosmetics that match your skin color, take one step forward.
      If you were embarrassed about your clothes or house while growing up, take one step back.
      If you can make mistakes and not have people attribute your behavior to flaws in your racial/gender group, take one step forward.
      If you can legally marry the person you love, regardless of where you live, take one step forward.
      If you were born in the United States, take one step forward.
      If you or your parents have ever gone through a divorce, take one step back.
      If you felt like you had adequate access to healthy food growing up, take one step forward
      If you are reasonably sure you would be hired for a job based on your ability and qualifications, take one step forward.
      If you would never think twice about calling the police when trouble occurs, take one step forward.
      If you can see a doctor whenever you feel the need, take one step forward.
      If you feel comfortable being emotionally expressive/open, take one step forward.
      If you have ever been the only person of your race/gender/socio-economic status/ sexual orientation in a classroom or workplace setting, please take one step back.
      If you took out loans for your education take one step backward.
      If you get time off for your religious holidays, take one step forward.
      If you had a job during your high school and college years, take one step back.
      If you feel comfortable walking home alone at night, take one step forward.
      If you have ever traveled outside the United States, take one step forward.
      If you have ever felt like there was NOT adequate or accurate representation of your racial group, sexual orientation group, gender group, and/or disability group in the media, take one step back.
      If you feel confident that your parents would be able to financially help/support you if you were going through a financial hardship, take one step forward.
      If you have ever been bullied or made fun of based on something that you can’t change, take one step back.
      If there were more than 50 books in your house growing up, take one step forward.
      If you studied the culture or the history of your ancestors in elementary school take one step forward.
      If your parents or guardians attended college, take one step forward.
      If you ever went on a family vacation, take one step forward.
      If you can buy new clothes or go out to dinner when you want to, take one step forward.
      If you were ever offered a job because of your association with a friend or family member, take one step forward.
      If one of your parents was ever laid off or unemployed not by choice, take one step back.
      If you were ever uncomfortable about a joke or a statement you overheard related to your race, ethnicity, gender, appearance, or sexual orientation but felt unsafe to confront the situation, take one step back.

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