Engaging with the Different and the Queer

This week, we are building upon our other critical pedagogy readings and challenging ourselves, as teachers of English, to continue to develop our students’ critical thinking skills, especially as they relate to approaching culturally ingrained “norms” in texts. Those “norms” are the culturally dominant and accepted views of class, race, gender, sexuality, and more.

I particularly enjoyed Richard Zeikowitz’s “Befriending the Medieval Queer: A Pedagogy for Literature Classes” and Amy Winans’ “Cultivating Critical Emotional Literacy: Cognitive and Contemplative Approaches to Engaging Difference.” Both authors suggest that teachers of English and Literature must be more cognizant of how we help our students approach differences (and by “differences” I refer to anything not considered “normal”) in literature.

Zeikowitz defines “queerness” in literature as anything that falls outside culturally accepted ideas of heteronormativity. Specifically, he examines Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and Sir Garwain and the Green Knight to determine how characters (or even authors) in these texts defy what was culturally accepted at the time they were written as “normal.” He begins by saying outright that “the university is, to borrow [Henry A.] Giroux’s formulation, ‘unarguably normative’” (68) and biased toward the dominant culture (which is often white, middle-class, heterosexual, etc.).

Zeikowitz believes that effective teachers of literature do more than “simply hand down to students literary texts as fixed cultural artifacts whose ‘true’ meanings remain unchanged across time; rather, they help students view culture as ‘a mobile field of ideological and material relations that are unfinished, multilayered, and always open to interrogation.” This critical pedagogy “encourages students to turn a critical eye to the various cultural codes that inform their own narratives and, I would add, their identities,” he said. This pedagogy focuses on recognizing how characters in the text don’t conform to the culturally accepted “normal” of the time (not our culturally accepted “normal” of today). “Teachers often, wittingly or not, reinforce dominant heteronormative readings of texts because they are not invested in reading Otherwise” (76), he adds.

In the examples he gave, Zeikowitz points out how what we might see as homoerotic now according to our culture (for example, the male bonding rituals that occur in Beowulf) were considered completely normal when the texts were written. In Beowulf, Grendel is the outsider looking in; he is not included in this intense male bonding that is seen as normal and desirable (“…while fighting is inherent to Hrothgar’s [and Beowulf’s] men under the right conditions, butchering defenseless men is not. Grendel is the loathsome queer who is kept outside the boundaries of warrior culture because he is unable to interact with men according to acceptable [norms]” [72]). Zeikowitz says that “for students to engage in a process of befriending medieval queers, they have to cross two borders – one that separates them historically from a particular culture/text, and another one that distinguishes hegemonic groups from Otherness in their own society.”

Like Zeikowitz, Amy Winans also argues for a critical pedagogy that “[helps] students to develop a more conscious and embodied awareness of how they see and interpret the world” (151). Winans asserts that “emotions play an important role in all teaching and learning settings” and what “what we learn is bound up with the embodied experience of how we learn” (151). To that end, she argues that “cultivating emotional literacy means nurturing and engaged, ongoing critical inquiry regarding emotions, an inquiry that allows us to attend effectively to difference and identity.” (151)

One of these authors mentioned (and of course I can’t find the quote right now!) how they liked the idea of helping their students simply become more cognizant and accepting of differences and to challenge what might be considered “normal.” I also support the goal of implementing a critical pedagogy in the classroom in order to help our students become more aware of issues of race, culture, gender, sexuality, and more,  both inside and outside the classroom.

One thought on “Engaging with the Different and the Queer

  1. In some ways we revisited the idea of accepting differences in the short time I sat in on the GTA meeting this past Friday afternoon. We discussed how to deal with students who supported Trump. What we talked about before I had to leave, was the idea that we can allow discussion while focusing on what we’re teaching – clear thesis, close reading, clear reasoning and writing, evidence based conclusions. A major sticking point was the idea that even allowing discussions involving racist, homophobic and misogynist opinions normalizes them. Aside from the legal responsibility to allow opinions with prejudice and (if I’m not mistaken) to refrain from pushing our own, we would miss the opportunity to teach through these issues if we didn’t allow that engagement. It’s difficult and messy, but needs to be attempted. We may not see a mind opening but we will teach how to critically assess ideologies by sneakily guiding that mind through critical thinking processes.


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