Queer-positive teaching

Me painting a placard

Photo by Laura Dunn

Last Thursday was IDAHO/IDAHoT/IDAHoBiT – International Day Against Homophobia. IDAHO started as a day to commemorate the World Health Organisation’s decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; it is now a campaign calling for the international decriminalisation of homosexuality and to combat homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (hence the different acronyms). I spent the day with Warwick Pride, first on the panel for a Trans* Q+A and then listening to speakers from Movement for Justice.

Meanwhile, Helen Finch was discussing how we, as academics and tutors, can “foster a queer-positive environment at work” and in research. I’m a tutor – but I’ve also been a Trans* Welfare Officer, am involved with LGBT activism, been involved with LGBT student groups and the NUS LGBT campaign and yes, almost ten years ago, was that rather anxious student feeling very invisible and very alone.

As Paul Baker observes, LGBTQA students face additional pressures at university and are at increased risk of dropping out. As someone who’s been involved in LGBT student welfare from within the student union and has responded to more than a few concerns about homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in teaching environments, I was determined to bring this awareness to my teaching. I’ve written about a few key points that I find helpful to remember.

– Assume nothing. Never assume that everyone in your seminar room, lecture hall or lab is straight, cisgendered, or, for want of a better term, sexual. It’s easy to assume you aren’t teaching any LGBTQA students just because they don’t conform to what you expect an LGBTQA student to look like, but I assure you, they are there. LGBTQA students have families and friends, and you might be teaching them too.

– Avoid heteronormativity. Heteronormativity aligns biological sex (itself a problematic concept), sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles into one rather messy whole. It’s a constant and pervasive thing – you probably encounter it every day in advertising, in magazines and newspapers, on the TV and even in things like dress codes and casual conversation with strangers. Heteronormativity isn’t just harmful to LGBTQA people; Meg Barker wrote about it in a blog post and outlines the damage it causes to people inside and outside it. If you can, challenge these norms – but at the very least, don’t support them.
Things you can do include not assuming that all your female students are interested in male partners and all your male students are interested in female partners. Things like jokey comments along the lines of “typical man”, “that’s something a woman would say” or heteronormative assumptions about women all liking shoes and men all liking sports seem harmless, but can be alienating for students who don’t conform to those ideas. If possible, (gently) challenge these if they come from your students. If your examples involve people and relationships, don’t base them all around heterosexuality. I was checking a book (Paul Baker and Sibonile Ellece’s Key Terms in Discourse Analysis) for a definition and saw that the example was “Carol kissed Mary”. The concept it was illustrating – that of semantic role – could just as easily been illustrated by “Dan kissed Mary”. But if “Dan kissed Mary” is acceptable, why shouldn’t “Carol kissed Mary” be acceptable? It’s a small thing, but seeing their identity and relationships reflected in teaching material can be really important for LGBTQA students.

– Avoid cisnormativity – the assumption that everyone’s gender identity corresponds to that which they were assigned at birth, or, indeed, which is on their university records. As one of my many jobs, I work as an IELTS invigilator. Exam candidates have to shade in a box for whether they are male or female, and one of the invigilators I work with used to comment, every time, that “this should be the easiest question of the day” for them. For some people, it’s not an easy question – they may not be out as trans, they may not be able to change their legal gender, or, in the case of non-binary gendered, genderqueer and agendered people, there may not be a legal gender for them to change to. While the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) have revised the way gender will be recorded in their new gender and sex categories for student records within Higher Education, it’s still important to remember that students may ask you to call them by a different name or use different pronouns than those in their student records. To me, it also means bringing an awareness of the fluidity and diversity of gender to my teaching and so acknowledging that these are complicated things.

– Acknowledge queer scholarship – probably one more relevant for arts, humanities and social sciences although I’d love to hear if/how scientists, mathematicians, engineers and others do this. Helen suggested “contextualis[ing] sexuality and gender as discursively formed and historically understood” in literature studies; there’s some interesting discussions in bioarchaeology about “gay” cavemen; there are debates in history about whether various historical figures were gay (and what we mean by “gay”), such as Christabel Pankhurst. One of the seminars I taught this term was on language and gender, and I tried to lead my students from thinking about “women’s language” to thinking about where men and women learn language, then to looking at short extracts from anonymised conversations and guessing what genders the speakers were, then to thinking about the way power was enacted and negotiated in these exchanges and how this affected what gender the speakers were read as. In my case, there’s a rich vein of queer linguistics that informed my teaching and judging from the conversations during the seminar, the students seemed to find it an exciting and challenging way to think about gender.

There’s lots of other issues involved in this; one of the things Helen touched on was whether to out yourself when teaching. In my case, my decision to go to a couple of student LGBT events – I’m still a research student after all – meant that if any of my students were there, they would have seen me. I made a deliberate decision not to go to any drinking student LGBT events, partly because I don’t have time for hangovers but also because I want my students to have fun, do some silly and/or inadvisable things if they so desire, and enjoy their first year at university without worrying about being seen by their tutor. I’d probably feel a bit conflicted if I saw one of them get kicked out of the NG1 toilets or something!

I’m still pretty new at teaching though, so if you’ve got any advice or comments I’d be really interested in hearing them.

Teaching the suffrage campaign

The video I discussed in my last post has got me thinking about wider issues in how and what we teach about the suffrage movement. What is discussed and disseminated about the suffrage movement is a political issue; what we teach, and in doing so deem important enough to pass on, probably says more about us and our priorities than about the suffrage movement.

From the Suffragette, 1909

Passive forms of resistance – for example, the chaining self to railings issue, which as far as I can tell from my data was either systematically underreported to the point of invisibility (unlikely, given news values) or didn’t happen with any frequency – is widely discussed and disseminated today. Forcible feeding is another issue widely discussed now. Part of this is because hunger strikes have a resonance today – as a child growing up in Britain I knew of Bobby Sands, and over the past days I’ve read of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja of Bahrain and the Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan. Emily Wilding Davison’s death is also widely discussed in present day material, despite it not being sanctioned by WSPU leadership and ambiguous as to her intentions – it’s probably among the best known acts of the suffrage campaign. It’s dramatic, but then so was lots of other suffragette direct action – planting a bomb in David Lloyd George’s unfinished house for example.

I’d argue that what these models of resistance have in common is their emphasis on female passivity, injured female bodies and the pain and humiliation suffered by women; as Laura Mayhall says, they’re about the “individual exhibition of women’s bodies in pain”. It’s an image of the woman as martyr, who experiences personal agonies in order to bring about social change. And I think there’s something damaging about that – it teaches children, girls in particular, that the way you protest is through personal suffering. It’s protest turned inward; the depth of your resistance shown through how much pain you are willing to bear. I don’t think that’s a healthy thing to represent as the extent of suffrage protest.

The suffrage movement campaigned through political channels (petitions, deputations, canvassing MPs), peaceful protest (demonstrations, rallies, public speaking, tax resistance), the arts (writing, drama and visual arts) and militant direct action (window breaking, attacking politicians, arson). There were multiple channels of resistance and I think it’s important that these are taught. To me, this says something about how imaginative and diverse protest can be, the many forms it can take and perhaps something of the importance of these many types of campaigning. In these heady times of austerity cuts and the rise of co-ordinated grassroots anti-cuts groups, I think it’s important that we’re aware of the rich history of democratic protest and its potential to effect change – not as single, isolated, dramatic events, but as a narrative of resistance.

Mayhall, L (2003) The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930. Oxford: Oxford University Press

So let’s sing while we still have time…

On Saturday night I was singing in the University Choir, performing Mahler’s 2nd symphony. There’s a review up by Professor Stephen Mumford in which he notes that “music especially gives us access to the sublime”. As a singer and performer of music I won’t argue with that; there is something especially transcendental about being one voice among many, knowing your part perfectly and combining to create a glorious, complex sound.

However, I’ve also found singing a particularly rewarding experience as a PhD researcher. We were singing in the fifth movement of Mahler’s second symphony which is less than 15 minutes of actual singing, but we still rehearsed for at least two hours a week and sometimes closer to five hours. The intense focus reminded me of an extreme form of close reading, where engagement with the text is all there is and everything else ceases to be. Every rehearsal brought something new; a different nuance to be coaxed out of the text through a diminuendo, a different shade of meaning expressed through a quaver rest.

Singing requires a different kind of concentration – you can’t be distracted or only half pay attention to the words and music you’re singing. It requires all of my focus and attention, yet I find it calls for a different kind of focus and attention than my PhD demands. Ultimately, it’s a communal concentration – I am focused on my score, the person conducting, blending my voice with the other people singing my part, and listening to what the other parts are doing. It’s very different from the often intensely solitary work of my PhD. I also find it gives me permission for switch off from PhD work without feeling guilty or lazy; and in fact, more often than not, I find myself refreshed by the change and ready to get back to work.

As well as a relationship with the rest of the choir, singing also creates a relationship between the singer and the conductor. As part of the choir, I was struck by the sense of connection Jonathan Tilbrook established with us. He’s an expressive conductor with eloquent, fluid gestures – during the performance I was mesmerised by his fluent conducting of the orchestra. Jonathan encourages a suppleness and responsiveness; when he was conducting us, he, quite literally, held the power of an 140-strong choir in his hands and could ask for ppp or fff with one gesture. We were there at his fingertips, our voices ready to soar or quieten to almost a whisper if he asked for it. While obviously you can’t abdicate all responsibility and expect the conductor to indicate every change in dynamic, Jonathan clearly knew what guidance we would find helpful. My worries about a difficult entry melted away as I realised that he would tell us when to come in. Again, this is different from the PhD experience of uncertainty. One of the things I was unconsciously struggling with was the responsibility and pressure of becoming the expert in my area. It was with a feeling of relief that I could relinquish control and trust someone else to guide me for at least a few hours.

I often feel a sense of disconnection from my body for a number of reasons, and this blog isn’t the place to go into detail. As a researcher, I find myself neglecting it – sleep? eat? but I’m too busy! – and resenting its demands. Singing, however, is one of the most physical things I do. Far from being something non-physical, singing is an embodied act. When you sing, your body becomes an exquisitely sensitive, expressive instrument. You support the sound with your diaphragm and abdominal muscles; you produce different sounds through the complex interaction of your vocal cords, the space inside your mouth, your tongue, your soft palate, your lips. As a linguist I knew exactly what the chorusmaster meant when he asked for open vowels, closed vowels, more schwa (and oh, how interestingly different from my experiences singing church Latin!). You have to be relaxed to produce a clear sound; tension will affect your tone. Simultaneously, you have to be aware of your posture; you can’t sing when if you’re hunched up or slouching. It’s a complex balance that requires body awareness. I’m fascinated by how our physical practices shape our bodies and how you can read a history in someone’s skin and muscles. It’s very satisfying to allow something I love so much to shape me, carve me into something that makes me an even better singer. And, in doing so, it challenges the Cartesian dualism that allows me to conceptualise a mind-body split. What singing does is merge the two, gently reproaching me for even thinking of my body as mere transport for my mind.

As well as offering a useful counterpoint for my life as a PhD researcher, this involvement with music also makes me a better teacher. On Friday I was teaching on metaphor. One of the exercises my students had to do was slot different words into some constructions, such as A is the B of C and A is like B to make metaphors. We’d then discuss the target domain (what you’re trying to talk about) and the source domain (the ideas you’re drawing on to talk about it), and discuss the features of the source domain that made the metaphor work. For some reason, my students really liked “music” as a source domain, coming up with things like “patience is the music of love”. When I asked them what made that particular metaphor work, they said things like “music is beautiful” and “music makes me feel happy”. I tried to encourage them to think about other features of music that might disrupt the neatness of the metaphor: that it can be complicated, that looking at a full orchestral score can be overwhelming, that learning to play an instrument often involves frustration and creating some truly awful noises, that making something look effortless and graceful requires hard work. I could explore that metaphor more fully with my students because I do have this musical background, and hopefully enrich their understanding and learning experience.

I’ve never been the kind of person who can relax by watching TV or films. Sometimes the PhD makes reading seem more of a chore than something you do to escape it. But in singing, I find something that is active and engaging enough to be stimulating, yet different enough from work to be relaxing. It’s a delicate balance between it being challenging enough to not get boring and it becoming too much like more work – I’ve never got on well with music exams. But music, and singing in particular, is such an important thing to have in my life and I’m lucky to be in a university community that encourages my involvement.

Better learning through cake

Let us travel back in time, around 13 or 14 years ago or so, and revisit my experience of compulsory education. More specifically, a subject for which I reserved particular loathing and hatred: Food Tech.

My friend Maria and I shared a counter and sink. We weren’t just bad – we were inspired. We ruined pasta. We earned the rage and ire of our Food Tech teacher by swapping bits of our scone dough (mine – sultana, hers – coconut) to create mutant scones. And finally, there was The Fruitcake. The Fruitcake was the nadir of my brief foray into cooking and sufficiently traumatised me to Never Ever try baking again because I would unleash untold horrors. Again. We had technology for the double period – two hours – in the afternoon, and I remember sitting in the classroom after the bell had rung and my friends had gone home, waiting for the teacher to allow me to take it out of the oven. I thought it was done; she was convinced it wasn’t. The result was so dry it sucked all moisture out of your mouth and made saliva a distant and fond memory. In the end I crumbled it up for the birds because my family, long suffering as they were, quite understandably refused to take it to extremes.

At the age of thirteen, I decided that I distrusted this baking malarky and would have nothing to do with it. In fact, Maria and I were genuinely worried we’d starve or die of scurvy if we had to fend for ourselves.

Years later, and I find myself reasonably competent in the kitchen. Soup, risotto, curries, roasted vegetables, lentilly-couscousy-salady things – yep. But despite my love of cake, I haven’t dared bake anything. I’ve watched people bake, I’ve enthusiastically tested their baking, I’ve regularly attended my LGBT Network’s Queer Cafe and I’ve even decorated cakes (sadly, this seems to be the best photo of the Spiderman cake but it was pretty awesome). I’ve just never quite worked up the confidence to combine flour, eggs and sugar in a mixing bowl. Logically, I know I’ve cooked far more complicated stuff than this but it was no good: I had The Fear.

My friend Hannah at Stress Baker told me that baking is an excellent way to escape from PhD stress and bakes delicious things so often she’s started a blog. My housemate made carrot cake last evening and it smelt wonderful plus, as she argued, the amount of carrot and dried fruit in it meant it was at least one of your 5-a-day and therefore good for you. You can even buy butch cupcakes if your fragile masculinity is threatened by baked goods or you’re amused by manifestations of socially constructed and validated performances of gender. Also, and let this point not go unnoticed, you end up with cake.

So I found a recipe that seemed to offer maximum return/chocolate for minimum effort/skill and an hour or so later, had this:
Chocolate cake on a plate
Perhaps not the most beautiful of cakes, but who cares, it tastes fine. And, more importantly, can’t be used as a substitute for floral foam.

It made me think a lot about experiences of learning. As PhD researchers and academics, we tend to be good in our fields. It might not always be easy and we’re not going to be amazing at every single area within our field, but usually it doesn’t compare to the head-banging frustration of studying something you have absolutely no talent at and are scared of. Those we teach sometimes have no previous experience of whatever we’re trying to teach them, but they often have some – and had bad experiences rather than good ones.

In my experience, it’s often grammar; they’ve found it boring or confusing or pitched at the wrong level – too easy, too hard, or suddenly lurching from “easy” to “scarily difficult”. Sometimes they had a bad teacher. Sometimes the exercises were boring and tedious. Sometimes it’s been taught in isolation and no one’s shown how it can be used to analyse texts. The experience of being told you’re rubbish at something has many effects, not least lack of confidence, resentment and aversion.

Sometimes, when you’re good at something, it’s unfathomable how anyone could possibly find it difficult. It’s useful to make ourselves uncomfortable to remind us how that feels in order to be better teachers.

For that reason, I have purchased white chocolate chips and dried cranberries. Exactly that reason.

Five (plus two) questions from Sophie

Sophie Duncan at Clamorous Voice thought it would be interesting to bring the five question meme to our academic or otherwise real-life blogs. She describes it as a “creative nonfiction thing…little snapshots of what’s going on with people” and well, how could I refuse an offer like that? So here goes, and if you would like five questions from me, comment and ask!

What would you like to ask Christabel Pankhurst?
I always get a bit nervous about “what would you ask [famous person]?” questions because I’m worried that I’ll be like I am in real life and gaze worriedly at them, realise I have no intelligent question or, indeed, response and blurt out something about paneer. So this takes place in an alternate universe where I a) can time-travel and b) am not totally useless at talking to people and c) am cool.

At first I’d probably try to start off with vaguely academic questions, like her thoughts on direct action and how she’d gauge its success, what her intentions were in founding the WSPU and how these changed over time, her thoughts on the role of male suffragists, how she felt about the portrayal of the suffragist movement in the press and so on. And then I’d probably get increasingly nosy about the intra-suffrage movement tensions, so really, tell me exactly how you feel about the NUWSS, and what really happened with the Pethick-Lawrences, and why did you choose to base the WSPU on a military organisation and whose idea was that and ooh, syphilis and white slavery. And then either ask her about falling out with her sister, Sylvia Pankhurst, or possibly present her with a cuddly syphilis. Either way, it would go magnificently.

Sue Perkins or Sandi Toksvig? [This is probably the most important question I’ll ask anyone, nota bene]
I really admire Sandi Toksvig’s knowledge on such a wide range of subjects, how she’s a ferociously intelligent and respected older female broadcaster, presenter and entertainer when there are so few on TV and radio, and how she’s fought discrimination against her and her family due to her sexuality. On the other hand, Sue Perkins is one of the few comedians who can make me laugh and laugh (I saw Mitchell and Webb live and fell asleep, true story), and while she’s self-deprecating she’s also whip-smart and passionate about the arts. On balance I’d say that Sue Perkins is ahead by a whisker, but that’s due to her commitment to empirical research as demonstrated on The Supersizers go….

What is corpus linguistics?
Very very basically, it involves collecting together machine-readable texts and using a computer program to look for patterns in them. The patterns you look for might be whether a word prefers or avoids other words (collocation), have a certain grammatical function (colligation), are associated with a specific semantic field (semantic preference) or are associated with a set of words or phrases which can reveal (hidden) attitudes (discourse prosody). Some people work with massive corpora, like the Bank of English, and some people work with very small corpora of tens of thousands of words. Some people treat it as a sub-discipline in itself while others treat it as a methodology. As such, there’s a tremendous variation on what corpus linguistics is and it kind of depends on who you ask as to what answer you’ll get.

How and where do you see yourself teaching, in the post-apocalyptic maelstrom of the Higher Ed future?
It’s hard to say. I’m troubled by the attitude that universities are profit-making service providers and students are consumers; I believe it fundamentally changes the relationship between teacher and student. On the other hand, the networks and resources you find in universities are valuable and it’s hard to create them from scratch. The answer is that I’m really not sure; I’d like to do some teaching within the university system, but I’d also like to work with groups outside it – school and college groups, activists, the public and others.

What’re your own newspaper & magazine reading habits?
Being a bit of a cheapskate, it depends if I’m buying them or not. I sometimes buy Diva if I’m faced with a long train journey, but other than that I tend to do most of my reading online. However, if there are magazines or newspapers lying around, I’ll probably read them – National Geographic, New Scientist, the Metro, I’m not particularly fussy. I am also likely to pounce on people’s copies of trashy magazines, especially if they have dodgy real life stories (e.g. I made my mum-in-law out of toast). I probably won’t read the Daily Mail though – I do have some standards.

What’s the best thing about your life right now?
Right now? Possibly the cherry tomatoes, courgette and garlic roasting in the oven that I’m going to make something with for my dinner. It’s a beautiful sunny evening, my window’s open, and I can hear birdsong and collared doves cooing. It’s not the life I thought I was letting myself in for when I first started my PhD at Liverpool, but I’m trying to make the best of it.

What do your mornings look like?
Best avoided.

And now, questions for her!

  • Do you try to get distance from your PhD, and what form does that take?
  • What’s the arts organisation that doesn’t exist, but you really really wish it did?
  • Let’s imagine that you have the chance to go back in time and interact (talk, get drunk with, slap, etc) with any historical figure. They’ll then conveniently bang their head and forget they ever met you. Who would you pick and what would you do with/to them?
  • How has blogging influenced or affected your PhD?
  • What are you most looking forward to?
  • Comment if you’d like some questions from me.