Making It Better in the Classroom: Pedagogical Reflections

I have been teaching a lecture class on “Religion, Sexuality, and American Public Life” at New York University since 2004. I love teaching this class. The students (the class size is usually capped at 60) are uniformly engaged and always manage to surprise me — in the very best way. Some share of the students are religious studies or gender and sexuality studies majors. But the vast majority of the students take the class as an elective. Their motives are diverse. Some are drawn by the chance to investigate the intersection of religious and sexual politics. Other students, both queer and straight, are struggling with the place of religion in their own lives. There are avowed atheists in the class, and students who are religiously engaged. Among this latter group, a few of the Christian-identified students in the class are trying to sort out their own feelings about homosexuality. The diversity of academic backgrounds, political commitments, and religious and sexual self-identifications makes for fascinating conversation. NYU students are talkers, and they are also dazzlingly articulate.
I adjust the syllabus each time to reflect changing issues “in the news” (and also to keep the class fresh for me). But within any given semester, I also find myself changing the syllabus as we go along. My outline for the class is frequently overtaken by the day’s newspaper headlines, something that is guaranteed to happen given the combustible mix of the course’s three keywords: religion, sexuality, and American public life.
I have many ambitions for this class. One big take-away for the class is the limits of tolerance. I want students to understand just how cramped the frame of tolerance is as a way of making room for social difference, not just for “being” different in public life, but for “doing” difference. In this class, legal debates over religious freedom — and, in particular, what happens when the Supreme Court protects freedom of belief but not freedom of conduct — are one major way to illustrate the limitations of tolerance and how these limitations are connected to specifically Protestant understandings of religious and secular subjectivity. In turn, the distinction belief/conduct connects to debates over what sexual freedom, as opposed to sexual equality, might look and feel like in public life.  (My lecture course rests in large part on the arguments Janet Jakobsen and I make in our book Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance.)
I also want the students to grapple with the question of framing: how the kinds of claims we can make in public debates and the kinds of subjects we can be in private or in public (and the course historicizes and opens up the public/private distinction) are limited in advance by assumptions about what religion “is,” what sexuality means for “everybody,” and the proper boundaries between public and private for sexual identity and for religious identity, too. Of course, the kinds of claims we can make also differ across discursive contexts or speech communities. What we would argue before a judge, as we make our pitch to and through legal tradition and precedent, is not the same as what we might be able to dare in a different forum, in debates within a particular religious community, say, or over dinner tables with family members or friends. I am especially eager for my students to come out of the class able to engage with media critically.
One of the ongoing challenges for me is developing assignments that fit the critical goals and ambitions I have for my students in this class. I am not interested in some sort of “skills assessment,” if by that is meant determining whether or not they can write coherent essays. Yes, I want them to be able to do that, but this is a generic goal and one that has no specific relation to the three keywords of my class. Rather,  if I want the students who take this class to come away able to critically analyze the limits of tolerance in practice and not just in the abstract, I need assignments that do more than just give them an opportunity to show they have done the reading and can regurgitate the arguments.  Similarly, I need assignments that give them a chance simultaneously (1) to analyze the way mediatized grids of intelligibility shape what we can say, know, or experience as “true” and (2) work within and even push up against these frames in the course of taking a position in a public debate.
As the midterm paper drew near, I had already prepared a 5-page essay prompt that called on students to do a critical reading of how a particular video (and there would be three or four video clips to choose among) framed issues concerning religion and sexuality and framed, as well, the notion of a “general public.” This essay would give me and my teaching assistant, doctoral student Katie Brewer Ball, a chance to see how students could critically deconstruct a particular public debate, its organizing terms and assumptions. But it did not answer to my larger ambition for the students in this class: namely, that they develop and practice the critical tools for jumping into these debates themselves, and perhaps on altered and altering terms.
Enter the It Gets Better Project. The launch of the It Gets Better project more or less coincided with the midterm assignment. Now I have my own concerns about this project — and certainly with the inaugurating video in it, Dan Savages’s, in which the happy ending he and husband Terry promise lies ahead for every bullied queer kid (marriage, child, vacations in Europe) makes me think I must still be stuck in a sad queer childhood (except for the European vacation part, which I need because I am otherwise such a sad sad queer).  So, I decided to expand the midterm assignment. First, I added the It Gets Better project to the list of videos or media sites the students could assess the media’s presentation of public life and reproduction of the discourse of tolerance. Second, and more crucially, I gave the students the option of making their own It Gets Better video, in teams or solo. If they chose this video option they were also required to write a short essay explaining their own goals in their It Gets Better video and how their creative choices were limited, or not, by the site of distribution (YouTube) as well as by their imagined audience. Among other things, I wanted them to make clear in their accompanying essay if they were making their video for queer kids themselves or for the various adults who might actually be in a position to make things better or worse for queer youth.
Roughly one-third of the class chose the video option, many of them in teams. Katie Brewer Ball created a YouTube channel for the class, which gathers all the videos my students created as well as my own It Gets Better video, which I made and showed in class on the same day that I handed out the midterm assignment. I tried out my own assignment as a way to model what I was asking of them. But I also did so in order to model something else: the embarrassment of sincerity and the risk of falling on my face in front of complete strangers on YouTube and in front of people I cared deeply about — my students.  I think such risk-taking is also good practice for the messy work of inhabiting shared social space and practicing agonistic democratic social life.
Ann Pellegrini is Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and Associate Professor of Performance Studies & Religious Studies at New York University

Ann Pellegrini