Exposure by Elise M. Edwards

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.

Categories: Academy, college, Ethics, Feminism, General, God-talk, Identity Construction, Naming, Womanist Theology, Women and Community, Women's Agency

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5 replies

  1. Yeah yeah.


  2. Elise,
    When considering Ethics, I become a little more thoughtful than usual when ethics are categorised, such as you have done here with Christian Ethics. You are not alone in—how shall I put it—marking out your ethics territory; others have Islam, Buddist, Shinto, and I have just plain secular ethics. While I applaud the concept of teaching Ethics, I’m puzzled as to why one needs to separate and categorise them. Are not Ethics a stand-alone standard? Are we conflating Ethics with Behaviour, such that Christians behave differently from others in some extra-ethical, yet ethically-constrained manner?

    That great ethics-teacher, Aquinas had a lot sexual fun at 16 and after—he might well have made you feel uncomfortable, Elise, had he been a member of the early classes of which you write. Remember his prayer? Please God, give me chastity, but not yet. In so praying, was Aquinas being unethical?

    This raises the Ethics-Behaviour question: Is it unethical to indulge in consensual sex? If it is so, why would it not be unethical to indulge in any other (lawful) physical activity? If neither is unethical, why do some teachers incorporate Chastity (and not, say, sport) in their teaching of Ethics? I offer this as an example of Behaviour being questioned in the name of Ethics. I’d like to read what you, and others might have to add on this.

    Finally, I want to thank you, for your thoughtful piece, (and I also thank Carol for making this site available). I joined only recently and have already enjoyed some good, thought-provoking reads. I admit to no religion except the universal Golden Rule. One can’t be more essentially ethical than that.

    My best wishes



  3. My position for many years has been that when we share our personal experiences with others facing similiar circumstances, we help them and we help ourselves. This was a big precept I learned during my time in AA. Sharing our experience, strength and hope with others was imperative in the road to recovery.


  4. Let me add to my earlier post that I was very lucky that as an undergraduate I had a teacher (Michael Novak) who taught me that theology and the study of religion in general should be undertaken with the intention of making sense of our lives, our place in the world, and our responsibilities to others. I struggled when I tried to apply this lesson within my graduate studies where impersonal commentary was expected, but I remained committed to it. In my teaching and my writing I have found that when we share our personal experiences with others, we find out that we are not alone, and we open doors for others.

    As a teacher of women’s studies and women and religion, I have been astounded at the number of stories of incest, rape, and physical abuse I have been told. This can lead to burn out for a teacher. Yet if not me and thee…who?

    I have also found that when students are given permission to speak personally, they often feel that speaking personally is all they have to do. I have to keep reminding them that they have to relate their personal experience back to the readings. Actually this is a much harder task than just speaking personally or just discussing the readings impersonally.

    Michael Novak spoke of naming your standpoint, passing over to the readings, and coming back with an expanded standpoint. He called the result “intelligent subjectivity.” See Belief and Unbelief.

    Majella Franzmann discussed a similar 4 stage hermeneutical process that involves describing the phenomenon to be studied from as many angles as possible, naming your standpoint, research and reading, and making open-ended judgments. See Women and Religion.


  5. Loved this part: “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.”

    As I read your post I thought about two things: my own experience blogging about personal topics and that accompanying fear of exposure, or navel-gazing, or “narcissism” as I reflect publicly on my own life. I’ve been thanked by readers a number of times for my “transparency” in my writing, however, which has a textual difference for me than exposure. Transparent means there’s still a boundary, but that people are allowed to really see me too! My second thought was about being in the classroom myself. I teach Human Services courses, which by their very nature lead to personal explorations/discussions. There can be a tendency for students to share “too much” in terms of overly long, barely connected personal narratives. I try to help them understand the difference by specifying that personal stories in class should always be a means of *moving our class forward* by advancing our understanding of the material. This seems to help with the balance of personal sharing and off-track “digression.” I learn a lot from the personal lives and experiences and sometimes horribly awful challenges of my students. I find them a valuable piece of the texture of a vibrant classroom!


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