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A Passion for Pedagogy

Everything I know about teaching I learned selling sex toys.

May 5, 2019

Leslie Leonard is a Ph.D. candidate in American Literature and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. You can follow her on twitter @lesliemleo.

Like many undergraduates looking to pay rent with self-directed hours and seemingly easy money, I joined a pyramid scheme in my sophomore year of college. However, while other students hocked energy drinks and Mary Kay products, I hosted Passion Parties in women’s homes selling adult toys. This anecdote from my undergrad years is funny enough on its own, perhaps, but the more time that I spend working under the title of “teacher” (rather than “consultant”) I realize that the two have more in common than one might think.

As a consultant, my job was to direct the evening, display products, answer questions, guide guests through organized group games, and educate women on their bodies. There is no doubt that being able to talk to a room of 20 women about the necessity of a water-based lubricant prepared me for helping 15 freshmen navigate the rhetorical triangle, but a solid pedagogical practice, as we all know, takes more than just confidence and a knowledge of one’s field. Others have discussed their own unexpected and more traditional journeys toward their current pedagogy, and while I won’t claim to be a perfect pedagogue, I invite you to consider the many non-traditional experiences in your own life that have impacted what you value as an educator. As for me, here are some of my beliefs about teaching that originated as I stood in someone’s living room, surrounded by more than a dozen blushing women.

1. Care is the key to justifying your students trust in you. Whether they’ve been dragged along to a party by a friend and don’t have any money to spend or are taking an introductory course as a requirement, your students are willing to trust that you know what you’re doing, that you care about what you’re doing, and that you want them to care about what you’re doing. In their trust of you they’re surprisingly willing to go along with silly games, group activities, frank discussions, and complicated demonstrations. For the hour and a half that you stand before them, explaining the need for silicone-safe soap or explaining the power structures embedded in citations, your job is to earn that trust by genuinely and unabashedly caring passionately about the topic at hand and about their ideas, questions, and contributions.

2. Value the personal insight that your students bring to the discussion. As a consultant, the roomful of women was never my “audience,” and as a teacher my students are never “kids.” I was never a “saleswoman,” but rather a “consultant.” I’m not a “lecturer,” but rather a “mediator.” In a party, that meant inviting discussion about products and allowing the women to form independent opinions without trying to aggressively sell them on something. It also meant allowing space for them to discuss their own experiences and recognizing that they were the experts of their own bodies. In a classroom, it means creating space to discuss ideas and opinions and making class-related decisions as a group. It also means recognizing that my students possess valuable insights gained both from academic and lived experience and that I should value their experiences (as scholars, writers, researchers, and individuals).

3. Create a space where dumb questions are allowed. First, I’ll say that in my experience most “dumb questions” are never actually dumb at all and even those that might be considered “dumb” or repetitive often come from a genuine place of not-knowing. Nearly all of my PP clients, with the exception of a few sorority parties, were 40 or older and many of them had never been educated on either sex or their bodies at all. To illustrate just how little sex education had been emphasized in their lives, many revealed to me that, despite being married for decades, they had never experienced an orgasm. For what was sold as a fun evening of drinks and games, the discussion and questions were deeply personal and authentic, ones that demanded empathy rather than judgment. Whether inside of a classroom or outside of one, it can be a difficult balance to strike – maintaining a light atmosphere, where no question is a bad one, while also tackling impossibly serious topics – but I have found that approaching the classroom as a low-stakes space helps students comfortably approach questions and discussions without fear that their genuine questions might be dismissed or judged.

4. Be flexible. Just as the best laid plans often go awry, teaching is often a game of going with the flow and allowing discussion to develop organically. My consultant presentations were always scripted, choreographed, and timed. There’s nothing wrong with preparation, but, inevitably, some topics and products held participant interest for longer or reminded them of questions that they meant to ask. Similarly, in the classroom there just isn’t a way to predict which topics or aspects of a reading will be of interest to a particular group of students. Planning is tried and true, but being able to change those plans on the fly will never let you down. Accept that you may not get to cover exactly what you wanted or the amount that you wanted in class, and maybe invest in your improv skills.

What deeply held beliefs do you have about teaching that drive your own classroom practice, and where did those beliefs originate?

[Image: Tupperware Home Party, 1958; State Library and Archives of Florida, Florida Photographic Collection and used under the Creative Commons.]


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