Enabling empowerment: Students, instructors, and the circulation of caring in a women's studies program at a university in the United States
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This dissertation explores several aspects related to the empowerment of students within a women's studies program. How do the students experience empowerment? What, according to their narratives, facilitates this sense of empowerment? And how does the student-instructor relationship help to develop or prevent this sense of empowerment? Interviews with former students not only offer narrative accounts of their learning experiences in a women's studies program, but also impart their sense of having become empowered. Interviews with present and former instructors from the program help to contextualize the experiences of students and provide a background from which to understand the relations between instructors and students. Current debates on empowerment in Women's Studies provide a polarized view of empowerment. In light of these debates, empowerment either becomes possible as a consequence of the successful construction of an environment free of power, or it becomes impossible because power can never be removed from student-instructor relationships. In order to study empowerment, I adopt a key analytical strategy that focuses on what it is that circulates in the power relations between students and instructors in Women's Studies that still allows for the possibility of empowerment. I draw on Hannah Arendt's (1968) argument on authority, an argument that neither reduces power to coercion or oppression nor denies its operation and therefore allows for a nuanced understanding of its generative, enabling effects. The interviews with both former students and instructors reveal that what circulates is something akin to Nel Noddings' (1984, 1988, 2002, 2005, 2007) ethics of caring: an ethics that allows us to understand the continuous character of empowerment as well as the relations between those who are powerful and those who are powerless. Caring makes it possible for instructors to exercise their power and authority in generative terms and enables students to mobilize their own agency in the form of a response to caring from the carer.