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Queer Pedagogical Desire: A Study Guide
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We are in a queer pedagogical moment in the academy. The moment is not new, but a number of recent books have dramatized it and made it more urgent. In the past two years, studies by Robyn Wiegman, Roderick Ferguson, Sara Ahmed, Judith Halberstam, and David Halperin have illuminated the political, historical, phenomenological, theoretical, and affective contours of institutionalized queer teaching and scholarship. These books allow me in this essay to reflect in a timely way on a recent queer pedagogical intervention of my own: writing the study guide for Jim Hubbard’s 2012 documentary film, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP. My narrative traces the history of the study guide, charting its contexts, goals, and methods, in order ultimately to identify and confront murkier questions about its creation.

Having never used or read a study guide, why was I writing this one? Why was I so committed to the project? What simultaneously charged and freighted this rather intense moment of queer pedagogical engagement for me?

In Object Lessons Robyn Wiegman considers just such questions in terms of professors’ aspirations to turn political commitment to critical practice. “What is it we expect our relationship to our objects of study to do?” she asks fellow practitioners of identity knowledges (2012, 337). Here, Wiegman considers the “many projects of academic study that were institutionalized in the U.S. university in the twentieth century for the study of identity” (1). Those projects include women’s studies, ethnic studies, American studies, and queer studies. Like academics throughout the university, the inhabitants of identity knowledges want something from their objects of study. But educators in these fields nevertheless stand apart “because they invest so much in making explicit what other fields do not explicitly name by framing their modes and manners of analysis as world-building engagements aimed as social change” (4). In fact, Wiegman suggests that the pedagogical objects of identity knowledges are assembled by practitioners precisely in order to carry out or pursue a critical obligation to social justice.

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Fig 1. 

ACT UP Day of Desperation, Grand Central Station action, January 23, 1991.

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, a film by Jim Hubbard.

But the pursuit of justice through critical objects is fraught, filtered through and by institutionalizing processes. In his recasting of identity knowledge formations in The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference, Roderick Ferguson argues that the “interdisciplines” of ethnic studies, women’s studies, and now queer studies mark the management of difference by power through the academy in the aftermath of the student movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Minority pedagogies thus represent a form of controlled affirmation, “power’s newest techniques for the taking of difference” (2012, 22). Ferguson sees the current moment as particularly resonant for examining the absorption of modes of sexual difference into administrative contexts (209). But ironically and purposefully, the academy’s organization of identity knowledges, including sexual ones, further disrupts the impulse toward justice that Wiegman investigates, and it does so in part by conferring an official status on that work. The serious-making process of what Jack Halberstam calls “disciplinary correctness” (2011, 6) charges even/especially the ostensibly irreverent interdiscipline of queer studies with the burden of understanding its work to be a high-stakes intervention. À la Wiegman, what can we possibly expect of the critiques we level (of gender, race, nation, sexuality) in an institutional environment that so variously recontains them? And ultimately, “how coherently do theoretical innovation and critical commitment line up with the world of living things?” (189).

While Wiegman examines objects of study as broad disciplinary formations driven by justice-object relations, my goal here, more modestly, is to consider my relatively petit objet, the study guide. For, I argue, the guide manifests a similarly mediated commitment to queer studies pedagogy. Although this sort of analysis of a single pedagogical artifact certainly overburdens the admittedly fragile study guide with the weight of disciplinary meaning, it nevertheless grounds my analysis in the details of the pedagogic choices and contexts that help to materialize that engagement. What then, in the context of teaching United in Anger in...

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