Emotions in the Classroom
Professors across the land are preparing to return to the classroom, beginning with the all-important discussion on first day: setting the ground rules. Sometimes I ask the class to generate guidelines, beginning with their top list of classroom dos and don’ts. And inevitably, after “listen to others,” “don’t dominate the conversation,” and “respect other views,” comes some version of “don’t get too emotional.”
Gendered codes continue to govern these classroom spaces. The collective threshold for “dominating” and “listening” behavior varies, depending on the speaker, with men tending to speak more frequently and at greater length, and women being discouraged in subtle and overt ways from doing so. Feminist pedagogies have drawn attention to these patterns and work to make the classroom an equitable and empathetic political space.
Nevertheless, even as men and women can appreciate the civility and equity of a feminist classroom, emotion remains a confusing and contentious dimension of pedagogy. Feminist pedagogies value experience—“both the experience that comes from hands-on research and community-based learning and that which comes from each student’s personal experiences,” as one teaching center puts it. And yet the standard for expressing emotion looks rather like the Enlightenment ideal of reasoned argument. With the injunction not to become “too emotional,” students mean that it is fine to describe one’s feelings, but not actually to feel or express them in such a way that might evoke feelings in others in an academic setting.
Because my research deals with the importance of emotion in religious experience, I push back at the desire to learn in a sanitized, emotion-free space. If we take seriously feminist and liberation movements, we learn that strong emotions such as anger or fear serve an important critical function: they signal that something is wrong. Anger in the face of oppression and abuse can be the catalyst to work for change. Fear points to power dynamics at work. Often these emotions arise at the borders of identity: race and racism, nation and religion, queerness and gender norms, and the policing of these borders both in discourse and on the streets. Attending to embodied responses can make conversations more just, more equitable. As Michele Saracino puts it, “it is necessary to be vigilant about the emotional eruptions of conflict in our everyday lives because they signify the needs, feelings, memories, and stories of another” (Being About Borders, 35).
As I prepare for this first-day conversation this year, however, it strikes me that feeling has come to mean something more cerebral, akin to one’s view or opinion. Furthermore, this usage has crept into our wider political discourse. In CNN interview during the Republican National Convention (satirized here by John Oliver), Newt Gingrich repeatedly insisted that because people feel as if they are less safe now, and that crime rates are higher than eight years ago, that it is the case, despite data to the contrary. Here, “feelings” cannot be interrogated but stand alongside other such intuitions as equal but non-engaged partners.
An unexpected theoretical aid comes from Indian aesthetic theory, with the concept of rasa, the aesthetic “taste” or “mood” evoked by a work of art. There are nine core rasas: erotic, furious, disgusting, humorous, terrifying, pathetic or compassionate, courageous, wondrous, and peaceful. These are unlike ordinary emotions (bhavas) because they are elevated through a work of art for a sensitive audience member to experience in a blissful manner. I have contended that these basic human experiences, because of shared embodied dimensions, can serve as grounds for interreligious understanding.
Classroom discussion might benefit from the aspect of rasa theory that explains how these aesthetic feelings are evoked. The rasa sutra says that rasa arises from the combination of excitants (contributing factors), indicators (physical signs that someone is feeling an emotion), and ancillary emotions (other feelings that complement the main mood). On one level, this formula explains how the aesthetic dimension of experience allows one to taste something of another’s experience; but on another, it can also help in the classroom’s analytical task.
For example, the furious rasa is an elevated version of the ordinary emotion of anger. According to the Natya Sastra, it is brought about by excitants such as insults, slander, abuse, rape, jealousy, and threats. One can recognize it in others by indicators such as reddened eyes, knit eyebrows, perspiration, and trembling. Other emotions such as numbness, agitation, or indignation might be present. Fury might lead to angry words, destructive behavior, fighting, and other such actions. In the classroom, when anger or some other strong emotion arises, it is worth taking some time to break down its components: what emotion is being perceived, by whom, and how? What has precipitated these emotions? What factors impede other people in the class from perceiving the same factors in the same way?
This kind of analysis avoids two common reactions to emotion in today’s classroom: that which ignores it, and that which privileges it as evidence beyond discourse. Saracino insists that responsible engagement with affect is more than toleration:
When one tolerates the disruptive gestures, tones, and changes in affect of another, one merely waits and hopes somewhat passively for the uncomfortable moment to cease. More than likely, however, unless dealt with or at least admitted, negative feelings, regardless of where they originate, will reappear. So instead of merely tolerating borders and the emotional dissonance they bring, we need to seek these uncomfortable places out—encourage them—in an effort to meet the other in all their difference and similarity. (Being About Borders, 36)
Faculty and students returning to the classroom in the coming weeks may fear the emotions that are running high in U.S. political life. We can also create spaces for constructive engagement–perhaps even discover new forms of healing and cooperation—by facing them with all the courage that intellectual work requires.