Queer Space vs. Queer Course

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Nine times during the course, I have my students write response papers of at least 500 words, so I can keep track of what they’re thinking, what’s challenging them, and what threads seem to be common amongst them.  They turned in their first responses last Friday, and they were powerful.  Each response acknowledged the fact that something they had previously assumed as a given they had begun to question.  Bornstein’s work, particularly, forced them to consider their own genders in a deeply personal (sometimes uncomfortably so) manner.  But the process of exploring their own genders allowed her theoretical language to be grounded in experience.  The workbook, basically, made them, the students, the “texts” in this English course.

I was particularly struck by a few students who mentioned the fact that our class, as an academic space, had a completely different way of looking at queerness than they had experienced in other settings.  If you look around the room, most (but not all) of the students are cisgendered, heterosexual allies.  Those students who identify more as queer have experience talking about queer culture and issues related to queer lives, but these discussions have occurred in spaces expressly created for support and a sense of community. They’re spaces usually outside the confines of school.  Those are queer spaces for queer people to share experiences with others who live similarly.  I remember, a few years ago, when I was a Lambda Literary Fellow and went to a writers retreat for queer-identified writers.  It was a much different experience being in a workshop full of other queer writers, as opposed to my M.F.A. workshops.  But, in a sense, that particular space was both an academic one and an expressly queer one.

My suggestion to those students who are feeling unease as we talk about subjects so deeply tied to their own experiences, but in a more theoretical or academic manner, is to remember who they are in relation to the others at the table.  And to be patient.  It’s impossible to completely check aspects of your identity at the door.  But it’s important to remember what biases we bring to the table and those of our fellow class members.  It’s that whole how does your positionality bias your epistemology thing again.  

So much of what we’re talking about is brand new and radical to the majority of the room.  For others, what we’re talking about is how they see themselves.  What I want from all of them is a fundamental sense of mutual respect and a quickness / willingness to forgive when, perhaps, a classmate comes off as insensitive or overly judgmental because of a lack of empathy in that moment.  

One of Bornstein’s basic ideas is to do whatever is necessary to make yourself happy so long as you’re not mean to another.  I think that, when we’re in a space of self-exploration and we feel vulnerable, our defenses can push us into attack mode.  I hope that my students will continue to be civil towards each other so that everyone can learn and grow.

11 Things I Learned About Teaching / Writing from My 10th Grade English Teacher

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Mrs. Raulston was my 10th grade English teacher. She was new to the school the year I was in her class, and she taught me how to make a strong argument, structure a paper, enjoy the richness of a complex text, and how to be open to differences by reading broadly beyond my own culture.  When I think of the volume of writing I produced that year—and all of the reading / commenting she was doing for 90+ students—I am overwhelmed by her kindness, dedication, and care.  As someone who recently taught four sections of 10th grade English for three years (as opposed to her five sections), I have no clue how she did such an amazing job and maintained any level of sanity / life beyond the classroom.  Balance is difficult to achieve in the life of a teacher, especially an English teacher tasked with reading and commenting on student writing.  When I had a stack of 70 literary analysis papers, I would fear them, really.  But she seemed to embrace bigger stacks with greater patience and love than I did.

When I was named a U.S. Presidential Scholar in 2004, I was thrilled by the opportunity to name my “most influential teacher” to take to Washington to also receive recognition.  I chose Mrs. Raulston.  I still choose Mrs. Raulston as my most influential teacher.  In college and graduate school, I never took a formal education course, but one thing I have received throughout my life (and continue to receive) was consistent, top-notch instruction.  I have seen teachers model the best principles of responsiveness, content mastery, compassion, passion, and innovation.  Though I undoubtedly would have found some of the pedagogical speak interesting, and the theoretical frameworks would have gotten me thinking, I had already received an intense education in the art of teaching. 

Here are 11 things I learned about writing / teaching from Mrs. Raulston, who I found to be, perhaps most importantly, a genuinely interesting and interested person:

1. Reading Shakespeare as a community is fun, but you need to see it performed to “get” a better understanding.  We took a field trip to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival in Montgomery to see Shakespeare performed—a different, enlightening experience of the text.  On the way, we recited passages from The Tempest and Merchant we had memorized.  A bus full of teenaged angst, hormones, and blank verse.  Yes.

2. Good writers are, first, great readers.  And have read broadly and deeply across genres, continents, and time.  I remember reading Ezra Pound’s translations of Egyptian love poetry, the Upanishads and portions of the Mahabharata (and eating Indian food for the first time—a class field trip), Conrad, Joseph Campbell, The Tempest and MerchantGilgamesh, Kafka, and so on.  We had to put the effort into writing that we did into the reading because there’s not that much different in the exercises of reading and writing.

3. Know your audience.  I was a student who would write for “the A.”  But she quickly pointed out how naïve and shortsighted that mentality was.  She encouraged me to contribute something to a body of knowledge and discussion beyond our classroom about the great works we were reading.  She said to write as if you were going to publish something.  That was mind-blowing.

4. Your first draft is not your last draft.  I wasn’t too fond of revision as a 10th grader, and that’s not that surprising because no one had really told me that I had needed to revise things.  No one had made the case that something that was “grammatically correct” could be improved.  Mrs. Raulston made us conscious of rhetorical strategies and style. 

5. As a teacher, you never want your assignments to limit students’ creativity.  I remember feeling empowered to choose my own path when given an essay assignment.  A prompt was a suggestion, and we were encouraged to find our own angles, our own points of view concerning a text.  When I give essay assignments now, I always like to include “choose your own path.”

6. Teaching writing should aim to teach students skills for revision.  You can’t tell a 16 year old, “Work harder on your writing” without guidance or without training them how to go about improving a sentence or paragraph or conceit or so on. 

7. Students should have conversations with themselves while reading—in the margins or in a notebook. / Teachers are students too! One of the first texts we discussed was Lord Jim.  It had been chosen as a summer reading text by the previous teacher of the course (pre-Mrs. Raulston).  So she inherited that, and we students did as well.  It was far too dense for me as a budding sophomore in high school.  I remember mentioning to her how much I had struggled with that book, and she showed me this journal full of (beautifully written) notes from her reading experience.  I thought that was amazing—the teacher grappling with a text!  In writing!

8. Be honest, approachable, and open to students beyond the minutes in the classroom.  So much of what I learned from Mrs. Raulston occurred outside the time of formal instruction.  High school teachers are always teaching; students are always learning.  The informal teachable moments have lasting impacts in teaching values and building relationships.

9. When you’re frustrated with one class as a teacher, you cannot let that ruin you for the rest of the day.  I remember seeing Mrs. Raulston deal with frustration or anger very quickly and then moving on / moving forward.  It’s important for students to see that teachers are human and experience the full range of emotions, just like they do.  It’s also important to model the ability to compartmentalize the more chaotic aspects of being human, enabling one to do one’s job.

10. SPES—Statement, Proof, Explanation, Significance.  Spes happens to be the Latin word for “hope.”  This was a paradigm for structuring an argument / paragraph that Mrs. Raulston gave us.  I use it for teaching my students about writing.  The statement (claim or thesis) is not a statement of fact, but is something that has interpretive value for the text.  Proof comes from the text itself.  The explanation is necessary for breaking down (analyzing) the “proof” and linking it to the “statement.”  Significance is the “so what” factor—why does this all matter.  In a paragraphing situation, the significance can also be the area where one transitions to a new point, showing how one idea feeds into the next.  I always tell my students that if they follow this paradigm, then hopefully they’ll have a strong argument.  No guarantees, of course.

11.  Show that you love what you teach and whom you teach.  Mrs. Raulston’s passion for words and for people were obvious and completely natural. I never questioned her authenticity or her motives.  I suppose that’s why, even in recollection, she’s still teaching me.

Kate Bornstein, Gender, and Power

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We’ve started reading / working / journeying through Kate Bornstein’s My New Gender Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving World Peace Through Gender Anarachy and Sex Positivity (Routledge 2013), which is an update of Bornstein’s original My Gender Workbook (Routledge 1998). Of all the books I selected for the course, this one immediately inspired curiosity from my students and from my colleagues in the school’s bookstore. A cutline on the front cover of the book, which appears as a sort-of multicolored composition book, says, “Now with more high theory, quizzes, and SEX. Plus robots and pirates! xox-Kate.” And, yes, judge this book by its cover. It’s fun–but serious fun–fun in the service of social justice, of raising our awareness of our gendered existences.

We’re just two chapters in, and we’ve had good, frank discussions about gender, sex, being trans, and how binaries can be oppressive. Before we started talking about Bornstein’s (work)book, I showed this video of her speaking to Brown University’s Class of ’69 (of which she was a member) at their 40th reunion. Interestingly, she is one of two women to have a Brown diploma from pre-1970. Women, until 1970, took classes and received diplomas from Pembroke College at Brown University (just like Radcliffe was Harvard’s women’s college and Barnard was Columbia’s). Since Bornstein is an MTF (male to female) transsexual (as she identifies in the video and in her writing), she has this rare status of being a woman of her age who has a Brown diploma.

Bornstein makes us comfortable by making us laugh; at ourselves and our assumptions about gender. She leads us through self-reflection in the form of “quizzes.” She humanizes high theory by including tweets from her “twibe” (people who tweeted her and got her thinking about how to update the workbook). Essentially, she queers the way we discuss gender. As she says, ‘Well this whole book is a mix of metaphors, styles, genres, and points of view.” Its polyvocal, multifaceted approach to dealing with gender perfectly performs the idea of defying categorization and essentialism.

While Foucault was speaking to an purely academic audience, Bornstein is speaking to everyone who will listen. Foucault gives us complex definitions of power as it relates to systems, sex, identities, and history. Bornstein, on the other hand, defines power according a social justice perspective: “Power is access to resources.” She then shows how identity, desire, and power are interrelated and how gender sometimes controls identity, desire, and power.

We’re just into the second chapter, and Bornstein has just blown a mighty hole into the notion of sex = gender. She’s commanded us politely by “asking” the reader to use the word “sex” only for “fucking and so on” so that it “robs essentialist thinkers of their gendered biological imperative.” At first, that seems to be such a minor, basic change. But the more I think about the implications, wow…

I’m looking forward to our class’s discussion.

WTF: What the Foucault?

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We read enough articles that mentioned Michel Foucault’s work that it seemed ridiculous to avoid reading his work (in translation), so I gave my students some sections of The History of Sexuality Volume I.  So far, we’ve discussed “We ‘Other Victorians,'” which I guess you could say is Foucault’s introduction to his introduction on sexuality.  I’ve also selected portions of “Method” and “Domain” (later in the volume) and plan on reading to them a few other key passages.  It’s difficult to gauge how much of this theory the students are ready to parse.  But, early on, I’m still blissfully optimistic that the grappling is going well.  No one has fallen asleep–that’s a good sign.

On Friday, we talked about Foucault’s project in discussing sexuality, knowledge, power, and politics.  We marched through the repressive hypothesis and into his discussion of the controls exerted on sexuality not so incidentally coinciding with the rise of capitalism.  We talked about the limited spaces for and “uses” of sex, and the more we talked about how controlled sex and sexuality are, the more we began to question why.  The students quickly realized that this “history” is unlike any other “historical” text they’ve encountered.  One student made a particularly good observation: I feel like Foucault is better at raising questions than he is at tracing history.  Yes; the more we know, the more we wonder.

Here are some questions that Foucault raises in this section that are particularly useful or maybe a better term here since we’re talking Foucault would be pleasureful:

1. What led us to show, ostentatiously, that sex is something we hide, to say it is something we silence?

2. What paths have brought us to the point where we are “at fault” with respect to our own sex?

3. Why has sexuality been so widely discussed, and what has been said about it?

4. What were the effects of power generated by what was said?

5. What are the links between these discourses, these effects of power, and the pleasures that were invested by them?

Foucault provides us with an excellent set of questions as we look at power, knowledge, and pleasure related to sex and sexualities.  I know that I’ve been thinking quite about what Foucault says about the nature of power, which is “to be repressive, and to be especially careful in repressing useless energies, the intensity of pleasures, and irregular modes of behavior.”  I’m sure that Foucault’s notion of “repressive” power plays into McIntosh’s idea of the “oppressive” nature of privilege. And his idea of “irregular modes of behavior” clearly assumes “regular” modes–or, as we say, “normative.”

On a less serious note: in at least 73% of the photos of Michel Foucault I’ve found, he’s wearing a turtleneck.  As one who sports the turtleneck far too often, I approve.

Queering Roles

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I just read through my students’ first writing assignment.  There were two parts; first they had to say, in their own words, what queer theory is / does in 70 or fewer words.  Secondly, they had to tell of “narrative of privilege” from their own experience.  

One student, whose activist resume rivals that of someone three times older, introduced me to two new acronyms relevant to the trans experience: MAAB and FAAB–male-assigned-at-birth and female-assigned-at-birth.  And the roles in the course have been officially queered.  Teacher becomes student, and student becomes teacher.  

Queer vs. Gay / Lesbian

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http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/07/laverne-cox-carmen-carrera-katie-couric_n_4555080.html

I thought this video from Katie Couric’s show that has been circulating around brings up an important point with regards to trans* issues, the fact that focusing always on the body can divert people’s attention from issues of social justice and violence. I’ll definitely need to bring this up in class tomorrow.

We just finished talking about the difference in the terms / associations “queer” and “gay/lesbian.” And we also talked about the relevance of queer studies generally. Basically, for the terms questions, the students boiled it down to “what’s at stake” or what a particular group wants. Generally, they saw that those who frequently use the terms gay / lesbian have an assimilationist agenda: they want to be included at the table. And those opting for queer are more revolutionary: they want to destroy the table because the table is broken.

Perhaps the most useful understanding of the relevance of queer studies came through looking at Eve Sedgwick’s contrasting of the “minoritizing” view and “universalizing” view in Epistemology of the Closet. The minoritizing view (usually gay / lesbian) sees homosexuality as something of interest to those people for whom it is an identity. But the universalizing view sees homosexuality or same-sex desire as “an issue of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people acros the spectrum of sexualities.” Clearly both views are at work at once.

It seems, to some degree, that the terms lesbian and gay are often used in a minoritizing sense–the people for whom same sex desire is a defining aspect of their identity want to be assimilated into existing cultural norms (e.g. the right to marry). On the other hand, “queer” (the universalizing view) sees societal norms as oppressive and in need of radical change. Queers want nothing to do with the status quo (no interest in marriage, for example).

We’ll continually complicate this understanding, but we got a good look into why certain groups opt for the language they use and the implied aims of those terms.

8 Student Responses to White Privilege and Male Privilege

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We discussed Peggy McIntosh’s article and the TEDx talk (posted earlier) that further explained her paper and her life’s work.  After showing the video, I gave each of the 12 students a notecard and told them to write in three minutes their immediate reactions to the article and TEDx talk: an observation, a challenge, a question.  Here’s some of what I got:

  1. I like that she raises the point of white guilt and that it’s not our fault if we’re born into certain circumstances.  However, as human beings, we should be held responsible for how we act in accordance to our circumstances.
  2. How is the idea of lessening white privilege separate from white guilt?…What could the emotional response be besides guilt?
  3. I appreciate that she made it clear that good people can be “oppressive” and that realizing that you are oppressive doesn’t magically rid you of privilege or oppressive thoughts / actions.
  4. It’s sad to think that so little has changed in 25 years.
  5. In the U.S. white people are generally favored just because of the idea of superiority that this nation was built on.
  6. While those benefitting from privilege are the ones who would be able to do something about the inherent unfairness of it, because they are the ones intertwined into the system, nothing gets done about it.
  7. Definitely written for a female audience.  Some of her comments were not useful for making her point and were designed to elicit a negative response toward not just the oppressiveness to men, but men in general.
  8. A distinction that McIntosh makes in her paper—that privilege systems are detrimental to society as a whole, not just to the people who are oppressed by them, seems like it might be useful in teaching people of privileged groups about these systems and, at a basic level, convincing them of their existence since it can’t be read as accusatory and might not turn people away. 

As expected, a range of responses.  I really thought that #8 was smart and useful, especially in a community of privileged people.  And, in our ensuing discussion, we were debating what rhetorical strategies could possibly be effective in bringing those benefitting from privilege systems into a conversation about the system’s dismantling.  They were trying vehemently to find “the answer” (good students that they are), but I had to remind them that they weren’t expected to find “the answer,” but that their pursuit should be smart.

The students were exposed to a couple of $25 academic words for the first time in the paper: epistemology and hegemony.  We talked a bit about epistemology and theories of knowledge and knowing.  I posed this question as something that they should ask themselves continuously, especially while in educational environments: “How does my positionality bias my epistemology?” Or “How does who I am and where I stand in relation to these other people shape what I know about the world?”  Considering these questions / aspects of oneself can really offer pathways for learning and self-understanding. 

We circled back to the article after some more discussion, and I asked them which of the 46 privileges due to whiteness they found most effective.  They all, surprisingly, rang out in agreement: “Number 46!”  For her final “privilege” due to her race, McIntosh says, “I can choose blemish cover or bandages in ‘flesh’ color and have them more or less match my skin.”  The fact that she ends this list on a concrete image, a visual image, a concrete image, really grounds the list in lived experience.  I couldn’t help but think of William Carlos Williams’ mantra: “no ideas but in things.”  There’s also T.S. Eliot’s idea of the objective correlative at work here, as well.  McIntosh takes this idea of privilege, something rather abstract, and makes it a physical thing easily seen: a ‘flesh’ colored bandage.  That resonated with us all. 

When we looked to the end, where she lists eight heterosexual privileges, I reminded the class that she published this in 1988—at the height of the AIDS crisis and a much less accepting cultural attitudes towards the gay community.  Queer studies didn’t really exist as a discipline, so McIntosh’s exposure of heterosexual privilege is both brave and forward-thinking.  I asked them, though, why, in a paper titled “White Privilege and Male Privilege” that spends a 4 of its 20 pages (20%) discussing heterosexual privilege, does she not include “heterosexual privilege” in the title as well.  They were quick to come to the conclusion that including bringing up sexuality in the title could have been the death knell for the paper; including a heterosexual privilege in the title could have been “too far” and thus deterred editors from publishing the paper. 

I asked them if they thought that if I titled our course something like “Minority Literatures” or “Texts from the Margins” or something less loaded than Queer Literature and Theory my class would have had more people enroll.  I wonder what sort of stigma, if any, they’ve experienced for signing up for a queer-labeled course. 

Tomorrow, to reinforce some of the ideas of McIntosh’s discussion of privilege systems, I’m going to show them this cartoon.