Queer pedagogy

This was written as a review for somethin’ else but I thought it was worth posting, and reflecting more informally on. Comments are most welcome. 🙂

In “Queering Pedagogy in the English Classroom: Engaging with the Places Where Thinking Stops,” Amy E. Winans challenges educators to employ a queer pedagogy, which she explains, “entails decentering dominant cultural assumptions, exploring the facets of the geography of normalization and interrogating the self and the implications of affiliations” (107). The theme of sexuality is already present in student slang with expressions such as “that is so gay” used to refer to behavior that is contrary to normative masculinity, therefore, according to Winans the silence surrounding issues of sexuality in the classroom is artificial. By inviting the discussion into the classroom, students are able to engage with a theme that is present in national debates over same sex marriage and gay rights, prominent in many media products, and part of the talk of the locker room and cafeteria.

The model proposed by Winans requires that instead of staying away from conflict in the classroom, students be led to explore those areas of cognitive dissonance that emerge when the conflicting values of the discourse communities they belong to are revealed. She argues that a queering of the curriculum has implications beyond those of sexual orientation, leading to a process of critical (self) examination and practice with wider applications in student lives.

Winans’ proposition is appealing as a practical and relevant way to bring critical pedagogy into the classroom. By providing the students with tools to critically engage with their reality in a context of dialogue and discussion, students are being empowered to examine and explore hegemonic values that they might have never questioned otherwise. Society often assigns a negative value to controversy or debate, but as an educator it is in the difficult discussions that I have seen the most growth and excitement in learners and in myself as an educator/learner.

The proposition of a queer pedagogy challenging silences and naturalized positions is also relevant to the teaching of multiculturalism. It has been established that to simply include texts by the ‘other’ is not sufficient as it actually reinforces the normativity of the white subject. This queering approach requires that the normative categories become the target of examination and discussion.

Creating a student-centered learning space requires attention to the topics of discussion that are relevant to the learners’ lives and communities. When an issue is being hotly debated in the media, it is only logical that it be addressed in the classroom. By engaging with the learner as a whole human, and acknowledging the various discourse communities they belong to, sports teams, religious groups, ethnic communities, and many others, they are given an opportunity for self-discovery and critical learning. Discussions that encourage students to question their assumptions can only lead to greater understanding of the self, and eventually the other. This is a worthy goal for any class.

Winans, Amy E. “Queering Pedagogy in the English Classroom:
Engaging with the Places Where Thinking Stops.” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture 6:1 (2006): 103-122.

One of the great things about Winans’ discussion is the challenge to the usual practice of ‘othering’ in the classroom. Rather than simply focusing in on queer sexual identities and preaching the condescending gospel of tolerance, Winans is proposing a challenge to heteronormativity. WHY are the romantic relationships we read in English class only heterosexual? What power relationships are implied in this dynamic? Likewise, the examination of the construct ‘white’ as a racial identity should be part and parcel of the multicultural curriculum.

My own teaching philosophy tends to embrace conflict and debate as a learning opportunity. I work to create an environment where learners can take risks, be safe enough to deal with the discomfort of examining their own beliefs. I, of course, am always poking and prodding at the things I hold as truths and I love it when I am shown a different side, a new idea to consider, something I’ve overlooked…

When I was teaching first year composition, one of my favorite exercises was to have students play devil’s advocate:

In small groups they would select a controversial issue they all had opinions on. Abortion. Same Sex Marriage. Euthanasia. Legalization of Prostitution. Legalization of Marihuana. Sex before marriage. Anything goes.

They were asked to discuss the issue then… I would ask them to craft an argumentative paper that advocated the opposite position than the one held by the group. IN cases of mixed opinions they would either split into subgroups or negotiate.

I tried to avoid doing this the week before professor evaluations because I was not very popular then. Students tended to hate this exercise. Usually by the end it grew on them and while I did not expect to change anyone’s mind, I did expect to ‘force’ them to consider different viewpoint. It was always fun to watch the process unfold, and I always learned as much from it as my students did in the end.

And, while I never wrapped it up in a pedagogical package, I was constantly queering the curriculum.

I’ll never forget some of the wonderful class discussions on words like ‘cabron’ and ‘maricon’ in their many uses. But that is a blog for another time!

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