Teaching Trans Studies/Creating Trans-Affirmative Classrooms

This past semester, I’ve had the opportunity to teach a course entitled “Gender in Transition” at IUB (check the course blog here). It was a 400-level Gender Studies course, with lots of Gender Studies majors and minors enrolled. For our primary texts, we used The Transgender Studies Reader, Meyerowitz’s How Sex Changed, Spade’s Normal Life, Stanley and Smith’s Captive Genders, and Salamon’s Assuming A Body – five very different sorts of texts that worked quite well together in meeting some of the goals I had set for the course. These ran, roughly, as follows:

  • Creating a decentered classroom that enabled folks to speak about their own experiences with gender non-conformance, transition, understanding cis privilege, and developing trans* ally skills.
  • Familiarizing students with different epistemologies of gendered embodiment, beginning with essentialist/constructivist debates, but moving quite quickly beyond them in order to examine understandings of gendered being as situational, processual, and relational.
  • Historicizing trans diagnosis in order to demonstrate its capacity to change, as well as its roots in medical understandings of deviance and disorder.
  • Provincializing Western understandings of gender non-conformance and trans* identity through examining the export of these concepts to other geopolitical sites, with a special attentiveness to the ways in which they clash with the understandings of gendered embodiment already extant in these spaces.
  • Moving forward with the idea that gender is fundamentally relational, I sought to focus on the structures that generate certain kinds of relationality, examining both structures of oppression as well as structures of support.

This is a pretty roughly schematized set of course aims, but suffice to say it was quite a tall order for one semester; we spent roughly two to three weeks focusing on each of these aims, beginning with the project of historicizing trans* diagnoses, moving on to familiarizing ourselves with contemporary theories of gendered embodiment, then onto examining structures of relation and developing a decolonial approach to trans* studies.  We also moved back and forth quite a bit between personal narrative and the letter of the texts we were reading.

Some of the best conversations we had were in relation to grappling with the prison industrial complex.  These discussions included meditations from students on what it was like to visit prisons, or grow up in towns where one of the main employers was part of the penal complex.  Thinking about the weighty force of institutions like these in adjudicating the legibility and authenticity of gendered selfhood was difficult, because of the way it prompted a sense of helplessness, anger, and depression amongst us. A focus on trans* prisoner support could have gone a long way towards balancing this general affective sense; next time I teach a course like this I will be sure to include literature on carceral support strategies.

Which brings me to a more general point: to teach trans* issues is to teach about trauma. It is quite difficult to remain cheerful, positive, optimistic, relentlessly hopeful when covering topics like trans* pathological histories, institutional mistreatment, domestic and sexual abuse.  Which raises questions that have long been asked by folks working within women’s, gender, and ethnic studies: how to deal with negative affect in the classroom?  Especially if we don’t seek to quelch it, but rather put it to work in scholarly and activist realms? How do we do this while also providing emotional support for students grappling with these sorts of feelings in response to coursework? How do we dignify and mediate trauma in the classroom?

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