In May 2013, Domenick Scudera, a theater professor at Ursinus College who teaches a course to freshman called the “Common Intellectual Experience,” wrote “Teaching While Gay” for The Chronicle of Higher Education. As the only tenured / tenure-track professor teaching this core liberal arts course with a set of preselected texts, Scudera wrestles with whether his sexuality shapes his classroom discourse, whether or not his students’ intellectual experiences could be compromised by his being “out,” and whether or not he should create a space for a student to feel safe in expressing views opposing homosexuality. One of the course’s texts is Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic memoir with two queer threads: Bechdel’s own, as she comes to identify as a lesbian, and her father’s, as reveals that he is gay.
As Scudera says, if Anti-Semitic, racist, or misogynistic views came up while discussing a text, he would address the issue in class directly. But, with regard to homosexuality, he feels differently, and his careful probing is worthy of attention. At one point, he wonders if one of his students expressed opposition to homosexuality, would he feel safe. That turns the typical conversation from the idea of our students’ safety to the instructor’s safety. And, it’s a legitimate concern: the instructor is also part of the same community of learning as the students. The instructor is responsible for curating a conversation that is conducive for learning; if he or she feels compromised or undermined or, perhaps even, bullied, then the moment of learning has clearly been disrupted.
In “Toward a Curriculum for Human Beings,” Maxine Greene says, “If the human being is demeaned, if her or his family is delegitimized, crucial rights are being trampled on. This is partly because persons marked as unworthy are unlikely to feel good enough to pose the questions in which learning begins, unlikely to experience whatever curriculum is being presented as relevant to their being in the world.” While the obvious application of Greene’s statement is to the student population, it also extends to the teacher. Of course, the teacher is in the position of power to set the tone or to police the various modes of expression in the classroom. But in our protection of our students’ rights and worthiness, we have to also protect our own. And we have to remember that though we may be positionally “teachers” and our students positionally “students,” the actual teaching and learning is mutual and dynamic. Though we may be shaping the conversation around a certain topic, we are tasked with reading and interpreting the most slippery texts in the room: our students.
I seriously doubt that I’ll have any student express open opposition to homosexuality in my Queer Literature and Theory course. In my four years at this school, I haven’t felt any open hostility due to my being openly gay. One reason I applied to teach at this particular school in the first place is that it met one of my firm criteria: it lists sexual orientation in its nondiscriminatory policy. When I looked around at many potential independent schools for teaching jobs, especially in the South, they stopped short of listing sexual orientation in these policies. But just because an oppositional viewpoint isn’t regularly expressed does not mean that we shouldn’t consider what those viewpoints are and where they come from, especially in the classroom. My job, in creating the best educational experience, is to curate that conversation.
Scudera ends his piece still digging, still questioning:
Do we, as educators, have an obligation to respect our students’ views that run in opposition to our own lives? Fifty years ago, that was not an issue. Being an openly gay professor was not realistic, and no college course would assign a book like Fun Home. There were no books like Fun Home.
Fifty years in the future, this will no longer be an issue. If we believe the pundits, same-sex marriage in America is inevitable, and with it may come widespread acceptance of the LGBT community. In 2063, a professor like me, teaching a course like the “Common Intellectual Experience,” will not have to pause when preparing to teach a book like Fun Home to his students.
We have to respect our students as people and their right to harbor views for whatever reason. We do not have to let a particular view expressed exist unchallenged, regardless of whether it aligns with our own beliefs. I am not one to check my biases, beliefs, or background at my classroom’s threshold. No, those things I carry with me because they shape me. I feel that being open about those biases and beliefs, and my background is key to my students’ knowing and respecting where my thoughts come from, just as I do for them.
It’s telling to note how the landscape of gay rights in America has changed since Scudera’s article was published on May 9, 2013. Minnesota, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, New Mexico, and Utah have, since the publication of this article, approved marriage equality. That’s six additional states in about seven months. On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor ruled DOMA (the Defense of Marriage Act) unconstitutional. And, finally, the ENDA (Employment Nondiscrimination Act) passed the Senate on November 7, 2013, and is awaiting vote by the House. All of this to say, that the cultural landscape seems to be changing much faster than many of us anticipated. Scudera’s image of a professor in 2063 could very well come into being much quicker. An additional catalyst for change: teaching queer subject matter to our students (even high school students) so that they do not view non-normative sexualities and gender expression as deviant or morally compromised. We can be open with our students about our experiences as queer people so that the abstract concepts of “gay” or “lesbian” or “transgender” or “genderqueer” become real people and real relationships. The poet William Carlos Williams famously said, “no ideas but in things” when talking about conveying abstractions through physical, concrete images. The same thing works for turning cultural or political rhetoric into something real; it’s my opportunity to take “queer” or “gay” and remind my students that those terms are attached to and lived by me.