Tag Archives: teaching

wordy: some thoughts from my classroom on bodies, perceptions, and teachable moments

6 Aug

Camp is over now. My tenure in the classroom, with these wonderful and invigorating and frustrating kids, is over for this summer. And as much as I hope I taught them a thing or two, I’m mostly still thinking about the things they taught me. Wednesday, I had an interesting moment with some of my students and I’ve been thinking about it since. And since this space is supposed to be where I reflect on teaching and self-representation, I think it’s a pretty fitting time to bring it up.

Some background: one of the courses I’m teaching this summer is an introduction to media literacy course that I’ve titled “Reading the World Well.” The overall goal is to help students learn how to read media images more critically and become more analytical, skeptical, and conscious consumers. Our first week focused on advertising images and my students proved to be amazingly adept at discerning the hidden messages that advertising sends us about our bodies, our selves, and our society. In this second week, we look at how we represent and “sell” ourselves, focusing on how  internet platforms like facebook, twitter, and personal blogs change the way we present ourselves and interact with others.

(click for link to the source)

This image — from a recent Ralph Lauren campaign — is one that we discuss at length. One of the things I try to get my students to realize is that we see images like this and we find them disgusting, horrible, and repellent. We see this and we protest the unreasonable, unattainable, inhuman images pitched to us by advertising firms that are banking on our self-loathing spurring us to spend money on their product. But we only challenge what we notice and we only notice stuff like this image, where the model has been so drastically photoshopped that she looks like a praying mantis. What we don’t notice is the subtle alterations that blanket our media landscape and that may be the biggest problem.

(click for link to the source)

We spend more time on this image and the subtle, skilled photoshoping that’s been done to make Katy Perry “acceptable” for the cover of Rolling Stone. We discuss how much time, energy, makeup, lighting, etc., went into making Perry look how she does in the before, how demonstrably beautiful she is, how unattainable her body is for many women. And then how even despite all this supposed perfection, the physical Perry isn’t good enough and she must still be digitally altered and transformed into the impossible image we see on the cover. Is this not as troubling as the Ralph Lauren ad?

So in this class we try to make the connection between the images of bodies (and female bodies in particular) and how we feel about our own bodies, how we imagine our selves: on Wednesday, we spent time talking about how we want to be seen and what we do to make that happen. Do we de-tag pictures of ourselves that we think make us look unattractive, that make us look boring, that make us look fat? Do we edit ourselves to make our image acceptable, to others and to ourselves, to fit into that impossible beauty ideal? For example, I told them all that it’s important to me that I am seen as smart, so I try to use proper grammar, a large vocabulary, and I make reference to myself engaging in “smart” activities (like reading the New York Times, being a Ph.D. student, or enjoying poetry). I think my candor helped them open up about how they, too, are doing this and we got a very interesting discussion going.

It was during this discussion that a student said something I was, am, and (I expect) will continue to be floored by:

“I want to be seen as confident in my body,” she said, “but I’m not skinny or fat enough.”
I paused, completely unsure of how to respond. “I’m sorry, can you explain that to me?” I asked.
“Well,” she elaborated, “it’s like, if I was really skinny and pretty, I could be confident in my body, because I’d be pretty enough, you know? Or, since we all, like, know we’re not supposed to feel bad about our bodies, I could be confident if I was bigger. But I’m, like, just a normal size, so I feel like it looks weird if I am all, like, confident and strutting my stuff and whatever.”

I didn’t know how to handle that statement. I just stood there, mouth agape, looking at this young girl. She’s 13 years old. By my eye, she’s beautiful, with the kind of coltish enthusiasm and awkward grace that I can already see growing into the real beauty of womanhood. Moreover, she’s someone who I would call thin. She looks healthy, well taken care of, comfortably growing and changing and turning into an adult. And yet. And yet she feels unsure of how to treat her body because she’s just, well, just healthy. Because the images of beauty and of ideal femininity that she sees most often do not look like her, do not resemble her body. And yet she feels like she cannot be confident because her body — healthy, average, etc. — is not something she sees regularly.

I think I missed a real teachable moment here, because I couldn’t articulate just how sad, astute, and important her statement was. Because I couldn’t imagine how to stand in front of my classroom and say that yes, I, too, wonder where the women who look like me are. That I, too, wonder what exactly a “healthy” body is supposed to look like, what an “able” body is, what it means to feel “pretty”. That I, too, sometimes look in the mirror and hate my body — a body that treats me well, that works the way I want it to, that exists in a comfortable equilibrium with itself — and then, on the same day, look at pictures of myself on this blog and love what I see. That I, too, am uncertain of the standards I’m holding myself to.

I talk to my students regularly about what a “good” body is. I repeat, over and over, that a good body is the body that we’re in. That a good body is a body wherein the cells continue to split via that miracle of mitosis, wherein the blood still delivers the lungs’ oxygen to our muscles and our fingertips and our brain. And yet. And yet this idea of what a good body and a good woman and a good image might be is not so simple as just rejoicing in the efficacy of our physical selves because it’s absolutely bound up in how those selves are sold to us.

I think back on the girl I was at her age and think, yes. Yes I hated myself, then, for being neither so thin that I was acceptable nor so strong that I could not care. And I’ve regularly looked back at pictures of myself in embarrassment, unsure of how to love myself in retrospection when I still feel the sting of the shame and self-loathing I foisted upon myself then.

We moved on. I lost the moment. I didn’t say anything to this girl. But her statement stuck with me such that I sat there that day, typing that explanation, that question, while students in my next class were writing their short stories. While the class was imagining something new, crafting fictive worlds of their own creation, I was thinking back on that one girl in that one class and wondering what the world will look like for her, for them, as they all grow up. And now here I am, reading over these words, days later, and wondering what I could have said then, to her and to them and to myself at that age, about how we know ourselves, how we see ourselves, how we relate to ourselves and why, sweet goodness, why we are being taught to so very much loathe ourselves.


disclaimer: this post is full of words

15 Apr

So today has already been a really surprising day and, given that this blog is meant to help me explore all aspects of my situation as a grad student / instructor, I’m going to babble on here for a while in an attempt to process the morning and help me gain some perspective.

This quarter, I am TAing a course called American Novel Part I. This means that I attend the class (three days a week for an hour) and usually sit with my mouth shut unless the professor looks to me for an opinion, clarification, definition, etc. I have office hours by appointment for students who need help with their papers (which I will later grade). It’s a pretty low-key gig.

But this morning, at 7:15, with my hair still wet from my shower and my coffee not yet prepared, I got an emergency email from the professor asking me to step in and lead this morning’s class. At 9am. Without any notes or direction. About James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, a 400-some-odd page novel. Ooft. So I had a little over an hour to get dressed, eat some breakfast and guzzle some coffee, and prepare discussion questions for a class of 30 undergrads, many of whom appear (in the previous discussions of the novel) to absolutely hate this book.

So what did I do? My usual procedure for days when I have to teach goes something like this: Panic. Be unable to choose an outfit. Fret needlessly over hair, makeup, clothes, etc., while trying to convince myself that yes, the students will look to me as an instructor and not a peer and no, they will not rise up against me in a cyclone of hipster glasses and backpacks. Spill coffee on myself. Get nauseous. Run over and over my notes, hypercritically cross-referencing every possible point with myriad textual examples. Nearly miss my bus. Stumble into class clutching my notes. Nervously laugh a few times. Joke with the students. Remember that I’m actually kind of good at this. Teach class. Promptly collapse with an incredulous after the last student has left the room. Marvel at the fact that the students didn’t immediately peg me as an impostor and mock me openly. It’s a pretty effective pedagogy, don’t you think?

But for some reason, today was different. I got the email, realized what I had to do, and made it happen. There was no panic, no horrible feeling of my stomach rising up out of my ears, no nervous sweating or frantic laughter. Instead, I made a few notes, got myself dressed and fed and out of the door, and ran what I have to (not so humbly admit) might be one of the most dynamic class sessions that we’ve had in this class so far. Now, I have nothing against the professor, whom I think is wonderful and asks great questions and creates a really positive classroom environment. But I think that these students really rose to the challenge I gave them (which went like this: Hi, guys. I have no notes and nothing prepared. So you all are going to have to really work today) and responded well to my particular instructional style. They laughed with me. They really discussed the questions I brought up and raised issues of their own. They respectfully and ethically disagreed with each other, with me, with the novel itself. They acknowledged and held the moral ambiguity of the characters and the novel’s position within American literary history. They discussed the (very) troubling racial tropes that Cooper uses and the ways that Cooper  was trying  to challenge certain prevailing ideas about race in his time and the limits to Cooper’s ability to navigate these difficult waters and the ways that we, from our contemporary subject positions, need to read these issues. It was kind of great, and they all stayed with me, attentive and alert, until the end of class.

So what does this tell me? Well, I think that the lesson of the day is that if I carry myself with integrity, confidence, and humor, it doesn’t really matter what I wear or how close in age I am to my students; they are going to respect me and respect my class as long as I show them that I respect myself, respect the class, and (most importantly) respect them as experts in their own right and treat them like adults. All in all, though I am sufficiently exhausted and more than a little overwhelmed by the morning, I feel like this was a rise-to-the-occasion, sink-or-swim, watershed moment in my pedagogical maturation and I am exceedingly happy about the road forward.