comment post: pressure to self-disclose in the classroom

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.


  1. you're so right here. I did a sociology module on intimate relationships which of course covered sexuality and the tutor was really ill-equipped in this way. She wanted to broaden people's minds by considering sexualities beyond straight or gay which was admirable. However, the tutorial ended up with her haranguing an uncomfortable young man who'd stated he was 100% straight. She had clearly hoped disclosure of her own sexuality would encourage us to share too but allowed herself to be visibly annoyed when the respondents said they didn't wish to share or that they believed themselves to be, categorically, gay or straight.

    I, who even now decline to classify my sexuality in any way other than as monogomous, wasn't the only one to avoid the next tutorial.

    I agree too that such disclosures are often in response to class discussion when you feel you have to put someone right by sharing your story. Sometimes this really isn't an empowered choice. You can either hear people talk about people like you in a negative/ ignorant way or you can reveal something you'd rather keep to yourself; neither's a winning scenario.

    1. Hi Anon, thanks for stopping by!

      I really like your point here: "Sometimes this really isn't an empowered choice. You can either hear people talk about people like you in a negative/ ignorant way or you can reveal something you'd rather keep to yourself; neither's a winning scenario." I think it's really important for the faculty person in a situation like this to intervene with the student who is speaking from negativity or ignorance and make it clear that such assumptions can be challenged without the challenger having to account for their perspective in deeply personal ways. Should students have to back up their words with evidence in some way? I believe so, yes. But I have been in classrooms where the climate was such that in order to have your voice valued by your peers you "had to" preface every argument with "as a cis queer woman who grew up below the poverty line in a rural Midwestern...." etc. You get the idea. It gets to be reductive as well as becoming a form of identity policing / oppression Olympics where the privilege of speaking (in a classroom!) is predicated on having had certain life experiences.

      Obviously, when you have faculty who are ill-equipped to intervene (or actually believe in such identity policing themselves) the classroom can end up being an extremely toxic space antithetical to real learning and growth -- because everyone's on the defensive!


  2. I studied feminism and a couple of similar things at university, and the other related tension that struck me was between self-disclosure and study. Tutorials were regularly disrupted by conflict between people who wanted a support group atmosphere/discussion and the nominal purpose of the tutorial (do we discuss feminist approaches to sexuality, or our personal responses to the reading? Is it appropriate to spend 90% of the tutorial talking with one student whose orthodox jewish upbringing makes dealing with shaven-headed women difficult?) Starting a class with personal disclosure makes it harder to carry through on the "we are studying feminism not running a women's circle". The department of feminist studies seemed to struggle with that internally as well.

    It came to a head at one point when a visiting lecturer refused to allow men into her lectures, and it took considerable effort by a couple of men to have her reconsider (she chose not to present rather than allow men in). From a feminist-activist point of view that's a poor outcome ("no section on recovering from sexual abuse because men drove the lecturer away"), but from an academic discipline point of view allowing lecturers to exclude students on the grounds of race/ gender/ class etc is completely unacceptable. The class split quite vigorously on this issue and staff seemed just as split, and struggled to stay on the "we are teaching you about feminism" side. Obviously whoever brought in that lecturer had reasons for doing so, but we weren't privy to those discussions (the decision was made at a departmental meeting where students were excluded and no minutes were published).

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Moz! Yes, I agree with you that there can be a tension within academic feminism to balance certain types of activism or emotional support with scholarship. To be fair, I actually saw this as much (if not more) in my English/writing courses in undergrad as I did in my women's studies coursework. Part of it, I'd argue, has to do with the way that, historically, women's studies as a modern academic discipline came of age during an era pedagogical radicalism and experimentation within the academy. Women's studies pioneers were often deeply conflicted about traditional approaches to teaching and learning, and committed to bringing the whole person into the classroom, centering the authority of the individual when it comes to their own experience, and growing knowledge outward from the learner rather than imposing it top-down from the professor.

      We could go round and round about the merits and drawbacks to such an approach, but my point is that feminist pedagogy is sort of inherently bound up in this question of where emotional and subjectivity belong in the classroom.

      As a final observation, I realize that feminist circles are historically (and even to some extent presently) divided on the question of "women only" spaces. However, from my point of view it is not a "poor outcome" from a feminist activist perspective to stand one's ground on the question of being inclusive. As a feminist, I would argue that it's deeply feminist and very much an "activist" stance to judge people by their commitment to gender equality, not by the makeup of their own bodies, their assigned gender, or their self-identified gender. I would argue it is un-feminist to exclude men qua men from a feminist lecture. Instead, I would argue it is appropriate to request that anyone unwilling to be respectful of the speaker and/or the ground-rules for discussion (regardless of that person's gender) leave the space until they are ready to return and engage in good faith.

    2. thanks. I did a B Engineering then a BA, so my experience of the more personally involved courses is a bit limited. What I did get was good support from the engineering side for doing the non-traditional double degree (viz, I was told some eng staff didn't like it but that the head of dept had squished them. By the HoD, who said he offered to let the objectors do Feminist Studies 101 and report back on exactly how easy it was :).

      The "woman only lectures" thing is difficult, because I struggle to see any merit in allowing students to be excluded so I suspect I'm not presenting that side fairly. From the engineering side, we have had that battle and the sexists lost. But many of them are still around, so the day someone says "you can exclude students because of their gender" they will leap at the chance. I would be appalled if it was feminist academics who brought that about.

      One thing that did amuse me at times was that I often found myself in the "old dyke" social circle in feminist studies, having more in common with the older students, especially the lesbian ones, than I did with the younger ones, especially the first year women. Studying engineering seemed to give me a similar perspective to that held by the women who had a bit of life experience. Possibly just the outsider effect, but I think also different habits of critical thinking - often starting from the "is this bullshit" position rather than "the lecturer said it" position.

      It definitely affected our willingness to disclose personal information. I suspect anyone trying the "sit down if" game would have found a bunch of us either never stood up, or sat down at the first question. With one second year tutorial group (we had lectures of ~100 students, tutorials of ~12) the tutor tried to start off with a personal intro specifically including our "gender and sexual orientation and how that affected our perspective", which got about 3 victims before one 30-ish woman said "my sexuality has led me to be cautious about discussing it with strangers" and stopped. After her everyone pretty much said "my perspective is unique, like me" and left it at that.

  3. Welcome, Joshua! And thanks for taking the time to leave a comment on this post. I am also well aware of how fraught discussions of "women only" space can be, and having spent time with some one-time separatist lesbians as an undergraduate student I do have an historian's respect for the reasons why some feminists have felt the need for that environment. I just think that, particularly given our increasingly complex understandings of sexuality and gender identity, there is no meaningful way to police the boundaries of gendered space without being reductionist. And I also think that, ultimately, the equation of "safe" space with "women only" space overlooks the way that women, too, are often complicit in enforcing existing inequalities (and, obviously, the way that many men are working to dismantle them).

    I, like you, have made a personal decision never to "closet" my identity as a queer person -- a decision that requires much less active self-disclosure now that my wife and I are married. I am incredibly privileged to have suffered no social repercussions (that I know of) for that visibility -- my extended family has not penalized me, nor has my workplace made my life uncomfortable; our housing is not jeopardized nor have we been ostracized in public with any more than a few glares for public displays of affection. But I am mindful (as it sounds like you are also) that many, many queer folks have reason to fear repercussions of being noticed in that way. I think we sometimes encourage people to be "out and proud!" pre-emptively without looking for to the wider culture and holding everyone else accountable for creating a climate where people no longer feel they have to be closeted.

    Thanks again for stopping by -- I hope you stick around!