Transformative Spaces: Feminist Pedagogy in Academic Conferencing

By: Charity Anderson, Ph.D., Staci Gilpin, Ph.D., Marta Pulley, MS-IDT, and Courtney Plotts, Ph.D.

January 17, 2024

A Case Study in Innovation

In our collective journey as women deeply immersed in the world of online higher education, we have steadfastly embraced the tenets of feminist pedagogy. Our approach is grounded in the ethos of collaboration and communal contribution, underpinned by a strong commitment to authenticity, inclusivity, and the acknowledgment of diverse lived experiences. This dedication to feminist principles recently culminated in a transformative experience at Courtney’s “Culture Think” conference, held in October 2023.

The conference emerged as a beacon of innovation within academic circles. It wasn’t just an event; it was a renaissance of sorts, challenging and reshaping our vision of what academic conferencing could be. Centering on cultural responsiveness and instructional design, the conference boldly stepped away from the hierarchical norms that often overshadow larger conferences. Instead, it fostered an environment where dialogues were not just encouraged but thrived.

Interestingly, our connections prior to the conference were tenuous at best. Courtney and Staci, Courtney and Marta, Staci and Charity – our interactions were limited to the peripheries of professional spaces. This detail underscores a critical critique often leveled at feminist approaches within socially driven communities and learning networks: the inherent challenge of building in-depth relationships without substantial social capital.

However, it was precisely in this environment – one marked by intimacy and safety – that we discovered an ideal setting for fostering meaningful professional interactions. The conference became a haven where those with limited connections could engage, interact, and contribute. It was a place where barriers were dismantled and new bridges were built, enabling access and fostering a sense of belonging among all participants.

As we reflect on this experience, we realize that it wasn’t just about attending another conference. It was about being part of a movement that champions a more equitable and collaborative approach to learning and professional development. It was a reaffirmation of our commitment to principles that not only guide our work but also shape our vision for a more inclusive and responsive future in higher education.

The sessions, conducted in a hotel suite, provided a blend of intellectual stimulation and comfort, complete with food, drinks, and cozy couches. This relaxed setting facilitated a transition from structured scholarly talks to more engaging, interactive formats, like Staci’s session, which evolved into a writer’s workshop and inspired this collaborative blog post. Such experiences underscored the critical roles of empathy and mindfulness in our professional lives, setting the groundwork for deep and impactful learning.

Our reflections on this unique conference, which includes dynamic engagement, collaboration, and empowerment, draw inspiration from Niya Bond’s concept of “feminist facilitation” in “The Future of Faculty Development Is Feminist.” As we present this novel conference framework, echoing the transformative educational ideologies that guide our work, we aim to guide future organizers and participants toward a more inclusive and engaging professional development model. This article delves into our reflections on these experiences, showcasing how the “Culture Think” conference served as a case study in innovation and perfectly encapsulates our envisioned structure for academic conferencing.

Photo: “Collaboration in Action: Participants at Staci’s session engaging in a dynamic writer’s workshop.”

Collaboration and Communal Contribution

The “Culture Think” conference format deviated from traditional academic practices by fostering a culture of collaboration over competition, deeply rooted in feminist pedagogical principles that prioritize inclusive participation (Hesse-Biber, 2011). The “Culture Think” conference format draws inspiration from feminist theorists (hooks 1994; Kamler 2001) and is in harmony with contemporary educational theories that recognize learners as co-creators (Romero-Hall 2021) and critical figures in shared leadership models (Chick & Hassel 2009). Courtney, the conference founder and organizer, made a conscious effort in her planning to reflect the feminist view of knowledge as a communal, cooperative process. The conference structure is intentionally designed to promote collective learning adaptability and meaningful connections as sessions are scheduled but also provides ample downtime and meals together or apart so that we can recharge in our own unique ways.

Participants are more than just attendees; we are integral to co-creating knowledge. This approach built lasting supportive networks and a sense of community. Charity aptly summarized the essence of the conference, stating, “I thought there was no reason not to be a part of this… it was definitely not what I did not want to be a part of—a typical conference.” This sentiment highlighted the uniqueness of our conference, which favored authentic connections over conventional formats, crucial for impactful learning experiences.

Our reimagined format also sheds light on the traditional mechanisms of academic knowledge production. Typically, a standing presenter faces a seated audience, creating a hierarchical dynamic and sometimes leading to acts of humiliation and feelings of inferiority and insecurity in academic conferences (Meriläinen et al., 2021). These traditional means and modes of doing and knowing are isolating, exclusive, and transactional, and this is a more radical and communal approach. Our conference, in contrast, champions a space for intimate relational knowing, challenging traditional conference norms and valuing vulnerability and emotional engagement, thus marking a significant shift from the typical detached, non-emotional academic discourse. This dynamic was notably apparent as attendees were encouraged to freely ask questions and offer comments in real-time, fostering unique emotional connections by sharing personal challenges and successes.

Photo: “Unity in Diversity: Charity, Marta, Staci, & Courtney at the closing dinner, immersed in shared stories and laughter.”

Promotion of Authenticity and Inclusivity

The conference format epitomizes the idea of “free spaces,” as defined by Evans and Boyte (1979), serving as a melting pot for uninhibited idea exchange and innovation beyond traditional cultural norms. The notion of “free spaces” is deeply rooted in feminist pedagogical principles that emphasize the value of diverse thoughts and experiences (Neimand et al., 2021). In these free spaces, participants are encouraged to express themselves spontaneously, fostering an environment where divergent thinking is accepted and celebrated.

This atmosphere of openness at ‘Culture Think’ was vividly captured by Courtney’s observation: “Like artists, their [attendees’] creative moments don’t happen in this very well-structured conference… It kind of happens when having lunch or sitting on the sofa.” Her words paint a picture of an academic conference transformed into a dynamic space, where exchanging ideas resembles casual yet invigorating coffee chats more than formal presentations. The informal interactions that flourished in these settings were instrumental in nurturing authentic connections and fostering innovative thoughts.

The transformative power of authenticity in academic discourse was evident throughout our four days together. Informal discussions and exchanges often happening in the peripheries of structured programs became the breeding grounds for true connection and groundbreaking ideas, showcasing the immense potential of embracing authenticity in academic environments. To illustrate, Staci shared with the group early on that she was in the early stages of planning a non-profit. From that moment forward, Courtney, Charity, and Marta, embraced her planning as if it was their own, often stopping what they were doing (e.g. whether it be enjoying a meal, a quiet walk, or facilitating a session) to share ideas that popped up with her. Needless to say, this would not have happened in a large conference venue.

Recognition of Lived Experiences

Central to the ethos of the conference format was the recognition and validation of personal narratives, a cornerstone of feminist pedagogy (Hesse-Biber, 2007). We cultivated an atmosphere where we felt safe and supported in sharing our stories, ensuring everyone could be authentic. This approach not only fostered a sense of community, belonging, and, ultimately, friendship but also enriched the overall learning experience.

Staci’s reflection on the conference atmosphere highlights this ethos: “It seemed like we were all able to be our full selves and tell our stories. It was safe to do this.” The diverse range of stories shared, from Marta’s insights into Ethiopian traditions to Staci’s anecdotes about her dog’s Instagram page, exemplified the rich, multifaceted nature of our professional dialogues. These stories went beyond mere anecdotes, weaving personal experiences into the fabric of professional learning and development.

By integrating these lived experiences into our conference framework, we acknowledge the varied human stories behind the academic professionals. This approach emphasizes that professional development is not solely about academic knowledge but also about understanding and appreciating the diverse human experiences that inform and shape our perspectives, approaches, and contributions to knowledge.

Photo: “Intimacy in Learning: Marta leading a session in a cozy, close-knit setting, facilitating heartfelt sharing.”

Charting a New Course in Academic Conferencing

In redefining the academic conference format, our ambitions extend far beyond merely introducing a new model. Our goal is to spark a movement, a fundamental shift in the way academic gatherings are perceived and conducted. We envision transforming these events into vibrant, inclusive, and empowering spaces, deeply rooted in the principles of feminist pedagogy. Our conference serves as a tangible example of this vision, demonstrating how the application of these principles can weave a rich tapestry of collaboration, authenticity, and shared experience. This echoes the insights of Eduard Lindeman’s seminal work on adult education from 1926, emphasizing that adult learning flourishes in environments where experiences and knowledge are co-created in a community setting.

Our intention is not to supplant traditional conferences but to provide an enriching alternative. This alternative, steeped in feminist pedagogy and practice, caters to those in higher education who yearn for a professional development experience that is not just informative but transformative. We imagine a future where academic conferences are dynamic experiences, brimming with the energy of shared learning and mutual growth, resonating with Lindeman’s concept of adult education as a collaborative and transformative journey.

As we continue to shape the future of academic conferences, we are mindful of the lessons and values gleaned from this pioneering experience. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that such transformative experiences may not be universally accessible. While some of our institutions provided full or partial funding for attending the conference, we must consider those who lack such financial support. Our challenge is to ensure that this innovative approach to professional development is accessible to all, regardless of their financial circumstances.

We extend an invitation to the academic community to join us in creating spaces that are not only equitable and participatory but also exhilaratingly transformative. These spaces could take various forms – from online versions of conferences like “Culture Think” to small, local gatherings in community spaces. In these environments, every voice is heard, every story is valued, and each participant becomes an integral part of our collective journey towards a more inclusive and diverse world of knowledge and learning. Lindeman’s perspective on adult education serves as a guiding light, reminding us that the journey is as significant as the destination, highlighting the process of learning and growth as much as the outcomes.


Chick, N. & Hassell, H. (2009). Don’t hate me because I’m virtual: Feminist pedagogy in the online classroom. Feminist Teacher: A Journal of the Practices, Theories, and Scholarship of Feminist Teaching, 19(3), 195-215.

Evans, S. M., & Boyte, H. C. (1992). Free spaces: The sources of democratic change in America. University of Chicago Press.

Hesse-Biber, S. N. (Ed.). (2011). Handbook of feminist research: Theory and praxis. SAGE publications.

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Kamler, B. (2001). Relocating the personal: A critical writing pedagogy. SUNY Press.

Lindeman, E. (1926). The meaning of adult education. New Republic, Incorporated.

Meriläinen, S., Salmela, T., & Valtonen, A. (2022). Vulnerable relational knowing that matters. Gender, Work & Organization, 29(1), 79-91.

Neimand, A., Asorey, N., Christiano, A., & Wallace, Z. (2021). Why Intersectional Stories Are Key to Helping the Communities We Serve. Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Romero-Hall, E. (2021). How to embrace feminist pedagogies in your courses. Association for Educational Communication & Technology.

Supporting Online Student Persistence:

Dismantling the Patriarchy One Online Discussion at a Time

By: Staci Gilpin, PhD

The University of North Dakota

The University of Wisconsin-Superior

November 1, 2023

I’m an avid podcast listener, and I cherish those moments when I can relax and enjoy some downtime with my miniature schnauzer, Heiter, who lives up to his name by always being a cheerful presence. As I was recently engrossed in a podcast episode about the subtle presence of patriarchy in our relationships with dogs, it got me thinking about how our interactions with our furry companions can serve as a mirror reflecting our societal norms. It’s fascinating how deeply ingrained the patriarchy is in every aspect of our lives, even in something seemingly innocent as our bond with our dogs. We use terms like “masters” or “owners,” and we expect our dogs to be “good” by obediently following our “commands” without questioning or hesitation. We demand quick learning, flawless compliance, quiet and polite interactions with others, and no barking or biting. All these words and expectations revolve around human needs, putting us at the center of the equation.

Heiter out on a hike – always a big smile”

As an online instructor at two midwestern public institutions, this newfound perspective opened my eyes to how I might unintentionally perpetuate patriarchal norms in my teaching methods. In this piece, I’m excited to share my exploration and experimentation with pedagogical approaches that break free from the conventional patriarchal-influenced mold. While the concepts themselves aren’t entirely new to me, the perspective I’m adopting in this context is a fresh and eye-opening one. I hope that, as you read this, your own perspective on the patriarchy and its presence in various aspects of our lives, including education, will also broaden.

What is the patriarchy?

The concept of patriarchy is a deeply ingrained system that perpetuates gender inequality by favoring masculine attributes and positioning men as the societal default while relegating women, feminine perspectives, and marginalized groups to supporting roles. When we use terms like “female” and “male” or “feminine” and “masculine,” we’re not talking about someone’s gender identity but rather the qualities and traits typically associated with each end of the gender spectrum. For instance, hierarchy, control, and order are often linked to the “male/masculine” side. In contrast, collaboration, flexibility, and relationships are often considered “female/feminine.” 

In an ideal world, a balance between masculine and feminine principles would be valued. In reality, this hierarchical mindset extends across various facets of life, including education. While traditional learning theories may not intentionally center the masculine perspective, they often unintentionally do so, reflecting the experiences of middle-class white males (Flannery & Hayes, 2001), leading to a hierarchical power dynamic where instructors assume superiority, leading to punitive actions for non-conformity. This authoritarian approach undermines empathy and the instructor-student rapport, prioritizing instructors’ preferences over students’ needs and individuality. 

How does the patriarchy appear in online discussions?

Patriarchal norms and attitudes like these are evident in online learning spaces as they constrain the quality of instructor-student and student-student relationships, significantly affecting student persistence and success. This issue is particularly concerning for online learners, who tend to exhibit lower persistence rates, characterized by completing a course with a passing grade, compared to peers in on-site courses (Jaggars & Xu, 2016; Hart, 2012; Xu & Jaggars, 2011). To provide space for interactions in online courses, instructors often use asynchronous text-based discussion boards criticized by students for their isolating and transactional nature, likely contributing, in part, to low student persistence rates. These online discussions often lack the elements of organic conversation, peer learning, and relationship-building that foster a sense of community and support. This absence aligns with patriarchal norms emphasizing individualism and self-centeredness.

How can we [instructors] push back?

 As educators, to bolster student persistence and foster a transformative learning environment, we have opportunities to challenge and deconstruct the entrenched patriarchal norms that persist in our online courses through the design of online discussions. I advocate for implementing small (3-5 students), flexible learning communities, echoing the work of other scholars (Gay, 2018; Gilpin, et al., 2022; Gilpin, et al., 2023; Woodley et al., 2017). Influenced by feminist theory, the design of online discussions also revolves around collective learning, flexibility, and meaningful relationships (hooks, 1994; Kamler, 2001). I view students not as passive recipients but as co-educators (Romero-Hall, 2021) and sharing leadership (Chick & Hassle, 2009). This means shifting away from teacher-centered, patriarchal-influenced, transactional approaches to pedagogy that nurtures a community-oriented, collaborative atmosphere. Online discussions can become more student-centered when they serve as a platform where students can exchange ideas, challenge each other’s perspectives, and collectively construct knowledge. Such an approach aims to create a more inclusive and supportive educational environment, challenging the traditional, patriarchal model. 

Within my courses, I have played around with two such discussion formats – asynchronous and synchronous. Students choose the type of discussion that works best for them. Sometimes small groups go back and forth between doing an asynchronous discussion one week and another week a synchronous discussion; I provide space for students to sort this out, and I rarely have any issues. However, I survey students before the start of the course to learn more about their discussion preferences (e.g., times they are available, the types of discussions they prefer, etc.), and I use that information to create small groups. Below is an example of how I share information with students about the discussions in my courses and how they can choose which type works best for them. In the remainder of this section, I share information about implementing these discussions along with insights from my students

In synchronous formats, I harness the potential of video conferencing, enabling students to engage in real-time discussions aligned with their schedules. This flexibility promotes active participation and inclusivity, while my active involvement, through individual feedback and group summaries, cultivates critical thinking and a sense of belonging. In these synchronous sessions, students take on leadership roles, scheduling meetings, facilitating discussions, sharing experiences, and guiding their peers through course content. For more information, check out this recent publication.

In asynchronous formats, I utilize the Learning Management System (LMS) discussion boards to facilitate interactions through text, audio, and video. Students take on the role of discussion leaders, fostering meaningful discourse by sharing content and posing questions. These leaders kickstart discussions by sharing relevant materials like peer-reviewed articles, Tweets, videos, or blogs, along with their reflections, connections to course materials, and discussion questions. Initially, I required group members to make at least three posts on two days to promote ongoing dialogue. However, I realized this schedule didn’t work for some students with busy schedules, so I now highly recommend posting on two separate days without making it a strict requirement. The discussion leader’s role is crucial in guiding and maintaining discussion focus while acknowledging peers’ contributions. My role involves monitoring and providing timely feedback; I rarely post on the forum. Instead, I may message individual students or make group announcements, all aimed at emphasizing students as knowledge creators. For more details, refer to this article.

These student-led small group online discussions not only empower students but also nurture a sense of shared responsibility and mutual respect within the learning community. Notably, research shows both synchronous and asynchronous small group discussions have been shown to contribute to the development of community and connection (Gilpin, 2022; Gilpin et al., 2023), and both types are equally valued (Gilpin, 2022). One of the participants in the earlier study, referred to as Charity (a pseudonym), summed things up like this: “Both discussion boards and Zoom discussions have their advantages and disadvantages. Discussion boards offer ample time for posting and replying without scheduling meetings. Zoom discussions enable us to share ideas, providing a clearer understanding of course materials and reducing the workload.” I say let students choose the type of discussion (asynchronous or synchronous) that best aligns with their learning preferences and busy lives.

A way forward 

To dismantle the patriarchal stronghold in online education, I argue for a feminist lens as the pivotal driver. By doing so, instructors actively contribute to forging inclusive and empowering learning environments that nurture the persistence of all online students. In the quest for equity, I share, rather than dominate, the responsibility, striving to create a harmonious intersection with my students that paves the way for a more just and inclusive online education landscape. No more “boring discussion boards” is the first step.


Chick, N. & Hassell, H. (2009). Don’t hate me because I’m virtual: Feminist pedagogy in the online classroom. Feminist Teacher: A Journal of the Practices, Theories, and Scholarship of Feminist Teaching, 19(3), 195-215.

Flannery, D., & Hayes, E. (2001). Challenging adult learning: A feminist perspective. In: Sheared, V. & Sissel, P. (Eds.), Making Space: Merging Theory and Practice in Adult Education. Bergen & Garvey.

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. Teachers College Press.

Gilpin S., Clinton-Lisell V., Legerski E., Rhodes B. (2022) Designing and Using Online Discussions to Promote Social Justice and Equity. In: Parson L., Ozaki C.C. (Eds) Teaching and Learning for Social Justice and Equity in Higher Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Gilpin, Staci Ann, “Fostering Emerging Online Learner Persistence In Teacher Candidates: The Role Of Online Discussions” (2022). Theses and Dissertations. 4261.

Gilpin, S., Rollag Yoon, S., & Miller, J. L. (2023). Building community online: Moving toward humanization through relationship-focused technology use. Online Learning, 27(3), 133-154. DOI: 10.24059/olj.v27i3.3583

hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.

Hart, C. (2012). Factors associated with student persistence in an online program of study: A review of the literature. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 11(1).

Jaggars, S. S., & Xu, D. (2016). How do online course design features influence student performance?. Computers & Education, 95, 270-284.

Kamler, B. (2001). Relocating the personal: A critical writing pedagogy. SUNY Press.

Romero-Hall, E. (2021). How to embrace feminist pedagogies in your courses. Association for Educational Communication & Technology.

Xu, D., & Jaggars, S. (2011). Online and hybrid course enrollment and performance in Washington State community and technical colleges. Columbia Academic Commons, Columbia University Library.

Woodley, X., Hernandez, C., Parra, J., & Negash, B. (2017). Celebrating difference: Best practices in culturally responsive teaching online. TechTrends, 61(5), 470-478.

You can follow Staci Gilpin on Instagram!

Harnessing Generative AI to Support Feminist Pedagogy

By: Julia Lang

October 3, 2023

As I welcomed my first-year students to class this semester, I posed a simple question: Who had used ChatGPT before? To my surprise, not a single hand went up. It became evident that many students had been discouraged or even barred from using ChatGPT in their previous educational experiences. Only one student in the class even had an account. This observation is not unique to my class; it reflects a broader trend on our campus. Many of my colleagues are either intimidated by Generative AI or actively banning its use in their classrooms.

I believe that resisting this evolving technology is a disservice to our students. As educators preparing students for the future of work, we have a duty to familiarize them with AI tools, which are likely to be a part of their workplace landscape (to facilitate this, I made a ChatGPT prompting guide for career educators).

In my life design classes, I support students in shaping their college experiences and preparing for life after graduation. Aligned with feminist pedagogy, my courses prioritize building community, respecting diverse experiences, and developing an understanding of identity. Instead of traditional lectures, my classroom is a series of mini discussions, with instructors serving as facilitators and co-learners instead of experts. Instead of a traditional competitive academic environment, our classroom has a culture of care, reciprocity, and support: students become “personal board members” to their peers, getting to know their classmates on a deep personal level, thereby equipped to help coach and guide their classmates in their evolving life design.

A core tenet of feminist pedagogy is to use technology to intentionally build communities and enhance learning. In my experience, using AI tools like ChatGPT does just this: these tools can supplement students’ imaginations as they design their futures while simultaneously teaching them how to ethically leverage the technology at their disposal. I say this while acknowledging the numerous concerns and limitations of AI, such as privacy issues, bias, and the potential for misinformation. Still, I believe that Generative AI can be a powerful tool to support feminist pedagogy, which seeks to create inclusive, reflective, and equitable learning spaces.

So, as you might imagine, on that first day of class, I welcomed my students into a different kind of learning environment, an environment built on respect, trust, and radical collaboration where students would continuously learn about and support each other’s life design while being given explicit permission to use the technology at their disposal to explore life’s numerous possibilities (see my AI syllabus statement for more information on AI parameters in my class).

Below are just some of the ways I think educators can leverage AI, particularly ChatGPT, to further the values and goals of feminist pedagogy in our work with students. Links in italics in purple are examples of ChatGPT prompts and responses I generated as examples for this post.

  • Inclusivity: Generative AI can be a significant step toward equity, democratizing learning for all. It provides equitable access to knowledge and personalized coaching that used to only be available to more wealthy and privileged students while also potentially revolutionizing learning for students with disabilities by making information more accessible: it can summarize information, convert text into alternative formats, and be programmed to follow any provided accessibility guidelines. Information is available 24/7, allowing individuals to access information when it’s convenient for them, regardless of their personal circumstances.
  • Critical Thinking: Feminist pedagogy places a strong emphasis on cultivating critical thinking skills, and AI serves as a potent instrument for nurturing this intellectual capability. While ChatGPT responses tend to be articulate and persuasive, they frequently contain inaccuracies. What better method exists for cultivating critical thinking than instructing students to scrutinize the biases and veracity of AI-generated content? Through this process, students acquire the invaluable skill of approaching all forms of technology with a discerning and critical mindset. This ability extends far beyond AI-generated content, empowering them to question the authenticity of information in a broader context, including instances of fake news. ChatGPT can also foster critical thinking by acting as a critic for any inputted work (full article I had it critique here). Students can also debate the platform on any given topic, fostering their own understanding while considering both sides of an argument.

The integration of AI into feminist pedagogy represents an exciting frontier in education, holding promise for enhancing the educational journey of all students and preparing students for the future and the future of work.

As we navigate the evolving landscape of education, I hope more educators will embrace technology as a partner in our commitment to feminist pedagogy, recognizing its capacity to amplify our efforts to create equitable, inclusive, and transformative learning environments.

Addendum: When I was invited to write a post for this blog, I had never overtly identified my work in the domain of feminist pedagogy, and this framework was new to me. I inserted a recent article I wrote making the case for ChatGPT as the ultimate educator’s toolkit and then asked ChatGPT how my article/argument aligned with feminist pedagogy. The response I received helped me see how my teaching philosophy actually is quite aligned with feminist pedagogy, and some of that language became the basis of this post. Once I drafted this article, I again inserted it into ChatGPT and asked how it could be improved/what angles might be missing, and was provided with some key additional points I would not have considered on my own. I encourage all educators to explore how AI can support your own work, starting with Teaching with AI, which includes a prompting guide for educators, while also exploring how custom instructions can better meet your needs as an educator. You are also welcome to view my ChatGPT Prompting Guide for Life Design and Career Educators.

Related Content: See Julia Lang’s annotated assignment titled, “Building an Authentic Introduction (using AI),” for her course, Taylor Your Life at Tulane University.

Time Equity for Mothers through Labor-Based Grading

By: Rachel Blume

August 28, 2023

In 2022, I left Texas and made a ten-day journey to Fairbanks, Alaska for graduate school. When I arrived, I came as a single mother with a three-year-old son and a list of worries I was intent to leave at the door. In fact, I arrived at my Teaching Assistant Orientation with a stroller and a sleeping preschooler. However, as my cohort spent extra hours on lesson plans and getting ahead on work, I found myself uploading documents to Google Classroom while making toddler snacks and filling my office with toys. The learning curve was steep, and I had little room for error as the consequences of missteps felt severe. One mother on the faculty took time to tell me that I needed to find reliable childcare or else the other faculty might “talk” about me. Suddenly, motherhood felt like an insurmountable barrier to my education. In time, I found reliable childcare, a preschool, and began learning pedagogical theories to utilize in the classroom. As a mother facing inequity in academia, labor-based grading is what inspired me as a teacher.

Labor-based grading focuses on the process of learning through the completion of a set, contracted amount of labor agreed upon between the instructor and the student. If the labor agreed upon is completed, then the student passes the assignment and moves on. As a composition instructor, I can attest to writing often being subjective. The flow of language and the way a writer organizes thoughts on a page are more than enough to inspire critics everywhere. Yet, I would argue that this subjectivity does not always fit into the classroom for beginning writers, who exist in various, oftentimes demanding, stages of life.

The beginning composition classroom is not just for freshmen; it’s for beginning writing skills. This allows for teen parents, student athletes, grandparents, future scientists, and current novelists to all be seated beside each other. As instructors, we must remember to meet our students where they are and not where we wish they were.

Labor-based grading makes the grading rubric easier for students; they know what to expect. If they complete the checklist requirements for their assignment, then the student completes the assignment without penalty. If the student did not master a skill, then all that is required is for the student to resubmit a corrected version. This erases the resubmit from their grade and they move on. It is up to the student to decide whether to complete a resubmit or not. This gives the student the power to manage their time and their grade.

As a working mother, often on my own, I understand the impact of labor-based grading for women with children, especially working, single mothers. A 2017 study by Welch’s showed that being a mother was equivalent to having 2.5 full-time jobs. With an average of 14-hour days (98 hours a week), mothers could also be full-time college students, which adds another 9-12 hours, minimum, to their schedules. In my own classroom alone, I had a teenage mother who sheepishly admitted to writing her literacy journal while breastfeeding. The assignment was a few hours late, as she had fallen asleep while nursing. Labor-based grading (which is inherently feminist in nature, since labor-based grading takes traditionally unseen and undervalued labor into account, offering more time to complete an assignment without penalty, so long as the required labor on the assignment is ultimately met) ensured that this student wasn’t penalized for her role as a nursing mother (Inoue, 2019, p. 3).

The difference in potential free time is what makes labor-based grading a maker of equity. Where a traditional student may have hours of alone time each day to work on assignments, the average mother has only 1.7 hours of free time each day. If one traditional student and a non-traditional mother-student are working on the same assignment (let us say this assignment takes an average of three hours to complete) and both students must complete it by the due date, then the mother is already facing a disadvantage. She must be more efficient with her time and create a passing assignment with less time available to her on average. By having a resubmit policy, where an assignment is returned to her for a chance to improve what wasn’t working without penalty to her grade, she gets more time to do the assignment.

In my fall 2022 classroom, I’ve seen the largest gains toward time equity with my students who are mothers. Labor-based grading supports the idea that instructors have a duty to accept the change their students bring to the classroom (Ruecker et al., 2017, p. 147). By accepting that students are multi-faceted (they can be motherscholars, employed full-time, live in poverty, etc.), instructors let the archaic Ivory Tower go, embrace students where they are, and open academia to more diverse voices and experiences. However, while labor-based grading offers more time for students to complete assignments without penalty, it’s worth noting that students MUST complete the labor in their contract. There have been concerns noted about labor-based grading in that students who feel the pressure of jobs, families, and non-academic responsibilities cannot ultimately leave an assignment unfinished and move on. Labor-based grading requires that the student complete the work in their contract for their class; there is no ability to simply move forward from unfinished assignments and still pass the class. So, while students have the advantage of more time to complete tasks overall, the disadvantage is in the requirement of labor completion in order to pass the class.

Ultimately, parents are strapped for time, particularly motherscholars. Labor-based grading is a system benefiting all students in need of more time to complete assignments, and who are still completing the work to satisfaction. In my classes, I see no reason not to implement labor-based grading when I can and dismantle systems of grading that are less inclusive, especially toward mothers.

Online Moms: Distance Education and Women Nontraditional Students

By: Adriana Alba

May 10, 2023

Online education can provide a range of advantages for women, particularly those who face barriers to accessing traditional education due to family responsibilities, financial constraints, or social norms. These programs attract women students because of their flexibility and the possibility of managing existing family commitments while obtaining a degree-level education. Although there is an extensive research literature focused on the demands of working students (for reviews, see Creed et al., 2015; Giancola et al., 2008; Park & Sprung, 2013), there are comparably fewer studies on the challenges women face when pursuing degrees in higher education as nontraditional students (for reviews see Lin, 2016; Osam et al., 2016; Remenick, 2019). Perhaps the most significant factors that lead to student attrition are paid employment and family commitments as reasons for students’ dropouts (Moore & Greenland, 2017; Perry et al., 2018; Stoessel et al., 2015), the latter of which is consistent with studies that show family and community obligations as constraints for women pursuing post-secondary degrees (Ekstrom,1972). 

Online education has the potential to create a safe and supportive environment for women who are looking to further their education, while traditional classroom settings can be intimidating for women. As an example of why traditional classrooms can present challenges for women students, a research study conducted by Rocca (2010) found that female students are more likely than their male counterparts to experience incivility and disrespectful behavior from their instructors and peers. This type of discrimination or harassment can have a negative impact on women’s academic performance and overall well-being. The online setting can offer a solution to this problem by providing a virtual space where women can learn without fear of mistreatment, as well as receiving personalized support and resources to help them succeed. In a 2006 study Price found that online education can provide access to a variety of support services, including online tutors and mentors, that can help women overcome academic challenges and build confidence as independent learners. Other types of resources, such as multimedia learning materials and interactive simulations, can enhance women’s learning experiences and help them achieve their educational goals. Similarly, Sullivan (2002) found that online education can provide opportunities for women to connect with other learners and instructors in a more personalized and supportive way than in traditional classroom settings. For example, online discussion forums and chat rooms can offer a space for women to ask questions, share ideas, and receive feedback that can help them improve their understanding of course material and develop critical thinking skills. In this sense, online education has the potential to help women become confident, independent learners who are better equipped to achieve their educational and career goals.

Institutional Support 

Tait (2000) defines support in the distance learning context as ‘the range of services both for individuals and for students in groups which complement the course materials or learning resources that are uniform for all learners’ (p.289). When considering the functions these support services provide, he identifies three types: cognitive support (i.e. supporting learning), affective support (i.e. ensuring a supportive environment) and systemic support (i.e. effective administrative systems). His ideas for student support emphasize the importance of creating a supportive and engaging learning environment for distance learners by considering: (1) Providing comprehensive orientation and induction that includes clear instructions on how to access and use course materials, as well as introducing students to the academic support services available to them; (2) Offering flexible learning opportunities that allow students to fit their studies around other commitments, this includes offering asynchronous learning materials and allowing students to work at their own pace; (3) Providing personalized support by offering one-on-one support through virtual office hours or tutoring, as well as using data analytics to identify students who may be struggling and offering targeted support; (4) Fostering a sense of community, Tait believes that distance learners need to feel connected to their peers and instructors in order to succeed. In that sense, virtual discussion forums, group projects, and other collaborative activities can help students connect with one another.

Related to the topic of student support, Vincent Tinto (2003) examines two types of support higher education institutions should provide: academic and social. He emphasizes the importance of creating a holistic, supportive environment that is welcoming to all students, regardless of their background or prior academic experience. To do so, he suggests institutions should foster a sense of community among students, providing opportunities for engagement and collaboration, and offering resources to help students succeed. 

In terms of academic support, Tinto mentions services like tutoring, advising, and study skills workshops; while social support can come from peer mentoring, counseling services, and other programs that help students feel connected to their campus community. Regarding the importance of faculty engagement in supporting student success, Tinto points out that creating opportunities for faculty to connect with students can be done through office hours, mentoring programs, or extracurricular activities. 

In sum, when institutions take into account considerations to support women as nontraditional students they can also create resources that benefit the student body as a whole and promote a more inclusive and supportive learning environment (Andrysiak et al., 2022).


Andrysiak, C., Mizock, L., Webber, L., & Kranzberg, M. (2022). “It takes a village:” Reentry women’s perseverance in completing a clinical or counseling psychology doctorate. Journal of Women and Gender in Higher Education, 15(4), 351-374. doi:10.1080/26379112.2022.2134142

Creed, Peter & French, Jessica & Hood, Michelle. (2015). Working while studying at university: The relationship between work benefits and demands and engagement and well-being. Journal of Vocational Behavior. 86. 48-57. 10.1016/j.jvb.2014.11.002. 

Ekstrom, R. B. (1972). The study of dropouts: Empirical findings and theoretical implications. Child Development, 43(1), 51-70.

Giancola, Jennifer & Munz, David & Trares, Shawn. (2009). First Versus Continuing-Generation Adult Students On College Perceptions: Are Differences Actually Because of Demographic Variance?. Adult Education Quarterly – ADULT EDUC QUART. 58. 214-228. 10.1177/0741713608314088. 

Lin, X. (2016). Barriers and Challenges of Female Adult Students Enrolled in Higher Education: A Literature Review. Higher Education Studies, 6, 119-126.

Moore, J. C., & Greenland, A. (2017). Who drops out of college and why? Findings from a national survey of college students. The Journal of Continuing Higher Education, 65(2), 105-117.

Osam, E. K., Bergman, M., & Cumberland, D. M. (2017). An Integrative Literature Review on the Barriers Impacting Adult Learners’ Return to College. Adult Learning, 28(2), 54–60.

Park, Y., & Sprung, J. M. (2013). Work–school conflict and health outcomes: Beneficial resources for working college students. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 18(4), 384–394.

Perry, M. A., Ott, H., & Guptill, S. T. (2018). The effect of employment on student persistence and academic achievement in college. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 20(3), 218-234.

Remenick, L. (2019). Services and support for nontraditional students in higher education: A historical literature review. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education, 25(1), 113–130.

Rocca, K.A. (2010). Student Participation in the College Classroom: An Extended Multidisciplinary Literature Review. Communication Education, 59, 185 – 213.

Stoessel, K., McFarland, M., Lemaire, P., & Stricker, L. J. (2015). Women’s college persistence: The role of social and academic integration. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 16(4), 517-536.

Sullivan, P. (2002). “It’s Easier to Be Yourself When You Are Invisible”: Female College Students Discuss Their Online Classroom Experiences. Innovative Higher Education, 27, 129-144.

Tait, A. (2000). Planning student support for open and distance learning. Open Learning, 15(3), 287 – 99.

Tinto, V. (2003). Establishing conditions for student success, In L. Thomas, M. Cooper, & J. Quinn (Eds.), Improving completion rates among disadvantaged students (1-9). Britain: Cromwell Press Ltd.

About the Author

Adriana is a graduate student, studying Instructional Psychology & Technology, and an instructional designer for Brigham Young University – Idaho.