- How to Teach Gender to Students Who Didn’t Know They Had One
men, masculinities, consent, gender, sexuality, composition
In a 2017 Inside Higher Ed essay, Hallie Lieberman described how she “got a group of straight male college freshmen” to take her gender- and sexuality-themed composition class at the University of Wisconsin–Madison: “I didn’t tell them the topic before they signed up.” In her next sentence, she reveals a sense of misplaced guilt about her lack of transparency: “And this wasn’t some nefarious plot on my part,” explaining that the course catalog does not permit her to announce her class theme in advance. Lieberman’s defensive reflex is not a surprise in the current political climate. That same year, a professor of public affairs at the same university, Donald P. Moynihan (2017), published an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that the greater threat to free speech on campus was not liberal activist undergraduates but conservative state legislators who threaten to cut the school’s budget for teaching topics like homosexuality and gender and claim that a university program on masculinity “declares war on men.” Presumably, such conservative arguments are contributing to concerns like Lieberman’s, leaving instructors to wonder, Is it unethical to teach straight male students about gender and sexuality if they did not sign up for the topic, or would not have if they had known of it in advance?
For the past twenty-five years, scholars driving what Jonathan Alexander and David Wallace (2009) call the “queer turn in composition” have argued that it is unethical not to teach students to critically examine gender and sexual norms. Alexander (2008: 5) declares that “the time has come [End Page 115] when it is imperative both to understand the interrelationship of sexuality and literacy and to think more fully and critically about how we as literacy specialists can—and should—address this relationship in our composition classes.” He argues that all students should develop “sexual literacy” since sexuality is integral to the way we encode power relationships (17). And yet, even he betrays some uncertainty about the “imperative” of requiring resistant students to acquire sexual literacy: “I wonder if students are left feeling coerced. . . . I would hope not, and I cannot support any kind of instruction that bullies students. But I am certainly well aware that inviting students to think critically and write substantively about difficult material can seem bullying” (194). He is raising the question of consent without using the word.
A decade later, consent is at the forefront of discourse when we consider forces of coercion and abuses of power. If we require students who are not interested in critically examining gender to do so, are we forcing them to act against their own interests, as the legal concept of coercion suggests, by not being transparent about what we hope they will learn? On one hand, we may assume that we have the ability and responsibility to be fully transparent to our students about what they are going to learn before they learn it. On the other hand, we may assume that if we teach the subject with less transparency—the “decidedly impure, sneaky, covert” approach suggested by Karen L. Kopelson (2003: 136)—we have the power to transform homophobic or misogynistic students into progressive, feminist ones without their desire or consent.
This article examines these instructor assumptions and trepidations and considers some pedagogical interventions in teaching gender and sexuality content in a required writing class to students with assumptions and trepidations of their own. I analyze the work of racially diverse students who declare themselves to be straight men in the classroom or in their published writing (an undergraduate journal, a college newspaper, and an instructor evaluation site). I understand these students’ declarations as their way of staking the claim that their seemingly fixed and unquestionable identity meaningfully separates them from other people, those who must explore and give name to their sex and gender. Paradoxically, in this moment of resistance, in choosing to proclaim their gender and sexuality, straight men make their own identities transparent, material, and thus poised to be critically examined...