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/.

“And Your Preferred Pronoun?” Another Step Toward Inclusion In Our Classrooms

Imagine this: rather than assuming our students’ gender identity based on their appearance and formal university records, we as instructors can simply ask them — “what is your preferred pronoun?”

Learning From (All Of) Our Colleagues

I suppose there is no harm in admitting that the career not pursued for me was one of a student affairs professional.  When I began applying to graduate schools in 2006, I weighed between sociology, women’s and gender studies, and student affairs.  My mentors in the student affairs side of campus suggested I would have an easier time shifting into student affairs with a PhD in sociology than to sociology with a PhD in student affairs.  So, the compromise has been to become a sociology professor who, at times, will be an advocate and mentor for students outside of the traditional classroom setting.  To further bridge these two worlds — students academic lives and their “extracurricularlives (formal clubs, but also developing into adults) — I remain open to collaborations and mutual learning with my colleagues in student affairs and higher education.

Over the summer, I went through my university’s Safe Zone training program, and attended one of the lunches for safe zone allies.  At the beginning of each of these events, Ted Lewis — University of Richmond’s Associate Director of LGBTQ Campus Life — asks attendees to introduce themselves: your name and your preferred pronoun.  At some point, Ted usually indicates that this approach is to avoid making assumptions, and to be more inclusive of trans* and gender non-conforming people.  At the summer safe zone brownbag lunch on LGBTQ students in our classrooms, we spoke at greater length about the importance of this approach.  And, while most appreciated the importance of doing so, the (junior) professors in the room squirmed at the thought of doing something that may be considered radical.

Ted always seems so comfortable when starting meetings this way.  So, I figured I could employ this in my classes, no matter how scary it might be.  A colleague actually discouraged me from doing so, fearing the students’ (negative) reactions and, in turn, their (negative) course evaluations.  I shared that fear, so my compromise was to ask students’ preferred pronoun in my gender and sexuality class (11 students, high gender and racial diversity) but not in my research methods class (20 people, lower gender and racial diversity).

The Experiment

On the first day of the semester, I was comfortable enough to ask students in my research methods course for their preferred name.  Per Ted’s suggestion, to be even more inclusive, we must not assume students use the legal name listed in the university’s records.  And, this is welcoming not just for trans* and gender non-conforming students, but any student who goes by Bill instead of William.  And, to minimize the embarrassment we feel as (US-born) instructors as we knowingly, yet helplessly, mispronounce international students names, we allow them to pronounce it for us first, or, for some, provide the “Americanized” name they have adopted for this very reason.  There seemed to be a slight level of appreciation from the students for calling only their last names, and having them respond with their preferred first name.  But, I did not feel brave enough to ask for preferred pronouns.

On the first meeting of my gender and sexuality course, I did ask both preferred name and preferred pronoun.  I quickly jotted down “he”, “she”, and “ze” on the board to explain what a pronoun is.  The students complied.  As much as possible, I do the scary things that I ask of my students; when I ask them to share parts of themselves or personal background, I share as well to lessen the power differential.  So, as the last student announced their name and pronoun, it came to me to respond.  Since I was nervous during this entire exercise, I rambled: “Doctor or Professor Grollman; and he, she, whatever really.”  I had not emotionally prepared for outing myself, so I was dissatisfied with an incoherent response that probably raised more questions than answers.  Then, I moved on by briefly explaining my desire to make the classroom inclusive for trans* and gender non-conforming students, and then into covering the syllabus.

The Brave Act Of Asking?

In hindsight, it is quite telling that I experienced such nervousness about asking people the simple question — “what is your preferred pronoun?”  It is less scary to assume for everyone, and potentially erase or misgender trans* and gender non-conforming people.  That, to me, is a shame.  The sheer importance of actually asking recently became more apparent as news story after news story ignored Chelsea Manning’s (a soldier convicted of espionage this summer) self-defined gender identity and preferred pronoun of “she”/”her.”

The saving grace was, first, the sky did not fall and I was not unemployed by the end of the day.  The students did not scream at me, “you queer radical!”  And, no one left before the official end of class time.  Later, a student thanked me for asking, and confided in me that another student said, “wow, you know I never really thought about that.”  In that moment, I indicated to one student an effort to be welcoming and inclusive, and, to another student, I disrupted the taken-for-granted practice of sex categorizing.  I also put myself out there, at a minimum to students’ assumption that I am LGBT, but possibly that I am transgender or gender non-conforming.

This is a brave step up from what I have done in the past.  When I taught sexual diversity a few years ago, I would drop little hints about my background throughout the semester — that I am multiracial, that I am from the East Coast — but, mostly fairly inert details.  So, given the personal nature of the assignments for those classes, I let students devote one of their in-class quizzes to asking me something about myself.  There is usually a surprising mix, but most of them end up asking — “omg, tell us already — are you gay?”  I end up using that moment to bring them back to our lectures on queer theory, gender identity, and the social construction of sexual orientation to tease them with: “I’m queer.”  And, then explain that I identify as genderqueer, despite my typical masculine gender presentation, and that I acknowledge my attraction to masculinity not merely stereotypically male bodies.  Ah, yes — remember when we deconstructed the male/female binary, and the homo/hetero binary, and the distinction between sex and gender?

My treat to them was to share a picture of me in drag (actually, genderfuck).  I relish in their “wow!”s and pleased laughter.  But, I also feel at ease about baring my “true” identity because the have already completed their course evaluations.  To protect myself from professional harm, I allowed the students to assume week after week that I am cisgender of whatever sexual identity.  But, at the cost of keeping trans* and gender non-conforming people (even myself to an extent) invisible until it is professionally “safe.”

Pronouns

The Sacrifice

Now with a PhD, and a job that I have at least for seven years, I am pushing myself to be braver.  I am sacrificing what I may be mistakenly assuming is a delicate rapport with (more conservative) cisgender and heterosexual students to make my classroom inclusive.  Yes, it could very well mean a ding to my course evaluations.  I may even find awful, possibly homophobic and transphobic comments on RateMyProfessor.com in a year.  Frankly, I think it is worth it to push cisgender students, at least once in their entire lives, to answer the dreaded question, “what are you?!”, that trans* and gender non-conforming people face too often.

And, so far it has paid off.  On Week 2, a new student arrived as a late add to the class.  I welcomed the student.  And, another student interrupted me, “um, preferred pronoun?”  I had already assumed the new student’s name (that which was provided in the university records), and failed to ask for the pronoun the student preferred used in the class.  So, I had the students, once again, announce their preferred first name and pronoun.  This time, I was ready, and gave a more coherent response for my own — “he or she is fine.”  It is my hope of hopes that the students leave the class taking this practice, or at least knowing its importance, into other arenas in their lives.  I certainly have found it worth the anxiety and fear, so I will continue to do so in future classes — and, not just in my gender and sexuality classes!

Caveats

One concern that another professor raised was forcing students to out themselves.  Without asking for pronouns, trans* and gender non-conforming students can presumably go unnoticed in your class.  When you do ask, their turn comes and they are faced with the choice to out themselves or not.  And, no matter their answer, other students may make assumptions about them.  And, choosing not to provide a pronoun may also lead others to simply assume, “oh, they’re trans.”  I, too, worry about this.  But, as Ted pointed out, the other alternative is to gender them yourself.  At some point, you as the instructor, will likely provide an assumed pronoun and gender identity before the entire class — or, another student may do so, “yeah, I agree with her.”  Asking is at least one step closer toward respecting all students’ self-definition related to gender.

Why single out gender?  I could imagine someone might ask that self-definition should either be asking nothing of our students (and ourselves as instructors) or asking them to orally complete a demographic profile: and preferred race?  and preferred sexual identity?  It is important to note how frequently we rely on pronouns to refer to other people.  And, those pronouns are inherently gendered.  Repeatedly saying, “Eric said… and Eric did… and Ted asked Eric…”, feels more jarring (at least to the ear) than “ze said”, “he spoke on,” and “I saw her.”  We rarely reference race, income, or other social identities unless we are actually talking about them — unlike the pervasive use of gendered pronouns.

I note that I feel comfortable asking up to 20 students their preferred name and pronoun.  Now, thinking about professors at my graduate institution who taught classes of a few hundred students, I cannot imagine bothering to take attendance, nor outing myself or asking others to do so before hundreds of people.  So, the size of the class may influence how effectively this could be done, and really, whether you as the instructor feel comfortable doing so.

Although it may feel that this is easiest in the social sciences or humanities, especially in classes on gender and sexuality, I believe it can (and should) be implemented in every class.  But, it may prove more effective when a set of ground rules have been established for civil, respectful classroom discussion.  My gender and sexuality students may have been more amenable to this approach to teaching because we also spent time creating a list of ground rules — which included the use of “oops, ouch, educate” per one student’s suggestion.

As I noted, I am trying this out for the first time myself.  So, I hope to provide a follow up in a semester when I begin asking for preferred pronouns in each class (and maybe even meetings that I facilitate).

Additional Resources For Trans* and Gender Non-Conforming Students

  • “Preferred Gender Pronouns: For Faculty” [download]
  • Teaching Transgender”  by Tre Wentling, Elroi Windsor, Kristen Schilt, and Betsy Lucal.  2008.  Teaching Sociology 36: 49-57.
  • Trans 101” (Sylvia Rivera Law Project)

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.

An Update On My (Accessible, Inviting, and Less Impersonal) Office

Recently, I decided to “think out loud” (i.e., blog) about adopting a social justice informed approach to education.  Though I do not officially start at the University of Richmond until Aug. 1, and classes begin a few weeks later, I have been working in and on my new office.  I took suggestions for ways to decorate my office, which turned into a challenge to make the space more accessible and inviting.  Of course, I have to show you “before” and “after” pictures.

BEFORE

Before

The picture above features the initial setup.  As visitors come into my office, the first thing they would see is me behind a rather large desk.  I would hold meetings with students separated by the desk and the power that it conveys.  So, as I mentioned in the earlier post, my first change was to move the desk to take away its prominence in the office, hopefully downplaying the power-differential between my students and me.  But, I went beyond that, taking seriously the suggestions of my friends to make the office as accessible and warm as possible.

AFTER

New Office 1

and

New Office 2

Now, the floorspace in the middle of the office has been cleared, and now dons a cool looking area rug.  If I am at my desk, you will see my left side.  In the picture immediately above, you can see the cute little cafe table and chair set I bought at a thrift store.  I plan to hold my meetings here.  Physically, my visitor and I will be on equal ground.  There is no powerful desk between us, only a bronze colored cafe table.  Also in that corner of the office, I have added a small dry erase board (with a corkboard border), and a little table that features candies (the visible bowl) and safe sex items (i.e., condoms, dental dams, lube; in the bowl behind it).  The office now features a few posters, stickers, and magnets that make clear my commitment to social justice and, more importantly, to empowering my students to speak out against injustice (e.g., Audre Lorde: “Your silence will not protect you”).

Many of my colleagues have seen the new setup, and remarked that they liked it.  The true test will come as I begin meeting with students in the fall semester.  Stay tuned.