Background: On April 22, 2015, Emily Coccia, an undergraduate fellow in the Doyle Engaging Difference Program and member of the Georgetown College class of 2015, interviewed Michelle Ohnona, who joined the Georgetown faculty in 2013 as a professor in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program. Her research begins at the intersection of feminist, postcolonial, critical race and queer theory, and investigates sites of national commemoration as mediators of narratives about national identity, belonging, difference, and collective history. In addition to her research and teaching, Professor Ohnona has worked in the non-profit sector on support and advocacy initiatives for queer youth. In this interview, she discusses her experiences teaching, reflecting on the challenges and joys of working to create a deliberately inclusive classroom atmosphere.
Working in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, your classes obviously all touch in diversity in at least one way, but in “Introduction to Sexuality Studies,” you integrated other intersectional identities as well. I found that the readings and lessons dealing with issues like race and class in conjunction with sexuality and gender worked well and enhanced our discussion. What steps do you take toward building a course like that?
First, I’m lucky enough to work in an environment where academic freedom feels alive and well. When I came to Georgetown, I got the sense that I could build this sort of class—a class with readings that are conducive to a comprehensive study of an issue. Having the freedom to include those sorts of essays on the syllabus has been key to my work. While I enjoy being able to design my class without receiving a pre-sculpted reading list from the school, I do think the faculty would be well-served by discussing our syllabi more often.
A few of the professors I’ve interviewed have also discussed how as the faculty has grown in size over the years, the amount of discussion and communication among professors has decreased. Do you see any places where those conversations could begin?
We tend to over-rely on course titles to provide an adequate description of the material that might be included, but I think actually discussing what’s on a syllabus would provide greater insight into how comprehensive or interdisciplinary a course is, as well as offering a space for feedback and recommendations. I think we should have more dialogue between departments. Interdisciplinary conversations have been at the core of my perspective as a scholar. I teach in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, but gender is just one point of departure in my work. Similarly, I think opening up conversations among the faculty would also allow us to recognize and think critically about diversity among our faculty.
In making your classroom a space for these sorts of conversations and assigning readings that deal with intersectional identities, what sorts of difficulties, if any, have you encountered?
In searching for readings and confronting popular conceptions for my course, “Sexual Politics in the Arab World,” I have had to grapple with geographic challenges. In reality, the region is both religiously and ethnically diverse, but in popular culture, this conversation tends to be muted in favor of a monolithic image. Luckily, there is a lot of great feminist scholarship. I try to use a dialectic approach for scholars with divergent points of view and encourage the students to put these readings in conversation with each other. This method not only pushes students to question the assumptions being made in all of the readings, including those with which they tend to agree, but also to consider seriously and engage intellectually with the course material.
You’ve started to touch on it already, but how has diversity among students affected class discussions?
Each class is always a new and very different experience based on who is in a given class and how they interact with each other. It’s definitely been a learning process and a group effort as I work with my students. One approach that I always take is to go over the syllabus on the first day of classes to make clear my expectations on how conversations should proceed, underscoring that I won’t accept discrimination, and review what material we will engage with in the course.
Are there any other tactics you use to make clear from the start what the course will be about?
I’m very intentional with naming the course, though there are some restrictions in place. For instance, I hope that the title, “Introduction to Sexuality Studies” helps open the door to a conversation on how human sexuality is constructed in the broadest sense. I argue in favor of a universalizing perspective; we look at identities that are characterized as minorities, but work through how that applies to all of us. My hope is that the course title and guided walk-through of the syllabus constitute an initial buy-in on the part of the students. I set high expectations and always hope that students will open themselves up to what the course has to offer.
To avoid focusing only on the challenges, I always like to ask: what have you found to be most rewarding about creating an inclusive classroom space?
I am always touched by receiving meaningful feedback from my students—notes that thank me for creating a safe, or safer, space on campus to engage with this sort of material and think critically about their own identities. I truly believe that theory saves lives and makes them worth living. I am conscious of the fact that for many students, the material and readings presented in a course like “Introduction to Sexuality Studies” represents a lifeline. It matters that students see people in authority speaking to them about sexuality with respect and kindness. My role in the classroom provides me with an opportunity to model empathy. While I certainly can’t compel someone to have an emotion, we can do so much in terms of thoughtfully considering the texts together and cultivating critical curiosity, which I see as such a valuable characteristic. I’m not necessarily teaching it, but rather, modeling it for my students.
Finally, what advice might you give to someone new to education?
I would underscore the value of interdisciplinary conversations on pedagogy. I was a faculty Doyle Fellow last year and found the discussion among professors from different subject areas to be beneficial. These programs that focus on pedagogy, as opposed to emphasizing research, are so important to have. For me, teaching informs my research and energizes me, and I would love to see more spaces that facilitate these conversations.