Wednesday, March 05, 2008

On Bringing Sexy to the Masses

Now, Dr. Crazy is no Justin Timberlake, and thus the masses whom she reaches are obviously not a very large number. But in thinking about two different professorial situations in which I've, well, professed, recently, I'm thinking about how my intellectual interests shape those things about which I profess, and how I've managed to negotiate what at first might seem quite difficult terrain to negotiate in the culture of my current place.

I'm decidedly not talking about the work that I do in my scholarship here (though I suppose I bring the sexy there, too, which is why I end up having to bring it in the non-scholarly situations) nor am I talking about conversations that I have with other academics. Within academia, the sexy is, well, sexy. The sexy is a bit more problematic when one leaves the hallowed halls of academe, for things like giving a talk to the community, or when, even within those hallowed halls, one attempts to bring the sexy to a pretty conservative population of students. What seems pretty tame in a conversation within academic circles becomes potentially more fraught as one leaves the comfort zone of those circles.

I got a sense of this early on when I would try to describe my work to my family and non-academic friends when I was in graduate school. I mean, obviously they are proud of me and they think whatever I do is great, etc., but when I've actually discussed the content of my work, well, eyebrows have raised. I do think, though, that having to put my work into a context for them that was non-threatening has helped to enable me to do the same thing in the "professing" parts of my job. Because for the uninitiated? What I want people to think about - what I think about - can be pretty threatening on the first pass.

And unless one is preaching to an already initiated choir, I find that making this stuff seem non-threatening, making it less scary, has a heck of a lot of value.

To make this material non-threatening is not about letting my audience remain comfortable. Learning means being a little uncomfortable. If one isn't a little uncomfortable, one isn't learning anything. One isn't stretching.

But how do you get people to stretch when their ideas are pretty firmly entrenched, and when that entrenchment is linked to deeply held moral beliefs? Well, I believe that the one professing has to make it seem safe to stretch. Has to make it seem that one has absolutely no agenda, as much as is possible.

Words that the uninitiated frequently use to describe the texts that hold my attention and that I try to introduce to them: vulgar, pornographic, immoral, filthy, disgusting, gross, wrong, disturbing.

Now, I don't ban these words. My only rule (in my courses) is that they have to think about why they respond that way and find a way to articulate that response. Obviously I can't ban these words, nor can I even require them to be thoughtful when they use them, in a non-teaching situation, but I typically respond with a two-pronged approach in which I provide critical context and also ask a bunch of leading questions. Notice: I don't freak out on them (even if what they are saying is incredibly bigoted and even if it upsets me a lot on the inside).

For me, bringing the sexy depends on me being able to lure them into thinking more deeply. And the lure can be through shock ("We're going to read something that won't look like anything you've ever seen before and that you may really dislike"), through humor ( check these links out, for example), through choosing texts with which they will identify in spite of their preconceived notions.

And it's a long, slow process. And it's only after that process has had time to work its magic a bit that I start to see results. All of a sudden (seemingly) something clicks into place. And all of a sudden, I've got a student who came in really resistant writing in a reaction paper that for the first time he felt like he could understand an emotion from a particular subject position that he'd pretty much discounted as aberrant. Or I've got a little old lady saying that she didn't think that the "racy" bits in a book were all that racy. All of a sudden, I see transformation.

And not because I've got an agenda, but because that's the magic that the material works on them, when they have some time to sit with it and to think about it, and when I facilitate that enterprise. And that's the value in bringing the sexy. The value is in watching that something click into place, seemingly of its own accord. The value is that even if students don't totally change their minds, all of a sudden they're willing to consider the possibility that others aren't of the same mind. The value is that the people whom I encounter who aren't my students come away feeling like they really got something out of that event that they attended, that they enjoyed the context I provided for them but also that it made them see the book, and the issues it described, in a new way.

And so when I think about attacks against academics promoting a "liberal" agenda, I often think that the people who make them are clueless. Because I think if I did that, nobody would respond. Or they'd respond really negatively. And then I think about more activist approaches, and I also think that those don't reflect what goes on in my world, because if I were promoting an activist agenda in an overt way, I'm not sure I'd reach anybody. I think teaching is about changing the way that people think. Not because you tell them that how they think is wrong, but because you give them the tools for thinking in more expansive ways. And you know? That's what's most rewarding about teaching for me. Expanding how the people whom I encounter think. It's not about changing their minds, or about making them see what's wrong about what they thought before. It's about allowing them the space in which to think about their beliefs and about facilitating them toward imagining a wider perspective than they originally thought was possible.

And so, over the past week, I've thought a lot about how good the work that I'm doing is. And I've thought a lot about how important it is, and about how important it is that I don't push a particular agenda in trying to do that work. Because you know what? If they are the slightest bit open? They come to a broader perspective under their own steam. And this is awesome.


k8 said...

Sounds like the class is going well! I love it when students react to materials in ways they never would have expected. Of course, now I'm dying to know what they are reading.

Anonymous said...

i have thoughts on this but I think I'll blog the response rather than ramble in your comment box.