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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I suppose my work here is done :)