Professor Sarojini Nadar


1. Teaching Philosophy and Approach to Education: Boundary Crossing

"Education is Not the Filling of a Pail, but the Lighting of a Fire" 

The above quote, often attributed to the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)2, is a good description of my foundational belief in, and approach to education. This foundational belief has been challenged over the years within my teaching fields namely Gender and Religion Studies, as I have come to realise that the inter-disciplinary nature of my teaching subjects as well as the context within which I teach, requires attention to both – the filling of the pail and the lighting of the fire, and that these are not as mutually exclusive as the quotation by Yeats nor the theorisation by some scholars might indicate. Hence I would modify the quote slightly to more accurately reflect my philosophy – “education is not [just] the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

What I have discovered over the years is that students who register for the Gender and Religion programme come with a pre-existing “fire blazing” to make the world a more gender-equitable place, but they lack the theoretical and the philosophical insights and vocabulary to articulate how such social transformation should occur. The “filling of the pail” with these skills is crucial, but this “filling” is not done within a vertical knowledge structure (Bernstein 1999) where the focus is only on cumulative knowledge. The knowledge is, and must of necessity, within an interdisciplinary programme be filtered through a horizontal knowledge structure that pays attention to both the knower and the knowledge (Maton 2010). This is possible within what Patricia Hill Collins terms an activist-intellectual paradigm (Hill-Collins 2013) which, I would assert, seeks to combine the lighting of the fire with the filling of the pail. I am aware that I may be transgressing the ‘holy grail’ of pedagogical and knowledge paradigms, but an activist-intellectual approach within an interdisciplinary program certainly crosses paradigmatic boundaries!

My teaching philosophy therefore is based on a range of critical pedagogical and knowledge production theorists [bell hooks (2003, 2009), Karl Maton (2000,2010) , Paulo Freire (1973) and Patricia Hill-Collins (2000,2013)]. Emanating from these pedagogical theories is my own approach to teaching – what I term a contextual feminist pedagogy.  

Contextual Feminist Pedagogy 

I define a contextual feminist pedagogy as a pedagogy that is rooted in a critical awareness of the ways in which knowledge is co-opted by patriarchy in terms of production and transfer as well as content and form. A contextual feminist pedagogy seeks to deconstruct such patriarchal forms of knowledge while building new knowledge for the purpose of creating a more equitable society. It  simultaneously seeks ways to transfer this knowledge in ways that are non-patriarchal. Because the pedagogy is contextual, there is recognition of a diversity of feminist approaches, and hence the content and the form of teaching are firmly within the African context. This contextual feminist pedagogical approach will be evident not only in what I teach (content) but how I teach (form). Such an approach is undergirded by three key principles: a democratic classroom; social constructionism and what I term “an education for advocacy” paradigm.

“Was superb and she made everyone talk and contribute. She could not at any moment say you are wrong completely but said in a polite manner that one could not feel offended.”
Student: THEO716/816:2011

Principle #1: Democratic Classroom 

Creating a collaborative learning environment, a democratic classroom, is a distinct feature of feminist pedagogy. The role of the feminist teacher is to allow all voices in the classroom to be heard—and to encourage rather than silence discussion even, and particularly, where divergence of opinion may begin to emerge. Indeed, during the course of my teaching, many robust debates ensue within the class, particularly between male and female students who tend to take sides. While one has to deal sensitively with emotions raised about critical issues, the atmosphere of academic debate is the intention, not a residual effect.

“I have seen Professor Nadar present papers at international conferences and receive a standing ovation. I have seen her put the same energy in her class presentations and evoke scholarly debates among students… She manages to get even the shy students to contribute in the class discussions... This is not only because she teaches feminist theology which is emotive but mostly because of her teaching philosophy which is based on creating a democratic atmosphere in class in order to promote an education system that is dialogical.”
Prof. Isabel Phiri, Honorary Professor UKZN

This atmosphere, I believe, is an excellent outcome because it creates an environment of what Barbara Du Bois calls “passionate scholarship” (1983:112). Teachers who use contextual feminist pedagogy utilise mutual and shared learning as the basis of knowledge creation rather than the traditional ‘top-down’ approach or what Paulo Freire characteristically calls the “banking” method of education, where knowledge is considered “a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing” (1972:46). My main method of knowledge production and transference is therefore inductive in nature, and I believe in the co-production of knowledge, which leads me to the second principle of my teaching praxis – namely – social constructionism.

Principle #2: Social Constructionism

A second principle undergirding contextual feminist pedagogical practice is a social constructionist approach to knowledge. In other words I consciously understand and convey that:

…human experience, including perception, is mediated historically, culturally and linguistically. That is, what we perceive and experience is never a direct reflection of environmental conditions but must be understood as a specific reading of these conditions. This does not mean that we can never really know anything; rather it suggests that there are ‘knowledges’ rather than ‘knowledge’ (Willig 2001:7) 

The need to teach students that all knowledge is socially constructed is nowhere more relevant than in my teaching discipline of Religion and Gender. This is particularly so, because as Reed Bouley argues: “Students’ religious imaginations are intertwined with their sociocultural imaginations, so that the status quo is often perceived as being divinely ordered” (Reed Bouley 2012: 178).

“Distinguishing between what the biblical text says and what it is made to say by those who interpret it was very helpful”
Student: THEO735/835: 2011

Steve de Gruchy names this challenge as:

…the ‘epistemological privilege of the ordained,’ namely that because pastors and theologians assume that they have access to divinely inspired knowledge in a holy book, they simply ‘know’ things. Yet a whole list of contemporary issues would suggest that this is not the case, and that the church has much to learn by first listening to the wisdom that comes from others: abortion, capital punishment, school discipline, same-sex relationships, domestic violence, rape, climate change, food security, safe water, condoms, crime, legalising prostitution, and the like (De Gruchy 2009:128).

The content and process in feminist pedagogy is markedly different from the traditional classroom. Whereas in the traditional classroom, teaching begins with theory and proceeds to practice, in a feminist classroom, teaching begins with actual experience with the ultimate aim being to unravel the theory out of this. Beginning with experience is what enables students to recognise the socially constructed nature of the world.

Principle #3: Education for Advocacy

At the heart of contextual feminist pedagogical practice is the commitment to social transformation, as a result of education. As Kathleen Weiler confirms: 

Like Freirean pedagogy, feminist pedagogy is based on assumptions of the power of consciousness raising, the existence of oppression and the possibility of ending it, and the desire for social transformation (1995:28).

Accordingly, consciousness-raising is a central goal in each of the classes I teach and is built directly into the modules I teach. See for example APPENDIX D1 (Course Outline BIST220) which details the service learning undergraduate module called “Critical Tools for Biblical Study” which requires students to participate in communities and record their experiences of knowledge production and transfer. In an attempt to develop a theoretical account of structural possibilities for service learning, Amanda Hlengwa has argued that “discipline structures impact on whether a discipline enables or constrains infusion [of service learning into curricula” (Hlengwa 2010:2). The horizontal nature of my interdisciplinary field enables such service learning to occur. This service learning is intricately bound to notions of liberative pedagogy.

“The transition from theory to praxis has been ignited through knowledge provision, skills and tools for the noble cause”
Student: THEO 716/816: 2011

According to the Brazilian educationalist Paulo Freire, such a liberative pedagogy

…makes oppression and its causes, objects of reflection by the oppressed, and from that reflection will come their necessary engagement in the struggle for their liberation. And in the struggle this pedagogy will be made and remade (Freire 1972:25).

Hence the goal of my particular teaching is always that of advocacy—how to raise the consciousness of students to understand the individual biases and prejudices each bring to their interpretation and analysis, as well as how to enable them to use their knowledge to effect change in the communities from whence they come.

“I have acquired the necessary skills to translate and engage academic knowledge for the purpose of social transformation”
Student: THEO 735/835: 2011

This key principle is in line with the vision of the Council for Higher Education (CHE) in South Africa which declares that higher education must be “a diverse, dynamic and sustainable system that responds to transformational, social and economic development needs.”3

[2] Its origins unfortunately cannot be verified even through the collected writings of Yeats. I stumbled upon it on a desk of a colleague in India.

[3] See the mission, vision and values section of the Council for Higher Education website accessed on 20 March 2013

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