Learning new names, establishing expectations, reviewing the syllabus, and exciting students about course materials are among the many challenges professors face on the first day of class. Those who teach history of sexuality classes face additional hurdles. Many students carry with them fundamental assumptions about sexuality. Often, they think of sexuality as natural and unchanging, comprising behaviors that have no history. At the same time, they have been enculturated to have a curiosity about sex and sexuality and to talk about them, often in personal ways.
A few weeks ago, Notches asked its readers who teach history of sexuality courses what strategies they use to introduce students to the field. The responses, posted below, detail some of the tasks necessary to get students to think historically about sexuality: defining sexuality and advancing the idea that sexuality is socially constructed; reading primary and archival sources critically; cultivating a personal investment in the subject matter while moving beyond autobiographical analysis of sexuality; and emphasizing that sexuality is intersectional (that it cannot be examined separately from other categories of identity, social structures, and systems of meaning).
Part 1: Defining Sexuality / Troubling Definitions
Visiting Fellow, Center for the Study of Religion
When teaching classes on the history of sexuality, I begin by introducing students to the notion that sexuality is socially constructed and historically specific. To that end, I use an exercise that I call a “kiss is never just a kiss.” During the first class, I ask students to write down their definition of sexuality. I then use PowerPoint and show four images. Each image depicts a similar act, one person kissing another on the cheek. However, the photos have key differences. The first image shows a man kissing a woman. The second has a shirtless man kissing another shirtless man. The third image shows a woman kissing another woman. The fourth image depicts a young woman kissing a child. For each image, I ask two questions: What is going on in this photograph? Is this image depicting a sexual act? I then invite students to explain their answers.
Through this exercise, students are inspired to debate whether an act is sexual and to begin defining what constitutes sexuality. With each new image, their definitions become muddier and they gradually come to the realization that physically identical acts have different meanings in different contexts and cultures. A kiss, in other words, is never just a kiss. This lesson becomes an entry point to readings on social construction theory, and more generally, to thinking historically about sexuality while foregrounding the very instability of the category itself in different historical and cultural contexts.
Part 2: Intersectionality and Sexuality
Emily K. Hobson
Assistant Professor of History and Gender, Race, and Identity
University of Nevada, Reno
This fall, I kicked off “History of Sexuality in the United States” (25 students, lower division, mostly non-History or Gender Studies majors) with an exercise that assessed student knowledge, highlighted the breadth of material in the course, and introduced students to the frameworks of intersectional analysis and social construction. I began by asking the class to consider historical links between sexuality and six other topics: settler colonialism, slavery, the industrial revolution, lynching, medicine and psychiatry, and the 1960s. I offered a very brief introduction to each topic and helped define unfamiliar terms. I then broke students into groups, gave each group a topic, and asked them to spend ten minutes discussing its historical connections to sexuality in the United States. I also offered that if they got stuck, they could come up with questions rather than answers.
The debrief surfaced good baseline knowledge: European settlers saw Native people as sexually immoral; slavery entailed rape, separated families, and constructed sexual stereotypes of black women; queer activism grew in the 1960s. It also produced surprises: students explained the industrial revolution as changing gender roles primarily through fashion; medicine and psychiatry were discussed solely through homosexuality, not heterosexual reproduction; only three people knew the name Emmett Till. I affirmed students’ points, filled in gaps and linked lynching to police brutality in Ferguson. I then wrapped up this relatively concrete – and energetic – discussion with the more abstract frameworks of intersectional analysis and social construction.
These two concepts are key to my course because I emphasize hierarchies of race, class, and nation in the history of sexuality and because I focus my assignments on teaching students how to analyze primary sources in the context of their time. Finally, in addition to helping to break the ice, my opening exercise helped students reorient their understanding of history away from a narrative of famous figures and events and towards a more complex, fluid (dare I say dialectical) process entailing both the creation of inequality and the struggle towards social change.
Part 3: Introducing Archives and Primary Sources
CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in Academic Libraries
Director of The Albert M. Greenfield Center for the History of Women’s Education
Bryn Mawr College
When teaching courses on LGBT history and the history of sexuality, a foundational exercise is teaching students how historians read and analyze primary sources. My classes were housed in the classrooms of the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center, home to the University Archives. Chicago’s collections are rich for the historian of U.S. sexualities and include the papers of sociologist Ernest Burgess and the collections of ACT UP Chicago; a rare collection of gay travel guides from the 1970s shares shelf space with an entire run of Playboy magazine, and copies of its short-lived counterpart for African-American readers, Duke.
But instead of beginning with these stand out documents, my class starts closer to home, and home, for my undergraduate students, is the University of the Chicago. To excite students about the historical study of sexuality while introducing them to historical methodology, I use the college yearbook, the Cap and Gown. The yearbooks catch my students by surprise in their sheer “ordinariness” (who doesn’t still have a high school yearbook gathering dust in their closet or attic?). After we inevitably laugh about mid-century hairstyles, or puzzle over inside jokes, an in-class assignment asks a simple question: how might we, as historians-in-training, use these sources to investigate histories of sexuality on our own campus?
Each student’s detective work in the Cap and Gown leads to all kinds of examples of how courtship, sex, gender identity, and sexual politics have shaped campus life from the 1890s to the 2000s. Two things happen in this exercise: students practice their skills at reading a primary source, and the choice of primary source makes the familiar strange. Here, I hope to set a tone of inquiry: sexuality is all around us, sometimes hidden, sometimes in plain sight. How does the historian document it, and make sense of it all?
Part 4: Reading Silences around Sexuality in the Sources
I taught a seminar class called “Private Stories in Public Places: Telling the History of Sexuality and Childbirth,” first in History of Science at Harvard and then several times in Women’s Studies at Wellesley. For an opening exercise, I asked students to imagine that a historian 100 years from now was investigating the history of sexuality based on writings, recordings and artifacts the students had left behind. I then asked “what would the historian know? What would be missing from the record?” For discussion, I made it clear that I did not expect them to share personal experiences, but, if they felt comfortable, to speak generally about what kinds of things might be foregrounded, and what might be absent. I always put my own experiences out there first, generally by pointing out some aspects of my pregnancies and births that would be in the record, and some that would be missing. While they were cautious about what they shared, students participated enthusiastically. They noted that momentous events, such as first intercourse, abortions, and rapes, might be recorded somewhere but likewise might go unrecorded. They also observed that even in today’s “TMI” online-sharing culture, daily sex with a steady partner was often hidden.
The second class, I brought colonial American court documents from cases about fornication and adultery. We closely read the documents, and talked about what we could and couldn’t know from these sources. As in the discussion about their own lives and traces, they noticed that dramatic, often transgressive, sexual events cast a much longer shadow than mundane, socially-sanctioned marital sexuality. And even these came to light only when they created difficult situations, such as extra-marital pregnancies and life-threatening abortion complications. And yet, we could still figure out that flirting and sexual foreplay at least sometimes involved tickling, wrestling and sitting on laps, and that intercourse did not generally require the removal of underwear, or really any clothing.
These two exercises set up the historiographic focus of the course. The two exercises we did the opening week, with our own lives and with documents from a time that felt far-removed, were an effective set-up for the key questions of the course: how have experiences of sex and reproduction changed, and how do we know?
Part 5: Navigating the Confessional Impulse
Assistant Professor of History
Rutgers University, Newark
In teaching the history of sexuality to a new group of undergraduates, I want students to feel comfortable coming out – as gay, queer, straight, trans, or anything else. But it’s just as important that they feel comfortable not doing so, that talking in class doesn’t have to entail self-disclosure. One way to take the pressure off — to get students talking, but not about themselves — is to give them a document to analyze together. And so, in the first week of class, I like to break students into groups of four, and give each group a newspaper article. The group is given the task of collectively producing a “digest” that conveys as much of the article’s key details as possible while not exceeding a single sentence. I try to use articles that are both intriguing and capture a discrete event or moment, such as “Homosexuality Off Illness List” (1973). Once each group has produced a digest, a member of each group reads the headline to the class, together with their digest. (After class, I post all the articles on the university’s online course software, in case they’d like to read any of those that another group summarized.) The exercise gives students who are less comfortable talking in class a chance to speak to a small group that may be less intimidating. And, just as importantly, it gets them talking about sexuality in way that’s concrete without being confessional.
We invite you to continue the conversation in our comments section. What strategies for introducing your students to the historical study of sexuality have you used? What challenges have you faced?
Gillian Frank is a Visiting Fellow at Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University. Gillian’s research focuses on the intersections of sexuality, race, childhood and religion in the twentieth-century United States. He is currently revising a book manuscript titled Save Our Children: Sexual Politics and Cultural Conservatism in the United States, 1965-1990. Gillian tweets from @1gillianfrank1
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