A Teaching Metaphor You Probably Haven’t Thought Of

“Good Teaching Is Like Good Sex,” proclaims the article title. Don’t stop reading just yet. If you do, you’ll miss a totally serious, insightful, actually downright amazing account of a teaching experience with profound effect.

Teresa Delgado has written about her experience as a brand-new faculty member on a one-year visiting professorship at a Catholic institution, Iona College. The course she was teaching, a religious studies course on Christian Sexual Ethics, had previously focused on Catholic moral theology, and Delgado had decided to shift the focus to include Protestant perspectives as well. It is at this point her story begins.

“By the second week of the course, it was clear to me that students were having a difficult time with the reading. While I did my best to work through the sticking points, the students had lost interest and were becoming increasingly discouraged.” (p. 224) The issue came to a head when Delgado assigned a take-home midterm, with students required to write answers to five of seven very challenging questions. Almost immediately, the protests started coming in. It was too much work. Even conscientious students in the class were voicing concerns. So Delgado backed down, sending the class an email that scaled back the midterm and extended the due date.

And it is at this point the story gets very interesting. Delgado confronted herself with the question of why she’d made the exam so challenging. She identified three reasons. “First, I wanted to assert my authority as a legitimate and strong professor right from the very beginning.” (p. 225) She didn’t want students thinking she was a softy, some sort of nice mother figure. Second, she wanted to make students “fully aware” that she knew her stuff. “I wanted the students to be impressed by my knowledge of the subject matter and to know that this gendered and ‘colored’ body had her act together.” (p. 225) At the time she was the only full-time Latino/a professor at the school. “I wanted students to be completely convinced that this professor didn’t cruise through some doctoral program on the ‘let’s feel sorry for the minorities’ track.” (p. 225) And finally, she didn’t want students thinking that religion/theology courses were easy A’s. “I sought to break down their assumptions that the subject of religion could be easily learned by listening to a class lecture without having to do the heavy lifting of reading and integrating the material.” (p. 225) She wanted students leaving the class firmly convinced that religion/theology courses were as “formidable” as courses in chemistry and political science.

Her honesty was on par with her level of insight. When she examined what she was teaching, she came to an important realization. “I was trying to convey … that the history of Christian doctrine around the body and sexuality was a study in the dynamics of ‘power over’: controlling the body and its impulses while conforming sexuality to the power of the mind and reason.” (p. 226) Her insight: that was precisely what she was trying to do in the class. “As a professor, I was asserting my ‘power over’ the students in a course in which I was ostensibly trying to critique and dismantle that very model in relation to sexuality.” (p. 226)

She began the next class with an apology, not just for the very difficult midterm but also for the way her own fears about power and perception had inappropriately influenced the approach she was taking to the class. During that class session, she shared with students a “top 10” list outline of why good teaching is like good sex. “It provoked much laughter and even more discussion because it allowed students to see in a new way that I was thinking about the relationship of sexuality and our student-professor relationship.” (p. 226)

The rest of the article includes that top 10 list and a discussion of each item focused on aspects of teaching. She starts with number 10: Even If It’s a Little Awkward at First, It Usually Gets Better With Time. When a class begins, the teacher and the students are unknown to each other. Delgado writes about her detailed syllabus and how it set out exactly how the course would proceed. “While it was indeed an important starting point, the syllabus did not tell students any more about me and the course than a personal characteristic description on an online dating website.” (p. 227) Number four on the list: You Can’t Doze Off to Sleep When It’s That Good. As teachers, we all know when students may be physically in their seats but still not in class. The changes she implemented in her course after that midterm experience changed the dynamic in the course. Both students and teacher were more invested in the course, and there was the sense that when they weren’t in class, they might be missing out on something great. And number one on list of why good teaching is like good sex: When It’s That Good, Who Wouldn’t Want to Have It for One Hour, Three Times a Week? And with that she concludes.

This is one of those articles that so clearly demonstrates the power of narrative scholarship. It’s a joy to read because she writes so well and her story is such an interesting one. But its most potent impact comes from how it models reflective practice, a blindingly honest critique of what was happening in the course and how what she discovered motivated her to act. I read this article at the end of a long day. Before I left my desk for bed, I’d sent it to eight different people. Yes, it’s that good, and it really isn’t about sex. 

Reference: Delgado, T., (2015). Metaphor for teaching: Good teaching is like good sex. Teaching Theology & Religion, 18 (3), 224-232.

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