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Davis, California

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Profile: Professor Elizabeth Constable


Fortune cookies, feedback and film and literature

Elizabeth Constable, a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies at UC Davis, visits The New World Bakery at the end of each quarter — not to pick up cookies for herself, but for her (sometimes very large) classes. The New World Bakery, a small business located in Sacramento, makes fresh fortune cookies every day and even takes special orders allowing for specific fortunes. Constable visits them not only to support the business, but to continue a tradition practiced by a former colleague.

“She was one of the most innovative, imaginative teachers in the classroom that I knew, and so we would share ideas, and one day she and I often drove to campus together and she insisted that we went to the Sacramento Cookie Company and I said ‘Why are we, why are we going here,’ so she then explained that on the last day of her class she would pick up these freshly baked fortune cookies,” Constable said. “I thought this was such a great way of both sort of continuing the conversations that are ongoing in a class, tying in the work we’re doing and also celebrating. We’ve reached the end of a journey and now were looking ahead and you’re receiving a fortune — turn it into a feminist fortune. It’s a nice way of turning an ending into a new beginning: sort of a collective and symbolic shared act that says ‘This is ending, but we’re also going forward.’”

Constable’s appreciation for the tradition of the feminist fortune cookie, or rather the academic fortune cookie, could be tied to her beliefs in education as a dialogue and learning as a journey. Constable can surprise any student who has taken an introductory course in a large lecture hall by responding directly to index cards filled out by each student with their questions and responding to them over email. In the first weeks of Spring Quarter, Constable was still contacting students over email with reflections on their final writing assignments from Winter Quarter.

“The conversation, be it face-to face or virtual through work you’re submitting online, that conversation is the very, the most alive part of the learning because some of you don’t recognize your own strengths, and so some part of that dialogue that I have with you is telling you ‘this is so strong, you may not realize it’ and also just helping you relate to feedback as feedback — not criticism or grading, but feedback,” Constable said. “Here’s a response, here’s a question, could you think about that this way? So it’s just sort of shifting away from criticism, grading and into this is feedback.”

Constable reflected on her stance on word counts, a stance which stems partly from her formation in European education systems and partly from her work in the University Writing Program. She offers detailed and thoughtful expectations and necessary touchstones of each assignment. Though it requires more intellectual labor for her, she understands it is productive for students.

“I think that a word count puts an idea that there’s a norm and norms are always ideals, there’s a norm that somehow the right writing response to this would be about 500 words long,” Constable said. “But I’d rather not give that norm, although I do want to give the guidance of saying you need to touch on these aspects in your writing, you need to include responses to these types of questions. I’m wanting students not to learn bad habits or continue bad writing habits, but also because each of you is on an individual journey in your learning experience.”

Providing thoughtful responses and detailed expectations pertaining to each writing assignment, in addition to abundant fortune cookies, characterizes Constable’s teaching. A depiction of her identity as a professor is incomplete, though, without her thoughts on author and feminist bell hooks’ “radical openness” and her own formative experiences as an English as a Second Language teacher in a north London suburb.

“I think one of the most important principles or values for me is the effective environment in a classroom, in other words, how can an instructor create a community where there is what I’m calling radical openness,” Constable said. “This is not my term — it comes from bell hooks […] she invites us to think about, or to rethink, the classroom as a place where we should be able to generate a radical openness that allows learners to explore and think around topics rather than feel they have to pick up concepts and so for me the classroom environment is one where if we can build a sense of a community of learners that shares this open mind, open-mindedness that is an affective environment that’s conducive to learning.”

Not only because a gender studies course necessitates personal inquiry and investment as relevant to the content, Constable generates an almost quotidian conversation in her classroom. Given that many feminist theorists respect the subjectivities of the individual as informing their political and intellectual positions, Constable seeks the lived experiences of her students. It may feel foreign to share an anecdote or an emotion in a lecture hall, but Constable leaves room and space for speech that cannot be wrong.

Constable’s openness, in some cases to change, has helped her to evolve as a teacher. As an ESL educator in London, she acknowledged her need to learn about the cultural and linguistic differences between herself and her students. In recent years, Constable has been receptive to the knowledge of friends, which informs a new approach to student engagement.

“My first teaching practice was actually in Southall, which is a North London suburb,” Constable said. “And Southall was a majority Asian population, Punjabi and Gujarati speakers and in the late 1970s and early 1980s there had been some really very painful and violent race riots. I think that environment where the issues of equity in the classroom and the ways in which classroom practices could exclude students unintentionally that was my everyday experience because very few of the teachers, including me, spoke Gujarati or Punjabi, the language of the majority of the students. These students were also living through a fairly difficult period of their community’s history and so I think I was acutely aware that I had to learn a lot.”

One of the learning curves Constable has more recently followed is her assumptions around body language and student engagement, which she has rendered obsolete pausing on reflections of people on the autism spectrum.

“So now I’ve learned never to make any assumptions about how a student manifests that they’re paying attention, I just trust,” Constable said. “I’ve learned so much in the process and it makes my own experience in the classroom much more enjoyable, because you’re more comfortable.”

Some of Constable’s research outside of the classroom is on social affect, which can operate within the classroom. Constable’s research has been further touched by students while working on an article about sexual assault legislation and social realities surrounding it. Looking at a film by Catherine Breillat, Constable had a different impression of a sexual encounter that was not entirely consensual than her students did. The interaction in the classroom inspired her to open up her interpretation of the scene and the intention of the filmmaker. Her writing took place amid sexual assault prevention initiatives on the UC Davis campus which sometimes don’t take account of the blur in social, sexual encounters.

“The spirit of that no blurred lines is one we want to agree with, we want to be […] and yet the reality indicates there’s a lot of blur,” Constable said. “I think part of my goal in this particular article is to make the case that others are making that sex education has to really change so that young people are aware of the different scripts in their heads that are prompting them to act one way, or think that they can’t act another way.”

The film screened by Constable depicts a violating sexual encounter between an older boy and a younger girl.

“Their responses indicated that where we might think of violation in very simplistic terms — you must know when you’re being violated — we must think of, if you think about there are many different levels of being violated there’s emotional violation, there’s sexual violation,” Constable said. “And both of those enter into play in a sexual encounter. So their responses that made me realize, ah, there’s something that’s happening in this scene that I need to look at differently, it’s not hyperbolic, this scene is not an exaggerated representation to make a point. It’s actually more interesting to look at the blur and how people who are the age of the characters on screen also experience that sense of not entirely recognizing the place where violation is taking place. So it was students responses to the film that then I have integrated into my own thinking and into the way the article developed.”

Constable sees the potential in film and literature to capture the ‘blur’ that can be a part of sexual assault. She reflected on a short story in the New Yorker entitled “Cat Person” which, detailing sexual encounters that the protagonist realized in retrospect were not desired on her part, received a flood of reception from readers echoing the author’s sentiments.

“The short story has elicited so many people responding saying ‘yeah,’” Constable said. “So to that extent I’m very interested in seeing the ways in which literary representations, or the space of the imagination in cinema and literature can actually be a really helpful tool in opening up the more difficult questions around consent.”

Since 2008, Constable has worked in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies department, which has recently welcomed new educators and broadened resources on transnational feminisms. These professors include Rana Jaleel, Sara Giordano and Kalindi Vora, who expand the breadth of the department’s specializations. Jaleel is expanding the sexuality studies minor, while Giordano specializes in feminist science studies as a neuroscience Ph.D. and Vora focuses on feminist science and technology studies. Constable is enthused about these additions and looked to the future.

“We would love to hire somebody who specializes in trans studies,” Constable said. “So those are the areas, transnational feminisms, feminist science studies, sexuality studies and trans studies.”

While the department expands, so does Constable’s understanding of the evolving student body.

“The center of teaching and the center of student learning is relationships,” Constable said. “And so whatever an instructor can do that fosters trusting relationships I think it’s our responsibility to try to do that.”


Written by: Stella Sappington — features@theaggie.org


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