Emotions, Pedagogy, and the Recovery of Joy

I’ve given a handful of presentations and workshops these last two weeks, which afterwards elicit standard responses about my “enthusiasm” and “cheerfulness.” This feedback is typically framed in positive terms, for which I’m grateful. But, on a few rare occasions, I can’t help but detect just a hint of something else, a not-quite-critique hanging in the air. I have this nagging suspicion that some are momentarily unmoored by my gendered expression of emotion, which we, as women, learned early in our professional lives we must suppress, ignore, or otherwise detach from in order to succeed in male-dominated workplaces. In those moments, I earnestly wish I could say this: For years, I, too, sought to deny, to control, to constrain and to restrain my emotional affect in order to approximate versions of professorial and professional seriousness that had been held up to me as ideals. But despite my best efforts, I have rarely succeeded at playing the calm, cool, and dispassionate intellectual. 

I am reminded of moments throughout my graduate career – preparing for mock job talks, for example – when I was cautioned against being too “lively” when discussing my research project. Or that tiny tickle of shame I always felt when, in my teaching evaluations, students consistently commented on my “energetic” style. I’ve long seen this proclivity in myself as a personal defect – a handicap of class, gender, intellect, or some combination therein – that would prevent me from being taken seriously, from being listened to. But in the last month, the works of Audre Lorde and bell hooks – two black women writers and scholars – have given me a different lens to view the role of emotions in teaching and in scholarship. More importantly, they’ve given me a new language to reflect critically on my experiences in academic spaces, as I journeyed away from healthy emotional selfhood and, now, back again. Thanks to them, I have instead begun to wonder: At what point is the passion that drives us into our respective fields supposed to dull into decidedly more tepid “research and teaching interests”? What gets lost in that transition and is it worth recovering?

In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks often broaches the relationship among emotion, education, and pedagogy. For hooks, the transition away from joyful learning came early in life, under desegregation, when moving from all-black schools to predominantly white, integrated schools. Black students like hooks, who once enjoyed strong relationships with black teachers, were suddenly transformed from subjects into objects, stripped as they were of the very human relationships with former black teachers who had taken an active interest in them, in their families, in their histories and communities (37). The trend accentuated when hooks went to college. White schools and white institutions of higher education were not, she notes, about “the practice of freedom” but about “obedience to authority” (4). The classroom became merely a space "to enact rituals of control that were about domination and the unjust exercise of power" (4-5). One of the implicit lessons of this experience of education was that to become successful, one had to become “clones” of white male peers (5). Any nonconformity was viewed as transgression.

Emotions, hook argues, and specifically the emotion of joy, were thought to have no place in the traditional higher ed classroom. “Excitement in higher education was viewed as potentially disruptive of the atmosphere of seriousness assumed to be essential to the learning process,” hooks writes. Naturally, then, “To enter classroom settings in colleges and universities with the will to share and the desire to encourage excitement, was to transgress” (7).As hooks goes on to argue in a series of essays throughout the volume, to transgress in this manner is not to err; it is to teach, and to teach well. To transgress is to have the strength to open yourself fully to your own humanity and by virtue of so doing allow your students to do the same. 

Through this lens, I have begun to wonder if one of the things students were communicating to me in teaching evaluations – and fellow faculty and peers are communicating to me now –  is that I inspire joy in the classroom, a space where that particular emotion is considered rather strange. Maybe, too, they are saying that the experience of joyful learning allows them to connect more fully with me, with one another, and with the ideas under discussion. For faculty, in particular, perhaps they sense that they are being given permission to feel passion again in what they must, in most other academic and professional spaces, claim only “interests” them.  From this perspective, serving as a conduit for joy and other emotions does not “disrupt” learning, but rather fosters learning and reconnects others to the excitement within themselves that they have learned to silence. When I present now, I ask myself: How can giving voice to my excitement help others access their own? In other words, how can emotions become strength, become power, for me and for others? And perhaps more importantly: When, how, and why did I un-learn this lesson?

Here, Audre Lorde is instructive. In “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” Lorde warns that we women “have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.” She calls this emotional well of power “the erotic,” continuing, “We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society” (53). Instead, we learn to heed the dictums of “the male world” “which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men,” leaving us so often in a state of being “psychically milked” (54). In other words, Lorde calls attention to the disingenuous ways in which women’s emotional labor and output is simultaneously demeaned then appropriated, tamed and then claimed. Recently, this topic has been broached in a NYT article, which reported that women today engage in more emotional labor than men causing a disturbing “stress gap” between them, as well as a report cited by the Chronicle of Higher Ed claiming among other things that faculty who teach “diversity courses” take on a “particularly heavy emotional load that isn’t generally recognized or compensated.”

While the use, overuse, and abuse of emotions is indeed a worthy topic for discussion, for today, I am simply interested in thinking about emotions as Lorde and hooks would encourage me too: emotions as awakening, as power, as connection, and ultimately as positive transgression. Their theory of emotions allows me the possibility of imagining myself as without emotional defect, defect here construed as surfeit, the way systems and structures have long convinced me. Lorde and hooks allow me to see and critique instead the defects of systems and structures that have pathologized and contained me and so many others. Most importantly, though, their works invite me to feel joy again at the wide range of possibilities that our emotional selves can unleash in this world, once we allow for it.

Lessons: On Dialogue, Monologue, and Academic Performance

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