Before I feared too much disclosure, but now I seek to channel revelations of personal experiences into exercises that inform the moral and intellectual agency of everyone in the classroom, including me.
I have always been a bit nervous when people share personal experiences in non-intimate settings. For the past several years, I’ve been in an academic environment where people routinely discuss and reflect upon significant life events. There were times that I was very uncomfortable listening to classmates discuss abortions, first sexual experiences, and encounters with racism. Even though they did not use graphic or disturbing language, I questioned the appropriateness of sharing intimate details of one’s life in a classroom.
So when I was preparing to teach my own course on Christian Ethics, I was careful to define a course policy that related to sharing and participation. In part, it reads: “While students are encouraged to use the course material to reflect on their own experiences and develop their own theological-ethical perspectives, sharing intensely personal reflections is not required – in fact, it is discouraged to maintain the professional atmosphere of the classroom.“ In class, we discuss conceptions of God and religious faith as they are applied to complex issues like sexuality, racial reconciliation, war, and medicine. The potential for conflict and personal attack is always present in the classroom because we often have deep commitments and personal beliefs on these issues, so I wanted to curb the amount of personal reflection that occurs in the corporate setting.
Over the course of the semester, though, my perceptions have changed due to well-written memoirs and personal statements I have read recently, the profound statements my students have shared, and the teaching philosophy I am developing. Whereas before, I feared too much disclosure, now I seek to channel revelations of personal experiences into exercises that inform the moral and intellectual agency of everyone in the classroom, including me.
I had assumed that personal experiences are irrelevant unless they are directly connected to the point of discussion at hand. But I am tolerant of minor digressions from the topic at hand if they contribute to good dialogue, so why was I so opposed to personal digressions? When I read Sarah Sentilles’s October 23 post, I realized my fear that the classroom will be used as a therapy session is related to a fear of too much exposure. Sentilles, discussing sexist assumptions about women’s writing, argues that critics misinterpret memoirs as diaries, “as if the only reason the author is writing is to expose personal, private, intimate information about herself.” She continues: “‘People assume that memoirs, especially by women, are like stripping,’ Rapp said. ‘People say to me, ‘Your stuff is really brave,’ and I say, actually it’s really smart. It’s not just me shaking my tits in your face. It is an intellectual exercise.’ I am convinced that the misperception of women’s memoirs as an act of “exposure” (or “overexposure”) has led to a misreading of women’s stories and to a failure to recognize memoir-writing as a powerful, intellectual, creative form of agency—a way to tell our own stories instead of accepting the story society might like to tell for and about us.”
I have come to realize that sharing experiences is a powerful exercise of agency, and also a tool to clarify one’s commitments, provide a paradigm for action, and examine the influences that have shaped one’s religious beliefs. From reading essays by feminist scholar bell hooks and womanist ethicist Melanie Harris, I have a better appreciation for how personal reflection can be used intentionally in the religious studies or ethics classroom to help expose how our cultural, racial, economic, and social backgrounds impact our religious orientation and beliefs. I share stories about myself in the process of soliciting them from my students.
When my students connect their life experiences to the material we discuss, I learn to see the world through their eyes. They have written and spoken openly about abuse, marginalization, and neglect. I am impressed by my students’ bravery, but more than that, by the way they claim their own agency to tell their stories. They have the skill to connect their narratives to theological analysis and I am grateful that they do. But I’ve come to see that this analysis need not always accompany description to be educational.
While I was composing this post, I had an appointment at the writing center where I work part-time. I met with a young woman who was writing her own memoir. The assignment was designed for her to examine the formation of her cultural identity and its connection to transnationalism. She needed help making the connection between her stories and questions about cultural identity, but even at the level of description, her retelling of painful experiences made me empathetic towards her and gave me insight into how she had approached other assignments for that class. I realized that if we, as listeners, are willing to open ourselves to those who share – to make ourselves vulnerable to emotion as they make themselves vulnerable to criticism- we have the potential to grow our moral capacity for empathy and our intellectual analytical skills. Without instrumentalizing the experiences of another, we can ask ourselves how their lives enable us to see the world more clearly.
Elise M. Edwards is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture at Claremont Graduate University and registered architect in the State of Florida. She does interdisciplinary work in the fields of theology, ethics, and aesthetics, examining issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.