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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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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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Me walking on... onto a pier in Lithuania. Like ya do.

Me walking out… onto a frozen pier in Lithuania. Like ya do.

Before bursting into tears, I managed to shut the door to my office.

The shared computer I normally use to print my lesson plan wasn’t working, and I didn’t know if it was one of the other adjuncts who used the office who’d mucked it up, but I didn’t have the right permissions to print off any other nearby computer. One of the tenured faculty took pity on me and let me print my lesson plan from his office. Normally tech frustrations aren’t enough to make me cry, but there was also some stuff going on in my personal life that enhanced my feelings of helplessness, so out came the tears.

As I sobbed, I remembered thinking: At least I have an office to myself, unlike when I was teaching at ____ University.

Today is National Adjunct Walkout Day. I am not walking out, though I am recycling a (relevant) lesson plan and planning to talk to my students about what adjuncting is and how it fits into some of the power dynamics we’ve been discussing in related topics in our anthropology and gender studies curriculum.

Then again, I’m currently working as an adjunct in the way that I think it “should” be done: it’s not my main income stream. As I’ve written in the past, comparing academia to a very expensive hobby for those of us who aren’t full-time, trying to make it in academia can be very time-consuming and financially all-encompassing. Now that I’m more aware of this reality, I’m able to allot my time and resources better. I seek part-time work to fill in the gaps in my adjuncting schedule (and paycheck), and I’ve adjusted my expectations accordingly (a process I document in my blog post series at Conditionally Accepted).

The system is very broken. My place in it is very unstable (especially since I teach about gender and sexuality, always touchy topics – though perennially popular ones!). Under different circumstances, I might’ve walked out (I’m already canceling a class this semester so I can attend a conference, and I want to reserve an emergency/sick cancellation possibility, etc.). As my anecdote above shows, many adjuncts lack the institutional support they need. The fact that I was so grateful to have an office to (temporarily) call my own, when I was having a break-down before class (which I don’t recommend, by the way), boggles the mind.

I definitely support other walkers-out… but I think, right now, it’s best for me to go in, and teach, and be generally awesome, and gently encourage my students to consider where their tuition money’s going.

Because if other tactics aren’t working – activism, unionizing, and so on – perhaps getting the people paying tuition (students and/or their parents) to start asking the hard questions might get us somewhere. Maybe it’ll take a combination of these things. I don’t know what’ll work, if anything’ll work. But I’m trying.


More resources:

NAWD awareness-raising slideshow presentation

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP)’s background facts on contingent faculty 

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This won’t be as citation-laden as many of my posts on academia are, so please feel free to ask if you’d like references. Mostly, though, I encourage you to sit back and enjoy the rant.

As a scholar, I engage in a lot of qualitative research, ranging from fairy-tale interpretation to studying the numinous in dance. I love me some qualitative research – but even then, I’d like to note that there are methods, theories, and disciplinary frameworks to keep us from wandering off too far into hyper-subjective la-la land.

I really loathe bad scholarship (view one of my rants on the topic here), but obviously that’s a somewhat subjective judgment. I get annoyed when people make erroneous assumptions, such as that everyone is equally knowledgeable about folklore (you’re not), or that all folklorists are good for is writing children’s books (we’re not). Ungrounded assumptions have no place in the academy, in my view.

So, with those two admissions up front, I have to say: I really hate it when stuff that is not empirically, well, anything gets discussed as though it’s valid in an academic context. I am all for personal exploration when it comes to spirituality, religion, and Jungian-type analysis. Hell, I’ve published on Tarot (though I’ll note that it was a historical overview of Tarot iconography in light of feminist spirituality, so, something that can be examined in terms of evidence and theories). I’m not saying that all inward-looking work is useless, or irrelevant, just that I dislike seeing it in a university setting.

Two examples come to mind: the works of Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, and the practice of Tantra. My folklore mentor, Alan Dundes, had a lot to say about Jung Campbell, but what I’ll point out here is what Jung himself has said: that archetypes are essentially unknowable. I’m sorry, but if something is unknowable, then it cannot be empirically investigated and thus is has no place in academic discourse. Use it all you want in your personal life, but keep it out of my peer-reviewed journals and accredited schools, please. In terms of Tantra, I just. don’t. get. it. I’m not sure if I’m more dumbfounded that anyone believes that there could be an unbroken chain of cultural transmission that’s thousands of years old, or that it’s being promoted within academic settings as something that can be empirically conceptualized and used. I’m all for reaping the benefits of mindfulness, deep breathing, and connecting with people via eye gazing… but why not just call it those things?

Again, I like qualitative research. I think it adds a necessary complement to quantitative research. I love working in the humanities as well as the social sciences. I think art is incredibly important. I recognize that there are subjective components in the classroom, and those are often incredibly important to the student’s overall learning experience. But if there’s not some empirical aspect to what you’re doing, if there’s not some way to replicate the study or teach it or even to use language accurately to define or discuss it, then I don’t want it in official academic discourse.

It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something here, or overlooking some important function that “woo” stuff serves as a complement to the rest of what happens in the university. But mostly I’m annoyed that this stuff gets airtime when it doesn’t really stand up to the same rigor that the rest of what we’re supposed to engage with does.

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Hooping at GenCon 2014. Photo by Curtis Claspell.Remember how I said I was taking the summer off? Yeah, that didn’t so much happen. Well, it did but only in one sense.

I was intent on resting from the near-burn-out I’d been suffering as a result of the academic job market and other career-oriented stress, and I did manage to do that. As I chronicled in my blog post series over at Conditionally Accepted, I need to move in a direction that’s better for my mental health and my overall life goals, and that means reevaluating my relationship to academia.

So far, so good. I only did a little academic work over the summer, such as prepping my fall course, revising a couple essays for publication, and reviewing manuscripts for journals.

The rest of the time, I danced, traveled, read, cooked, exercised, and socialized. I took on paid writing work, taught dance classes and performed at both paid and community gigs, and took steps toward increasing my knowledge of the professional sex education world. So there was a lot of self-care interspersed with work (most of it non-academic in nature).

I selected this picture because of how it visually represents the whirlwind of activity that my summer became. Performing belly dance and fire dance at a yoga festival? Check. Roadtripping to Philadelphia to hang out with my folklore/foodie friends? Check. Rock-climbing with my husband and leveling up my climbing skills? Check. Performing for thousands of people at GenCon? Check. Learning new hoop tricks and dancing with LED hoops? Check. Plundering my local farmers market for tasty foods to cook and/or preserve? Check. Seeing my parents, grandparents, aunt, sister, and other relatives? Check. Meeting tons of new people at flow arts festivals, conventions, and sex education workshops? Check. I’m sure I’m leaving things out, too, because there was just too much cool stuff happening this summer to recount in one blog post.

So, this summer’s been a good reminder that there’s life outside career angst, and that taking time for myself and my personal goals can be incredibly healthy and uplifting. Now I’m off to teach my first Body Art class of the semester, and with that I’ll plunge headlong into whatever the fall holds for me.

Me in the Carmel Public Library, looking thoughtful (as I feel now). Photo by James Moriarty.

I’ve been talking about this idea to a handful of folks, and now I’m implementing it: I’m taking a real summer break. This has some implications for how I comport myself online and in the rest of life, so thought I’d explain those here.

Like many scholars, I’m a highly-driven, passionate, disciplined person. This can have its downsides, though, like when I work myself into stress-induced illness or don’t make time for the relationships that are important to me. I went straight from high school to undergrad to grad school, and since starting grad school I did “everything right” to try to get a job as a professor, which meant spending almost every waking minute on activities that would enhance my CV. Even after finishing my PhD, I remained in “production mode”: doing extensive research, publishing, and presenting while also adjuncting and freelance writing.

In other words, I’ve never really had a break or a vacation since starting grad school. Even on trips, I had an article to be working on. Or a conference proposal to write. Or a syllabus to finish. Or grading, grading, grading.

This summer will not be the true break I wish it were. I am not going to be doing absolutely nothing (in fact, I fear I am incapable of doing nothing unless forced to by circumstances outside my control). I am going to be nurturing my dance community, visiting my family, maintaining friendships/relationships, and doing freelance writing to bring in some money, because hey, one of the downsides of adjuncting is that there’s no guarantee of summer employment and it’s not like you can claim unemployment either. Like many, I feel that contingent work has begun to make the rest of my life feel contingent too.

Since reflecting on normalized weekend work in academia, I’ve been facing the real prospect of burn-out. What’s the point of working so hard for so little reward, I wonder. I’ve enjoyed the decade+ journey of becoming a professional in my field but I’ve spent 3 years on the job market only landing local contract teaching gigs (which I do find fulfilling; they’re just not full-time work hence not long-term sustainable). I love what I do, but do I love it enough to keep doing it when it takes an obvious toll on the rest of my life? When I find myself writing so many qualifications, so many “yes, buts” when I describe my experience, how am I to deal with this deep ambivalence, this weariness over a layer of hurt/frustration? (Curious why academic rejection seems to hurt so much more than other kinds? read this crowd-sourced list for some insight)

I am taking to heart some of Rebecca Schuman’s suggestions about how to recover from academia, including the notion that making space to de-tox might help. And that might involve limiting contact with the kinds of people and pressures that academics normally encounter. If I can’t afford to travel to more than one or two conferences per year, do I really need to be seeing ads for them? If I can’t justify time to work on unpaid academic writing projects because I’m either working on paid writing to bring income to my household, or domestic tasks that I voluntarily take on because I’m not the breadwinner so I feel I should… do I really need to be seeing those CFPs? That sort of thing. And, if I am being honest with myself, I want to be happy for my colleagues that are succeeding in academia, but it just makes me feel bad about my own failures. There, I said it. It’s shallow, and it’s selfish, but every post I see from a recent graduate about getting a job reminds me that I’m lingering in adjunct-land, which is not what I had envisioned for myself. And wondering why they got the job and I didn’t is unproductive, since I won’t ever know.

We all know that the academic job market is cruelly arbitrary, lacking in transparency, cult-like, and drawn-out to the point of making planning the rest of one’s life an absurd impracticality. Describing the hiring process to non-academics makes it sound ridiculous beyond words. Knowing these things makes me feel somewhat better about my “failure” to get a job, but still. I feel pretty crummy about my situation and I’m trying to change that.

To that end, I’m going to remove many of the academics I follow from my Twitter and Facebook lists, unless you’re more on the post-ac/alt-ac side of things, or unless I follow  you because you’re a friend first, and an academic second. It’s nothing personal, and I may restore y’all once the fall semester starts and I’m feeling excited about the course I’m teaching, and once I’m doing… whatever it is I’ll be doing in the fall in addition to teaching. Which is hopefully something I’ll figure out this summer.

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I tried something new in my two classes at Butler in the fall semester, and I liked it enough that I’m going to continue it in my spring classes and also share it with you all here.

Often, when I am writing syllabi and constructing my first-day “let’s all get oriented” lectures, I find myself trying to balance my broader learning goals (instilling critical thinking skills, attentive reading skills, and so on) with my discipline-specific goals. In the case of folklore classes, it’s important to learn what we do differently when studying folklore than, say, literature, but also to learn about the topics at hand, which is more of a methods vs. facts distinction.

Then there’s this issue: articulating a balance of learning goals that is helpful to me when writing the syllabus is a different thing than trying to convey this information to my students, so they can know what’s expected of them. I think the idea I’m going to share here is more helpful for the latter, but maybe it’ll work well when kept in mind for the former, too.

In both of my classes last fall, I told my students that they were going to be learning three main types of things in the class:

  • Objective
  • Subjective
  • Critical

I’ll explain this with examples from my Folklore of the Midwest class.

  • Objective knowledge about folklore in/of the Midwest: we learned how to identify various folklore genres and texts; we learned the terminology used in folklore studies; there IS a right and a wrong answer for this kind of thing (don’t try to convince me that a riddle is a legend; it will go poorly for you)
  • Subjective knowledge about folklore in/of the Midwest: we learned how to identify folklore in our own lives, which would be different for each individual student; here, students might make connections between folklore items discussed in class and items known in their folk groups, ranging from family folklore to occupational folklore; there’s not so much a right or wrong here since this is very personal, but you should still be using folklore terminology correctly
  • Critical thinking about folklore in/of the Midwest: we learned how to apply concepts from class to not only our lives, but also the world around us; this is less easy to gauge than the other two elements, but it emerges when I have students design their own fieldwork projects, and when we discuss current events in class and I can see students making connections between class concepts and superficially unrelated topics

I came up with a similar breakdown of concepts and knowledges in my gender studies class last semester, which had even more of a subjective component to it since we were discussing marriage, relationships, sexuality, and gender, which people often respond to emotionally. Both of my classes seemed to respond well to this paradigm when I presented them with it on the first day of class, and I reminded them of it throughout the semester and at the semester’s close. I suppose this is what’s referred to as “scaffolding” in course design and lesson plan design – having a concrete idea of where the class is supposed to go, and giving your students the support and structure they need in order to think and explore in that direction.

This semester I’m probably going to stick closely to this course concept in one of my classes, and try something different in the other. I may well apply it in my class on fairy tales, sexuality, and desire, since as we all know, things tend to come in threes in fairy tales. I’ll try a different learning-goal paradigm for my class on dance, gender, and the body, and I’ll report back on any notable successes or failures in a few months.

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I’ve been thinking recently about where my time and energy get spent, and what I get out of these expenditures. I’m fortunate in that I have a partner who supports me while I’m in my third year on the job market and my second year adjuncting, so I really am in a position of getting to teach because I love it, not because I need to do it to support my household. And yet… there is some cognitive dissonance surrounding this issue.

In a guest post at Conditionally Accepted, I wrote about the difference between valuing my experiences adjunct teaching based on internal vs. external criteria. I find myself returning to that dilemma now, but from a slightly different angle.

Basically, if I’m teaching because I love it, and if I’m uncertain that I’ll ever get hired to do it full-time, does that make it a hobby? Or if I continue to have the mindset that I developed in (hell, before) grad school that working hard enough will eventually net me a job, does my adjuncting become a stepping stone to a full-time career? What are the consequences of either mind-set, for me personally, and for my investment in these options?

Looking at the way I’ve been approaching adjuncting (in the hopes of it turning into a full-time career), it’s difficult not to liken my lived experience of it to a hobby. A very, very expensive hobby. Even if I’m only going to two or three conferences a year, assuming that they’ll be out of state and hence in the $1K-ish range each, that’s still a big chunk of the paycheck that already isn’t enough to support me. Factor in the cost of materials for research, even if it’s mostly books and stuff, and gas money to get to the library, and print articles, and such… and academia – the really involved kind, with publishing and presenting in addition to teaching – can cost a lot of money and time.

For comparison’s sake, I also spend a lot of money and time on my dancing. That one’s also somewhere between a hobby and a career, as I can sometimes swing paying gigs as a teacher and performer. But maybe because I didn’t go into dancing with the expectation of being able to make it a career it doesn’t bother me as much. It’s not like my dance teachers from Day 1 primed me to expect a career in the field if I would just work hard, be persistent, and be very good at what I do.

I wonder if I should be looking at my time in academia more along the lines of the way I look at dancing: something I enjoy doing, something that helps me connect with others, something that lets me teach and help along students while also expressing myself. I really do feel that my dancing contributes something to my community, if only by example (by conveying positive messages about body image, about making art accessible to everyone, stuff like that). I don’t expect to support myself solely by dancing; maybe I would feel less stressed and icky about academia if I didn’t expect to support myself doing it. That’ll no doubt require some more mental work on my end, though, as I definitely went into academia with the intention to make it a full-time career.

I could write more, but I’ll wrap this up. It’s a busy time of year, and if I spend more time thinking about where my energy’s going than actually going out and doing things with that energy, then I’ve likely got something wrong.

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