Why I Am Not Radical Enough

When his course hit queer theory, Joshua Gunn relied on old-fashioned humanism to help his students understand -- and he considers the many implications of that strategy.

July 25, 2006

As a teacher of rhetorical studies, I've been trained to think about the differences between audiences and how to adapt one's messages to address those differences. Of course, having earned one's credentials in "the art of persuasion" and (presumably) possessing the intellectual tools of audience adaptation doesn't necessarily mean one can do it well, and last fall I really stepped in it. What have I learned? Sometimes it is permissible to retreat from a more straightforward -- if not radical -- introduction to queer theory to a classic, liberal politics of toleration or humanism when teaching undergraduates because we no longer live in an environment that protects academic freedom. Although Kurt Cobain did once sing, "what else should I say/everyone is gay," sometimes students are not ready to interrogate what that means, and they'll make their parents call deans and chairs attempting to get you fired if you try to teach them.

Here's the set-up: For three years I worked as an assistant professor at  Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Having moved there from the University of Minnesota (where I did my graduate work), adapting to Louisiana students took some time, and the culture shock I experienced was intense. Gradually I acclimated to the sight of public, drunken nudity and that charming, Southern hostility toward my so-called Midwestern political correctness. My experiences in Louisiana taught me that although the students claimed a conservative, religious politics, they were quite familiar and accepting of "alternative lifestyles," and I often had to resort to pretty wild examples in the classroom to keep their attention and to get them to engage queer theory beyond the level of "whatever!" and "so what?"

Friends and colleagues were often surprised when I told them that my students took to "controversial" theoretical perspectives, such as the critical work of Judith Butler on gender and sexual identity, quite well. One semester -- as I was teaching the Kinsey scale to supplement Laura Mulvey's theory of cinematic pleasure - -I just asked my students: "Y'all don't seem too bothered by this material; why is that?" One of my repeat-students said in a sardonic tone, "Dude: Mardi Gras?" My Louisiana students had "seen it all," and probably from a very young age many of them learned how to hang up their hetero-hang-ups, at least for a week or two before Ash Wednesday and Lent so that they could properly enjoy all the parades and street parties.

Obviously, I had a lot of adapting to do when I took my second job, at the University of Texas at Austin. I still do not have a good "feel" for the students at my new university, but I think in general it is fair to describe the students here as more right-leaning politically and more conservative in their thinking about lifestyle. Regardless, to my delight and horror, as I began teaching the queer theory unit of my Rhetoric and Popular Music course I heard the same wild examples exiting my mouth in seemingly automatic fits of charismatic teach-o-mania. I still assigned readings like Cynthia Fuchs' fabulous essay on queercore, "If I Had a Dick: Queers, Punks, and Alternative Acts." But I quickly learned that when one combines reading material that attempts to unravel binaries and my own ambiguously (and strategically) queer teaching persona in a "Bush Country" classroom, one should expect a little hostility. I expected it, really I did. I simply did not expect to catch hell from a parent.

The day after I lectured on heterosexist norms in heavy metal music videos, I was summoned to the principal's office to get a talking to. Apparently a student's mother was among the sea of faces in my large lecture class that day, and was expressly appalled at my queer "agenda." In an email that my chair shared with me, the mom said that it was obvious I was attracted to both men and women and therefore "no one is safe." For the class I developed a field trip ethnography project at a well-known, Austin 18-and-up punk club. This parent said that I forced my students to go to a "gay bar." Ultimately, I was characterized as unprofessional, as teaching filth, and as trying to recruit students for the "gay cause."

Needless to say, my meeting with the chair was painful and I was fearful, although one couldn't blame him. He did the best "you have academic freedom, but" talk I've yet to hear. Even so, I was told the story about "that professor" who was fired from such and such a department for "creating a hostile classroom environment." I was told to de-personalize my teaching and reminded that I did not have tenure yet and that teaching evaluations were very important to the tenure review process.

Since that meeting I have changed my teaching a bit and am more mindful of the power of students and parents have to take out an assistant professor whom they do not like, especially under the aegis of sexual harassment. Us juniors should also remember that many of our deans are (necessarily) insulated from the classroom and by force of situation are often more sympathetic to students and parents in our age of the "cultural wars" and "zero tolerance."

Immediately after the incident, I was worried about protecting my teaching assistants. One of them was slated to deliver a lecture on the interchangeability of sex organs in the music and art of Peaches, a controversial and polyamorous figure who had an underground dance hit with "Shake Yer Dix (Shake Yer Tits)." Although I knew I was a bit oversensitive after the talking-to with my chair, I decided to send a preemptive e-mail message to the 130-student class in an effort to spare us more grief. Here is the text of that message, edited to protect the innocent and please the legal eagles:

Greetings Class,

Your resident instructor here with some background commentary on your readings for Tuesday, as they directly challenge cultural assumptions of “normalcy.” We will be discussing the field of “queer theory,” which grew out of the heated discussions of feminism in the 1980s and 1990s regarding sexual desire and the relationship between social identity and biology. We’ll spend some time discussing the term “queer” itself -- which is confusing--but for the moment let us simplify a lot of the concern of queer theory to a series of questions: to what extent does biology and genetics form a materialist basis for gender and sexual identity? In other words, are we born gay, straight, or somewhere between those two poles? Where do the chemicals and biological predispositions end and where does culture begin? Why is sexual identity such an obsession in the United States (e.g., what’s the big deal about the proposed Texas amendment to ban gay marriage)? Finally, why are we so interested as a culture in these questions?

The latter question may resonate somewhat. To put it like my own granny does, “who gives a d*&! what you do in the privacy of your own home?” Or to reduce it to a question I received some years ago from a student, “who cares?”The answer to the last question is this: if you identify as traditionally masculine or feminine or “straight,” for whatever the reason, you have a much easier time in our society that if you do not. Sometimes having someone broadcast their sexual identity in your face gets tiresome. My point, though, is this: If you were deemed socially “abnormal,” it hurts, and it can be empowering to say, unabashedly and unashamedly, “this is me!”

Indeed, not being “normal” in any respect first leads to torment (think back to your own experiences in middle school, hey?), and then ridicule and rejection. The big problem is that being different can get you killed (e.g., Matthew Sheppard, Tina Brandon, hundreds of thousands of folks without white skin, Jews ... Jesus, alas, we are not wont for examples in history). So the answer to the question “who cares?” is “those folks who are more likely to suffer," as well as the people who love them. Although you might think you are pained reading this stuff, feminism and queer theory are really about ending human suffering. That’s really what it comes down to folks: people suffer and die because they are “different.” If there is a tacit ethical teaching to this literature, it is the lesson of tolerance.

Feminism and queer theory concern thinking about ways to keep people from getting hurt because they are not what society deems “normal” in regard to their gender and their sexual desire. Millions of folks live realities that are fraught with pain and hardship, and only because they harbor a preference for someone of the same gender or sex (or of a different race, and so on). As we saw with heavy metal, popular music practices are a central way in which these issues are expressed and negotiated in our culture. For reasons we discussed with Attali and Adorno (the irreducible humanness of music, that “noise” factor), as a powerful form of human expression, music can be used to create a kind of force field for expressing, deconstructing, constructing, and establishing a gamut of identities. Music, in other words, can unsettle our gendered and sexual identities (e.g., glam rock; queercore) as much as it cam reestablish or reinforce them (e.g., Enya; Nas).

As we tread into this territory I need to underscore a few things about the ultimate purpose for assigning this material. Although it may appear at times your goodly instructor is endorsing or promoting this or that approach, requiring readings and lecturing on queer theory is not to be taken as an ENDORSEMENT or propaganda for joining the some sort of Gay Borg or ominous Lesbo Deathstar (nor does lecturing on materialism entreat you become a socialist). Exposing you to this material, or any discussion of non-straight sexual identity, is not designed to “convert” you; it’s not, in other words, sermonic. Rather, it’s functionally informative AND designed to challenge settled, “normal” beliefs about what is and isn’t appropriate in our society (indeed, what is or is not appropriate to discuss in the classroom!). You can think about it this way: the classroom should be the opposite of the church, synagogue, or mosque. In class, we challenge our settled ideas about normalcy and look beyond deity or the physical sciences for alternative explanations for social practices. In the house of God, we reaffirm and reestablish our settled ideas and beliefs. And in some ways, you cannot have the latter without the former.

Finally, I recognize this message is crafted for a “straight” audience, so let me give a shout-out to those among you who are forced to switch codes in the classroom (which, as you well know, is also almost always oriented to the “hetero” world): if you do not identify as “normal,” welcome. I hope the readings and lectures on identity -- sex, gender, and sexual orientation -- are affirming and that classroom is a safe space in which you see your reality represented.

Now, mindful of the audience of Inside Higher Ed, I needn't detail at any length why this e-mail makes me cringe. It represents my frame of mind, worried about student hostility toward my assistants and (however unrealistically) worried about losing my job. I shared my e-mail message with colleagues, and my friend Ken Rufo  detailed the teaching pickle it created better than I can:

Here’s a philosophy-of-pedagogy question, one that I confront quite a bit, and am always unsure about negotiating. The letter . . . indicates the problems with difference from a fairly conventional, liberal perspective. But this conceptualization of difference isn’t exactly simpatico with a lot of [the theory you teach and publish].... you’ve invested a lot of time and effort making a case for [the value of psychoanalytic theory] to rhetorical studies, and so I wonder how you negotiate the complexities of a certain worldview with the necessities of teaching, or if you feel any tension there at all?

What my e-mail does, in other words, is reestablish the same liberal-humanist politics of toleration that a lot of queer theory tries to challenge and dismantle: What if there is no common humanness to us?  What if this binary logic of same and different is a causal factor in homophobic violence? Aren't these sorts of questions the kind posed by the thinkers we are reading for class?

After I posted the email to the class and talked to my friends about it, I decided I would simply address the issue directly in class, turning the e-mail into a teaching exemplar. Before I could lecture about the e-mail, however, my teaching assistant lectured on Peaches, and she received a standing ovation when she finished. That reaction told me that perhaps the e-mail had a positive effect. On the following teaching day, I asked the students to bring a copy of my e-mail message to class, and we went through it together and we discussed why it was a problematic message, locating binaries and troublesome assumptions. In my mind, this was the best way to "recover" an important teaching of queer theory while, at the same time, eating my cake too.

I cannot say that going over the e-mail helped most of my students understand the problem with liberal humanist approaches to identity. Some of them understood what I meant when I confessed that I "retreated to humanism," while others clung tightly to their notions of a universal equality rooted in phallogocentrism. Nevertheless, I'm coming to the position that I should send variations of this e-mail to my class every time I teach queer theory. I feel slightly dirty doing it because the move represents a bait-and-switch pedagogy, but it may be the best way for me to adapt to my Texan classroom while retaining my tendency to personalize theory. I guess, then, I'm not radical enough. But I want to keep my job.

I'll admit as well that deep down there is a part of me that cannot let go of the notion that liberal humanism keeps some people alive -- a faith I'd like to think has some affinity to Spivak's notion of momentary solidarity in "strategic essentialism" for social and political action. I say I'd like to think it has an affinity, but perhaps I'm more sheepish and cowardly than I'd like to admit? Nevertheless, institutional pressures, the increasing erosion of academic freedom and the decay of tenure protections, the general, cultural hostility toward the professoriate, parental and alumni demands and the PTA-ification of the college and university, and the consumerist drive-thru window attitude about teaching that some students harbor, these trends collectively suggest that the teach-it-and-then-deconstruct-it approach may be the baby bear's porridge pedagogy of our time.

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Joshua Gunn is assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


Joshua Gunn

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