Diane P. Freedman and Martha Stoddard Holmes (eds.)
SUNY Press, 2003
Reviewed by Susan Racine Passmore, Ph.D.
The Teacher’s Body is a large collection of engaging and well-written, short autobiographical essays that explore the ways in which the body intersects with the social dynamic of the college classroom. Diane Freedman and Martha Stoddard Holmes as editors have chosen contributions that survey, “…teaching bodies in a range of academic settings, examining their apparent effect on educational dynamics of power, authority, desire, friendship, open-mindedness, and resistance” (7). To this end, each essay details the author’s lived experience of teaching, which has brought them in contact with issues of identity politics regarding their own bodily-expressed identities of sexuality, disability, disease, pregnancy, race, gender and age. Unlike many edited volumes on the topic of the body, the contributors to The Teacher’s Body engage in a limited amount of postmodern theorizing. Emphasis, instead, is firmly on experiential knowledge.
The problematic presence of bodies in the classroom provides a foundation for the discussion of several contributors. In a setting that values the rational mind over the unpredictable body, the teacher’s body appears as an obstacle to serious scholarship. Moreover, the teacher’s body seems to threaten the teacher/student relationship of stylized closeness and detachment through its personal realities of illness, aging, sexuality, pregnancy, disability and trauma. Several contributors explore their struggles with the possibility of disclosure, which they perceive as a threat to the social and cultural balance of the classroom. Others find that the classroom denies their physicality whether or not they choose. For example, Scott Andrew Smith, whose essay explores the intersection of dwarfism and teaching, notes that despite his role as the subject of students’ gaze, “I have found that my physicality exists in a void of silence in the classroom” (26). This strange contradiction is compounded by the fact that it is that very embodied lived experience denied in the classroom that has formed us as teachers and scholars. As Smith adds, “yet I am my body.”
Other contributors go on to discussions of the teacher’s body as a tool for teaching, a hindrance to learning, a conduit for student/teacher interaction, an influence on teaching and scholarship, and a useful heuristic. Where Smith’s discussion ends, others continue on in the exploration of the teacher’s body as learning tool for teachers and students alike. As Betty Smith Franklin observes, “just as the researcher is the instrument, the teacher is the medium for knowing” (18). As a medium for knowing, the teacher’s body takes over in the classroom of Pam Whitfield, whose embodied teaching of English facilitated learning well beyond basic grammar for students in China. Similarly, Cortney Davis reflects on how teaching requires a personal expression of bodily self-knowledge on her part as she guides male residents through the unfamiliar ground of women’s health. Finally, Rod Michalko, whose blindness “penetrates our classroom as a teacher” (74), leads students to an insightful deconstruction of western conceptions of seeing and knowing.
The body is also capable of guiding teachers themselves to deeper knowledge. For example, before contributor Ray Pearce accepted an identity of disability, he held a distorted view of identity based on ideas of static categories rather than lived experience. Disability brought him closer to these issues and afforded a clearer avenue for communication with students. Similarly, Brenda Daly explores how her own aging body has brought her to new insight regarding images of the aging body in American Literature. For other contributors, the disclosure of identity shapes classroom dynamics itself. Jonathan Alexander describes his “coming out” as a catalyst that re-structured his relationships with students. Contributors Brenda Jo Brueggeman and Debra Moddeling similarly find that their own complex attempts at self-identification have altered their classrooms. They note that, “in short, identity becomes a dense transfer point of knowledge and discovery in our classrooms” (216).
Finally, another set of essays tackle the subject of bodies as unwelcome markers of social inequality that can disrupt the classroom and damage social relationships. Simone Alexander recounts how her embodied racial identity dominates classroom explorations of race discourse and influences her relationships with students. Several other contributors explore how pregnancy introduces the private, sexual and reproductive life into the classroom with challenging results. Daly’s tale of being dismissed from her first teaching job for pregnancy dovetails interestingly with Allison Giffen’s discussion of modern day “confinement” in the academy.
Overall, The Teacher’s Body is an insightful and interesting read. It is particularly useful for new teachers entering the classroom for the first time and others interested in the practicalities of pedagogy. The only damaging weakness may be that there are too many contributors. The edited volume includes eighteen main essays by twenty authors not including a foreword, afterword, and epilogue and, of course, the introduction by the editors. With so many voices, each reaches the reader with a weakened impact. This problem is somewhat compounded by the similarity of some essays and that several of contributors speak from a single discipline. Finally, The Teacher’s Body may be too focused for those interested in introducing students to theory and issues of the “body” more generally.
Susan Racine Passmore received her Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University in 2000. Her dissertation entitled “How it Go Look” A Study of Beauty Ideology in Urban Trinidad” was a study of the impact of historical categories of race and gender on modern realities of consumption and gender role in a post-colonial context. Dr. Passmore has been an active community advocate for social equity and has been involved in Women’s Studies for over ten years. She is currently working to increase awareness of minority and gendered perspectives in public health through applied research, teaching and consulting.