Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

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A Queer Pedagogy

7 February, 2018

I worked as a public-school literature teacher for just shy of a decade. I had the privilege of introducing pre-teen and teenage children to good stories well-told and the honour of hearing them tell their own stories. It was never easy, and if I am honest, it was often grueling. Some classes, of course, are more difficult than others. Some were even resistant to what I had to offer. But, every few years, I got a class that was just the right make-up of kids at just the right time with just the right experiences to make the stories live, to make the words sing and the narration dance. But whether it was a difficult class struggling against every lesson or a shining class stretching the words beyond the author’s own limited horizons, I told them all the secret to finding meaning: seek the seed of truth; look for the human experience that tells you what it is like to be alive and together in the world.

Every class found this, at least at first, to be queer. They were right; it is queer. Certainly, in the literal sense of the word it is. To have an instructor insist on multiple answers to the important questions even as the school system administers tests that demanded a single right answer, is strange. The encouragement to empathise with an antagonist’s anguish and to grapple with the darkness lurking in a protagonist’s heart seems perverse to good girls and good boys. Though, as a mentor told me when I was a student, as a storyteller you cannot ever be the good girl.

It’s this last truth that makes the perspective I taught them queer in the outcast sense, in the beaten and bleeding sense, and in the passionate and holy sense. I was asking my students to place themselves on the margins. To see the world through the eyes of the other: the other belief, the other gender, the other morality. To take what they held as most normative and twist it round, viewing the world upside down and inside out. To stop trying to be the good girl who is quiet and accommodating or the good boy who derives his value from his strength and to queer their perspectives, running at oblique angles to the rest of the world. In the final years of my teaching career, this was intentional, but in the early years, when I was struggling to be the good girl who arrived early and stayed late, who attended school concerts and sporting events all while being the virtuous spouse of Proverbs 31, this queered pedagogy only seeped in when I was exhausted and could no longer maintain the tweed-jacket expectations. It happened when I was in my most vulnerable and honest place. I believe that stress and exhaustion reveal our inner character and what I learned was queer perspectives came naturally to me because I was a queer woman.

Perhaps, it’s better to say, what I re-learned. My earliest sense of self was as a queer girl. I was four when Mrs. Peterson informed me I was standing in the wrong line: I was in the girls’ line and I belonged in the boys’ line. I did not have the word queer—with all its danger and strength—at that age, but what I felt was distinctly queer. I knew who I was and who I wasn’t with the same surety that Mrs. Peterson believed she knew which line each child belonged in. That sense of queerness stuck with me throughout my half-day kindergarten class. I played with the girls, I ate with the girls, and I sat with the girls during story time. But at nap time I was told to lay my sleeping mat—a rug woven of earthy greens and reds and purples—alongside the boys and be quiet.

That evening, as my parents drew me a bath and prepared to wash the day’s play off me, I asked them how they knew I was a boy and not a girl. I had been thinking about this and it occurred to me that some girls had short hair and some girls had Smurf t-shirts and some girls looked like boys and they were still girls. My parents recited primer biology; the biology adults still recite authoritatively to children, and to transgender people in a disgusted and vicious tone, and to themselves when they are most desperate for reassurance: boys have penises and girls have vaginas. Even at the age of four that didn’t square with my understanding and now, as an adult woman of transgender experience, it feels queer that some girls are believed when they yell, “I’m not a boy; I’m a girl!” and some girls aren’t.

The attempts to exorcise me of my queerness and to turn me into a good boy fractured me. I hid my true face from people, presenting them with what they wanted to see while I viewed them over my shoulder through a compact’s shattered mirror. It was in this way, I learned the importance of stories. The stories we tell to keep ourselves safe, the stories others tell about us to maintain the illusion, and the early seeds of our stories, the ones we bury deep inside ourselves.

These seeds are the ones I encouraged my students to seek. Kernels buried deep and choked out by all the “good” vegetation planted by professors and politicians and pastors and parents. I taught them to dig their hands into the earth, rip out those straight rows of pedestrian flowers, and look for the bits beneath. Find what is sleeping in the dark, waiting for its chance to stretch deep roots and poke green shoots into the light and burst with vibrant reds and purples.

I worked as a public-school teacher for just shy of ten years and I am transitioning out of that season into something new. I have exhorted students to engage with human stories well-told and I suspect what comes next will be radically different than what has come before. Still, the essence inside me is queer and I know that I will carry my queer pedagogy into whatever I do next.

This post was written for the Queer Theology Synchroblog 2018 – check out others’ posts here

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When I was Your Age: Caitlin on Computers

24 November, 2011

I am amused by students’ complaints regarding how I missed a post or message from them. They are quite indignant that their message should sit unread in my inbox for longer than twenty minutes and they are horrified when I explain to them I do not check my email or Twitter account after five during the work week and never on a weekend or holiday. Their eyes go wide with fright at the prospect of not having near instantaneous access to someone. “But . . . what if I have a question?” they ask in a voice bordering hysteria. I just smile genially; in essence patting them on the head and sending them on their way.

When I was in high school, there was no Twitter, no boards in the classroom other than the blackboard, and teachers did not have e-mail accounts. What little Internet there was existed only in privatized groups. The ARPANET had been decommissioned but it would be another five years before the first commercialization of the internet. I remember, my senior year the earth sciences teacher showed a small group of us he thought capable of understanding and appreciating the sneak peek (a total of three students) a data list he could access over the phone line through the then NSFNET. He was the most technologically advanced person we had ever met and his over-the-phone-line-encyclopedic-thing was straight out of an Isaac Asimov story. What the teachers did have was landlines at their home but their numbers were typically unlisted, so that was no help to us. We got our assignments by listening in class and writing them down in our notebooks. The advanced and savvy kids stored this information in their TrapperKeeper. If we had a question about the work after the school day we utilized the LSINET (Localized Student Information Network), that is, we used our parent’s landline to call their parent’s landline and we politely asked Mr. or Mrs. Soandso if we could speak to their daughter or son about a school assignment. If the LSINET failed, we sat down, reviewed our class notes, and did our best on the assignment, hoping we understood enough to get a C, which at that point still meant average, and not an F, back when there was still a letter for “you fucked up”—er, “failed.”

College was even worse. The professors were only available briefly after class or in a limited window called “office hours” and those coveted times were by appointment only. The appointment was attained by scheduling it with the professor in the ten minutes s/he was available after class and then dutifully trudging cross-campus to her/his office for the appointment. We did not cancel or reschedule these appointments because we would not be able to arrange another one until after the next class, if your failure to show had not annoyed the professor to the point s/he would not meet with you.

The NSFNET was finally decommissioned and the Internet commercialized my first year of college. We had one computer that could access it. It was located in the library, you had to sign-up in advance to use it, and all we knew how to do was look up the previous night’s David Letterman’s Top Ten list and Shakespeare quotes. There were no pictures. Only text and text that pretended to be a picture called ASCII Art. They looked liked this:

(__)
oo )_______
|_ / \………….|\
……..| |____ | |.\
……..| |…..W| |

Mostly they were of cows doing funny things, like kicking a lantern and setting Chicago on fire.

I did not get my first e-mail address until my Sophmore year of college. To access it I had to trudge cross-campus to the Gilbert Science Center’s computer lab. This was an amazing place. A whole long table full of computers that all had the ability to access the Internet through a special phone line specifically devoted to that purpose! In other words, you would not get booted off by an incoming phone call—just lagging connectivity, inactivity while you were reading the page’s text, or a host of other mysterious reasons ranging from faulty switches to squirrels chewing through the landline. Of course, once I got there I did not know what to do with my e-mail address because the only other people I knew who had e-mail addresses were professors who never checked their inboxes and other students, most of whom were sitting beside me wondering what to do with their e-mail addresses. So I did what every techno savvy student did. I joined a list serve. A list serve was like a chat room only slower because your e-mail message went to the central hub that disseminated it out to the e-mails of everyone else signed up on that list. I joined a The X-Files list serve, proving that the Internet always has been and always will be the home base for obsessive fandoms.

My senior year I got my first desktop computer, an E Machine. Now I was cool because I could access the Internet through the phone line in my dorm room. Of course, I got kicked off every time some tried to call.

Eventually the Internet got pictures and web pages. This was followed by IM—wow! a fast list serve that does not flood your inbox. In graduate school I was told I had to join this new personalized site called MySpace. Then it was the facebook, back when it still had the “the” and you needed a university e-mail address to join. Now it is a mishmash of posts, tweets, “likes,” YouTube vlogs, wikis, and tumblogs. All accessed from a computer that fits in the palm of your hand with touch screen input. The whole techno culture is mind blowing. But, in spite of these advancements, I still prefer my students pay attention in class and ask me questions after the lecture.