Pain 101

So when I checked my work email today, I noticed that I had filled it all up — all my boxes and folders or whatever were full, and I couldn’t get any new email messages.  (And that’s a problem, how?)  So I started going through old emails and attachments, trying to free up enough space to at least be able to receive the few e-mails I suspected were already accumulating, stranded out there in the e-void, like Scotty in the transporter buffer (yes, that’s right).  And I found this thing I wrote for a “Sensitive Issues in the Classroom” panel six and a half years ago.  I think I was asked to write something about gender (a “sensitive issue?”) for a “general” audience.  Anyhow, it’s the beginning of the semester, and I’ve got my first Reflective Practice group meeting today, and so teaching is very much on my mind and in my life these days. I guess it’s in that spirit that I’m sharing this.  Maybe also because I’ve been thinking about this.

Pain 101


            Having spent five of the last six Wednesdays in the dentist’s chair, undergoing very unpleasant procedures, I am reminded that at the root of sensitivity is pain.  If we are to inquire about sensitive issues in the classroom, we must talk about the pain from which such sensitivity arises.  Some old wound or a fresh one; a cloudy bruise, some place where bone has fused back together. 

            Women and men suffer because of the way our culture has constructed and continues to construct gender.  We know this in the abstract.  We sense it.  And yet, when the subject of pain comes up, we don’t feel ready or qualified to deal with it.  We might aim to soothe it, to quiet it, to heal it; in short, to erase it.

            Because gender is so fundamental to identity, because it is our body and our language, we cannot check our pain at the classroom door. 

            Because gender constructions are part of language constructions, it seems, at times, nearly impossible to speak or be spoken to without a flare-up of some pain.

            Women and men concerned with making visible and problemitizing the ways our culture constructs gender have their work cut out for them, everywhere — in and outside of classrooms, faculty meetings, fraternity houses, libraries, et cetera.  Adrienne Rich illustrates:

            “If it is dangerous for me to walk home late of an evening from the library, because I am a woman and can be    raped, how self-possessed, how exuberant can I feel as I sit working in that library?  How much of my working energy is drained by the subliminal knowledge that, as a woman, I test my physical right to exist each time I go out alone?” (“Taking Women Students Seriously, in On Lies, Secrets, and Silence  241)


            When we talk about sensitivity, we also talk about insensitivity.

            I think it follows that insensitivity is linked to privilege and to a lack of empathy.  Insensitivity grows from a lack of experience with pain, or a profound forgetting of that experience.

            When we ask students to experience or remember great pain, they will resist.  And why shouldn’t they?  What is the reward for lifting the veil?  What happiness is found by looking beneath gender’s Teflon surfaces?

            More pain.

            I ask my student to clarify the sensory imagery in her poem about having to starve herself to make her body into the body of a dancer — and I might as well be twisting her thin arm behind her back.

            I ask my student whether he believes the “speaker” in his poem is meant to sympathize with the guy who has assaulted his girlfriend, whether we are to understand this poem as silencing the woman who has been beaten or not been beaten — and in the blur of autobiography and artmaking, in the coy references to “the speaker” . . .  More pain.


            When we talk about the importance, in the new general education program, of “relevance,” of connecting the classroom to the reality of students’ lives and experiences, we owe a theoretical and material debt to feminist pedagogy.

            In her essay, “Engaged Pedagogy,” bell hooks writes of the Women’s Studies classrooms she inhabited as a student that they “were the one space where teachers were willing to acknowledge a connection between ideas learned in university settings and those learned in life practices.  And, despite those times when students abused that freedom in the classroom by only wanting to dwell on personal experience, feminist classrooms were, on the whole, one location where I witnessed professors striving to create participatory spaces for the sharing of knowledge.” (Teaching To Transgress 15)

            Notions of de-centering teacher authority in a classroom, an emphasis on the role of individual student voices in creating knowledge collaboratively, and other familiar pedagogical notions, have arisen largely from feminist practice.  Feminist pedagogy, first practiced by and for women, generally in women’s studies courses, has now broadened to include all disciplines, all genders.  We have recognized two things: that feminist pedagogy works in helping students to become active, engaged learners, and that sexist culture, cultivated and maintained by men and women, oppresses men and women. And yet, that appellation, “feminist,” is still often hissed in accusation or suspicion.  Feminist

            In one of her response journals to Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, a student I was working with in independent study exclaimed, “What is a teacher for, then?”  That question is still echoing for me.  What am I for?


            Is it possible to write like a man, or write like a woman?  Do our poems perform our gender? 

            Is this poet, whose work we’re looking at anonymously, male or female?  Which pronoun should we use?  Why is this frustrating?  Why do we want to know?

            Is our wanting to know an author’s gender related to our more traditional insistences about genre, a word which shares a root with gender?  Is this a poem or a story?  Truth or fiction?  Female or male?

            After we read and discuss an article about poetry hoaxes, a male student confesses, guiltily, that he’s considering submitting some poems for publication under a woman’s name.  They are pro-woman poems, he insists.  He thinks they will be more likely to get published this way.  His eyes are two questions marks, asking my permission.

            In creative writing class, we study at creating characters who are familiar, yet fresh.  Believable, yet not cliché.  This is harder than it sounds.

            All our bodies are there in the classroom, every day.  Our gendered bodies.  Our gendered language.  The way we try to make and talk about art together.  I am a woman teaching.  What am I for?


            A student who missed a creative writing class approached me once, years ago, to let me know she was sorry for missing, but she was in the hospital, because her boyfriend hit her, and she might have to miss another class to see the magistrate, and what work did she miss?  The black eye spread across half her face.  A small cut starting to heal.  What work did she miss?

            Part of me is always hoping she misses the day when her classmate shares his poem, the one in which the abused woman is the liar, the drama queen, the hurt and vengeful bitch.  Part of me is constantly wishing they’ll keep missing one another.  But, of course, part of me longs for that confrontation of poems — not an all-out fight in class — but a collision of language, of perspective, of privilege.  What am I for?   What are we all for, here in the university classroom?  I long for the baring and the bearing of pain, because, more and more, I suspect it’s the only way we’re going be able to learn, the only way liberatory pedagogy is going to find a body — a troubled and bruised and hopeful and gendered body.

3 thoughts on “Pain 101”

  1. Liz, every word here reminds me how much I miss sipping tea with you on the Outer Banks and talking about things that matter. This post should be read by every student, every teacher.

  2. Thanks, Cathie & Teri! Teri, I have such fond memories of that trip….

    I was thinking, as I reread this piece, about how a revised version of this talk might be more aware of/attentive to transpeople and/or folks who feel less than fully included by my refrain of “men and women” (meant as inclusive, but adherent to a frequently-less-than-inclusive either-or binary). Ah language.

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