Listening to the women's Voices
by Fran Davis and Arlene Steiger
"Look at a classroom; look at the many kinds of women's faces, postures, expressions. Listen to the women's voices" (1). This injunction, written by Adrienne Rich in 1978 as part of her insistence that we "take women students seriously", has become an important theme in our research. We are working to document the impact of feminist pedagogy in traditional classrooms across a wide range of disciplines. We have, as a result, elaborated a set of teaching strategies out of our sense that the classroom is a political arena in which women students are likely to be disadvantaged in a variety of ways.
Initially, we were most concerned about the unequal distribution of space and attention in the traditional classroom. The phenomenon is well documented. In general in mixed groups, men tend to speak more frequently and are more likely to interrupt a woman (2). Such patterns of interaction are carried into the classroom, where they continue to work upon the lives of young women in spite of the best egalitarian intentions of teachers.
The process by which men come to lay claim to more space in the classroom is undoubtedly complex. For example, several researchers have found that male students tend to intervene in the classroom in ways which draw the attention of the teachers more effectively than do the female students (3). For us, the crucial issue here is talk, and the fact that men seem to do more of it .
We think that speech is a critical step in the process by which students come to possess material. Certainly Stella Baruk, in her attempts to understand her students' difficulties in mathematics, reminds us of the indispensable role of talk at every turning. The language of everyday speech is literally the tool she uses to burrow through mathematical error toward understanding (4). That men speak more than women in the classroom has implications for the quality and perhaps even the very nature of women's learning.