by James Fortney, Instructional Developer, Reinert Center
I was 23 years old when I taught my first undergraduate course at the University of Utah. My age, I feared, would prevent me from being taken seriously by my students and potentially undermine my credibility as a teacher and scholar. In an attempt to thwart such ageism, I did my best to look and sound more experienced than I was. I wore black-rimmed glasses, donned tweed blazers and striped neckties, and used lots of big words like ‘epistemology,’ ‘heteronomativity,’ and ‘deconstruction’ during each class. While my contrived performance of age may have made me feel more confident in front of my students, I was not fooling anyone. As Roland Barthes (1978) reminds us, “I can do everything with my language, but not with my body. What I hide by my language, my body utters” (p. 44).
My age was (and continues to be) always visible to my students — and at that time, being 23 years old did impact how I taught. Different situational factors throughout my teaching career have prompted awareness of my “teaching body” in similar ways with regard to ability, gender expression, markers of social class, sexual orientation, and even fitness/health. One of the interesting things about online teaching, for example, is that it makes you acutely aware of how much your body matters to your teaching because you are suddenly confronted with its visible absence. And the fact that our bodies change over time reminds us that their relationship to our teaching will also change, often in unexpected, uncomfortable, and potentially difficult ways. The bodily realities of instructors may include many situations seen and unseen and many situations beyond easy categorical description (Freedman & Holmes, 2003). We teach in and through our bodies, thus it seems productive to consider how bodies have been talked about and conceptualized in pedagogical research. It is also useful to reflect on your “teaching body” and how its various embodied identities (e.g., age, health, gender) impact your teaching.
Listed below are three resources to get you started. Freedman & Holmes (2003) provide a nice primer on embodied pedagogy through several personal essays that work to discard the idea that the teacher has no body. Importantly, each author emphasizes the impact of different bodily identities on the teacher-student educational dynamics. The other two books are written by tenured professors who both experienced physical disabilities toward the end of their careers. The late Robert Murphy (1990) chronicles his slow progression into quadriplegia and the impact it had on his identity as a teacher and scholar. Christina Crosby (2016) offers a deeply vulnerable account of a bicycle accident that rendered her paralyzed. She invites readers to acknowledge the dependencies of all human bodies by “diving into the wreck” of fragility, grief, and loss to find new ways of teaching and living on. Together, these texts invite critical consideration of how all bodies marked by difference “negotiate [the] space of authority that is the classroom” (Fredman & Holmes, 2003, p. xiii). Disability, pregnancy, and overall bodily fitness/health are particularly compelling accounts because of their shifting and often unexpected impact on teaching.
Embodied pedagogy cuts within and across a large amount of scholarly literature. The information in this blog post and the resources listed below represent only a sliver of that content. My hope is to return to this topic in future blog posts so that we can begin to see its breadth of relevance and importance for any discussion about teaching. I encourage you to share your reactions to this post in the comments section below. Please also feel free to schedule a teaching consultation with someone in the Reinert Center to discuss embodiment and teaching.
Crosby, C. (2016). A body, undone: Living on after great pain. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Freedman, D. P., & Holmes, M. S. (Eds.) (2003). The teacher’s body: Embodiment, authority, and identity in the academy. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Murphy, R. F. (1990). The body silent: The different world of the disabled. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
Barthes, R. (1978). A lover’s discourse. New York, NY: Hill & Wang.