Thursday, September 04, 2008

Queer Pedagogy: Critical Multiculturalism Must Avoid "The Flattening Effect"

Introductory Bio

Jonathan Alexander, PhD, is an author, performance poet, teacher, scholar, queer theorist, sex futurist, and activist. He also studies web design, graphic novels, what used to be called cyberculture, and piano performance.

As a scholar, Jonathan is primarily interested in how people compose with digital technologies, as well as what these compositions mean for their many and varied senses of self, individually and collectively. He also works at the intersection of writing studies and sexuality studies, exploring what it means to "compose queerly," as well as what theories of sexuality, particularly queer theory, have to teach us about literacy in pluralistic democracies.

Jonathan has authored, co-authored, or edited six books: Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy: Theory and Practice for Composition Studies; Digital Youth: Emerging Literacies on the World Wide Web; Argument Now, a Brief Rhetoric (with Margaret Barber); Role Play: Distance Learning and the Teaching of Writing (edited with Marcia Dickson); Bisexuality and Transgenderism: InterSEXions of the Others (edited with Karen Yescavage); and Finding Out: An Introduction to LGBT Studies (with Deborah T. Meem and Michelle Gibson). He also edits the Journal of Bisexuality.

Jonathan has served on the CCCC Multiple Uses of Writing Task Force and helped to write the CCCC Position Statement on the Multiple Uses of Writing which was adopted by the CCCC Executive Committee on November 19, 2007.

Professionally, Jonathan is Associate Professor of English and Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine.

His webpage is:

Blog Entry
(Editor's Note: Today's blog entry has been edited from a much longer text, as indicated by the ellipses within the posted text. The longer entry is available at:

As someone long interested in issues of diversity in the teaching of writing in particular and in higher education in general, let me begin by saying that we're already going in the wrong direction if we strive to think about how to “include” diversity in the classroom, in our institutions, and in our profession. Don't get me wrong: we have a LONG way to go before our faculties, our institutions, and our profession are truly representative of the public, much less of our student bodies. And composition as a profession seems, in many ways, to be doing its part. Much composition practice since the “social turn” of the 1980s has attempted to honor the diversity of our students’ experiences and recognize the many identities that students bring into the classroom. Certainly, such attempts should be lauded, particularly as they have created pedagogical spaces in which individuals from a variety of backgrounds can speak their truths, tell their stories, and enrich conversations about identity, culture, and citizenship.

As a queer person, however, I have been simultaneously appreciative and skeptical of such moves. Let me explain. In my writing courses, I have like my colleagues included readings that challenge normative constructions of identity and culture. Frequently, readings about LGBT people or issues interweave with narratives, essays, and manifestoes about race, ethnicity, gender, class, and citizenship. When teaching recently Judd Winick’s Pedro and Me, a graphic novel about the author’s friendship with the openly gay Pedro Zamora, who dies of AIDS in his 20s, I became concerned about what my students were taking away from their encounter with the text and our discussions about it. While students appreciated the friendship that is depicted in the book between a straight and a gay man, they also spoke of that friendship—the subject of Winick’s book—in terms that erased the critical differences between the two: Judd and Pedro loved one another as friends because they realized they were more like one another than not; Pedro’s homosexuality didn’t matter to Judd and wasn’t relevant to their friendship; our commonalities are more important than our differences.

These were the ways in which students talked and wrote about the book. I began to realize that much of my experience in teaching about difference, particularly texts that grapple with queer differences had resulted in much the same lesson: difference doesn’t matter. Curiously, the subtitle of Winick’s book, “Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned,” seem to evoke the “moral of the story,” gesturing towards the seeming necessity of coming up with an “answer,” a “lesson” about the encounter with difference. For my students, what’s important about queers—and what we can learn to tolerate—is that they are, after all, deep down, just like the rest of us. We’re all just basically human. As I thought more about this “flattening effect”—the erasure of queer difference as an important dimension of experience—I began to realize that I was seeing such not just in my students’ response to difference; the invitation to flatten differences seemed built into the structural apparatus that many of us use in approaching and teaching texts that grapple with difference. . . .

In a now classic essay, “Towards a Postmodern Pedagogy,” Henry A. Giroux articulates what I think of as the “double-bind” in the development of a critical pedagogy that relies on narratives to promote multicultural awareness and understanding. . . . Giroux calls us simultaneously to recognize critical differences in multiple narratives while working toward a language of reconstruction, “offering students a language to reconstruct their moral and political energies” in the pursuit of justice (691, 695-6). . . .

When I turn to queer colleagues and their work on including lesbian and gay voices in the classroom, I note a similar tension. Malinowitz, for instance, toward the end of Textual Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Students and the Making of Discourse Communities, argues for a pedagogy that “entail[s] thinking about the ways margins produce not only abject outsiderhood but also profoundly unique ways of self-defining, knowing, and acting; and about how, though people usually want to leave the margins, they do want to be able to bring with them the sharp vision that comes from living with friction and contradiction” (252). . . . Gay and lesbian students often do have “outsider” knowledge, “sharp vision,” and the “experience of crafting and performing multiple identities”—knowledges that are useful for all students to cultivate as they narrate the stories of their lives and critically examine the intertwining of the personal and the political. At the same time, I worry over how such knowledges, insights, and visions move into the classroom and then become co-opted, or lost, or flattened as they are “reconstructed” into the dominant narratives of collective experience. . . .

As such, a significant part of my concern with relying on narration of difference has to do with what I call the “flattening effect,” or the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) erasures of difference that occur when narrating stories of the “other.” Such a “flattening effect” arises out of the unexamined assumption that “understanding” and then “tolerance” or even “respect” are predicated on “identity.” By “identity,” I mean not just the acknowledgement that other identities exist, but that those identities are, in essence, somehow identical to your own. Whether you’re black, gay, Latino, disabled, or whatnot, you are still fundamentally human, concerned with similar core issues and very likely sharing core values, if not specific beliefs. Attaining “respect,” then, means that many of us have our differences essentially elided by an overriding narrative of shared humanity. Naturally, I am delighted to be acknowledged as human, particularly since many queers throughout history have been denied their humanity and treated as little better than animals, often deserving of slaughter. Those sent to Nazi concentration camps because of suspected or demonstrated homosexuality and those treated to electric shock and other forms of “therapy” at the hands of various members of the American psychiatric establishment are just some of those whose basic humanity has been denied.

But, if I may push a personal point in the service of my argument, my difference in my humanity is what is important, particularly in addressing some systemic violences against queers. If I am in danger of being assaulted, it is because I am not straight. I am a queer man. This is not to say that all queer people share a common sense of identity and common understanding of the world. Far from it. But it is to say that my queerness positions me as fundamentally different from the majority of straights. As a queer man, I have experienced discrimination within my family, on the job, and in the public sphere because of the intimacies that I desire to share with other men. I do not ask you, if you are straight, to understand how that discrimination has hurt me, angered me, and shaped my view of the world. Part of me hopes you cannot understand it, even as I insist that it must be acknowledged as a significant dimension of my experience of the world.

What narratives, and what writing assignments, work to uncover these dimensions—the dimensions of profound difference that complicate and problematize rather flattened narratives of a common, shared humanity—much less a common, shared sense of citizenship?

To answer such questions, I’ve been looking to the work of philosophers and theorists who have considered issues of diversity, alterity, and writing. For instance, in Outside the Subject, Levinas asks, “Isn’t there a type of experience in which something is given to me, indeed thrusts itself upon me, that can never be translated as a meaning for me?” For Levinas, what is so given is the uniqueness of the other, a uniqueness that our “knowledge” of the other, our attempts to know, to categorize, to order the other, violates. Levinas argues that a “person cannot be represented or given to knowledge in his or her uniqueness, because there is no science but of generality” (114). . . . In our ordering of the real, most often expressed in our determining of the normative, we tell stories about one another that reduce our experiences to bland commonalities. Judith Butler, in Giving an Account of Oneself, offers cogent analyses of how we “author” ourselves, of how we tell the stories of our lives and, in the process, open up spaces for understanding how our life narratives are imbricated in larger social forces and norms (17). . . .

What kinds of writing assignments might emerge out of this redirection from “understanding” difference to acknowledging radical alterity? How might we revise and rewrite some standard assignments that attempt to produce in students a multicultural sensibility? A simple way to begin might be by having students not write about what they believe they “know” about one another, but what they suspect they do not know. In Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, Robert McRuer asks important questions that query composition’s call to have students produce “products” about what they know, what they can argue about, and how they might persuade others (147). . . .

For McRuer, both queerness and disability offer challenges to the normative—challenges that are frequently glossed over as students seek to reiterate narratives of cultural tolerance and human commonality. Acknowledging the messiness, the unruly disorder of bodies and desires that don’t quite fit into the norm, that refuse simply to be tolerated and accepted as the “same,” means that we may have to question some of our fundamental compositional practices—such as training students to write the “composed” essay that neatly presents points, weighs various positions, and argues through to a rational conclusion. Instead, we may have to acknowledge the points where our knowledge of one another fails to be coherent—where we don’t know. We can take a clue from Butler and point students in the direction of analyzing how the drive to “narrative coherence” forecloses on some possibilities for acknowledging radical differences—differences that are crucial to acknowledge when facing the other, challenging totalizing visions of the world, and learning to live a bit more generously with one another.

One way to approach an analysis of the violence of “narrative coherence” may lie in having students respond to difficult texts that directly challenge readers’ ability to make radical alterity coherent and tame. I’m thinking of Gloria Anzaldua’s La Frontera/Borderlands, written partly in Spanish and describing through a variety of genres the author’s experiences of being between cultures, between different totalizing realities. The use of a different language in Anzaldua’s text is designed to be both inclusive and alienating, to honor Anzaldua’s multiple heritages and challenge a reader’s expectations that a text will easily make sense, or that a text is only worth knowing if it’s accessible. Such a rhetorical move gestures also to Anzaldua’s unknowability as a mestiza in a white dominant culture. As Anzaldua herself says, reflecting on her simultaneous visibility and invisibility, presence and absence, “I am visible—see this Indian face—yet I am invisible. I both blind them with my beak nose and am their blind spot. But I exist, we exist. They’d like to think I have melted in the pot. But I haven’t, we haven’t. The dominant white culture is killing us slowly with its ignorance” (108). The dominant culture assumes it knows her as part of its “melting pot” of cultures, but Anzaldua knows that such “knowledge” is itself an unfortunate “blind spot,” particularly as it leads to lethal ignorances. . . .

Indeed, as we work with students on developing an appreciation for and understanding of how writing moves in the world, we should not eschew texts that are difficult and challenging in favor of texts that replicate “safe” norms or tolerable differences. Doing so robs students of developing a strong critical sense of the power of writing to challenge, to unsettle, to change us. . . . To create opportunities to understand one another . . . may require that we risk substantive discomfort. And I would argue that such discomfort itself may be the proper subject of student compositions as they grapple with the queer other. Certainly, some will argue that it is perhaps impossible to construct writing assignments based on what is impossible to know—on incommensurability, or unknowability. But I maintain that that unknowability is the proper subject of writing itself.

Others will argue, of course, that all people are fundamentally different from one another. Yes, we are. But before the story of shared fundamental difference becomes yet another common narrative of our shared humanity, we should recognize the interlocking systems of oppression that serve as the ontological bases for discrimination. Indeed, any acknowledgement of radical alterity should lead to a movement from trying to understand an individual to attempting to understand structures that enable, even induce discrimination. Such an approach could comprise our radical, critical pedagogy. Naturally, I am in many ways just another privileged white person (and a white male at that) who is offering alternatives to our current brands of multiculturalism. It will be up to all of us “from the margins” to consider more powerful and productive ways in which we can acknowledge and write about the “other” in each of us.

1 comment:

J. Pierre said...

Bravo! Writing is so much more than eliciting the same banalities as seen on TV or in the popular press regarding diversity. Writing Instruction within an environment that wishes to help students expand their understanding of other lives and life issues is too easily satisfied with "Oh, we are all the same." Our similarities do come from our common humanity. What makes us individuals and different and interesting is a more intriguing narrative.

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