It is often said that we teach what we need to learn. Nowhere in my teaching career have I found this to be more the case than in my creation and implementation of a new course for our university’s curriculum titled, Sociology of the Body. It started out as a Special Topics offering for one semester and was immediately well received by students, it quickly has become my favorite class to teach, and is now offered as a regular elective. I am aware now that for years I was cultivating the conditions necessary to one day effectively teach this course.
In graduate school, I grew very impatient with so much of traditional academic writing, mainly because it felt disembodied, detached, unemotional and formulaic. I even recall orally defending my comprehensive exams and using the phrase, “I feel” to describe something and my professors at the time immediately corrected me, demanding that I extinguish such words from my vocabulary. Regarding the “I” and feeling states as contaminants to good research and writing felt wrong to me then and still does.
Embodied Writing and Memoir
Interestingly but not surprisingly then, about four years later, as I was finishing my dissertation, I began to study memoir in earnest both by voraciously reading memoir and attending writing workshops and retreats. It was through memoir that I found some of the most real, true, authentic sociology happening. Writing memoir is about interpreting and making meaning of the mundane and specific events of our daily lives and then translating them in ways that have some universal truths and applications for readers.
During those early years that I was initially getting steeped in memoir, I was also discovering yoga and meditation and participating in Deep River groups for women. I have since become a facilitator for Deep River groups. The practice cultivated in these groups is to transcend the minutiae and frenzy of the surface of our daily lives in order to drop down, slow down, access, and touch the deep inner resources of creativity and stillness that flow within each of us.
Seemingly paradoxically, all this time, I was working in the movement to end violence against women, counseling abusers and working with survivors of trauma that was taking place on and in the body and in their homes. I was endlessly curious with how well we were doing in these intervention groups in terms of helping people be more in their bodies. I was pretty worried that at least on this level we were largely failing them.
When I was 42 years old, four major life transitions converged in my life at the same time. Within the span of a month, I left my husband whom I had just divorced, I moved across the country, my father died, and I started a new job. I was in desperate search of home---geographically, intellectually, creatively, pedagogically, relationally and intimately.
Authentic, Mindful Connections with our Bodies
Over the years, I have come to understand that we search for home and ultimately find it, if we are lucky, in many likely and unlikely places----in places where we feel we might find a sense of a community, in structures we move into to reside, in intimate relationships, in creative pursuits like art, teaching, writing, etc., in social justice and healing activism, and quite importantly, in our bodies. It strikes me that when we have a strong, healthy, mindful connection within our own bodies, when we are at home, rather than homeless in our bodies, we are more rooted, more whole and more likely to sustain contemplative and social justice pedagogy.
I have now been teaching for 21 years and am aware that what often engages students the most in the classroom is when intellectual learning is well connected to emotional learning. In reflecting on how I have crafted my own artful pedagogy, I find myself inspired and moved by two great teachers: bell hooks and Parker Palmer. Both write about the importance of being mindful of the whole person when we teach---both the whole person of the student and the whole person of the teacher, and they share the idea that good teaching is about the capacity for connectedness. hooks explains that: "To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin." And, Palmer states: “The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts -- meaning heart in its ancient sense, the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self."
Consequently, I approach teaching the Sociology of the Body class by teaching with heart and propelled by these central questions: what does it mean to be, and to feel, embodied and what does it mean to be, and to feel, disembodied? The purpose of this course is to investigate how the body is socially constructed and becomes a site of contested terrain acted on by others and by the self, how it is a site of struggle, pleasure, loss, politics, the law, trauma, grief, joy, ecstasy, etc. For example, we examine how trauma, self-injury, and grief can leave a person disembodied, fragmented and homeless in his/her own body. We draw mainly on creative nonfiction and memoir as a way to read and understand very particular and personal experiences and struggles with the body, and then we pull back with a sociological analysis to see how these become public issues of the social structure. We examine issues such as sexuality, birth, death, self-injury, trauma, incest, cancer, HIV/AIDS, beauty, mental illness, addiction, disability, eating problems, media representation, etc. Looking at these issues of the body lead us to looking at social movements, social policy, social constructionism, and politics. I also integrate special activities in class like meditation and yoga as ways to encourage wellness and as a way to counter the disembodied quality that is emblematic of institutional structures. With the students, I work at building knowledge that is community-embedded and connected, activist-inspired, merging theory and practice, blending deep sociological and personal inquiry and social change.
The overall goal of this course is to equip students with knowledge that they can apply in their personal and professional lives as they navigate an increasingly complex society. Students are given ample opportunity to reflect on their own perspectives about issues of the body, and they have the chance to think about their relationship with their own bodies, with others’ bodies and with body politics.
Learning Goals for the Course
The following are some specific goals that frame this course and that also frame the various assignments I have crafted for the course:
- To understand how and why the body is a critical issue of sociological importance.
- To consider the body and issues related to it at personal, political, and professional levels.
- To learn how the body is related to oppression and privilege.
- To understand how aspects of the body related to race, class, gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability, language, and religion affect individuals, families, communities, and whole societies differentially.
- To promote respect, appreciation, and admiration for everyBODY (including, and maybe most importantly, YOUR OWN!!).
- To learn about the relationship between the body and human rights.
- To acquire knowledge for the purpose of social change rather than simply and solely for knowledge's sake.
- To deeply examine the way in which social issues are framed and the implications that this has for social change and public policy, especially related to the body.
- To begin to see the deeply social quality of arrangements which are typically regarded as "natural" and "individual."
- To begin to see the social structural aspects of issues and the social forces operating
Deborah J. Cohan, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Her interests include: gender-based violence, the body, creative nonfiction, and feminist pedagogy. As a scholar-teacher-activist, Cohan has done domestic violence work in four states and speaks widely on abuser/survivor dynamics. A member of the Board of Directors of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Cohan also serves as an expert consultant in legal cases involving sexual violence and harassment. She is writing a book about what is involved and what is at stake in teaching about intimacy and violence, and she is working on a memoir about caregiving for an ill and elderly parent who was abusive. Her scholarly work has been published in journals such as Violence Against Women and the E-Journal of Public Affairs, and she has a chapter in a forthcoming edited volume titled, Teaching Gender and Sex in Contemporary America, Springer Press. Her work on whiteness and the politics of feminism has been included in a teaching resource collection. Cohan's creative nonfiction has been published in Life Writing and in an anthology titled Letting Go: Feminist and Social Justice Insight and Activism, Vanderbilt University Press, 2015. Her poetry will be featured in a collection on sexual violence due out in Winter 2016.