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Pedagogy 5.1 (2005) 140-144

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Identity, Politics, and Socratic Dialogues

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.

Any collection of essays immediately opens itself to the criticism that it lacks coherence, that its selection of essays is arbitrary, that there are obvious gaps in the topics that are addressed. Let's just begin there and suggest that the politics and emotions that are inevitable in the concerns of this particular book make it particularly vulnerable to such attacks. But for my money, that is all irrelevant if the discussion a book offers is engaging, thought-provoking, and, in matters of pedagogy, practical in its applications to my own classroom work. This book marvelously succeeds in these areas. Spurlin has crafted a broad-ranging seminar here, a book that amounts to a lively discussion with a group of teachers engaged in difficult cultural "transgression." Grappling with such material sometimes elicits a more verbal self-searching honesty and humility than do "tamer" subjects to which many in our profession devote themselves. Judging from the essays in this collection, these are teachers who care, in roughly equal parts, about their students and about their subject matter but who are also trying mightily to avoid letting their personal commitment to gay/lesbian/queer/transgender rights overwhelm their negotiation with students who may or may not yet have the means to see what all the hubbub is about.

In any such collection, readers will gravitate to this or that set of articles as being of particular personal relevance—and my reading of the book was no exception. I found all of them useful and suggestive, but a few were more resonant with my own situation. Let me say, first off, that I have corresponded with Spurlin and that he has contributed to a book I recently edited (Postcolonial, Queer: Theoretical Intersections [2001]); I've briefly corresponded with Ruth Vanita regarding her groundbreaking book, Queering India: Same-Sex Love and Eroticism in Indian Culture and Society (2002); I think I may have had some correspondence with Karen Osborne; I've had lunch with Lillian Faderman when she recently spoke on my campus. I've known Ed Ingebretsen for some time; like him, I was a gay Jesuit for a good many years and currently teach at a Jesuit university. Neither of us is a Jesuit anymore; speaking for myself, the issues at the heart of this book certainly played a crucial role in my belabored decision to leave the order after twenty-nine pretty happy years. [End Page 140]

Let's take a took at the Ingebretsen article first. Along with essays by Susan Talburt, Jody Norton, tatiana de la tierra, and implicitly in many of the others, the question of Who Is Teaching This Course takes center stage here. Should one come out? Whether or not one is straight, should one address the perceived student assumption that anyone who would teach such subjects must be one of Them? For whom is a forthright discussion of the teacher's sexuality good? What impact does such disclosure have on the matter of the course, and is it overly disruptive? Might it not shanghai the "literary" aspects of the readings and turn all attention to Me? Or, honestly, might it radically reduce student respect for my position as all-knowing, all-stable, all-righteous? Conversely, what is the downside to "passing"—especially for gay and lesbian students who may need successful and happy role models, but also for heterosexual students who may be making false assumptions about the sexuality of the people with whom they live? Don't all teachers, of whatever stripe, teach themselves? So the first question that these various essays address is the level of personal revelation that is best for one's pedagogy. In Ingebretsen's colorful words, "the monstrous gay or lesbian teacher can shatter the filmic illusion by having something to say, something to teach more substantive, perhaps, than...


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