Emotional Well-Being at University of La Verne

In addition to recently co-designing a new graduate Educational Technology degree for credentialed teachers and co-teaching that program's first course, Dr. John Bartelt and his wife Linda co-teach a class on Human Sexuality for students at University of La Verne.

While any discussion of gender, sexuality, and consent can be highly charged and even intimidating to many professors and administrators, Bartelt believes that one of his most important roles as an educator-particularly in our current political climate- is modeling and facilitating emotional vulnerability; as a result, his students are powerfully altered by their experiences in his classroom.

Facilitating Emotional Vulnerability

Bartelt explains that he’s never had a class in which a few students did not cry at some point during the term, and it’s typical for them to “go through several boxes of Kleenex together,” an act that turns students into a family of sorts, both engaging them and enabling them to take intellectual and emotional risks. Bartelt starts each class by creating a “sacred space of unconditional support and confidentiality of everyone else there,” which means students find the space and freedom to deal with “heavier” topics. He adds, “We all learn best whenever our hearts are involved. And that applies to our students as well.”

While he acknowledges that many educators are apprehensive about taking their students to emotionally vulnerable places and even fear students crying or sharing experiences that are intensely personal, he and Linda believe that difficult place is when the most significant learning happens as “students can better connect the content with their personal lives.” Of course, he recognizes that because his educational background includes studies in counseling and psychology that he’s comfortable serving as a facilitator for those types of exchanges. He adds, “I cannot imagine deriving pleasure from teaching a course with all intellect and no heart.” As part of that commitment to emotional vulnerability, both he and his spouse are willing to be entirely open, express themselves, and even cry-basically to “respond with whatever’s going on with our own hearts.”

They also see their goal as to teach “what really matters.” Noting that any topic can be intellectually covered and facts are easy to come by, he stresses that what’s more complicated is offering students experiences that lead to a “true personal and global understanding of any given topic.” In their approach, both Bartelts want to “reflect each student back to themselves positively in the real world,” as they seek to empower them to navigate real-world issues.

As a child born with a diplomatic passport who was raised with opportunities and privilege that he knows few people can even grasp, Bartelt views our social system as one that appears designed to maintain an “unequal class-and-privilege-based pyramid scheme that marginalizes anyone who isn’t a white, home-owning, patriarchal, heterosexual, Christian male of prime age.” Bartelt believes his students-like almost everyone else-are struggling just to get by financially and emotionally.

Because of this reality, he believes people in positions of influence must address the problems head-on; for example, he views males as being in the best position to take on misogyny, whites in an ideal position to curb racism, and straights as powerful agents against homophobia. Educators, of course, are in the best position to facilitate hard conversations on these issues of injustice and help students find ways to combat those same problems. He adds, “Any teacher who sees himself or herself as a mere deliverer of content is missing out on some immense opportunities to help change the world for the better.”

Dr. Matthew T. Witt, Professor in Department of Public & Health Administration at University of La Verne, explains that Bartelt “transmits to the students a kind of regal faith in them as discerning and yearning human beings. He makes the difference with this irreducible sense he transmits that what’s happening in the class is like a sacred transaction among and between everyone in the room.” Another colleague, Sean Dillon- Associate Professor and Interim Chair of Department of Theatre Arts-believes Bartelt reaches his students so effectively because he offers them respect, from the very first moment of his class-demonstrating that students’ voices will be heard. In showing his students that the class will be driven by their passions, and not centered on the instructor’s ego,

Dillon believes Bartelt creates a safe and inclusive environment where “the precious gift of one’s own emotional vulnerability creates a channel of communication with others that is profound and sincere.” Just as Bartelt explains, Dillon also believes that knowledge can be easily obtained from any number of sources in the digital age, so the “student-teacher interaction is better used to empathize, to motivate, to connect, and to inspire.”

Student Lizette Flores remembers being fully engaged by the emotional connection Bartelt created with his students and the way he had of “breaking boundaries and connecting with everyone as human beings.” Recalling an assignment where each student shared his or her life story in order to explore the forces that shaped them, she believes those powerful emotional reactions went beyond academic enrichment and offered life lessons that connected her to herself, her colleagues, her university, and-of course- her professor.

During one particularly hard semester, Bartelt stopped her to ask if she was okay, and she cried, sharing with him that she was unable to cover her bills and was eating very little. She adds that, alarmed, he immediately offered some advice and solutions and then showed up outside her next class with a gift card to a local grocery. When she asked him if she could pay him back once she had money, he told her to “pay it forward.”

Another University of La Verne student, Rachel Klodell, believes Bartelt is unlike any other instructor she’s encountered because he believes being vulnerable together makes everyone grow stronger. Because Klodell wants to be an educator, she now knows the importance of creating a haven for students, which helps them grow emotionally and academically. Like her peers, student Sondos Badran recognizes that Bartelt cares deeply for his students, which is evidenced by their life-altering classroom discussions.

Seeing Bartelt’s openness as the key for enabling deep, meaningful conversations and creating a space for honest feedback, Badran states, “The warmth in our class provides a welcoming environment, open to any ideas for discussion and analysis. Having a class with powerful emotions enables students to feel connected and feel useful. In a society where everybody is put down, having a class that boosts a student’s self-confidence provides hope for the student that they can help contribute to the world and have a positive impact.”

Co-Teaching Human Sexuality

In co-teaching the Human Sexuality class with his wife Linda, Bartelt wanted to offer students perspectives from both genders, which also effectively models for their students how “each of us only sees the world as we are, rather than as it is,” serving to illustrate through vivid example how inherently biased our perspectives can be. For thisSpotlight continued same reason, they work to include a variety of voices from the LGBTQ community, so they can move beyond the abstract and personalize any topic by highlighting an individual’s story-a move that makes complex material more relatable for students. Another benefit, Bartelt explains, is that they balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses; he admits that he tends to “plow ahead at full speed,” while Linda ensures students are understanding as they go.

Together, he notes, they “strike a more even balance between the different vectors involved in teaching and learning.” In the Human Sexuality Class, they focus on helping their young charges understand empowerment, consent, how to recognize patterns of abuse, how to maintain open communication with partners, and how to embrace “the myriad of different beautiful expressions of human gender and sexual orientation in the world, and much more.”

Witt adds that the power of their class and their co-teaching is about more than offering gender parity; he explains that their rapport is essential to their pedagogy. Even as they offer concrete information and accomplish the incredibly difficult academic work of dissecting “misconceptions, historical baggage, and contemporary squeamishness,” they manage it all with humor and warmth. He adds, “John is the master of snarky irony. Linda is the wizard of the light-touch surgical punch.”

Having been a student in the Human Sexuality Class, Rachel Klodell shares that the spouses’ differing viewpoints offered something special inside the classroom. She said they would even challenge each other and raise questions, which made students feel welcomed and encouraged to ask their own questions. Badran adds that the course offers students an opportunity to have meaningful conversations about sexuality and power. In fact, John and Linda started a red bracelet campaign with the word #consent, encouraging students to share their selfies on instagram and twitter, to advocate for awareness about choice and consent, ideally helping to reduce the stigma related to reporting events of abuse, harassment, or rape on campus.

Consent and Empowerment

Though Bartelt sees some progress in regards to acknowledging problems of sexual assault on college campuses, he believes instead of being proud of the limited efforts to protect students that there are, in some cases, cowardly reactions that leave us hiding behind “Victorian-era modesties and/or suppressions that got us all into this rape culture in the first place.”

Courses like the one they designed are focused on addressing those issues directly. Bartelt adds, “Mindsets of male sexual entitlement grow easily in our society in the absence of that understanding, and campuses are made safer in light of it. Many campuses have thousands of coeds, and yet purport to have fewer sexual assaults each year than can be counted on one hand; just might they possibly have a problem with their grips on reality?”

Even in the most progressive of universities, Bartelt notes, administrators can be unnerved at times by initiatives designed to address sexuality, consent, and rape culture. Though he understands the fear is based on potentially negative reactions from parents, he wants administrators to push past those worries so they may best protect students. He notes the now well-established documentation for nation-wide under-reporting of campus rape or campus sexual assault, and he views education as one way to start combating the root problems that make room for sexual entitlement as well as sexual abuse. He shares that it seems clear from the policies in place at some universities that “too many people are simply more troubled by the thought of being asked questions they would find uncomfortable to answer, than they would be about sexual abuse itself. And that’s incredibly sad.”

Witt believes the Bartelts’ approach in teaching the Human Sexuality class is Epicurean, in that they link sensuality with spirituality and are thoroughly devoted to “empowering all students through understanding how sexuality is part of who they are as spiritual creatures.” Witt notes that students learn “their bodies are their own; they are the authors and authenticators of their own experience.” Noting that his colleagues offer students shields, through knowledge, that help them cope with “the onslaught of messaging/prescribing/proscribing impulses of the world around them,” Witt believes students learn to recognize their empowerment in their own desires, which he believes “could not be more timely for our particular political moment.”

Dillon adds that the current climate has left the university community in an awkward state of flux, as polarization is fed by partisan media outlets-including social networking feeds that have been calibrated to only share with us what we already believe. Dillon states, “The current political climate has left not just our students, but our entire university community feeling vulnerable and anxious. I feel fortunate that our campus climate, led by John and Linda and some of their colleagues, is a place for respectful dialogue about sexuality.”

All of these efforts demonstrate for students the level of commitment Bartelt has for their emotional well-being, and not just their intellectual growth. Klodell shares that she has never encountered another professor who simply accepts others for who they are and- more importantly-loves them for who they are. Always encouraging his students at the end of each class to “put as much love into the world as possible,” Klodell stresses that Bartelt is practicing what he preaches. She shares, “Professor Bartelt emulates and embodies what the true meaning of love is simply by being his true self.”

About the Author
Rachel James Clevenger earned her B.A. and M.Ed. degrees from Mississippi College. After finishing her PhD in Composition and Rhetoric, she taught and served as the University Writing Center Director for Birmingham Southern College and University of Alabama at Birmingham. Most recently, she taught Business Communications at Samford University.