Monday, January 2, 2012

Silencing Efforts: It's Time for the Homophobic Student Evaluations

In the last year, my university switched to online student evaluations. This is bad in the sense that fewer students fill them out, and when they do, tend to spend less time on them. But it's kinda cool in that I get to see them much sooner and, if a student raises a point I want to consider, I have time to implement it before I'm halfway through the next semester.

I don't want to seem like an egomaniac or anything, but I'm a pretty good teacher. I've won the university-wide teaching award, and my evaluations are generally quite positive. This semester, some students wrote some particularly sweet and lovely things in their evaluations, and I find this quite touching, and encouraging. I also find it necessary to my survival in this field, because I also got a handful of students who wrote that they wished I didn't talk about queer stuff so much. They talked about my "gay agenda" and how I'm apparently biased.

They're right, you know. I do have a gay agenda and I'm totes biased. My agenda and bias paid off, though, because I made my classroom safer for some of my kids, the ones who feel uncomfortable and unsafe in other settings. That I didn't uphold heteronormativity, as was expected of me, or pretend to be "neutral" on these issues, is good. It's also fucking scary as hell. I don't want to stop teaching, ever.

Part of the reason I think that the kids felt like we talked about queer history so much is that they never hear about it anywhere else. As Kristen said, any amount of discussion about queer stuff above 0% is a lot to them, because it's novel. But I've written about how it is essential to teach queer history before. And because I like it and I can, I'm going to go ahead and quote Feinberg again here:

I always wanted to leave something important behind. Remember the history book you gave me for Christmas?... I've been going to the library, looking up our history. There's a ton of it in anthropology books, a ton of it, Ruth. We haven't always been hated. Why didn't we grow up knowing that?... It's changed the way I think. I grew up believing the way things are now is the way they've always been, so why even bother trying to change the world? But just finding out that it was ever different, even if it was long ago, made me feel things could change again. Whether or not I live to see it. At work, when everyone else is at lunch, I've been typesetting all the history I've found, trying to make it look as important as it feels to me. That's what I want to leave behind, Ruth - the history of this ancient path we're walking. I want it to help us restore our dignity.
- Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues

Remember that? So, so important. My queer kids aren't finding themselves in history in other classes, so it's my fucking responsibility to make sure they find themselves in my class.

A lot of these students are wrestling with the idea that anyone who isn't a cis straight white man has bias. Because I'm out to my students, I take great risk, as do all out people in education everywhere. I can't cave to their expectations that I will be neutral. It's not possible for me. I'm not neutral. Neutral means invisibility, and invisibility means death, in the most literal sense. Queer kids are killing themselves, getting kicked out of their homes, running away from abusive situations. Am I supposed to be quiet when my kids are dying? Fuck that. I'll take making some privileged straight kids annoyed or uncomfortable over letting kids die because they think they're alone.

I wrote about a study awhile back that talked about how openly queer teachers are negatively reviewed thanks to "modern homonegativity" (the "I'm not anti-gay but..." shit), and - more interesting to me - comments on the study that come from people in the field, some of whom are openly queer. I'm going to re-post the comment I liked the most from the Inside Higher Ed piece here, and I want to emphasize that he's talking about doctoral students:

Michael Dumas: Interestingly, I just taught about LGBT issues last night in a doctoral class on diversity in education. The course is taught by two instructors, both African American, one straight-identified female, and one gay male (me). If this year's student evaluations are similar to last year's, I fully expect to see one or two students complain that "too much time" was spent on gay issues, even though the LGBT content is--coincidentally-- only about 1/10 of the subject matter covered. I also can expect similarly critical comments about how much time was spent on race and African Americans, even though both instructors are conscious about including other populations in readings, media and examples. I don't want to comment on methodological rigor of the study without reading it, but I can say that it is consistent with my experience, and that of a whole range of LGBT, women and people of color in the academy. And yes, negative and untruthful course evaluations can hurt one in the tenure and promotion process.

 Now, as for the question raised above about why a professor would reveal her or his sexual orientation, the study states that sexual orientation was indicated in the autobiographical statement given to research participants. It did NOT say that instructors listed their sexual identity on the syllabus itself! And yes, students do talk amongst themselves about who their professors are as people; they see photos on our desks; they know about our involvement in various advocacy groups on campus; and, importantly, they make assumptions based on gender performance (length of hair, style of dress, speaking voice). So it is entirely reasonable that a student would be aware of, or at least presume, specific sexual identities.
Yesssssssss. You can go back to my earlier post on that, linked to above, to see my commentary on it. I'm posting it here for therapeutic reasons. I needed to read that again.

Look, I don't expect that my department is going to let me off the hook for the homophobic evaluations, ever. I have every expectation of having to explain myself. And so I wrote this post in large part to strengthen myself. I need to have all these thoughts at the top of my head when I get called in for the meeting. Maybe I will be surprised, but I expect that someone will tell me to tone it down, or be strategic, or talk about queer stuff less. I'm hoping the folks in my department will be allies, but I'm never sure. And isn't that a problem?

Image via.


  1. Jess, I, too, hope the department will be allies. And the best defense for why you do what you do is exactly what you said: "Neutral means invisibility, and invisibility means death, in the most literal sense. Queer kids are killing themselves, getting kicked out of their homes, running away from abusive situations. Am I supposed to be quiet when my kids are dying? Fuck that. I'll take making some privileged straight kids annoyed or uncomfortable over letting kids die because they think they're alone."

    I recently had a student who, after reading LGBTQ young adult literature, responded (in writing) that her religious upbringing wouldn't allow her to accept or condone her students' choice to live a gay lifestyle, but she would still try to be a good teacher to them anyway. WTF?!?!? How???? How can you be a good teacher to kids if you actively deny/disrespect/disregard WHO THEY ARE?

    The more time I spend in the world of education, the more I really do believe that we need to be more stringent and rigorous in terms of who we graduate from our programs. We need to make our programs for prospective educators more critical and inclusive--which means doing exactly what you're doing. And it's not just about the prospective students in K12 education; it's also about adults having a safe, encouraging space to, you know, just be.

  2. Also, I don't know if this is exactly what you were saying, but I think that bigotry is a good reason to fail someone out of an education program. You can't even teach cis straight white Protestant kids well if you're a bigot, because that's what you're teaching them, and that is so super gross and horrible.

  3. In a related vein, as I learned when I cowrote a piece on conservative students and colleges of education, NCATE dropped teaching for social justice from its list of expectations for teacher candidates necessary for college certification, because of complaints that it was 'promoting an agenda'.

  4. Yup. There's a great essay about that in a book I'm currently in love with called "Flaunt it! Queers Organizing for Public Education and Justice." AERA isn't better than NCATE. AND NCATE is a private organization that seems to have a lot to do with public school policy. Super gross.

  5. Just keep going where you go, Jess. we love you and your heart for ALL people, regardless of their orientation! I think you'd have a case with the department for including diversity in your syllabus!

  6. Wait, I had to read that twice. So your department is going to call YOU in for "a talk" because students wrote homophobic reviews ABOUT you?

  7. I said this on Facebook in response to a comment asking me to clarify that students who request a "less biased agenda" are homophobic, and I might as well post it here to further underscore my position in case anyone else was going to ask the same thing:

    I teach the history of American education to undergraduates. This semester I will also be teaching a course called something like education and American culture to grad students.

    In teaching history, omitting queer identities/people is to teach history badly, just as to omit racial minorities is to teach it badly. So, from the start, I am doing my job as a professional. Second, the course is not actually focused on queer history - it is just included, and as I said in my blog post, any mention of queerness above no mention of it at all feels like a lot to the students, whether they're queer or straight or some other thing. And the reason for that is because they never hear it elsewhere, in history classes or in any other class. I talk about queerness, race, class, gender (including identity and expression), religion, and power every day. It's exhausting, and people say it can't be done because "we don't have time," but it can totally be done. I've seen other people do it too.

    And so what the students who wrote these reviews want is for me to stop talking about queer people/history as part of this course. They are asking me to put queer history - and myself - back in the closet. This is homophobia.

    Furthermore, the idea that I am "biased" implies that I am choosing between two equally valid opinions. This is not the case. Homophobia is not an "opinion." And it's not as though these conversations with my students take place in a vacuum. There is a real and deadly power differential between straight and queer people in most corners of the world. What people think of as "neutral" is not choosing "sides" in this power imbalance, but that kind of neutrality is actually choosing to side with power, or with the status quo. Paulo Freire said it better than I can: “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."

    And as I said in the blog post, neutrality = invisibility = death. My "biased gay agenda" is that queer people should stop being bullied, tormented, killed, ostracized, shamed, silenced, not given equal protection under the law, etc. I believe this to be upholding the standards of my profession, even if some people in the profession don't agree.

  8. Jess: Yep. Exactly what I was saying.

    Steve: I knew NCATE dropped social justice, but I wasn't aware of the logic behind. Sigh...

  9. Alex, as long as we teach at a public institution in a conservative state (that, by the way, is looking for ways to eliminate tenure and our college) and rely on puic funding, we have to be concerned about how students and superiors react to what we teach and how we teach it, we have to be expected to justify and defend ourselves. :/ this is one reason I sometimes disagree with Jess and others about what teachers in some places in the k-12 system can be reasonably expected to do and maintain a career, at least early on.
    I cannot see this department doing anything more than pointing out what students said and asking to be aware.

  10. To clarify, I don't think teachers need to be out to their students. I think it's fantastic and heroic if they are, but it's not always a good idea. That's a choice I make. No one should be out if it isn't safe. What Steve is referring to is my embracing of a form of critical pedagogy.

  11. I'm also curious what you think they'd mean, or what you mean, by "be aware"?

  12. Aye, I apologize if I suggested otherwise.

    While critical pedagogy can be powerful and relatively safe to do at the university level, implementing it in k-12 public schools can be far more difficult if the environment is tricky to navigate. For example, when a friend of mind was approached by students to sponsor a GSA, and it was evident that she was 'one of those liberals', what with her obvious tattoos and her clothes and her lessons, her contract was not renewed after her second year, despite the best evals in the department.
    If you have tenure, it is easier, but of course, Florida has gotten rid of tenure for public school teachers, haven't they? :/

    Just want to say, I enjoy when you talk about these issues. It makes me think how I might change my own approach to the course!

  13. Oh, sorry. By 'be aware', I meant the usual standard 'suggestions' that our supervisors tend to put in the feedback to simply cover themselves. You know, 'Be aware of how you are teaching. These are some of the negative things your students have said. But overall, you got great feedback. Great job, yadda yadda yadda'
    I cannot, honestly, see these folks having ANY issue with one of the best grad students and teachers in the department! :)

  14. Thanks for the kind words, Steve!

    I hope you're right, but I've had some talkings-to before that weren't so delightful. I don't think I'm going to get kicked out or anything. I'd quit first. We'll see, maybe nothing at all will come of it. :)