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Me performing hoopdance at GenCon 2015. In this moment I’m more focused on flow than tech.

I’ve been struggling with finding my way in the flow arts since I began, roughly five years ago. This post is for both outsiders and insiders to this community, to explain two of the key concepts that permeate it, but are also found elsewhere in life and culture.

I define the flow arts as pursuits that are both creative and physical involving a combination of prop manipulation and dance. So, examples of the flow arts would be hula hooping, poi or staff spinning, juggling, and dancing with any of the above lit on fire. There are tons more props than I could list here, and there are about as many ways to engage with the flow arts as there are people who do it. Some folks use it as meditation, others as exercise. Some do it to perform, others teach, and still others do it at home for fun.

One of the concepts in the community that gets a lot of attention is the flow state. Richard Hartnell explains it beautifully in this video, but basically it’s a state of effortless engagement, where time melts away and you’re immersed in the experience. While practicing the flow arts provides an effective portal to the flow state, most people have experienced it while doing other things, such as cooking, playing an instrument, or any number of activities where you’re somewhat competent but also challenged.

We use “flow” to mean something else in the flow arts community: the experience of not only being in the flow state, but also engaging with your prop in a way that, well, flows. Flowing with your prop means dancing with it, playing with it, not pausing to redo a move you fumbled, because perfection isn’t the aim. Being in the flow is. Describing a flow artist as “flowy” or complimenting their “flow” is usually a positive thing. Flowy prop manipulation is beautiful to watch. I like this fire contact staff performance by Linda Farkas as an example of a flowy dance.

In contrast, we have the concept of “tech,” short for technique. Tech has connotations of endless drilling, trying to perfect a move or sequence or combo, going for things that incorporate ever-more-complicated planes and geometry. Describing someone’s prop manipulation as “techy” means that they’re at their top of their game when it comes to controlling their prop, or at least moving in that direction. It says little of their ability to dance or get in flow, though most well-rounded flow arts folks (or “flowks” as we’ll say colloquially) don’t just focus on tech in their training. As an example of a more tech-oriented performance, check out this fire contact staff routine by Aileen Lawlor.

I like to pair these performances when I teach about the flow arts in a college setting (as I did when teaching a class on Dance, Gender, and the Body a few semesters ago) because they involve the same exact prop, handled in very different ways. Both performers obviously incorporated both tech and flow; a performance that was all tech but no flow might be graceless and boring to watch, while a performance that was all flow but no tech would probably be based solely on the performer’s subjective experience, and maybe even clumsy.

In my home dance form, belly dance, we don’t use this terminology as much, but the ideas are there: some dancers focus more on technique and nailing individual moves, while others are more emotionally involved and expressive. As always, it’s about finding a balance, which is something I’m constantly working on.

There are a lot of ways to discuss flow and tech: as opposites, as the end points on a spectrum, as complementary aspects of the practice and drilling we all should be doing. I’ll wrap up this blog post here, as I wanted to lay the ground work for what I’ll discuss in my next post, about how this impacts my personal dance and performance practice.

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F is for Folklore! (not really; this is an illustration from an 1899 edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, now in public domain)

Despite the distance I’ve created between myself and institutional academia (explained in my I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore series), I’m still glad that my academic background is in folklore studies. Yeah, it’d be nice if my many professors and the disciplinary leaders in academic folklore studies had been more realistic about the utter lack of jobs, since 2-3 tenure-track positions a year does not a robust job market make. However, I don’t regret going into folklore studies, since it’s shaped my worldview in a number of beneficial ways.

First, studying folklore gives us a unique vantage point upon the world. IU folklorist Warren Roberts once said, “Ninety-five percent of the population has been left out of the history books.” By this, he meant that the historical record skews heavily toward people who make up a small portion of the population: royalty, nobles, war leaders, and religious leaders (mostly cis-gendered heterosexual Christian white men, imagine that). In studying folklore, however, we lift our eyes from written records to peer out into the vast human landscape that exists in oral tradition, in customs, and in material culture.

Next, studying folklore connects me with everyone. Every single human interacts with folklore, whether you think of it in those terms or not. Everybody uses dialect and proverbs; everybody recognizes jokes and legends, even if you don’t perform them. Everyone has been exposed to holiday customs, folk music, and family or occupational folklore. Everyone makes body art and adornment choices, and partakes in traditional foods. Now, this also leads to the problem wherein people think that because they know folklore, that also means they know about folklore in an analytical sense. That’s annoying, but the commonality of folklore remains: in any brief conversation with anyone, I can draw out a connection with folklore, and thereby have something to talk about with them. This is awesome in its own right, plus it saves me from having to make small talk. I loathe small talk.

Related to that last point, folklore gives us insights into group identity that are unique. Because folklore is traditional, informal culture, it thrives in group atmospheres. One person doing something in isolation isn’t necessarily interesting to a folklorist, though it might be interesting to someone who studies literature, fine arts, or music. But because we’re studying communally-practiced traditions, we’re automatically latching onto group dynamics. Folklore exists at the tension where innovation and tradition meet, and is thus responsive both to social change (dynamism) and the tendency to cling to the status quo (conservatism). Every group experiences these opposing forces, and every group deals with it differently. For this reason, studying folklore helps me understand my favorite dance form, American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, with greater nuance.

Folklore also gives us direct insight into what is relevant to people. This is why I’m not that excited about studying the origins of folklore; origins only tell us about when folklore started, not necessarily why it remains relevant. As my colleague Lynne McNeill writes in her book Folklore Rules, “if folklore is currently circulating, it must be important” (34, italics in original). Discerning why a piece of folklore is relevant enough to be transmitted takes a bit of interpretation, but once you know how to do that kind of analysis, it means you can look at folklore in its cultural context and learn about what people care about. It’s pretty neat.

The final point I’d like to make is that in studying folklore, we’re attuned to people’s life experiences and expressive forms on their own terms. When we go into a community to do fieldwork, we don’t arrogantly presume that we know The Truth about everything, and act like we’re just there to document some quaint traditions. That would be the height of arrogance. Instead, we’re trained to listen, respect, and respond with validation. This is not something I see a lot of in the academy. I see scholars filtering their subjects’ experiences through a lens that distorts those people’s experiences, implying that they couldn’t possibly know what’s going on in their own lives.* I find that tacky at best, and violent at worst. I’m much happier taking the view that people are rational, wise, and knowledgeable about their own lives, and that the role of the scholar is not necessarily to disprove what people think about themselves, but rather to listen and learn.

Okay, here’s the actual final point: it’s fun. Y’all, I get to study fairy tales! We have our own rigorous methods, and being a good folklorist (and specifically a good fairy-tale scholar) involves a LOT of reading and study. So it’s not all fun and games, nor is all folklore based on happiness, rainbows, and puppy dogs. But at the end of the day, I love the subject matter, and that makes it feel less like work.

Studying folklore has brought immense benefits to my life. Ruth Benedict, who was active in folklore and anthropology in the mid-20th century, once said, “We cannot see the lens through which we look.” Benedict was referring to culture, and how we have trouble identifying the worldview with which we’ve been socialized, since it conditions everything we see. But we all have many lenses, since we participate in many cultures and groups. Academic culture also counts here, and while I have many problems with the academic enculturation I received in grad school, I’m pretty happy with the lens folklore has given me.


*I’ve got another blog post or two brewing about this, but I see it quite often in medical and psychological scholarship on people who “deviate” from the norm, such as sex workers, transgender people, and, in the past, people who experienced same-sex or bisexual attraction. Why is it impossible to trust these folks’ perspectives on their own lives?

Me performing at Tribal Revolution, June 2015. Photo by Carrie Meyer.

I attended the Woodhull Summit on Sexual Freedom last weekend, and while there, took part in an excellent workshop on shame led by sex educator Charlie Glickman. As I was taking notes and live-tweeting as much of Glickman’s fantastic content as I could, I began to notice some points of overlap between shame resilience techniques and the way I teach dance.

The first point of overlap is that when we’re talking about shame, we can discuss not only what it is and how it feels, but also how it looks on the physical body. Glickman defines shame as the sense that one is a bad person, and that shaming oneself or others is often destructive, but it can also lead to positive outcomes, such as giving one an incentive to not do certain unhealthy things again. Yet the discussion of shame can go much deeper than emotion & reaction; we can also talk about the physical behaviors that embody shame.

This is where it gets really interesting to me, since I’m a huge fan of discussing embodiment. According to Glickman’s research, shame gets embodied through:

  • Looking away or breaking eye contact
  • Physical disconnection
  • Closing off one’s heart or slouching
  • Silence

If anyone has seen Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about posture, you’ll know that she basically substantiated through research a correlative relationship between posture and performance. People who hold confident “power postures” perform better on all sorts of tests and by all kinds of measures, and people who do the opposite do worse. The lower-confidence, less-powerful postures all align with shame embodied states.

This is where teaching belly dance comes in. Specifically, I teach American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, wherein posture is supremely important. We borrow a lot from flamenco, which accounts for some of our uplifted posture, and ultimately, much of the dance form’s overall aesthetic emphasizes lifted lines, which you can see in the photo of me performing that’s at the top of this blog post. By merely teaching this dance form, and by constantly reminding my students to maintain their posture, I’m helping them with a small mental hack to improve their emotional states. It might be a tiny thing in the context of their lives, and I don’t have peer-reviewed research to back this up, but I believe that I’m doing something to combat shame-induced posture and thereby contributing a little bit of positivity to my dance students’ lives.

The second point of overlap has to do with my teaching practices. There are a number of things that feed shame, such as unspoken rules, bigotry, and unhealthy hierarchy. Guess which things I don’t allow in my dance classes? I make all of my classroom rules explicit, and I do so with gentle humor, like when I correct someone’s “I can’t!”speech to a phrase of “I can’t…yet.” (example: “I can’t shimmy!” “If you’re going to say ‘I can’t’ remember to throw a ‘yet’ in there, so you can’t shimmy yet, but you will.”) I don’t let my students get away with body-shaming statements, even when they sound completely innocuous because they’re so dang common in our culture. I encourage an open learning environment by constantly asking if they have questions, and always making it safe to ask, or to take time for self-care, or really, anything they need.

It might sound like I run a loosey-goosey dance class but believe me, my dance students learn. They drill. They achieve really wonderful things. I try to tell them how proud I am of them, in blog posts like this one and in person.

I’ve felt shame in the dance classroom before, and it’s no fun. I try to structure my dance classes in such a way that my students will rarely go to that place, and if they do, hopefully we can work through it together to get somewhere useful. As Glickman noted in his presentation, not all shame is bad; it can be an adaptive response, depending on how you handle it and what you draw from the experience of it. It’s my hope that if shame ever surfaces in my dance classroom, we’ll work with it and through it together.

The final point I’d like to make is that shame is about disconnection, and its opposites (love, growth, healing, and community) are about connection, emotional and otherwise. My teaching style encourages a sense of trust in the dance classroom: in fellow students, in me, and in the wonderful improvisational dance language we practice together. In a broad sense, my hope is that by teaching a style of dance that gently pushes students into connecting with one another through eye contact and trust (because as a follower you have to trust the leader giving the cues for the next move, and when you lead, you have to trust the followers to be synced up with you), I’m paving the way for connection rather than disconnection, for empathy and love rather than shame.

I know that the sense of connection I found through tribal dance has benefited me in innumerable ways, including saving my life during a rough patch. This discussion of shame vs. connection is still a little abstract, and again, I don’t have empirical studies to back me up here. But when I see my dance students returning session after session and sticking with the style, I see them blossoming and incrementally becoming more trusting of each other when they dance, and more confident in general.

Sometimes people remark on how I do such disparate things in my life – writing, folklore, sex education, dance – and this is one example of how everything ties together. I went to a sexual freedom conference, attended a fantastic panel on shame, and realized that my dance teaching style is implicitly geared toward removing shame from the dance classroom in order to foster connection, confidence, and caring. How cool is that?!

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Me, during grad school, performing at the local roller derby.

Me, during grad school, performing at the local roller derby, with my fantastic troupemates at the time.

I had a couple of rough patches in grad school.

There were a few semesters during which I was in a relationship that’d gone bad, and a living situation that’d gone bad, and my coursework wasn’t doing so great either. I’d hold my act together during the week, and once a day on weekends, drive to dance practice, where I would sit, clutching a coffee mug, sobbing, until it was time to dance.

I’m naturally prone to anxiety, and in certain circumstances that can develop into depression. This chunk of grad school was one of those times, and aside from being in and out of therapy, I wasn’t sure what would help. Dance did.

Aside from the physiological benefits of exercise, which help reduce stress and all that, I found in dancing a solace that ushered me through that difficult time. Simply knowing that I would spend a few hours with people who cared about me (the sentiment went both ways) went a long way toward helping my mental and emotional health. The creative and expressive aspects of the dance certainly helped, too; I could utilize muscle isolations and arm undulations and spins and turns to dance out what I was feeling, to emote and in turn process my emotions.

Being able to spend time with the group of women in that dance troupe, doing the strange but fun dancing we favored, did tons for my mental health. And I don’t know that it would’ve been the same if I’d done another style of dance.

If I’d been doing ballet, the body image issues that’ve plagued me my whole life probably would’ve been prominent enough to pile onto my existing problems (yes, I feel good about my body now, but you try growing up in Los Angeles as a girl with some curves and see how you do). I don’t know that modern dance would’ve offered the cohesiveness of style that drew me to belly dance, and kept me interested for half my life. And so on with the other dance styles that are out there – none of them speak to me, resonate with me, as much as belly dance does. The main style I do, American Tribal Style®, focuses on group improvisation and is intellectually fascinating as well as creatively engaging. How could I not love it?

To borrow a concept, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi explains the concept of the flow state as that perfect balance of being competent and being challenged at a given task. You’re not bored, but you’re also not frustrated. Due to what makes me “me” as well as inherent aspects of the dance itself, belly dance has been able to help me transcend into a flow state for the better part of a decade. And when you’re in a flow state (or when I am, at least), I know that I am blissfully, mindlessly absorbed in that given activity. Minutes or hours spent in that carefree state can make me feel ecstatic, perfect, loved, wonderful, wondrous.

My depression during that time was bad; it could’ve been worse, but it was bad. Having access to this particular dance, and this particular dance community, improved my life immeasurably. I’m not sure what I would’ve done without it.

Saying that belly dance saved my life might sound hyperbolic, but that’s how it felt at the time. I wouldn’t be the same person I am today without belly dancing. And I’m okay with that – it’s been an undoubtedly positive influence in my life where other influences (relationships, academia, anxiety) have been ambivalent if not outright toxic. As such, I’m glad that I get to teach it, perform it, and immerse myself in it.

So, shout-out to the ladies of Different Drummer Belly Dancers who were my troupemates then, and the wonderful women of Indy Tribal, who are my troupemates now. My life is richer because of you all.

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Dressed for the academic classroom, posed in front of my voluminous bookshelves.

I’ve had this website for a few years now, and the tagline at the top of the site has always been: “Jeana Jorgensen, PhD. Folklorist, Writer, Dancer.”

Now that’s changed.

The three main words haven’t changed. I may not be seeking full-time employment in academia anymore, but I haven’t stopped being a folklore scholar. In fact, just last month I attended a small working symposium on digital trends in fairy-tale scholarship. I’m a little cranky (to put it mildly) in the general direction of academia right now… but being a folklorist is too ingrained into my identity for me to ever give up identifying as such. It influences how I understand the world around me, how I learn, and how I teach.

Similarly, I’ve been dancing for over half my life, and I plan to dance for the rest of it. I now direct a professional troupe, Indy Tribal, and I’ve learned tons from my students about trust and teaching. Dance is somewhere between a hobby that pays for itself (YAY) and an all-consuming passion, and as such it’s an essential part of my identity.

I’ve grappled more with the title of “writer” than the previous two. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in 4th grade, but I gave up writing fiction and poetry (my primary two loves) in favor of nailing nonfiction skills in grad school. And it worked. I wrote and published a lot. Recently, though, I’ve been getting back into the idea of writing more for pleasure, and returning to some of my early ideas about writing. But no matter what I’m writing, or for which audience, writing has been a constant in my life. I write for myself in the form of journals; I write for various blogs; I write endless to-do lists; I write scholarly articles. It’s a part of me at this point.

Now, however, I’m adding the tagline of (Sex) Educator to this website. I have a separate site devoted to my sex education work, but I want this site, which is my main web presence, to reflect that this is a part of my identity too.

See, I didn’t set out to become an educator of any sort, let alone a sex educator, but it’s evolved into a huge part of my identity, and it’s time I recognized that.

I’ve become a person who will have a conversation about rape culture with just about anyone, in the hopes that even though it’s an emotionally fatiguing topic, maybe someone will reach a new understanding of it. I’ve decided to keep adjuncting in large part because even though it’s exploitative labor, I love teaching too much to remove that venue from my life. I teach dance two and sometimes three nights a week, much to the consternation of my life partner and anyone else who likes to see me socially, because I just can’t get enough of it. I educate on gender and sexuality topics for little to no pay more than I should, not just because I’m still establishing myself in the field and am taking those pay-in-prestige opportunities for exposure (mixed bag because of undecutting, I know), but also because  this knowledge is too damn important to not be sharing at every chance.

This is why I’ve added “Educator” to the site tagline, with “Sex” in parentheses. I’m an educator who also happens to be a sex educator. I love making knowledge and concepts accessible and relevant… and I’m particularly good at unpacking the tangled mess of gender, sex, and sexuality, thanks in part to my upbringing. At one time, with only a few years of sex education blogging under my belt, I balked at calling myself a sex educator. Now? I embrace the title.

Anyway, I’m still deciding if I visually like the addition of (Sex) Educator to my website header, but I’m probably going to keep some version of it. It’s been neat reflecting on the process of getting here!

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Teaching a belly dance workshop. Photo by Pauline Shypula.

Teaching a belly dance workshop. Photo by Pauline Shypula.

I just got back from the annual conference of the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT). Since I’ve started doing more work as a sex educator, it made sense for me to go, and while I learned tons about sexuality, it also provided me with valuable opportunities to reflect on the connections between teaching, touching, and pleasure.

There’s a lot of concern in sexuality fields (particularly counseling and therapy) about maintaining ethical boundaries when practicing with a client. Obviously the same concern applies to sex educators too, but it seemed less pronounced. I attended one panel on the ethics of touch, which focused on touch-based practices like sex partner surrogacy and sexological bodywork. There’s so much ethical grey area around these professions that long-time AASECT board members were dodging the question of whether an AASECT certified therapist can even ethically recommend these kind of hands-on treatments to a client (even when it seems like the best modality to help that client). I listened in on related conversations, too, and those helped me put into context the real fear of bodily connection that many people in the sexuality field seem to have, because of how connecting through touch is seen as dangerous both since it risks intimacy that can compromise a professional relationship, and because it just looks bad to an erotophobic culture like ours (plus there are potential legal ramifications, because getting paid to touch people in certain ways is illegal in many parts of the world). Touch – especially sexual and/or pleasurable touch – is incredibly suspect to people today, and that’s a shame in my opinion, because it can definitely be healing.

The two main venues I teach in – the academic classroom and the dance classroom – allow me to handle connection in different ways. In the academic classroom, it’s rare that I have a reason to touch my students, which is fine by me. We do, however, spend a lot of time connecting intellectually. I believe that face-to-face conversations offer hugely important ways of conveying both information and critical thinking strategies, and I think my teaching would suffer if I had to give up the live, face-to-face component.

Unlike touch, I do try to incorporate pleasure into my academic teaching. I let it show when I’m excited about a topic. I praise students when they pick up a concept quickly or bring a pertinent example to class, knowing that many will receive a compliment with pleasure. I try to make things “fun” without capitulating to an all-play, no-work atmosphere. Pleasure is a frequent guest in my classroom, and I like it that way. If teaching and learning weren’t pleasurable, I’d wonder where I was going wrong. I think this helps in the creation of a safe space: my students trust me not to drag them through unnecessarily tedious or unpleasant stuff all the time, and to make topics fun and exciting, and so that when we do have to buckle down and do the hard work, they’ll be ready to come with me on that journey (at least, that’s what I like to believe is happening).

In the dance classroom, I do touch my students. I try not to do it very often, and I certainly keep it appropriate. I ask consent very frequently, even though they sign waivers before stepping into the studio with me. Here, as with the academic classroom, I believe it’s important to establish a precedent that involves a fair bit of trust. I think they need to trust that I won’t unexpectedly come up behind them and touch them without warning, which carries over from social norms in the rest of life. As in other areas of life, I try to model good consent practices, in part because lots of people don’t get this information elsewhere, and in part because it’s central to how I choose to live my life.

Pleasure also figures significantly in the dance classroom, especially for my main style of dance, belly dancing. It’s pleasurable to learn to skillfully move your body, and to adorn yourself to practice. I make a point of complimenting students when they do things right. The thrill of learning to improvise, as we do in American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, carries its own unique sense of enjoyment. As a dance teacher, I try to harness these modes of pleasure and give my students multiple opportunities to explore them.

Learning can be plenty intimidating: fear of failure, feeling stupid, not getting things right, feeling overwhelmed, ramifications for failure (like with grades or wasted money on a class), and so on. Having solid boundaries around touch (when it has a role in that kind of classroom) and incorporating pleasure can both be ways of engaging students and making them feel connected. I don’t think my use of touch or pleasure in either context is inappropriate, but the more I get into the sexuality field, the more I see people scrutinizing – and in some cases fearing – touch and pleasure. In these cases, I want to figure out what’s really going on, and then continue to do what I pride myself on: putting the students first.

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Illustration by John D Batten for “Indian Fairy Tales” edited by Joseph Jacobs, 1892. From Wikimedia.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the “At the Crossroads of Data and Wonder Symposium” held at Brigham Young University this month, where folklorists gathered with digital humanities folks to discuss the application of quantitative and digital methods to fairy-tale and folklore research. I compiled all of the #VisualizingWonder tweets into a Storify here, but I also thought the event merited a blog post.

Professor Jill Terry Rudy convened the event to brainstorm new projects, create a collaborative working group, and showcase her Algorithmic Visualizations of Fairy Tales in Television project, which is a fairy-tale teleography. Users can search the database for TV shows that include fairy-tale material, access visualizations, and so on. It’s shaping up to be an intriguing tool for research, and we’re all eager to see what comes of it. The associated blog, Fairy Tales at BYU, has some excellent blog posts presenting on their preliminary research, such as this post on Fractured Fairy Tales and the American Dream.

The other major collaborator in this investigation is Professor Pauline Greenhill, the driving force behind the International Fairy-Tale Filmography. She and other Canadian colleagues teleconferenced in for the symposium, and presented on their research, some of it methods-driven and some questions-driven. The IFTF is still growing and is accepting contributions from folks who’d like to suggest that films with fairy-tale tie-ins be added to the database.

This leads me into some major themes of the symposium. We discussed the benefits of crowd-sourcing information about fairy tales in pop culture, and the merits of involving the public in other ways. As scholars, what is our obligation to the public? Does it increase when we’re studying pop culture topics? If we start helping people understand fairy tales in film and television, do we risk becoming curators of material and losing our critical function?

Defining what we’re even studying is also a difficult task. Where do TV shows end and commercials begin? What about music videos?  What about pornography? If we want to understand the audience reception of fairy tales in film and TV, how do we go about setting parameters for studying how people process and remember and reformulate their content?

We spent a good deal of time discussing methodology, which is an endlessly fascinating topic to me (when I teach, I focus a lot on process, too, as in my Body Art class last fall). My perspective is that we scholars should strive to be as transparent as possible about our process. This is for a few reasons: first, it behooves us to be honest about what we’re doing, how, and why; it’s something we in ethnographic disciplines ask of our collaborators, and so we shouldn’t be afraid to do it too; and it’s often helpful for those who come after us. Given that I was presenting on some of my quantitative dissertation research, reframed to focus on birth and hierarchy in fairy tales, it made sense for me to discuss my methods honestly, both to give my peers insight into my working process and assumptions, and to issue a few cautionary tales about what not to do in this vein of research.

We also talked about future publications and presentations, and even though I’m not amassing publications in the hopes of getting tenure (since I’m currently an adjunct professor, not a tenure-track professor), I’m pretty excited to see where all this goes. I would be thrilled to have my name associated with anything that comes of this. Hell, it was an honor being invited to the symposium in the first place!

I could go on and on, but I’d urge readers to check out the top 2 links, containing a list of the attendees/topics and my Storified tweets for more information. It was a fantastic experience, and I hope to be able to post updates about the status of these projects in the future.

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Me and my husband at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City. Photo by my friend Joe.

Me and my husband at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum in Kansas City (a.k.a. proof that I go on vacations that are non-work-related). Photo by J. Wilson.

I don’t vacation well. I’m a bit of a workaholic, so as much as I love travel and meeting new people and seeing new places, it’s hard for me to really, truly interact with the new places and people. I think I’ve figured out part of why this is.

As an academic/belly dancer/sex educator/writer hybrid, I do a lot of things that people think are awesome (hence the tongue-in-cheek “rockstar” title of this post). People want to talk to me and hear about my life, and in turn, I want to hear about their lives in the context of what I do. Whether it’s chatting about favorite fairy tales, discussing sexual norms, or ruminating on the meaning of art and performance, I often find myself in conversations about things that I love and excel at… which are also things that I do for a living.

I realized while at an event this weekend that I had trouble getting into vacation mode because I was either in educator mode or in ethnographer mode, and really I just wanted to relax. When I told people that I study sex or that I teach folklore, they tended to get really excited and either want to launch into stories and jokes from their own lives, or ask me questions in order to get insight into my life and my research. I’m generally happy to have these conversations with folks, but I have trouble navigating between these headspaces and whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing and feeling while on vacation.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining that my life is just sooo interesting and people are sooo interested in hearing about it. Rather, it’s that I teach and write as a vocation, and after a while I get sick of hearing my own voice. I interpret cultural artifacts as both a creator (artist/dancer/writer) and as a scholar, and it’s hard to turn that off in my head. I get that being in the moment, with no analytical internal voice, is difficult for many of us academics… but there’s something more to this. Sometimes I’m bored with myself, and I’m tired of talking about what I do. Yet because one of the main things I study is sex, people can’t seem to get enough of my perspective on it. Same goes for fairy tales.

I suspect that this kind of interaction is tiresome for me because as an educator, I spend a lot of time framing topics for people, giving them an overview before going into more detail, and so on. Sometimes I just want to take a break from that. And a lot of the time, I’d rather be the one learning than the one teaching! But in many of situations where I find myself traveling and trying to relax, I’m one of the most knowledgeable people around (yeah, I know how arrogant that sounds), so it’s hard to find someone to teach me. And while everyone’s an expert on their own life, if I try to just listen and learn about that person, I have trouble turning off my analytical brain. So whether I’m doing the talking or the listening, it feels like I’m going to feel kinda burned out and bummed out no matter what.

Hopefully this’ll resolve itself with a mental shift, but I’m curious to hear from other rockstars in their respective fields: how do you tackle this issue when trying to vacation? Do you just clam up about what you do in the rest of your life? Do you try to find some other way to engage people? I need some solutions, because I’m running out of ideas on how to relax around people.

In both the academic classroom and the dance classroom, I’ve noticed that small class sizes present unique challenges and rewards.


  • More time to engage with each student. In dance, this means more posture and technique corrections for everyone. In college, this means getting to interact directly with each student more.
  • The class material can be paced and arranged differently if it suits everyone. Due to the fractal nature of American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, it’s possible to alternate between focusing on the individual movements or on the group structures of the dance in a given lesson. That gives me a lot of flexibility as an instructor, and with a small class of students, I can tailor the lesson to their level and their needs. Similarly, I can redirect a lesson plan in the academic classroom if a small-ish group of students has done the prep work and is ready to go to a new place.
  • I get to know each student better, both as individuals and in the context of their needs in the classroom. In dance classes, this means I can keep track of who has which injuries, who needs special attention to posture, and so on. In the academic classroom, this helps me remember everyone’s disciplinary background and call on them by name (because learning a new class’s names at the start of every semester can be tough!).


  • When people don’t want to participate, a small class can stall. This is worse in the academic classroom than the dance classroom, I think, because in dance classes I can always come up with more drills and more ways to practice. In the college classroom, it’s hard to get people to talk if they don’t want to talk, and if there are fewer potential talkers, well, it’s more likely that there’ll be awkward silence.
  • Sometimes I talk too much. Because of the above point, where a class can stall if there are fewer people contributing, I might get nervous and go off on a tangent or rant. In my Trust and Teaching post, I talk about how teaching should always be about the students’ needs, not mine, but I sometimes lose sight of that in anxiety-inducing situations.
  • It can feel like there are too many possibilities for what to cover, and then I feel paralyzed with indecision. If I’ve got a small, smart group that’s doing the work, and we can talk about anything, then how do we choose what to talk about?

Overall, I enjoy teaching small classes, even though they present some distinct challenges. I feel like the personal engagement between instructor and student is part of the reason why face-to-face education (as opposed to online education) is effective. Small classes afford more of that engagement, so I’ll usually take a small class over a big class, challenges be damned!


Well, between this and my Taboo Topics in the Classroom post, that makes 2 teaching-related blog posts this month! I guess with the semester winding down at my university, I’ve got teaching on the brain. I had a really wonderful class full of very bright and engaged students this semester, so maybe this is my way of processing some of the learning I did alongside them.

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This file was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution image from Wikimedia Commons. Thanks to user Stefan-Xp for sharing it.

Over at my sex education blog, Sex Ed with Dr. Jeana, I have a post called Syphilis in the Social Sciences Classroom. In it, I describe the ways in which syphilis has proved to be a relevant STI for me to bring into my anthropology and gender studies classes.

For all the silence around STIs today in the U.S., you’d think STIs were a taboo topic – and for many they are. As I’ve already discussed, teaching sex education is not the same as encouraging sex, despite the claims of those who believe that teaching about something is the same thing as endorsing it. Add in the (unwarranted) shame and stigma of admitting that you’ve got an STI, or are even interested in learning more (“for a friend,” right?) and it becomes clear that simply talking about STIs is a revolutionary act in many contexts.

I’ve taught plenty of taboo topics (non-monogamy, BDSM, trauma, Freud, feminism) in my college classes, and while there’s no magic trick to getting it right, I’ve found a couple of things that tend to work well for me. Here are some of my favorite strategies:

  • Explicitly acknowledge that teaching about a topic is not the same as endorsing it. This is one example of how I’ll often use verbal communication to the point where it seems way too obvious to even bother saying, which is why I go ahead and say it anyway. I’d much rather sound a tad silly than risk misunderstanding.
  • When introducing the topic, ask students what their impression of the topic is. Perhaps we old fogies are clinging to taboos of our day, while our students might be pretty well over something. Or maybe they’ll shed some light on an aspect of the topic that hadn’t occurred to us.
  • Try to find that balance between acknowledging that a topic is controversial, and introducing it as just another thing people do, hence worthy of scholarly attention. Take, for instance, my approach to kink in the classroom in my blog post And Then I Brought Up Flesh Hooks. Normalizing human sexual behavior – especially when it’s been stigmatized – is a huge mission of mine as a sex educator and an educator in general, and thus I try to talk about things in a not-terribly sensationalistic way. Again, if people are doing it, it’s worthy of study (from the hybrid social sciences/humanities perspective that I’ve come to as an interdisciplinary folklorist and gender studies scholar).
  • Give students time to respond to the topic in a less-structured way, such as journaling, doing an in-class writing prompt, or talking in pairs. Allowing them to process their feelings in some forum other than talking in front of the whole group, or having to answer directed questions from you, can be beneficial.
  • Frame the conversation with a set of rules, boundaries, or guidelines for respectful discussion. I like to remind my students that it’s okay to disagree with me, with the reading/texts, and even with each other, so long as they do it politely. In certain conversations I’ll emphasize that no one’s required to share anything about their personal lives, but only to engage with the material as it’s handled in the class. The way I do this, it’s less about creating a “safe space” where everyone feels 100% comfortable and nurtured all the time, but rather creating a space where people feel supported in speaking up, and where it’s okay to challenge and be challenged.
  • Divide students into groups and have them debate different facets of the topic. Again, this might bring up ideas and issues that I haven’t even considered.
  • Give them an opportunity to make up classroom credit if a topic proves to be triggering or emotionally activating. This might be listening to a podcast, reviewing a blog post, watching a TED talk, or something along those lines. Since I deal with sexual topics a lot in my classroom, I tend to have a lot of these options floating around my brain at any given moment, in case somebody needs to pass on participating.

At risk of being snarky, I’m sure it helps that I have white, middle-class privilege and thus can bring up certain topics without being seen as too offensive. At the same time, being a woman means I probably come across as nurturing and supportive when I don’t necessarily think of myself that way, which may help students feel more comfortable during difficult discussions. I’m not thrilled about these areas of privilege, but I have to acknowledge them, and I might as well try to use my privilege to benefit others, by creating unique educational opportunities.

I’ve never had anyone tell me not to teach a topic, or that I was being too controversial, or that I would be penalized for anything I taught. But I’m sure there’s a first time for everything. In the end, I try to keep in mind that teaching is less about my experience (as much as I might feel like a bad-ass for handling touchy topics with grace) and more about the students’ experiences, and that helps me navigate some of these tricky subjects. In the end, if it doesn’t benefit them, why am I doing it?

What about you? How do you handle taboo topics in the classroom?

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