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.