All you need is love…

In her two part article Envisioning Theory: An Anthropological Teaching Experiment, Dr Stefanie Mauksch narrates the pedagogical experiments that she and her co-teacher Dr Friederike Eichner. These experiments were explored in their undergraduate seminar “anthropology of the body, kinship, and gender.” Mauksch’s project is to examine how “embracing bodiness might affect (her) pedagogy.” Her work centers around visualizing the text and “theorizing as gaze”. In this post I want to explore a different approach to how learning communities might build spaces for exploration of embodied learning. In the spirit of the #CiteBlackWomen twitter movement, I will draw upon the Black feminist scholarship of Dr bell hooks combined with autoethnographic reflection on my personal experience as a student interested in embodied learning. In her two works Teaching to Transgress and the more recent Teaching Community, hooks explores what it means to for her to be a “democratic educator” including how she approaches integrates classroom practices drawn from antiracist work.

I am an undergraduate student, albeit a non-traditionally aged one, so in part I am coming to this material as a potential peer of Mauksch’s seminar students who participated in this experiment. More fully I am queer trans woman of color, with white passing privilege, and have for the last year engaged in studies of bodies, race and gender academically through anthropological, socio-cultural historical lenses. I am bringing my own experiences of emotional and embodied learning from my own classes and other spaces. While I am not a teacher, my previous career includes consultancy, mentoring, and management. These experiences, along in my participation in performance, activist and anti-oppression movements means have some experience of facilitation. I fully empathize with the work involved for faculty creating experimental and exploratory syllabuses, and appreciate what Mauksch and Eichner are attempting here.

I entered Wellesley College in Fall 2017 as a junior with a 20 year gap between prior study where I worked in the technology industry. I was one of the first two out transgender women at Wellesley admitted since admissions policy changed. I had to learn how to navigate being a visible trans woman in a historically white, historically woman’s college. I learned that it was possible to have very strong emotional and embodied responses to theory both when read, and when explored during classes. Part of developing my own performance, poetry, and academic practices has been understanding how to tackle trauma narratives, and to embrace and nurture my own practice of resilience.

In her first post, Mauksch explains that her Eichner’s goal to expand their students responses to theory into “(emotional, artistic, communicative) space.” This was done through initial sets of preparatory visualization work leading to student led or more immersive exercises. From one of these exercises Mauksch shares the visualization approached by a student engaging with Butler on gender. The visualization generated during the learning process of the binary sex/gender dualism and binary illustration immediately brought back back a flood of  memories and feelings. It was my second week at Wellesley. I was sitting in an introduction to women’s and gender studies class – perhaps 25 students in all. Through facilitated discussion we were trying to build an illustrative a framework for sex and gender, and a timeline of feminist thought. My defenses were already up, part of our reading that week had been a paper on corrective surgery of intersex infants and teacher incorrectly conveyed that this was no longer practiced. Without much shared context were trying to come up with a collective understanding of sex and gender, and were being taught that binary sex was biological rather than as I understood it still very much a social construct. I felt a huge welling up of emotion in response to the theory under discussion. I was angry, and upset – and that exploded a little in class. I tried to self correct, but found myself in the next class again having issues. As someone returning to study from a career in technology I got hugely anxious about my ability to participate as a student. Ultimately I dropped that class.

Another prominent example came early on this last semester in a writing class. We were discussing C. L. Moores’ 1994 story No Woman Born an early cyborg story. A classmate who was trying to come to terms with the themes of the story discussing the protagonist Deidre “it … is it right I mean it doesn’t have a woman’s body any more” (Moore 1944)  My body froze, I felt heavy and on the verge of tears, how then was I seen. I had to quickly try figure out how to reframe the conversation in my notes until I found the parts the author used she/her pronouns and how Deidre self-described herself as herself. I managed to breathe and point out we should respect the author’s and characters’ pronouns. Inside I was still shaking, and struggling to remain presence. I caught the eye of the other non-binary, brown person in the class, a shared exasperated glance, and I managed to draw strength. I mention this incident not to focus on the other student but to show how my own emotional responses reacted to theory and discussion. After class I vented privately online “Oh yay biological gender essentialism in class (student). Fuck.”  This was an unfortunate side effect of a non social theory based class touching upon these issues with shared understanding and the fact as a junior Anthropology major with a strong background in body and gender that I was in a radically different position to the traditional aged first year students who made up my peers in this class. In terms of my own resilience practice I ended up discussing with the teacher strategies I could employ. These discussions also resulted in some further pieces of Black scholarship added to the syllabus to read in conjunction with stories by Black authors to provide a shared framework for conversations around race.

I raise my own experiences of embodied emotional responses in relation to more traditional class environments as I believe it is important to recognise the wholeness of the students within a learning community. In her article Mauksch does not share how she handled safety and inclusion within the classroom for her pedagogical experimentation. The issues she is or can be exploring in her experimentation gender, dysmorphia, dysphoria, and eating disorders are all embodied experiences that her students might be invisibly living with. The lack of focus on emotion to me is striking. As anthropologists we need to bring our understanding of structural power and lived experience within the classroom. In a more traditional reading and discussion based seminar on the subject matter students will often lean on their strategies of resilience and coping to handle trauma or structural violence that is reproduced within the classroom. I believe both for engaged, anticolonial anthropologists teaching we can and should do better. As facilitators of learning spaces attempting embodied learning we can risk similar responses perhaps in ways easy to navigate than a student recognizing readings might affect or trigger. For myself I’ve had to try develop my own resilience to navigate the emotional landscape and surprises found in classroom, readings, and fieldwork.

Marginalized students should not have to create adaptive resilient strategies for our own wellbeing, but circumstances mean that we need to. How might teachers more collectively support resilience within the classroom? There is a history of embodied teaching coming particularly from Black and Indigenous activists and scholars which has emphasizes the importance of a holistic practice including and centering the body that Mauksch is not engaging with. My own personal involvement with activist and justice movements has included some experience in spaces that are facilitated around these principles.

When teaching anthropology of the body – particularly around emotionally near subjects how might we take alternative approaches drawing from this? In Teaching to Transgress and the more recent Teaching Community, bell hooks explores what it means to for her to be a “democratic educator” including how she approaches integrating sources of knowledge and practice drawn from activism. Particularly in her later book hooks advocates for the central place of love within pedagogical practice. This might feel unsettling to a discipline rooted firmly in white supremacy that masks itself through an “objective” gaze, hooks argues that

contrary to the notion that love in the classroom makes teachers less objective, when we teach with love we are better able to respond to the unique concerns of individual students while simultaneously integrating those of the classroom community. When teachers work to affirm the emotional wellbeing of students we are doing the work of love. (hooks 2003)

How love centered teaching manifests is variable. Each class is different is a dynamic environment. This is not easy work by any means but I believe it to be worthwhile. hooks notes that there is often an

unwillingness to approach teaching from a standpoint that includes awareness of race, sex, and class is often rooted in the fear that classrooms will be uncontrollable, that emotions and passions will not be contained. (hooks 2003)

How might this look? To draw upon hooks’ use of love I would argue that consent, communication, and boundary setting are key to the classroom. For each learning community it might be different. Thinking of classes and seminars that I have felt space held in in the last year I think I have experienced teaching with love in practice – what hooks refers to as “conscious teaching”. Love can be through trust building and reaching a shared understanding of something such as systemic racism. It can be reinforced by establishing rituals of communication that nurture questioning with care. These techniques can also be useful as they also help develop allyship techniques for students. I saw one particular example of this in a history seminar – we were discussing the weeks readings on gender non-conforming individuals on the “frontier.” I was the only out trans person in the seminar. I was also incredibly visible as I was also employing my own methods of performative and embodied learning through a drag king look inspired by the reading. Early in the seminar a student who I didn’t know particularly well asked the group at the start of the conversation “what language do we want to use for individuals here” the book used cross-dressing extensively, I appreciated the recognition that I was in the room, and allowed collaborate on (or not should I choose) a working definition for the topic in hand and that she was holding space for me as a trans person. This sort of practice of establishing safety I believe led me to being able to engage in much more participatory rather than having to navigate different conceptions of gender identity the book or material might have. Also by making visible that we were mostly talking about gender non-conforming white people I believe it allowed for a stronger anticolonial critique to trouble the cis heteropatriarchal white settler colonial gaze I felt in the book. Space being held was not I believe just an emergent property of the learning community, or the love and sensitivity to discomfort of an peer. In my mind this had been foreshadowed in the construction of our learning community already, which hooks advocates. Our professor for the clases had been using techniques throughout the seminar series of collaborative theme identification and starting early with prompted definition discussion. Enabling the emotional awareness of your those in your learning community and awareness of different experiences of power and privilege is a fundamental step to enabling resilient embodied learning. In many spaces I’ve valued more explicit statement of the social communication rules, one professor I have usually does at least one class a semester using the technique of mutual invitation I believe originates in learning communities of faith. Techniques such as mutual invitation provides a more defined structure to conversation to ensure all voices have the opportunity to be heard.

Returning to Mauksch, I have many questions on the emotional journeys of the seminar participants, she notes in the bodily performance exploration of Evelyn Blackwood’s essay on Indonesian tomboi embodiment that the project “provoked spontaneous and intense experiential and emotional engagement.” This is the only time she really addresses emotion within the learning spaces she facilitated, and it fails to communicate how emotional well being was addressed. The key difficulties Mauschk observes are around visualizing complexity and that facilitating her attempt at envisioned learning was additional work. Despite her intention to explore bodily learning, to me it doesn’t challenge the dominant systems affecting her and her students. Although I can not say how I would react in the exercises due to lack of detail, I worry that there is a risk of unintended harm through her approach.When we omit addressing emotions in our writing about pedagogies of embodied learning we end up reinforcing the dominant academic lens.   

I believe that taking hooks model of love as pedagogical practice is fundamental step for engaged, anticolonial, multimodal teaching and enables us to work on issues of anti-blackness and. While I think that I can see that love through some of the practices of my professors I think we need to be more explicit in the way hooks advocates. If we wish to facilitate spaces of embodied learning we need to be actively thinking about the holistic experience of all participants. How justice movements work and use love to hold space can provide insight into facilitating experiences that are inclusive of disability, chronic illness, mental illness, race, gender, class, that a teacher approaching embodied learning as an objective pedagogical exercise may neglect to consider. I don’t have space to go into more practice led inclusion, for disability Dr Zoë Wool’s recent post Check Your Syllabus 101: Disability Access Statements is a great resource to looking at how intentional inclusion can look. Inclusion and anticolonial work in the classroom needs more than a tolerance for safety and after thoughts for content warnings. In the Wellesley 2018 commencement, Black poet Tracy K Smith also talks of love

tolerance is meager. Tolerance means I will make space for you beside me on some kind of imaginary national bus, then slide back over so you don’t get too much of what I never stopped thinking is mine. Tolerance is the bare minimum I can muster without getting disgusted and stomping away.  … But Love is a radical shift. (Smith 2018)

Our learning communities need to be sustainability and nourishing both for the democratic educator or engaged teacher, and for the students participating. We can look to embodied transformation practices used in anti-oppression movements for inspiration for practices. Anti-racist practices working against white supremacy include forcing non-Black students, and teachers to sit with discomfort requires trust, love, and engagement with the body. hooks’ writing about her own teaching practice gives me hope we can reach a more holistic engaged and activist teaching of anthropology that embraces antiracism work. However to achieve this I fully recognize that much of this work is already falling on already marginalized scholars and teachers. This is very much the start of my exploration of this field. I don’t have simple answers for sustainable ways of working in this way – but I do know how fundamental that is to how I want to work while sustaining my own health, and nurturing the wellbeing of my peers, collaborators, and teachers whether I end up continuing my path within academia or outside.

Works Cited

hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1994.

hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Mauksch, Stefanie. “Envisioning Theory: An Anthropological Teaching Experiment, Part One.” Teaching Tools, Cultural Anthropology website, May 28, 2018.

Mauksch, Stefanie. “Envisioning Theory: An Anthropological Teaching Experiment, Part Two.” Teaching Tools, Cultural Anthropology website, June 4, 2018.

Moore, C. L. “No Woman Born”  (1944) in Sargent, Pamela, ed. Women of Wonder: The Classic Years: Science Fiction by Women from the 1940s to the 1970s. 1st ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1995.

Smith, Tracy K. “Commencement Address.” Wellesley College. Accessed August 15, 2018.

Wool, Zoë. “Check Your Syllabus 101: Disability Access Statements.” Anthro{dendum} (blog), August 14, 2018.

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