Sunday, May 11, 2008

Sex and the Classroom

As I think I mentioned in another post, I've been reading the Chronicle Forums a lot lately (not sure what's inspired this), but this recent thread has been of special interest to me, as I teach stuff that makes students "uncomfortable." The initial post was an exasperated one (as most of them are) in the "In the Classroom" forum, in which a professor complained of students who want alternate assignments because of sex/violence depicted in the films that he/she (hu?) screens in class. The thread then careened wildly into the territory of "no students should ever feel uncomfortable for any reason" vs. "academic freedom! uncomfortable students should go to Bob Jones University!"

So why am I posting about this? Well, it's because I teach novels and films and even poems that feature sex and violence (and drugs and rock and roll). I also teach in a very conservative area (notoriously so) and my student population tends to feature a lot of conservative Christians (protestant) and devout Catholics. And while my evaluations have suffered because I'm a feminist, or because I grade "too hard" for students' tastes, I'll note that when it comes to the actual material that I teach.... well, they seem to be able to hang, even if it makes them "uncomfortable." I've never had a student ask for an alternate assignment (though I'm sure it is possible one would, and I did have one veer toward asking for such), and I've never had a student complain about what I assign (including a novel in which a character forces his lover to piss himself and then fucks him in the puddle of his lover's urine; including a play in which oral sex is simulated on stage and in which pedophilia is enacted, including the movie Fight Club which features the image of penis and LOADS of violence, including Brokeback Mountain where men actually - dare I say it - kiss) to a higher-up (although I'm sure that could happen, too). So have I just been lucky?

Well, maybe. But I think there's more to it than that. So I thought I might post about how I manage the fact that the material to which I gravitate tends to be graphic (in lots of ways), that this material is what I often teach, and that I teach students who often are pretty, well, innocent.

First, before I get into practical things that I do, let me note: I think that I have a lot more room to teach what I do because I'm a woman. And I'm a non-threatening straight woman. Identity politics play a role here, and I feel like a male professor, or a butch lesbian professor, would get a lot more shit for stuff that I do without thinking twice.

That caveat in place, how do I approach "sensitive" material?

  1. I give students fair warning. On the first day of class, I go over the material we'll read/view, and I note stuff that might make them squeamish. I also remind them of what to expect in the class immediately preceding a provocative assignment. In one class I teach that features controversial material almost exclusively, I actually include a statement that I have them sign with the syllabus. The contract reads as follows:

    I have read the syllabus for [course], and I understand that the texts in this course will explore and represent the full range of human sexual experience. I understand that the content of course materials may be explicit, and that the ideas and concepts covered in the course may challenge my own personal beliefs. In enrolling in this course, I pledge to approach the content of the course critically and with appropriate seriousness, even if I find some of that content disturbing or shocking. Further, I understand that members of the class will have different opinions, perspectives, and ways to approach questions that arise from course content. As colleagues in the course, we each have the responsibility to treat each other with civility and respect without sacrificing the intellectual rigor with which we critique each others’ ideas. If I am unable to meet these basic requirements, I understand that I will be asked to drop the course.

  2. I think it's important to give students fair warning, not only because they should know what they're getting into with any course but also because I think the whole "alternate assignment" thing is bullshit. The deal is this: if you take this class, you've got to take it. This isn't about me forcing my "beliefs" on my students - hell, I'm uncomfortable periodically in the class that I teach with the contract - but rather because that's what the class is about. The classes in which I teach provocative material are either not the only section of the course or they can be substituted with another course. If I was teaching the one and only section of a course that fulfilled a requirement, which couldn't be substituted with another course, I might feel differently. But given the fact that my students have options, I feel like if they choose Option Crazy, they've got to hang. I mean, I'm teaching what I'm teaching for a reason. No alternate assignment would give them the same thing.
  3. But so since I refuse the whole "alternate assignment" route, how do I negotiate student discomfort? Well, I make it very clear, throughout the semester, that my aim is not to change their morals or beliefs. I welcome dissenting views. I just expect that dissent is respectful. So, for example, if a student is uncomfortable with representations of homosexuality, that's ok, but they've got to go deeper than "that's wrong." They can say, "I believe that this is wrong, but what makes me uncomfortable about it is X." That starts a conversation. There's nothing wrong with being uncomfortable. In fact, it's often necessary. The issue is if one can't get beyond one's discomfort to think in a critical way. That's all I'm looking for. I'm not looking to make students into something they're not: I'm just looking to make them more open to thinking about stuff that makes them uncomfortable.
  4. Right along with that, though, is the need, before they ever see something really shocking, to set a tone of seriousness. You can do this in a lot of ways. In one class I start with scholarly articles. In others I'll start with discussions of form and how form and content are interrelated. The point is, I abstract the shocking stuff, either through an aesthetic approach or with an approach that is heavily theoretical. The point in many ways is to give them the tools to intellectualize - not to react emotionally. Yes, they'll still have emotional reactions, but they need to be able to translate those into academic discourse. If you don't give them those tools up front, then they freak out.
  5. I also think it's important that I ultimately and fundamentally believe that my students can handle things that challenge them. What does that have to do with it, you say? I'd say loads. If they think that you think they can't hang, they won't. As the professor, you set the tone. You tell them the expectation. Sure, you've got to explain why it matters; sure, you've got to make a case for stuff that is provocative. They deserve that. But if you make a solid case, and you have confidence in them that they will go with the program, in my experience, they do. Without fuss. It's when you lack faith in them that they challenge you. That they don't trust you, because you don't trust them. And yes, this is about trust, because if they don't trust that you're not trying to "convert" them to some sordid lifestyle or that you have a good reason for teaching this material, all is lost. And no, it's not enough that you stuck it on the syllabus. That's not enough for them to trust you. Not at all.
So those are my thoughts on teaching provocative material in the classroom. I'll note, I was shocked this semester when a good number of my students in the contract class listed the novel in which the fucking in urine scene happens as their absolute favorite of the semester. It's a really good story, they said, and one they'd never have read if they'd not taken my class. Yep, I've convinced a bunch of straight, Christian, conservative students that this is a great novel.

I suppose my work here is done :)


Pennythrower said...

WOW. That's incredible. It sounds like a wonderful way to get them to open up and to respond to provocative texts. I wanna take that class! :)

Clio Bluestocking said...

This is great! Thank you for posting it. I recently had a bit of a problem along these lines in a class and I've had one or two comments in past years. Something formal like the contract that you mention is an excellent way of both warning the students and of moving them toward an attitude that education is not about adding information to what they already know and beleive, but challenging what they already know and beleive.

Flavia said...

This is really great. A colleague and I have been talking about another of our colleagues--a self-proclaimed radical--who continually asserts that our students "can't handle" the kind of stuff he wants to teach. My friend and I are baffled by that, because we (who admittedly don't teach relentlessly controversial stuff, but certainly deal frankly with sex and sexuality and violence in certain texts) have *never* felt that our students are particularly conservative or easily shocked.

We've gradually come to the conclusion that you have, here: that our mutual colleague just *assumes* our students can't handle it, and so doesn't teach gender/sexuality unless it's in a warm, fuzzy, let's-talk-about-our-feelings way in a class that he's hand-picked.

I'm absolutely going to use some of your ideas in the future!

Bardiac said...

This sounds like a great way to handle things.

I've only ever had a problem once; a student didn't want to read/talk about *Edward II* because it represents male-male desire. But she had no problem with *Titus* with its rapes, mutilations, murders, and cannibalism.

Most of my students really do a good job thinking about the texts they find difficult. And the ones that don't haven't done the reading, probably. :(

Second Line said...

I do something close to what you do Dr. C. I include a long disclaimer in the syllabus, which explains that the course will include any number of controversial subjects, including sexuality. But I've never asked them to sign anything. That's a new rub.

So for an ironic anecdote. There's a novel I routinely teach that includes a very graphic anal sex scene. I've never had anyone complain or even express discomfort -- and that includes the time I forgot to warn them that a "disturbing scene is coming up." Nope, the one that students have expressed some complaint over is August Wilson and his repeated use of the "N" word in his plays.

Go figure.

Zach said...

As a frosh in college I took a class entitled "Queer Kids." It turned out to be the same course the professor has taught at a previous college, then titled "Kids who Kill." Had I signed up for "Kids who Kill," perhaps I would have been more prepared for the film selections. After the first required movie screening, "Heavenly Creatures," with no warning of the violence we were about to watch...I dropped the class.
Maybe it could have been a good class, I don't know. I do know that my experience of that class has made me much more sympathetic to students who tell me they are aving a hard time with the content of any class, even if I fiercely believe in the material's importance.

Dr. Crazy said...

Just to be clear, I actually have a lot of sympathy for students who will potentially feel uncomfortable, which is one of the reasons why I'm so vigilant about being very transparent about the material and the point of it in advance of them looking at it. I should note that the course with the most consistently racy content is an upper-level course, I do a flyer that clearly indicates what they can expect even before they enroll (and the course title is much clearer in everyday language than "Queer Kids" in terms of telling them what to expect), and students have a lot of choice in terms of paper topics, etc. In other words, it's entirely possible for students to do only a minimal amount of graded work on texts that they find most troubling, which I think is important. I suppose the point is that I really believe it's important to be exposed to stuff that challenges us, but I don't think that it's fair to expect that one will get over one's long-held feelings about certain kinds of identities/acts/texts in one semester.

Another issue that this brings to mind is the issue that you enrolled in the course you describe as a freshman. I only teach one course open to freshmen that includes racy material (and it's usually populated by freshmen through seniors), and in contrast to the upper level course, I ease them into the racy stuff by starting with highly canonical texts/poetry. By the time we get to the more challenging material, they've got a vocabulary for thinking and talking about literature and representation, so there's much less discomfort than if I launched right into the most provocative stuff on the syllabus.

I suppose my point is that it's possible to be sympathetic to student concerns while at the same time not shying away from potentially provocative content or interpretations, even with a very conservative student body. The point is about giving them a safe space to explore the discomfort, not to ignore the discomfort or to eliminate it.

I'd also argue that one of my points is to show them that even the most "traditional" texts can make us very uncomfortable, and that's one of the things that artistic texts (novels, film, paintings, whatever) do at a very basic level. They challenge us and make us see the world in a way that is outside of our comfortable, everyday experience.

Dr. Crazy said...

I do the contract thing just because it adds a level of accountability and seriousness, and it ensures that they read the syllabus. I should also note that I encourage students who have questions before signing the contract to ask those questions - either in class or privately. What's funny is that the only questions I've gotten so far are not about the material (again, I give a pretty full explanation) but rather about being concerned that they don't know enough not to offend somebody. So typically with the contract I spend a lot of time talking about respect and how I expect that to work in a class when people come in with varying levels of comfort/knowledge about the topic.

Another bonus of the contract is that if a student later decides that he/she was duped in some way, I've got something that proves they weren't. It's more legalistic than I'd like, but I was very apprehensive when I developed this course and so went with the idea. (By the way, I got the idea from a prof. for whom I'd TA'd as a grad student, who used a similar contract in his course.) The contract itself is fairly meaningless, but again, it sets a tone, and it opens up a dialog that I find the just handing out a syllabus doesn't.

Shaun Huston said...

I suspect that addressing these issues is easier when graphic material is an integral part of what one teaches. In my case, it pops up more sporadically, and is rarely at the center of what I'm trying to discuss. This year I am teaching sections of course that I had taken a break from for two years, and am reinventing it as I go along. For one section, I found myself introducing reproductions of paintings and photos featuring full or almost full frontal male and female nudity. It made sense within the context of the class, but for both the general and specific reasons noted above, I hadn't given myself a chance to set this up for students. In the end I decided to simply rely on your fifth point in the original post:

"I also think it's important that I ultimately and fundamentally believe that my students can handle things that challenge them."

And they were fine. However, this is a small honors section of a course that would otherwise be 35-50. I've had one really bad experience in one of my film courses and a highly immature clique of students who got very excited about sex and violence, even of a relatively brief and mild nature. It simply did not occur to me that I would need to take extra steps, like your contract, to pre-empt problems with these issues. Which, I guess, goes back to the experience thing.

Miriam said...

I rarely have this problem--one of the advantages of being a Victorianist, I guess :)--but this semester, I was teaching a couple of films that featured some moderately graphic scary stuff. After going back & forth for a bit, I decided that it was better to spoil things a bit than to risk seriously upsetting any squeamish students. I wound up giving them some "at point X, you may want to look down at your desk, because icky thing Y will occur" warnings, and this seemed to work. I also told them that I can't watch full-blown horror films myself, so anything I showed in class was something I was capable of watching without trauma! This amused them, but I think it also made it clear that I wasn't going to think anyone's concerns were silly.

Anne said...

Great post--I've passed it along to a friend who's been struggling with these issues. Your judgment and generosity is really wonderful, here, Dr. C.

Btw, what's the urine-fucking novel, anyway? Will you share?

Joel said...

Out of curiosity, what was the novel you discussed in your blog entry? The novel with the graphic sex scene, and urination. I am truly curious who wrote that book, and how that scene relates to the subject matter of the novel.

If you would like, you can email me the answer and