Professor examines sexuality and cultural schemas

By Dan Perez

Rider Assistant Professor of communication Dr. Sheena Howard was a graduate student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. when she was “outed” in one of her classes.

Howard recounted her experience during a Faculty Lecture Series speech on Oct. 3 in the Mercer Room where she spoke about her published work, “Intercultural (Mis)Communication: Why Would You ‘Out’ Me in Class?”

She explained how being a student at an HBCU (Historically Black College/ University) added a layer of complexity to her coming out process.

“My first year at Howard I didn’t tell anybody about my sexual orientation because I was scared,” Howard said. “Over time, I came out to my friends but still concealed my orientation to faculty members. When you’re working on your Ph.D., you need a close relationship with faculty members and I was worried about prejudice if I revealed my orientation.”

Her secret was kept from teachers until the fall semester of 2009 when her professor was discussing the theory of Afrocentricity and a classmate, Jane, asked a question.

“She raised her hand and said, ‘With Afrocentricity being sexist and heterosexist, how can Sheena, as a black, lesbian female, study the theory?’” Howard said. “As the sentence rolled down her lips I immediately wanted to jump out of my skin. I sunk down in my seat and tried to not make eye contact with my professor. How could someone take something so personal to me and share it with the world?”

Howard used different theories to analyze the situation, similar to how she might explain a communication theory to a classroom of Rider students.

“Cultural-schema theory explains how we all have millions of pieces of information about experiences like events, people and places stored in our memory,” Howard said. “As we interact with people we create a schema about them. I used this theory to deconstruct the incident that happened to me.”

A crash moment occurs when schemas come into conflict and miscommunication arises, she added.

“An example would be when I think it is inappropriate to send text messages in the classroom and a student disagrees,” Howard said.

She asked Jane several months later why she thought it was alright to remark about Howard’s sexual orientation in public discourse.

“She told me that she came from a traditionally white institution where people were out and it was accepted,” Howard said. “She thought that because I was comfortable and open about revealing my orientation with my friends that it wasn’t a problem to bring it up in the classroom. Those were her personal schemas and context schemas.”
In her published paper, Howard details how this interaction between her and Jane’s conflicting schemas created a crash moment during the class.

Being out to classmates isn’t the same as being out in a classroom, Howard said.

“It’s a constant coming out process,” she added. “Every new place you go to, there is a constant negotiation process of how you approach revealing your identity. Just because someone comes out to a certain crowd of people in one room doesn’t mean they do the same when they walk across the street to another building.”

Howard said that she has reached a point in her life where she doesn’t care about what people think of her sexual identity.

“Caring about it takes too much energy,” she said. “It takes years and years to get to that place where you are comfortable and sadly, some people never do.”

She also gave advice to students and faculty who wondered how they could avoid the same miscommunication that occurred at Howard University.

“It’s important to use inclusive language and neutral terms like partner and spouse in the classroom,” Howard said.

Dr. Wendy Heath, a psychology professor at Rider, said Howard’s lecture was an excellent portrayal of a crash moment.

“The concept of a crash moment is an eloquent way to describe how miscommunication can happen to anyone,” she said.

Dr. Nadine Marty, director of Counseling Services, said she hopes people can gain new perspectives by understanding people who come from different backgrounds.

“It is only through openness that dialogue can begin to happen so that everyone is able to be who they are,” she said. “As a therapist, my room is completely open. If we can carry over that openness to classrooms, I think it would be a step in the right direction.”
Crash moments, like the one described by Howard, were crucial to her journey to being comfortable with her sexual orientation, she said.

“Nobody should be afraid that some part of their identity will negatively affect them,” Howard said. “You have only one life and you can’t live it in fear.”

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