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  • “Beware! This is a Man!”
  • Nels P. Highberg (bio)

I have long had an ambivalent relationship with who I am. In the earliest years of my education, I was categorized as bookish and spent many a lunch period in the school library and several summer afternoons riding my orange banana-seated bike to the county library. The women who worked there knew me by name and kept books like The Neverending Story aside until my next visit, allowing me to immerse myself in the minds and worlds of other people. In high school, like many a gay man before me, I joined drama club almost immediately and acknowledged the existence of my body for the first time. I only saw it, though, as a tool for acting like someone else. Whether as a judge in The Crucible or an aging father in Anne of the Thousand Days, I had to comport my body so it would be seen as someone else’s. By the standards of a small town Texas high school, I did well, earning the occasional medal or trophy. People liked when I pretended to be another person.

In college, I found a home that allowed me to continue my immersion in the words and ideas of others. Though never a stellar student across the board, I excelled in classes that exposed me to rich, diverse stories of other people’s lives. I spent hours in the library with the printed editions of the MLA International Bibliography open before me, photocopying and highlighting journal articles for research papers that often earned As or close to it. Though I would barely admit it at the time, I loved this kind of work. It became difficult to ignore my body, however, and I spent numerous hours in Houston’s gay bars and adult bookstores searching for men who wanted to use their bodies in the same ways I was realizing I wanted to use mine. Once I started, I couldn’t stop, and I spent my life moving between two extremes, one that pushed my mind to its limits and the other that pushed my body. Rarely did the two intersect.

At least that was the case until I started graduate school in women’s studies in the mid-1990s and began teaching for the first time. At that point, I was forced to ask myself certain questions. When does my maleness provoke a response from students? My whiteness? In what ways does my queerness shape the class? What exactly do students see when I enter the classroom? And how does what they see change when a particular aspect of the [End Page 157] course changes? When and how do my students see—or privilege—one aspect of my identity over another? And ultimately, how do I influence—intentionally or not— their reading of my identities? Well into my second decade of teaching, I have learned that these questions never disappear, and the answers never stabilize. Trying to answer these questions today, I find myself drawn to moments in my teaching past when I felt forced by outside circumstances to confront not just the assumptions of my students but those of myself as well. In regard to many of the experiences I scrutinize in this essay, I am not happy with how I handled things at the time. But I think an analysis of what I did and why I did it can prove productive as we all reflect on the role our identities play in our classrooms (see Rondinone; Royster and Taylor).

To get at what I did and why I did it, I must break down my uncritical dysconsciousness. As Jerrie Cobb Scott describes it, uncritical dysconsciousness “refer[s] to the acceptance, sometimes unconsciously, of culturally sanctioned beliefs that, regardless of intent, defend the advantages of insiders and the disadvantages of outsiders” (51). Living in a body that is clearly marked as male and white puts me in a well-defined position of privilege. My queerness is not always visible no matter what I think my facial hair, haircut, or clothing might reveal. I live a life of insider advantages that increase as I grow older and my...


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pp. 157-170
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