Self-Display Or Social Engagement?

Using Personal Narrative as a Vehicle for Public Education

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I have never developed the thick skin that would allow me to be a cool, dispassionate reader of student evaluations. It is hard for those of us who teach to hear that the course it took an entire summer to plan lacks clear goals; the assignments we labored over are "cryptic"; the carefully planned weekly classes "too much like group therapy rather than academia." Most cutting are the words that go to the heart of our benign self-image such as "stiff and boring," "punitive and unapproachable." Knowing my vulnerability, I wait for months after a course has ended to settle back for a reflective read. Then I can see that other students liked "the academic rigor of the course and the broadened perspective it offered," thought I was "particularly good at running and focusing class discussion, at including varied viewpoints, at discovering 'on the spot,'" and that "what I learned in the class will stay with me my whole life and be there for me when I most need it."

There are students who say that I have an "agenda." To some, this is a description of a well-structured course, to others an angry accusation about a lack of professorial objectivity, and to just a few a valued perception that teachers may be committed intellectuals. Of course, the students are right. I am clear from the first day of the semester that I bring to class a critical view of education in America, a demand for a more socially relevant curriculum in schools, and the experiences of a gay man who has participated in dramatic social changes over the past 35 years.

When I first started teaching undergraduate courses in the foundations of education and the nature of contemporary childhood, my agenda was simpler. Then, in 1985, as a visiting professor at Colgate University, I began to speak in class about being gay. I acted out of neither the desire to become a role model for lesbian and gay students nor the wish to promote greater tolerance among straight students. Rather, it simply seemed disingenuous to lecture prospective teachers about the connectedness of our personal and professional lives and not talk about being gay. It was a matter of integrity, of the authentic voices I hoped my students would assume in their own classrooms.

I teach that education is an ethical and political practice, a concept difficult for some people to accept. I am obligated to reveal the way that sexual identity informs my understanding of how public institutions function in our society. I tell what I have learned about psychology as a technology of social control, a "science" that normalizes some lives and pathologizes others. My gay history makes me suspicious of the role that experts have come to play in all our lives and aligns me with other groups that have experienced physical and psychological violence. The overwhelming impact of AIDS-related losses makes me impatient with education that leaves out the things that really matter in our lives.

Speaking personally is not limited to matters of sexual orientation. Postmodern theorists of many persuasions insist that all speakers--writers, teachers, researchers--must locate themselves within the rugged terrain of identity politics.

They ask us for specificity. I am a gay, Jewish man with roots in the progressive, urban middle class. At the same time, contemporary theory celebrates the slippery nature of our multiple identities that elude definitional stability. The demands placed upon us are contradictory. The post-modern project involves articulation of our diverse social positions while acknowledging the impossibility of capturing experience in language. As we speak, we risk turning fluid, complex experiences into fixed categories and allow self-censorship to sanitize the messiness of our lives.

Confessions of desire have a paradoxical effect. While suggesting that teachers too are made of flesh and blood, they also reinforce our positions as experts.

Only too aware of unyielding gay stereotypes, I carefully weigh what I say to students about my life. I package sexual identity in its most acceptable and least threatening terms, I emphasize questions of equity and leave aside more disturbing questions of desire. Nor do I address conflicts within the gay world related to race, class, and gender and thereby reinforce the false image of a single, homogeneous community.

I don't know if coming out in class helped me communicate my concerns about the state of American education to students in the mid-1980s. Confessions of desire have a paradoxical effect. While suggesting that teachers too are made of flesh and blood, they also reinforce our positions as experts--albeit in uncharted and dangerous disciplines. I do know that coming out changed the tone of the class. It shifted some of my discomfort about teaching onto the students. The situation had become less problematic for me, more disquieting for them. Our conversations were richer because I left behind the pose of the omniscient narrator and because the students were forced to question their prior assumptions about teaching and learning.

Now, a dozen years later, my story is no longer a coming-out story. I arrived at Bank Street College of Education in midcareer, my credentials including many years of AIDS work where being openly gay was part of my expertise. My office door and bulletin board are marked with announcements of gay events. Photographs of lesbian and gay writers taken by my lover hang on the walls, and I work with a group of colleagues, gay and straight, on issues of sexual orientation and education.

Scores of recent books document the ongoing difficulties of lesbian and gay teachers at all levels of education, from the strategic management of public identities out of class and the avoidance of sexual-identity issues in class to the loss of jobs. Even in a liberal, progressive context, I do not underestimate the powerful ways in which ignorance is socially negotiated. Students often comment on my "radicalizing" politics and commitment to feminist viewpoints but never make direct reference to my sexual identity. What they do say is that I have created a course to address my "personal concerns" and that teaching seems to be a "very personal experience for this instructor."

But I believe that when I teach as an openly gay man, I do not reveal anything of a personal nature. Rather, I act to interrupt a social secret, the kind that one person tells another about a third party. In Childhood's Secrets, Max van Manen and Bas Levering suggest that personal secrets are different from the social secrets which we are asked to guard for family, friends, and colleagues. Personal secrets are part of the internal dialogue through which we develop a sense of self. The mystery and wonder, the sacred quality of these personal secrets remains intact, untroubled by public announcements of sexual identity.

Telling our own stories and receiving the histories recorded by our students is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the beginning of our work as educators.

Nonetheless, I agonize about the commodification of story as I trade my life history, and ask students to exchange theirs, in the academic marketplace. A young women writes a beautiful and powerful description of her mother's long illness and death. I encourage her to think about the impact of these experiences on her work with children and their relationship to readings on feminist pedagogy and novels about growing up. On the last night of class, after handing in her final paper, she tells me how uncomfortable she feels writing about her life in the context of a graduate school course for which she will receive a grade. I reply in terms of my own ambivalence about using personal narrative as a vehicle for public education. I doubt that I have relieved my student's uneasiness.

We live in a culture that thrives on personal narratives of the intimate. Television talk shows, bookstore shelves, and self-help groups are awash with stories in which people recount their struggles with addictions to substances, destructive relationships, and the effects of childhood abuses. Are classroom confessions so very different? Have we sought an inappropriate intimacy with our students? Have we gained their participation in a culture of self-display?

According to Michel Foucault, this culture has roots in the 19th-century transformation of the confession from a religious technique confined to matters of sin and redemption to a civil practice through which the listener--parent, teacher, psychiatrist--passes judgment over the teller: child, student, patient. The injunction to tell what one is and what one does affirms our belief that speaking frees us. But in recounting our stories, Mr. Foucault says we do not reveal some prior truth about ourselves. Rather, it is through the confessional relationship that we constitute the self.

If we constitute ourselves through the stories we tell, we are also created by the communities available to hear them. My gay story could not have been told before the 1970s, when the modern gay community emerged. In the classroom, I want to foster a community in which students can tell their own stories and know that their differences will be heard.

Democratic communities are based on difference. Real identifications are earned only when we struggle to make sense of the other and recognize that our knowledge is always partial, incomplete, and unsatisfactory. We give up being like our students or even being liked by them in order to foster authentic public dialogue.

Telling our own stories and receiving the histories recorded by our students is not an end in itself. Rather, it is the beginning of our work as educators. For our stories are not abstract fictions separate from the world "out there." They link individual lives to particular cultures and provide insight into the material contexts that limit some and offer a wider range of possibilities to others. Beyond the risks of self-display and the benefits of personal catharsis lies the potential for increased social engagement and political participation.

Last semester a student wrote that I had an "excellent" command of the course content. "But," she added, "this material is clearly his baby." The "but" belies her assumptions about teaching and challenges my authority. It suggests that real teaching occurs when we transmit material from which we are distanced and detached, rather than ideas to which we are connected as to a baby, through the immediate demands of the body. The objective purveyor of truth, disembodied teller of other people's tales, is the one position that I am no longer willing to assume. And that is probably the most disturbing part of my agenda for students. I'm waiting for the first spring thaw to read the fall evaluations.

Vol. 16, Issue 35, Pages 36, 38

Published in Print: May 28, 1997, as Self-Display Or Social Engagement?
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