Representation, self-disclosure and the role of the teacher in the study of religion

A little while ago, there was an interesting twitter discussion about whether, as teachers, we should be open with students about our own religious backgrounds and commitments. It’s a subject we are interested in here at the Centre for Religion and Public Life (and a topic that is likely to come up in a couple of research days that we are running later in the year). We asked Jo Henderson-Merrygold from the University of Sheffield to reflect on this issue, from her perspective, in this blog post.  Thank you Jo!

Jo Henderson-Merrygold

What is it we do when we disclose or decline to disclose our (non)religious location(s), and why do we do it? I’m a passionate exponent of teaching in a non-confessional environment: one which articulates clearly that there is no expectation or demand for staff or students to disclose. But I’ve disclosed: I told one of my first year student groups that I am a Methodist Local Preacher! It was relevant: we were talking about effective constructions of arguments and I was arguing for the merits of a three-point model. How very Methodist I am!

Then again, how Methodist am I really, and is a three-point sermon the entire foundation of being, Christian, Methodist or even a local preacher? It is far more complicated than that, which is exactly why the non-confessional foundation is so important. On another occasion, a student clearly perceived me to be non-religious which led to discussions about how we conduct study of religious history.  Another struggled to disentangle an overtly religious author – a Rabbi – from their published work. Had these students known not only of my religious beliefs but that I am an office holder, I am aware that they may have considered my teaching differently. Other students wanted to find that their religious identities were valid and accepted in the classroom. But before we discuss religion too much I’d like to reflect on the other key subject I teach: LGBT+ Studies. So let’s return to my initial claim for a moment: I’m a passionate exponent of teaching in a non-confessional environment.

I am committed to the idea that no student or staff member should be expected to disclose… sexuality, gender identity, or (non)religious location(s). Nobody should ever force anyone into or out of a closet! Teaching LGBT+ Studies and queer biblical studies have both been helpful in enabling me to nuance my approach to disclosure and representation, not least in acknowledging to myself that there are no more grounds for me to withhold my religious identity than my sexuality. Both can have a representative function, while equally hold the potential to distract from what it is I am attempting to teach. So how to navigate this treacherous realm?

Let me reflect for a moment on one of my early PhD research methods classes: a fellow student asked “so, what is your religious allegiance?”, or something similar. My reply was rather abrupt: “I’m happy to tell you; but why is my (non-)religious background more relevant than, say, politics, gender identity, sexuality, class, ethnicity or educational and employment background? In my previous university the non-confessional approach was established from day one and something I really value.” It certainly wasn’t something I realised I had valued so highly, but in that moment it really became clear to me that it was so very important and valuable. Depending on the context any one or more facets of identity can become apparent or relevant in a given context, but do we consider the process of disclosure or revelation the same with each?

In considering what to disclose it is also worth considering what I am likely to be perceived to represent. Those facets of identity which are discernible on encounter also factor in how we are perceived as teachers. Is it relevant to my teaching that I’m a PhD student rather than someone with a doctorate? How about my status as a mature student, my southern English accent, white skin colour, physical size, marital status, or gender? Each of these has an impact on my reception by students, some of which may be more tangible than others. Just as the students will form conclusions about my life based on these things, they will form others based on how I teach the subjects too.

When teaching (and, for that matter, preaching) I don’t want to be an unnecessary distraction, and this informs the decisions I make about what to disclose, to whom, and when. As graduate teaching assistant for LGBT+ Studies, I was listed on the module handbook as Mrs Jo Henderson-Merrygold. My marital status was therefore known before I started teaching. But what does that mean? To whom am I married, and what does their name or honorific tell students about me? The answer in many ways is “not a lot,” but equally it can mean everything. In the module we discuss public figures and representation, about sex and relationships education, about the need to address the lived experiences of LGBT+ people inside and outside the academy. Some of them have never knowingly met an LGBT+ person before taking the class, and the annual panel discussion hosted by the LGBT+ staff network is a visible opportunity to change that situation without forcing the students to out themselves. Similar to the non-confessional approach to religion I valued as a student at Leeds, no student in the LGBT+ studies course is forced to disclose anything they are unwilling to share, but there is also an agreement to treat the classroom as a safe, respectful space. I can’t remember exactly when I referred to my spouse as my wife, but it was late in the module and my relationship with the students had stabilised.

The motivation for outing myself as gay is the same as that for outing myself as Christian: is visibility and representation important in the context, and is the timing appropriate for the subject being taught? Some classes I’ve disclosed neither, but others I have disclosed one or both. This matches my approach to writing up my research for publication: is my own location relevant to the work being presented? If yes, and if it has impacted how I’ve undertaken the research or what conclusions I’ve reached it needs to be acknowledged. If not, it can remain outside the text. All these months, and many hours of teaching, later I feel confident the conclusion still holds. If you need to know, I’ll tell you. If you don’t, I’m happy for you to make whatever assumptions and draw whatever conclusions you wish. If you ask me directly I’ll give you an honest answer – whether it’s about politics, ethnicity, class, or educational background or about sexuality, gender identity, or religious belief.


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