The Sweet Spot of (Intellectual) Stimulation

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‘We’re sex workers and we vote’: Women’s March event shines light on a marginalized group (yahoo.com)

I released my second book of classroom exercises, 50 Critical Thinking Exercises for Humanities Classes 2, a few days ago. As with the first book in the series, it’s an extension of my efforts to find ways to reach modern students, to stimulate their minds and get them to think about a variety of issues from various perspectives, to help them develop the critical thinking skills that will help them not just in their academic careers, but throughout their lives as well. Part of what I strive for, both in my teaching career and in these books I’ve published, is to help students connect the concepts they learn in my courses, which can feel abstracted and only relevant for their future classes, to the “real world” they inhabit (insomuch as that term can ever be adequately defined).

Designing these exercises can be very difficult. Although I come across ideas for exercises almost every day, only a handful of them ever get developed into something I feel comfortable trying out in my classrooms, and even fewer of those are so successful with my students that I feel comfortable incorporating them into future classes and sharing them with my fellow teachers. There are many reasons why an exercise may fail to engage students, but one of the most common is when the topic of the exercise falls outside of the “sweet spot” in many students’ minds between familiarity and newness. If a topic is too familiar to students, some of them may tune out because they don’t feel like engaging that topic will be worth their time and effort; on the other hand, if a topic makes a student feel like I’ve “blown their mind” right after I introduce it to them, they may spend so much brainpower just trying to understand the basic elements of the topic that they wind up lacking the mental space to think critically about it.

Topics relating to sex are always at risk of the latter problems. Sex remains a third-rail issue for many Americans, and bringing up topics related to sex in an English class (except those which may already be familiar to students, such as debating whether or not there’s too much sexuality in modern media) can push a lot of students so far out of their “sweet spot” that effective discussion becomes all but impossible. At the same time, lots of students leap at any opportunity they get to talk about sex, even in an academic setting (especially if they’ve never had the opportunity to do so in their previous schooling), so when an exercise related to a sexual topic “hits” with students, it can lead to them engaging so well with class discussions that a tremendous amount of learning can be done in a short span of time.

One of the exercises in my new book has a good track record of that kind of success in my classes. Several years ago, a sex work advocacy group in Canada called Stepping Stone Nova Scotia launched a public campaign to draw visibility to the fact that sex workers are human beings with lives like everyone else’s. This is a radical concept to some people, especially when so much of our modern political discourse relies on dehumanizing perceived opponents in an attempt to make them bigger objects of ridicule and contempt. Between that, and the matter-of-fact language that Stepping Stone Nova Scotia used in their campaign (examples; “I’m proud of my tramp, raising two kids on her own” and “I’m glad my prostitute made me finish school“) that took many people aback with its straightforwardness, the campaign provides an excellent launching-off point to discuss topics ranging from the legalisation of sex work to modern rhetorical tactics in general.

Sex work is a topic that’s very dear to my heart. By some people’s definition of the term, I’m a former sex worker because I taught safer sex seminars as a college student, so I certainly have a personal connection there, to say nothing of the friends I’ve had through the years who might also fall under some people’s definition of sex workers. The dynamics and legality of sex work are certainly major themes of my first novel (heck, while I’m shamelessly shilling all my money-making avenues here, let me just link to my Patreon for those of you who can make monthly donations to help me keep working on stuff online, as well as my PayPal.me for those who just want to make a one-time contribution to help me pay my bills), and it’s a topic that I’ve explored since I was first able to grasp the logic of George Carlin’s famous routine on the subject. Like a lot of the political topics I first developed an interest in when I was a teenager, the initial thrill of pissing old people off by discussing something I “wasn’t supposed to talk about” soon gave way to serious thought and realization that I had legitimate grievances over the ideologies that I was essentially being force-fed by the adults around me. I’m not entirely sure that much has changed since then.

Although I have a general feeling that the legalisation of sex work is slowly gaining more acceptance in America, there isn’t the hard statistical data out there to support that claim that there is for, as an example, American attitudes towards legalising marijuana. For a time, it felt like sex work legalisation was going to become that next “hot button” issue, like legalising weed has been for so long, but with American politics going haywire these past couple of years, it’s hard to tell just what will catch the popular imagination any longer, especially when so many new controversies seem to erupt every single day. Then again, some of those controversies have involved sex workers, so maybe legalisation will catch on here soon.

As I’ve digested the news stories coming out of this year’s Women’s Marches around the world, seeing sex workers continue to be treated like a minority within a minority doesn’t exactly make me feel good. Particularly at a time when so many of us are in real danger in this political climate, to see sex workers have to hold “special events” at the marches, and to see marchers hold up signs claiming that transgender women aren’t “real” women, is more than a little distressing. Perhaps this rhetoric isn’t dehumanizing, but it certainly isn’t helpful, especially at a time like this.

Maybe there’s something to be said for a close examination of the anti-transgender and anti-sex worker messages coming out of not just the Women’s Marches, but also all the politicians in Washington right now. Even when the messages aren’t as horrifying as claims that your opponents don’t even qualify as human beings, they can still do a lot of harm, and the targets of those messages are already being harmed enough by the current administration (and its enablers in Congress) as it is. In the meantime, I’ll keep using the Stepping Stone Nova Scotia campaign as a way to get students talking about dehumanizing rhetoric, but there’s only so much that one English teacher (and her books) can do.

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