Editor’s Note: Echoing themes sounded by guest blogger Eoin Cannon, Ohio State University Graduate Instructor Sarah Carnahan reflects on the risks–and benefits– of self-disclosure when teaching about addiction and recovery.
This summer was my first foray into teaching an undergraduate course about women and addiction in our Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department. One of the challenges of teaching courses that lend themselves to a feminist framework is finding the balance between “the personal is political,” and the academic rigor that is required when learning what is, to most students, a new body of theory and a new mode of analysis. Compared to the other WGSST courses that I have taught, “Women and Addiction” brought new demands and opportunities in terms of self-disclosure as pedagogical, academic, and human practice.
One component of the Women and Addiction class is blogging. This is a tool that the previous instructor used in teaching the course, and that I have used in other courses. I give my students blog prompts at five different points throughout the quarter; the prompts generally ask them to be self-reflexive and concretely discuss our course material. My first blog prompt was assigned during the first week of the course, when we are still working on more general feminist theory. It asked them to consider what they needed “to let go of” in order to be open to the course materials as we got ready to embark on the addiction-specific material.
As I anticipated, many students posted blogs about how addiction had affected them personally. Some wrote about family members with addictions, or their own struggles with addictions. Some wrote about their beliefs about addiction that they thought might be challenged by the class (e.g. many students viewed addiction as an individual, rather than a societal, problem). This is where I met my first challenge of self-disclosure.
I expected students to self-disclose to me. This is something that frequently happens in my relationships with students, and I am always honored when students feel safe enough with me to share something personal. What I did not expect, however, was how intimidated I would feel teaching the material for the first time, while holding my students’ experiences. For example, how would I teach the section on addiction and reproduction, knowing which students had addicted mothers, or which students wanted to care for children who had been born addicted? With each blog entry I read, I became more aware of the ways in which my approach to various issues in the class, and the other students’ reactions, might deeply impact individual students. However, this awareness ultimately moved from intimidating to productive. It caused me to really be truly reflexive about my own stakes in each topic. It caused me to do more research about many topics, to make sure that I was aware of multiple facets of each issue. It caused me to watch my words, and my reactions, and ask the students in the classroom to do the same. It caused me to really stop and do the self-reflexive, critical work that I was asking my students to do. To a certain extent, it equalized the classroom and made me viscerally aware of the many different knowledges in the classroom space, which is core of feminist pedagogy.
The second challenge of self-disclosure coincided with the first. The second weekend of the quarter, in the midst of grading these first blog entries, my father called me to tell me that a family friend of ours who had been struggling with addictions for a long time died suddenly, and they suspected it was an overdose. I was shocked and deeply sad. The day I found out, I prioritized taking the rest of the day to emotionally process the news and practice self-care. The next day, I knew that I had to start thinking about whether or not I was going to disclose to the class what I was dealing with. After consulting with a couple of my colleagues, I realized that when it comes to self-disclosure in the classroom, it is crucially important to ask oneself, “Am I disclosing this for my own purposes, or am I disclosing this for the good of my class and to use it as a teaching moment?” I supsected I would need to really feel the energy of the class to answer that question. Two days later, I walked into the class and knew that I needed to tell them. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of, “In your blogs this week, you all really took risks in telling me some of the very personal stakes that you have in the class. I’m so impressed with your willingness to be open and honest, and I want to be open and honest with you too. This past weekend, I found out that a family friend died from what was most likely an overdose, after along battle with addiction. I’ve decided to tell you this because I want you to know that I am personally invested in this topic along with you, and I also wanted to disclose this because I know that my energy may seem different today, and I want you to know that it’s not anything that you all are or aren’t doing.” My students were very receptive, and a couple even thanked me privately for being open in the way that I had asked them to be.
My final difficult decision with self-disclosure came when we began a unit that has very personally impacted me. Again, after careful consideration and consultation with trusted colleagues and mentors, I decided to “out” myself to my students as someone in recovery. I saw this as a concrete way of breaking stigma, and also allowing my own humanness to enter a classroom space in which both vulnerability and strength could be embraced. I simply stated that I was in recovery and that while I often shared my story in other activist and educational situations, I did not want to share my entire story in the classroom space, because I did not want to centralize my experience, nor did I want them to be worried about hurting or offending me. This was, for me, the riskiest moment of self-disclosure in the class. More than anything, I was worried about breaching boundaries or making students feel uncomfortable. It is also the moment of self-disclosure that was the most productive. After the next class, a student came up to me and said, “Can I ask you a bit more about your experience? I’m dealing with something similar and I hate it and I don’t know what to do.” A handful of other students also used my self-disclosure as a springboard to approach me with their own concerns, and I was able to offer support and resources to them. My moments of self-disclosure also enabled me to embody the connections between the personal, the political, and the academic, helping both the class and myself examine these realms simultaneously.