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.

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There’s the bell. Let’s get started.

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Tomorrow will be the start of second semester at the independent boarding and day school where I live (#boardingschoolperks) and teach.  The school has announced that, on Monday, we’re going to start two hours later than normal due to a hard freeze.  In the Deep South, we swing to extremes when dealing with weather; sometimes it’s warranted.  I’m certainly not complaining about a two-hour extension to my winter break.  Love and civility are stronger in a school community at 10:00 a.m. than they are at 8:00 a.m.  But when I saw these record-breaking low temperatures for Monday, I had to wonder if, on the first day of my teaching Queer Literature and Theory (a new course) at a high school in Alabama, Hell was (literally) freezing over.  But, by that logic (?), Hell equals Alabama.  And Alabama is far from Hell.  Trust me.  I grew up in Mississippi.

I’ll anticipate a few of your questions and “interview” myself.

Q: Who are you?

A: I’m a 28-year-old teacher and writer.  The stars say that I’m a Libra with a “moon” in Scorpio (at least, my astrologically-inclined friend Jessica tells me the latter).  I studied classics and English as an undergraduate before realizing that, obviously, the economically-savvy pathway for graduate school was poetry.  Thus, an M.F.A. program in poetry and all the concomitant riches!  I’ve published a book of poems, He Will Laugh (Lethe Press, 2012), and am currently editing an anthology of essays and poems exploring the queer experience in the American South (due out in September 2014 from Sibling Rivalry Press).

For the past four years, I have taught at an independent, coeducational boarding and day school in Alabama (more on that later).  I teach upper-level Latin courses and one senior English elective each semester.  In the fall, I teach a creative nonfiction and poetry workshop; in the Spring, I like to mix things up.  I’ve taught Contemporary Literature (how’s that for specific?), Southern Literature and Culture, and The Coming-of-Age Story.  But last year, when we were to tell the Dean of Academics what electives we would be offering for the coming year, I threw out Queer Literature and Theory, half-way thinking I would get a response along the lines of, “Interesting.  Let’s talk about this.” or “Are you sure?” or “What?”  Instead, I got the silence = assent response.

Q: Are you…

A: gay? Yes. queer?  That’s fine too.

Q: Are you...

A: out? Yes. To your students? Yes.  Actually, I was never really “in” so to speak.  When I moved to this school, I had to make a decision: would I be out to the community, to parts of it, or some other complicated mixture of masking and revealing.  At the time, I was moving to this new state with my then partner, now ex.  We weren’t living on campus at that point, but he was going to be around, and I wasn’t going to do the linguistic dance of “Here’s my ‘friend’ or ‘roommate'” or whatever.  That’s thinly veiled Southern for “Yes, I sleep with him.”

Also, I had a book coming out that anyone could read or buy and realize that, yes, I was indeed a card-carrying, voting member in good standing of the “homosexual community.”

I also wondered how different my experience as an adolescent would have been if I had had an openly-gay teacher and if that would have made my coming-to-terms with my own sexuality easier? Suffice to say that, at the Mississippi independent school I went to, I received a very solid academic background, but my exposure to “diversity” (of any sort) was severely lacking.

I needed my students to know that there’s a part of me that informs who I am as a reader and thinker and, ultimately, a teacher.

More than once, I thought back to that episode of My So-Called Life where Rickie, cast out for being gay by his uncle, shows up to Mr. Katimski’s house unannounced.  And, in the moment of Rickie’s great despair and reaching out for help, there’s the big reveal: Mr. Katimski’s (male) partner and, thus, his outing. As fond as I am of the too-short-lived show, I played a different part.

Q: Is there a “big” gay / queer community at your school?

A: No.  I am the only openly-gay teacher at the school.  There are queer students, and we have an active GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance), which I sponsor.  There’s a good amount of “queer visibility,” though there’s certainly a wide range of actual opinions concerning the open presence of all things queer amongst the various constituencies of the school.  I’ve seen / heard very little blatant homophobic behavior / speech; however, I don’t think that’s necessarily an indication of tolerance and certainly not acceptance.

Q: Did anyone sign up for your Queer Literature and Theory course?

A: I have 13 students (all seniors) currently enrolled.  I’m not under the impression that all of them signed up because they were eager to parse Judith Butler and Foucault.  Some took it because of the “cult of personality” that exists in schools–you know, where you take every course with Mrs. X because she’s a badass.  Some took it because it worked well with their schedules.  But a handful, I’m sure, took the course for genuine interest.

Q: So what’s on your reading list?

A: A lot of stuff.  I decided to be ambitious; even if we don’t “cover” all of the texts I’m having them buy, hopefully, they’ll keep everything and maybe one day read through everything or give things to people who will.  I don’t know; incredibly wishful here.

Making this syllabus was really, really difficult.  Syllabus-making is such a responsibility, a rush, a power.  I always give the disclaimer to my students that I could do a course makeover in heartbeat, that “our” Queer Literature and Theory course is not “the” Queer Literature and Theory course.  It is “a” look into “some” aspects of a vast field.  I’ll encourage them, in college or graduate school, to take a course under a similar heading because it will undoubtedly be different.

Our first reading is Peggy McIntosh’s article “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988).  It’s not necessarily a classic “queer” text, but I want to locate “queer studies” as the scion of women’s studies+gender theory+gay/lesbian studies.

Other texts: Woolf’s Orlando; Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; Bornstein’s New Gender Workbook; Carson’s Autobiography of Red; an anthology of trans* poetry and poetics called Troubling the Line; a theory anthology from Routledge; Gonzalez’s Butterfly Boy; Mann’s Breakfast with Thom Gunn; Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats; Jensen’s The First Risk. And more.  I know, ambitious.

Q: So why the blog?

A: I don’t know if a course of this nature has ever been taught at the secondary level.  I looked around at the course catalogs of several other independent schools, and I found nothing similar.  I just assumed that a course exploring queerness wouldn’t be taught at a public high school (maybe that assumption is off; I don’t know).

Several months ago, I wrote a couple of poems, exploring my experience as a gay teacher, for an anthology called This Assignment is So Gay (edited by Megan Volpert and published by Sibling Rivalry Press in August 2013).  I enjoyed the experience of doing that very basic rule of creative writing: write what you know.  So much of my life is consumed with teaching / being part of a boarding school community.  It makes sense to write that.

I want to document this experiment.  There’s just not a lot of content that exists written by queer teachers.  There’s even less content  about queer teachers teaching queer subject matter.  Especially in a high school.  Especially in Alabama.

When you seek out something, and it doesn’t already exist, then make it yourself.