I'm thinking about the uses of discomfort in the classroom lately.
One of the very excellent grad student teachers in our department has, as a standard clause in her syllabi, that uncomfortableness will happen in her classes. That discomfort is part of the critical learning process. This instructor, who is BRILLIANT, is a person whose gender is not readily obvious, and who in fact doesn't fully occupy either side of the (false) gender binary. This - along with the content of the courses - is part of the discomfort.
She was one of the instructors and mentors we had as first-year teachers, and I vastly admired her position on this - it reminded me in certain ways of a strand of New College-esque "fuck shit up" attitude that pervaded a number of my classes there. From the queer activist perspective, shifting and dodging and denying binary identifications and categories is all part of the plan for disrupting those binaries. It forces the undergrads to confront categories that they may never even have considered before. Discomfort is a good thing.
This week, I have been teaching the extraordinarily smart (and now, depressingly, canceled) ABCFamily show HUGE. In conjunction with the three episodes I selected for viewing, I also asked my class to read Marilyn Wann's "Foreward" to The Fat Studies Reader (2009).
One of the first comments a student made about HUGE is that watching it made her somewhat uncomfortable, but that she grew to like it and in fact ended up watching all 10 or 11 episodes over the weekend.
I asked them to consider the opening scene of the pilot episode - an overhead camera shot of the kids on the first day at Camp Victory (the so-called "fat camp") where the show is set, milling around and waiting for their turn at the weigh-in. The camera slowly moves in and down, panning across the kids standing around in pairs, in awkward knots, as individuals who don't yet know each other.
All of the kids are wearing bathing suits.
All of the kids are fat (in varying degrees).
It's dis-comforting. We're not used to seeing images of large groups of mostly-unclothed fat people. We're not used to seeing fat people without either the fuzzy black bar of shame obscuring their faces (in stories about the OBESITY EPIDEMIC!!!) or the punchline of a mostly-cruel joke at the fat person's expense (sometimes told by the fat person herself).
When Will, the main protagonist, played wonderfully by Nikki Blonsky, finally takes of her shorts and t-shirt, mimicking a striptease right in front of the camp director - intentionally aimed at the director - we get lingering shots of Will's body in all its fat glory, in relatively close-up, well-lighted shots.
Both Wann's foreward, and HUGE, ask us to reconsider, or consider at all, a number of things we're mostly used to ignoring. Wann does it more stridently, more explicitly, and more forcefully; HUGE does it more subtly, more emotionally. But both say: LOOK.
Wann makes the great observation that all one can diagnose from looking at a fat person is one's own level of prejudice and stereotyping. The act of looking at another can - and often does - tell us vastly more about ourselves than it does about that other person. This is not a new or original idea; it's part of what makes the critical concept of "the Other" circulate so frequently and potently through almost every kind of subaltern studies that exist. Looking at the Other is a way of looking at the Self. If your gaze is properly calibrated - say, by reading Marilyn Wann, or by watching a show clearly framed through a fat-positive, queer sensibility - this Other/Self looking can be revelatory and positive for both parties.
Examining your own life of privileges and oppressions is essential, Wann argues, for critical work in the field of fat studies.
But this is the case in all fields, in all areas of life: ignoring or failing to properly address one's own privilege and oppression makes it almost impossible to speak well and convincingly about anyone's privilege and oppression.
But to look at yourself, to say "I experience these privileges every day, because I am thin/beautiful/male/young/straight/affluent/healthy/white/etc" is hard. It's even harder to say "I experience these privileges at the expense of people who are not thin/beautiful/male/young/etc." It's hard - though maybe less hard? - to say "I experience those oppressions because I am fat/plain/female/old/differently-abled/poor/brown/etc."
It's even harder to realize that you can exist in both privilege and oppression simultaneously: Wann points out that the very thin anorexic knows as much about fat-shame and oppression as does the very fat person.
But seeing one's own privilege, when before it always appeared simply as "the way life is" - THAT is uncomfortable. Having to look where before we looked away, or were simply not shown something - THAT is uncomfortable. Having to address our uncomfortableness - THAT is uncomfortable.
It's also learning. It's education, it's critical thinking, it's cracking open your brain and your perspective. It's like being given glasses that allow you to see a whole new color in the spectrum, one you never even knew existed. And now that you know about it, you can never unsee it, or forget it. Even if the glasses are taken away, your mind and memory retain the impression of that new, unexpected, unlooked-for, color.
It feels sometimes like I'm being lazy in the classroom, that I'm not actually actively teaching anything. I felt like this last year, over Octavian Nothing: Kingdom on the Waves. The ways in which my students responded to that book - what they focused on, how they reacted, what confused, upset, pleased them - all had to do with the content of the book, not specifically with anything I said in some brilliant lecture [I don't lecture, to begin with]. Same with Marilyn Wann, and watching HUGE - the moment they saw that opening scene of all those fat kids in their bathing suits, the work of discomfort and learning began. I didn't do anything except provide a context, and choose the texts.
Is this even teaching?
But perhaps that is a question for another day, another post.
Meanwhile, discomfort reigns in my classroom, and I am making us all continue to stare at it, to live in discomfort - at least for one more day.