Risky Teaching: Call Me Spartacus

Can professors teach in risky ways and stay safe?

Posted Dec 18, 2013

We’re still missing a lot of undoubtedly relevant local history of what exactly happened at University Colorado Boulder with regard to Prof. Patti Adler’s “Deviance in U.S. Society” course. Here’s what we do know, and why this case really worries me:

Adler’s teaching at “CU” has recently been brought under extraordinary scrutiny because of a skit she’s been using as a teaching exercise for many years. The skit involves teaching assistants dressing up and acting in the characters of sex workers from various socioeconomic backgrounds. The exercise is apparently designed to help students understand the social, cultural, and psychological complexities of sex work: “to illustrate that status stratification occurs in various groups considered deviant by society” and to illustrate “the many types of prostitutes and how different they are—even within the broad category of prostitution,” according to an interview Adler gave to Inside Higher Ed.

The university administration is suggesting that, through this skit, Adler somehow violated the sexual harassment policy which prohibits “creating a hostile environment for their teaching assistants, or for their students attending the class.” The Provost has issued a statement saying that “University administrators heard from a number of concerned students about Professor Adler’s ‘prostitution’ skit, the way it was presented, and the environment it created for both students in the class and for teaching assistants. Student assistants made it clear to administrators that they felt there would be negative consequences for anyone who refused to participate in the skit.”

The administration apparently told Adler she couldn’t teach the course anymore, and offered her early retirement. (Message: get out.) According to a news report, Adler “told the class that she was being forced into retirement because the administration thought her lecture on prostitution degrading to women and offensive to some minority communities.” She told Insider Higher Ed that her dean informed here “there was ‘too much risk’ in having such a lecture in the ‘post-Penn State environment.’”

Of course, the CU administration is offering these sharp conclusions about sexual harassment while not providing numbers of complainants, details of the complaints, or names, because cases of alleged sexual harassment at universities--even when they are just about a class exercise--are treated in an ultra-clandestine fashion, allegedly to protect the alleged victims. Look, there are some really ugly cases of sexual harassment involving predation at universities; this doesn’t look like one of those. This looks like one of those cases where somebody was opening up a politically-incorrect conversation about sex, and somebody was made uncomfortable by that, and that somebody decided a sexual violation had therefore occurred. Because discomfort is harassment is reason for dismissal from one’s life work teaching.

As I’m reading about Adler, I’m thinking about some of the teaching exercises I’ve used over the years. I have, for example:

  • Shown and discussed photos of human genitals (including male-typical, female-typical, and intersex), asking students to discuss appearance and sexual sensation of human genitals.
  • Shown surgical training videos that document clitoral reduction surgeries on baby girls as well as medical examinations on little girls’ genitals.
  • Shown videos of a naked woman giving birth in a tub while her nearly-naked husband massages her and she moans rather erotically; close-ups show the woman’s vulva when the baby crowns and emerges.
  • Gotten up on a lab bench to demonstrate the difference between birth in the lithotomy position and birth in the squatting position, asking the students to picture me as a birthing woman so that they can understand the differences.
  • Had students take on various historical roles, including “sex worker” and “syphilis” (the microbe) and various ethnic and sexual identities, to explore how lives and diseases are culturally-shaped.

I’m not saying that absolutely anything Adler did to set up and enact this “prostitution skit” ought to be given a pass. But if it is the case that the first time a concern was raised about this skit, the course was taken away and Adler handed an early retirement package--well, we should all be very worried about what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it, lest someone secretly make a harassment complaint or someone simply have the feeling “this might be too risky.”

And let’s face it: If we are not making our students uncomfortable sometimes, we are not doing our jobs. If we are going to have to worry all the time that we might offend some students’ sensibilities, we are not going to be able to teach in a way that actually matters. We’re not going to be able to teach about sex, gender, race, religion, or violence.

Are undergraduates and graduate students really such delicate flowers that they cannot be made uncomfortable sometimes, or asked, when made unreasonably uncomfortable, to raise the issue in a way that leads to productive dialogue and not automatic termination of classes or careers? Do we really have to protect the vulnerable by giving them all the power?

If Adler, in fact, led her TAs to feel pressured into dressing and acting in ways they didn’t want to take on, then she could have been told to stop using the TAs. Hire actors. Engage willing theatre students.

If someone felt Adler was being a prejudiced pig through this exercise, then they could call her out on it and have that discussion.

The answer here is not to compare this skit to the cover-up of child rape at Penn State(!), nor to do what Northwestern University has done--following media titillation but no complaints from students who attended an optional sexual demonstration--and shut down a human sexuality course completely.

One last note: Bizarrely, in the Adler case, a University Colorado Boulder university spokesperson has referred to the possible need for IRB approval for such “risky” teaching, in spite of the fact that IRBs are supposed to be for overseeing human subjects research, not teaching. This just seems final proof that IRBs are officially being viewed as all-purpose liability and PR shields for administrators, not for the protection of subjects of research.

The faculty at Boulder are holding a special meeting today on this situation, and several are speaking out. In a blog on the matter, CU Prof. Roger Pielke, Jr., asks the right questions: “Will I be at risk of losing my job if university officials don’t like how I teach [about sex, gender, race]? What if a student is ‘uncomfortable’ because of the material or exercises in the class?”

I hope that faculty around the U.S. will join Prof. Pielke and me in blogging on this topic. I also encourage faculty to tweet their own risky teaching exercises using the hashtag #riskyteaching.