Monday, July 4, 2011

Queering Academia, Part 1: The Gay Syllabus

I've often considered what my future in academia will be like as an openly queer person who writes about queer issues. I'm in a college of education (and if I do have a future in higher education, it will almost certainly be in another one, as opposed to a history department or something), and colleges of education are notoriously heteronormative. Schools themselves are heteronormative, and heteronormatizing. There are certainly other openly gay professors in my department and in my field, but those who are both openly gay AND do work on gay issues are fewer and farther between. And they're heroes, each and every one of them, because this is not an easy row to hoe. But I yam who I yam, and I can't not be me, so either I'll find a place in a department as a radical queer or I won't, and I'll do something else. I love what I do, but I can't, as my friend Diedre says, take out part of my humanity and shoot it just to pay the bills.

So it was with great interest when I read about a study on the perceptions of gay and lesbian professors by college students (you can read more about the study here and here, and if you want to read the actual study, let me know and I'll e-mail it to you). Essentially, the researchers did two studies on the perceptions of gay and lesbian professors by students. They presented the students with syllabi and indicated through autobiographies whether the professors were gay or straight (through professional organizations they belonged to, and by statements like "Dr. Melanie Saunders lives with Lori, her partner of three years" or "... with David, her husband of three years"). They had many hypotheses, including whether students would see the professors as biased based on sexual orientation, gender, and political leanings, and whether they would judge professors more harshly based on typographical errors in the syllabus. I can't go through them all, but I wanted to pull some major points and talk about them. In my next post, I will address some things in the comments to the two blog posts I linked to above. [ETA: The syllabus was for a human sexuality class, which is certainly relevant information that I forgot to include. Thanks for the reminder, Desi.]

Point 1:
The undergraduate students in the present study viewed heterosexuals as the normative professor who is relatively objective and value-free. Lesbian/gay professors who taught a course with the exact same syllabus as heterosexual professors were viewed as coming to the course with a political agenda, with personal biases, and with the aim of forcing their views of sexuality on students (to paraphrase the wording from some of the statements that comprised the Political Bias factor).
This is not surprising. I've written before about how neutrality seems to only belong to straight white cis men, and everyone else is biased. Of course, this is ridiculous. We all have our baggage. They also made the point in the study that people perceive gay and lesbian people as flaunting their sexuality, but not straight people. But a straight person wearing a wedding ring or mentioning her husband is flaunting her sexuality as much as a lesbian mentioning her girlfriend. Because the latter is considered non-normative, though, it becomes A Thing We Notice.

Point 2:
...there was not one version of bias that accounted for students’ perceptions of both lesbians and gay men: Conservative gay men and liberal lesbians were viewed as more biased than were liberal gay men and conservative lesbians. In contrast, heterosexuals were not judged according to their political ideology. The finding of differing views of lesbian and gay men based on their political ideology supplies more evidence that lesbians and gay men should not be considered as one category of “homosexual."
Um, yes. This is certainly true. But there aren't even just "lesbians" and "gay men" as TWO categories of homosexual. Go visit a leather bar and then a drag show and then a dyke bar and get back to me. Oh, and let's not forget the people who don't go to bars at all, or who hang in the bear scene, or who go to straight bars, or whatever. Or look at the queeriodic table.

Point 3:
Homonegatives were less interested in taking the human sexuality course than were modern homonegatives and non-homonegatives. Furthermore, they perceived the course as politically biased, with fewer appropriate topics and materials, and taught by professors with less warmth than the other two attitude categories. Students with high levels of homonegativity, then, present a particular challenge, perhaps in the form of resistance to a faculty member who teaches courses such as human sexuality. Whereas homonegatives categorically dismissed the course, modern homonegatives viewed lesbian and gay professors as more politically biased than heterosexual professors with the same syllabus.
Sigh. I'm not stunned by this either. I like their use of "homonegative" and "modern homonegative." Homonegative means people who are just openly anti-gay. Modern homonegativity "rejects lesbians and gay men on the grounds that they attempt to obtain special privileges because of their orientation, or because it is believed that they flaunt their sexuality." Again, queer people don't seem to me to flaunt their sexuality any more than anyone else does. And there's a reason the gay rights movement has been saying "gay rights are human rights" for awhile now. There's no difference between rights for gay people and rights for anyone else, but when queer people are consistently not protected by laws and face discrimination, we need the law to acknowledge that, essentially.

Another concern I have from this point is that it might somehow justify people closeting themselves in order to not deter students from taking a class. "Just be strategic/less obvious" is something people here. Of course I wouldn't walk in on the first day of class and say "I'm a radical lesbian atheist and if you don't like it, leave." No one does that. But then there's the idea of being more assimilationist, or deliberately avoiding talking about one's partner in the same way a straight person would, and THAT is a huge problem. We should not have to closet ourselves because our very gayness might deter some kid from taking the class. If a student feels that way, that's on him, not me. I engage with all my students. Also, I think that sometimes resistance is good. Students aren't just going along to get along, giving the teacher what she wants. If they're resisting, they're thinking, and I believe we can build from there. We have this idea that college students shouldn't be made uncomfortable and that resistance is a bad thing, and it isn't, always. Sometimes it's healthy.

It's important to note that in this study, the students only had a syllabus, they had no face-to-face interaction. That has to make a difference for at least some people, because the more gays you realize you know, the less homophobic you tend to be. So that's the flip side of this argument: that if I can convince students that my being queer is not bringing America to its knees, we'll all get along better. This is the "making space" argument. The authors point out at the beginning of their study that the presence of openly gay and lesbian professors is good for queer students, and I would argue that it's good for everyone, including other faculty members. It's not always easy, but I really love teaching, and I know lots of other queer people who are talented teachers and researchers. I'm hoping that together we can keep pushing the boulders up the hills, and over time, they'll become lighter.

That's it for today. Next time, I'll address some of the comments to other blog posts on this, and any that you might leave on this post. So if I don't respond to you in the comments section here, sit tight and hopefully I'll get to it on Wednesday.

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  1. Can you please email me the article? I'm interested in reading more.

    Were the syllabi used within a certain college/major, or were they more general?

    Specifically in a college of education, assimilation would be a great disservice. I don't want pre-service teachers to be "protected" from reality. I support making pre-service teachers uncomfortable--how else can they be prepared to work with the realities of the students in their classrooms? (Clearly, I'm basing my comment here on assimilation as an option--not as survival, as it would be in some cases.)

  2. The syllabi were for a human sexuality class. That is crucial information, and I shouldn't have left it out. I'll add it in.

    I agree with you about assimilation. I don't teach pre-service teachers, but sometimes I kind of wish I did. They're going to have queer students, so they need to learn that queer people are not terrifying. Although I might not be the best person to teach them that. :)

  3. This is slightly off topic, but still relates. Since I've spent the majority of my education career in early childhood ed., I've found it's interesting that it's about the only career that seems to be consciously prejudiced AGAINST men. I was the director of a daycare for awhile and needed to hire a new teacher. A highly qualified man applied, and as I did with all applicants who made the first cut, I invited him to a second interview which included parents. One mother flat-out told me that she was really uncomfortable with a male teacher for her toddler-age son. She felt like he must have some disgusting motive for wanting to teach toddlers. I was fascinated that early childhood ed has not moved on from its days of being thought of as "babysitting," much better suited to undereducated women than to men with college educations. I can only imagine the reaction if the gentleman I hired--yes, I did end up hiring him--was also gay. A gay female was fine (an out lesbian was on our part-time staff) but a gay male would have been even more suspicious.

  4. Totally. I wrote a blog post about it!

    The lesbian on your staff was lucky to be working at your particular daycare. There are plenty of places that wouldn't have hired her, or where parents would have thrown a fit if they knew she was out.