Let’s talk about sex: inclusion in the classroom and beyond with Dr Kirsten McLean

Let’s talk about sex: inclusion in the classroom and beyond with Dr Kirsten McLean Kirsten McLean, landscape, photo by Kara Rasmanis

Dr Kirsten McLean, photo by Kara Rasmanis

Dr Kirsten McLean received a Vice Chancellor’s Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning in 2016 – one of the top awards from Monash University for teaching – for creating an inclusive environment for teaching Sexuality and Society.

Kirsten is also deputy chair of the Diverse Sexualities and Genders Advisory Group at Monash University who are working to provide a diversity-conscious curriculum and developed the recently published Inclusive Education Guidelines.

We caught up with Kirsten about her teaching, and about some of the concrete steps made towards greater social justice and inclusion for the wider community at Monash University.

Congratulations on receiving the Vice-Chancellor’s Award! Can you tell us a bit about your approach to teaching and how you create an inclusive environment for teaching sexuality?

I have this approach to teaching where I believe that you need to take people on a journey rather than tell people what they need to know.

I’m as passionate as anyone about human rights, and same sex couple rights, and marriage rights – I still remember when the Marriage Act was changed in 2004 and being devastated. But if I walked into a classroom and said: ‘this is what you have to believe, dear students” it wouldn’t work!

You need to take students on a journey where they can arrive at things at their own pace but also where, if they don’t believe in the same things as you, they don’t feel left out. That’s really important to me. Some students have never seen a woman in front of a classroom talk about sex  – I talk about sexuality and sex as part of the unit – and I don’t want them to be so horrified that they feel excluded.

You need to do things in a really safe way, and a really fun way. I have this thing that I do: there’s a great study on 20 thousand Australians, it’s a representative sample, about people’s lifestyle, sexuality and relationships. So I’ve used those statistic, and in the very first week I create a little quiz that I know students will probably get all wrong, because some of them have preconceived ideas and also because they’re not going to know the specific statistics. But I do it as a fun quiz because no one is getting marked: they get to write it down on a piece of paper or keep it in their head and they don’t have to reveal their answers to anybody else.

One of the questions I ask is, “what percentage of men have watched pornography in any format” and someone always yells out “100%!” It’s so classic because every year for the past five years someone has said that, and the class erupts in laughter. Then I put up the real stat, it’s something like 60% and they go, “NOOOO!”

And then we talk about why it might be that they think it’s 100% even though it’s actually 60. It brings in ideas that we have these assumptions about sexuality that are actually quite incorrect. The point is, if they didn’t get the answers wrong, that whole experiment would fail because there would be no fun, no laughter, and no relaxing into talking about sex and sexuality. It’s a way for students to understand from the very first week that it’s ok to make assumptions, that you can be wrong, and that you’re not a bad person if you make assumptions. We all make assumptions, and I also talk about my own assumptions about things, so it’s really about making it safe, making it positive and fun.

A few years ago we got in a guest speaker who was transgender who used the pronouns  ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘theirs’ in relation to themselves. At that time, what was happening around pronouns was very new and I’d decided to get a guest speaker in because I was feeling uncomfortable about what I didn’t know, and I felt that it might be better if somebody who was living that life came to talk to us.

The speaker asked us to mark out what we thought we looked like on a gender continuum: both our own self-identity and what we think others believe we are. This person took us through what it’s like to feel like you don’t fit the pronouns, and really explained the difficulty for them and why they would like others to use ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘theirs’, even though it’s generally seen to be grammatically incorrect.

We had questions afterwards and everyone was incredibly respectful. We debriefed the following week and I shared my own graph just to say that this had blown me away, and that before this speaker came in I hadn’t thought about it properly myself. It was really quite powerful, I had students coming to see me in the following weeks saying that it was amazing.

We also have a lot of students who reveal stuff in the classroom, so we have a very strong policy of ‘what goes on in the classroom stays in the classroom’. So we make sure that we explain that this is a really safe and closed environment, so if visitors come students need to get permission from me. It means that we can respect the space as something where people can be themselves. Students have come out, they’ve talked about their relationships, some have even spoken quite openly about working in the sex industry. And it’s worked really well because they know I’ve made a policy that it is a safe and closed environment.

It’s also respecting that people may want to talk, but also that some people may not want to talk. I have another principle that I never, ever, call on students to talk. Ever. It just goes completely against everything I believe in teaching. Mainly because I was a very shy student when I was an undergraduate (hard to believe?) and I hated it when teachers went, “Kirsten?”, because I would think, “argh now I’m on the spot, I can’t stand it!” So my students can sit in my class and not say a word for 12 weeks, if that’s what they want. It doesn’t mean that you have five dominant people because I still manage it so that you don’t have dominant people. I’ll keep an eye open for people if they want to say something. In that space you need to be really, really safe.

One of my favourite international students was a guy from Hong Kong, an exchange student, who told me: ‘This is just fascinating, we never talked about this in Hong Kong, we don’t talk about it in high school or university, and I cannot wait to go home and tell everybody about it!” He’d come to me after every class and ask questions. He wasn’t ready to ask those questions in class but he would stay with me for 15 minutes after class, every class, to ask questions and learn more. So students find their own ways to learn more.

You obviously love teaching. What are some of your top reasons why?

I love those interactions with students where you can see a development. I get students sometimes that I see in first year and then I might teach them a couple of times in undergrad. And you can see their development not only in terms of their thinking about social justice issues but just as human beings. I’ve seen some students go on and do some really amazing things. But also just the ones who’ll come and see you and say, urgh I need a bit of help with this essay, and they’ll tell you a bit of what’s going on in their life – I love those interactions.

And in terms of teaching sexuality what is so rewarding for me is watching the development of their passion for social justice and human rights. Someone will stand up in class and say, “This is so unfair!”, or “I don’t understand why we vilify women who work in the sex industry and the men get off scot free”, or “why is it that women can’t be openly sexual but men can?”. They get really agitated about the injustices, and watching that is quite incredible. And it doesn’t matter whether they’re standing up in class and saying it, or sitting down and talking to their peers, you can see the passion. Even the quiet students when you get them to do a bit of paired work or group work, they’re getting quite worked up and you think: you’re going to take that and go places, you’re going to be fiery, and you’re going to contribute to society, and that’s quite wonderful.

Pug in San Diego Pride Parade, 2013

You’re also contributing to inclusion and human rights for the wider university community and the wider teaching community, can you tell us a bit about that?

I’m really passionate about LGBTI inclusion at university. It’s one of the things that’s really important to me. I’m the deputy chair of a group at Monash called the ‘Diverse Sexualities and Genders Advisory Group’ which was formed in 2015 as an offshoot of the Monash Ally Network. The advisory group is made up of academic staff, professional staff, postgraduate representatives and undergraduate students. It is the most marvellous committee to work on because the students are involved.

One of things we’re about to do is to have some of the bathrooms in the university converted so they are gender neutral. Another of our big achievements is the ‘Inclusive Teaching Guidelines’. The working group that developed these came out of a discussion about the fact that the students were quite passionate about this – students were saying it was great that Monash had an advisory group, but one of the biggest spaces that they were experiencing things in was in the classroom. So we developed these guidelines for the classroom that include things like: what do you do about gendered pronouns? It’s about a five or six page document, including things like if you’re going to put slides up, don’t always show heterosexual couples.

Most of us in the working group were in the social sciences so we were also trying to think, what would you do in other fields? In accounting maybe if you had an exam questions that said, “Mary and Steve are buying a house”, don’t always include Mary and Steve, maybe just slip in there a couple of men and couple of women. Many students won’t notice, but the ones who will notice will feel really included. So it was about incidental inclusive teaching as well as about being more upfront.

I’m really interested in social inclusion and how you make someone feel less alone in a university. If I have time this year, I hope to do some research asking students what they would like to see in terms of inclusivity. There are several universities interested in this so I think it’s something that we can take a bit wider, talk to staff from different faculties and find out what the challenges are, because for some this may mean reworking all of their slides, which is a lot of work. And the whole idea of those teaching guidelines was to make it easier for people, so they had something that they could work off, but I think it needs to be expanded into a set of resources or discipline-specific ideas. The whole idea of this new project is to get perspectives outside of the social sciences. It builds on what I’ve been working on for quite a few years but puts it in a more formal space.

For example, what does it mean in a Science classroom? For me, sexuality, culture, disability is relevant in everything I teach, but if you’re a physicist, how does LGBTI stuff work in that space? How can a teacher in Science make their classroom feel more inclusive? So we can add to the guidelines by writing a resource kit for them. We can write research from it, but we can also say, this is what young people would like. Because I was talking to someone from Science, and she was saying that if there was a sign in the lab that said, ‘don’t assume everyone is heterosexual’, or ‘don’t assume everyone’s a he or a she’, that it would be just enough to create some awareness that would make life safer for her in the lab.

It does actually make a huge difference to people. And that’s what it’s about. […] We want people to feel like they’re being supported so they can actually achieve, they can succeed and not be burdened

Love each other, San Diego Pride Parade, 2013

It does actually make a huge difference to people, and that’s what it’s about. We want the student experience to be really welcoming, and they want to feel part of a community. The Monash community is brilliant, it’s a brilliant space where people are actually really kind to each other and look after each other, especially when they really need it. They support people, and we want people to feel like they’re being supported so they can actually achieve, so they can succeed and not be burdened by managing stresses about their gender, or sexuality or disability on top of everything else they’ve got to do.

LGBTIQ at Monash: monash.edu/lgbtiq

Contact a Monash LGBTIQ Ally: monash.edu/lgbtiq/contact-an-ally

Study at Monash Arts