This post was inspired by, and is a supplement to, Emma Kennedy’s excellent article New to University Teaching? Look After Yourself. Please read it first, if you haven’t already: it’s a crucial resource for new tutors. This is my adjunct to it, which draws on some of the thoughts I presented at the Academia & Affect symposium a couple of months ago.
New to university teaching, and queer too?
Be visible if you can…
Students benefit enormously from visible diversity in academia. (This point is obviously far from restricted to gender and sexuality, even though that’s what I’m going to talk about here.) For queer students, it sends the message that teaching is collaborative, not adversarial: it’s not one separate, privileged group imparting knowledge to another group further down the hierarchy, but the sharing of ideas between two diverse groups of equals. It also provides role models, something crucial to aspiration and motivation; and it lets them know they have an ally, both in their classroom and within their department. Seminars in the arts and humanities in particular depend to a great extent on students feeling sufficiently comfortable to voice their ideas, and a visible point of identification and allyship is invaluable in helping that happen. For non-queer students, seeing a person from a marginalised group in a position of academic leadership is socially powerful and reminds them to be aware of their language and behaviour.
…but don’t beat yourself up if you can’t.
The emphasis on the political and social benefits of being “out” – not to mention the somewhat sinister capitalist imperative to do so because it will make you “more productive” – can be overwhelming. But there are many reasons why you might not be able to be out in teaching, and that’s okay. If it’s not the right thing for you as a tutor – in terms of personal safety, wellbeing, energy, or any other factor – then it’s not the right thing for your teaching situation. A visibly queer tutor who is exhausted by hypervigilance, worry or emotional vulnerability is not the best tutor your students could have. It’s okay to choose to protect yourself. If you feel guilty, try to reframe it as a choice that benefits your students’ learning environment (or even better, try to remember that you are an important person too).
Remember, too, that this isn’t a binary situation. You can foster a safe environment for your queer students without outing yourself. You can include a round of preferred pronouns in your ice-breakers and introductions; if you have any control over reading material, you can make sure it’s inclusive; you can encourage your students to use inclusive language. Visibility may be powerful, but it’s not the be-all and end-all.
Teach your students to be better…
Students are usually young people and are always in the process of learning. Like all of us, they get things wrong. They might use oppressive language without realising why it’s a problem, or they might base their arguments on cisnormative or heteronormative assumptions. (In the past, my students have been particularly fond of assuming that the addressee of a love sonnet by a male poet must be female, and of referring to the vulva as “the female genitals” and pregnancy as “an exclusively female experience”). As a tutor, your position enables you to point out the problems with statements like this where other students may not feel able to correct their peers.
…but steel yourself for their mistakes…
Remember, though, that you will be on the receiving end of that language and assumptions, too. After a day of students obliviously talking about “the female body” that made me feel physically sick with dysphoria, I resolved to prepare for future seminars as if I were constructing trigger warnings for someone similar to myself. Ask yourself, “Which things might come up during this discussion that might cause me to panic, and how will I handle the situation if they do?” And if you can avoid these topics altogether, don’t be afraid to make that choice. Repeat it to yourself again: I am important, and an exhausted tutor is not the best tutor these students can have.
Steel yourself, too, by finding allies within your department. If you experience outright discrimination from a student, is there someone who won’t dismiss your concerns?
…and recognise that they can teach you too.
It can be tempting to feel that your position as a member of one marginalised group makes you the authority on classroom inclusivity – but keep your ears and your mind open to your students too, and try to create an environment in which they feel able to speak up. “I’m often wrong,” I always tell my students in their first seminar. They laugh, and I feel a pressure lifting too. You’re never going to be able to answer all their questions: if you ensure that they’re expecting that, you can move away from fearing it and towards seeing it as an opportunity to learn and as a deconstruction of the hierarchy between you.