• July 24, 2014

A Maryland Professor of the Year Embraces a Ticklish Topic: Sex

Professor Helps Students Explore Cultural Attitudes Toward Sexuality 1

Sanjay Suchak

Deborah Stearns (center) with students at Montgomery College, in Maryland.

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close Professor Helps Students Explore Cultural Attitudes Toward Sexuality 1

Sanjay Suchak

Deborah Stearns (center) with students at Montgomery College, in Maryland.

A few weeks into the term, Deborah Stearns asks her Montgomery College students to do something they've probably never done in a classroom before: to name all of the sexual terms that they know, no matter how vulgar or taboo they might be. By the end of the class, the students have put together a lengthy and varied list.

"I don't just do it for shock value. I do it to explore our social attitudes about sex," she says. Her "Psychology of Human Sexuality" class ends up "having this great discussion about 'What is our culture saying?' "

That creative approach to teaching her students both inside and outside the classroom earned Ms. Stearns, a professor at the community college in suburban Maryland, the honor of Maryland Professor of the Year.

Ms. Stearns, who is 43, also teaches general psychology, psychology of women, and social psychology. She is faculty adviser for the People's Alliance, which supports students of all sexual orientations, and raises funds for scholarships. Most years, she oversees the campus's program for World AIDS Day and, as part of an effort to end violence against women, a performance of The Vagina Monologues.

She not only runs the psychology brown-bag series, in which scholars lead discussions on topics like same-sex marriage and envy, but also makes pasta and cookies for the 50 or so students and faculty who show up. "I think that the students are often hungry for intellectual engagement—they want to participate in a conversation," she says. "It's hard for our student population because they come and go from campus."

Despite her deep involvement at the college, Ms. Stearns says she was shocked to learn last year that she had won the award, which the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education gave her as part of its State Professors of the Year Awards Program. "When I opened the letter, I squealed," she says, "which is not something that I do very often." 

 Ms. Stearns earned her bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and went on to do postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Chicago. She held temporary faculty positions at Penn, and Georgetown and George Washington Universities.

In 2002, she joined the faculty of Montgomery College. "I hadn't necessarily thought I would teach at a community college, but it fits my desire to teach where it makes a difference," she says. Not only are the classes she leads smaller than the ones she taught at universities, she says, but the college is also much more diverse in terms of age, class, and nation of origin.

Her research explores the intersection of sexuality and psychology: An early project looked at the way that same-sex and opposite-sex couples negotiate power. She found that only in lesbian couples did money not determine which partner held power in a relationship. She recently presented a paper on genitalia as proxies for gender at a conference but would like to write for a more general audience.

Her work is sometimes controversial. "With so many things that I've done, I've tripped over other people's discomfort around sexuality," she says, "and it surprises me every time." 

 Uneasiness about sexuality also prevails outside of academe, she says: "We're very interested in sex; it's a predominant interest in our culture. We use sex for titillation, but we don't have open and frank education and discussions about sexuality."

To foster that sort of frank discussion, she tries to make lectures as fresh as possible. "It's a lot like theater or stand-up—you're doing the same shtick over and over again, and you have to realize that people are hearing something for the first time," she says. "I want to show them in the classroom that I'm intellectually engaged, I am a lifelong learner, and that you can be that, too." She tries to use new materials, like recent newspaper articles, each time she teaches a class.

Because Montgomery College has open enrollment, the academic preparation of the students in Ms. Stearns's classes varies greatly. The challenge, she says, is getting everyone to succeed while not lowering her standards. To help students who struggle in her courses, she gives weekly online quizzes and assigns a research paper that she guides through several drafts.

Everyone learns from each other, she says. "When I ask, 'What do we assume is true of women?,' you're going to get very different answers from someone from Africa and someone from Bethesda," she says, "It really enriches the learning environment in a huge way."

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