Q is for Queer

3 07 2011

As the sign suggests, with the passing of the same-sex marriage bill, it’s been a good time to be gay in New York. It’s also interesting – from a linguistic point of view – to track the effect that these social changes are having on language. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, for example, has only just amended its definition of marriage in order to make it more inclusive.

I’m also intrigued by the (still relatively slow)  increase in the use of the collocations his husband and her wife – wordings that, as teachers, we might instinctively ‘correct’. The COCA corpus records 13 instances of the former, and 27 of the latter, but none before 1990 (see chart). Here are a couple of examples:

Occurrences of 'his husband' in the COCA Corpus (click to enlarge)

….whole day was unbelievable, ” said Mr. Adams, who now lives with his husband, Fred Davie, 51, in Brooklyn. (NY Times, 2007)

Jules has aspirations toward starting a landscaping business while her wife, Nic (Annette Bening), works long hours and drinks too much wine (Esquire Magazine, 2010)

Interestingly, the much bigger (155 billion word)  GoogleBooks corpus documents examples of his husband from as early as it has records. E.g.

Sometimes he travelled the country with goods in the character of a married woman, having changed his maiden name for that of his husband who carried the pack. (1813)

The Google Books corpus, in conjunction with the handy ngram viewer, also allows us to plot the relative frequency of the terms gay and queer (see chart below) and to track the way that both terms have been reclaimed – resuscitated, even (although it would require a more fine-grained analysis to discriminate between the neutral and pejorative uses of both these words).

Gay? Queer? What’s the difference? While gay describes both a sexual preference and a life style – and therefore collocates mostly with men, marriage, rights, people, community (according to the COCA Corpus) –  queer connotes an attitude or stance. Its most frequent collocates are eye, nation, theory and studies.  Here’s how the Urban Dictionary defines queer: “Originaly [sic] meant strange or odd. Now stands for anyone who is sexualy [sic] different but may or may not mean gay. Queer covers any type of gender or sexual attitudes that are outside of the mainstream of one man one woman monogamy”.  In other words, queer is a reaction against what is called – in the literature – heteronormativity.

Heteronormativity is defined as “the organisation of all patterns of thought, awareness and belief around the presumption of universal heterosexual desire, behaviour and identity” (Baker, 2008, p. 209). A good example of this came my way the other day, when I picked up a second-hand translation of André Gide’s somewhat bashful defence of homosexuality, Corydon, first published in 1911. As an aside, Gide cites, with some derision, the French translator of Walt Whitman’s poems, who re-works “the friend whose embracing awakes me…” as “l’amie [feminine] qui...” Gide adds that the translator’s “desire to draw his hero [i.e. Whitman] onto the side of heterosexuality is so great, that when he translates ‘the heaving sea’ he finds it necessary to add ‘like a woman’s bosom'” (p. 195). This is heteronormativity taken to ludicrous extremes.

(I’m wondering – very quietly – if the trend to describe one’s same-sex married partner as my husband/wife is not also a teeny-weeny bit heteronormative. But hey).

Unsurprisingly, given their global remit, heteronormativity is rife in ELT coursebooks too.  But I’ve discussed this before so I’m not going to wade in again. Besides, I suspect it’s a lost cause. Instead, I want to take a quick look at another queer collocation: queer pedagogy.

Relative frequency of gay & queer over two centuries (click to enlarge)

Queer pedagogy is a development from feminist pedagogy, in itself heavily influenced by critical pedagogy. On feminist pedagogy in ESL, Crookes (2009, p. 193) quotes Vandrick (1994) and her call for a pedagogy, in which the classroom ideally functions as a “liberatory environment, in which students also teach, and are subjects not objects; and in which consciousness could be changed, and the old weaknesses (racisim, classism, homophobia, etc.) expelled”. Crookes comments that the practical implications of these goals would require teachers to foreground group process skills, cooperation,  networking and being inclusive.

By extension, a queer pedagogy (according to the entry in Wikipedia) also “explores and interrogates the student/teacher relationship, the role of identities in the classroom, the role of eroticism in the teaching process, the nature of disciplines and curriculum, and the connection between the classroom and the broader community with a goal of being both a set of theoretical tools for pedagogical critique … and/or a set of practical tools for those doing pedagogical work”.

Is it too fanciful to suggest that Dogme ELT, in aligning with these goals, and in the way that it attempts to position itself in contradistinction to the ‘normal’ in language teaching, might also be a little bit queer?


Baker, P. (2008) Sexed Texts: Language, Gender and Sexuality. London: Equinox.

Crookes, G. (2009) Values, Philosophies, and Beliefs in TESOL: Making a Statement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gide, A. (1950) Corydon. New York: Farrar, Straus & Co.

Vandrick, S. (1994) Feminist pedagogy and ESL. College English, 4/2, 69-92.



33 responses

3 07 2011
Karenne Sylvester

oooh, it might just be a-bit-of-a stretch to call dogme queer…(now why do grammatical positions suddenly pop into mind) oooh… and I’ll not be having any eroticism in my classroom, thank you very much… though I do hear a good many a match have been formed there.

otherwise, more seriously, a very timely and informative post, good to see the statistical representation of his husband and her wife on the rise in communication as my personal theory is that which is not discussed is uncomfortable and (therefore not acceptable) and that which is openly discussed is… so good for the English Language…

especially as I suspect this also contributes to the hesitation when it comes to using pronouns, the pause (today) is not so much that user has any prejudice but that they simply doesn’t know what to say… considering too that not all same-sex couples (or even hetero-) want to have the labels of husband or wife attached to their relationship…

I know I’m personally not at all keen on the label wife and had refused to carry my ex-husband’s name. Most interdependent hetero couples however tend to quote the decision of sharing a name as proof of their love …do homo-couples do this often, take each others names? – but how do they decide whose and upon choosing does that not also determine the inter-couple dynamic?

Is it enough to let the gender of the word decide… i.e. Jane’s wife may mean that Jane is married to a female and Jack’s husband may mean he is married to a male simply because the word “wife” refers to a female and the word “husband” refers to a male… but the very words wife and husband have older, deeper meanings and stereotypes regarding roles played i.e. head or master of the household and servant of the man/ household…

but anyway, swinging right back to the point I’d wanted to make and what I wanted to ask… a question I still have is about same-sex parents – their son obvious works in the plural or do you think it needs to be specified when the parents are the same sex? … in the case where you have to say that you needed to talk to one of the parents about a child – do you say “I’ve asked one of his parents to come in” as per usual or do you say “I’ve asked one of her fathers / his mothers to come in” is it necessary to specify? How do you know which parent is performing the mother or father role – do you ask things like who is the primary care-giver or is that simply rude – does the teacher need to know this or just assume that they are both performing both roles …just wondering, is it a juvenile question? but as no one really discusses this stuff openly so it leaves these hanging questions…

3 07 2011

In my opinion sex, politics and religion are three topics that should, where possible, be kept out of the language classroom. There are plenty of other things to talk about.

3 07 2011
Karenne Sylvester

I dunno, Lorna… I hope you don’t mind me replying (rather long-windedly) before Scott does -your comment popped up in my inbox.

I agree that there are many things to talk about in a classroom, however the thing is that…let me so how to put this delicately, sex is a part of the classroom – as is politics – as is religion.

They walked in the door with your students in their bags, if you like because you see, your students are not empty vessels. They have their own lives, own belief systems, own theories about how life should be – and our only job, our one primary task is to enable an L1 speaker to communicate effectively in an L2 – without making any type of judgement call on what it is that he needs to communicate about. Without imparting our cultural norms on him or making him or her feel uncomfortable about their own norms.

You see, it is… in fact it is your religion or your lack of religion or your decision not to make a decision about religion that forms the reason why you would prefer for it not to be in the classroom.

You see, such a decision is basically based entirely on your cultural perspective based on the way you were brought up and the way that people around you before. Keeping religion, politics, sex out of the classroom is not so much about serving your students as serving yourself and making sure you don’t feel uncomfortable.

I apologize if I sound tough, I really don’t mean to be, am really just trying to explain… and if it helps I don’t mean “you” personally, I mean all the “you’s” who insist on keeping these topics out of the classroom.

See, if you are teaching a deeply religious group of people who live and die for their g*d´, whose psalms fill their every waking thought… then it makes absolutely zero sense not to provide them with the vocabulary they need to discuss this in. If you are teaching a bunch of scientists who are most amused by discussions about Richard Dawkins’ latest books and in their own L1s have endless conversations over wine & who will be meeting up with global folks of the same opine, then you hurt them by not giving them the in-this-case-small-talk words for creationists, dinosaurs, cavemen – but,,, if you are teaching someone who really has no clue and sticks to Socrates, or was it Plato, and only wants to say that the only thing he knows is that he does not know … then to not give your students the lexical set and common expressions for sticking on-the-fence – then you have rendered them mute.

You simply assumed that your students are the same as you and you have decided that they have the same non-taboo-subject-conversations-with-their-social-circles as you do… but most importantly, you left them unable to communicate effectively – and so, you see, it is not doing your job. (again, not personal, just a point)

I actually, some may see this sentence as hypocritical – especially after the above – but I will give you this – I also don’t see a need for these to be a part of textbooks – namely because it is too easy – too often done – for the printed word to convey a cultural tone and opinion, in a way that a good conversation off-book doesn’t. I think today, for most of these topics, they can talked about as humans to humans rather than book-author-editor-publisher to human.

And I think it is essential to do this. To go even further, I will make the rather bold statement and suggest that all “taboo” subjects are fundamentally important to different groups of people and ALL of the taboo can be handled with diplomacy, tact, caring, support and intelligence.

Statistically it is highly improbable that within any group of your students that you are currently teaching or have taught that there doesn’t exist a student who is gay/ has a gay family member and who would very much like to know the vocabulary for discussing this with same ease as discussing one’s grandma (not to mention the highly important step-mother, mistress, single mother). They will probably not ask you for this because…for so long there has been one rather long “puritanical” approach towards classroom discussions and fear keeps reason out.

It is also virtually impossible that no matter where in the world you teach, your students haven’t been in /aren’t related to someone who has made a good or bad political decision – people who suffered physically at the hands of … or whose income/family/ job position has been radically affected by something politically “taboo”…

We humans… ay, admit it or not – looking around your very own family rather than the MaryPoppins world of textbooks… we, well we simply aren’t the products of what movie star we like best, what novel we just read, and no siree, we surely aren’t the sum of the parts of the news today… it is this – these topics – politics, religion, sex, (along with family, friends, lovers, education, job)… it is these things that shape us, they change us – they are what defines us, be we teacher or student.

(and really again, just in case – this is not personal, I don’t know who “you” are – just trying to distract myself from work and enjoying a good philosophical Sunday soap-box :-D)

4 07 2011
Jessica Mackay

Dear Karenne,

“Keeping religion, politics, sex out of the classroom is not so much about serving your students as serving yourself and making sure you don’t feel uncomfortable”

Rather than avoiding her own discomfort and ‘serving herself’, maybe Lorna is trying to make sure that her students don’t feel uncomfortable. Your examples are all well and good but it’s highly likely that all the students in the group will hold the same ‘deeply religious’ views that you speak of, so how much use would the discussion of psalms be to the other members of the group.

A few years ago it came to light that a well-known Holocaust apologist had studied in our school. He had learnt all his German with us, which had ’empowered’ him to travel to Germany on research trips with neo-nazi groups and return to Spain to ‘spread the word’ through his bookshop, financed by these groups. He was working his way through the English levels when his case came to light. His teacher at the time refused to teach him. As we are a public institution we could not refuse him completely so another teacher offered to take over the class, her thinking being that she, along with the other students, would openly challenge his ideas in class discussion. The learners, however, found this unbearable and voted with their feet.

I completely agree that these subjects should not be banished, and, indeed if you believe in a learner-centred classroom, the topics will be generated from the learners’ own experience and all the ‘baggage’ they bring with them.
But it’s also part of a teacher’s job to ‘read’ the classroom and to create an atmosphere conducive to the learning process. Introducing deliberately provocative subjects may not always be the best way to do this.

3 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Lorna, for your comment. I’m assuming it refers to my post and not to Karen’s subsequent comment, because there is no suggestion, in the latter, that sex should be ‘talked about’ in the classroom. Nor, in fact, do I suggest as much. If anything, the thrust of my post (and of both feminist and queer pedagogy) is to argue for greater inclusivity in classroom life, which does not mean ‘talking about sex’, but may mean acknowledging that there is a wider, and fuzzier, range of sexualities than coursebooks – say – recognise. This, in turn, may mean not assuming that when a male student refers to ‘his husband’, he is making a gender error. These are issues of sexuality, not sex. And, as Karen nicely puts it, sexuality – like ethnicity, age, religion, etc – enters the classroom when the students do. Whether we like it or not.

On the other hand, if you are challenging the view, as expressed in the quote about queer pedagogy, that ‘the role of eroticism’ in the classroom should be ‘explored and interrogated’, I can understand your reservations. But as I read it, ‘exploring and interrogating the role of eroticism’ does not mean ‘talking about sex’ in the classroom either. If anything, it means talking about it outside the classroom, as we are here, in an attempt to understand how the erotic permeates all human relations, including the learning-teaching one. Whether we like it or not.

4 07 2011

“In my opinion sex, politics and religion are three topics that should, where possible, be kept out of the language classroom. There are plenty of other things to talk about.”

Lorna, usually people who say this kind of thing are the ones who don’t know a lot about the subjects in question. It’s much easier to put a prohibition on a topic than take the time to consider it and cover it objectively.

You are taking a very anti-intellectual, nay ignorant, stance which to me is sad because a) you are a supposed to be an educator and b) these three topics are about as important to human life as one can get.

5 07 2011
paco gascón

Well, being gay or straight is not just a matter of sex, but lifestyle and I can’t really see why it should be left out of the classroom. Same thing for religion and politics. It goes without saying that, as a teacher, one must make sure that these matters are approached tactfully, but I’m of the opinion that the closer you bring your class to real llife, the better.

4 07 2011
J.J. Sunset

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003): Beyond Methods: Macrostrategies for Language Teaching. New Haven: Y.U.P.

“Classroom reality is socially constructed and historically determined.” (13).

“What is therefore required to challenge the social and historical forces is a pedagogy that empowers teachers and learners.” (13)

He puts forward the role of the teacher as a transformative intellectual.

4 07 2011
J.J. Sunset

(Please, let me “reply” myself -very erotic, huh?- and ask you a question…)

Why do feminist/queer pedagogists see themselves as owning this transformative, empowering, and liberating force in the foreign language learning classroom?

Is language learning a feminine instinct?

He speaks English= He speaks “her”?

English as an Erotic Language?

The whole thing reminds me of some intellectuals speaking of the erotica of bullfighting, matadors and their choreography of sensuality with the beast, something that bullfighters have always frowned at…

4 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Hi J.J. – I’m not sure about the bullfighting analogy, but it’s a fair criticism, I think, that feminist/queer pedagogists might justifiably be accused of hijacking the transformative agenda. Baker (2008) alludes to this in referring to a ‘queerer than thou’ hierarchy whereby minority groups, within minorties, jockey to reclaim the moral high ground. I think that this is territory that is fairly familiar to anti-racism activists. (Just today, in the NY Times, there was a feature about a wannabe presidential candidate who claims to be ‘blacker’ than Barack Obama, for example).

On the other hand, if it weren’t for the feminist movement, in particular, would there have been a serious female contender for the Democratic presidential primaries? LIkewise, if it hadn’t been for feminist and queer activists in education, wouldn’t educational reform be even slower?

4 07 2011
Jessica Mackay

In our chosen line of work, many of us hover around the pinker end of the political spectrum (some of us are more empassioned and vocal than others, Mr Darkbloom, where are you?) We certainly didn’t go into this for the money.
As teacher, faciltator, guide etc. explicitly or implicitly, we influence the ebb and flow of classroom interaction. We encourage the learners to talk about the subjects that interest them but we can also move them away from topics that may cause offence or discomfort to others (see my example above) if this is imposing my own personal political agenda, then I make no apologies.

So what surprises me perhaps is how little it actually happens, especially regarding sexuality. I can only speak from my own experience, but certainly in this (Spanish university language school) context, sexuality isn’t really a controversial topic any more. A student in my classroom is as likely to discuss a personal subject as their sexual orientation as they are to reveal which football team they support. In fact, the admission of a passion for a team other than Barça would probably provoke a greater hike of the eyebrows.

If there are learners who think differently, they are perhaps wise enough to know that, nowadays, they are the ones in the minority and their views would prove extremely unpopular and controversial.

4 07 2011
Mark Kulek

I can see Lorna’s point about leaving sex, politics and religion off the table. In my own case, these topics seem to facilitate too much teacher-talk. I become the Energizer Bunny, I go on and on…

4 07 2011

Here he is… 🙂

Thanks for the shout, Jessica.

Debate and a little disagreement in the classroom is perfectly healthy, as far as I’m concerned, and our diverse opinions need to be exposed on the most important topics in our lives (typically the most controversial). There is obviously a time and place for serious discussion, but we ain’t gonna solve any of the world’s problems by pretending the classroom is some kind of vacuum where real-life issues are not relevant.

Common sense dictates that we get to know our learners and test the waters as we go along. Perhaps by throwing a few ever-so-mildly controversial tidbits in there at first to see the reaction. We can go from there. If there is a negative reaction… we can have dialogue about why.

4 07 2011

I don’t think anything can or should be left out of an adult classroom. That doesn’t mean dragging in anything the teacher feels like discussing, or has a particular interest in discussing. To me it means allowing people the freedom to discuss, explore, question and ANY subject in an adult, mature, objective, rational, sensitive and intelligent way. This is after all what we are doing: we are teaching adults to communicate in English and whatever it is they wish to communicate about implies that they need the language with which to do so and it is our job to provide them with that language. Giving them language to express any opinion or point of view in a careful, considered, non-judgmental way. If we don’t give them the language, who will?

4 07 2011

Scott, thank you for another stimulating post. Because this one touches on sex, politics, and religion, no matter how indirectly, it is bound to stir up deep-rooted feelings. That makes for heated discussions that, when properly facilitated, can lead us to learning. Same goes for the classroom, in my opinion.
One of my current students is gay, and through my version of a queer dogmetic pedagogy (there can never be only one) I believe he and his classmates have felt more comfortable coming out (ie sharing his sexuality with us all). All I’ve done is all I’ve ever done, which is to make an effort to include all forms of human relationship in language examples. More often than not, students ask questions about things like Ms. vs. Mrs. and Miss, gay culture in the U.S., etc. Without Vandrick’s (1994) ‘liberatory environment’ though, I wonder if we would get there.


5 07 2011

I live in China, where people are pretty conservative. But the thing is that people here are more accepting of homosexuality than in most places in the West. It’s just that the social mores mean that gay people are less keen to come out.

Just fifty years ago in the UK gay people were put in prison. People say that China has a bad record on human rights but I don’t think they have ever treat people like that. Actually, states like Australia, America and South Africa have far worse human rights records than almost any other country in history. What does that tell you about European culture?

4 07 2011
Anthony Gaughan

FAIR WARNING NOTICE: don’t read on unless you want in all likelihood to get annoyed by something.

As Rob says, this is one topic which is likely to generate a lot of heat, so thank you, Scott, for setting the kindling going, and thank you to Lorna for fanning the flames with such a clear presentation of a view which, if not her own and if not popular here with some respondents, is still the one held by a great number of teachers, students and – dare I say it? – administrators. Thanks also to Karenne, Jessica and Luan, Candy, JJ, Rob, Mark and Mr. Darkbloom for such stimulating ripostes.

“Queerying” any attitude towards classroom practice (or anything in life, for that matter) has value, so thank you for taking on this role Scott – and here I think that Dogme can be – at it’s best – very “queer” indeed!

And the “queeryer” (Scott, for example, or, in her own way, Lorna) is not any the less valid by presenting an uncomfortable perspective to those who may prefer us all to agree that such matters should be non-controversial or accepted.

Karenne said the following which caught my attention while she (lucidly) parried Lorna’s post:

“…we surely aren’t the sum of the parts of the news today… it is this – these topics – politics, religion, sex, (along with family, friends, lovers, education, job)… it is these things that shape us, they change us – they are what defines us, be we teacher or student…”

It *may* be true that these topics may shape us, and these topics *may* help define us, but this does not mean that they have a necessary place in the shared space of a language classroom.

Further, as Jessica says, just because the teacher and a student (or subgroup of them) are comfortable discussing such things, is it acceptable to force the others to engage with it as a result? Or is ELT now in the business of re-educating those whose world views are not liberal enough? And if so, as her neo-nazi example hints at, how far are we prepared to remove such “prohibitions on a topic” (as Luan says…) when we don’t like the direction conversation shifts then?

Hmm, I don’t know. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not equating homosexuality with neo-naziism, nor do I actually agree with Lorna’s statement as taken at face value. However, I do think that there is a lot more reflection necessary by not only those of us who cry havoc at the thought of discussing the Unholy Trinity in class, but also by those of us who present a “knee-jerk” response to concerns along the lines of “loosen up, you anti-intellectual/religiously perverted/socially repressed egomaniac”.

I include myself in both those camps, by the way, which is a little queer, when I come to think of it.

Shifting ground slightly…

The idea of pronoun shift (“his husband” etc.) also strikes me as rather hetero-normative, but (I’m with you, Scott, I think, on this) who am I to judge? After all, appropriation (and thereby subversion/development) of a term’s meaning has long been a politically linguistic conceit, hasn’t it?

But I have to say I came over a bit “queer” myself while reading this, as it reminded me of my first exposure to the term “queer”, at the tender age of 5 or six, listening to my dad recite this poem – the whole thing seemed “queer” to me then, and still does, 25 years later. I fell in love with the word back then, and it was a delight to come across this post of yours, Scott, so thank you for reminding me (in an absurdly indirect manner that you couldn’t possibly have imagined!) of childhood!

Here’s part of the refrain and a link for those interested in a random association rather than relevance of an obvious kind 😉

“the Northern Lights/Have seen queer sights/but the queerest they ever did see/was that night on the marge/of Lake LaBarge/I cremated Sam McGee”
– Robert Service, The Cremation of Sam McGee”, text online at http://www.potw.org/archive/potw22.html

5 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, everyone, for the great comments. My personal take on this is that it is less about opening up the classrooom to discussions about sex, politics, religion etc (and I accept that in some contexts this will be easier than in others), but more about creating the conditions whereby ALL learners can feel an affinity with the language learning/using community to which they notionally belong. My particular beef with coursebooks (on this issue) is that, due to their insistent heteronormativity, they offer gay and other minorities little or no leverage in terms of integrating themselves into the classroom culture. As an example, the word ‘gay’ itself is never mentioned in coursebooks, despite being as common (according to corpus data) as words like ‘first’, ‘sharp’, ‘outside’ and ‘mind’ (i.e. in the band of words that rank between 2063 and 2083 in terms of frequency). If you are invisible in the linguistic environment, what chance is there that you will identify with the target language user, and what chance, therefore, that you will be motivated to learn the target language?

At least a dogme approach – by situating the learning opportunities in the content that is generated by the learners – allows the possibility of greater ‘visibility’ on the part of minority or marginalised learners.

5 07 2011
Kevin Giddens

I found the idea in queer pedagogy of exploring “the role of eroticism in the teaching process” particularly stimulating. While cruising the Internet for more information my interest was aroused by Kathleen Hull’s article, “Eros and Education: The Role of Desire in Teaching and Learning” (2002). In the article she explains that, “On a basic level, we need to recognize that traditional classroom education is a physical activity: All of the learning and discussion and exchange of ideas is carried out by embodied beings. We’re not brains in a vat, nor is the classroom a rarified, purely contemplative, disembodied world. Our passions and yearnings and longings, even in the realm of ideas, involve our bodies.” (2002, p. 22). Our students desire for learning and our passion for teaching cannot be separated from the eros that surrounds human desire and passion. As teachers what does it look like when we act as and treat our students as whole embodied beings?

Hull, K. (2002). Eros and Education: The Role of Desire in Teaching and Learning. The NEA Higher Education Journal. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/assets/img/PubThoughtAndAction/TAA_02_03.pdf

5 07 2011

Kevin, if I may expand on your citation, the article includes a reference to one of my favorite thinkers and authors:

As James Hillman notes in The Soul’s Code, it’s unfortunate that the erotic component of education is “seen only with the genital eye as abuse, seduction, harassment, or impersonal hormonal need.” (Hillman, 1997). By “genital eye,” Hillman means the eye that sees the erotic only as sexual. In contrast, Hillman recognizes the greater depths of eros. Exploring the importance of mentors in people’s lives, he tells several stories about the special perception of “the schoolmaster’s eye”—by the teacher who sees a pupil’s gifts.

As teachers, it seems unnatural to deny ourselves and our students this type of intimacy.


5 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kevin, for that link. I wish I had known about it before I wrote ‘The Learning Body’, a new piece coming out in an edited collection soon. It is an elaboration of the ideas laid out in the blog post B is for Body (you read it here first!).

5 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

A post script – it’s worth reminding ourselves of the Dogme ‘creed’, as articulated in the banner for the discussion list:

We are looking for ways of exploiting the learning opportunities offered by the raw material of the classroom, that is the language that emerges from the needs, interests, concerns and desires of the people in the room. (emphasis added)

5 07 2011

I love this question from Kevin Giddens: “As teachers what does it look like when we act as and treat our students as whole embodied beings?” and my answer would be that it looks like what any good classroom does when all are included and celebrated for their various diversities. I’ve never been in a classroom yet in which at least someone didn’t need to be eased into the fold because they were a bit queer in every sense of that word (which I just love actually) in all the ways possible to not only welcome that queerness but to shift others’ perception of it from the negativity that sometimes gets put upon outsider difference to the affectionate acceptance of a family member with a bit of a quirk. And I do not speak here even primarily of sexuality but about whatever differences (queernesses) that come with the students in the room. This semester I’ve got a death metal goth, someone quite open about her eating disorders, a former gang member, a right wing-ish conservative, someone who every day comes a little closer to uncloseting himself to the group and more than a few people who use our classroom to explore and display the powers of their various sexualities often to the raised eye brows of the white rice majority. Being a teacher, any kind of teacher, is really all about turning some of these people down a notch while tuning others in to the fact that we’re all welcome and loved in our room, our community which in my case for 32 weeks of the year also serves as surrogate family. Get the family dynamics right and anything is possible. Language learning, in my view, not only takes a second row seat to that but also is far less likely to happen in a room where the group has not yet come together. This reminds me of a comment from one of my students this semester who said “what’s so great is we’re all cool here.” My grad student observer later said he one day wanted to have a classroom like mine where the students adore me and the other one said “no, that’s not it. These students all adore each other. That’s the thing.” I’m proud to have played some role in that, but being more than a bit queer myself in the original Urban Dictionary sense, I’m happy to be in a room full of people who accept me for who I am with all my various quirks and in my full humanity. Now we can get on with it.

5 07 2011

I suppose it’s still early days for publishers to be carrying what is essentially an implicit approval of homosexuality through the inclusion of such things as ‘his husband’ or ‘her wife’. How long did it take for interracial unions to make it into lessons? Surely after the public had come to terms with it. The publishing world…no, let me correct myself – the textbook publishing world seems to lag behind what society accepts, especially when those books are going out to a world market.

I absolutely believe it is the teacher’s job to fill in those gaps and to give students the language they need to express their views, regardless of what those views are. Having said that, I do believe that the teacher’s politics needs to stay out of the discussion. If I am leading this students in a discussion, they need to be absolutely free to say what they want or need to say, and I don’t believe that happens if I am inserting my own arguments, opinions, or biases. There will be some who want to please me and so take on my opinions, or there will be some who disagree and feel shut down.

I feel that the teacher has to maintain neutrality but also has a responsibility to expose students to the real language that they will need or will be exposed to. If this means talking about sex, politics or religion, even if it makes me uncomfortable, then that’s what gets talked about. I didn’t go into teaching to be comfortable, after all! 😉 Personally, I try to keep those discussions as organic as possible, meaning I don’t try to force a discussion on gender or sexuality if it’s not appropriate or if it seems the class doesn’t want to discuss it.

If it’s not possible to maintain this kind of neutrality, then perhaps those teachers need to limit their topics, though I believe the better course of action is to get better at staying neutral so you don’t limit your students.

5 07 2011

Just to say I adore Chuck’s analogy of the learners and teachers as family. Even with our foibles and disagreements, we can still accept and honor each other with mutual respect. The program I work for encourages this idea of family among classmates, and, particularly after project work together, many students share how close they’ve come to their ‘brothers and sisters’. While not every program is designed for such connection between learners, there does always seem to be an element of family in any group dynamics.


6 07 2011

This may or may not be where this thread is, and it certainly isn’t a linguistic point, but I have to say this and this is a good arena. Going back the the “Don’t discuss sex, religion and politics in the classroom”, WHY do people continue to equate or conflate “sex” and “homosexuality”? If relationships =sex and you want to stick to the advice, then neither heterosexual nor homosexual relationships are classroom subjects. Gay and lesbian relationships are no more concerned with sex than heterosexual relationships are. It’s time to stop confusing “sex” as an acitvity and “sex” as gender……
Sorry – just wanted to get that said.

6 07 2011
Karenne Sylvester

It’s just a lexical issue of communicative convenience- people, I include myself, shorten the word sexuality to sex… what goes on behind “closed doors” is not sex either, it’s actually sexual activity… pears, apples, oranges… + there’s already a good word for gender, which is gender 🙂

6 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

It seems that the accepted terminology, in the gender studies literature, is that sex “is commonly used to define the biological distinction between males and females”, whereas gender “refers to the differences between male and female behaviour that are agreed on by members of a particular society…While sex refers to a male/female binary, gender has been traditionally thought to operate as a masculaine/female binary… linked to societal expectations and mores”.

Finally sexuality “refers to the way that people conduct themselves as sexual beings. This covers an extremely wide range of phenomena: sexual behaviour (what people do), sexual desire (what they like and don’t like to do and who they like to do it with), and sexual identity (how people view and express themselves as sexual beings)” (all quotes from Baker 2008, referenced in original posting).

This three-way distinction, between biology, behaviour and desire, allows for a wide number of permutations, e.g. a straight feminine male, or a masculine lesbian, etc. Heteronormativity deems that the ‘norm’ should be an alignment of sex, gender and sexuality along a rigid male/masculine/straight, or a female/feminine/straight, axis. Factor age in, and you get a further set of variants. Ditto race.

Incidentally, these parameters are a useful instrument for measuring the inclusiveness of educational materials.

6 07 2011
Anna Pires
7 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that link, Anna. Very appropriate to this discussion. Nevertheless – and as well-intentioned as this bill is – I am always a little nervous when politicians mandate what is to be taught in schools. Top-down decisions like this are seldom likely to be embraced by teachers in the spirit that originally motivated them, and I wonder if imposing a ‘queer’ curriculum might not be as counter-productive as imposing, say, a staunchly religious one.

In an ideal world, the teacher should be entrusted with the task of negotiating the curriculum that is the most appropriate for the learners themselves. But I guess we don’t live in an ideal world.

7 07 2011

Couldn’t stay away – just have to play the devil’s advocate and ask not 1 but 3 q’s

a) isn’t the COCA built on mostly westernized corpora and therefore by its nature, culturally biased and in fact, not a reflection of “global” English?

b) surely the phrases “his mistress” “she ran off with the… ” “single parent” “bi-racial” are more statistically prominent than “his husband” and “her wife” – why are we not asking for the inclusion of these sorts of relationships in our teaching materials?

c) if we don’t trust politicians to mandate what’s taught in schools why would we ask publishers of textbooks, who are by and large, driven by their own sub-cultural office and field of education politics and in some cases, their country’s?

8 07 2011
Scott Thornbury

Fair questions, Karenne. Let me attempt to answer them:

1. Yes, any corpus is only as good as the texts that ‘feed’ it, and the COCA Corpus is – as it says – a corpus of American texts, so it will inevitably show some cultural bias. The fact that it is housed in Utah may also account for the fair number of religious citations it seems to throw up. Fair point.

2. Yes, there are many other ways of describing relatonships – principally ‘my partner’ – that seldom figure in coursebooks, and hence it’s difficult for learners in non-straight and/or non marital relationships to know how to describe themselves.

3. Yes, as I said, in an ideal world the curriculum should be negotiated with the learners and not mediated by outsiders, whether politicians or publishers. How does the absentee coursebook writer know what the learners need – lingustically – are or interested in – thematically?

So I agree with you on all three counts!

15 07 2011

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying I have some good gay friends. In fact my son’s godfather in Australia is a lovely gay man – kind of a soul mate really.

I like to share openly in the classroom people and places important in my life – it’s about establishing some kind of relationship with students and we ask them to do it all the time.

So when I show a photograph of my good friend down under with his partner I just use the same label as he uses to refer to his partner “his husband”

This is then just a normal part of classroom dialogue with no value judgements attached. it’s not about shoving opinions at people – it’s just life.

Interestingly I’d often hear various members of the gay community in South Australia refer to their male partners as “she” – something that also could have implications in the language classroom.

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