Queer Pedagogy (A Roundtable)
A roundtable discussion on teaching Queer Theory with Susannah Mary Chewning (Union County College) Lisa Weston (California State University–Fresno); and Michelle M. Sauer, (University of North Dakota)
I attended an interesting roundtable at Kalamazoo as part of the Homosexuality in the Middle Ages studies/papers. FYI – I do not have a background in Queer Theory but I am extremely interested in this area of research so I decided to cover a few of the sessions, and this roundtable, to dip my toe in queer theorist waters.
This roundtable centered on teaching Queer Theory by not just finding the queer in the past, or searching for gay characters in texts. The discussion examined “queer” in other contexts such as things which differ from the norm and merit dissemination and study.
The panelists examined how Queer Theory is used in the classroom: what if Queer pedagogy means something other than usage of Queer Theory in the classroom? The majority of research revolves around the use of same-sex relationships, LGBT issues, creating a safe space and alternate discourse etc. and while these are all laudable goals worthy of class time, they were surprised by narrow focus of Queer pedagogy. They remarked on how students used their experiences outside the classroom to shape their studies and tended to focus on looking for gay characters instead of deliberating about non-normative situations in texts.
What is the background of Queer Theory? Queer Theory is tied to the identity politics of the 1970’s and 80’s. The following was suggested as a loose definition: calling into question normalizing discourses. Ignorance is performance – the act of denying information, it is an active avoidance of information. Teaching has to do with a resistance to knowledge, especially with topics that make the student or professor uncomfortable, e.g., pedophilia, and incest. The subject is discussed in an educational manner but it does not mean the student or the professor necessarily agree with it.
What are some examples of Queer Theory texts in the Middles Ages? The Wanderer and The Seafarer contain underlying homosexual desire and the panel analyzed a queer reading of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale. The widow: does she make a statement of women as commodities of reproduction? One part of the discussion focused on the common use of Chaucer in Queer study. Chaucer is always done, Gower, not as much. Gower’s Confessio can only be read in Middle English, making it more difficult and the panelists spoke about examining the heterosexual act of rape in this text, and inviting the students to talk, write and read about it. Students are often uncomfortable with these topics and such discussion puts them on edge. This is viewed as a good thing as it challenges what they are accustomed to in literary courses. Students can also can find a multitude of queer readings that do not focus on same-sex relationships.
How and if we queer the classroom? To teach “queer” we have to introduce our students to languages they don’t speak/understand. Educators don’t just have to change the content of their classrooms, or “queer things” to teach Queer Theory. The panel noted how difficult it is to teach Queer Theory in “out-of-the-box diversity”, which really isn’t diverse at all.
How do you get students over the hump and registering for Queer Theory courses? How do you get them to read the homosexual tones in some relationships? Students are often comfortable with “bromances”, i. e., male relationships where there is no sex. They prefer to relate these relationships as “friendships” and won’t go more into the possibility of homosexual desire. Beowulf and Hrothgar were given as an example of a medieval “bromance”. Queer Theorists attempt to teach Beowulf “straight” then posit the “what if?”in the student’s mind.
Regarding the use of modern terminology – how do you grapple with modern language in old texts? Do you use terms like, “Same-sex sex”? Terms like “straight” and “gay” are modern but it is difficult to escape the vocabulary. There wasn’t even a word for “lesbian” and “homosexual” until the nineteenth century however, avoiding new terminology doesn’t eradicate the use of the language. In the students’ minds, they are translating most things as homosexual in the modern sense of the word.
In conclusion, Queer Theory is not just about finding homosexual activity in a text, but about deconstruction, challenging norms and heterosexist language. It is a framework to finding structures of power not just same sex relationships and deviance.