The pedagogy of the personal

By May 6, 2009

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has a video here recounting the now notorious residence life program at University of Delaware. About two and a half minutes into the story, a young man recounts one of the activities students in the program underwent.

Students sat in a circle with a bowl of marshmallows in the middle. The leaders read a series of statements, and for every “yes” answer, a student would put a marshmallow in his or her own mouth. The statements included:

—have you felt afraid to express affection for a significant other in public

—have you been afraid to walk through a dark alley at night

According to the young man who participated in it, the statements were heavily slanted toward forms of racial and sexual tension.

For FIRE, the issue is one of ideological indoctrination, but the first thing that strikes me on hearing the rendition is how personal the requests are. How might I react in the same situation?

I remember being a freshman at UCLA back in the late-Seventies, and probably the last thing I wanted to do at the time was reveal my deeper discomforts and insecurities (which were many). The politics of such an exercise wouldn’t have bothered me, for my self-consciousness would have kicked in so hard that it would have eclipsed everything else.

Some educators who believe in these kinds of sessions might think that my condition back then would have made me a perfect candidate for help by such a program. More likely, however, the group aspect of the activity-that is, surrounded by peers whom you wanted to impress and commanded by strangers whose motives were unclear-would have greated more difficulties than it would have solved.

Delaware has received widespread condemnation for the program, and it may be that it is as much for this personal angle as for its ideological aims.

Such divulgence-pedagogies aren’t confined to orientation sessions, however. Here is one that appeared the other day in the latest issue of Minnesota Review. It is by Diana Fuss, an English prof at Princeton:

“My favorite teaching assignment to date . . . is an exercise popular in feminist classrooms, and with good reason. Easily adaptable to the teaching of race and class as well, the ‘gender diary’ was the perfect starter exercise for a semester’s worth of theorizing on gender and sexuality. In a class so cross-disciplinary that no two students seemed to share the same critical vocabulary, I decided to begin the seminar by asking students . . . to designate a single twenty-four hour period in which they would keep a gender diary. Students were required to carry a notebook with them at all times, and to keep a careful record of every act that they believe engendered them. I suggested that, eventually, we might think together about how, when, where, and why they were performing gender or others were assigning gender to them. But for now we would embark on a more pragmatic fact-finding mission, simply observing and recording the play of gender in our daily lives.”

Fuss says that this exercise is a “popular” one in feminist classes, and that it can be done in the “teaching of race and class as well.” She thinks that a personal beginning enhances the “theorizing on gender and sexuality” later on, although it seems to me that it might just as easily shut down certain 19-year-olds to the issues.

In either case, these seem like delicate matters requiring extraordinarily wise and experienced leadership in the classroom.

Schools: University of Delaware