I am one of dozens of professors who have been teaching a yearlong course called the "Common Intellectual Experience" at Ursinus College. All of our first-year students take the course simultaneously, grouped into classes of approximately 16, each led by a different professor. They read the same books at the same time, write papers with the same deadlines, and so on.
In their first semester, students read works by writers such as Plato, Galileo, and Descartes, and then discussed the course's three main questions from the perspectives of those different authors: (1) What does it mean to be human? (2) What is the universe and how do we fit into it? (3) How should we live our lives? The college is rightly proud of the course as it is a fine example of liberal-arts education, and I am happy to be a part of it.
In the course, we view one aspect of the human experience—homosexuality—through the lens of the first text of the second semester, Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir, Fun Home. The book is focused on the author's coming to terms with being a lesbian and dealing with the revelation of her father's homosexuality. It gives the second semester of the course a contemporary start and allows students to view the course questions in fresh ways.
However, as the only openly gay tenured (or tenure-track) faculty member teaching the course, I found myself in a unique position this semester. The course is discussion-based, so my students are encouraged to debate opposing viewpoints respectfully, to shape reasoned arguments with strong points of view, and to learn from diversity of opinion. I want them to express their educated opinions without fear of being shut down or disparaged.
If there are students who oppose homosexuality, those students should feel safe within the confines of our classroom to express their opinions in a respectful way. But how would that make me feel? Would I feel safe?
Debate about homosexuality is ever-present in our culture. During this same semester, the Supreme Court has heard two cases that deal with same-sex marriage and the legality of same-sex unions, resulting in heated punditry from all sides. Bechdel's smart, literate, and moving book is an ideal entry into this discourse because it provides a gay perspective from different generations: Bechdel's own (similar to mine since I am in my late 40s, just a few years younger than the author) and her father's. Those various perspectives, plus the students' own, can be compared alongside the real-time events in the news.
Intellectually, this is a terrific environment in which to learn about this subject. However, on a personal, emotional level, it has provided some difficulty.
I want my students to speak freely, but there are limits. If one of them expressed a racist opinion, say, during a discussion of the work of Frederick Douglass, I would stop the class immediately and face the issue directly. Yet oddly, when approaching a text like Fun Home, I feel compelled to make my students feel comfortable in expressing any opinion on the subject of homosexuality And that may mean that their thoughts oppose the very life that I am living.
If I were Jewish, would I create a safe environment for anti-Semitic opinions to be expressed when reading chapters from Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved? If I were female, would I allow my students to belittle women during a discussion of Elizabeth Cady Stanton's writings? No. I would not tolerate misogynist, anti-Semitic, or racist talk in my classroom. Yet as a gay professor, I encourage my students to share their thoughts against homosexuality.
Why do I do this? There is no pressure from the college to encourage students to express opinions in opposition to homosexuality. In fact, its nondiscrimination policy includes sexual orientation. The college's statement on human diversity recognizes and celebrates different groups based on "the principles of freedom and the quality of individuals as expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States." Perhaps that is where my personal dilemma derives.
As the Supreme Court is weighing whether to permit legal recognition of same-sex relationships, I feel that, at this point in our history, gay people are not included in those core American principles. This year's legal battles give credence to social and political opposition to homosexuality. Therefore, should not a student with an ideology opposed to homosexuality be allowed to express his or her opinion in the college classroom? That opinion may come from the student's religious or cultural upbringing, which I must respect.
Several semesters ago when I was teaching this same course, the subject of homosexuality came up during discussion of another text. A student respectfully expressed her views against homosexuality. She was not American, and her cultural upbringing had taught her that being gay was wrong. I was glad that she felt comfortable expressing her views, and I made it known to the class that I valued her contribution to the discussion. Inwardly, the situation was awkward, but I felt a professional obligation to put my student at ease.
In teaching this freshman course, I choose to remove my own political or personal views from the discourse. However, I assume most of my students are aware that their professor is gay. I am very "out" on the campus, and my political opinions are well known outside of the classroom. In the past, some students have deliberately and loudly expressed their liberal, pro-gay opinions when the subject has come up. I believe that they were showing their support not only for gay people in theory, but for me in particular.
My response? I have played devil's advocate and introduced opposing viewpoints. I have used that same tactic with other subjects in order to expose students to all perspectives. For instance, when discussing the Holocaust this semester, we spent time analyzing how anti-Semitic thinking is formed and fostered.
The difference, though, is that I make clear to students that anti-Semitism is wrong and will not be tolerated. When discussing homosexuality, however, I introduce the opposing viewpoint without pronouncing it wrong or banishing its expression from my classroom. I withhold my own thoughts on the subject.
In Fun Home, Alison Bechdel states that her father "juggled his public appearance and private reality" and that "the evidence is simultaneously hidden and revealed." Am I doing the same thing? Am I "covering"? Kenji Yoshino, in his book Covering, defines the concept: "To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream ... whether consciously or not, and sometimes at significant personal cost." He goes on to describe covering as "a hidden assault on our civil rights." In an effort to allow my students to express themselves freely, am I, in actuality, complicit in holding back progress toward equality?
More important, am I harming my gay students? I believe it is helpful to them, in a safe environment, to hear the arguments against homosexuality. They will encounter those same arguments in the "real" world, as I have. I want them to be prepared. Polls tell us that homophobia persists in our country. It is reasonable to assume that some students in my classroom hold such negative beliefs about homosexuality. They might be reticent to express their feelings in the classroom. Do I have a responsibility to create an atmosphere to bring those thoughts forward?
With all of that swirling in my head, I steeled myself to teach Fun Home this semester and to prepare for anything. But my emotional preparation was unnecessary. Despite my efforts to ensure that any opinion was welcomed, my students did not express any opposition to homosexuality when we discussed the book. Was that because students feared saying anything that might offend their gay professor? I am the man who determines their grades, after all. Or was that indicative of a generational shift toward more acceptance of homosexuality?
My thoughts here may seem naïve to some academics. I am well aware that other universities have queer-studies departments and scholars who teach a wide array of LGBT perspectives. But I work at a small college, and I am one of only a handful of openly gay employees there. I suspect that my experience is not unique and that there are other professors at other colleges who struggle to keep a clear division between their academic work and their private lives.
Do we, as educators, have an obligation to respect our students' views that run in opposition to our own lives? Fifty years ago, that was not an issue. Being an openly gay professor was not realistic, and no college course would assign a book like Fun Home. There were no books like Fun Home.
Fifty years in the future, this will no longer be an issue. If we believe the pundits, same-sex marriage in America is inevitable, and with it may come widespread acceptance of the LGBT community. In 2063, a professor like me, teaching a course like the "Common Intellectual Experience," will not have to pause when preparing to teach a book like Fun Home to his students.
What does it mean to be human? How should we live our lives? Apt questions indeed.