What do you desire as a teacher?
What content do you love teaching the most?
What do you take for granted in your classroom?
What might a questioning of norms do for your classroom?
As a queer student and teacher, I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about and working to enact queer pedagogies in my classroom and in my Writing Center tutoring practices. Just as queer theory focuses on pushing back against heteronormativity, queer pedagogy works to move beyond just building an inclusive classroom space, though a value of inclusivity and radical social justice is an important motivator for those who seek to teach queerly. Thus, not all queer-identified instructors enact queer pedagogies, and likewise I would argue that not all those who teach queerly identify as queer.I want to be clear, though, that enacting these practices does not necessarily mean you are doing queer work– because of the nebulous nature of queerness, such a contention is difficult to make for anyone. Instead, this blog post is aimed at providing some queer ways to think about your own pedagogical practices and activities, especially if you are concerned with issues of identity and activism.
Queer theory, and therefore queer pedagogies work to resist normativity because our concepts of “normal” are social constructs used to reinforce and bolster the power of the most privileged. Resisting normativity allows us to question why some things are normal and some things are not, which opens up space for exploration, interrogation, and dialogue.
Queer pedagogy, at its most basic, is the study of teaching that seeks to resist and subvert (hetero)normativity in the classroom. Resisting and subverting heteronormativity means to also contend with queer sex and sexuality. Queer pedagogy, then, grapples with queer sex and sexuality, often through the concepts of pleasure and desire. Thus, while queer pedagogy does not necessarily mean to teach explicitly about sex, it does mean that desire plays an important role in teaching queerly. To summarize, a place to start when thinking about queer pedagogies is to a) resist normativity and to b) keep desire in mind as you teach.
Thus, one way to think about and enact queer pedagogies is to start by interrogating what is often taken for granted in both the discipline you teach and in the world around you and your students. I suggest starting first by thinking about the language you or your students use, especially when discussing identities. What coded language exists in your classroom that reinforces harmful normative gender, sexual, or racial stereotypes?
Some ways you might consider answering this question is to think about the assumptions you make of your students on a regular basis . For example, when I first began teaching college writing, when my students discussed relationships, I caught myself assuming their heterosexuality or monogamy when discussing boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands or wives. I try now, when talking about relationships, to honor relationships of all kinds, including (but not limited to) boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, friends, or chosen family members when addressing any student, regardless of gender.
Additionally, I became aware of the ways in which the male pronoun (he/his/him) was used as a neutral marker of anyone in much of the literature I was assigning my students. While I wouldn’t suggest throwing out any text that does not seem inclusive, I always try to mention the use of pronouns to my students so they might notice similar uses of language. As a practice, I utilize the singular they in my writing and have a conversation with my students about why.
Other examples of challenging normativity might be to acknowledge the overrepresentation of whiteness in many curricula; such a representation indicates that whiteness is the racial “norm.” For example, if you are an elementary school teacher, how many books do you have on your shelves with protagonists of color? Or, if you are teaching at the high school or college level, how might your rubric be geared to put native Standard English-speakers at an advantage by grading for grammar, but not content or ideas?
Resisting normativity as a teacher might also be about considering which ideas are taken for granted in your discipline. How does making those norms “strange” help your teaching? For example, the sciences are often considered unbiased, but what does thinking about science as a socially constructed discipline do to our conceptions of objectivity and replicability?
Challenging normativity can be uncomfortable for teachers and students alike, but working through that discomfort can lead to illuminating moments of discovery, as well as create space for inclusivity and social justice work. Be transparent with your students about why you are assigning projects or asking particular questions; letting your students know that challenging norms is your priority from the beginning can help student contextualize their potential discomfort.
Thinking about desire as a starting point for intellectual discovery is another way in which to enact queer pedagogies. For example, you may want to think first about what drives your desire to teach a particular subject in a specific way. For instance, do you have a favorite unit of your syllabus that you’re most excited to teach? Think about why you enjoy that content and find ways to incorporate your excitement for that content into other content. Working from your desire can help you to think about what you love and why, which can help you encourage a love of the subject matter in your students.
It also may help you to think about your teaching methods; is there a specific type of learning activity you like the most? Why? Further, does that type of learning activity align with your students’ desires? Sometimes, I have found myself teaching content in a certain way because that is how I would like to learn it, only to discover that such a teaching strategy was not reaching my students.
I work to align my own teaching desires with my students’ desires as much as I can so that we both get the most out of the course. However, sometimes this alignment is impossible; for example, if my teaching desires of focusing on inclusivity run against my students desires to be racist, sexist, homophobic, or ableist, I won’t compromise. But, I will work to think about how to better reach my most resistant students as much as I can. This is a challenging process, but you can start by having conversations with fellow teachers about they ways in which they have addressed racism, sexism, homophobia and ableism in the classroom. Brainstorm ways to disrupt a disruptor while still creating space for that person to learn and grow. Additionally, change your practices, discussion topics, or activities if they do not seem to be helping your students reach your learning goals. The classroom is an important space to foster personal growth and self-reflexivity.
Indeed, beginning with desire as a starting point is a way to think about how our intellectual development can be rooted in pleasure. Thinking about your students’ learning desires helps you to put them at the center of your classroom. Additionally, such a consideration of learning as pleasurable opens up new possibilities for you and your students.
Considering normativity and desire are two moves to make in the classroom that can help you to build a classroom environment that opens up space for critical inquiry, inclusivity, and radical change. Here are some final takeaways:
- Pay attention to your environment. Consider what norms you take for granted in your field/discipline/classroom and question them.
- Put your students at the center. Paying attention to desire should force you to consider what your students want and need. Adjust your pedagogy accordingly.
- Be transparent. Work to explain to your students why questioning norms and working from desire can be beneficial to you all. Acknowledge when you make mistakes and explain what you may still not know yourself as a way to challenge your own authority in the classroom.
- Change it up! When a lesson, an activity, or an assignment doesn’t work, change it. There is no harm in learning from your and your students’ mistakes.
I don’t want to suggest that enacting any of these strategies or takeaways means you are definitely doing queer pedagogy. The thing about queerness is that it avoids definition; instead, queerness seeks to ask questions. Queer pedagogy enacts practices that are fluid, amorphous, and ambiguous. However, learning is similar; we learn through asking questions and challenging the status quo. I encourage you and your students to do the same!
Britzman, Deborah P. “Is there a Queer Pedagogy? Or, Stop Reading Straight.” Educational Theory 45.2 (1995): 151-165.
Hall, Donald E. “Cluelessness and the Queer Classroom.” Pedagogical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 7.2 (2007): 182-191.
Monson, Connie, and Jacqueline Rhodes. “Risking Queer: Pedagogy, Performativity, and Desire in Writing Classrooms.” JAC 21.1 (2004): 79-91.
Yescavage, Karen and Jonathan Alexander. “The Pedagogy of Marking: Addressing Sexual Orientation in the Classroom.” Feminist Theory 11.2 (1997): 113-122.
Elise Dixon is a second-year doctoral student and Writing Center fellow in Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures in the College of Arts and Letters. Constellating queer, feminist, digital and cultural rhetorics as foundations for her work, Elise has focused her inquiries on the composing practices of queer writers, military wives, and writing center consultants and clients. She currently works as a consultant, graduate writing group facilitator, and community outreach coordinator at the Writing Center @ MSU.