On Teaching

On Teaching – “Getting Personal”

John M. Kinder, Assistant Professor of American Studies and History at Oklahoma State University

800px-SkateboardIn high school, I was a “skate fag.”*  At least, that’s what I was called.  I spent my junior and senior years at a rural Alabama high school, and I earned the nickname because I was known to ride a skateboard (hence: “skate”) and because I did not look like, talk like, or act like a quote-unquote normal high school male (hence, in an act of linguistic creativity: “fag”).  As if the name weren’t enough, my persecutors would mimic, with limp-wristed flourish, my habit of sweeping my skater-haircut bangs out of my eyes.  (Google “Tony Hawk” and “1980s” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.)  To this day, I can recall the sight of beefy-armed types walking up to my desk, swooshing their invisible bangs away from their foreheads, and with wide-faced grins asking, “Whatcha reading, skate fag?”  It’s a familiar story, I know, and—not to poach on Dan Savage’s terrain—things did eventually get better.  Still, the general atmosphere of torment was bad enough that I took to spending my lunch periods in the library, away from classmates and away from food.  (By the way, if anyone reading this happens to be from my high school reunion committee, class of ’93, let me be as definitive as possible:  No, I won’t be attending—not this year, not ever.)    

As academics, many us are loath to open up about our pasts, particularly the ugly or painful parts, particularly to students.  “Getting personal” (or, for those hipper than I am, “real”) is often discouraged—and for good reason.  For one thing, we don’t really know our students and likely never will.  Each semester, many of us are confronted with hundreds of new faces, most of whom we’ll never see again.  Why would we hand over intimate pieces of our lives to a bunch of strangers—strangers with cell phone recorders and Facebook pages, no less?  Besides, teaching isn’t supposed to be about “us” anyway.  It can provide a much-needed ego boost, for sure, but we’re not paid to “work through our issues” or “find ourselves” or “come to terms with our past.”  We’re paid to teach: to deliver content and lead discussion, to sharpen skills, to measure and evaluate.

This is what I believed when I left graduate school and started teaching American Studies full time.  My ambition was to be a living-and-breathing rubric—a human textbook without prejudices or a past.  Since that time, however, I’ve come to see the value of “getting personal” with my students.  Telling funny, sad, embarrassing stories about myself—drawing attention to my self-presentation and to my past—has become one of the most powerful weapons in my teaching arsenal.  (I study the cultural history of warfare; these military metaphors come far too easily.)

Here’s an example of what I mean.  Nearly all of my Introduction to American Studies courses involve detailed discussions of social identity.  Specifically, I try to get my students to think about the ways in which all of us inhabit multiple identity categories at the same time.  To illustrate this notion, I ask them to look at me.  Literally, at me.  “What do you know about my social identity?  What kinds of social cues or markers am I exhibiting?”  At first, some students are reticent to talk about their professor, but very quickly the observations come fast and furious.  They note that I am white, that I am male, that I am middle class (I work at a state university, after all), and they usually conclude that I am straight.  (“How do you know?” I ask.  “Because you are wearing a wedding ring.”  “True,” I retort, “but how do you know I did not marry my male partner out of the state?  How do you know I am not the ‘wife’?”  This response always provokes uneasy titters and that Ohhhh look that sometimes comes across students’ faces in moments of epiphany.)  I’ve been told I am a “hipster,” a “GQ-type,” and an “intellectual” (because, one student noted, I wore a button-up shirt and—wait for it—a watch!).  After a few minutes of mapping my social identity on the blackboard, I suggest that what’s true for me is true for everyone, at which point grown-up terms like “intersectionality” and “social location” begin to enter the class discussion.

As I said, this has been one of my go-to moves over the past few years, and it’s worked with good effect, particularly when illustrating issues of identity and power.  When introducing the concept of dis/ability, we read case histories from the 1950s, but I also talk about getting diagnosed with epilepsy in middle school and the stigma the condition carried both then and today.  Regarding gender, I tell students about my close friend who refuses to wear pink because he considers it too “feminine” or about my tendency to hurt myself working out at the gym in a vain attempt to compete with the eighteen-year-old studs who—in my mind—silently mock my pathetic lifts.  (“I know that masculinity is a social construction,” I confess.  “Hell, I’m a core member of the Gender and Women’s Studies Faculty.  But that doesn’t matter.  Gender expectations are so powerful, they are so ingrained in our society and our social identities, that even people who know better are still affected by them.”)     

To be clear, I understand why many American Studies teachers feel the need to keep their identities and their pasts out of the classroom as much as possible.  “Getting personal” is a privilege many faculty simply do not have.  Faculty should never feel the need to “out themselves” in any way, especially if doing so will leave them psychologically or professionally vulnerable.  That said, I would encourage my fellow American Studies faculty to think about sharing a bit more of themselves with their students.  So many of our courses demand an inquiry of the intimate, the painful, and the traumatic.  As George Lipsitz once put it, “By addressing the hurt, and finding out how it came to be, we begin to grasp ways of understanding the past and easing its pain.”[i]  If we want our students to think about how issues like identity and Otherness, social exclusion and discrimination, body image and sexuality affect their own lives, we should be willing to discuss how they have affected our own. 

* This was not a term I ever used, embraced or attempted to “reclaim,” though I understand why some might choose to do so.  I reprint it here to give an indication of the casual homophobia that infected my high school and much of American culture still.  That said, for a variety of reasons, I don’t use this term—not even in air-quotes—when relating this or similar stories in the classroom.

[i] George Lipsitz, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 75.

Kinder mugshot

John M. Kinder is MAASA President (2012-13) and Assistant Professor of American Studies and History at Oklahoma State University.  He teaches courses on American popular culture, war and American society, and U.S. gender history, and writes about the history of disabled veterans and the intersection of zoos and warfare.  His book manuscript, Paying With Their Bodies: Disabled Veterans and American Militarism, is under contract at the University of Chicago Press.

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