CELFS Teaching and Learning Network

Bringing real issues into the classroom

lgbt-flagMy name is Hannah Gurr, I’m an EAP tutor and my sexual orientation is none of your business.

‘Hang on a sec,’ you might protest, ‘I didn’t even speculate, let alone ask!’

And of course, you are absolutely right.

But all that being the case, why did I decide to tell a class of university students last term that I was gay? If you would like to know the answer, read on…

It was at the beginning of the eighth session of ten of a course which aimed to improve learners’ speaking and listening skills in an academic context.

In the first session, I set up the task of having regular practice seminars during the course in which students were required to research a topic in preparation for discussion with their classmates. The intended learning outcomes (ILOs) were that students would improve their skills in providing oral summaries, building on each other’s contributions in seminars and justifying personal contributions with appropriate evidence.

I chose the first topic of vaping and e-cigarettes for the seminar in session 2 (suggesting that students might want to explore differences in attitudes to smoking across cultures and/or over time, smoking bans, standardised packaging, the tobacco industry, and so on).

After this, I handed over the choice of subject matter to the class (made up of four women and four men; four French, one Spanish, one Italian, one Czech and one Omani; all roughly the same age). The topics they chose were contentious ones: abortion (session 3), Clinton vs Trump (session 4), assisted suicide/euthanasia (session 7) and same-sex marriage (session 8).

These all clearly fell under the PARSNIP taboo topics (politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, –isms, pork) that many teachers might understandably shy away from. However, I felt that (a) the students should be allowed self-determination in choosing their topics for debate and (b) that young adults at university should be capable of discussing such themes.

In the discussions, I took notes on language and seminar skills, etc. but did not participate. Two students were chosen to chair the discussion each time, so everybody had a chance to perform this role.

In the abortion and euthanasia discussions, the debate (perhaps understandably) remained at an abstract level. I cannot be sure (and would not have wanted to invade my learners’ privacy to find out) but I felt that none of the student participants had any direct experience of the reality of the issues, as would, say, the family of Noel Conway, who is currently in the news campaigning for his right to die.

However, knowing that the following week’s discussion topic was going to be same-sex marriage, the realisation struck me that I finally had the opportunity to bring reality into the classroom. I did not want to impose my views on the students, but I did want to drive home the message that same-sex marriage and adoption legislation affects real, not hypothetical, people. I could have reeled off the old cliché: ‘some of my friends / family members / colleagues are gay’ (which is true). spartacusBut I wanted to go a step further: I wanted to say, in effect, ‘I’m Spartacus!’ (probably inspired by Kirk Douglas reaching 100 years old around the same time – what a legend!)

So after taking the register and making announcements regarding assignments and self-study for the session, and before handing over to the two students who were to chair the seminar, I flashed up a couple of pictures on the IWB: ‘This is my fiancée, Susie. This is us when we first met three years ago. And this is her with our dog, Ruffles. Yes, I’m gay!’

I was surprised at how anxious I was about coming out to my class. Despite it being my choice to make that declaration, despite being twice their age, and a tutor, despite the fact that I would probably only see them once or twice more before they went home to their respective countries, I felt my nerve starting to fail me before I’d even got to the end of my announcement. I noticed a couple of students exchanging looks, and others looking surprised, albeit pleasantly. Anyway, I had thrown my little bombshell, and the seminar discussion proceeded in much the same way that the others had before. I was pleased to see that what I had said did not seem to have a freezing effect on the discussion, and students seemed to be reacting to me in the same way (as I wrote up useful vocabulary on the board).

So why did I do it? Throughout my teaching career, LGBT+ rights have regularly been in the news: in England and Wales, the age of homosexual and heterosexual consent was equalised in 2001, civil partnerships were allowed in 2004, equal marriage in 2014 – laws have been changing, in one direction or the other, in many other countries around the world. The international students that I have met during my 16 years of teaching have expressed a wide range of views on the subject.

We must assume that some of our students identify as LGBT+. But often the debate unfolds as if nobody in the class were. I do not expect anyone, staff or student, to feel they have to declare their sexual orientation – and in writing this blog post, I have deliberately tried to keep my true sexual orientation ambiguous, for the reason I gave right at the beginning. On the other hand, if people do not come out, the default seems to be that we assume everybody is heterosexual, which makes LGBT+ people ‘other’ rather than ‘us’.

handshakeI expect neither praise nor censure for what I chose to do, but I *am* interested in reading your reactions to this experiment. What would happen in your classroom if you were to say: ‘for the purposes of this lesson, I’m coming out as gay. Today, I’m Spartacus.’

February is LGBT+ History Month . Click here for events at UoB.

For more information about LGBT+ issues, please contact Suzanne Doyle / Nick SkeltonCo-Chairs of the University of Bristol LGBT+ Staff Network on the 3rd Floor of the Richmond Building, Queens Road, Clifton, Bristol, BS8 1LN. [Thank you Suzanne for your very useful feedback on this post – H.]

Show your support of LGBT+ staff and students with a rainbow lanyard 🙂

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9 Responses to “Bringing real issues into the classroom”

  1. meahunt

    I had a squirly feeling in my tummy as I read your description of nerves failing while opening yourself up to your class, Hannah. And I commend you for feeling the fear and doing it anyway! If we don’t push ourselves to the edge of our comfort zones, won’t our lessons remain more of the same-old, same-old? Besides, as you point out, these are people perfectly capable of “grown-up, real-world” conversation. Self-determination = respecting equality, diversity and not infantilising our fellow learners.

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Suzanne Doyle

    Thank you so much for sharing this Hannah. I know for some people they choose not to be out at work and that is completely their choice but I feel proud that you were able to share this with your class. University is about learning and educating and sometimes that is done outside of the curriculum as much as inside and done through sharing experiences and being open and yourself. If you have in some way supported or helped one person in that room then that is fantastic. It was lovely to be able to read this and chat to you about it and I hope more people know they are able to be themselves at work if they want to. Suzanne x

    Liked by 2 people

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  3. Tyson Seburn

    I applaud your rationale and experimentation in bringing your personal information into the lesson. It’s been a very long time (14 years, actually) since I explicitly came out to students like this, but I did it at that time in a similar fashion. I was nearing the end of my tenure in Seoul as a teacher and decided that I had little to lose, so on one of my last days, I came out to each class one after the other all day long (I taught five classes in a row at that time). I did it in part because I wanted them to see that someone they respected (I hoped) was not unlike them in any other way except this, and also like you, that it was a way to show students who may be questioning themselves that it is not an us vs them, removed situation, like it is often set up when discussing LGBTQ-related issues in class.

    Since then, however, I haven’t gone out of my way to be so explicit with students here in Toronto. I don’t actively conceal my life or opinions to any great extent, instead opt for raising them in a casual matter-of-fact way when the topic arises. Having said that, I almost never address my personal life in any way beyond the fact that I love my puppy like a daughter in class. I’m just over it being a thing to discuss. Here, same-sex marriage or any number of LGBTQ rights has been a done deal for a long time, so it’s not open for discussion any longer in my opinion. When discrimination is discussed and a case somewhere that involves LGBTQs is brought up either by myself or students, I aim for discussion from an academic and informed perspective, which I think learners new to Canada may not yet have had the opportunity to discuss from this angle. I aim to demonstrate how to discuss sensitive topics without interjecting the emotions that come with it. I realise that this is difficult and maybe not always the right approach.

    I have to admit that I do struggle a little with being blatantly open about my sexuality or my relationship with students, since I realise that doing so may help some students feel less outcasted if discussion seems to assume that everyone is heterosexual, cisgender, or any other of the ‘not us, but them’ attitudes. I don’t, however, keep it a secret from my social media presences, particularly instagram, where a number of current and former students have found me. I guess the bottom line for me at the moment is normalising without making it an event, but I’m not sure I am that successful or if I justify this because of nerves being with one group for 24 weeks. It’s a continued internal discussion I have with myself.

    Congrats on your call, and I think we all can continue questioning why we make our choices, how we implement them, and what works best as examples for our students. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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    • celfspresessional

      I really appreciate your comments, Tyson. It’s really fascinating to consider how best to tackle these issues. The ideal for me would definitely be ‘normalising without making it an event’ as you say. – Hannah

      Liked by 2 people

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  4. Ben

    I haven’t much to add to your very interesting story. I do think it is important to ‘bring the outside world in’ and discuss interesting and occasionally difficult topics – I also 100% agree with your approach of letting the students make choices about the topic. Thank you for sharing your approach.

    For myself, the closest I get to your ‘I am Spartacus’ is when we discuss issues of race, national identity, and immigration. I will sometimes wait to see if students express concern about immigration before reminding them that I too, am an immigrant, and am happy with the label. I also explain that being an immigrant in Spain is occasionally challenging because of stereotyping, and language ability, but that it would be a lot worse if I wasn’t relatively wealthy, white, and male.

    Liked by 2 people

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    • celfspresessional

      Absolutely! When I was living in Vienna, many of the English teachers there contemplated getting t-shirts printed with ‘Ich bin Ausländer’, because although we were technically immigrants, we were sort of the most acceptable type of foreigners, and we wanted to show solidarity with other immigrants (most of whom integrate way better than some of us did!)

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    • helenwaldron

      Agree completely. This is about your identity (and your right to have one, for that matter). There has to be an atmosphere of trust and honestly in the classroom if you’re going to be dealing with “difficult” topics (as I believe the most rewarding classes do). Spartacus rules ok (says I without having ever seen the film)!

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  5. Hannah S

    Hi, I’ve just read this- it was great to read, thank you for sharing. I don’t have experience of teaching classes of students so I can’t add to this specific situation. However, until joining Bristol University as a researcher 6 months ago, I worked as a farm vet in rural Devon so thought I’d briefly share this experience. Coming out to elderly male farmers is no easy feat! And one which I avoided at all costs to begin with, going along a similar thought process to the start of this article- ‘it’s none of their business, I don’t have to tell them’. I have countless entertaining stories of them trying to set me up with any man they knew because my lack of communication on the subject meant I was presumed to be single, and actually this was very stressful. I found myself constantly dodging questions about anything to do with my personal life. Gradually, I told a few of them and have had mixed reactions- many entertaining stories there too! Now, eight years on, I am the opposite- whoever it is, if I can drop it into the conversation, I will and people generally surprise me (in a good way). Some of the elderly farmers who I presumed would be so difficult to come out to are even coming to my gay wedding in five weeks time.
    Now, working in a University feels like a dream! No one bats an eyelid that I’m marrying another woman. I like to think I’d feel able to be open to a class of students, but I’ve not yet been in that situation. It was really interesting to read this article and the comments, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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