Teaching Consent, Revisited

My sign for the Women’s March in New York City on January 21, 2017

The sad thing about teaching a composition course in which sexual violence is the major topic, is that it is always still relevant.

Cartoon by Guido Kuehn, Germany via Politico

An updated report from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Education Department says that there are now 306 sexual violence cases being investigated at 225 schools in the U.S. These investigations result from the department making sexual assault a national priority under the Obama administration, Susan Svrluga reports. In 2011, the OCR “advised school officials that sexual assault should be considered a form of sexual harassment prohibited under the anti-discrimination law known as Title IX,” Nick Anderson writes in an article covering Betsy DeVos’s confirmation hearing.

A year ago, I was drawing from feminist theory to teach students that patriarchy oppresses both men and women, working to incorporate cis men in the classroom into an inclusive feminist sensibility. I still believe in a feminism that includes men, but the battle against misogyny has reached a fever pitch now that the white male leader of the free world has bragged about sexually assaulting women. His sexual violence was rewarded by a nation, and I feel betrayed by every Trump voter in my country.

When Sen. Patty Murray (who pushed the OCD to release the updated report) asked DeVos if groping women without their consent would be considered sexual assault in a school, DeVos simply said, “yes.” This was one of the few straight answers she gave, and I was thankful for that. This question was based on the now-president of the free world bragging about having done it himself. The country still voted him into office, after reports of his sexual violence were made public, and we bore witness to his misogyny as it came out multiple times on national television. My favorite response, Trevor Noah’s breakdown of context for using the word “pussy” was right on the mark: in short, it doesn’t matter what you call it, consent is sexy.

After feeling so betrayed by my own country, especially as a teacher who knows its history well, it will be too easy this semester for me to lose focus. Not to mention, approximately 120 students in the City University of New York (CUNY) could be effected by Trump’s Muslim ban. Yes, it will be easy for us to derail class discussions to talk about the new administration’s latest offense. Students in my composition course are usually in their freshman year, just beginning to separate their political beliefs from those of their parents, and they are at varying degrees of readiness for that separation. Are they ready to engage in a mature discussion of the news?

The uplifting spirit in the anthem for the Women’s March provides a model for productive expression within a supportive community. MILCK, GW Sirens, and Capital Blend demonstrate a sense of solidarity instead of isolation in pain, and courage to speak out instead of being silenced. Similarly, in Audre Lorde’s “a litany for survival,” she reminds us:

So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive

Lorde was a teacher at CUNY and a Hunter College alumna, which brings her words even closer to my students. The warmth in her poetry and desire for collaboration and solidarity have always reached out to me, and I want this to be the spirit with which my students speak to each other in this honors composition course. So to break the ice, dismantle a privileged perspective, and create community, I tried something new on the first day.

First Assignment: Think, Pair, Share

My diagnostic essay prompt asks students to describe a moment in which they were wrong, give some context, explain what it was like to feel wrong, and reflect on the events that followed. I partnered them up to draw parallels and describe in 1-2 sentences what it feels like to be wrong, and what can be gained and/or lost from it.

Pairs introduced each other to the class and shared their reflective sentences. I did it, too, to show them that although I’m their teacher, I can also be wrong. Some students had more room for error in their lives than others yet even if a class is more homogenous, this establishes a community centered on multiculturalism and solidarity.

Why start there?

My first time teaching this course, I learned something important on the last day (worst timing ever!): honors students are very much afraid of being wrong, of disagreeing with me, of saying the wrong thing, or admitting they don’t know. Individual perfection is neither an attainable nor worthy goal; instead, I want them to seek out the power of collaboration. I think this assignment put us on the right path.

Photo via Jessica Feigert’s piece in Wussy Mag

Composition is a perfect medium for internal revolution because it comes from within. But, as bell hooks writes in Teaching to Transgress, the safe space we think we’ve created in a classroom is often, in reality, a site of conflict (113), especially for women of color who feel isolated by feminism. hooks asserts that honesty and self-discovery are key to black women’s liberation and there’s a great need to share those strategies. It’s time to get in formation and facilitate liberation under this administration.

As intersectional as the current women’s movement worked to be in its later stages leading up to the Women’s March with male allies who also reject patriarchal oppression, we can’t ignore its initial appropriation of the historic march in Philadelphia that focused attention on black women in America. At the protest on January 21st in New York, I was proud to chant “Black Lives Matter!” with others in the crowded streets, but how many of those white women like me will show up for the next BLM protest? If they’ve donated to Planned Parenthood, have they also donated to the AAPF, the NAACP, the ACLU?

Embarking on a new semester under a different administration, about to teach Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (because Shakespeare, despite being a dead white dude, is required), this time it’s not just about gender and sexism. This time, we need to address whiteness first when we talk about domestic violence and consent.

Discussions of race aren’t new to my classroom, but recently I’ve been trying to help combat white fragility by sharing a sense of comfort in being wrong with others. I recognize my own whiteness and privilege as alienating–far more so than I realize. I use a progressive stack, listen more than lecture, and let students drive the discussion. But when the majority of students speak from white bodies, who imagine the characters in stories share the same privileges, it’s at the expense of everyone else. That’s why whiteness needs to be addressed and de-centered from the beginning in order to avoid tokenism and foster conversations within a multicultural community that isn’t centered around whiteness. hooks stresses the importance of studying and understanding whiteness: “so that everyone learns that affirmation of multiculturalism, and an unbiased, inclusive perspective, can and should be present whether or not people of color are present” (43). This will, I think, open discussions of sexual assault and consent to other systemic problems (including but certainly not limited to race; e.g., disability and religious privilege) that oppress victims of sexual violence.

For instance, MILCK’s first official music video of “Quiet” gave visibility to being a survivor of mental illness. It’s much darker and visually powerful–and triggering–than the a cappella video from the protest. Here’s her new video, which is still triggering but much more positive:

Her first music video for “Quiet” reminds me of what Kate Chopin calls “the outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions” in The Awakening (1899). Also, Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Much Madness is Divinest Sense”:

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

I am a huge supporter of talking about invisible disabilities and silent suffering, which are sometimes left out of conversations about oppression because they aren’t as visible as gender and race.

After our drama unit we’ll take a tour of poetry from Dickinson to Sylvia Plath to Lorde, and I hope that intersectional and multicultural community will be there to sustain us in all this political turmoil. I think this requires a great deal of humility as we combine forces in solidarity not only for ourselves but for all that we believe in. Being wrong is not the same as being unproductive. Rather, being wrong (admitting it, self-reflecting on it and asking for guidance) is generative, there’s a creative potential in it that has yet to be realized. A noble purpose combined with a humble methodology is the ideal critical pedagogy I strive for each semester. Angela Davis puts it best:

Did you read the script of her speech at the march in Washington? You should.

[Note: this post was updated to remove the expired link to MILCK’s old music video and to add the new one.]

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