Note: this blog post was originally published on our Inside Higher Ed career advice column. Dr. Jeana Jorgensen splits her time between lecturing on anthropology, folklore and gender studies and pursuing work in the adult sex education field. As part of her alt-ac outreach, she writes for both Conditionally Accepted and Patheos.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.
I wrote a series of pieces titled “I Don’t Know If I Want to Be a Professor Anymore” in the summer of 2014. In the final one, I declared my intention to continue to adjunct on a very part-time basis while expanding the rest of my career into adult sexuality education. (See also part 1, part 2 and part 3.) I feel it’s now time to reflect on how the process has been going and how that intention has impacted my time in academe.
In 2013, I was reluctant to call myself a sex educator, despite the fact that I had been writing for the sex education and research blog MySexProfessor.com for three years, and despite how knowledgeable I was becoming. By 2014, I had decided to claim the title of sex educator, realizing that there are multiple paths to this career. Working one’s way up the ranks of being a Planned Parenthood educator or a peer educator in college or a student of public health is only one path. Some of us go other academic routes or completely eschew the academy. Some of us become sex-toy mavens while working retail, while others enter the field from LGBTQ activism, body work and/or sex work.
So how does this all fit in with maintaining an academic identity? For me, it’s been an eerily good fit, although my progress on the business-building front has also been excruciatingly slow at times.
In terms of academic fit, I am fortunate in that I have some leeway in how I choose to design and teach my courses. In spring 2014, I created a course called Sex Education Across Cultures, cross-listed as an upper-division elective in anthropology and gender, women’s and sexuality studies. We learned about historical, contemporary and cross-cultural approaches to sex education — and I truly mean we. One of the reasons I wanted to teach the class was to improve my grasp of the academic study of sex education. My students seemed to have a good time of it. Like most young people I have encountered, the students were hungry for knowledge not only about sex but also about how information about sex is shaped, transmitted and prohibited.
In a subsequent class on women’s folklore, I brought in sex education topics where relevant, whether discussing how an intersectional approach to age and gender necessitates talking about sexually transmitted infections to the elderly, or how personal narratives about sexual assault can illuminate the power of silencing and shame in structuring people’s experiences of their sexuality.
One of the downsides of being an adjunct is that I am never certain how my actions are being judged, both inside and outside the classroom. So, while I continue to receive outstanding student evaluations, and my classes regularly fill up, I do not have any way of knowing whether I am too out there.
As I am a folklorist first, I believe that any aspect of people performing culture is fair game for the classroom, the monograph and everything in between. Since becoming a gender studies scholar and sex educator, I have decided that gender, sex and sexuality are such important facets of human experience that I would be doing a disservice to my students to exclude them.
Not everyone thinks this way, of course. I have taken far too many classes at the graduate and undergraduate level about culture, history or language where gender was simply excluded, and I am committed to never making that mistake.
I warned at least one of my department chairs that I was shifting my career and my research interests in this direction, in case they googled me or something like that. So far, no one at my college seems to have a problem with this transition, but then, I also haven’t done anything really newsworthy or controversial — other than blog a lot about various sexuality topics from a fairly progressive point of view.
On the research front, I’ve found it beneficial to incorporate insights from the sex ed world into my academic work. For instance, while presenting on the TV show Lost Girl and its intersections with fairy-tale materials, it has been useful to bring in concepts about bisexuality and nonmonogamy to account for how the show transforms folk narrative into pop culture. My academic colleagues do not seem too freaked out by the vocabulary and concepts that creep into in my papers, so that is a good thing.
One persistent theme has been my awareness that sex is a dicey topic in the university: on the one hand, sex sells, but on the other, it is a topic that can disturb people. As Kelly Baker points out in her essay “Silence Won’t Protect You,” “academic freedom doesn’t rest easily with colleges and universities’ attempts to brand their institutions. Brands require consistency, conformity and simplified messages.”
Nothing about sexuality is simple, and given my contingent status, I think it is important to be transparent about how the culturewide attitude of sex negativity impacts those of us in the university. By sex negativity, I mean the belief that sex is inherently dangerous, unhealthy and pathological, types of sex that are seen as nonnormative or deviant especially so. Additionally, the intensification of free speech concerns in contemporary academe makes my position — and those of others like me — especially precarious.
But over all, things seem to be going well on the academic front, or as well as they can be going considering that adjuncting remains an exploitative situation. I will discuss another facet of this career shift in an upcoming article. If you ever wondered what it’s like to network with sex educators, stay tuned!