Professors Feel Pain, Too

Last month, I attended a teaching workshop on navigating difficult classroom discussions, with a focus on racist microaggressions that may occur during class.  This was a great workshop; it reignited my passion for teaching by reminding me why I became an educator in the first place.  Despite lawsuits against professors who dare to talk about structural racism and attempted forced retirements against those who talk about sex work, I stand firmly by the position that a professor’s job is to talk about uncomfortable, controversial subjects.  A class is incomplete if its students have not been pushed outside of their comfort zones and/or had their initial ways of thinking challenged.

The workshop left only one issue unaddressed that I sorely wanted to discuss: acknowledging and navigating the instructor’s pain.  This is not really a complaint.  Recognizing and addressing racist and other microaggressions in one’s classroom deserves more than the three hours we devoted to it that morning.  So, too, in my opinion, does recognizing and addressing what instructor’s experience and bring to the classroom.  As I noted even in my introduction at the start of the workshop, I want to know how I can stop shutting down when something offensive is said in the classroom.  Beyond that, I struggle with carrying my own pain from experiencing the very things I bring up in class.

Let me give two examples of what I mean:

  • About half way through my research methods course last semester, a white student dismissed the conclusions drawn from a experiments that suggested the presence of racial prejudice and discrimination — even among young children.  I acknowledge that I chose experiments that were not without their limitations, but had the benefit of a video about them.  But, I could tell that underlying this student’s comment was not methodological concerns; rather, he seemed set in believing these experiments could not possibly demonstrate the existence of racial prejudice and discrimination.  I was neither emotionally nor pedagogically prepared to have the “does racism exist?” conversation, so I pointed out the inaccuracies in his own comment, and acknowledged the limitations of the studies, and moved on.  It was a course on methods, not racism, after all; but, how I could have better handled this kind of concern, or even challenge, lingers in my mind still.
  • On the very day I taught on homophobia in my gender and sexualities course last semester, a construction crew member left a religious pamphlet in my apartment.  I suspect this was upon seeing pictures of my partner and me while they entered to install a new door.  Prejudice or shoddy work, they also threw our doormats about and left a lot of sawdust on the carpet and furniture.  I went to class that day feeling violated.  A stranger, whose identity, appearance, and politics were unknown to me, entered my home and left a message to me about their religious beliefs.  This would have been a wonderful experience to bring up in that evening’s class.  But, I knew not to for fear that I might become upset or even start crying.  I had not yet processed the experience and, frankly, patched up the wound it reopened.

My pedagogical approach embraces one’s personal experiences directly, rather than treating them as suspect (i.e., a threat to objectivity) or irrelevant.  I ask students to drawn on their own lives to support comments made in class; also, my assignments require students to connect course material to their personal experiences.  I figure that students will not retain material as well if you ask them to prioritize it over all of their year’s of experiences, knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions; at best, they may set course material beside this preexisting mental content and, sometimes, easily slip back into old ways of thinking.  Also, I aim to contribute to my students’ consciousness-raising by asking them to reexamine their own lives and past experiences through the critical lenses taught in my courses.  So, I willingly work at breaking the barrier between intellectual and personal imposed by much of academia, and intentionally bring up controversial and difficult subjects during class.

I certainly agree with other instructors’ sentiment that I am not a counselor.  I now make clear that the classroom should be treated as a safe, nonjudgmental place, but it is not designed as a group therapy session.  I contribute to maintaining this kind of space by (re)directing the conversation back to course material, and avoiding therapy-style questions like “how did that make you feel?” and “and, then what did you say to him?”  My approach is a work in progress, and necessarily shifts or expands each time I teach a new course.  But, I generally feel comfortable in asking my students to reflect on their lives, even pain related to the issues we discuss.

Professor’s Feel Pain, Too

But, what about my experiences and pain?  I certainly do not make the class about me.  (Hello, still struggling with self-doubt and better self-promotion here!)   Yet, I do make a point to divulge some to reciprocate in asking my students to open up to me (and the entire class, if they wish).  At a minimum, I save the last day for lingering questions students have for me (asked anonymously), which usually covers “what’s your race?”, “what’s your sexual orientation?”, “where did you go to graduate school/college?”, “why did you become a sociologist?”  Funny, though, I was surprised to find that I received only 2 or 3 questions in my research methods course — the one where I had already been the least open as a human; but, everyone asks a question in my gender and sexualities courses.  After gauging the class in general, and the conversation that day, I sometimes interject with a personal thought or experience if it will offer a different perspective than what was already offered.

I have noticed, though, that my willingness to share surrounds “safe” experiences and thoughts.  That is, they are not too controversial, thus avoiding radically changing how my students’ views of me thus far.  But, I also mean that I have efficiently processed it.  I either no longer experience pain in the case of negative occurrences or am sufficiently suppressing how I feel just enough to share with a group of semi-strangers.  But, I do not simply have a painful past.  As a fat Black queer man, there is a very good chance I experienced something related to weight, race, sexual orientation, gender, etc. that day.

Besides carrying the pain, especially for experiencing discrimination or microaggressions, it is hard to completely throw out the myth of objectivity in the classroom.  Implicitly, I cave to the false security of being objective by withholding my own experiences and thoughts from classroom discussion.  When my students talked about their experiences with homophobia — as targets or witnesses — I refrained from saying, “hell, I just experienced homophobia right before class!” because the conversation was not supposed to be about me.  This is not necessary, and is unfair to my students who decide to share.  But, it is hard to quickly break from the way that most of us are taught (if at all) to teach.

“Objectivity,” Or Suppressing Pain

The myth of objectivity in teaching is also unfair to me because it also plays out as suppression — a form of emotional labor.  Being “objective” about racism, for example, is not simply keeping my thoughts to myself to, instead, prioritize my students’ thoughts; it is having to keep a lid on years’ worth of my own pain and anger.  It is trying to be respectful and remained engaged as I hear white students underestimate the pervasiveness of racism while my mind starts to drift to the “nigger joke” that ruined my Christmas night.

So, in recognizing what this is — that I carry pain — it is now my job to figure out what to do with it.  Bringing it to class puts me at risk for having this pain shutting me down or constraining my ability to effectively run classroom discussion.  So long as I willingly teach on subjects like racism, homophobia, sexism, etc., I must work at emotionally and pedagogically preparing to talk about things that will always hit close to home.  Sadly, I need to prepare, albeit it to a lesser extent, even when I teach “safe” and “generic” topics because it would be foolish to expect the classroom to be devoid of prejudice and discrimination.

But, this points to one manifestation of inequality in academia that I will forever resent: that marginalized scholars are tasked with this kind of emotional labor before (and likely after) class, on top of additional concerns to navigating during class.  This additional burden of labor related to teaching is exacerbated because our privileged colleagues are less likely to pursue these subjects in class anyhow.  And, worse, they are (at times) one source of the pain we carry around with us.

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