In this essay Astrid Swan and Hanna Etholén discuss the role of life writing in feminist learning environments. They suggest Feminist Life Pedagogy as a way forward.
“The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot. And then, just possibly, hopefully, it goes home, or on.” (Audre Lorde 2017, 75)
Feminist pedagogy is by definition critical of hierarchies and questioning of value structures within the academy and outside it (Naskali 2014, Weber 2010, hooks 1994). This posits the teacher-student relationships of gender studies classes strongly and requires personal investments. Becoming (and acting as) a feminist university teacher is a continuous negotiation between institutional conventions and their criticisms. Although the slogan ‘personal is political’ has been one of the most famous feminist ideas for decades, the role of the personal, lived and experienced has been devalued and problematised within institutions – even feminist ones. Here we refer particularly to the uncomfortable binaries such as objective/subjective, scientific knowledge/experience and the tendency that academic education (even in gender studies circumstances) tends to prefer to impart conventions of distancing.
Although the slogan ‘personal is political’ has been one of the most famous feminist ideas for decades, the role of the personal, lived and experienced has been devalued and problematised within institutions
Life writing as ‘[a]n overarching term used for a variety of nonfictional modes of writing that claim to engage the shaping of someone’s life’ (Smith & Watson 2010, 214) has been an academic problem continuing to trouble feminist theory making and teaching. Life writing envelopes the question of the significance of personal experience, which has been questioned in research and pedagogy alike, but which continues to seep back in through the politics and activism of feminism. Brenda Weber acknowledges this slipping away of the personal and lived, in her article about teaching feminism and popular culture by calling for the importance of the lived experience: she argues that “… we can teach through the use of gender theory, but we must also push through theory to account for the various meanings of gender as expressed through popular culture and lived experience” (Weber 2010, 124).
As the current climate in universities and in the Western social structures at large, requires and plays increasingly with the personal as currency, we are urgently wondering: who gets to tell their narrative and where? Who has power to name what is personal and whose life matters theoretically? Whose narrative produces knowledge and whose stories are meaningless self-babble? And finally, what constitutes adequate action? These are questions underlying our dialogue in this co-composed essay.
Who has power to name what is personal and whose life matters theoretically? Whose narrative produces knowledge and whose stories are meaningless self-babble?
With this essay we remind and alert you, dear reader, that the personal narrative and experience should be brought to the fore in research and pedagogy because they foreground change (structural, social and on the level of ideas). It is not enough to just demand personal anecdotes as exercises in pedagogical studies or social media. It is not enough to treat the personal as fuel for the media or affective work. The personal is dangerous, because it holds the potential of truly being heard/seen/acknowledged and therefore leading to change.
Here we examine the feminist potentials of life writing in teaching, learning and research. We argue that life writing, based on experience, works as a bridge between activism and the academic feminism of gender studies. Using the recent phenomenal campaigns, #MeToo and Black Lives Matter as anchors, we show how autobiographical narratives become more than instrumental in raising awareness and implementing structural changes. We explore how this kind of self-narrated political activism and the autobiographical narrative offer non-dichotomised possibilities for feminist pedagogy.
We have co-written this essay through a dialogical method of writing through answering and questioning each other’s thoughts, egging each other on, sharing ideas and celebrating our critical partnership. This is our first essay together, and we write this text inspired by our own experiences as we share many common positions. We are both white cis-women working towards PhDs, which makes us privileged. However, our discussions have revealed that we also share some experiences that make studying, teaching and researching in the academia a struggle. We want to use this knowledge, born out of personal experiences and critical exploration, to built the theory and practice of Feminist Life Pedagogy. Even though we (as we all working and studying at universities) often see academic tradition as an unreachable structure, it is important to remember academia consists of individuals. These individuals have a possibility and a responsibility to try to change what they see as doing more harm than good as they all are parts of the structure. This is the aim of our theorisation of Feminist Life Pedagogy.
The arrangement of the paper is as follows: first we introduce the concepts of experience, situatedness, and autobiographical or life writing. Then we have a discussion using examples and interlacing theory along the way. Each of our voices can be clearly seen through this part of the essay, as we have written it in a form of a dialogue. Finally we end with five points for what Feminist Life Pedagogy could be.
What constitutes personal experience, what is subjectivity and what is the significance of agency? These have been some of the central questions traveling with feminist theories for decades. In this essay we rely on Donna Haraway’s critique of traditional objectivity and the role of knowledge as power. Haraway employed the metaphor of vision and sight to articulate a feminist objectivity: a situated knowledge practice (188-189). The situatedness of knowledge means that feminist knowing grows from the acknowledgement of location, situation and embeddedness; it is always a partial view. Haraway dreams of “elaborate specificity and difference and the loving care people might take to learn how to see faithfully from another’s point of view, even when the other is our own machine” (190). As Haraway argues for “politics and epistemologies of location, positioning and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims”, she is arguing for the importance of experience (195).
Here experience and its expressions are the medium through which to articulate difference, life and to turn towards structures. New materialist feminist theories have developed these ideas further (towards responsibility and temporality for example), but this shall suffice here to foreground our way of conceptualising experience as an important knowing. (Haraway 1991; Gregg & Seigworth 2010) By situatedness, we refer to the fact that identity politics are crucial in locating experience and the impact of structures on lives (as well as the upkeep of those structures by actions). In considering this gap/distance between politics and theory, we argue for the pedagogical importance of learning to use experience and to analyse its relations to various structures. We claim that it is crucial to teach and to practice self-reflexive situating methods at all stages of academic inquiry.
Katherine Smits and Susan Bruce describe the way in which life writing interjects into academic writing in a feminist tradition: Feminist tradition has relied on personal, intimate, subjective and bodily experience when examining the political conditions of being a woman. Virginia Woolf showed with her A Room of One’s Own how feminist life writing can take creative and fictional forms, and academic feminists have openly drawn from personal narratives in their theoretical formations. (Bruce & Smith 125–126). The critique of the notion of a universalised “Woman” as the subject of feminism originated from situated knowledges, from lived experience that knew how “Woman” was just one side of the story, a partial and one-sided idea that had gone unchallenged for too long. Why don’t we then want to take these narratives seriously? Autobiographical narratives are examples of how situated narratives are important in political activism but at the same time they are questioned in academic contexts. There is a tendency to create an “alternative reality” out of universities (the current neo-liberalist ones), which then continue to churn out unjust hierarchies while producing scientific criticisms of those same structures – as if academia is a fictional void free from structural oppression and power games or personal life narratives. This is especially poignant and heart-breaking in gender studies, a discipline supposedly rooted in unpacking those structures and actively looking to change it.
There is a tendency to create an “alternative reality” out of universities (the current neo-liberalist ones), which then continue to churn out unjust hierarchies while producing scientific criticisms of those same structures
This essay functions as a testing ground for the development of academic language towards an actual dialogue. We argue for thinking and writing together with others, rather than alone. We look for an interplay between the autobiographical, poetic and scientific (!) languages. As we co-author this essay, we move from dreaming of developing a methodology of Feminist Life Pedagogy together, to posturing such pedagogical outlines.
Astrid Joutseno (later AJ): Currently university students and I, as a doctoral candidate (writing my PhD on the expression of experience on mommyblogs), often come into contact with juxtaposed demands on how to deal with the personal narrative. The everyday public culture of media and social media ask us to produce narratives about ourselves on daily basis. We are coerced to produce life writing continuously (Smith & Watson 2010). In feminism, the standpoints of politically marginalised groups of people are being narrated in order to redistribute power and to gain equality… Recently, both Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have had a large social impact through the telling of personal narratives about racism and sexual harassment and violence (see for example When They Call You A Terrorist: Black Lives Matter Memoir, 2018). Academically, the old way of defining objectivity as in opposition to personal experience still holds currency. This represents a danger of not being considered rigorous when employing the self, or the subjective as material in research or studies. This is also a question of power: who can afford to risk their credibility by telling something personal? Who has to do it anyway?
We are thus positioned uncomfortably somewhere in this scene. On the banks of a river possibly. Near a water that is rushing past. It is my wish that by the end of this discussion, we may feel as if we have what it takes to linger on the crossing. It would be fantastic to have the methodological tools and the language on hand so that as we constantly work our way over and around the water, we have a way to discuss, share and to teach about the questions that matter regarding life-writing, personal narrative and their role in feminist university learning/teaching as well as research and activism.
Hanna Etholén (later HE): Why is academia so afraid of the personal and experiential? In order to be part of the system, we are first of all taught to forget our bodies. As students and scholars, we become good Cartesians and adopt ‘mind over matter’ as our guideline. We sit for hours on end on uncomfortable chairs, hurting physically, because we have the privilege of studying and doing research. We try hard to forget our past lives and experiences because there is a possibility that we are reminded of our traumas and pain because somebody high up in the hierarchy has decided content warnings are somehow disturbing the academic freedom. The debate over content warnings has been especially heated in the United States, and some universities explicitly oppose the use of content warnings during lectures and in teaching materials (see e.g. Schaper 2016). In Finland the discussion has been more toned-down but not in a good way – basically, there is no discussion. This reinforces the idea of students (and teachers!) with no bodies, histories and experiences without differences. Academia is at its core very hostile towards the experiential and personal. If this is the reality of the everyday practices, it’s no wonder it’s so hard to incorporate new kind of pedagogy in teaching.
Why is academia so afraid of the personal and experiential?
I was reminded by the power of personal narratives when the #MeToo campaign went viral on social media in October 2017. Twitter and Facebook, among other online platforms, were filled with women sharing their stories about sexual harassment, abuse and rape. So heartbreaking as many of these stories were to read, I was happy to witness the often unconditional support women shared with each others. Women no longer acquiesced in explanations that their experiences were just something they had to tolerate in workplaces or when walking on the street. They no longer accepted that their experiences were just “bad sex”. They gave another name to their experiences, their emotions and their trauma. By hearing these stories it became clear that these experiences weren’t about flirting or giving compliments; they were about violence and misuse of power. The discussion became even more widespread. In many countries abusers were named publicly and they lost their jobs and positions. European Parliament had a debate over how to prevent sexual abuse of women. Recently, there was a initiative for a law in the Finnish Parliament to change the definition of rape as the absence of consent.
As the above shows, what started as women sharing their personal stories and experiences and offering support to one another online (which is a very feminist practice indeed) expanded something that has had widespread political, possible even legislative consequences. Epistemologically, it has succeeded in making our understanding of power more nuanced and it has sparked discussions about sexual autonomy and women’s right to lead public and professional lives free of harassment and violence. #MeToo demonstrates the usefulness of life writing and personal narratives to produce knowledge from different perspectives – perspectives that already existed but were not yet put into words publicly. Personal stories and sharing them through life writing can bring together a starting point for new politics and activism but also a site for learning.
AJ: Yes. Also, might it be possible that it was these personal narratives that were needed (and were most effective) in finally honing in the point that rape and sexual violence is violence and not sex. And harassment is not fun, but it is about power. And proving that there is enough of a collective voice saying this shall not be tolerated. Could it be argued that personal narratives and experience are doing what much rhetoric regarding consent, for example, has not been successfully doing in the last decades? And maybe, therefore, it is not farfetched to reach back to feminist pedagogy and claim that to keep sterilising the feminism taught in the university from the personal and the affective, is to deprive what is created and passed on from one of its powers? Here I wish to refer to the “sticky objects” and the figure of the “feminist killjoy”, which Sara Ahmed has successfully gifted this discourse (Ahmed in The Affect Theory Reader 2010, p30 & Ahmed 2017). In “Happy Objects” Ahmed explores the family as “a happy object” which, through the recognition of its “wrong” productions identifies those as causes of unhappiness. The wrong in this interpretation is anything deviating from the norm, causing troubling affects and therefore, unhappiness. Ahmed calls these deviants from the norm affect aliens, and feminist killjoys (Ahmed 2010: 30). The stickiness of affects is also important, because according to her “affect is what sticks or what sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values and objects” (Ahmed 2010, 29) and therefore “objects are sticky, because they are already attributed as being good or bad, as being the cause of happiness or unhappiness” (35). Why I wish to bring Ahmed’s concepts up here, is simply because with these ideas it appears we can approach the question of how to break this cycle of representing the personal narrative as less-than, inferior and non-academic. We must realize that these connotations are clusters of sticky affects and objects – bundles that “happily” continue life together, but can be shown to be just conventions through the interjection of a feminist killjoy. That is the job of feminist teachers, us and our future courses of Feminist Life Pedagogy.
May I hereby declare us, Hanna, as two feminist killjoys killing the joy of conventional academic rigour and taking the risk this choice puts us in within the academia?
So, if feminist pedagogy and feminist teachers do their “jobs” well, they help in the creation of more killjoys and more unhappiness which is the only way towards critical action and change (Ahmed 2017).
Could it be argued that personal narratives and experience are doing what much rhetoric regarding consent, for example, has not been successfully doing in the last decades?
HE: Yes! I want to declare that, too! Academia has always been a place for the privileged, and privileged people (men, white, wealthy, healthy & people with no traumas) have usually had the luxury to consider their experience with the world as universal. This is an old feminist critique. Some people just don’t consider their personal version of life as theirs and theirs only. We have been taught this particular version as ‘the truth’ for so long that even our emotions, our laughter, our tears, and our desires feel the need to be in sync with it. And when they are not, as it sometimes, oftentimes happens when the malestream runs against one’s personal experience, we feel uncomfortable, lost and unhappy. I say, embrace this feeling! We as teachers, can encourage our students to be killjoys, to look for that feeling when something that is taught to them goes against their own experience. In Finland, the myth of ‘we have achieved gender equality’ was crushed by #MeToo because what kind of gender equality is it when women and other genders have to live in fear of harassment and sexual violence. #MeToo also revealed other kinds of power structures: a campaign created by a woman of color, Tarana Burke, only went viral when powerful and rich white women started to spread the message (see for example). Being a feminist killjoy teacher means celebrating the victories but also staying critical. Otherwise, we silence yet another experience and a powerful source of knowledge.
Being a feminist killjoy teacher means celebrating the victories but also staying critical. Otherwise, we silence yet another experience and a powerful source of knowledge.
AJ: I would like to say that one of the most important things that feminist pedagogy can impart on a student is the ability to situate oneself and to become aware of one’s own position in relation to knowledge, its production and reception. This learning entails a critical journey into feminist epistemology. It also crucially entails a turning towards the personal and experiencing: it is necessary to become aware of personal preconditions, social privileges and biases, as well as learn to record the processes of learning and changing. However, academic feminist structures still often suggest that even though a personal experience (and an analysis of it) may be the reason why a student has walked her path into a gender studies class, she should now resist the temptations of referring to her experience.
As a learner navigates in the ever-changing waters of knowledge production and situatedness, she often finds that the only constant in the landscape is her own experience of self (as a filter, a co-creator and much more). In education it is precisely the self, the subjectivity that changes – it is thus the “target” of education. But this is not how pedagogy usually frames its process. The older idea of learning was the model of transferring knowledge from a full dish (the teacher) to an empty one (the student). Currently, university pedagogy frames learning as more nuanced process of inquiry, acquisition and application (Lindblom-Ylänne & Nevgi 2011). Still, it is often considered almost as an intrusion to express this self and a particular situatedness during the events of teaching and learning. Even in feminist learning situations there are value judgements and wrong and right ways of situating oneself within learning.
The structures in which a particular pedagogical situation or a research process unfolds determines what kind of a self is possible to express. These same structures often suggest that effacing subjectivity might be the best strategy. This suggestion can be hinted at from the class proceedings and the culture that is set for learning. It can also be explicitly expressed by the teacher. Bruce and Smits describe the power of the personal: “Personal criticism has thus proved a powerful and productive tool for those writing from positions of difference… The elided ‘I’ of academic discourse, with its pose of universality and objectivity, serves to erase difference. The personal ‘I’, by contrast, allows for diversity and inclusivity, seeming to revel in heterodoxy and heteroglossia. (Bruce & Smits, 128)
The above quote ripples and echoes with Donna Haraway’s point about the appearance of objectivity as a power game and the benefits of partiality as feminist objectivity:
The only way to find a larger vision is to be somewhere in particular. The science question in feminism is about objectivity as positioned rationality. Its images are not the products of escape… but the joining of partial views and halting voices into a collective subject position that promises a vision of the means of ongoing finite embodiment, of living within limits and contradictions, i.e. views from somewhere. (Haraway 196)
HE: Personal engagements are a very powerful source of learning. Some students understand instantly what it means to be ‘Other’ when discussing Simone de Beauvoir; other students understand the painful performativity of gender when discussing Judith Butler. Some people know in very tangible ways what #MeToo is trying describe; it’s their reality. Others are shocked; for them, the campaign was a revelation about different lived and bodily experiences, a world of violence and fear they never know in their own situation. These deeper understandings, personal experiences will help us create better, more accurate knowledge because they take into account how theories and statistics affect human lives. We just have to be open to narratives we don’t already understand just because they are not our owns and we haven’t experienced them personally. Still, they can – and will – exist.
Feminist Life Pedagogy
Feminist Life Pedagogy then, will be a method that tunes our ability (as learners, researchers and teachers) to decide when and how to use/express/involve experience, situatedness and the Self. Or to recognising in practices that such a dichotomy is artificial and unnecessary. It hinders processes of arriving to knowledge by delineating what knowing looks like, and thus by controlling who appears as knowing. Our five ideas for Feminist Life Pedagogy owe much to the thinking and writing of Sarah Ahmed and Audre Lorde. The method we propose helps to stay with the situated narratives of life while also gathering our abilities to position these life narratives within multiple and simultaneous structures. Feminist Life Pedagogy trains us to keep moving critically between situatedness and structure, so that knowing becomes a movement between these intertwined perspectives.
How do we teach this kind of positioning?
1. Teaching to use uncomfortability.
The first step of Feminist Life Pedagogy is to learn/teach/train to read against the grain of what is expected or presented. Sara Ahmed calls “the sadness of a feminist book” feminist pedagogy in her book Living a Feminist Life (2017). Here she refers to what she calls an “affect alien”, a feminist who reads something or interprets something with the wrong affect, because her feminist consciousness allows her to (or forces her to?) see that something represented as funny, is actually sad. Ahmed states that “feminist consciousness can be thought of as consciousness of the violence and power concealed under the languages of civility, happiness and love, rather than simply or only consciousness of gender as a site of restriction of possibility.” (Ahmed 62)
To learn to live with uncomfortability and as an ”affect alien”. To understand that feminist approaches to knowledge are not about personal empowerment or feeling good, but political and structural changes that can be painful and, in fact, sometimes strip us from power. A feminist teacher is in this position. She will have to deliberately give away her position as an authority, as a keeper of knowledge. She will have to step down from the podium and start a discussion.
2. Teaching wilfulness.
Sara Ahmed uses the word wilfulness to express disobedience and purposeful actions against what is expected ( Ahmed 71-73). For her wilfulness is a necessary survival skill in becoming a feminist. She locates this wilfulness often in an embodied experience of injustice or violence, which leads to no choice but to wilfully oppose. This is a necessary position which fuels critical thinking and activity necessary in feminist pedagogy. This wilfulness is also a heavy dislocating and continually challenging situatedness because even within feminist academia, there is continued pressure to assimilate, to not question or to strive for change or question power structures. A feminist teacher is a position that can feel like one of a demonstrator; one strives for a better world. But we must be prepared to answer the most important question: how do we want to achieve it? Not what but how – and then wilfully aiming towards it (while accepting partiality and inability to ever fully reach the set goals).
For her wilfulness is a necessary survival skill in becoming a feminist. She locates this wilfulness often in an embodied experience of injustice or violence, which leads to no choice but to wilfully oppose
3. Teaching life narrative.
Feminist Life Pedagogy teaches students to narrate personal experience and to analyze it with intersectional tools. It teaches that while it is paramount to learn to read and work with other’s texts and narratives of all forms (theory included), it is not sufficient to stop there. Learning to work with structuring personal narrative and subjective experiences of affect and situations is what enables feminists to linger on the bridge between constructions of knowledge and activism. It’s crucial to understand that one’s own narratives matter, too. They are a source of knowledge as much as anything else, and can be cultivated into knowledge with tools offered by feminist life pedagogy. It is this situating and contextualising for analysis that feminist teachers can indeed teach. For a feminist teacher, her personal narrative might become the superpower that makes her a better teacher. For instance, a teacher with experiences of classroom anxiety can think back to her years as a student and think of concrete ways to support her students (whose life situations are unknown to her and thus can be anything) and create safer spaces for learning.
For a feminist teacher, her personal narrative might become the superpower that makes her a better teacher
4. Teaching as a learning to live and to write.
Teaching is a learning process and should be treated as such by the teacher. It requires humbleness and willingness to keep learning. Knowledge flows to all directions and from all directions. Experiences amount. To be a successful teacher, can be to receive criticism from students and then to change practice. Listening is paramount. It is also very difficult.
Audre Lorde says that “teaching is a survival technique” (Lorde, 2017, 63). She considers her own learning to have happened through her teaching: “…I myself was learning something I needed to continue living. And I was examining it and teaching it at the same time I was learning it. I was teaching it to myself aloud.” (63-64) Feminism, therefore, holds this aspect of pedagogy always.
5. Fostering community that sees and appreciates differences
By pretending our bodies don’t exist, academia maintains our differences don’t matter (and maintains white privilege). However, our lived experiences and histories are important in the process of creating knowledge and they can reveal the spots we have missed. We must show appreciation to our students and to each other by making sure we deliberately try to remove obstructions of learning and producing knowledge. This includes making classrooms and other learning environments as physically and mentally/emotionally accessible as possible. As Audre Lorde states: “Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.” (Lorde 91)
As a teacher, do not assume everybody can sit throughout the entire lecture but do not assume students can or feel comfortable participating in any exercise in the classroom space, either. Use content warnings. Even though you haven’t been personally touched by violence, eating disorder, suicide or racism, there might be someone in the classroom who is struggling with the issue at that very moment. Do not force them to face that issue without their consent; a content warning gives them the information they need to decide if they can handle it. Just like people suffering from allergies and intolerances need to know what ingredients their food contains to be able to make informed choice and not get sick, sometimes people need to stay away from certain topics to be safe and well.
Use content warnings. Even though you haven’t been personally touched by violence, eating disorder, suicide or racism, there might be someone in the classroom who is struggling with the issue at that very moment
We as teachers need to be able to make our classrooms as safe spaces as possible and accommodate them when needed. Otherwise we are not even trying to give equal opportunities to our students to learn but pushing aside those who are the most vulnerable and most in need of our support. We as feminist teachers do not want to be enablers of oppression but fight it every way possible and in every situation we can. Content warnings will not throw your classroom into chaos. Give students a possibility to opt out but either way don’t make big deal out of it. Respect students’ autonomy, because truly a community can only be fostered through trust and you can only build trust if you share power. Content warnings (among the other suggested things) are signs that as a teacher, you appreciate students and their agency as well as self-knowing. That truly, their experiences matter.
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