Monday, March 08, 2010

Learning to Love

We created an online magazine for webwriting class. There were eight students in our first group. We each edited our fellow students' work, as well as writing a Feature article. The Feature was 1200 - 1500 words, related to the topic on which we chose to blog. Mine, as you might guess, was Healthy Relationships. Here, then, is my feature article...

Tucked into a cubicle at the Police and Public Safety Institute, a tall, distinguished, soft-spoken gentleman sits at his computer, carefully perusing and commenting on the sex lives of 118 Algonquin College students. No, he is not monitoring your private emails or peering at hidden video cameras. Rather, he is the designer and professor of the College's most popular General Education Elective Online Course: Understanding Human Sexuality. Lindsay Harris not only teaches an unprecedented life-enhancing class, but he has a unique electronic window into the many changing trends of Ottawa’s intimate relationships.

Learning the facts about—and getting comfortable with—intimacy and sexuality can make an immense difference in your life. Lindsay Harris (who prefers to be called by his first name) makes that available to you and the 16,000 other full-time students on Woodroffe campus. Topics in his course span from understanding anatomy and behavior to the history and current state of intimate relationships and sexual practices throughout the world. His text book explores, among other things, facts on various forms of birth control and pregnancy issues, gender roles, risks of sexually transmitted diseases and sexual dysfunction. In addition, he presents 14 weeks of discussion topics and journals which help students more deeply understand their own beliefs and perspectives. Because he has been in the counseling field for 25 years, and has now lead this course since Fall of 2003, Lindsay has, well… perhaps not “seen it all,” but has certainly seen some changes.

Teaching Police Foundations to a population of mostly new high school graduates in the early 2000’s, Lindsay discovered, to his surprise, how misinformed and profoundly uninformed some of his students were about sexuality and relationships. Disturbed by this lack of basic knowledge, he began designing his course. Coincidently, at that same time, the Government of Ontario mandated that the province’s colleges require General Education (Gen Ed) courses for all full-time students. Algonquin readily accepted Understanding Human Sexuality into the curriculum. The online format of the Gen Ed classes turned out to be the perfect format for Lindsay’s topic. As he says, looking back over the past six years, “[The students] couldn’t have been nearly as honest if we had been face to face.”

But honest they were, and, seemingly, still are. As fascinated as most college students are with sexuality, it does not come as a surprise that this elective fills quickly and has a waiting list every semester. The course outline and directions that he posts on Blackboard are extensive and no-nonsense, setting a professional tone and adult expectations. Meeting in person the first (and only) week of the semester allows Lindsay to meet and greet the new students. I know, for certain, I was not the only one to be startled to learn that “Lindsay” was male. Did he really expect us to send our sexual journals to a man? Within the first five minutes of listening to his calm clarity and lighthearted humor, my concern literally melted away. This man exudes safety. He clarifies that this class may be different than what we expected: it is not a “how to” class. Since the youngest students are probably 17-18, he assumes that it is somewhat unlikely that class participants are virgins. What the course is about, it turns out, is an intense learning and quiz-taking schedule, forum discussions of typically hush-hush topics, and serious self-exploration. Perhaps most importantly, behind it all sits a respectful, intelligent, real person reading our thoughts, and posting comments and marks for participation. There is a bonus, as well: on our Discussion Board, he has a section called “Ask Lindsay” where anyone may post an anonymous question or concern for support, education or feedback.

Lindsay requested and received a “Custom Edition for Algonquin College” printing of the textbook, Essentials of Human Sexuality (Rathus, et al, 2005). Originally printed in the U.S., this customized text will be replaced next Fall with an all new updated Canadian edition. Of course, a new text means a re-vamp of the curriculum, so Lindsay is anticipating a busy summer. For now though, students are expected to read and take a quiz on either one or two chapters of the text each week. He posts a new open discussion topic every Wednesday on issues such as circumcision, infertility and prostitution. And three times each semester students send in three or four page journals—answering thoughtfully prepared questions about all aspects of relationship and sexual choices, preferences and beliefs. It is a multi-layered learning experience that receives rave reviews each term. Consistently, Lindsay hears, “Every student at Algonquin should take this class!”

Learning about sexuality has come a long, long way. Let’s rewind just 20 years (approximately one generation). In August, 1990, The New York Times printed an opinion piece written by a woman who headed a family- and sexuality-education organization. She quoted statistics from two national reports, pointing to the facts that high school sex education was sorely lacking (students were receiving an average of 6.5 hours per year—“too little, too late” according to thousands of teachers), and teen pregnancy was on the rise. While high school sex-ed funding and teacher expertise may still be lacking, the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality (CJHS) reported in 2008 that this generation’s sex-education level is higher than any prior. The report also states that teen pregnancy rates are down across Canada (although there are alarming rates in lower-income populations). Sexually Transmitted Illnesses (STI’s) continue to rise. “What the research evidence suggests is that although there remains room for improvement, the picture of the sexual health and well-being of today’s Canadian teens is, in many ways, more positive than in previous generations.” (CJHS) The children of Lindsay Harris’ students are guaranteed to add to the health of the coming generation.

Looking back through Lindsay’s eyes at what has happened over these past 25 years, we can see astounding changes when it comes to how people create and maintain their intimate relationships. With the caveat that generalizing always excludes individuals, Lindsay outlines a picture of continually opening options, and changing stress patterns. Many of the stigmas that historically have been huge issues, are falling by the wayside. “More and more now, people are engaging in serial monogamy,” he explains. Because of the difficulty of accurately mapping the numbers without traditional legal documentation (marriage and divorce), it is nearly impossible to know how many common law relationships there are. That being said, the officially recorded numbers have more than tripled in the past 20 years. Additionally, he states, “Adolescence has extended easily into the mid-20’s. Over 50% of children are still living at home (many of them paying off student loans) by the time they reach 25.” Beginning relationships later in life, often without official sanctions, choosing to have their own children later in life are all extremely new trends in relationship with unique benefits and stresses.

Another major difference Lindsay points out is that, “People are much more comfortable with diversity in relationships. We have become a heterogeneous culture.” More often than not, we take it in stride when learning about couples of the same sex, mixed race or ethnicity, or of disparate ages. With the advent of instant- and video-communication on the internet, meeting and creating close relationships with people in different cultures, and maintaining those relationships over long periods of time is not only possible, but is happening every day.

All of these new trends and our new world-wide mobility have opened the doors of possibility to ever more honesty and fulfillment in our intimate relationships. With the encouraging sound of Lindsay Harris tapping away at his keyboard in P Building—sharing his knowledge and highlighting our unique value—we are all given the opportunity to learn to become the lovers of our dreams.

No comments: