Reflections On Pedagogy And Self-Censorship As The Semester Ends

classroom

Some pedagogy-related mementos from this semester:

  • A student tells me that ze1 never had to write out short answers or responses to essay questions on exams before my class (which ze took hir senior year).
  • Multiple graduate students I’ve met have never heard of Apartheid in South Africa. Graduate students.
  • When a student came to my office hours and I described a recent sexuality studies conference I had attended, ze said, “Oh, is sexuality something you study outside of teaching?” Apparently, I was not revealing this to my students.
  • I received a fortifying email from a student who said how ze appreciated how I continually stress “the balance between connecting with people on a community/interpersonal level while simultaneously assessing the problems on a larger, structural scale.” This email has revived me, in a rough semester.

So, what is this all making me think? Well, I’m worried. (Of course, I’m worried. I’m a tenure-track faculty member. I worry about myself, and I worry about what my students are not learning or hearing. Let me see if I can lay it out.

Memento One

First, I was agog at the revelation that a student major in my discipline, at a large research university, would not have encountered an open-ended means of assessment until hir senior year. Granted, that may not be true of all students, but at least one student was graduating having only had one opportunity to complete an exam where there was not just one specified right answer. I assume the rest were multiple choice, matching, and true/false questions. Those means of assessment give no space for alternative means of thinking or responding to our questions.

mcqchicken

Of course, in our increasingly adjunctified, increasingly corporate educational culture, class sizes are getting bigger and bigger, and we are not hiring additional faculty to teach multiple course sections. So when faced with a class of 150+ students, it makes sense to use multiple choice exams for the sake of our sanity. But the lack of adequate faculty that allows for interactive and open-ended student assessment is a systemic problem that is trickling down to our students.

Memento Two

Second, I can’t even with the Apartheid thing. I CAN’T EVEN. Forget agog; I am aghast. Who allowed these students to get as far as graduate school with so little knowledge of global context and history and racism? Oh. I guess we as faculty did. I mean, of course, not Conditionally Accepted readers. Those other faculty. I CAN’T EVEN.  (I started this post before the passing of Nelson Mandela; which renders this ignorance even more traumatic.)

This is me, flabber(a)ghasted.

This is me, flabber(a)ghasted.

Third, it is truly revealing that a student who has taken multiple courses with me doesn’t know the focus of my research (sexuality, public health, and body size, from a critical and feminist perspective). That means that I am not necessarily drawing on my own expertise in discussing course topics. Of course, teaching about fat acceptance and Health at Every Size and sex-positivity in an undergraduate community health classroom is fraught, because of racism, sexism, sizeism, and an overwhelming focus on “individual responsibility” in terms of how many people think about the construction of “health.” But if I’m not using my own research, my own voice and perspective as a means of conveying course content, then that’s not good. It’s not good for shoring up my own place in the world as a scholar, but it’s also not good for challenging how my students think.

In my personal/social life, I am pretty vocal about being anti-oppression, discussing attempts at being the best ally I can, etc. But this clearly has not translated into my pedagogy explicitly (despite being the owner of the bell hooks pedagogy trilogy!).  I can put some of the responsibility onto the academic culture I entered.  A few years before I arrived here, there was a major dust-up between a long-tenured professor who taught human sexuality, and a state legislator. The professor was accused of showing “obscene” material in his class because it was sexually explicit, and the legislator threatened to withdraw funding from the university. This was the environment I entered when I was hired as someone who specialized in sexual health. But they hired me as someone who specialized in sexual health. I even asked on my interview, “So, is there any concern about the nature of the topics I study?” and the answer was a resounding “No.” So I am definitely self-censoring.

Self-Censorship-Useful-or-Not

The other day in a talk I gave on body shame and public health, my authority and right to critique body-related shaming tactics was questioned by someone who had seen a story on the local news about a “really fat, I mean morbidly OBESE” child. I didn’t even recognize this as a micro (macro?) aggression until after the talk, when another person came up and ranted about the other attendee, “Yeah, it’s not like you have TWO ADVANCED DEGREES in this topic, and she saw a NEWS SEGMENT.” Part of what I have enjoyed most so far about being part of Conditionally Accepted is how the posts and links bring out into stark relief and better explain some of the unsettling experiences I’ve been having. The fact that I didn’t appeal to my obvious authority on the topic to the newswatching attendee reminds me that I have not only structural work to do in the environment around me, but I have to continue to work on myself and my approach to pedagogy and research. I think I need to go re-read some of Eric’s posts on authenticity. Who’s with me?

Memento Three

Which leads me to the last bullet – this shiny little student email that I’m hoarding close like a magpie.

This is me as a magpie, FYI.

This is me as a magpie, FYI.

Of course, I feel immensely personally gratified that this student is making connections between individual actions and the social structures that facilitate and constrain “choices.” That feels awesome. But it also makes me a little sad, and of course, pensive (again, academic; it’s our lot). I am troubled that this may not be a de rigeur way of thinking about the world promoted in other classes. I primarily teach classes for majors, and students join my courses after completing General Education requirements. Now, I imagine many Conditionally Accepted readers are the instructors of General Education courses (or their equivalents), and I’d love to hear your feedback and experiences. Those of you who teach “Gen Ed” courses, are you able/empowered to frame your courses as social justice-oriented? Are you not given that leeway, because you’re supposed to be covering “fundamentals” (because we all know fundamentals are value-neutral, right)?

So what do you have to say, readers/contributors? I would love to hear your recent experiences with pedagogy. As we come to the end of yet another semester, what are your favorite/least favorite teaching moments?

________________

1 I am using gender-neutral pronouns throughout, in this case to mask the identities of my students, a somewhat de-politicized use of these terms. For example, forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education often include narratives with gender-neutral pronouns, in order to protect the privacy of those writing/being discussed. However, the more political use of gender-neutral pronouns (there are a variety of ones that one can use) are used in order to honor the gender identity of an individual when their identification is unknown to you, or if they identify as a gender beyond the gender binary. Here’s a blog discussing the need, as well as the existing options: http://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/.

3 thoughts on “Reflections On Pedagogy And Self-Censorship As The Semester Ends

  1. I think I’m lucky to both be living and teaching in California as a whole, but also in a relatively hippie/liberal area of the state. I address sex-positivity, fat politics and systems of oppression in every.single.class I teach regardless of the topic. Granted I teach both human sexuality as well as community & international health so it’s not hard to do. We have a pretty good HAES community here so that makes the body positivity/fat politics stuff FEEL pretty easy to do, and we have a gaggle of sex positive/feminist organizations, activists, etc. on campus so I don’t think twice about any of those topics.

    So I didn’t mean for it to sound like I was bragging, but I think it’s a good thing for me to read and think about my colleagues in other parts of the country who aren’t afforded the same sense of safety and protection that I feel in my job. It was a good self reflection for me to appreciate what I have since sometimes I get bogged down about the parts of the job I don’t like! Good post. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Lindsay, thanks for the reminder that it may not be as hard to talk about fat and sex and fatsex! elsewhere, which is a relief. I think that level of HAES activity that goes on on your campus is AMAZING, and i know you’re a big part of that.

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  3. Yes. Yes to everything you have written here. I think my biggest struggles are what you are writing about: (1) challenging the the idea that sociology/women’s studies/race and ethnicity studies are “just opinion”; and (2) getting students to see that what we are discussing in class is not about some other group of people who live “out there” but is about us in this classroom.

    It is a DANGEROUS thing to ask students to consider that what we study is manifest in our own lives. Having taught in conservative Southern California where my experience was much more like Lindsay’s, I was shocked and disturbed by the resistance I got from my liberal New England students. I have come to see the resistance as an ironic outcome of North Easterners’ self-identity as liberal and progressive and non-racist. All that bad stuff happens somewhere else, is perpetrated by bad actors or the less educated. But we are the free and enlightened. Hard to push past that without making students defensive.

    But I think the larger issue is a public education system based on testing and alienating students from their own education. If we are honest about it, it is shocking that any students at all are able to apply what they are learning to their own lives. They are well socialized to associate learning with testing, to ignore process in favor of outcomes. I’m hard pressed to find a time or place they had the opportunity to learn that education is something they do and not something done to them. The problem is so far outside of individual teacher and student intention that I despair of finding a solution.

    As for history, it is another casualty of No Child Left Untested. The national and state tests focus only on language and math, so many public schools have simply stopped teaching social studies. Or if they do, it is in the last month or so of the school year after all the tests are finished. The majority of history taught in K-12 is more mythology than scholarship. I did a unit in one of my courses on the Civil Rights Movement hoping that it might inspire some of my more politically aware students, and on the day I introduced the topic to my class of both black and white students, they moaned in unison and said, “Ugh. We have done this over and over in school, can’t we do something else?” I started by showing them 1 episode of Eyes on the Prize (“Ain’t Scared of Your Jails”) and by the end of it their mouths were hanging open, “Wow. We never learned THAT.” So what did they learn? Rosa Parks was a nice old lady who sat on a bus, and MLK gave some speeches, and then racism ended. My students, black and white, had never heard of Jim Crow. They had no concept that segregation was a legally structured system of disenfranchisement. They didn’t know that there was opposition to the Civil Rights movement. They didn’t know people died to gain access to basic citizenship rights. Most of our students don’t know what their own rights are and they have no idea it means or should mean to be a citizen in a democracy.

    We have failed American students. Its no wonder they don’t know the difference between scholarly research and newspaper articles, critical analysis and opinion. If they even watch the news they see reporters giving equal weight to opinions, data, research and off-the-cuff remarks. They have been taught that evolution is a matter of opinion. This is not what I meant when I dreamed of having equal respect to other disciplines in the academy 🙂

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