15 October 2011


The modish 'Intimate Pedagogy: The Practice of Embodiment in University Classrooms' by Katie Pryal in 1(2) Assuming Gender (2010) 62-77 is concerned with "the intimacy of university classrooms, especially in the context of gender, sex, and sexuality"
I suggest that students and professors constantly battle the intimacy that arises in pedagogical relationships. Despite our best efforts, these moments of intimacy intrude upon students' relationships with one another and professors' relationships with students. These intrusions are often unexpected and uncontrollable, and are inextricably tied to gender and sexuality. These moments when the facade breaks down, moments of embodiment, are when the greatest teaching can occur. In order to be great professors, we must attain a level of intimacy with our students. Intimacy, for the purposes of this article, means simply this: setting aside an assumed genderless, sexless professorial facade, and standing beside our students, embodied. In this article I build upon the work of pedagogical theorist Jonathan Alexander, putting forward the idea of a 'rhetoric of the body' to help understand the ways professorial bodies perform in the classroom. I then turn to the work of theorists bell hooks and Jane Gallop and their work on eros in the classroom, to discover connections between what I call embodiment – moments when professors lose the facade of a bodiless identity – eros, and pedagogy. Lastly, I take these ideas and examine a course in which I taught the U.S. Supreme Court opinion Lawrence v. Texas (2003), in which the Court declared anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional. In this course, content, pedagogy, intimacy, and embodiment came together in a practical demonstration of the theories I put forward here.
She comments that -
Quintilian claimed that the ideal public speaker is the ʻgood man speaking wellʼ, combining the unimpeachable ethics of the person with the excellent quality of the oration. Quintilianʼs words have also been used to describe the ideal professor. Feminist pedagogy, however, has revealed the weaknesses in Quintilian's simple approach: what it means to be ʻgoodʼ, and to speak ʻwellʼ is often tied to the physical identity of a speaker. Students, colleagues, and institutions often complain that female professors' voices are too high-pitched or too quiet. Rhetorical and professorial skill, then, is tied to body identity far more than dominant Cartesian philosophy would have us believe.

Pedagogical theorist Jonathan Alexander, in ʻTransgender Rhetorics: (Re)Composing Narratives of the Gendered Bodyʼ, hopes to show ʻhow transgender theories can inspire pedagogical methodsʼ, and help us understand ʻthe narration of gender as a social constructʼ. Alexander wishes ʻto approach a deceptively simple question – What is the story we tell about gender?ʼ. In response to this question, I would like to add others: who is it that tells this story? Why? And, how is it told – especially in the context of a university classroom? These are questions of power. Finally, I would like to ask: what are the consequences of these stories in a pedagogical setting? This is a question of ethics.

Alexander writes that his pedagogical method is ʻan approach to thinking about gender that is invigorating, critical, and insightful – one that opens up new vistas for students in considering the intersections among gender, the body, and the body politicʼ. Indeed, his description of the writing projects undertaken in his classroom appears invigorating, and the work produced by his students is often awe-inspiring. But we need to take his work a step further. Alexander hopes to provide an opportunity for his students to think about gender. But is thinking about gender enough? Feminist professor Patrocinio Schweickart admonishes: ʻFeminist criticism, we should remember, is a mode of praxis. The point is not merely to interpret literature in various ways; the point is to change the worldʼ.

I suggest readers need greater ethical engagement with the texts professors assign, and this engagement begins with the professor-student relationship.

The selection of material is indeed the first step in this engagement. In discussing why he presented transsexual narratives to students, Alexander explains, ʻtrans sites powerfully reveal gender as a social construction – as a narration that rhetorically, and politically, uses gender to maintain categories, roles, and knowledges that delimit and police our bodies and identitiesʼ. Cultural theorists readily recognize gender as a social and linguistic construction, but Alexander goes one step further, and associates, even equates, that construction with narrative, or storytelling. Alexander continues:
in examining the stories that trans activists tell about themselves, we witness the construction of counternarratives, alternative modes of identity construction, and a number of creative rhetorical moves that show how narratives of personal experience can be used to query a variety of personal and sociopolitical issuesʼ.
Alexander recognizes, however, the limitations of his project in the concluding section of his essay. He writes of his own doubts:
I am not sure that our narratives of gender swapping and transition were necessarily helping liberate participants from gender norms, even though I believe they offered us opportunities to explore useful insights. If anything, they revealed the extent to which gender is much more than a set of roles and rhetorical tropes; there is a rhetoric of the body that needs careful consideration as well.
Even as Alexander expresses uncertainty about the effectiveness of his pedagogy in the process of liberation ʻfrom gender normsʼ, he identifies a new project that he had not been aware of, one that provides fascinating new possibilities. Rather than functioning as a simple narrative that can be changed as the storyteller sees fit, the body is shaped by – and helps shape – a rhetoric beyond anyoneʼs control: by a ʻrhetoric of the bodyʼ that Alexander identifies. This rhetoric of the body is yet another place, along with language, where we may begin to ethically engage with knowledge and power in the classroom. Yet, in the academy we all (students and professors) ostensibly march around as disembodied minds waiting for enlightenment. There does not appear to be much room for discussion of rhetoric of the body because academia encourages students and professors – especially professors – to ignore our bodies altogether.
Not quite what's expected in the Australian Graduate Certificate in Tertiary Education (GCTE).