Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jenny Heineman holds a Ph.D. in sociology and currently teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Dr. Heineman’s work centers on issues related to the body and intellectualism, particularly the intersection of sex work, feminist theory and critical pedagogy.
Where Universes Expand
Recently, a team of Finnish scientists asked people to map out where they felt different emotions on their bodies. The mapping patterns were similar, even across cultures. For example, participants mapped sadness onto the heart, and happiness tended to include the arms, legs and belly. Interestingly, people mapped pride and shame onto the head and described the rest of the body as “deactivated” in prideful or shameful situations.
These findings are significant for marginalized academics, because they demonstrate the embodied experience of emotion. Feeling is of the body. That means that we are marginalized at an intersection of identity, body and emotion. Those recent findings also tell us something significant about the relationship between bodies, emotions and perceptions of intellectual rigor. Emotions of the head are valued more in academe than are emotions of the heart. Pride is associated with intellectualism, while sadness, anger and love are ostensibly anti-intellectual.
I experienced a great deal of sadness and anger last semester, and not just because of the emboldened vitriol of racists and misogynists following the 2016 presidential election. After nearly 20 years of chronic pain, I was diagnosed with stage-four endometriosis. The disease, given free rein for two decades, flourished inside several organs outside my uterus. I underwent an emergency hysterectomy, which in turn sent me into menopause at the age of 32.
I didn’t feel sadness and anger, however, because of what these changes meant for me in terms of gender. As a queer parent, I did not feel the pangs of “losing [my] womanhood,” as the aftercare pamphlet (and infinite online blogs) suggested I might. I’ve never been keen on status-quo notions of womanhood.
Instead, I felt the loss of an entire universe, an absence deep inside my body where I once nurtured and grew a glorious child. I felt the imbalance of my body, struggling to survive its new environment, the dearth of estrogen and the surge of testosterone engendering a particular emotionality. If I were to map my pain onto my body, my head would be entirely deactivated.
Given my experience, I was not surprised to read course evaluations from that semester wherein students described my teaching style as “too emotional.” While I am unabashedly open in the classroom, menopause added another layer of emotionality. Indeed, it is nearly impossible to hide a hot flash. Moreover, while mourning the loss of my singularity, my universe, I also grappled with bouts of sobbing and the cruelty of apathy. “I don’t want to talk about your vagina,” a close family member said after my surgery, as if apathy were the only appropriate boundary between good, healthy heady bodies and bad, mourning hyperaware bodies.
Likewise, my emotionality in the classroom obligated students to acknowledge the parts of me below my head. Acknowledging my sadness and my body forced students out of their apathetic bubbles. On the heels of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s transphobic comments that “trans women are trans women,” for example, I asked my Intro to Sociology class if I am a “real” woman even though I no longer had a uterus. The topic of the week was gender and the question was understandably uncomfortable. My students squirmed in their seats, unwilling to make eye contact with me or their classmates. I then asked the class to interrogate their sheepishness. “We talk about other people’s bodies in class all the time,” I said.
After a long pause, one student proclaimed, “Because it’s just … embarrassing!” The proclamation sent warm quivers over my flesh as I delighted in her brilliant and unguarded observation. And she was right! Acknowledging the complexity and vulnerability of our own bodies is embarrassing. It is emotional. It requires us to be open to the bodily sensations we actively ignore in intellectual spaces. It requires us to take up residency in our own skin.
But here’s the thing: marginalized academics lack the privilege of invisibility in academe. We don’t have the choice to ignore all those pins and needles below our heads because it is precisely those sensations — and the knowledges they engender — that are constantly up for scrutiny in academe. It is not incidental, for example, that fat bodies, ill bodies, brown bodies, black bodies, queer bodies, sex-working bodies, neurodivergent bodies, trans bodies, disabled bodies, et cetera, are positioned as biased, subjective, irrational, emotional and divisive in academe. Even cold, hard data show that student course evaluations are biased against folks with marginalized bodies and identities and the emotions they presumably create. Students are skeptical of professors who are more than walking heads. That skepticism translates to criticism on course evaluations, which in turn sours one’s promotional opportunities or perception of intellectual rigor more generally.
For a queer former sex worker like me, sitting at the intersection of queerness, femininity, stigmatized labor, chronic illness and now menopause means that my body and my self are hypervisible. In course evaluations, my hypervisible body translates to a biased emotionality, because my knowledge does not come from just the head. Instead, it comes from a whole lot of anger, a ton of sadness and a great deal of love. Bringing in knowledge that comes from the entire body, not just the head, means stripping down to one’s most elemental human parts. It means standing stark naked in the midst of embarrassment and vulnerability. It means remaining naked even when your exposure threatens your entire livelihood. And most of the time, it means doing all of this without your enthusiastic consent.
Afro-pessimists like Jared Sexton argue for an epistemology that comes from marginalized bodies, emotions and experiences. Sexton argues that marginalized bodies — namely, black bodies — are pushed to the margins of society where they face social and literal death. A truly revolutionary epistemology, then, should not fear or propagate death, but rather begin with it.
I would add that a bodycentric critical pedagogy must also begin with the margins. A bodycentric critical pedagogy informed by Afro-pessimism and queerness must bring the body into the classroom by acknowledging sadness, anger and love as equally valid ways of knowing the world. Rather than demanding regurgitation in the classroom — what Paulo Freire called the “banking” concept of education — we have to center the experiences and emotions that come from the margins. For example, rather than asking our students, “How was your weekend?” instead ask, “Did any of you experience police brutality this weekend?” This is a simple way to center bodies at the heart of necropolitics and the anger, mourning and sadness brimming in those bodies. It is also a love song to those bodies and experiences.
But it’s not just about students’ bodies and emotions. It is about ours, as educators, too. If your body aches with chronic illness, if it carries the everlasting scars of state-sanctioned injustice, if your heart bleeds with the pain of living under a white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy, bring that bodily emotionality into the classroom. Let yourself cry when you show the famed Stanley Milgram experiments because you know what unfettered authority feels like. Let yourself delight in talking about Miss Major because you know exactly where resistance and love live in your own body. Let yourself rejoice when students write, “She’s too emotional” on course evaluations rather than settling into that familiar, heady space of shame.
Most important, let us all commit to memory (and heart) the profound and sacred knowledge of the margins. It is only at the margins, after all, where universes expand.