15 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing about this, it’s a topic that’s on my mind every time I plan and teach a new class! “Coming out” in the classroom as trans* has for the most part been amazing and I’ve found that my students have been some of my biggest allies. That said, I’ve only ever come out in Gender studies classes, when I teach in History departments I let my students (and colleagues) gender me as they will. My enjoyment, and the quality, of teaching is radically different based on whether I come out or not, and yet every time I stand up in front of more conventional, usually white, cis-male dominated history classrooms I bottle out of saying anything at all. But the more we talk about these things from a variety of perspectives, the easier it becomes to feel enough confidence and legitimacy to be honest with ourselves and others.

    • Thanks so much for your comment and perspective, Onni. When Sheila McManus answered my interview questions she also distinguished between how she ‘came out’ with gender studies vs history classes/students. It’s something I had to cut from this piece, but there are so many other factors involved, and locations in the academy (in terms of discipline) with different situations, contexts and students.

      Of course, the piece I wrote also assumes that the academy is a universally safe space for queer teachers to discuss their sexual and/or gender identities. This just isn’t the case everywhere and sensitivity to that adds another factor and layer of privilege for us to think about.

  2. I think about personalising pedagogy a lot – I had a great mentor on this as a grad student, who showed me how being ostentatiously ‘yourself’ at the lectern was a way of demonstrating to students that academics are real people too, with flaws, uncertainties, and lives beyond the adaceme, none of whom came into the world already knowing all about Derrida/Bourdieu/theorist of choice, who have had, and still have to struggle for understanding of challenging ideas; and that, ultimately, the academic world/life is not isolated from theirs. In a sense, this gives the student – who may be feeling all at sea in a new environment where she/he imagines everyone else to be smarter, more naturally gifted, and higher achieving – a means of realising that people are just people even in universities, and therefore, authorises them to believe that they are authentic and fully fledged members of this intellectual community. Telling personal stories (e.g. about home life and weekend activities, personal experience of undergraduate life, as well as current intellectual undertainties etc) is one easily accessible way to do this. But as a heterosexual married woman, do my stories risk reproducing the social structures that marginalise others? There’s certainly far less personal ‘risk’ that I take in telling them, so maybe my doing so can open up lines of accessibility only so far. Is this kind of pedagogy only really open to the cisgendered academic? Or can everyone be involved?
    This post is really serious food for thought!

    • Thanks for your comment Kathleen. It really is a lot to think about, and I appreciate your thoughts on this. I think everyone can be involved in this pedagogy, which in fact goes beyond pedagogy to a way of living in the world more generally. Heterosexual cisgendered folks using their lives and being open in the classroom does not itself marginalize others because they can always use that privilege to talk about privilege in ways that many students might have an easier time relating to. I think there’s really important work to be done by everyone in contributing to more discourse that creates more openness for everyone. And we all inhabit multiple positions, some of privilege and some of marginalization. And that combination could really get students (and us) to think about these intersections in useful non-binary ways.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of showing we are “just” ordinary people and that we are all on a learning journey (horrible expression, but it’s true). But does your approach get labelled “too anecdotal” and therefore not academic? when I teach supposedly controversial areas of family law there is, in fact, a danger of the class falling into anecdote, in part because we all have experiences and the students feel comfortable bringing them to the class (great) but I also suspect it is easier to do that that to actually have done the reading for the class (not so great) – of course I validate their anecdote and, with their permission, try to bring it up against the literature – we are, after all, there to learn about law!
      As well as lgbtq I make a point of “coming out” as a working class person who really did not have an option of going to uni when I left school and only got to uni at the age of 30 through an access course having worked in what would now be described as minimum wage jobs for 13 years (paying tax so that students got grants but being denied a grant because the politicians I had paid tax to support going through uni took away student grants by the time I was able to apply for uni, thanks for that Maggie, Tony and Gordon!). I am conscious that I have heard various plausible comments over the years that those most excluded from education are often local, white, working class (straight?) kids – there is certainly something in that in Dundee so when they do get to enrole on supposedly prestigious programmes such as law I wonder if the emphasis on lgbt and bme and gender (seen only as negatively affecting women rather than also negatively affecting men) might be very marginalising if you are feeling like, or expecting to be treated like, poor, white “trash” – just try getting a legal traineeship with a broad Glaswegian working class accent if you also happen to be “white”, male and straight.

      • I think it’s valuable to allow space for anecdotes so that students feel open to talk freely in classes about subjects overlapping on their own experiences, but critical to use those anecdotes and examples in useful ways to understand the literature/documents/history at hand. You describe having done this, Brian, and I’ve tried to do it in my own teaching. Of course, it’s easier to describe than to do! And, as you say, some students are more comfortable talking about their own lives or thoughts than actually doing the readings and being prepared with course content. Usefully combining the two, however, can be a great pedagogical tool I hope to hone.

        And I agree with you completely about issues of class. Having also come from a working-class background, I often feel that my class position(s) — I’ve struggled with this plurality over time — have had a greater impact on my life than my sexuality in many ways. Or at least I feel like I had many more obstacles to overcome as a working-class kid than as a gay kid. Of course this speaks a lot to privilege as well and the opportunities that were open to me, even from the working class, in Canada, which has a stronger social welfare system and opportunities for educational funding than many many other places. So, in my own life, it’s increasingly impossible not to see my experiences and opportunities intersectionally, and when I get back into the classroom I hope to impart that awareness to my students.

      • To my mind, locating oneself at the intersection of various identities and positionalities (what we seem to be calling here “coming out” and which has a longer history in feminist pedagogical theory and black feminism in particular) is a way to address problems of inclusion and marginalization in the classroom, whether they be about class, race, gender, sexuality, able-bodiedness, citizenship status etc. We are basically telling our students that our perspective is informed by our lens on the world, as is everybody’s. Despite my own class, gender and sexual non-normative background, I think that as a white person my validity in the classroom is less questioned overall by my students than that of my colleagues of color. Being white and masculine presenting (even if read as female) radically informs how I’m received by my students – I do not get the kind of sexist and racist (and particularly racialized sexism) that my feminine-presenting friends, especially those of color, do every single semester. And this is where the implications of your comment disturbs me – there is surely a way to conceptualize and respond to this problem of marginalization and access without pitting white, working-class men against white women, women, men and queers of color, some of whom are also from working class backgrounds.

      • I think you’re right that there *is* a real risk of being classed as too annecdotal, and people do fall across that line at times in teaching scenarios. Personally, always try to make an extracurriculuar anecdote short and sweet, and not to tell more than one per lecture. It’s more like a throw away line (although that seems to give it a lesser significance than I intend, I can’t really think of a better way to describe my practice). For example, I might mention in passing while students are getting settled in (especially if they are a bit fractious and chatty, and running a bit late) that I sympathise with anyone who had to use the coutry rail system this morning because the delays were incredible. Such an aside serves to draw attention to the fact that they’re acting up and I’d like to get started, but also to the fact that I know about the realities of being on a commuter campus, and actually have to travel pretty far myself to be present in the room. (plus it sets them up to understand and give sympathy back to me if trains end up being a reason why I am myself late at some time in the future!) Or if I decide to tell a longer little story, I’ll try to do so at the ‘attention deficit’ moments of a lecture slot – at the 20 and 40 minute marks, when students ability to concentrate is going to be at its lowest anyway: then the story serves the dual purpose of providing a moment of pedagogical decompression, so we can all have a bit of a giggle and then ‘reset’ for the next 15-20 minutes of concentration. I *hope* that in these ways I avoid being overly anecdotal or off topic – but you’d have to ask my students whether I succeed!

    • I certainly don’t think we should pit white working class men against all the other categories – in fact that is 100% not what I think as the key division in society in my view is class – I take the view that I have more interests in common with working class straight men and women than I do with conservative gay men, for example. But if we are going to be honest about power and marginalisation we have to accept that it is at least possible that in some of the circles we move in then it is not always men or white people or CIS or straight people who hold the power (though of course they often do). Far too often policies and events supposedly around diversity and equality are in fact only interested in some groups and not all. In the field of gender studies far too often there appear to be occasions where “gender” is presented as synonymous with female, though I would say that social/gender historians in Scotland seem to “get” that gendered approaches to history involve not just prioritising and uncovering women’s history but also men’s history certainly far more that law academics “get” that gender and the law is about more than oppressed women and oppressive men.

  3. Fantastically interesting – stimulates so many thoughts. Here are just a few.
    I too have thought about this often – some of my (supportive) straight colleagues would say too much!

    I teach law, most of which is not specifically related to gender and sexuality themes (eg contract law) but perhaps it is here that most impact can be had because I, and my colleagues, try to be aware of bias and so in scenarios that we create for exams and elsewhere we have, eg, a problem question about how contract law applies to a couple refusing to pay for their meal in a restaurant when part of the meal was satisfactory and part not and sometimes make the couple same-sex. Writing it like this makes it seem very tokenistic but for students who will not choose modules in gender and the law it exposes them to a range of “cases” and of course as solicitors they are expected not to discriminate. In lectures when I say “Suppose I go in to a shop and ask to buy …” I alternate between “my wife and I” (I’m read as male) and or “a gift for my boyfriend” but I don’t come out (is it more powerful for someone who is probably read by these students as a straight man to do this rather than directly “come out”?)

    I used to say on my staff profile that I do “queer law” but I had it removed as to be honest I don’t do queer law so felt that was a false claim – but it was there to “nail my colours to the mast”.
    Will continue in another post – don’t want this to be too big.

    • Thanks, Brian. I love hearing more about others’ experiences with navigating this issue in their own teaching practice. And I appreciate your comments on course content outside the history of sexuality as well.

      I don’t think including some same-sex couples in examples appears tokenistic, but rather an important reflection of reality. In fact, including examples like this without highlighting them as ‘special examples’ really does indicate to students that same-sex couples are an everyday part of modern life, visible in society and ordinary. I think that’s an important pedagogical decision.

      Thanks for this and for your work!

  4. Continued from previous
    In my honours class Law, Family & Society where there is much more dialogue I do, in the course of the module, come out by openly referencing my lgbt family and friends and my longstanding activism (and, eg, arrests and prosecutions) but I am struck by how little interest students have in us as individuals – they rarely seem to look at staff profiles for example. On one level that’s great and I wonder if “dinosaurs” like me really are making too much of our identities – especially where, so far as I can tell, fixed concepts of being “gay” or “straight” or even “bi” seem, at least at the level of rhetoric, not to be terribly important to the young people I teach. Going on about law’s impact on being LGB feels a bit passé in relation to my students’ lives – but I would say that that is not so with trans and I do feel that there is far more “discomfort” with genderfuck and that that has to be challenged somehow (all hail Conchita Sausage!).

    I also go to great lengths to say that I welcome arguments that challenge what the students might perceive to be my position on issues – I explicitly say that there is nothing worse in my view than a room full of liberals all agreeing with one another – and the best classes are those where students are prepared to disagree with me (not that i am a liberal) – that has the potential to make the seminar room unsafe for some but on the rare occasions where we have been able to move away from an unthinking liberal consensus I think I have managed to “hold” the class. The only “complaint” I have had is from students who think that the Christian Institute’s publications are not worthy of study.

    As to literature I have been excited and influenced by the great Ruthann Robson’s work (all of it but esp pedagogy http://www.ruthannrobson.com/) and also by the volume _Resilience: Queer Professors from the Working Class_.

    • Thanks for this too! I think you really highlight an important point about the different life experiences between us and our students. I’m only about 10-15 older than a lot of my students (when I last taught), but really began to appreciate how the understandings of gender and sexuality that they have grown up with differ from my own. I wasn’t exposed to, nor capable of identifying with, the kind of fluidities that seem more accessible to students just one generation younger than me. And I see it in all three countries in which I have recently lived. But even though this phenomenon might be transnational it isn’t universal, and outside of urban areas with greater access to all range of diversity, a lot of smaller more provincial towns and cities might still look a lot more like the rural 1990s Western Canada in which I was raised, socialized and educated. All this is to say that there’s a lot of complexity to navigate for teachers and students alike.

      I look forward to reading Robson’s work. Thanks for the link!

  5. Pingback: History Slam Episode Forty-Nine: Coming Out in the Classroom | ActiveHistory.ca

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