Sunday, August 27, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation

I welcome your comments! — L

An Inquiry into Curriculum

Sexuality is a vexing question in contemporary Canadian classrooms. Our students are bombarded by sexual messages in their extra-curricular lives: sex sells products of all kinds, drives fashion, underpins the plot of television programs, movies, and novels, creates the punch line of jokes, and provides a fascinating turn in conversation for almost every peer group. The presence of sexuality in the classroom, however, is eminently fraught. We are afraid of pedophiles and sexual predators, be they teachers, volunteers, or strangers, entering the school building. We are forbidden to discuss certain topics, be they same-sex relationships, birth control, abortion, or non-normative behaviours. And we are especially afraid of our students' own sexuality, emerging polymorphously into a galaxy of competing and conflated texts, voices, and selves.

As I write this paper, the CBC is reporting that a former high school drama teacher from British Columbia has been deported from Washington state to answer charges of possession of child pornography. News of a sex offender in a classroom is extremely disturbing and casts a wide suspicion upon all teachers: those who spend time outside of school with students, those who make casual physical contact with students, those who seem unusually friendly with students. But where are the students in all this? Are they merely objects in the grammar of sexuality? Where is their sexuality, and how is it inflected by factors such as gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, ethnicity, and class?

My Destination
I am interested in the way the educational community deals with expressions of sexuality — desire — in the high school classroom. Specifically, I want to understand how — or even whether — we can discuss the embodied desire of young women whose sexuality is revealing itself day by day as it is shaped by both biological and sociological forces. These expressions of emerging sexuality may be directed at other members of a class or other students in the school, at teachers in the school, or at individuals outside the school. In every case, society seeks to control young women's desire (and simultaneously, though to a much lesser extent, young men's desire) through several strands of discourse.

As Michelle Fine observes, the topic of girls' sexuality is taken up in curriculum discussions in several treacherous ways. "Sexuality as violence," a view taken by some feminists, assumes that heterosexuality is inherently violent and destructive to women (169); girls, therefore, must be taught to survive. "Sexuality as victimization," a view taken by other feminists, assumes that all young women are vulnerable to men's sexual aggression (but not necessarily violence) (170); girls, then, must be taught to resist. "Sexuality as individual morality," typically a more conservative view, assumes that all self-respecting and self-controlled women will refuse sex outside of marriage; to have sex outside of marriage is to admit a personal failure (170–71) and thus girls must be taught to overcome. In no case is a young woman's sexuality situated within her subjectivity and agency; rather, her sexuality is situated outside herself, inflicted upon her, and she is seen as ductile, pliable.

Yet anyone who observes young women in the high school classroom must know that their relationship to their individual sexual identities is much more complicated than such reductive discourses would suggest. Although many of us try to de-sex the young women in our classrooms, these girls are resolutely not sexless; indeed, many of them are terrifically aware of — if not always in control of — the power and potential of their sexuality. And why wouldn't they be? They can turn to literally thousands of cultural texts, from classic literature to commercials, that demonstrate the apparently wide-reaching, near-irresistible lure of the female sex. What girl wouldn't want to put on such power?

The de-sexing strategy that many teachers — particularly male teachers — adopt in the classroom is dangerous. Teachers may insist that their students are neuter, neutral, sexless; insist that they themselves are neutered and sexless. As a society we require that teachers see but not look at their students, and we tend to silence suggestions that students may be attracted to their teachers — or worse, that teachers may be attracted to their students. Perhaps this is a socially necessary fantasy, one that allows male and female humans to work together closely and trustingly. Yet the neutering, de-sexing strategy invites complicity with silence. We create the conditions for sexual predation by refusing to acknowledge that we are human, gendered, and embodied. When we don't talk about things that frighten us — such as pedophilia, exploitation, and sexual abuse — we impair the ability of those who are experiencing these things to speak of them: we take away the language to articulate their experience. We mystify these happenings, make them abnormal and alluring; we place them in the shadowy realms of the unconscious, where live our greatest loves and deepest fears.

My project, then, is to find a way to discuss attraction, flirtation, desire, and developing sexuality in the high school classroom, to drag these issues out of the shadowlands and into the light of open, honest discussion. I do not propose to solve the problems of child exploitation through pornography and pedophilia, as these are illegal acts in Canada and no single person has the expertise to address all the complexities of this issue. Rather, I seek to open up a conversation about the presence of sexuality in the classroom — after all, it's always-already with us.

This topic is important to me because every day I observe the distorted and disfigured selves of girls — myself included — who have grown up in Western ideologies. Female sexuality is frightening to so many people, and we can see all around us the forces that would repress, suppress, and oppress this vital aspect of women's selves. It is important to me because several women in my group of friends have had an intimate relationship with a teacher or professor and, while they did not feel at the time it was wrong or bad, have since been made to feel they committed a "dirty," "sinful," "repugnant" act in doing so. And it is important to me because the legacy of silence around sexuality and education causes such unnecessary suffering, such needless confusion and pain. Through this investigation, I seek to begin a conversation about how we can speak about real — and sometimes really messy — human lives.

My Method of Inquiry
This investigation would be best addressed through psychoanalytic method, informed by feminism and critical pedagogy. Post-structuralist feminists have spent a great deal of time thinking about desire and pedagogy at a theoretical level. Ursula A. Kelly's book Schooling Desire: Literacy, Cultural Politics, and Pedagogy, for instance, declares that "the territory of education is the body, and education territorializes the body" (1) and announces that "my concern is with how any utopian inclinations of desire, on any and all cultural sites, might forward emancipatory practices" (2). Jane Gallop's collection Pedagogy: The Question of Impersonation explores similar terrain, as have many other texts. In the last few years, however, theorists have moved away from the entwined questions of sexuality and texuality, as a chill has set in around these topics before we have fully understood the application of theory to the lived realities of bodily experience. We need only look at our media to see how hysteria has beset sexual expression in the classroom.

Psychoanalytic theory argues that we may repress desire but it does not go away; instead, it emerges in other ways. These may be creative forms, such as dance, music, or visual art; these may be destructive forms, such as anger, depression, or violence. Perhaps, then, one of the most productive sites to begin a conversation about sexuality in school would be in the English classroom. If we believe as some post-structuralists do that our sexuality is inscribed in our cultural texts, then the classroom where we learn to decipher such texts seems a likely place to open a discussion. Literary scholars have been working productively with psychoanalytic theory for several decades; Mark Bracher and Jeffrey Berman, for instance, provide two deeply ethical models for students to learn about themselves and others through literature and composition. Openly discussing the way we learn to read our selves and our desires may be one way to approach the larger issues of sexuality.

Psychoanalytic theory is the necessary mode of inquiry for this issue because most people find sexuality, particularly in the context of schooling, so threatening. Thinking of teachers inhabiting sexed, desiring bodies, thinking of students inhabiting sexed, desiring bodies, is extremely irruptive in our society; it threatens our sense of self as whole and stable — and this perception of threat is precisely why this inquiry is so important. Shoshana Felman explains that " not the transmission of ready-made knowledge, it is rather the creation of a new condition of knowledge, the creation of an original learning disposition" (603). She explains further, "Teaching, like analysis, has to deal not so much with lack of knowledge as with resistances to knowledge. ... Ignorance, in other words, is nothing other than a desire to ignore: its nature is less cognitive than performative ... it is not a simple lack of information but the incapacity — or the refusal — to acknowledge one's own implication in the information" (602, italics in source). The silence that descends when one speaks of sex in or around the classroom reveals our resistance to a particular kind of knowledge: a resistance to the knowledge of our selves as sexed, desiring bodies.

In this inquiry, I am not particularly interested in traditional domains such as biology and sex education, although they may be a starting point. These discourse tend to the normative and repressive — exactly the trajectory I seek to avoid. Deborah Britzman comments, "when the topic of sex becomes like a curriculum and stuck to the underaged (and here, I mean the legal categories of children and youth), one can barely separate its objectives and fantasies from the historical bundles of anxieties, dangers, and predatory discourses that seem to render some sex intelligible as other sex is relegated to the unthinkable and the morally reprehensible" (90). When we apply value labels such as "abnormal" and "unspeakable" to human acts, we willfully ignore parts of ourselves we recognize in the Other. Felman explains this process through transference: "In human relationships, sympathies and antipathies usually provoke — and call for — a similar emotional response in the person they are addressed to. Transference on 'the subject presumed to know' — the analyst or the teacher — may provoke a counter-transference on the latter's part. The analytic or pedagogical situation may thus degenerate into an imaginary mirror game of love and hate..." (606–07). To interrupt this dangerous game, we must first be aware of it, acknowledge it. Only then can we begin to comprehend it, to counter it.

Critical pedagogy, however, reminds us that our discovery is not our doom. All human being is human construct; it is not supernaturally imposed from without. Teresa Ebert remarks that "Since it is constructed, it is thus transformable" (810), and thus our deeper understanding of ourselves may help us to achieve a deeper understanding of others. Here my investigation begins to reveal its ethical underpinnings:

To let go of the desire to cure or rescue, to sit with the pain that compels us... to articulate and reflect on what we are feeling and experiencing, to face the terrors that gnaw at us, and to work through the fantasies that structure our thinking, to do these would be to begin to act ethically. (Taubman 31)

It will be risky, yes; it may be frightening, even terrifying, to look at our monsters and admit they are part of ourselves. Yet how can a just and ethical person do otherwise? Peter Taubman observes that "any ideology of hope, conservative or radical, diminishes the irreducible specificity of each situation and imprisons us in overdetermined scripts or fantasies" (27); the same may be said of hope's other, fear. An ideology of fear — silencing — keeps us from dealing with the present, from dealing with what is, and locks us into a repetition of deadly and destructive habits. No teacher consciously seeks to harm her students. With greater understanding of what an enacted pedagogy of desire could mean, our unconscious habits might be addressed by our conscious processes.

My Needs for This Journey
To undertake this project I need to learn much more about feminist revisioning of basic psychoanalytic theory. In my latest course I have been reminded of psychoanalytic inquiry, which I've largely strayed from in my recent emphasis on feminist cultural materialism. Certainly, my critical theory foundations and my inherent suspicion of large institutional structures will help me to examine the field and to identify some of the traps we set for ourselves; but I need a broader understanding of the ways in which labels such as desire, pedagogy, sexuality, and education have been taken up in order to understand how they circulate in contemporary curricular discourses.

One of the important outcomes of working through psychoanalytic method is that the researcher gains insight into herself and her own position and practices as she explores her research questions. This outcome is important for me to keep in mind during the process: I have as much to learn from the inquiry as anyone else. Opening a conversation about such a fraught topic is sure to meet with resistance, but as I noted earlier, such resistance, such terror, is the reason this discussion is so important. Rather than turning away from the tension and conflict a frank and open discussion of sexuality in the classroom is likely to evoke, I must anticipate, acknowledge, and welcome them. I must draw them out, make them part of the discussion itself — and here I lean on the critical tool of praxis. Acknowledging tensions and conflicts does not necessarily mean acting on them, but it does mean reflecting on them and trying to understand them. If I think of these moments of resistance through transference, they become part of the conversation, part of process of learning about myself in others. As Peter Taubman explains in a very different context, "if one were to give up hope [or fear] and the striving for control and cure, a space might open up in which one could more closely hear or sense what was happening in a classroom or in one's teaching or in one's own life. One could live in the problems one saw and by living in them, find ways to live through them, ask oneself how one relates to these problems, find new questions that may well solve old problems" (31). The repressed and repressive discourse of silenced sexuality is certainly one of our society's oldest problems; letting go and opening up are crucial steps to solving this problem.

Our sexuality is a vital part of our human being. It does not turn on when a student graduates from high school; it does not turn off when a teacher walks through the school doors. It is with us as early as we are differentiated male and female; it follows us to our graves. Michelle Fine posits "a genuine discourse of desire" that would "invite adolescents to explore what feels good and bad, desirable and undesirable, grounded in experiences, needs, and limits. Such a discourse would release females from a position of receptivity, enable an analysis of the dialectics of victimization and pleasure, and would pose female adolescents as subjects of sexuality, initiators as well as negotiators" (171). This is the groundwork: acknowledging that our students are also sexual bodies. From this place we all — students, teachers, parents, friends, lovers — may begin to speak together of the "painfully beautiful, impossibly complex" beings we are (Taubman 26).

1 comment:

Earl J. Woods said...

This is an awesome piece of work - and I mean that in the original sense of the word. To even contemplate a frank and open discussion of human sexuality in this context is exceedingly brave, and, I believe, long overdue not only in our classrooms, but in general social discourse. How much of our societal sickness, I wonder, could be avoided if we were more honest with our own desires? As you say, to acknowledge a desire does not mean one has to act on it, and may (must?) begin the process of coming to terms with the best parts of our natures. Sexual desire should be liberating, should bring human beings closer together, but because we fear it, desire, paradoxically, drives us apart.

I hope you'll share your further explorations with us, Leslie. This promises to be a fascinating and important project.