The Pedagogical Mystique: Feminist Academic Discourse

by Carmen Faymonville

[From Feminist Collections v.24, no.2 (Winter 2003). ]


Berenice Malka Fisher, NO ANGEL IN THE CLASSROOM: TEACHING THROUGH FEMINIST DISCOURSE. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000 (cloth), 2001 (pap.). 315p. notes. bibl. index. $85.00, ISBN 0-8476-9123-3; pap., $21.95, ISBN 0-8476-9124-1.

Ellen Messer-Davidow, DISCIPLINING FEMINISM: FROM SOCIAL ACTIVISM TO ACADEMIC DISCOURSE. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002. 413p. notes. bibl. index. $64.95, ISBN 0-8223-2829-1; pap., $21.95, ISBN 0-8223-2843-7.

            In order to create gendered academic spaces in which and from which it can speak and teach, a whole generation of feminist teachers, for the past thirty years, first imagined and then instituted new pedagogical and scholarly modes that served its feminist ends.  Two survivors of that struggle, New York University women’s studies professor Berenice Fisher and University of Minnesota–Twin Cities professor Ellen Messer-Davidow, offer panoramic insights and detailed analyses of that socio-pedagogical history.  Asking more questions than they answer, Fisher and Messer-Davidow carve out rhetorical spaces in which they seek to define what, how, when, where, and why feminist discourses circulate in the academy in the ways they do.  They both seek to find a way of speaking about and seeing anew the processes of feminist inquiry in the academy.  Such an ambitious enterprise must start with defining the problems of feminist practice in the liberal-capitalist academic marketplace and finding ways to talk about them in theoretical and practical ways alike.  Fisher, in No Angel in the Classroom, not only pinpoints what makes a feminist educator and how feminist pedagogy is actually practiced, but also diagnoses a most vexing pedagogical dilemma:  “We have relatively few serious discussions about the interactions involved in teaching or their meaning to us and the students” (p. 1).  In a similar vein, Ellen Messer-Davidow tells a story in Disciplining Feminism of where we were, where we are, and where we should go to start a new conversation about feminism in the academy.  Disciplining Feminism, however, deconstructs any sense of a comfortable feminist “we.” In essence it presents a stringent critique of postmodern feminist analysis, which Messer-Davidow claims has been serving the ends of the scholarly disciplines but not feminist policy implementation (pp. 212–13).

Both authors share a sense of loneliness and isolation, Fisher’s created mainly by a sense of isolation from other teachers, and Messer-Davidow’s stemming primarily from her sense of separation from activists outside the academy and postmodernists in the theory coterie.  It is their recognition of isolation that prompts both authors to transform their voices into action—if we readers accept their premise that writing a book, i.e., producing more discourse, is a form of activist intervention.  As long-time practitioners of second-wave feminism, they have shaped theory and practice and have themselves become part of what Messer-Davidow calls “a nationwide infrastructure of some 630 women’s studies programs…and thousands of academic-feminist presses, books series, journals, and newsletters” (p. 85).  Seeing the personal as political, both authors focus on beginnings, taking autobiographical, even confessional, approaches to mapping their experiences with academic feminism and their own specific strategies of feminist discourse. Both draw on years of personal involvement and fieldwork in and outside the university. Fisher, for instance, draws a fairly extensive sketch of her life and commitments, including her lesbianism, that have impacted her political positions.  Both tell effective first-person stories of intellectual and personal struggle and narrate in great detail the influence of the civil rights movement on the development of women’s studies. (Davidow also talks about early sex discrimination and sex harassment legal measures).  Messer-Davidow focuses on precise historicity and on detailed descriptions of various scholarly journals as well as the specific resistance of the Modern Language Association (MLA) to feminist criticism in her attempt to prove her thesis that disciplinary effects have deformed feminist activity in the academy.  In comparison, Fisher develops broader, more generally applicable questions about how to practice feminist scholarship and teaching in typical pedagogical scenarios, such as thesis supervision and mentoring of young scholars.

            Messer-Davidow’s main thesis is that the separation of feminist activists and scholars damages both sides, and that academics have tacitly accepted this damage in exchange for the benefits of institutional acceptance of women’s studies.  It is important to mention here her impressive activist record: she initiated the founding of the MLA graduate student caucus in 1975–76, when, as Joan Hartman writes, the Committee on the Status of Women “thought we were in danger of creating a female version of the old boys’ network that governed MLA by recruiting to the Commission women we knew, energetic friends from the graduate schools we had attended.”1  Messer-Davidow earns our respect for the early activism she brought to the caucus, drawing on organizing skills she had acquired during her stint with the Industrial Areas Foundation.  “When they knock you down, you’ve got to go back and educate them and create the conditions whereby they have to make the right decision,” advised her mentor at the University of Cincinnati, Marquita McLean; she heeded that wisdom throughout her impressive career.2

            Both authors share nostalgia for the early days of second-wave feminism, which spurs their own deep excavation of theories of organization and practice that influenced that second wave.  Foucault’s echoes can be heard pretty loudly.  After all, the very notion of discipline as a rhetorical construct and a system of power is Foucauldian.  Consequently, Messer-Davidow’s central concern can be called the “digging” of  “artifacts of disciplinary discourse.”  But where the Minnesota professor uses theories of social organization to examine the realization of change, Fisher uses a less obvious disciplinary approach. Thus, Disciplining Feminism reads quite analytically, while No Angel in the Classroom appears comparatively more memoiristic.

            The connection that nonetheless links both authors is their worry about meeting the demands of two forces pulling at them, namely their time-consuming and draining academic lives and their competing commitments to political causes outside the academy, exacerbated by political factionism.  “I can be faulted for being ‘too political’ or for not meeting one or another feminist political/intellectual standard,” complains Fisher of the hairsplitting of academic feminism (p. 2).  Yet while Fisher feels compelled to sort out theoretical differences, Messer-Davidow more feistily rejects the multi-voiced, or split, tongue with which feminist discourse is spoken in the academy as politically ineffective for the stated goals shared by all feminisms.

            Like Messer-Davidow, Fisher also questions a too-stringent emphasis on intellectual standard without policy application or real-life political impact.  In Messer-Davidow’s case, in large part, such emphasis on application can be attributed to her cross-disciplinary scholarly tastes and her appointments in the fields of English, cultural studies, social studies, women’s studies, and rhetoric and composition, as well as various other academic and non-academic leadership positions that push her beyond the methodological blinders of one particular area of study.  Since her early days as a member of the MLA’s Committee on the Status of Women, Messer-Davidow has extensively published on interdisciplinary and other feminist and radical–liberal political issues; her work has included stringent analyses of the Christian Right’s ideologies and organizing strategies.  Yet, like Fisher, Messer-Davidow readily acknowledges that practice without theory can lead to dilettantism and the general (circular) assumption that feminists are necessarily good teachers because they are feminist.  Fisher, however, chimes in with Messer-Davidow’s ritual complaint that feminist scholarship was once (in the good old days?) an aspect of feminist activism, and shares the veteran feminist’s distaste of highly theoretical work that seems esoteric except to the relatively few who are the initiated.  As an educational philosopher and women’s studies practitioner at New York University, Fisher also asks fairly discipline-specific and practical questions helpful to both the beginner and the seasoned practitioner of women’s studies.  Yet, like Messer-Davidow, she also offers a social history of the women’s movement that crosses the activist/intellectual divide.  More dialogic in her writing style than Messer-Davidow, Fisher encourages shop-talk about everyday questions such as these: Which philosophical directives do we (un)consciously follow when we choose teaching methods?  Are feminist teachers particularly prone to autobiographical scenes?  Do feminist educators invest too much in their students at the expense of managing their own time? What problems do we face in teaching men in our women’s studies classes?

            Messer-Davidow began doing research for her book in the early 1990s, a circumstance betrayed by her choice of examples and references, some of which appear somewhat dated since they refer to public debates at academic conferences in the earlier part of the last decade. Ultimately, Disciplining Feminism is not really about pedagogy, but is a piece in the puzzle of Messer-Davidow’s more general objective of combatting the Religious Right and vicious conservatism in U.S. culture.  She is not the only one to claim that the political Right has gained power by getting a foothold in what was once the liberal Left bastion of the university. Feminism’s co-optation by the academy, then, is a timely topic for all of us who are trying to change teaching styles and learning outcomes in that conservative environment. “Engendering knowledge” is now the task of all those teachers and researchers who seek to introduce or to reinforce the project of gendering knowledge into the academy. 

            Both Messer-Davidow and Fisher are pioneers of the first generation of feminist academicians ready and able to narrate the history and assess the results of engendered knowledge production.  Both nursed the field of women’s studies by being practitioners, serving on committees, and being spokeswomen for and editors of feminist writing.  Their track records include succinct analysis and interpretation of the real world, which they have achieved by a new kind of research that takes into account real-world effects and social applications of research, not merely abstractions.  Their expressed wish is to reach people in the policymaking and social movements and to make academic work constructive and solution-oriented by envisioning action plans; but the readers who are going to engage with this book will be a much more smaller, more predictable audience of women professors.  And this audience presents the most important criticism of these spokeswomen’s otherwise worthwhile projects: Written with the autobiographical voice of the academic visionary, the vision is merely going to reach those already attuned to the processes of disciplinary feminisms, undisciplined and disciplined.

            Nevertheless, as Fisher echoes Messer-Davidow in emphasizing the advantages of social movements in supporting academic change, and feminist activism as an antidote for co-optation in the daily teaching grind, something closely resembling hope and optimism overtakes the reader.  Just as social movements are seen by both authors as capable of challenging and ultimately transforming any social order, so, finally, does the empathetic reader agree that feminism in the academy can be made more socially effective.  Putting much stock in the educational value and rhetorical and practical strength of social movements, Fisher and Messer-Davidow courageously seek to transfer the consciousness-raising techniques of twentieth-century social movements to academic discourse and to academic readers.  For both, the best model for feminist pedagogy lies in the feminist-activist style of knowledge production and dissemination.  They exemplify this style in their rhetorical and practical step-by-step approaches, in Disciplining Feminism and No Angel in the Classroom, to organizing and changing minds.

            Disciplining Feminism sometimes works against its own goals.  Messer-Davidow identifies a rather large, abstract theme, even though she selects concrete examples as case studies and has designed her research to reach beyond the narrow confines of some disciplines.  In essence, she addresses the old Marxian problem of the split between theory and practice, and arrives at the conclusion that the integration of one specific discipline, namely women’s studies, into the institutional frameworks of conventional disciplines has created a rift between activists and academics (p.120).  Here are some questions she might have considered in more detail:  Doesn’t one need to distinguish among pedagogues, teachers, and researchers and among liberal arts colleges, small universities, and major research universities in painting a broad canvas of the institutionalization of feminism?  Is it sufficient or expeditious to call for the end of separation between “town” and “gown” expressions of feminist action?  Haven’t academics joined the peace movement and other civil rights movements in unions or national organizations?  What created the split between activists outside and inside the academy, and precisely when was it created?  Isn’t that “theory vs. practice” split a well-recognized rift with much larger philosophical impact, and wasn’t that rift already in existence at the moment academic feminism was born?  Does Disciplining  Feminism offer us more than a fairly generalized historical look at the co-optation of grassroots movements by institutional forces?

            In response to what she elsewhere calls an “organized conservative movement on a jihad to illegalize affirmative action, dismantle social programs, and further redistribute the wealth to elites,”3 Messer-Davidow takes issue with theoretical debates and standpoints that seem to splinter feminist solidarity in the fight for justice and rights for all disadvantaged people (“we don’t have time to quibble about whether people are more disadvantaged by race, sex, sexuality ethnicity, or whatever”4).  It is unfortunate that in asking the Left to stand together and identify a common enemy, she chooses the word “jihad” to rally the forces of feminism to a common battle.  The feminist movement in the United States, mostly a liberal institution guided by mostly liberal Western values, may be wrongly identified by Fisher and Messer-Davidow as “leftist,” despite the heroic prevalence of socialist-feminist academic writing.  In my own experience as a foreign citizen within the American academy, neither activist (non-academic) nor academic feminism are leftist or even closely related to the socialist possibilities envisioned by the two authors.

Drawing on many of the concerns she previously expressed in a chapter of the 1991 book (En) Gendering Knowledge,5 Messer-Davidow again criticizes feminist academics for remaining theoretical while the enemies of feminism conspire and actively work against women’s rights. But have those enemies really managed to punish, tame and discipline us all, as she claims? The post-sixties generation surely does not need to cite Joan Catapano and Marlie P. Wasserman in order to admit that, generally speaking, in world history, and surely in the analysis of post-Marxists, “all revolutionary movements either dissipate or are institutionalized” (p.206). Pessimism dictates so, and post-Marxism knows so but continues to work against such fatalism.  Is it surprising that women, particularly feminist ones, have been tamed and disciplined and seek to work within frameworks that, often, they do not control?  All universities, and especially those universities and colleges that are regionally or hierarchically “differently situated,” display a specific culture and modes of conduct that necessarily shape faculty conduct and scholarship.

Diversification and diversity of positions in the academy are indeed problematic terms in Disciplining Feminism.  Messer-Davidow basically claims that “feminist studies discourse…expressed in different disciplines, identities, political ideologies and epistemic assumptions” is actually a cause of the “balkanizing [of] academic feminism, dividing us from nonacademic feminists and progressives, and reconstituting social change as an artifact of esoteric discourses” (p.86).

If we accept Messer-Davidow’s thesis that women’s studies has become appropriated by the academy as disciples are inserted “into normative schemes of practice” (p.45), then how can we undo the disciplinary structures and bifurcations that the academy has imposed on us?  After all, most academic feminists have experienced firsthand their institutions’ tendency to bend to political pressures and their politically appointed leadership’s notion of accountability in terms of test-scores for money. What are our strategies to revive social change and active modes of learning linked to action outside the academy?  How can community organizing and scholarship accomplish this together?  Messer-Davidow does not take notice of the rather large body of literature available on service learning, such as Women’s Studies: Concepts and Models for Service Learning in Women’s Studies.6

            Defining academic feminism as a potentially radical attempt to transform the disciplines, Messer-Davidow correctly observes that as feminism entered the institutions, it was transformed and deformed by the institutional frameworks it set out to change.  But what does this observation leave us with, besides anamnesis?  I preferred reading Fisher’s detailed and careful assessment of her own attempt to change the institution from within, to be “the sand in the machine,” as has been attempted by many radicals who have sought to make a living while hanging onto their ideals (sometimes by their painted fingernails).  However, No Angel in the Classroom does not present itself as a book about teaching strategies, curriculum development, or models of interpretation.  In fact, by reviewing specific conflicts rather than elementary and practical questions about syllabi and course requirements, Fisher indicates that her life experience and thirty-five years as a feminist professor have made her more interested in understanding “what it teach social-justice subjects such as gender, race, and sexual orientation” (p. 1).  Her targeted audience is not the anxious neophyte but seasoned feminist teachers who share the doubts that come with experience and failure in the classroom.  Whether or not we admit it, all teachers despair, if only momentarily, over the when, how, and why of our own practices.

            In the most pessimistic reading of the two books, the academic feminist project of an entire generation or two has failed, because, as Messer-Davidow argues, rather than building bridges between the academy and social activism, feminists are now imprisoned by institutional structures and isolated from large-scale social feminist movements.  Messer-Davidow argues that the formation of academic feminism “was imploded, its salient features determined by the end of 1972 and its shape fixed by 1976” (p.86).  To me, the problem in her analysis of the “disciplining” of academic feminism lies in her definition of feminism as the academic branch of social activism.  Only when defined this way has academic feminism failed.  As Messer-Davidow and Fisher both readily concede, academics—especially tenured ones—become complacent, but is that the sum total of the evidence of their creation and maintenance of “power prestige hierarchies” (Disciplining Feminism, pp.20–21)?  Does academia really not deserve any credit for disciplinary scholarship that activists could use as tactical knowledge in advancing their causes?

            Messer-Davidow idealizes a radical past in which feminism was “once insurgent,” and she believes that the movement has since lost its stride.  Little evidence informs her description of conformist feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, the decades in which she locates the bold activism that she remembers (p.207).  Painting a picture of a three-phased inescapable decline, she charges that 1960s feminist academics were singularly eager and able to combine social activism with institutional acculturation and scholarly transformations of the academy as they gained spaces and positions on college campuses and became active in associations such as the Modern Language Association (pp.206–7).  Much of Messer-Davidow’s work, despite its seemingly expansive scope, is, in fact, based on rather sketchy analyses of disciplinary associations in the humanities and social sciences.  And while her history of MLA activities is interesting to historians of English, it is less exemplary than she seeks to make the reader believe.  As feminism has transformed the MLA, feminists, have, of course, also been co-opted by that organization. What else is new?

            The theme of co-optation, in fact, deserves further scrutiny here.  While Messer-Davidow’s description of the intellectualization of feminist analysis and its subsequent institutionalization is certainly worth reading, it gives little insight into the different and differential ways in which feminist discourse and pedagogy were absorbed into different academic fields by social activists and mainstream scholars alike.  In fact, it appears that Messer-Davidow, herself a beneficiary of the institutionalization of feminist rhetoric in the academy, is deeply suspicious of the successes of feminist power in the establishment of university administrations (p.207). At times she buys into the notion spawned by young third-wave feminists that the “mothers” now rule the university and that no avenue of rebellion remains other than talking back to the feminist matriarchs who rule supreme, even in male-dominated disciplines.  It is painful to read Messer-Davidow from the perspective of the nontenured feminist or adjunct academic, because while Disciplining Feminism appears sympathetic to their plights and points to the continued exploitation of women in the academy, it denies those readers any hope that their radical projects might survive in the academy once they actually secure a tenure-track job or even tenure and financial security.  Is there really much new about Messer-Davidow’s thesis that institutionalization necessarily changes and disciplines, i.e., keeps in check, academics who want to teach and make a living?  Can radical movements survive unscathed in the academy of tenured ex-radicals?  Of course not!  But who are the radicals outside the academy who remain uncorrupted by power or security?  Teaching in a small town in Wisconsin, I haven’t been able to detect much radicalism in the wider community.  In fact, the university is the only haven of any remotely radical thought.  Although some administrators and tenured professors have indeed been disciplined by their institutions, they continue their radical (feminist) teaching and their dissemination of radical ideas to students who arrive with little interest in political struggle, feminist or otherwise.

            Does the future of feminism really lie in a non-academic, non-disciplinary path, as Messer-Davidow suggests—in particular, since she acknowledges the generally conservative environment and the countless suppressions of social change movements in the mainstream media and the government?  We need to learn more about how “language-oriented,” i.e., postmodernist, feminists have successfully disciplined themselves and their oppositions.  After all, Fisher and Messer-Davidow have apparently, quite successfully, managed to resist disciplinary action and punishment directed at them.  Readers must ask themselves whether there really is a direct trajectory from social activism to academic discourse or whether there are crisscrossings and cross-fertilizations.  Isn’t there always a more circular discourse than the straight line and its phallocentric rhetorical resonance?

            Disciplining Feminism and No Angel in the Classroom are both provocative and productive. They warn of the dangers of intellectual practices formed by institutions and of the loss of contact with non-academic social movements.  But neither Fisher nor Messer-Davidow addresses fully enough the broader problem that even social change movements experience institutionalization, co-optation, and disciplinary action against their members and thus are in no better position than is the academy.  While feminists disagree about many issues—and disagree on intellectual grounds that are quite important—I see no value in having an easy peace to solve Messer-Davidow’s perception of a problem with academia’s “co-optation by a culture of professionalisms that would subvert their ends and break their ties to the movement” (p.117).  In choosing to discuss the matter academically and in academic rhetoric, are Fisher and Messer-Davidow failing, themselves, to bridge to non-academic audiences?  Isn’t it true that at a time when women’s studies has been institutionalized, the majority of female teachers are still in the lower-paid jobs (as both readily acknowledge), and that feminism inside and outside the academy is under heavy attack?  In other words, the postmodern feminists working at large research universities whom Messer-Davidow targets are the exceptions, not the rule.

            Despite my criticisms, teachers and activists Ellen Messer Davidow and Berenice Malka Fisher have, in these volumes, contributed another important element to our new traditions in feminist teaching.  These tasks remain:  to continue to chronicle how social change in turn changes specific areas and disciplines, and to document the conditions and rules of emergence of feminism in our current academic spaces. Messer-Davidow tells us elsewhere how we might want to do just that:  “You organize a constituency, compel folks to realize its legitimacy, maneuver your way into negotiations, make demands, [and] apply pressure through protest.”7



1.  Joan Hartman, “A Tribute to Ellen Messer-Davidow,” Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, v.2, no.1 (April 1999),

2.  Heather Julien, “An Interview with Ellen Messer-Davidow,” Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, v.2, no.1 (April 1999),

3.  Julien, “An Interview,”

4.  Julien, “An Interview,”

5.  Joan Hartmann & Ellen Messer-Davidow, eds., (En)Gendering Knowledge: Feminists in Academe (Univ. Tennessee Press, 1991).

6.  Women’s Studies: Concepts and Models for Service Learning in Women’s Studies  (Washington, DC: American Association of Higher Education, 2000).

7.  Julien, “An Interview,”

[Carmen Faymonville is Associate Professor of English and Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Platteville.]


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