Course: ‘Counseling LGBTQ+ Clients’ (CNS 644)
Department: Counseling, Administration, Supervision and Adult Learning (CASAL) Department
Institution: Cleveland State University
Instructor: Stephanie Drcar, Ph.D.
Number & Level of Students Enrolled: CNS 644 (~32 students)
Digital Tools/Technologies Used: Video
Author Bio: Dr. Stephanie Drcar earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at The University of Akron and completed her doctoral internship at the University of Oregon’s Counseling and Testing Center where she focused on culturally competent clinical work within the multicultural student services rotation. She is an Assistant Professor of Counselor Education at Cleveland State University. Her primary professional interest is teaching counseling skills to a diverse student population in order to serve a diverse world of clients.
This case study will explore a professor’s observations of the impacts of embodied learning experiences in graduate counseling coursework. Embodied learning approaches examine physical experiences and attunement with the body as a site of student learning, not simply conscious cognitions (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). Embodied learning asks students to “tune in” to their internal bodily experiences and make meaning of them. Attunement and meaning-making of internal experiences are crucial practices for professional counselors. Virtual learning presented unique barriers to embodied learning practices during synchronous course meetings. Now that this professor has returned to in-person learning, she recognized the need to make in-person learning worth her student’s time and energy. To do this, she utilizes embodied learning techniques and is striving for impactful in-person learning experiences that were not possible in a virtual landscape.
Students in our Masters in Counselor Education program at Cleveland State University expressed that they missed learning in person during the height of the pandemic, but they couldn’t put their finger on what it was about virtual learning that didn’t satisfy them. Students in our program are working toward becoming Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselors or Licensed School Counselors. Not surprisingly, these are students who enjoy spending time with people. Yes, we did spend time together synchronously during our Zoom sessions, but something was different, something was missing. Upon returning to in-person learning, my students kept remarking on how refreshing it was to be back together. Being in person feels better, they said. What were they speaking about and what could I do, as the educator, to capitalize on this refreshing return to in-person learning?
In this case study I will discuss how I utilize embodied learning theory (Merriam & Bierema, 2014) to maximize the impact of in-person learning. Many professors, and students, discovered during the pandemic that virtual learning was satisfactory for achieving learning outcomes. Indeed, I learned this too for some learning outcomes and content areas. I also learned that if I’m going to ask a student to make the effort to come to campus (versus logging on to their computer at home), then I need to make in-person learning worth their time and effort. Although I utilized embodied learning approaches prior to the pandemic, they took on a new importance when we returned to in-person learning.
Embodied Learning asks students to “tune in” to internal bodily experiences and make meaning of them. This practice is paired with experiential learning methods such that students increase in their awareness of emotions and bodily sensations while in practice. Bodily attunement is necessary for students to come to insights regarding countertransference, which occurs when a therapist reacts toward a client as if the client were a person from an unresolved past circumstance from the therapist’s own life. Awareness and mitigation of countertransference is a crucial skill set for effective practice and is learned most powerfully through embodied approaches. My goal is to develop grounded, non-reactive, and self-aware counselors.
Embodied learning is certainly possible in virtual learning. However, my students needed to engage in embodied learning with full, visceral connection to other people, in person. In-person learning provides exposure to all sensory experiences and makes it difficult to hide one’s own experiences from others. This was particularly relevant in my “Counseling LGBTQ+ Clients” course, a graduate-level elective course for Clinical Mental Health Counseling students. The course provides students with increased consciousness of the clinical needs of the LGBTQ+ client population and how to apply theoretical approaches to the clinical and developmental concerns of LGBTQ+ clients. A key learning outcome is:
I use embodied approaches when teaching on topics that can elicit defensiveness which becomes a barrier to learning. Students have a greater ability to observe bodily processes that are ambiguous but meaningful versus cognitions that are inconsistent with their self-concept. When I use an embodied activity, such as a “Privilege Walk,” students are confronted with uncomfortable experiences within themselves that they may cognitively block otherwise. I use group reflection to process experiences after such activities. Students reflect on how the activity physically highlighted hidden areas of marginalization and ways in which privilege and oppression led them to have vastly different life experiences, which distance themselves from others in physical and emotional ways. Students report experiences like these shed new light on the manifestations of privilege and oppression in their lives and the lives of others.
A Pandemic Necessity: The Artificial Zoom Room
In-person learning provides students with all the subtle stimuli that are important when understanding the meaning of an interpersonal interaction. Our students are trained to pay attention to eye contact, subtle shifts in facial expression, and movements in hands and feet. They are trained to observe how people are behaving in groups, who is leaning in and who is leaning out. How loud or fast is someone talking? Who is looking at who? These cues provide a wealth of information regarding one’s emotional state. Students also learn to recognize how they are impacted by other people’s behavior. They also learn how others are impacted by their behavior.
Zoom rooms approximated some of the real world but they missed out on so much. Subtle facial expressions were obscured, universal muting left an artificial quiet in the classroom, cameras were sometimes turned off when a student began to cry, and the anxious tapping of a foot was hidden from view. What was left was an artificial world in which students were also self-monitoring in a new an unusual way: they stared at their own square and pondered what other people thought of how they looked instead of looking at each other.
When we returned to in-person learning, the students had a new, heightened awareness of all the stimuli they had been missing out on when they were in their Zoom classrooms. This was the time for me to capitalize on their awareness and hunger for being with one another: let’s pay attention to our bodies, how we feel, what we respond to, and what we want to run toward and run away from. This was the time to use the body as a sight of learning. And with that awareness, I encouraged my students to fully lean into some in-person, embodied learning experiences that were only possible in the classroom, such as the “Ball.”
End of Semester Ball
To celebrate the end of the semester, we held a “Ball,” which emulates the “Ball Culture” of socioeconomically disadvantaged LGBTQ+ people of color, living at the margins of society, in New York City in the 1980s. Balls involved a fashion show in which gender stereotypes are used as opportunities to explore prevailing gender and sexual identity norms. I modify such a “Ball” to be appropriate to the academic setting. Prior to the ball itself, I have students watch video examples of balls and then I break students into “houses” (i.e., teams) to compete against one another. Students who are not comfortable “performing” in the ball can take a role as an audience member or judge. I bring in a host of costume options (e.g., hats, jerseys, jackets, ties, scarves, accessories), and the “houses” compete against one another in categories such as “Businessman Chic” or “Pro Athlete” or “Beauty Queens.” Students concoct fantastical and silly performances to accompany their costumes. Once the chaotic din of the ball quiets, I ask the students to reflect on what meaning they make of the experiences they had in their bodies and emotions. They often remark that it allowed them to experience gender in new, liberating ways. They share new consciousness of the possibility to liberate their clients in the same ways they experienced liberation within the course.
Insights from Embodied Learning in the Ball
What did the students learn from the experience? Students relayed to me a variety of impacts that could have only come from the novel, in-person experience. Some students recognized that they were immediately anxious about the concept and elected to play the role of “judge” or “audience” member. They explored what that meant to them; were they simply more reserved or was there something about this activity that scared them? If so, what was it? Other students found the opportunity to exaggerate and be creative with gender roles to be liberating, and they pondered what the implication was for them, and that it was potentially an awareness of the rigidity of their own standards for self-expression. Other students, who observed the ball, were able to notice what performances elicited discomfort to them, and why that might be. They became aware of internal biases that they otherwise hoped to ignore.
These insights had direct implications for their ability to conduct clinical work with LGBTQ+ populations. A therapist who brings in unacknowledged biases and stereotypes may interact with their client in hurtful and limiting ways. These students used their embodied learning to open an internal exploration of who they are, what they think and feel, and how that impacts their clinical work with LGBTQ+ clients.
What’s the broader implication for embodied learning for students outside of this class, or this discipline? My observation is that the messiness and plethora of stimuli and opportunities of in-person learning should be capitalized upon. If we’re going to ask students to come to the classroom, let’s make it worth their time. Let’s give them an in-person experience that can only be conducted when people occupy the same space, and can pay attention to all of their senses. So much of the classroom experience is a cognitively-focused activity, but there is valuable learning that can occur when we pay attention to the totality of our bodily experiences. In-person learning is worth it when we take advantage of everything that is available to our senses, that wasn’t possible in for many semesters of virtual learning.
Merriam, S.B., & Bierema, L.L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. Jossey-Bass.