Introduction to Queer Pedagogy
Hannah Ayres, Department of Sociology
This section is going to give a brief introduction to queer, queer theory and queer pedagogy. This is not the seminal guide on this topic, but it might be a good place to start if this is an approach to teaching that you have never heard of or come across. A list of extra reading and resources will be provided if this introduction piques your interest and you would like to read more.
What do I mean by 'queer'?
The word ‘queer’ brings with it a lot of history and baggage. Queer can be a term attributed to strangeness and difference, in Sara Ahmed’s (2018) words “…queer to describe anything that is noticeable because it is odd…” It was (and in some cases still is) a term of abuse, hurled at those who were perceived as not fitting in to the norm and/or those attracted to the same sex. It is precisely from this history of abusive use that this term was reclaimed in the 1980s, Judith Butler (1993: 18) emphasises the point here: ““Queer” derives its force precisely through the repeated invocation by which it has become linked to accusations, pathologization, insult.” Queer has also been used as an umbrella term in lieu of LGBTQ+.
Queer theory, developed in the 1990s (with many influential precursors), uses queer more as something that is done. It is “…a theoretical approach…to question the categories and assumptions on which current popular and academic understandings are based.” (Barker, Scheele, 2016: 15) In other words, queer can be used as a deconstructive tool to trouble areas of academia and beyond. It is often used in an interdisciplinary way; as an approach which developed outside of the academy with deep activist roots, it often claims to be anti-disciplinary, choosing to operate in spaces in-between in order to challenge various disciplinary spaces.
Queer is not only about holding others (people, disciplines, institutions, spaces etc.) accountable, it is also about holding yourself accountable and always remaining self-reflexive (Giffney, 2009: 2). I have had queer theory described to me as trying to stand on shifting ground – you are never stable, never comfortable and it requires hard work and dedication to keep a queer approach. One of the major critiques of queer theory is that it can be extremely inaccessible to read – so all this work could produce something incoherent to those not also well versed in queer theory. But, to me, queer theory is worth the hassle. It is not meant to be easy; travelling non-normative paths and doing the unexpected is not easy. Queer theory has the power to “…deconstruct logics and frameworks…” and “dismantle the dynamics of power privilege…” (Young, 2012: 127) – it holds real political power in this way. It allows for “…complexity and the holding of uncertainties…” (Giffney, 2009: 8) and this is something that allows for creative thinking and boundless possibilities.
So, what is queer pedagogy?
“Queer pedagogy seeks to both uncover and disrupt hidden curricula of heternormativity as well as to develop classroom landscapes and experiences that create safety for queer participants.”
Matthew Thomas-Reid (2018)
Let us start with this succinct quote above. When you Google ‘queer pedagogy’, this entry is one of the first to appear. This quote fails to cover cisnormativity that is also present in classrooms and prevents trans and gender-diverse students from feeling included at universities. There are many aspects of queer pedagogy that I could cover and it is difficult to know where to start as queer is so expansive. Teaching practices that can help begin to build a queer pedagogical approach have been briefly covered in the Practice and Impact section of this guidance and I will expand on and offer more examples here.
Queer pedagogy looks different in each instance – it will look different from discipline to discipline and even individually in those disciplines. An approach might go really well in one instance and the next year, with a new batch of students, it might not work so well. This is where reflexivity has to come in; queer is not so formulaic that it can be replicated each time. There is a list of case studies collected from around the University of Warwick for this guidance, that take a queer approach in some form or another and I hope they will show you the possibilities and variety that queer pedagogy can produce.
An important part of queer pedagogy is the notion of dismantling. This means stripping concepts or ideas back and revealing the bare bones so that students may see how that concept/idea came to be. An example of this is the ways in which staff can overcome binary notions of gender in their teaching, language and presentation. In dismantling these binary notions of gender in oblique or subtle ways students may begin to view the binary as unnecessary and take these lessons forward. The queer notion of dismantling is not just key in regards to gender but can offer many different opportunities.
One example of queer pedagogy that is often spoken about but is not covered elsewhere in this guidance, is the issue of 'coming out'. This is the question of whether, as a teacher you reveal to your students that you identify as not cis-gendered or heterosexual. Revealing this could put you at risk of discrimination and so is not a decision that should be taken lightly. Students significantly benefit from having identifiable role models (University of Birmingham, 2016: 12) and this was evidenced in the case studies collected for this guidance by Dr Anna Hájková (2019):
"When I studied, there was no queer faculty, I only had my first queer professor as a grad student, and that was really important to me. I thematize my queerness frequently, to make clear to the students that there are ways of life beyond heteronormativity. I am told by some of my queer students that this is pretty important to them, but it's also crucial for the straight ones, because it normalizes non-heteronormative lifestyles in their world."
If you do choose to 'come out' then the question is how? Whilst in some cases it might be possible to discuss your gender identity and/or sexuality within the context of teaching, this is not always possible. Dr Gerard Sharpling (2019) gave the advice to "Talk about your life as one normally would in a professional classroom situation." Essentially, just talk about your life as anybody would, thereby helping to normalise your identity with all students. It is also important to remember to be patient as students may ask questions that you both are and are not expecting. Visibility is also key in this aspect. At the University of Warwick, there are a number of identifying symbols such as trans and pride flag lanyards that allow students to identify you as a potential point of contact and possibly even a role model.
Queer is difficult (but not impossible) to bring into universities. They act as heteronormative and cisnormative institutions with strict policies and practices in place. Queer is meant to operate outside of boundaries and when brought inside of these, it is meant to be disruptive. As Sara Ahmed (2018) says ‘Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.’ Pushing for change is not easy but I hope what will become clear in the case studies and in many of the resources listed (which discuss their own teaching practices) is the effect queer pedagogy has on students. Whilst it can be challenging, it allows students to think creatively about their own positionality and also offers a sense of inclusivity for many. Dr Kate Lister provided a fantastic example of queer pedagogy and its impact on Twitter (Beever, 2019). Lister was approached by a student when teaching a module on Victorian literature and culture and recommended the student read a book called Fanny & Stella (2013). This book offers a biography of two trans women who lived in the Victorian time period. A year later the student turned up to Lister's office and told her that Fanny and Stella (2019) had saved his life and that he had wished to cross dress and was struggling with his sexuality at the time; the student detailed to Lister about his female alter ego that he had since developed. So, whilst I will not sit here and tell you to implement queer pedagogy because it is easy to do so, I will tell you to consider it because it can be vital for many students.
- Ahmed, Sara (2018) Queer Use. [online] Available at feministkilljoys.com (Accessed 12 July 2019).
- Barker, Meg-John & Scheele, Julia (2016) Queer: A Graphic History. London: Icon Books Ltd.
- Beever, Susie (2019) Leeds Trinity lecturer reveals moving story on how a book helped 'suicidal' LGBT student unleash his female alter ego. [online] Available at www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk (Accessed 5 August 2019).
- Butler, Judith (1993) Critically Queer. GLQ, 1: 17-32.
- Giffney, N (2009) Introduction: The ‘q’ word. In N. Giffney and M O’Rourke, eds. The Ashgate Research Companion to Queer Theory. Farnham: Ashgate: 1-13.
- Thomas-Reid, Matthew (2018) Queer Pedagogy. [online] Available at https://oxfordre.com (Accessed 15 July 2019).
- University of Birmingham (2016) LGBTQ-Inclusivity in the Higher Education Curriculum: A Best Practice Guide. [online] Available at https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/staff/teaching-academy/documents/public/lgbt-best-practice-guide.pdf (Accessed 20 July 2019)
- Young, T. (2012) Queering “The Human Situation”. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 28 (1): 126-131.