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Pedagogy 6.1 (2006) 103-122
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Queering Pedagogy in the English Classroom:
Engaging with the Places Where Thinking Stops
Amy E. Winans
In recent years, gender, race, and class have increasingly received attention in literature and writing classrooms and in the scholarship of critical pedagogy. In contrast, sexual orientation has much more frequently been glossed over or even ignored.1 Yet silences in most classrooms about sexual orientation are in striking contrast to public, political conversations—most recently about gay marriage, homosexuality, and church practices—and to slang used frequently by students. On my campus, for example, the expression "that's so gay" is used daily by students to criticize everything from a boring class to an outdated piece of clothing.2 Discussions about and references to sexual orientation and sexual difference are so common outside the classroom that it is hardly surprising that when the silence is broken inside the classroom the results are marked by strong student engagement—and by types of discourse that are often absent there. Indeed, when sexual orientation is referenced in articles about pedagogy, such as Richard E. Miller's well-known 1994 essay "Fault Lines in the Contact Zone: Assessing Homophobic Student Writing," it is often identified as something that invokes strong feelings on the part of students and confusion on the part of faculty, who are uncertain about how to respond to students' comments, especially homophobic ones.3
Students encounter a broad range of beliefs about sexual orientation in the world around them, particularly in political, religious, and athletic [End Page 103] arenas; however, they have seldom learned how they are "expected" to speak about sexual orientation in a classroom setting, as they often assume that they have about race. As a result, they frequently use the discourses that dominate their lives outside the classroom, whether those discourses emerge from their families, circles of friends, religious organizations, sports teams, Greek organizations, or other affiliations. These discourses—and their assumptions about sexual orientation—play a crucial role in students' thinking and learning, both inside and outside the classroom. Discussions of sexual orientation are marked by strong student engagement in part because they draw directly on students' connections to discourse communities that are central in their lives. Thus, as we consider the meaning of the silences surrounding sexual orientation in many English classrooms and the importance of "transforming from silence into language and action" (Lorde 1984: 40), we should keep in mind both the oft-repeated statement that most student learning takes place outside the classroom and the assertion of critical pedagogy theorists that the development of a critical consciousness is a tool for empowering one to act in the world.
What I am proposing in this essay is not simply that we should discuss sexual orientation in our classrooms, although I believe that we should. Simply adding sexual orientation to the list of issues that we explore in our classes is insufficient for reasons that many scholars of multiculturalism have discussed. As Urvashi Vaid (1995), E. Shelley Reid (2004), and others have argued, simply adding materials about "the other" does not challenge our pedagogy or conceptual framework in meaningful ways; the additive approach of inclusivity or celebration of difference tends to leave dominant cultural assumptions and their complex relationships to power unexamined. Simply put, changing the content of our classes does not necessarily impact our pedagogy. As Harriet Malinowitz (1995: 252–53) explains, "It is possible to 'include' new discourses and yet simultaneously deny the tensions that exist around their proximity and their competing claims for territorial definition. Naming and engaging with these tensions is what sparks the chemical reaction that ineluctably queers the brew." It is this process of "queer[ing] the brew" that merits further exploration in our classrooms.
Crafting an effective pedagogy for addressing sexual orientation in the English classroom can transform how we understand the work of teaching critical thinking. As Henry A. Giroux (2001: 18) argues, "Pedagogy must always be contextually defined, allowing it to respond specifically to the conditions, formations, and problems that arise...