Katy Pilcher, Aston University

Resisting (hetero)sexism, resisting the neoliberalisation of the university: Thinking creatively about the teaching and learning of ‘sensitive’ issues surrounding gender and sexualities as a mode of resistance

Drawing upon undergraduate student’s narratives, this research argues that thinking creatively about the teaching and learning of ‘sensitive’ issues surrounding gender and sexualities can be a mode of resistance against the reproduction of heterosexist discourses, and the encroachment of neoliberalism on the academy. The research aimed to ascertain which teaching methods students considered to be most appropriate for learning about sensitive issues related to gender and sexualities. This research problematic was of interest to me as I teach modules surrounding embodiment and feminist theory, and racism, class and gender. Topics on these modules can be sensitive for students and also for myself. Dalton (2010:5) argues that ‘fear of offending or anxiety about dealing with student reactions prompt many teachers to place sensitive topics in the ‘too hard’ basket’. Yet, ‘teaching sensitive topics has a pedagogical value in raising consciousness about important phenomena’ (Dalton, 2010:5-6). However, as Lowe and Jones (2010) argue, it is not always easy to ascertain when a topic is ‘sensitive’, and just because a topic may not automatically seem sensitive, this does not preclude ‘any topic’ from becoming sensitive. This raises the question of how students consider that sensitive topics can be conveyed.

I introduced photographs, videos and other sensory objects into interviews with eight students in order to contextualise discussion with ‘creative’ examples. The examples included a photograph of ‘Hetero(not?)normative Barbie Doll’. This was a method I encountered at a creative methods workshop ‘Dare to Do it Differently’ at Coventry University in October 2014. We were given dolls to ‘dress’ to explore our own gender and sexual identifications. I also showed students images taken during a photo-elicitation project that I undertook with an erotic dancer to discuss meanings of her work (Pilcher, 2012); and an image of a workshop I had participated in regarding gendered clothing. We also discussed the teaching game ‘Bad Sex Media Bingo’ (Barker et al.), and the production of student-led films, viewing an extract of ‘Students at Work’ (Reinvention Centre, 2006).

‘Hetero(not?)normative Barbie’ –  © Katy Pilcher

Students discussed topics that could be perceived as ‘sensitive’, such as gender and sexuality identifications; domestic and sexual violence; dieting; sex work; surgery and body modifications, and how creative pedagogical techniques including student-produced videos and images; games/toys; and walking-as-learning, might facilitate learning. Their accounts suggested the pressing need to speak about sensitive issues in gender and sexualities, the importance of creative approaches for facilitating learning, and how this can enable students to articulate an agenda for social change. Students saw the ‘personal as political’ – of the sharing of personal journeys as one of the most powerful means for understanding ‘sensitive’ topics. For example, students Jen and Laura articulated the importance of hearing their peers’ experiences, particularly where these may be different to their own:

‘I really respect her for bringing that up cause they’re not really the sort of experiences that you hear…it was sensitive because they were personal experiences …but it was important to hear about it.’ (Jen)

‘I think you need to see it from a different perspective in order to understand it cause otherwise it’s something you’ll never relate to cause you think it’ll never happen to you.’ (Laura)

Students were particularly interested in creative teaching practices that would actively resist sexist, heteronormative, racist, ableist, and classist assumptions, and they articulated that creating a ‘safe space’ in the classroom was key to enhancing learning. Students highlighted how creative pedagogical approaches can engender these aspects to some extent. For example, in speaking about students using a doll to express either themselves or how they think society thinks they should ‘be’, Karen says:

‘It’s a good way of exploring ideas about yourself without having to talk about it…cause no-one actually has to come out and say it. You can just do your own thing…I think on a doll it’s physical not verbal and I think for a lot of people it’s easier to show visibly rather than speaking’.

The students also spoke of alleged student ‘apathy’ in an neoliberal era and how they navigated conceptions of students as ‘consumers’, or those who may be ‘instrumentally’ learning, in order to prevent jeopardising their own learning.

Overall, I argue that creative approaches to teaching and learning sensitive issues around gender and sexualities can invoke a resistant potentiality which involves exposing inequalities that persist, and also the negative impact of neoliberal discourses upon student learning and engagement. This becomes much more than a classroom exercise, but rather forms part of a wider feminist political project to uncover and critique the ‘hidden injuries’ (Gill, 2010) of the neoliberalisation of the university.

The full account of this study can be read here: Pilcher, K (2017) ‘Politicising the ‘personal’: the resistant potential of creative pedagogies in teaching and learning ‘sensitive’ issues’, Teaching in Higher Education, early online: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2017.1332030

Dr Katy Pilcher is a Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University. Katy has completed research projects relating to erotic dance, sex work, ageing and everyday life, and creative pedagogies. She is an editorial board member of Sociological Research Online and served as an executive committee member of the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association UK and Ireland for six years. Katy has published within International Journal of Social Research Methodology; Sexualities; Sociological Research Online; Leisure Studies; Journal of International Women’s Studies; and she co-edited Queer Sex Work (2015, Routledge) with Mary Laing and Nicola Smith), which brings together insights from sex workers, academics, practitioners and activists. Her first monograph Erotic Performance and Spectatorship: New Frontiers in Erotic Dance has recently been published with Routledge. Katy is currently undertaking two research projects – a BA/Leverhulme-funded project entitled ‘Empowering Pleasures? ‘Sexual’ Leisure Spaces For Women’, and a collaborative project into the sexual health needs of ‘online’ sex workers in Birmingham for University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust.