Why aren’t we curious? Feminism and the Importance of Curiosity

Why, you may ask, did I have you write down so many questions about the image of the pink high-top sneaker? In this mini-lecture, I want to briefly consider why we are so often not curious and then why being curious, in the form of asking lots of questions, is central to Women’s Studies and its analysis of power, privilege and injustice.


  • We are afraid to ask questions because it exposes what we don’t know or how we are uncertain
  • It is a lot of work and requires too much energy
  • It stirs up too much trouble and might force us to rethink our most basic assumptions
  • We are trained to receive and accept information instead of questioning it, challenging it or wondering about it


  • Those who wish to maintain the status quo and who resist change
  • Power structures—inside households, within institutions, in societies—that depend on our mere acceptance of ideas as “natural” or “given”
  • Those who wish to hide the political workings of terms and concepts that we have been trained to merely accept
  • Those who don’t want us to think critically about how systems and structures work and at whose benefit and whose expense
  • Those who want privilege (who has access to it and who doesn’t) to remain invisible and uninterrogated


  • To ask why something is the way it is is to suggest that it could be otherwise or that it shouldn’t be the way that it is
  • Enables us to pay attention to how things really work and how those things may serve to reinforce unjust power relations between people, communities, nations, institutions
  • Enables us to explore those things that we are afraid to question or to think about
  • It opens up a connection, a space, for engagement between us and the object of our questions or between us and the others to whom we ask the questions
  • Allows us to move beyond merely receiving information, to critically engaging with it
  • Trains us to wonder, to pay attention, and to be engaged in the world
  • Encourages us to reflect on how power and privilege work and how they contribute to oppression and injustice

Additional Readings. For more on questioning and feminist curiosity, check out some of the readings that inspired this mini-lecture:
Enloe, Cynthia. “Being Curious about our Lack of Feminist Curiosity
Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw
Butler, Judith. “A Bad Writer Bites Back
Freire, Paulo. “The Future of School” and Learning to Question

And some of my blog entries:
Why did we stop asking questions?

Judith Butler wants us to disobey. Why? Exactly.
Questions, Questions and more Questions.

Once you are done reading this entry and clicking on the other readings/blog entries, click here to go to the next part of this exercise.

What Questions Can We Ask about the Image/Object?

There are all sorts of ways to be curious about this image/object from the perspective of power, privilege and inequality. Here are just a few questions that feminists (and you, using feminist concepts and ideas can) ask:

Labor: Who makes this sneaker? Where is it made? How is it made? How much does it cost to make? How much is it sold for? How much of the profit is given to the worker that made the shoe and how much is given to the company who produced the shoe? Does the making and selling of this sneaker lead to an unequal distribution of labor and profit–between worker/producer or between communities/regions/nations? If so, how? At whose expense is this sneaker made? For whose benefit?

Marketing: How is this sneaker, and other sneakers for women, marketed? How do advertisers encourage us to buy their products? Do their methods work to reinforce harmful stereotypes about women? If so, how and which ones? Do sneaker advertisements ever objectify women? What about these two commercials (see right below)—what are these advertisers suggesting about women? How are the attempting to get women to buy their shoes?

The Consumer/Consumption: Who has access to these sneakers? Who can buy them and who can’t? Why and how are the products that we buy important to our various identities? What do these sneakers say about us when we wear them/buy them? What kind of status and/or privilege do they afford us? What happens to this sneaker when we are done wearing it? Where do discarded sneakers go? Here?

The Worker: Who makes this sneaker? Who manages the workers who make this sneaker? Why are so many of the workers who make these sneakers women from Indonesia, Vietnam and China? What are their working conditions? Who are these women and what are their stories? Why is it important to think about and listen to their stories?

The bodies that wear them: What kinds of bodies should/do wear this sneaker? Who shouldn’t, or who can’t, wear this sneaker? What are you expected to do when you wear this sneaker–are they for engaging in sports, like running or basketball or something else? Check out these images–what clues do we get about who is/should be/most likely will wear them? What types of bodies (in terms of race, size, ability) are included/excluded from these images? Why? Is it acceptable for older women to wear these sneakers? Why or why not? What about men? Does the color of the sneaker (pink) suggest who it is for?

How might these questions, and the strenuous process of asking and engaging with them, enable us to think about how power and privilege work? For more on this last question, click here to proceed to the final phase of this activity.

A Final Exercise

Being curious and asking questions about ideas and objects is an important method for uncovering and critically reflecting on how power, privilege and injustice work. Moreover, as Cynthia Enloe argues in her essay, “Being Curious about our Lack of Feminist Curiosity,” it enables us to pay attention to and take seriously the lives of women. She writes:

…a feminist curiosity finds all women worth thinking about, paying close attention to, because in this way we will be able to throw into sharp relief the blatant and subtle political workings of both femininity and masculinity (4).

Here I would add that a feminist curiosity may also enable us to expose the visible and invisible political workings of power, privilege and oppression as they function through gender and its intersections with race, class, ethnicity, sexuality and much more. To have a feminist curiosity about the world is to persistently ask questions and wonder why and at whose expense/for whose benefit certain ideas, institutions, or systems function in the ways that they do. Of course a feminist curiosity is not the only thing that is necessary for taking the lives of women (or of all species, human and non-human, for that matter) seriously. However, it is an important part of the process and it provides a compelling way to bring a wide range of issues into conversation with each other.

Now that you have made it to the end of this lesson, I have one final assignment* for you.

  1. Pick one of the questions that you wrote down or one of the questions I posted in the previous entry that makes you curious and that you feel engages with issues of privilege and/or power.
  2. Now, spend a few minutes writing down as many questions as you can think of that relate to that first question and that guide your thinking towards a reflection on how power and privilege work. Hint: you can use one of my sets of questions (like those grouped under labor or marketing) as your guide.
  3. Once you get to a question that you are particularly interested in thinking about (and that you think really gets at how power or privilege work) then stop.
  4. Don’t spend too much time on your questions (just a few minutes), but do this exercise every day for the next week. Your questions don’t all have to connect to or follow from the initial image of the pink sneaker. Just make sure that they are guided by a feminist curiosity–the desire to take women’s lives seriously and to expose invisible and visible workings of power and privilege.
  5. At the end of the week, post a 200 word comment to this entry that includes one set of your questions and your thoughts on the experience of asking so many questions.

*This final assignment is a modified version of Kate Bornstein’s “The Ten-Minute Gender Outlaw Exercise” from My Gender Workbook.

2 Possible Additional Readings for exercise:
Enloe, Cynthia. “Being Curious about our Lack of Feminist Curiosity
Bailey, Alison. “Privilege

An Assessment of my fall 2009 blogs: two strategies

A couple of days ago I posted the details of my blog assignments for Queering Theory and Feminist Pedagogies. In this entry, I want to write about how I implemented these assignments. Here are two strategies I used:

1. I demonstrated a commitment to the blog.

I showed the students I was serious about using the blog by spending considerable time training them and thinking with them about what a blog is and how it is useful. Way back in August, when I was writing about teaching with blogs, I offered the following suggestion:

Spend some time at the beginning of the semester training students on how to use the blog.
If possible, demonstrate how to: log in, write an entry, create a link, upload an image, embed a youtube clip, comment on other blogs, find helpful blogs (other things I am forgetting?). You should also spend some time discussing what blogs are, how they can be used, and how/why they will be used in your class. Although this reading is a little dated (from 2005), it might be helpful in getting your students to understand what blogs are and why they are useful. And, it might (but not always) be helpful to have students reflect on blog rules (how to comment on others’ blogs, etiquette, etc).

This fall I took my own advice; in each class we devoted an entire week to training and thinking critically about blogs and how they could/do function in feminist and queer classrooms. In my queering theory class, we read essays on queer blogging by Jill Dolan, Rahul Mitra and Radhika Gajjala, and Julie Rak (you can read my discussion of them and find links to the full citations here). We also devoted a lot of time to thinking about blogging in relation to queer theoretical issues (is the blog a queer space of freedom? what sorts of queer subjects are constructed through blogging? how do blogs challenge and/or reinforce liberal notions of the Subject/Person and the personal?). Reflecting on blogs in this way–queerly and as an important topic for queering–established from the very beginning that the course blog wasn’t just going to be extra (busy) work for the students to do; the blog was going to be a object of study and where they could practice their own queering of theories/ideas/experiences, etc. In my feminist pedagogies class, we read Blogging Feminism: (Web) Sites of Resistance and my three part series on feminist pedagogy and blogging (here, here, and here) and we discussed how blogs can be used (and abused) in feminist classrooms. In both classes, I gave them a tutorial on how to blog in the media center. I also posted (and discussed) this blogging primer.

2. I was an active participant on the blog.

In addition to spending some time at the beginning of the semester for training and thinking about  blogs, I also participated in the blogs with the students. I posted entries in which I reflected on the readings, offered up an example for them to analyze, made announcements about interesting events or resources, and linked to my own blog when I had written entries that seemed relevant to the class. I also occasionally commented on their own entries. With all of this posting, I definitely increased how much I participated in my course blogs. In past classes, I averaged about 10-15 posts per semester (which consisted of announcements about class or weekly questions for them to respond to). In my queering theory and feminist pedagogies classes this past fall, I did 88 entries combined. While many of these entries were about course management (announcements, additional readings, links to handouts), overall I was more creative in my use of the blog. Here are some examples of how I participated on the blog. I posted

The blog can be an amazing (and perhaps overwhelming, at times) resource for students as they engage with the material, with me and with other students. I really enjoyed exploring so many different ways to facilitate (and encourage) that engagement. Okay, so I have run out of steam on this entry. These are not the only strategies I used for implementing the blog. In future entries, I want to write about using the blog in class discussions, a few blog categories that I am particularly proud of, and my struggles with comments.

An Assessment of my Fall 2009 Blogs: the Assignments

It is January 6. In 13 days my spring semester begins. Remarkably, my syllabi for Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking and Contemporary Feminist Debates are in pretty good shape. Time to reflect on what worked/didn’t work in my course blogs this past semester. If you recall (if not, see here), one key reason I started writing in this blog was to practice what I preach/teach. I imagined that actually participating in what I assign for my students would help me to create more productive and engaging blog assignments. It would also help me to understand the limits and possibilities of using the blog. And, I hoped, it would help me to understand better how blogging can contribute to my feminist pedagogical goals. It did all three of these things. I strongly believe that my development of and participation in this trouble blog has contributed greatly to the success of the blog assignments in Queering Theory and Feminist Pedagogies. But, before I get to how these assignments were successful (and also where they could be improved, because isn’t there always room for improvement?), let me start by describing the assignments for each class.

QUEERING THEORY: upper-level undergrad seminar, 12 students

Brief summary/background: When I started putting the syllabus together last July, I knew I wanted to make the blog a central part of the course. The last time I taught Queering Theory, in spring of 2008, the assignments were fairly effective and we (both me and the students) enjoyed the semester. We had a blog that we used, but not that much. This time, I was ready to mix it up and really push at the limits of how blogging could (or should?) be used in the classroom. A class about queering seemed perfect for such an experiment. By making the course rely so heavily on the blog, the students and I could work to challenge/unsettle/disrupt/queer the course. We could potentially disrupt where (not just in the seminar room, but wherever our computers were) and when (not just during the officially scheduled class time, but at 2 AM if we wanted) class engagement occurred. We might also be able to unsettle what counted as academic engagement and rigorous writing (blog entries instead of formal papers) and who counted as an expert (not just the professor or the authors of our “scholarly” texts, but the students as blog authors/posters). Here is part of the official assignment that I distributed to them a week or two into the semester:

ENTRIES: 30% or 300 points (15 total @ 20 points each)

7 Direct engagements with the readings
Annotated bibliographies
“Queer This!” posts

ACTIVE ENGAGEMENT: 10% or 100 points (10 total @ 10 points each)

3 Comments posted in response to the query in “Class Summaries and Queries”
Comments posted on direct engagement OR annotated bibliography entries.
Comments posted on any blog entries

* NOTE: While you are encouraged to post as much as you are able, only 2 entries and 1 comment per week will count towards your overall grade.

Included in the official handout was a more detailed explanation of each type of entry/comment. You can download it here.  I recognize that the amount of detail I give for the blog entries might seem overwhelming (which I think it was for some of them), but it also demonstrated that I was taking this whole blog thing seriously–because I had put so much thought into the assignment, they could trust that I knew what I was doing. As one student pointed out in her final blog entry, trust (between me and her, her and the other students) was central to making this blog experiment a success. A week or so after distributing and discussing this handout, I gave them a worksheet and more instructions about how to keep track of their participation. You can download that here. Here is a screen shot of page 1 of the worksheet.

Central to the blog assignment was the tracking of a particular theme related to queering theory. Students were able to pick which theme they wanted to track. Their direct engagements and annotated bibliographies were required to engage with that theme. They also had to read an additional essay related to their theme and present on it. Finally, they were required to post (or submit) and briefly present on a final wrap-up in which they defined their term and reflected on the experience of blogging. In total, the blog assignment was worth 800 points out of 1000 total points (300 points for blog entries, 100 points for comments, 150 points for presentations, 250 points for the final wrap-up). That’s right. 80% of their grade was the development of and participation in our course blog. As I have stated before, I am amazed and impressed with my students’ willingness to engage in this risky experiment, especially since only two of them had taken courses with me before.

FEMINIST PEDAGOGIES, graduate seminar, 14 students

Brief summary/background: This past semester was my second time teaching Feminist Pedagogies. When I taught it the first time I had always hoped that the blog could be a productive site for engagement with the ideas. We used it but, just like in my first queering theory blog, we didn’t use it that much. It wasn’t a place for us to engage with ideas, only a place to post notes or additional resources. When I found out that I would have 14 students and that the time for my class had been cut from 2 1/2 hours to 2 hours 10 minutes, I knew that the blog would be essential for allowing us to discuss all of the material. So I decided to emphasize the blog as one of the places where students would raise questions and discuss readings/pedagogical theories/teaching. Just like with the queering theory course, a course on feminist pedagogies seemed to be a fitting place to experiment with blogging. Here is the assignment that I gave them:


You are required to actively participate on our course blog. In addition to posting your pedagogical question on the blog (worth 50 points), you are required to post 10 posts (either as new entries or comments on other class members’ entries) over the course of the semester (worth 15 points each).

Pedagogical Question:
Each session will begin with a wrap-up discussion of pedagogical questions that are first raised by several students on our course blog. The questions can be theoretical and/or practical in nature (e.g.: How do you deal with students who don’t “get it”? How do we create community in big classes? What characteristics should a feminist classroom have?). It could also stem from your own experiences as a teacher or student. We will spend approximately 10-15 minutes on the discussion as we brainstorm responses. Each week, several students will be responsible for posting their questions on our course blog. The questions should be posted by Monday evening.

10 Required Posts:

5 direct responses to pedagogical questions
related to the development of your syllabus/reading list
your choice on feminist pedagogies

Direct responses: These 5 posts can be comments posted directly on the original pedagogical question post, or they can be new entries that directly engage with and respond to the pedagogical question. Your response should be thoughtful and draw upon course readings, discussions and/or your own experiences in the classroom as a student or teacher.

Syllabus-related posts: The purpose of these 2 posts is to enable you to chart your progress as you develop your syllabus. Your posts can be about anything related to that process: questions about possible readings, mini annotated bibliographies on sources that you are planning to use, reflections on figuring out your topic, readings, or assignments. The only requirement is that one of these “syllabus progress reports” must be posted by November 4 and the other one must be posted by December 16.

The remaining 3 posts can be about anything related to the course and feminist pedagogy. You could post questions about the readings (what certain terms mean, etc) or mini annotated bibliographies with sources on feminist pedagogy or teaching. Or, you could share images/ideas/examples with our class that might be useful for teaching. You could even post your critical reflections on why blogging is/isn’t effective in the classroom or offer another direct response to a pedagogical question.

You are required to make 5 posts by November 4.
The remaining 5 posts should be completed by December 16.

There you have it, the blog assignments for each course. In upcoming posts I want to write about how these assignments did/didn’t work. I also want to write about how they reflect my pedagogical vision and values. And I want to offer some advice for anyone else wanting to experiment with blogging.