Queering Student Participation: Whispers, Echoes, Rants, and Memory

Queering Student Participation: Whispers, Echoes, Rants, and Memory

Matt Cox

Making queer Participatory Space

Terrence, Lena, Mira, and Casey all knew they had a gay-identified instructor, even though the subject matter of the class was not overtly queer in nature. Charlie (and presumably Gen) did not know whether the instructor was or was not queer (and never learned one way or the other that semester). He simply chose to take the opportunity to incorporate queer-related subject matter into his class project. How common is it for LGBT or queer students to encounter LGBT or queer instructors, let alone out ones? In English studies, home to rhetoric and composition studies, publications addressing coming out in the classroom for instructors have been fairly rare, though there have been some. In her 1996 College English piece “Coming Out in the Classroom: A Return to the Hard Place,” Mary Elliott writes:

A gay or lesbian teacher, then, faces a double terror and a double crossing: he or she must not only cross a one-way bridge, but in doing so must toss away his or her sack of institutional power and protection en route. Paradoxically, at the very moment when the teacher breaks away from the safety of heterosexual privilege and institutionally sanctioned professional identity, students may be most likely to see her or him as part of a generic "them" which they identify with the university: "this class," they complain, "is trying to shove a lifestyle down my throat." In this case, a teacher's survival will depend on the institutional response to student accusations of a "gay agenda." Unfortunately, many administrators would rather withdraw tacit and overt institutional protection than risk the political and economic costs of defending their faculty against such charges. (705-06)

I think it’s fair for Elliott to point out this “trap” LGBT/queer educators find themselves caught in, reaping negative effects for either remaining closeted or for coming out.

Scholars in other disciplines address the considerable risks of the decision to come out to students for educators in the classroom, namely sociology (Harbeck) and communications studies (Russ et al.). In this way, through instructors, LGBT and queer-student participation is further stymied and repressed since students often assume an “asexualized” classroom in which topics of sexuality are off-limits and teachers are at best unwilling to discuss sexuality and at worst outright homophobic. By coming out, LGBT instructors can serve as role models, counselors, or guides.

Can instructors coming out in the classroom, or stating overtly that they are allies, be an important step in encouraging queer-student participation? I believe so, yes. But this is only one (more obvious) piece in queering the classroom. Students also need expected structures, procedures, and subject matter to be queered past their expectations. Let me explain. Students typically come into professional-writing classrooms expecting very tidy conversations about what is considered professional and what is unprofessional. They expect me to tell them to always wear a suit, to never use slang or regional dialects in the workplace, to never question authority or ask why money might always drive decisions in workplaces. They also expect to be told that in the workplace race, gender, class, disability, and sexuality are “invisible” and should never be talked about or addressed. And yet, we know statistically that women and minorities are shown time and time again to make less money in the same positions as white men. Bringing up issues of race, class, gender, disability, and sexuality in writing classrooms may be unexpected to students, yet these issues quickly become relevant to their current lives and future plans.

Taking It Personally

Every semester (and often multiple times within a semester) I struggle with how and when (and if) to come out to students and also how to encourage (some of) them to come out as well. I also struggle with how to encourage and understand participation around sexuality (and other minority markers) in the writing classroom and in students’ writing itself.

Recently, I witnessed first hand a student have a nervous breakdown in the process of coming out to a parent in the wake of another parent’s death. It meant an emergency-room visit and a two-week hospitalization. It meant dropping out of the first part of that student’s last semester as a senior in college. It was shocking to me at first that this could still happen—that any LGBT young person was carrying this much strain and fear and internalized depression and anxiety. But seeing this happen before me was a real wakeup call to the importance of an open and accepting academy and of also showing our students that their failures and disappointments and struggles are not “abnormal” and that they are valuable even when they need to lose their way.

For example, Judith Halberstam posits that there’s something powerful in losing. In not ranking or being first. In being the outcast or the failure. In The Queer Art of Failure, she writes: "…[t]here is something powerful in being wrong, in losing, in failing, … all our failures combined might just be enough, if we practice them well, to bring down the winter… The concept of practicing failure perhaps prompts us to discover our inner dweeb, to be underachievers, to fall short, to get distracted, to take a detour, to find a limit, to lose our way, to forget, to avoid mastery” (120-21).

Perhaps we, too, as instructors buy too heavily into a culture where only a certain kind of student participation is valued and a certain kind of success is seen as desirable. The thing I believe queer theory and queer rhetorical studies can teach us is that there is value in the concepts, archetypes, and issues we have previously seen as culturally undesirable, and by placing value on these previously unvalued concepts, archetypes, and issues we carve out safe learning and knowledge‐making spaces. For example, what about:

  • uncomfortable silences?
  • brash arguments?
  • spirited debates?
  • brutally honest diatribes?
  • failure as classroom learning tool?
  • power sharing?
  • willingly shifting agency and power between students and instructors?

Certainly, Terrence, Lena, Mira, Casey, Charlie, and Gen’s stories push at some of these ideas as well as a willingness to potentially disappoint and transgress the idea of the perfect and ideal (and thus safe) student.

[Go to "Takeaways of Queering Participation: Taking Chances"]