Back to School

First published at on August 9, 2010

It’s the first day of class, and I enter my lecture hall as I usually do, skirting the periphery until I reach the door that leads me discreetly backstage. The room is a “teaching theater,” and while I could walk right up to the stage, I’m enough of a drama queen to prefer emerging onstage from the wings just before class starts.

I step out onto the stage for a brief moment, fiddling with the computer to boot up the powerpoint. As the huge screen behind me comes alive, I feel a bit like the Wizard of Oz without his curtain. Then I dart back offstage to collect my thoughts.

11:45 am. I emerge finally and walk briskly out to center stage. 150 new faces. “Good morning!”

I enjoy the first day of class, probably because I enjoy what I do for a living so much. I wouldn’t say that I get nervous, but there is a certain tension, invigorating and familiar. What will this class’s “personality” be? (Every class has one, just as surely as each student does.) How will they react to me and to one another?

My university is wonderfully diverse, and my classes reflect that. I scan the room and see students of all colors, of various ages, dressed every which way. There are nerds and jocks, preppies and punks. I spot a number of women in Muslim headscarves—some wearing all black, others in striking colors. I see at least one man wearing an Indian turban. Last semester’s class included a Buddhist monk, his deep orange robes making him easy to find in the crowd.

It’s not until later in the day that I think about “the gay thing,” when I pass a former student walking across campus and he gives me a bright “Hello.”

“Peter” had set off my “gaydar” when he took my class, but he was shy—almost painfully so—and from a culture where such things are seldom discussed. He visited my office once to discuss his work, but he didn’t bring up personal matters and I didn’t pry. Today, he seems far more comfortable with himself, and I wonder about his journey.

I respond to Peter’s greeting, but we both seem hurried. Maybe next time we’ll talk more.

I’m openly gay on my campus, as in my life more generally. I’m the faculty co-advisor of our GLBTA, and any student who Googles my name will find my column and other gay-themed material.

But what about the students who don’t? I want them, too, to know that I’m gay. Maybe some of them are gay themselves, and need to know that they’re not alone. (This I imagine to be Peter’s situation.) Maybe they have gay family members, or maybe they just need their assumptions challenged. How do I bring it up?

I’m not going to put it on the syllabus. (“Dr. Corvino, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Open Homosexual; Office Hours…)

In some classes it comes up more naturally than others: Contemporary Moral Issues, for instance. Still, it has to be handled right. “Not only do I write about gay issues, I’m also gay” feels a bit like “Not only am I the Hair Club president, I’m also a client,” except without the before-and-after photos. (“My goodness, his homosexuality looks so natural…virtually undetectable!”)

I want sexual orientation to be a “non-issue,” but I also recognize that in many parts of society—including parts of my campus—we are not there yet. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to get us there, which means that, paradoxically, my “non-issue” is very much an issue.

Suppose that my coming out during a given lecture means that I “lose” 25% of the class for the next five minutes as they chew on this new bit of information. (Judging from their facial expressions when I do come out, I think 25% lost is a fair estimate.)

I want to be a good gay role model, but I also want to be a good teacher. A lecturer’s effectiveness depends in part on audience reaction. In this respect teaching is like many other professions: think of salesmen, actors, or writers. When personal characteristics get in an audience’s way — in this instance, by distracting from course content — they become relevant to job performance.

At the same time, part of my job as a philosophy teacher is to push people to challenge their presuppositions. As Socrates taught us, education isn’t always about making people comfortable—often, it requires just the opposite.

So I come out in class, but I choose carefully when and how. I’ll use examples that make my orientation clear, without making gayness the point of the example. I’ll bring up the subject with a casual, matter-of-fact tone, even while my words are painstakingly selected.

Am I overthinking this? Perhaps so. But I’m a philosophy professor, after all. And I love what I do.