Best. Class. Discussion. EVER.
In another course I’m teaching this semester, the students write collaboration papers every day, and we use those to launch our discussion. After a handful of readings, we have what I call a “Play Day.” I was reluctant to call it that, since that’s really what I want each of our class meetings to be; the intention is that that their papers will facilitate class as “Play Day” every day. But a designated Play Day means that they don’t need to write a paper that day, and that – I had hoped – relieves them of some anxiety and helps them to feel freer to play. [Freeing students to play is an integral aspect of deschooling, and understanding learning as play is the foundation of unschooling. I keep wanting to write that post (Part III), but stuff keeps happening in class that I want to share immediately!]
This semester is the first time I’m trying this Play Day thing, and today was our first one. In the interest of full disclosure, I must reiterate that this is a class full of people who have had me as their professor before, which means that most of them are already sufficiently deschooled and fully on board with my unschool-y approach.
And this, folks, is incredible. It makes the course what college should be – what I assumed it was until I made it, 17 years removed from my own undergraduate experience, to the front of the classroom on a regular basis. Each class meeting so far has blown me away. The energy in the room is fantastic. The students are reading and writing and coming up with amazing stuff in class.
The course is Sociology of Sexuality, and I won’t deny that that helps. But that is far from the entire story. Consider, for example, the kinds of questions students are offering for discussion – and, importantly, bear in mind that many of these students are non-majors, who have not read any primary-source theory in my field or area (and probably in any other areas, truth be told). They have read exactly five short articles for this class so far, all of which were used as inspiration for thoughts in their own direction, and none of which we have discussed in any detail. The readings have been: Horace Miner’s classic “Nacirema” article, an essay on the culturally-situatedness of fantasy, an article on the role of the state in policing sexuality, and an exploration of (heteronormative) sex as dramaturgy. Here are some of the places they went – all on their own, armed with nothing other than instructions to “end up (intellectually) somewhere different from where you began.”
Are we our sexual selves when we are alone, or are they constituted in interactions with others?
Is sexual harassment an element of front stage or back stage performance?
What is the relationship between taboo and obsession?
Do we measure the success of a performance by its ability to match the fantasy and the backstage performance?
Do we fantasize about what we desire, or do we desire what we fantasize about? (Incidentally, this led us to a conversation about the construction of eroticism, its relationship to the state, ideas about fear, purity and danger, and the politics of respectability)
Why do we wish to derive meaning from sex? (Okay, one more: this led to a wonderful discussion about the difference between “derive,” “ascribe” and “imbue” meanings, which, in turn, highlighted differences between essentialist vs. constructionist notions about sexual interactions.)
I understand that the depth and richness of these questions might not quite “land” for readers who are not in the social sciences or humanities, or perhaps for anyone who does not find sexuality to be an important realm of critical study. Regardless of whether these seem important or interesting to people outside of my field, they are, I hope, recognizable as what they are not: basic, deductive, content-seeking, rote-focused questions. They are imaginative. They are big. They are catalysts for even larger questions and more exciting conversations. And, most importantly, they reflect the intellectual curiosities of these students. Which means, of course, that these students were able to feel, identify, follow and articulate their intellectual curiosities. They are, at their very core, critical thinking questions (more on what the hell that is another day).
The Anti-Intellectual-Administration-Heavy-Market-Driven Educational Establishment: 0.
Today – Play Day – began with me asking them what they wanted to play with. One student good-naturedly admitted that she was still trying to figure out what was going on in this class; nothing made sense to her yet. Someone else wanted to start with a question that had been posed in a previous class, but we hadn’t gotten to: How can we use dramaturgy to understand sexual taboos, such as necrophilia, bestiality, etc.?
The students opted to try necrophilia as an example, and we did some very fun stuff with this – different definitions of the situation, defining the agents and purpose in necrophiliac encounters, binary conceptualizations of life and death, and death as “prop failure” (Goffman 1959) in “regular” sex, but life as prop failure in necrophiliac sex.
Momentum waned a bit, and one student shared an unrelated thought she had had recently: Can we look at the consumption of celebrities’ lives and bodies as a kind of public sex?
Neat! We played with that idea for a few minutes. Another student suggested that perhaps it (our attention to celebrities) was not about sex at all, but about “living vicariously.” I asked her to explain, specifically what “living vicariously” meant…and then suggested, drawing on a previous conversation we had had about narratives of “good sex” and “bad sex,” that perhaps sex itself is always about living vicariously – a collection of moments in which we seek to feel alive through another. We mulled that over for a bit, and this took us to Bataille, and sex as the simultaneous quest to live and the quest to die. Many of the students had not heard the phrase “la petit mort,” and the link between sex and death was new to them. Some were skeptical (okay, maybe a couple were horrified). So we talked about what happens with the body during climax: the cessation of conscious thought, the loss of control, grotesque facial expressions. One student said that she can’t actually breathe during climax, and that imminent orgasm feels ambiguous and uncertain: “You don’t know whether you’re going to die or what’s going to happen; you just know it’s big.” This helped; they were on board about at least the conceptual link between sex, death and rebirth.
We went back to the idea of living vicariously from here, and sex as an undulating (an unintended pun which I regret, as I write this, did not occur to me in class) movement back and forth between feeling alive and feeling dead, countering and being countered with the “opposite” force in the other.
And then, of course, we came back to necrophilia, which was no longer some mysterious, incomprehensible fetish, but a much-more logical extension of a sexual narrative that we recognized. Via Mary Douglas and Bataille (whom they had not read, but I infused those into the discussion), we are all, in a sense, necrophiliacs.
Suddenly, we could view necrophilia as a vicarious effort – to live and die through a corpse, to experience death as closely as fully as possible, to be enveloped by it while affirming one’s own aliveness through the definition of the situation, and, we imagined, the phenomenological experience of sex (however defined) with a dead person.
We were out of time, but we had come full circle. The room was bursting with intellectual energy. The student who had confessed the profundity of her confusion thus far, stopped by as she passed and said “This was great! I really got it. I understand now, and I can’t wait to tell my husband about this class. Thank you!”
On the way out, I walked with a few students. We were all still brimming. One brought necrophilia back to the consumption of the celebrity, arguing that celebrities are, in a sense, dead to the public – one-dimensional, flat, lacking the mundane aspects of alive-ness. And “consumption” of the dead celebrity, of course, extended necrophilia to cannibalism.
I had no plans whatsoever for where today was going to go, as I have no plans for where any day is going to go when I teach (in most courses). My plans are to follow their thoughts and curiosities, and to help them connect what they are thinking about to other things, other ideas, other people’s thoughts. More on this when I (finally) get to the next unschooling post – but this is what it’s about for me. This is play. This is privileging the process over specific, rigidly defined content. This is, for me, unschooling in the classroom. It is clear to me that our discussion helped students think creatively and critically, and from atop the shoulders of giants. There is not a doubt in my mind that these students walked out of my classroom smarter than they were when they walked in.
I certainly did.
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin