On The Stress of Remaining “Neutral” – Reflections By Jeff Kosbie

Jeff KosbieJeff Kosbie, a JD/PhD candidate in sociology, regularly offers a sociological analysis of the law on his blog, Queer(ing) Law.  In particular, he has offered insight and critique of laws that perpetuate the unequal status of LGBT people in the US.  A few weeks ago, he offered a guest blog post on advancing a critical, social justice-informed approach to his scholarship.  Jeff also reflects on his work in the classroom, especially on teaching gender and sexuality

Below, Jeff has written an essay on a stressful matter that many scholars on the margins face in teaching on issues of inequality: remaining “neutral.”

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The Stress Of Remaining “Neutral”

In addition to all the typical challenges of teaching, scholars on the margins face the emotional stress of remaining neutral when teaching material that we find personally offensive. Just like with our research, academia unrealistically expects that we are not emotionally invested in the material we teach. I’ve faced this before in classes, but it really hit home earlier this term.

On Remaining Neutral On Problematic Science

I’m TAing for an introductory course in Sexualities right now. In a lecture a couple of weeks ago, the professor discussed a study published in Nature (Williams 2000) purporting to find different finger length ratios between gay and straight men. We talked extensively about the methodological problems with this study and related it to a broader history of science that explains social differences based on anatomical differences. During class, a few students pushed back: are you dismissing this type of science entirely? Shouldn’t we be trying to design better studies?

After class, we had our weekly meeting of the TAs and the professor to plan for discussion sections. The professor warned us that some of the students probably thought he was dismissing science, so we should be prepared to discuss the topic further. We discussed strategies to handle this topic in our sections.

In my discussion sections, I started by raising the question, “how would we design a perfect study on biological differences between gays and straights?” I had students talk in pairs first, and then share ideas as a class. The vast majority of students seemed to arrive at the conclusion that we couldn’t design such a study. And more importantly, most of them seemed to grasp at least at some level the bigger point that framing a study like this depended on a whole set of heteronormative assumptions. These studies necessarily create the very categories they purport to explain. I used this activity to lead into the assigned readings, which covered the connections between eugenics, scientific racism, and the development of these studies of sexual deviance based on anatomical difference. This really drove home the problematic ways that researchers of these studies even framed their research questions.

But some students’ comments revealed that they were deeply troubled by the seeming dismissal of science in lecture. A couple students stayed after discussion section to talk about it further. They understood how problematic a lot of such studies are. But they are also really set on the idea of science as neutral. Science is understood as the objective work of discovering and describing differences that exist in nature.

I felt trapped by this conversation. On the one hand I found the insistence of searching for biological differences between gays and straights personally offensive and stigmatizing—especially because we had just finished discussing readings that showed how these studies are rooted in eugenics. But at the same time, I knew that these students were really struggling with the material—more so than many of their silent peers. This material was new and shocking. They have been taught to think of these studies as pro-gay. Indeed, one student volunteered in discussion that she had encountered this same study in a psychology class where it was presented as evidence that sexuality is not a choice.

I felt that I had to toe a line of neutrality (a loaded and problematic concept itself, but that’s a topic for another post). I explained that I personally don’t think we can productively study biological differences like this because any study is creating the categories it uses and is labeling one group as “normal.” But I also noted that a lot of people still believe in that kind of science. I pushed the students on thinking about the assumptions underlying this branch of science, and I shared my personal views, but I stopped short of fully saying I don’t think this branch of science is legitimate. If I pushed too hard, I was afraid of being labeled biased: as a queer sociologist, my opinion on the science of sexuality could be reduced to my personal identity. Moreover, the students might think that I simply expect them to parrot back pro-gay views to me in their written assignments (I’ve had course evaluations in the past that accuse me of this).

I spent several hours over the next few days stewing about this. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could have framed this discussion differently. When I first wrote this blog post, I was grappling to come to some conclusion about how I would prepare for these discussions in the future. I do want to find ways to minimize how much energy I spend on this, but I’m not ready to write about that right now. (I am going to work on reaching out to friends when I need to talk – people who share my teaching philosophy and can validate my hurt and frustration.) Instead, I want to use this incident to think about how teaching is connected to broader goals of social justice for me and why I think it is critically important to be emotionally invested in the classroom, even though it will sometimes cost me emotional and mental energy like this.

Maybe if I was less emotionally invested in the classroom, I could just dismiss this as trivial. It seems innocent enough. I mean, I honestly believe the student had good intentions. And so I could just tell myself to move on, that it wasn’t my job to worry about whether the student really understood the deeper implications of the material. Suck it up and move on, right? But I don’t think that response is healthy. It’s important to recognize, even if only briefly, the real ways that my teaching impacts my emotions and health.

Concluding Thoughts

I draw on feminist pedagogy for a lot of my approach to teaching. So teaching means much more than just transmitting knowledge from me to my students. Teaching is also about interrogating power structures, hierarchies, and inequalities. Teaching is about creating connections between me and my students, learning new ways of thinking, and broader issues of social justice. I’m a teacher, but I’m also always a student.

This pedagogy has been incredibly empowering for me. In almost every class I’ve taught, at least one student has told me that they’ve changed a lot of their views on gender and sexuality. I’ve seen students take ownership of their learning and become active participants in talking about how class material matters to the world around us. I’ve had past students write me to tell me about how materials from my class mattered to their jobs in nonprofits.

But, as in this instance, this pedagogy has also opened me up to potential hurt. This is a hurt that particularly affects scholars on the margins. Once we’re invested in how our students understand the world around them, we’re also vulnerable to being hurt by comments that reflect sexist, heterosexist, racist, classist, cis-normative, or other dominant views of the world. And we’re not always going to be able to predict when these comments will come up or how much they will impact us.

So what now? I’m going to keep having these conversations. Even if the people I’m having them with don’t change their minds immediately, they might down the road. The students in this incident have continued to be regular participants in discussion and seem to still respect me as a person and as an instructor. Maybe their views will shift as the course goes on. But these conversations matter just as much to the students who are not directly involved. By talking about these issues, we can validate the feelings of our students who share these marginal identities and can become a resource for these students. I know these conversations matter, and they are important for my teaching philosophy, and most of the time they are very rewarding.

2 thoughts on “On The Stress of Remaining “Neutral” – Reflections By Jeff Kosbie

  1. Reblogged this on JAPANsociology and commented:
    I too have been accused … maybe accused isn’t the right word … I’ve had students ask that I be more neutral on the issues we discuss in class. The request is almost always meant in a kind way, since I tend to be rather passionate in my teaching. But I worry that it can also carry with it the idea that we’re reducing talk about science to everyone’s opinions. So, I would need to be open to opinions that are not supported by evidence, even when those opinions contradict decades of research that show a completely opposite pattern.

    I try to push students to support their claims, to develop logical arguments that are supported by more than anecdotal evidence. Sociologists disagree with each other all the time, but we don’t (or at least shouldn’t) simply dismiss those with whom we disagree.

    Should we be neutral in class? I think a better word is to be diplomatic, to create a classroom environment in which students can freely and respectfully share their ideas and test their understandings. We have to model the behavior we expect from our students, especially when we’re challenging their understandings. When faced with a professor who comes across as dismissive or “biased,” students may become more entrenched in defending their views, as if the classroom were a battle of wills. They also might avoid your classes the next time around. But neutrality in the face of illogical arguments and bad science? What’s the point?

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  2. “But they are also really set on the idea of science as neutral. Science is understood as the objective work of discovering and describing differences that exist in nature.” I think in these instances, the work of scholars like Dr. Dorothy Roberts is especially useful to cite, re-read, etc. In her work, she has interrogated and challenged the view that Science is “objective.” Further explorations of who, how and why we have come to adopt certain views in science, especially re: race, sexuality, sex, etc. is largely informed by our collective histories, racism, colonialism, imperialism, misogyny (especially misogynoir), slavery, and so on. If we start to examine and center the privileges people carry that have routinely performed science, it becomes less clear how science is neutral. And, hopefully, begin a conversation about how we conduct science and how we might hold scientists accountable – even if their research aims/results aren’t “intended” to be racist, sexist, problematic, etc.

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