Teaching the body course

by Kate Kane

from Jump Cut, no. 40, March 1996, pp. 123-126
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1996, 2006

I teach a course called Representations of the Body in an interdisciplinary Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at DePaul University in Chicago. As my colleagues and I have designed it, the course is a broad introduction to the growing corpus of literature on the body as a cultural construct. Materials are drawn from a variety of disciplines (history, literature, anthropology, critical theory, media studies), and proceed from a cultural studies perspective. DePaul is a progressive Catholic institution with a commitment to multicultural education. The MALS degree serves adult evening students who come from an assortment of backgrounds in the city and the suburbs. Curriculum interrogates a range of concepts such as the body, the self, the city. I teach Representations of the Body in rotation with the two colleagues with whom I developed the course.

One of my favorite things about this course is that it allows me to experiment with teaching methods. I frame the course as experimental, and I hope to draw students in to an exploration of theft relationships to their own bodies in dialogue with course material. I suggest that we recognize that as students we are bodies as well as brains, something that the academy likes to forget/repress for the most part (physical education is now optional rather than required as it once was, except perhaps for areas that involve performance like speech, theater, and music).

A colleague who specializes in teaching adult students points out that students' brains are contextualized in their bodies.[1][open notes in new window] The consequences of such a recognition are many. She believes that twenty minutes is the maximum time a body can sit in the same position and still pay attention (blood circulation slows down). She recommends that instructors take this into account in our lesson plans, especially for classes that last several hours. Further, she says the brain needs glucose in order to function properly — hungry students retain less — and that the traditional taboo on food in the classroom is counterproductive. From these insights I have developed some classroom practices designed to support the teaching goals and to show students how to interrogate their own pedagogical position by breaking the frame of what's expected in a classroom. This perspective will come in handy when we read Foucault, and talk about how institutions rule through the body.

As does feminist scholarship, body studies reconcile the body with the mind, and contextualize the personal within the political and vice versa. Each class I begin by turning out the lights and leading the class in a guided meditation that invites them to get into their bodies, to leave their daily concerns at the door, and to feel refreshed and ready to concentrate on the class (this is important because otherwise it will make them feel sleepy!). Every twenty or thirty minutes, I plan some activity that requires students to get out of their seats. Sometimes it is simply a break to stand up and stretch. Sometimes it is more elaborate, such as the first night of class. After the introductory and logistical matters have been addressed, I rouse them from their seats to sing a children's party song "The Hokey-Pokey." This song centers on body parts ("You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out, put your right foot and you shake it all about"), which anticipates the next section of the class in which we brainstorm a list of metaphorical meanings associated with body parts ("hard-hearted," "head of the class," etc.). (The efficacy of physical activity in the classroom is not a new discovery, I realize — I recall the Russian classes I took in high school — I can't decline a noun to save my soul, but I can still sing every verse of "Moscow Nights.")

Silly as it is, this exercise leaves students refreshed, breaks the ice, and makes us laugh together. This is important because it is part of a second campaign I wage throughout the term: classroom safety. The process of connecting the body with the mind in classroom work is not unproblematic. In addition to the discomfort that may accompany the very fact of its unorthodoxy, topics frequently violate the boundaries of polite discourse. Our second text is Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation,[2] which is guaranteed to turn at least one male student green about the gills.

My choice of Blood Magic for this course derives from my own research on feminine hygiene discourse. Menstruation is an excellent topic for purposes of prying out the historical and cultural specifics of body beliefs. Although it is a virtually universal biological occurrence, menstruation is experienced and interpreted in widely varied ways. Far from being a widespread cultural "taboo," menstrual blood can signify many things: from nothing at all (in more egalitarian societies) to spiritual danger (in heavily religious patriarchal cultures). This unit makes clear that how humans experience their bodies is tied, in complex ways, to local systems of meaning.

I am upfront with students about the agenda of this unit, and invite them to pay attention to their discomfort in whatever form it takes (shock, revulsion, squeamishness, amusement). I suggest that our visceral responses can be guides into an interrogation of the way we personally enter into ideology ("Why do we think it is 'gross' to talk about menstrual blood?"). I forewarn students that I expect that at some point in the course they will encounter something that pushes beyond their own personal boundaries of tolerance (the syllabus suggests that "this is not a course for the faint of heart," which students tell me only encourages them to enroll!). Because what are teaching and learning but our attempts to broaden our horizons? This course foregrounds that process.

ßAs to the matter of personal safety, I follow Chuck Kleinhans' practice of 1) telling students that it is okay to respond viscerally, 2) explaining ahead of time what types of images will be shown, and 3) assuring them that if they find images upsetting they should feel free to leave the room, and that they will not be stigmatized for their sensitivities. (I recall an incident when I was a student of Chuck's and had to take advantage of this outlet during a showing of BLOOD OF THE BEASTS (a French documentary that shows butchered animals)[3]; my departure was accompanied by that of another student who was pregnant. Chuck came and got us when the film was over. This policy makes such a fine contribution to classroom atmosphere that I follow it in all of my courses.)

The very notion of "grossness" is in fact the next unit, in which we read Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger.[4] Dirt, she says famously, is matter out of place, and serves an organizing function in systems of meaning. Things that gross us out are important clues to our own position in culture. In this unit, I contrast salient excerpts from two John Waters films to illustrate the symbolic value of "dirt": PINK FLAMINGOES,[5] which violates so many taboos — including some that most of us have never thought of — and HAIRSPRAY,[6] where Waters' concern with boundary breaking is transferred from the sexual to the social and political. The highlight, gross-out wise, of this unit is the scene in PINK FLAMINGOES where Divine eats dog shit, and provides the impetus for a discussion of how we can follow our visceral responses into the realm of the theoretical. (Students usually exclaim in disgust, and then ask me to rewind and review the scene several times to see if it is "real.")

I encourage students to monitor their own comfort levels, and to take them into account when they choose a research topic or a field trip site. In order to get their bodies out of the classroom, I schedule an evening for a field trip. They can choose from a number of options that offer varying amounts of challenges: a striptease show, a visit to a morgue, a health club, sometimes a current film (Madonna's BODY OF EVIDENCE,[7] for example). The assignment includes an essay that analyzes the field trip experience in light of theoretical material.

After we have done John Waters, Foucault's analysis of "the implantation of perversions" and the notion of polymorphous desire seems tame. The "Introduction" to the History of Sexuality[8] provides a respite from the physical, and engages us in an historical and theoretical perspective from which we can analyze the workings of institutional power on individual bodies.

Course units are designed to build to increasing levels of complexity. We next read bell hooks' Black Looks: Race and Representation.[9] In this unit I will be particularly concerned that the black students not feel pressured to represent some monolithic "African American perspective." In some ways it is harder for students to talk about race than it is about sex, and the composition of the class has a great deal to do with how the book gets discussed. Ayoka Chenzira's HAIRPIECE[10] resonates with black women. Marion Riggs' TONGUES UNTIED[11], an experimental documentary about being black and gay, makes a good dialogue with hooks' discussion of black masculinity.

As I first envisioned it, the historical and critical material in the course so far is in part preparation for the class to deal with pornography. I have laid the careful groundwork for a safe classroom, established a rigorous intellectual atmosphere, and notified students that we will be seeing actual graphic sexual imagery. Imagine my chagrin when I find that these students are blasé about pornography, that they have talked about it in several other classes. They have not, however, considered it as a film genre, as does our reading, Linda Williams' Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the Frenzy of the Visible.[12] Students have also not seen in the classroom the kinds of explicit pornographic films that I include to illustrate Williams' argument. I follow her historical chronology: a stag film can be shown in its ten-minute entirety; I use excerpts from some of the feature-length films she discusses, as well as from couples video and women-made video (such as the Femme series) available in local video outlets.

To facilitate discussion, this unit includes a reading from Women Who Run With the Wolves,[13] the chapter on the obscene goddess and women's sexual humor. This article establishes laughter as a permissible response to sexual imagery, which helps dissipate some of the tension and reticence. Laughter is an important physical release and lets us contextualize pornography among other genres designed to elicit involuntary physical response: melodramatic tearjerkers, low comedies, and thrillers.[14] A brief sojourn in sexual humor then, sets up a segue into Williams and absolves students of any guilt about how their bodies may respond to the sexual imagery we will see. There is a limit to how much safety I can guarantee, as I discuss later. Finally, we want here to include pleasure in our category of visceral reactions that are culturally determined. I believe the humorous parameters permit the class to experience both pleasure and discomfort safely.

I encounter my own limits of tolerance in our last unit on piercing and tattoo. Students seem to enjoy seeing my discomfort as we watch a documentary on the subject, STIGMATA,[15] that shows actual genital piercings. I have to say that teaching this course has been responsible in part for my decision to have a tattoo myself, something I plan to share with the class the next time I teach it. As the tattoo artist was scoring colors into my flesh (it hurt like a son of a bitch), I distracted myself with thoughts of what my tattooed students had told me (about a fourth of the class had tattoes), and of our readings[16] about transcending the physical through pain. Later, I had to come to grips with my feelings about being one of those people now, the marked ones, and the experience of becoming something that used to be Other.

In conclusion, I would like to make some observations about cross-cultural understanding and teaching the body. Students want to know how they can put themselves inside another culture when all they know is western rationalism. (This comes up when we read Alice Walker's Possessing the Secret of Joy,[17] a novel about female circumcision in Africa.) They get into mental cul-de-sacs where they cannot reconcile their longing to know the Other with their consciousness of being limited by their own experience ("how can we make judgments about other cultures?"). As some feminist arguments put it, how can women speak our own truths when the only language we know is phallocentric? How can we transcend being centered where we are? Although this is an important question, I believe it is not impossible to see/ think outside one's own culture, and this body course gives me the opportunity to teach students one way to get there — through their awareness of the bodily responses they have to course material.

When they have a sensation, I ask them to stop whatever they are doing and notice it and what caused it. Here is the chance to "catch" ourselves being determined by our culture, where we can follow the feeling, trace it (through the historical and theoretical framework the course establishes) to our own cultural system and analyze it. When this works, we become Other to ourselves and recognize how our culture determines us. This process de-romanticizes the longing for the Other as it brings us face to face with our own Otherness and paves the way for empathy, the human capacity to identify with others. One hopes it also leads us to open our vision and imagine that our own self/ culture can change.

This embodied type of teaching may activate uncomfortable feelings for students who are survivors of physical abuse, or who have unresolved problems. Students may displace their discomfort onto me personally, and as an out-of-the-closet lesbian I sometimes feel vulnerable to the vicissitudes of student perversity. My safety is also important, so I adhere to clearly stated policies, maintain a warm — but professional — distance, and meet with problematic students in public places.

This teaching/ learning process is not an easy one, and certainly does not work for all students. It requires a willingness to interrogate oneself that some students do not like. It challenges all of us to examine critically some of our most deeply held beliefs, and this can be unsettling — and sometimes annoying. I try to be as transparent as I can about this to my classes: I sympathize with the discomfort, I recognize that it may mean students get angry with me, and I point out that here is another such opportunity to catch oneself and begin to follow the trail again. This is a frustrating response for some students, who just get mad at me again. I hate that; I want students to like me, but that of course is my own neurosis and my own trail. I see the pedagogical effectiveness of this approach in the number of students who do catch the fire, who come to class burning with energy and curiosity.

For the others, I am understanding, and try to help them find a way to back off from the intensity that may discomfit them — perhaps another research topic that allows them to approach the subject of the body from a more detached and intellectual perspective. There is a balance to be sought here between pushing and confronting on the one hand, for those students who can tolerate it, and on the other hand guiding and suggesting for students who do not want such an intense engagement. For as I said, students who have abuse histories (for one example) could be traumatized by being asked to think about how they feel in their bodies, unpleasant memories could be triggered, and I am certainly not in a position to help them with those. So I work to respect that students come to my class with a wide variety of bodily experiences (almost all of which are unknown to me) that determine how they interact with me and with the material I present.

Underlying my approach to the subject of the body is my interest in boundaries: discursive ones, political ones, personal ones. Boundaries can be dangerous places, sites of contradiction and dangerous knowledge. But it is in such places that the structures of power become visible, understandable, changeable. For that possibility, I am willing to risk leading my students into such an adventure, to show them how bodies of knowledge and bodies of people mutually produce each other.


Description of the course: The human body is a site/ sight of rich historical and ideological signification. This course will examine how the body, which seems to be a natural, universal fact, is also a deeply cultural symbolic construction whose analysis yields insights into structures of power and consciousness. The course is inspired by the recent intensification of scholarly discussion of the body. It attempts to capture the complexity of this discourse in a multidisciplinary, trans-historical, and cross-cultural intellectual adventure. While it is not a chronological survey, it will interrogate Western/ European traditions and consider the deployment of the body in philosophy, religion, art, and science. It will further be concerned with uses and discourses of the body in cultures other than European.

The course is organized around three large questions about how the body is born, inspired, and created. It explores those questions in terms of tensions between nature and culture (to what extent is the body natural, cultural?), body and spirit (what does human embodiment mean?), and how discourses of power converge in and on the body (gender/ race/ class/ age).

Textbooks will include scholarly works, popular writings, and fiction. Films and videos will also be considered. WARNING: Some images may be offensive to some viewers. Although every attempt will be made to create a safe atmosphere for the scholarly consideration of these topics, this is not a course for sensitive audiences or the faint of heart.


The course will proceed through discussion, lecture, and audiovisual materials, and will use guest speakers and experiential activities. The subject lends itself to field trips (to a hospital, a morgue, or a drag show) and to body awareness exercises that will encourage students to consider their own critical position in regard to the material — the body as the knowing instrument.

Assignments will consist of a journal in which students will record their visceral and intellectual responses to the material, to be processed into an annotated photo album; second, a short summary and critique of a chapter from Blood Magic. Third is the final research and criticism project that may be a 12-15-page paper, performance, or creative undertaking, designed in consultation with the instructor. This project will proceed in the following stages (see course schedule for due dates): 1. topic proposal chosen from the list provided by the instructor; 2. an annotated bibliography of five articles or chapters (the project will ultimately require at least ten); 3. a thesis statement and plan for the project; and 4. the final project.


John Berger, Ways of Seeing; Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger; Michel Foucault, Introduction to the History of Sexuality; Alma Gottlieb and D. Buckley, eds., Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation; bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation; Re/Search #12: Modern Primitives; Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy (NY: Pocket, 1992); Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the 'Frenzy of the Visible'


Week 1. Ways of Seeing: about representation; body metaphors in everyday language
Week 2. Guest lecture on the anthropology of why bodies are the way they are Week 3. Blood Magic: menstruation and cultural systems
Week 4. Introduction to the History of Sexuality: bodies and power
Week 5. Purity and Danger: the body and its boundaries, personal and political Week 6. Black Looks: the body and race
Week 7. Possessing the Secret of Joy. TONGUES UNTIED
Week 8. Linda Williams, Hard Core. Andrea Dworkin, selection from Pornography: pornography and sexual representations
Week 9. Guest lecture on BODY AND SOUL: dance
Week 10. Re/Search #12: Modern Primitives: the body as art: piercing and tattoo Week 11. Presentation and discussion of final projects


1. Anne Donnersberger, DePaul University, School for New Learning. "A Day of Learning for Faculty," December 5, 1992.

2. Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb, eds., Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation. Berkeley: University of California, 1988.

3. Georges Franju. BLOOD OF THE BEASTS.

4. Mary Douglas. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge, 1966.

5. John Waters, dir. PINK FLAMINGOES. 1974.

6. John Waters, dir. HAIRSPRAY. 1988.

7. Uri Edel, dir. BODY OF EVIDENCE. 1992.

8. Michel Foucault. Introduction to the History of Sexuality Vol. I. Trans. R. Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980.

9. bell hooks. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.

10. Ayoka Chenzira. HAIRPIECE.

11. Marion Riggs. TONGUES UNTIED. 1989.

12. Linda Williams. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the "Frenzy of the Visible." Berkeley: University of California, 1989.

l3. Clarissa Pinkola Estes. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

14. Williams, p.5.

15. Leslie Asako Gladsjø, dir. STIGMATA. 1993.

16. Re/Search #12: Modern Primitives. San Francisco: Re/Search, 1991.

17. Alice Walker. Possessing the Secret of Joy. New York: Pocket, 1992.