Tuesday, September 04, 2007


So I'm teaching, as I think I noted at some point a while back, a course that has some explicit material and that will perhaps challenge the values of some of my more conservative students in the class. Now, classes of this type, at other sorts of institutions, may tend to attract students who are not conservative at all - students who are exploring their own identities in such a way that they are positioning themselves outside of normative gender/sexual roles - but at my university, the subject matter doesn't necessarily inspire that sort of politically/socially identified enrollment. Students at my university are most likely to take a course because a) it fits into their schedule b) because they know/like the instructor or c) because somebody told them to take the course based on either their own experience with it or, more typically, their experience with the instructor.

We're now solidly underway with the course, and on the one hand I'm pleased with the students' commitment to the course thus far. On the other hand, I've got a handful who really don't seem to get that they need to interrogate the assumptions that they make about sexuality as they relate to normative sex/gender roles. For example I had a student say in class, without any awareness that such a comment might be perceived as offensive, that to see two men kissing is "gross." This was at the end of the class meeting, and so I didn't have time to respond at length. I responded with a bunch of questions for the class as a whole to think about for next time - questions about the construction of masculinity in relation to notions about who gets to function in culture as an object of desire, questions about whether students would be similarly bothered by the sight of two women kissing - and if not, why not - questions about why homosexuality or homoerotic representation might pose a threat to heteronormative, patriarchal culture.

I don't know whether what I did was enough. Part of me (a pretty big part) feels like it wasn't - like I should have more aggressively challenged the student's homophobic assumptions rather than posing a bunch of questions that will (I hope) get students there on their own. On the other hand, the student's comment is exactly the reason why I developed this course in the first place: the students at my university are often very sheltered and they really do not realize that such statements would be perceived as anything other than the "normal" reaction. I don't want to alienate those students who most need to be exposed to this stuff that is outside their frame of reference by shouting them down when they say offensive or homophobic things: I really want them to learn from this course and to think critically about their presuppositions, and I don't know how to make that happen without granting them the freedom to speak honestly, even if I find their honest responses disheartening (and even repugnant). What I'm thinking I'll do is to begin the next class with a bit stronger of a statement about approaching the texts of the course with an open mind and about thinking about how our comments about those texts might personally offend others in the course. But I don't know whether that really resolves the issue.


gwoertendyke said...

for what it's worth, i think you handled it appropriately given your potentially ill-informed/hostile audience. i've faced reactions similiar to "gross" many times in women's studies courses and the only thing i usually add is something like: "in this class, i want you to refrain from judging as much as possible, or rather, when your instinct is to say "gross," immediately work to explain/justify your response. be prepared to develop an argument and understand that i will argue against you." i also at this point (if i haven't already) usually say something like: "it is not my job as your professor to make you feel comfortable about your values/beliefs/ideas--it is my job to help you interrogate them. because college may be the last time in your life that somebody forces you to question them. and i take my job seriously."

sorry, long-winded response i just realized! my point is this: to me, you did well; opening up closed minds is a process that takes the duration of the semester. you don't want them to stop listening and feel like it's all dogma.

Hilaire said...

I agree with aw that you did the right thing; asking questions is ultimately going to get the most mileage in terms of combating homophobia. Because you're asking them to interrogate themseelves, and that is a lot more meaningful and less angry-making for them than (what they perceive as) shutting them down. I really do think that on some level we need to expose and work with the most base and horrid judgments people make, otherwise they're not going to go anywhere.

Yeah, I think it sounds like you handled it really, really well.

And: as I am in the middle of preparing my first Intro class for tomorrow on a similar subject, in a conservative environment, your post couldn't have come at a better time.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

I, too, think you handled this well. What if you followed up, at the beginning of the next class session, by having students do a quick-write or just have a discussion around the questions you posed at the end of class?

That would show your students, I think, that you're serious about wanting them to continue to think about their own reactions and to question those reactions. This reflective part, to me, is the key to getting students to change their ways of thinking.

The_Myth said...

A cautionary aside:

Be prepared to not be able to reach some of your students. Even after a semester of interrogation. Even after carefully warning them to open their minds and be respectful of others and all that.

In an advertising class, I showed an ad featuring a shirtless guy. The homophobes in the class turned this around and accused me of promoting homosexuality in class [as if that's a crime...]. Apparently, I traumatized them with this exercise...and I am left thinking they never watch late night infomercials [cuz there's a whole lot of shirtless guys in those exercise commercials].

My students seemed incapable of seeing that the ad was just fodder for a more important exercise. Thankfully, it sounds like the "uncomfortable material" you're using *IS* for the classroom exercise, so hopefully the discomforted will adapt...or withdraw.

Good luck!

Dr. Crazy said...

Thank you all for all of your comments. It really does make me feel better. I've also talked with BFF and with Grad School Best Friend about it, and I think that I have a better sense of how I'll handle things next class.

Myth: I *totally* know that I may not be able to reach them all, and I'm actually ok with that. I'm actually hoping, though, that those who are totally unreachable will drop. It's not that I think all will be totally open-minded at the end: it's more that if they're not willing to open up at *all* that I don't feel like the time that they spend in my class will be time well spent. This class is built around this theme, and they've all signed a contract to that effect. I think the reason that I've felt upset about what happened in class today is that I don't want others in class to feel shut down by the fact that I didn't call the student out immediately. From the comments here, and from the comments that I got from my RL friends, I don't feel like that happened. Also, another student (probably one of the most open-minded in the class) and I talked after the class about what had happened, and she didn't seem to think that I seemed welcoming to the "gross" comment, which made me feel better about it, too.

I suppose the thing is that I just want to be sure to be sensitive both to the closed-minded ones as well as to the open-minded ones, if that makes any sense. Ultimately, I think that it's *awesome* that I'm reaching students who aren't already open. It means that the work I'm doing may actually make some sort of a difference. That said, I don't think I'd really anticipated what this might actually look like in a real classroom situation. I think I'd assumed that students would be less forthcoming with their prejudices, or at least recognize their prejudices as prejudices, and so that leaves me feeling insecure in ways that I've not felt when teaching explicit material in less obvious situations.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I like Adjucnt Whore's suggestion: letting them know that it's your job to challenge them, and to encourage them to challenge themselves.

I like using follow-up questions (although that runs the risk of giving credence to ignorance) that make me sound like a three year-old: "Why?" If they can't justify their opinion, that's fine, but at least you're forcing them to question it.

Sisyphus said...

I think what you did was fine, and I probably would ask more questions and make them freewrite on it at the beginning of the next class.

I've also had luck with turning it around on them and getting them to feel what it's like being in the situation where other people say "gross" about something close to their identities. (this never works in a planned way, it just happens sometimes, when we've read something dismissive of and attacking a "mainstream" or "conservative" position.)

By the way, have you ever taught Nussbaum's article on thingification? (hopefully that's not too google-able).

life_of_a_fool said...

I agree with the others who think you handled this well. This is likely how I would have handled it (I like the follow up ideas as well, and I openly - to them, and to you - act like a three year old *all the time* in my classes).

One problem I have had at my current school (and never, to my knowledge, at other schools) is that some students do get *really* offended by the "gross"-type commenters and shut down. This sounds like your fear here. Occasionally they blame me (I think, and I do have a much higher tolerance for them - again, not without questioning it, but because I think these perspectives need to be aired) but more often, they just really can't deal with the contradictory opinions and hate other students, to the detriment of the class. I tend to think we need the people with close-, narrow-minded or ill-informed opinions to speak up, in order to challenge their thinking (especially when they have a really mainstream perspective that many share), and that we all need to respect their opinions, to a degree (though still question, argue against, etc.). But then I *also* need the better informed to challenge and/or correct them, so I need everyone to stay engaged.

This is all just a long way to say that I relate to your concerns, think you handled it well, and am still looking for that balance myself.

Fretful Porpentine said...

I agree with most of the other comments. A few years back, I was working as a tutor (a TA-type position), in a class where the instructor of record was one of the best freshman English teachers I've seen in action. (This class was part of a summer program at my graduate university, and the students in this program are, in some ways, very sheltered indeed -- and very not-sheltered in others, since most of them have experienced poverty and racism firsthand.)

Anyway, a situation very much like the one you've described came up, and the instructor handled it exactly the way you did -- asked a few provocative questions and let them talk it out among themselves. I admired the way he handled it (I'm not sure I would have been able to do that), and his approach did, I think, bear fruit over the rest of the summer, as the students started to listen to the more mature voices among their peers.

krisluvswool said...

I would say that in my limited experience thus far I think you definitely did the right thing. Making them reach the conclusion themselves-- or at least hearing other students make the conclusion in class when you discuss their responses if they didn't get there-- allows them the chance to think about it before they shut down completely, which is always a risk when you confront the behavior head on in class.

I think talking about the inappropriateness of the ew gross next meeting might also allow for the student to get away with anonymity and not feeling like he/she was singled out for that qualification on classroom behavior.

Oso Raro said...

But it is GROSS! Icky poo poo! LOL Now let's watch more objectification of women in bikinis!!!

hehe, couldn't resist.

Nels P. Highberg said...

You know, there are some men i my past who taught me that two men kissing can be gross. The guy with the swirly tongue, the guy with a saliva waterfall in his mouth. Gross!

Thank god I married a man who knows what he's doing in that department.

Dr. Crazy said...

In that regard, Nels, it can be totally gross for a woman and a man to be kissing. EEWWWWW! Wipe the swirly tongue from my consciousness! Again, I say, EEEEWWWW!