Teaching Porn

Teaching a class in pornography is strange:

* I have to check the spam folder almost as often as the inbox, since student emails seem to get dropped there easily. Likewise, when I get an email reading “Here as promised the log-in to that amazing adult site,” I have to do due diligence to make sure the author isn’t really one of my students or correspondents.

* I keep the door to my office closed when writing lectures and when someone knocks, I have to make sure the screen is clear of anything offensive, despite the fact that I will be talking about this in front of a class of 400.

* It’s not hard to make some ASL translators blush.

* I never imagined being approached with questions after class like “Did you say ‘double anal’? How does that work exactly?” [The lecture was about the HIV/AIDS issues in the adult film industry a year ago.]

* Although there may be people who would find the danger of teaching such a course an addiction to porn, at this point I would be happy if I never again saw the image of a naked person. However, since I wasn’t even a serious porn enthusiast before offering the course (I was relying on the hope that what I know about media effects more generally gives me a leg up — so to speak — when it comes to porn), I find myself playing catch-up.

* It’s amazing, in a class of 400, what people can take to be a double entendre.

* It’s not just me who gets bored with porn. I have a feeling that while many students took this course because of the nature of the material, the novelty has worn off (despite what the school newspaper suggests).

Aside from the little things, there are ongoing challenges. Some segment of the students apparently signed up because they wanted to see porn. This is a bizarre idea to me. I do show porn in the class: either when there is no other way to illustrate something, or when the presentation is (IMHO) very tame, or when it is just too inconvenient to expurgate from, for example, a video clip. (I’ve been using some clips from documentaries that air on HBO that seem to include gratuitous pornography interspersed with some really interesting interviews.) But taking a course has to be the most difficult possible way to obtain pornography. At this stage, it appears clear that a not insubstantial number of the students are going to fail the course, despite some generous curves on the exams. I don’t know that some brief titillation is worth having to admit to failing your porn course.

Another challenge has been the kind of chest-thumping machismo that seems to permeate some of the members of the class. Most are interested in the material and have good comments and suggestions. Several have a depth of area-specific knowledge, and that is great. But there is a collective groan when I cut off a clip just before, for example, someone begins to get undressed.

And while I didn’t realize this until approached by a student, when clips involving gay porn are shown, some members of the class find it necessary to complain about “faggots.” I’m really not sure how to handle this, since I’m not independently aware of it. It’s clearly against the policies I put forward at the beginning of the semester: that discourse be civil and open-minded.

Aside from disappointing performance on the exams by many of the students — which I attribute to a combination of lectures that could be clearer, a different level of expectation from the students (many of our classes live up to the reputation of communication departments as the places the drop-outs from other majors end up), and the monstrosity of multiple-choice exams — I am not sure how the class is going. It’s always hard to gauge that, and I’m generally pretty bad at it. When I think a class is going OK, it usually means it’s going badly, and when I think things are going terribly, the students often think they are fine. I guess maybe I’ll put up a short anonymous survey at the mid-point.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted 2/27/2005 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    It’s amazing, in a class of 400, what people can take to be a double entendre.

    That would get real old, real fast. But it’s hilarious to see you call them out on it.

  2. Richard Smith
    Posted 2/28/2005 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    I don’t know about the topic you’re describing but the concern that your students aren’t doing well is familiar to me. I just gave my midterm and the class average was 61% – for something that I thought was an easy exam. What can we do about this?

  3. Posted 2/28/2005 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Richard: Frankly part of it, for us, is that we (under the provost’s urging) nearly tripled the number of undergrads in our department while barely increasing faculty numbers. As a result, class size is larger, and we have ended up the major of last resort for the university. We’re reversing this (requiring a C or better in statistics and a a computer science sequence, and agreeing that the average grade in the gateway courses is a C to avoid inflation), but it will take a little time before we have classes full of students who actually want to be studying communication.

    That’s less the case with my class — it’s actually a nice mix of people from the campus. I am tempted to be ageist and say that students were more serious when I was an undergrad, but I sincerely doubt that. Really, I suspect the problem is two-fold:

    1. Far more people go to college than before. This is a good thing, but they aren’t coming because the quality of education in the high schools has increased. That makes it difficult. A segment of our incoming class is utterly unable to write a simple paper (or email).

    2. Exacerbating #1, our classes are far too large — especially at the lower levels — to provide the kind of writing instruction and one-on-one interaction that these students need. By the time they get to the senior level, you have some who have sought out that help, or got it in high school, and they are doing fine. The trick is, the gap has widened rather than narrowed over their time here.

    It troubles me when, for example, about a dozen students all misspell the word “rediculous” (at least I think that’s how they are spelling it). As much as I talk about a new culture of text — thanks to IM, blogging, etc. — it’s clear that many of our students cannot communicate at the level we might like.

  4. Posted 3/1/2005 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Hey, Alex, over here in NH results are similar, though under quite different circumstances. Just gave back an exam, average score 57%. It’s upper-division, all majors, 21 students enrolled, and, a very straightforward exam. ugh. My current interp revolves around the popular misconception that humanities are merely (key word) opinion-based, rather than knowledge producing. Or, simply put, they didn’t study enough. Anyway …

    PS: I think teaching this porn course would drive me bananas!

  5. Posted 3/3/2005 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    Your post reminds me of a class I once took: The Psychology of Sex & Sexual Deviation. I wouldn’t call it porn, but we watched and talked about a LOT of sex.

    I remember one day listening to a graphic comparison of elephant copulation with that of worms and thinking, “Oh dear God how did sex get to be boring?”

    Got a 4.0 that semester. My mother was none too pleased about the class either. But I found it very enlightening, and I learned a whole lot.

  6. krishna sankar kusuma
    Posted 4/29/2006 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    dear sir,
    your are doing a great job.Im working as lecturer inthe department of mass communcaiton in delhi, india. i would like to start the porn studies for the benefit of society in a systematic way. i wante to start with a research wing aswell as a course. pl. guide me in this regards.

    thank you.
    kusumakk@srediffmail.com

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