Teaching Gender and Sexuality in the Community College Classroom

Brenna McCaffrey

WAC Fellow 2020-2021

Sex, gender, and sexuality are topics that arise across our disciplines. Whether in  psychology, history, literature, languages, sociology, or biology, students may encounter these  concepts, which can be difficult to talk about. Students may come to the classroom with their  own beliefs about gender norms and sexualities, and readings that challenge their existing  viewpoints can sometimes lead to a lack of fruitful discussion. Below are a few suggestions,  based on instructor experiences and pedagogical publications, of assignments that can help  students work through these ideas in the classroom. Many of these assignments or classroom  activities draw from the tenets of “Writing Across the Curriculum” — meaning they focus on  using writing as a tool for learning and thinking (Bean 2011). These activities also focus on  “low-stakes” writing, which is usually ungraded. The goal of low-stakes writing is to get students  to practice writing as thinking, rather than writing as merely communicating what one has  already learned. Low-stakes writing can be especially useful as students work through their own  ideas about sex, gender, and sexuality, because it lessens the fear of being shamed, embarrassed,  or getting something “wrong”. It also allows students to think through class readings or lectures,  which might present new ideas about these topics, alongside their own experiences.


Disagree AgreeOVERVIEW: The aim of a values clarification activity is to start students in thinking about  their own feelings and assumptions about a topic. This can work for any topic at all, but it  especially interesting for thinking about sex, gender, and sexuality. This can be done at any point  during a course, but some instructors find it especially useful as a first day of class activity. For

more detailed ideas on this activity, see Chapter 1 in Activities for Teaching Gender and  Sexuality in the University Classroom (Murphy and Ribarsky 2013).

GUIDELINES: Have the whole class stand up and make sure students have enough space to  move around the classroom (this can mean rearranging desks or chairs). Designate one side of  the room as “AGREE” and another side as “DISAGREE”. Alternatively, if space is an issue, you  can have students remain seated and have them point to sides of the room. The instructor will  then read out previously devised statements. Some examples might include:

  • “I learned gender roles from my parents”
  • “Men and women are fundamentally different”
  • “Women make better managers than men”
  • “Having sex outside of a committed relationship is normal”

Then, let the student’s physical bodies indicate their thoughts on the question. Highlight that  students may walk (or point) to the middle of the room if they are unsure, and may use the space  as a continuum. Ask students to keep their original thoughts in mind throughout the semester.  You can revisit the overall class assumptions and where they stem from as you cover those topics  throughout the semester.


Gender Word CloudOVERVIEW: This activity allows students to begin thinking about their individual and social  ideas about gender in a fun, collective way. Like the values clarification, it works best at the start  of a course or unit about gender. It takes a bit of preparation from the instructor, but students  really enjoy the visual representation of their thoughts. There are a number of free online word  cloud generators that can be used for this activity (i.e. wordclouds.com). For more ideas on this

concept see Chapter 2 of Activities for Teaching Gender and Sexuality in the University  Classroom (Murphy and Ribarsky 2013).

GUIDELINES: This activity is best done in class where students can speak freely with one  another. If possible, divide the class into several smaller groups of about 4-6 individuals, and  randomly assign each group either “men” or “women”. You can print out blank “man/woman”  icons for students to write on, or if the space facilitates, you can draw them on your chalkboard  or whiteboard in class. Give students 5-7 minutes to write any words that come to mind that they  associate with either “men” or “women”. Prompt students to think about how we describe  physical bodies, skills and abilities, qualities, and words we use to praise and words we use to  insult. It also helps if you remind students that any words are okay (even “bad words”!), and they  can write them if they do not feel comfortable speaking them.

After students write their group lists, you can facilitate a discussion about what words came up in  their group discussions. After class, designate a student from each group to type up the list in a  shared Google Doc. Then you can run that list easily through the word cloud generator, which  shows which words were most common among all groups. In the next class meeting, revisit the  word cloud before a discussion about a reading on gender.

man woman icon


invisible knapsackOVERVIEW: Peggy McIntosh’s classic 1989 text on white privilege has been a staple in  courses that examine hierarchies and stratification due to race, ethnicity, class, gender, and  sexuality. This short essay walks students through the concept of “white privilege” to help them  see ways in which they may (or may not be) benefiting from Any course that examines sex and  gender as one aspect of identity should also attend to the intersection of gender with race and  class (see Combahee River Collective 1977; Davis 1981; Crenshaw 1991). This text can be  paired with many different in-class activities or writing assignments to facilitate reflection and  discussion on the “invisible knapsack”.


McIntosh’s text contains a list of 26 statements for the reader to reflect on. For example:

  • I can, if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.  ● If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area  which I can afford and in which I want to live.
  • I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to  me.
  • I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed  or harassed.
  • I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my  race widely represented.

Because this text is short (3 pages) you can ask students to read it in class and select one  statement that affected them. Then ask students to free write exploring their feelings about that  statement. Did they have a personal experience of discrimination described in the example, or  did the statement make them realize a new facet of their own privilege? Then allow discussion or  sharing of these writings verbally, only if students volunteer. This text can be heavy for students  and the class reaction can vary widely depending on the racial make-up of the class and their  overall comfort with talking about topics like race. Allowing space for ungraded, personal  writing to reflect on this text can be beneficial for students who feel called-out or threatened by  the realization of their own privilege.

ADAPTATION: Unpacking Knapsacks of Gender/Sexuality  

You can adapt this concept by having students read McIntosh’s original text and then  asking students to translate their text to think about other forms of privilege. In the case of  gender and sexuality, this can work well with thinking about cisgender privilege (the assumption  that everybody’s gender aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth) or heteronormativity (the  assumption that every will be and is heterosexual).


Material WorldThese activity ideas help students think about how objects like beauty products, clothing,  children’s toys, and more are gendered. It can contribute to thinking about how social ideas

about gender permeate material culture, and can be especially relevant for courses in psychology,  marketing, art, media culture, and design. For more ideas, see Chapters 17-21 of Activities for  Teaching Gender and Sexuality in the University Classroom (Murphy and Ribarsky 2013).

This works well as a low-stakes written assignment. Have students take a trip to a local grocery  store or drug store and look for an item like a razor, deodorant, or soap. (You could also do this  more quickly with websites like Unnecessarily Gendered Products). Have them snap photos of

the products. Ask them to compare the packaging design, the copy, and the price. Then ask them  to write up their thoughts on what they saw: What gendered ideas is the product selling? Why do  you think those ideas about gender are highlighted in that product? What ideals or insecurities is  

the item playing on? How is language, from the product name to the tagline or product copy,  gendered? How is the design, like colors, icons, package shape, gendered?  

Rather than collecting and grading this writing, have students swap papers with a peer during  class and discuss their analysis of the gendered product in pairs. Then allow the peer to share the  writer’s analysis, and vice versa, opening a broader class discussion about the gendered products.


Bronx Community College LGBTQI+ Resource Room

CUNY Central LGBTQ+ Hub


Bean, John C. 2011. Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical  thinking, and active learning in the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

Combahee River Collective. 1983. “The Combahee river collective statement.” Home girls: A  Black feminist anthology: 264-74.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. 1991. “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and  violence against women of color.” Stan. L. Rev. 43:1241.

Davis, Angela. 1981. Women, race, & class. Vintage.

Murphy, Michael and Elizabeth Ribarsky. 2013. Activities for Teaching Gender and Sexuality in  the University Classroom. United States: R&L Education.

Skip to toolbar