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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.

Benefits

  • 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!).

Challenges

  • 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!

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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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Image from Wikimedia under a Creative Commons license. Originally uploaded by user Fry1989.

I thought about putting this post over at my sex education site, but decided to publish it here instead. Why? Because I’m increasingly convinced that activism needs to be a part of my scholarship as well as my daily life.

The state in which I currently reside, Indiana, has passed a so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA, also known as SB101). As this Huffington Post blogger explains, it basically opens the door to discrimination against groups that are not currently protected from such – namely, LGBTQ folks and other sexual minorities, anyone to whose existence a religious group might object.

While I generally support protests and even certain boycotts, in part to raise consciousness and in part to display displeasure, I have to agree with friend and colleague Mike Underwood who states:

Rather than a blanket boycott of Indiana, I’d suggest a strategic and vocal boycott of businesses seen to use this law to discriminate against marginalized persons. Instead why not vocally patronize inclusive businesses?

And on top of that, fight to make sexual orientation a protected class for the entire state, and to get SB 101 overturned so a more reasonable protection for religious expression can be crafted and implemented.

Boycotts punish everyone, and tend to disproportionately hurt smaller business of those already marginalized.

That’s why I’ve started asking establishments that I go into what their policy on RFRA is. And you know what? It seems like a small act, but it has so much potential.

Already I’ve spoken with employees at my favorite cafe on the northside of Indy, and heard that they promote tolerance and inclusion. I cheekily replied that I’d be happy to give them more of my money. What I wasn’t expecting was for one of the employees to approach me as I was packing my things to leave, and to warmly thank me for bringing up the issue. That was really touching, and a good reminder that activism isn’t just about creating concrete change in economic patterns, but also about connecting with people.

On the scholarly side, we’ll see how much attention I can give this issue in my classroom. On the one hand, I may not need to mention it much, as my wonderful students this semester have already posted links to relevant news in our online discussion group. On the other hand, my status as a PhD-wielding college lecturer gives my words a certain amount of weight, and so speaking up might infuse some opinions with a bit more legitimacy, and give my students something to fall back on if they want to mention our hypothetical classroom discussions to their peers or family members.

As Kelly J. Baker points out, scholarship and activism have an uneasy relationship: “Activism appears to have merit when it can be neatly attached to one’s scholarship or a vision of a shared politics.” I’m already pretty “out there” as a scholar who does a lot of work on gender, sex, and sexuality, so it’s probably not surprising to anyone  that I hold the position that RFRA is thinly-disguised homophobic bigotry.

We’ll see how things go with this (abhorrent) piece of legislation. I’m going to try to speak up as much as I can, in both formal and informal settings, in part because I have a privileged position as an institutionally-recognized scholar, and in part because I get to vote with my wallet, and make human connections while doing so. I also get to lean on some personal privilege here, as I walk around wearing a wedding ring and am cisgendered. In my mind, one of the better things to do with privilege is use it to challenge the status quo and help others out, so hopefully I can do some of that here.

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Me at the ICFA Banquet with my dear friend Austin Sirkin.

Me at the ICFA Banquet with my dear friend Austin Sirkin.

As most people who know me know by now, ICFA (the annual meeting of the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts) is one of my all-time favorite conferences. I get to present on and learn about cutting-edge fairy-tale scholarship, as well as overlapping areas like fantasy literature, children’s literature, science fiction, fan culture, and so on. I get to see some of my favorite people, scholars and writers and artists alike. I get to regale people with stories and meet really amazing writers who have thoughtful things to say about folklore. And since it’s in Orlando, I get to enjoy some nice weather and also meet up with some of my family members who are in the area.

Last year, I came out as post-ac at ICFA, which went far better than I could’ve hoped. This year, I continued that trend of engaging people in conversations about adjunct activism and awareness, and being quite open about my new career as a sex educator. I even got to dispense some relationship advice, and talk about how ideas from the history of sex education are relevant to everything from Twilight to other vampire fiction to speculative fiction set in World War I! People flocked to see my paper (despite the early morning slot it was in) and requested a copy if they couldn’t make it, so that helped me feel validated as a scholar still, even if I’m not doing scholarship full-time or trying for a full-time academic job. I guess it helps that I’m researching the sexy TV show Lost Girl!

One of the other notable things that happened at ICFA was  the huge amount of scholarly compersion I experienced. I’ve written about compersion before – the feelings of happiness we can experience when our partners/lovers/loved ones are happy by someone else’s doing – and I think it applies here.

So while my list of things that I enjoyed at ICFA in the above paragraphs may sound very self-congratulatory, fear not, I was also very moved by the successes and joys of my colleagues. I got to witness and be a part of the inception of a new group devoted to Fairy Tales and Folk Narratives, which is a major step forward for our interdisciplinary bunch of scholars. I got to cheer on colleagues who are going to play a major role in next year’s ICFA specifically dedicated to Wonder Tales. I got to introduce people working on similar themes – say, disability studies – in disparate textual fields like science fiction and fairy tales. That connection might’ve happened without me, but I still felt great about having the social contacts to make sure that scholars who should know each other’s work will from now on.

I got to hear about the success of one colleague who’s working to unionize adjuncts on her campus. I got to hear about another colleague’s book coming together. I got to support another colleague as she prepares to start a family. I got to congratulate yet another on the formation of a new relationship.

These reminders of other people’s joys and successes that have nothing to do with me are always a pleasure. Even though academia is largely run on a limited-good model wherein we must compete for increasingly dwindling resources, it’s still possible to be happy for each other when these successes occur. Perhaps it’s even easier from a vantage point on the margins, when I’m less affected by the drama and politics of being invested at the full-time level. Another reminder as to the importance of context, eh?

While this may not be the most polished blog post ever, I wanted to make sure to get my thoughts written out and shared while I’m still feeling the post-conference glow. The addition of compersion to my normal maelstrom of conference feels – elation, intellectual stimulation, despondence when it’s over – is a welcome one, furthering the alchemy that makes ICFA the amazing experience that it is.

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