Thursday, 21 March 2013

Can (& Should) We Talk about Vaginas (& TVM) in English Class (in HS)?

Lots of colleges and universities have a Gender Studies or Women's Studies or Women's Literature, etc. course in which this play is studied. Not many high schools do.

When I first considered this text for our class three years ago, I researched its teaching in various institutions, what teachers, professors, psychologists, and other educators have to say about how it works and whether or not it's appropriate.

Eventually, I submitted these pedagogical goals to our school's administration:

Pedagogical Goals
o   For students to experience a safe, personal, and intellectual discussion of controversial ideas, exploring a controversial text
o   For students to cultivate a spirit of sustained inquiry, even when the going is difficult
o   For students to experience a broader range of the literature that exists
o   For students to identify with realms of human experience generally not explored and discussed (and written about) in class
o   For students to find a language to discuss their own experiences around gender and sexuality
o   For students to be empowered in terms of having words, understanding issues, and participating in a wider conversation (a preparation for identifying problems in the world)
o   “As readers, men as well as women, may emerge from these pages not only feeling more free within themselves—and about each other—but with alternatives to the old patriarchal dualism of feminine/masculine, body/mind, and sexual/spiritual that is rooted in the division of our physical selves into ‘the part we talk about’ and ‘the part we don’t’” (Steinem).
o    “Pedagogically, The Vagina Monologues promoted the goals of empathy towards others. The stories of the women opened-up a greater awareness of how other women live for the students while, at the same time, it spoke to many of their unarticulated experiences and feelings. Engaging in discussions with each other about the monologues enabled the students to identify with women's issues and stories (Belenky, 1986; Ensler, 1998; Fisher, 2001; Gawelek, 1994). In this respect, I believe, one key pedagogical goal was met.
o   “Lastly, The Vagina Monologues was a good text to discuss the concept of "the personal is political" (Fisher, 2001; Minnich, 1990). Framing individual women's experiences within the larger cultural norms of American society gave the students in my class the opportunity to look beyond issues of individual psychology to their own community's and family's perceptions of women's sexuality. In my opinion, the reactions the students in my class faced in being assigned The Vagina Monologues also permitted them a real lived experience of how society's norms impact people's attitudes and behaviors. From a teaching position, I believe, that the students were able to take their personal experiences of adversity and confusion, and frame them within the larger social context of women's sexuality as to promote women's issues, and end violence against women” (Linda Chen, PhD (Chair of Political Science at Indiana University)).

I also wrote the following:
I love the arguments Eve Ensler herself and Gloria Steinem articulate (in introductions) for the purposes and implications of encountering this text. Although I'm hesitant, of course, in some ways, about using the text, I also have some concerns about relegating conversations about sex and sexuality to Health Class (and not even there in some schools) and avoiding a topic so relevant, even urgent, for adolescents. My general educational goals always include helping students feel both safe and challenged simultaneously. In my electives with our oldest students (like Craft of Writing, the Individual and Society in Literature, Outsiders in Literature, Modern African Literature, Poetry, American Literature, etc.) so far, I have found that students (once they've established safe, academic and personal, talking relationships around the Harkness table) are desperate to talk about these subjects--particularly in the era of Facebook, hooking up, etc.  Also, I think the study of literature and writing is the study of human experience--what I care most about as an English teacher. Literature, to me, is an expression or reflection of experience (and/or worldview), an art form in itself, and a means of participating in an age-old dialogue with people from around the world over time. 

Gloria Steinem writes, “Slowly, it dawned on me that nothing was more important than stopping violence toward women—that the desecration of women indicated the failure of human beings to honor and protect life and that this failing would, if we did not correct it, be the end of us all.”

She describes a tradition of “shaming words and dirty jokes” to do with female (and I would add, male) sexuality—a trend that has surely affected most, if not all, of our students (and us). I echo Steinem’s sentiment of wishing “my own foremothers had known their bodies were sacred” and with her celebrate The Vagina Monologues’ notions of reclaiming traditions and beliefs to do with female power formerly “marginalized or denied” and “reclaiming devalued word[s]”, using “outrageous voices and honest [language]”. In what Steinem calls “the spirit of self knowledge of freedom” in this text, Ensler takes her audience or readers on a “journey of truth telling”, speaking the “truth of violence against the female body”, “bringing these hidden experiences into the open, naming them, and turning our rage into positive action to reduce and heal violence”, “purging a past full of negative attitudes”. Yet perhaps the phrase I most admire and embrace from this essay of introduction is “the power of saying the unsayable”—ever relevant for teenagers (and adults alike) as they navigate modes of communication, in an ever-growing range of genres, voices, and technologies. As teens go through adolescence and inevitably grapple with their identities, including gender and sexuality, this text meets them at a time when their questions about gender and sexuality are urgent, authentic, and personal.
Moreover, as we focus increasingly on our mission statement’s inclusion of both intellect and character, these issues could not be more pertinent or powerful in terms of cultivating empathy and a global perspective. As Ensler herself explains, “In order for the human race to continue, women must be safe and empowered.”

And three years on, I find myself asking the same questions. The text feels as relevant to me as ever and for the same reasons. Yet it's a challenging as ever to talk about vaginas in English class in high school. 
I still think we should so venture forth, as before, with questions, with curiosity, with wonder. 

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