One of the activities I attended this past fall as part of the orientation program for recently hired CSU Northridge faculty aimed to acquaint new faculty with the demographics of the CSUN student population in a very visceral way: Each of us was handed a slip of paper with a "profile" of a likely CSUN student written on it, and each of us sitting in the circle read "our" profile aloud (often in the first person, as if we were speaking as or for the profiled student). The collected profiles were to give us a sense of a class of students that we might be teaching in the weeks to come. The student profiles meticulously attended to class and racial diversity and to issues of age and disability. Many of the orientation attendees professed their amazement at the diversity of this hypothetical CSUN class of students and at the amount of work outside of school that most of these "students" undertake. Some of the attendees felt overwhelmed and unsure of how best to work with this student population. Some suggested that having students introduce themselves in class, or write about themselves, near the beginning of the semester might be a good way to help faculty members acquaint themselves with students' needs and experiences. Everyone nodded in sympathetic approval.
I want to break up this teleological narrative here--the approaching happy ending--with a queer intervention. I am speaking of the silence of sexuality--or, more precisely, the silence of non-heterosexual sexuality, since heterosexuality was clearly inscribed in the profiles of the students who talked about marriages, divorces, boyfriends, and girlfriends (always heterosexual relationships). Even the students with children were presumptively heterosexual. None of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered "students" talked about their sexual and gender identities. This silence mirrors the silence of most queer students (particularly undergraduates) in the classroom and is hardly surprising, given continuing harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students at all educational levels by friends, parents, politicians, priests, colleagues, and teachers.1 My observation, then, is not meant as a criticism of the writers of the profiles, since even in 2004 most queer students are unlikely to come out to their teachers and classmates--thus the profiles accurately reflected the information readily available to teachers.
But there were two other levels of silence at work here that I find more culpable and hence more troubling. First, there was the way in which sexuality was ignored when the "diversity" of the students was discussed (and marveled at). This aporia mirrors the silence about sexuality when diversity is discussed in academia in general. Teachers who are often good at imagining and teaching to an ethnically (and otherwise) diverse student body often don't think of a sexually diverse student body and frequently have heterosexist pedagogical practices. One of my former colleagues, for example, had students in his first-year composition classes compose personal ads for opposite-sex dates; he was well-meaning and thought his assignment was creative and fun for the students, in addition to teaching them about writing in specific genres and using language economically. Textbooks eager to cash in on multiculturalism usually pay no attention to sexual diversity; anthologies for composition classes dutifully trot out sections on different ethnicities (one token unit for "Hispanics," one for African-Americans, and so on), but seldom address queer topics.
The second troubling silence reflected an uncritical acceptance of hegemonic pedagogical practice. This was the happy response of the gathered group of new CSUN faculty at the prospect of having students "reveal" themselves, whether verbally or in writing, as a way for teachers to get to know their students' backgrounds and needs. Of course, queer students are unlikely to include discussion of their sexuality or gender identity in such revelations, and in fact the revelations can reinscribe a painful process of marginalization and self-censorship for these students. Many such well-intentioned classroom activities present the same problems for students as those articulated by Ellen Louise Hart in relation to "freewriting." Hart has challenged the theory and practice of "freewriting" that has, in the past three decades, become a staple of many composition classrooms and of other classes where teachers use writing as part of their pedagogy. Its goal was to free students to write whatever came into their heads without concern for grammatical correctness or filtering content for relevance or worth, as a way of generating material for discussion and future writing projects. It was a way for students to come to voice using their own feelings and experiences. Hart's point is that "freewriting" is only liberating for those who don't inhabit taboo identities, and that it can, in fact, inhibit the writing and academic performance of lesbian and gay students, who censor the work they produce in response to such prompts and who feel marginalized in the classroom community as a result.
Postmodern composition theorists critical of the imperatives for "authenticity" of voice in writing have advocated writing assignments that invite students to adopt various personae or positions as a way of challenging them to think in complex ways about questions of rhetoric, voice, and audience. Instead of urging students to "find" their "true" voice, such a postmodern writing pedagogy would encourage them to experiment with different voices determined by specific contexts and desired effects. Other kinds of (non-writing) assignments that require students to narrate/expose their identities and experiences could be similarly reconceptualized. While such a reconceptualization may not satisfy our desires to "know" our students in an essentialist way that reifies "authenticity," it will prompt us--and all our students--to think about and engage with the ways in which all voices are constructed and the kinds of voices that are de/legitimized in our culture and educational institutions.
1. For more information, see the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's "More Than One Third of Gay College Students Experienced Harassment in Past Year."
Hart, Ellen Louise. "Literacy and the Lesbian/Gay Learner." The Lesbian in Front of the Classroom: Writings by Lesbian Teachers. Ed. Sarah-Hope Parmeter and Irene Reti. Santa Cruz, CA: HerBooks, 1988. 30-43.
National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "More Than One Third of Gay College Students Experienced Harassment in Past Year." 6 May 2003. National Gay and Lesbian Task Force web site. 29 Jan. 2004.
Posted February 6, 2004
Modified February 9, 2004
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©2004 by Ian Barnard.