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Pedagogy 5.1 (2005) 131-139

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Queering Our Classrooms

Lesbian and Gay Studies and the Teaching of English: Positions, Pedagogies, and Cultural Politics. Edited by William J. Spurlin. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2000.

Let me start with three assumptions about a book with the title Lesbian and Gay Studies and the Teaching of English: Positions, Pedagogies, and Cultural Politics, published by the National Council of Teachers of English: (1) Despite a theoretical framework, it focuses on pedagogy, specific strategies that help us teach, not preach. (2) It is reasonably free of the academic jargon that continues to plague our field and that is accessible to no one except ivory-tower professors. (3) It offers new, significant, and original insights. Because this is a review for Pedagogy, I will focus on essays that are particularly sound or troubling in terms of their pedagogical approach.

In the introduction, William Spurlin (xvi) poses the pregnant question of whether the contemporary cultural debates have really unsettled our pedagogies. Here is his answer:

Despite innovative work in lesbian and gay studies and academic queer theory, much scholarship in English and language arts pedagogy organized around the rubric of cultural difference has woefully undertheorized same-sex desire as a viable [End Page 131] position from which to speak, read, write, and locate oneself in the world. Likewise, it has failed to ask the ways in which heterosexism and homophobia also shape the world of hegemonic power and the extent to which other vectors of domination, as well as new possibilities for cultural production, are obscured in the absence of same-sex desire as a significant axis of pedagogical inquiry.

Convoluted academic jargon aside, this is a rather dire statement; in all fairness, it is also five years old. Many universities now have majors or minors in sexuality studies, and the subject is also making strides in schools across the country.

Coupled with this march toward diversity—and there Spurlin is certainly right—is the current backlash against difference and change. Again, the book came out in 2000, so one could couple significant legal advances, including recent Supreme Court decisions (on the federal level and in Massachusetts), with several states frantically enacting antigay marriage legislation; the Episcopal Church's vote to ordain an openly gay bishop, with intense resistance and a looming schism; or San Francisco's brave step to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, with certain politicians (including the current president) lobbying to pass a constitutional amendment that limits marriage to a man and a woman. (As I wrote this piece, more and more cities and counties wedded gay couples nearly every day.) And, of course, the virulent polemic against political correctness continues its campaign.

The collection seeks to address a range of disciplines: composition, literature, cultural studies, film, education, children's and young adult texts, and language arts. In terms of audience, the contributors cast their net wide, addressing elementary, secondary, and college-level English teachers. The authors themselves come from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and Africa, and they address most of the English-speaking (postcolonial) world. Part 1 is titled "Positions." Here Spurlin alerts the reader to a formidable challenge: "Some of the essays in this section appear to be theoretically complex, but finding a viable position from which to speak and be heard as queer in the classroom is also about finding a language" (xxii). Yes, but we teachers are also about finding an answer, finding instructional materials and educational equipment.

In "Cruising the Libraries," Lee Lynch presents a moving memory of her quest to come to grips with her sexuality through literary models (for example, Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness). Since the piece is rather personal, it offers little help in teaching, but it could be assigned for group presentations. I would have also complemented this chapter with a historical [End Page 132] account of how exciting the reading of homoerotic texts (especially Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus) was for many gay men in the nineteenth century: Lord Byron, Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Douglas...


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