New LGBT Course at GVSU

As part of our focus on pedagogy, CLAGS will be featuring short essays on new courses or developments in the field.

A new “Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Studies” course was approved this winter at Grand Valley State University at Allendale, Michigan, in the Grand Rapids area of west Michigan. Yes, conservative west Michigan. The course has been taught for the past two years as a special topics course in the Women and Gender Studies program, but in January it went on the books as a regular course with its own number, WGS 324.

The first offering of the course last year was met with particular enthusiasm by 15 students, mostly of the lgbt persuasion. They called it their “gay course” with a strong sense of ownership, pride and excited disbelief that it was really happening. That version of the course was literature- based. The version of the course that has just come to a conclusion was topics-based. Students liked both, but the new, regular course is following the topics model, partly in the hope that our English Department will develop a gay and lesbian literature course in the near future. And it seems appropriate that the foundation course in the lgbt area would be designed to give students a sense of the larger context of gay experience in the world.

The course has three main focal points: theory, history, and current issues. We are using the Annamarie Jagose text, Queer Theory; An Introduction, as the main source for our study of theory. It takes a lot of supplementary class discussion before students are comfortable with the ideas there. But when they “get it,” and they do, it is of great value to them. One of the students used queer theory on a regular basis in his classical mythology class and was very pleased when other students picked it up from him and started using it too.

For all the students, the theory places lbgt experience in a broader frame than they have been using to think about it. We very ambitiously used The Construction of Homosexuality by David F. Greenberg, for the history portion of the course. The perspective of “we have always been everywhere” was of great value, but the general conclusion was that we tried to do another whole course inside this one. Could we have found a role for the History Department in this project?

In many ways the most successful part of the course was the last portion in which we looked at many topics and current issues using Martin Duberman’s A Queer World as our main source. That collection (which seems to me like attending a really great lgbt conference) worked well, giving students many leads for class presentations and semester projects.

We also took the time to watch a small number of films: The Lost Language of Cranes and The Incredibly True Adventure of 2 Girls in Love as two examples. Such films went a long way in giving new insights and opening up good class discussion. Guest speakers with expertise in transgender issues and lgbt community organizations also added an important dimension to the course.

At the end of the course students typically comment that they see lgbt experience as a wide field of study and experience instead of the thin band of perception they brought to the course.

We hope that in the future more non-queer students will take this course, which represents only one of many positive things happening at Grand Valley State University with regard to lgbt matters.
Milt Ford
Grand Valley State University