Tempest in the Classroom


Yet, how does this misunderstanding work in the classroom? I want to look young and sometimes want students to feel we are equal. I eat well, lift weights and use cardio machines laboring to maintain my youthfulness and attractiveness. However, both students likely assumed that I am several years younger than I am and felt free to comment. But, on another level, I felt a little bothered. Did they expect that I might disclose my age? Did they expect me to grade easier? What did they expect based on this observation and its verbalization? Gender, perceived age and respect seem to go hand in hand in hand. As well, whatever they imagine about me, I am their professor. They will receive a final grade and college credit from me for their work in our course.  


So Tempest, who wields great power, came to my aid like a sexual superhero, with a quick comment at her ready. I winked at the first student and responded, smiling, “Well, I’ll take that as a compliment, but I’m probably older than you think” Instantly I felt less bothered, more in control, and like the strong woman and professor I have come to be. I turned from him, and swished back to my teaching with the cachet I might have used as a stripper leaving a cocktail table and a group of gaping men behind me. I suppose Professor Tempest also helps me express, with a smile, “We can get along, sweetheart, but don’t fuck with me. Don’t even begin.”


To further explain, some of the other traits I associate with my highly gendered identity, the one that occasionally dons knee high socks and catholic school girl skirts, or tight jeans and sweaters, oddly, seem more associated with manly characteristics. Sexuality, it seems, helps me feel macho, but female macho. When I bring Professor Tempest into the classroom, perhaps I strive to raise students’ awareness that a power suit need not be buttoned up with a Windsor knot choking the collar or with pants that contain a penis. A power suit’s operative word is power and that is the panache I sometimes seek as I go to my closet on teaching days.


Do not mistake my intentions to exert female machismo, though, for a desire to adapt patriarchal modes of what is considered traditionally strong behavior. Rather, I willfully use feminine charms. And even though I want students to like me and find me attractive, (don’t we all want this from most people in most settings?) I do not want to be the focus of our class or their best friend. I need to seduce them just enough to bring them happily in, then  require them to be responsible for their learning. I most often seek to facilitate rather than lead through force; persuasive power.


Perhaps persuasive use and application of a visual identity as relate to sexuality and gender can be considered manipulative, but if I know that sugar works better than vinegar, won’t I use sugar in my recipe? Julie Lindquist, an associate professor of writing with Michigan State University, summarizes this idea in her ethnography of a working class bar, A Place To Stand. She writes, “Though as a woman I generally carry less authority than a man, whatever sexual attractiveness Smokehousers [bar patrons and regulars] attribute to me may, ironically, have worked to my advantage among male ‘subjects,’ who might otherwise have been less willing to tolerate my questions, challenges to their authority, and generally antagonistic behavior.”[4] While she might not have purposefully used feminine charm as a tool from her research tactics arsenal, both of us understand its power. Gender as well as other kinds of identity construction asks that I know myself, a situation, and culture well enough to be who I am and at the same time who I want and need to be. And, frankly, sometimes I need to be an Amazon warrior in the classroom. Or a seductress. Or coquette. Even a lover of sorts.


And yet, these days, I often wear glasses. My eyes have weakened from typing into a monitor. I sometimes do wear wool pants and put my shoulder length curly hair in a barrette. At times, I wear the grown-up professor costume; some days that is, because even though I at times use the act of figuratively undressing (wearing something less professorly and more sexy) for class, I feel the most useful way to integrate my selves into practice calls for utility rather than a very “selfed” self. To this end, I often ask which role will best serve this writing or student?


Writing is often viewed as a very personal act, especially for students. If I ask them to expose themselves through writing, it seems logical that I should be equally willing to expose myself. However, this idea of exposure and the personal comes up against patriarchal ideas about college classrooms and the professorial persona. Traditionally, professors are impenetrable, infallible and all-knowing. And to expose is to make vulnerable, at least as common wisdom dictates. But to expose also means to bring light to. So, in exposing, truths can be made plain; Along this line, I not only ask students to write, but ask them to write reflectively. I ask them to unbutton their work; expose a bra strap or a few chest hairs. I require that they ask questions in their narratives, think out loud and explore meaning. What place do their stories, research and ideas have outside their topics and in the world? Where do these considerations place them in their fields? I require their essays to get personal and answer the question “So What?” I speculate that because I have exposed myself, literally and figuratively, students may feel less threatened and more willing to do the same.


Through this reflective and personal approach I suppose I am partially answering women’s studies scholar, Sheila Taylor’s call, as fellow feminist theorists Kathleen Boardman and Joy Ritchie seem to see it, in “Feminism’s Absence and Presence,” for “instructors to validate ‘conversational tone, dramatic technique and intimate reader involvement…[as] legitimate tactics for the essayist.’”[5] While Taylor’s article addresses feminine versus masculine argumentation styles in Composition, well-reflected writings alone argue for their author’s values with as much meaning as argumentative pieces. More importantly in this case is that these techniques shuck thoughtless report-style essays that seem to favor masculine ways of imparting information and meaning, which often skeedaddle from what can be labeled the more feminine “too personal” or “fluffy.”  However, the “too personal” in writing is often where I find surprising conclusions or thoughtful understanding.


The “too personal” in life is also where I find similar profundity. In bringing Tempest into the classroom, I am promoting the power of the personal, specifically the power of a fully realized, sexualized and embodied woman. I guide students to find the same in themselves, through their writing, by my example. Who are we and why does our self-awareness matter in the world? And in our work? What assumptions about who we are or our assumed roles and identities work well? Which don’t? How can we accommodate our true selves in unlikely places?


Wearing skirts, heels and lipstick in the classroom is simply an extension of understanding myself as a sexual woman, and the powerful possibilities of embodying that persona wherever I am and whatever I do. I have often lived liberally, exploring my identity, acknowledging the challenges and celebrating the affirmations and discoveries.


To wit, one summer I worked at Cedar Ridge Presbyterian Church Camp and also stripped during the weekends. The camp’s director, a Presbyterian pastor, and his wife, knew of and accepted my libidinous weekend work. This acceptance, considering that Cedar Ridge is essentially a church camp, felt like a approbation of my multi-dimensional and ever changing identity. I even gave the director, with his wife’s approval, V.I.P. passes to Déjà Vu, which he ultimately used on a night I was not working. He brought along a friend who also happened to be Presbyterian clergy. In fact this friend was, at the time, an ecumenical university faculty member.


I so enjoyed that not only could a Presbyterian minister accept and enjoy his sexuality, but that I could be accepted as a sex worker who also endeavored, in a place of faith, to help others learn and grow. Similarly, I embrace that Tempest can be herself and also teach college. None of us exist as static creatures. Our identities flex, stretching to accommodate situation, purpose and personality. While one cannot be all things to all people, an individual is capable of being not only a few things to some people, but sexual, spiritual, powerful, clever, empathetic and joyous with various peoples at various times. To explore and support nascent ideas about identity’s flexibility, power and application reaches out from academia to create a more humane and tolerant world.


We need each other in all our guises and as Macy Gray, pop r&b artist, sings, “You've got to express what is taboo in you and share your freak with the rest of us cause it's a beautiful thang.” “It,” sexuality, womanhood, and all its sublimely powerful ways is a beautiful and also meaningful thing. We should begin to more openly embrace the personal and even erotic for the sake of diversity, learning and understanding one another.

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[4] Julie Lindquist, A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working-Class Bar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002) 92.

[5] Kathleen Boardman and Joy Ritchie, “Rereading Feminism’s Absence and Presence in Composition,” in History, Reflection, and Narrative: The Professionalization of Composition, 1963-1983, ed. Mary Rosner, Beth Boehm, and Debra Journet (Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1999) 148.