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unidentified classroom, possibly in Georgia (Library of Congress)

I subscribe to a number of listservs through H-Net, an online hub for humanities scholars. This past week, on  H-HistSex, the list for History of Sexuality, there’s been a discussion about class exercises for the first day of class in a gender/sexuality course. I can’t link to the conversation “thread” as a stable link, but you can find all of the relevant emails in the January 2013 log with the subject heading Re: Exercise for first day of class in gender/sex course. The resulting conversation was one that I thought some people who read this blog might be interested in. So I’m sharing a few excerpts here (all publicly accessible through the message log above) and wrapping up the post with my own comment which I sent out this afternoon to the group.

Several faculty contributed ideas about “getting to know you” activities that included some sort of topical self-disclosure and/or exercise designed to prompt personal reflection about sexuality and gender. For example:

I teach an introductory class … and it’s often fun to make them stand up and ask them to sit if the statement you make applies to them . . . to see who is the last one standing. You can use all kinds of “gender” statements like “I’ve dressed as the ‘opposite’ sex” or “I’ve seen a drag show.” They seem to like this exercise.


I have found that simple writing a three paragraph first person narrative as an opposite gender as useful exercises. Students have responded initially as very difficult to do. But in the end they find it increased awareness of gender issues.


Think of a pivotal experience that made you aware of the construction of gender in your own life.  Use details to describe a specific incident or two.  It could be either a positive (empowering) incident, or negative (discriminatory, hurtful) incident…Not only does it get them thinking of the issues we’ll be covering, but it has turned out to be a wonderful “getting to know you” kind of exercise.

To which some people pushed back, suggesting that such activities can be experienced as threatening or alienating to some students:

You don’t want to instantly lose shy, introverted students who have not faced explicit or alternate understandings of sex and gender. Some students do NOT want to talk in front of large groups.  Further, there might be students from very conservative backgrounds who will be lost if they are pushed too quickly.

Or, as another contributor pointed out:

We might want to reconsider activities that require students to self-expose by standing or moving or agreeing/admitting to statements. This can be very problematic for any students who are/identify/gravitate toward the non-normative (i.e., trans- and genderqueer students, students who may be questioning their gender and/or sexual orientations, as well as for students who are disabled). There requires a lot of imposed confession of students. Ditto the activity that requires students to write as the “opposite” gender — what do I write about if I am identifying as trans or gender queer?

What I think is most interesting is the resistance that these cautions provoked among some other contributors. One person wrote:

If students aren’t exposed to this theorization of the personal and personal theorization in our classrooms with forthcoming discussion leaders that role model critical thinking then where exactly will they be exposed to it? A puritanical fear of sharing about gender and sex and sexuality seems to me counter-productive to the very purpose of feminism and women’s/gender/sexuality studies.

That was the contribution that finally prompted me to enter into the discussion myself, from the perspective of someone who has been in the study, not instructor position, as well as someone who has thought deeply and observed closely the power dynamics in the classroom. Here is my full comment [with a few clarifications added in brackets]:

In response to the observation “A puritanical fear of sharing about gender and sex and sexuality seems to me counter-productive to the very purpose of feminism and women’s/gender/sexuality studies,” I would just like to offer a couple of thoughts.

I am a former women’s studies student (B.A., self-designed major) and have experience in graduate school in gender studies classrooms as well, although my advanced degrees are in History and Archives Management. I believe in the power of self-disclosure in the classroom, but I also think that it is important that student[s] feel INVITED rather than REQUIRED to share aspects of their life story, particularly in a classroom setting where there is a power dynamic (all classroom settings) and before trust between students and between each student and the faculty member has been established (e.g. on the first day of class). I have been in situations where there was pressure to share aspects of my life story that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing, and later felt a (low-grade, admittedly) kind of violation [as a result]. I have also been in class with students who do NOT experience schools as safe spaces, OR who experience schools as safe spaces precisely because they don’t require that level of self-disclosure (which the students associate with bullying, etc.).

So while sharing personal experience can be very powerful in the right setting, it can also feel violating and can cause students to turn away from the very type of gender theorizing we hope to encourage them to pursue. Perhaps if such exercises are done early on in class (or, indeed, at any point during the semester), the sharing of reflections by the student could be optional? (And I mean truly optional, with no pressure from the professor to disclose what they don’t feel comfortable disclosing.) Obviously, the professor can do everything possible to model an open and non-judgmental space, but it is impossible to know what baggage every student may carry into the classroom — particularly around experiences of sex and gender which are so deeply personal (and often private, even if not shameful) experiences.

I think the success of such sharing turns on consent. Think, for example, of the psychological difference between choosing to self-disclose one’s sexual orientation or gender identity and being “outed” by someone when you weren’t ready or didn’t feel safe doing so.

I am all for open discussion about gender and sexuality, but I think every student is in a different place in terms of their willingness and ability to speak in deeply personal terms about what those things mean to them. The option for speaking about those ideas with a little more distance and self-protection, particularly at first, seems respectful of that variation among learners.

I had at least one participant email me off-list to thank me for speaking up. I think the entire exchange is a really important example of how mindful we all need to be about the situation nature of self-disclosure and the way that power dynamics can make something that sounds liberating (and might even be liberating for some people in the space) coercive, an abuse of professorial power.

Yes, as the faculty member responsible for teaching the class, you can ask your students to do difficult intellectual and even emotionally-stretching tasks. In a class on sexuality and gender a responsible professor will likely push most of their students to the edge (or beyond) of their comfort zone at some point during the semester. However, there is a difference between requiring students to think critically about gender and sexuality and demand that they share aspects of their identity or experiences in a room full of quasi-strangers, at least some of whom are likely to hold negative beliefs — or at least misconceptions about — those qualities. I would not have felt safe, for example, speaking about my emerging bisexual desires in the women’e studies classes I took as an undergraduate because of remarks other students had made about bisexual promiscuity. I would have not felt safe talking about my interest in pornography or BDSM role-play around some of my women’s studies faculty. In graduate school, I had a trans friend who came out (voice shaking) in order to combat some of the stereotypes being tossed around in class, and felt conflicted about that self-disclosure after the fact. I had friends from working-class backgrounds who struggled with feelings of difference; simply saying as an introductory exercise that they came from a household below the poverty line wouldn’t have made them feel any more like they belonged in the classroom space.

There are ways to allow for self-disclosure without demanding it — mostly by modeling acceptance as a mentor and encouraging students to examine their pre-conceptions about others. When you speak up as a faculty member and challenge a student’s sloppy thinking you’re sending a message to that quiet student in the back room that they can also raise challenges to similar statements, without prefacing those arguments with a litany of self-identity qualifications. And I’d argue that this ultimately makes the classroom a safer space for everyone within it to listen, to speak, and stand a chance of being heard.