Teaching Foucault

If I were to preface my comments with an old-fashioned argument or prologue it would go
something like this: “Teaching Foucault is hell. There’s little evidence that it works, in the
pedagogical sense of the word. It doesn’t get easier with time. Yet—though I frequently doubt
this—it’s a completely worthwhile endeavor.” That is to say, I’m sure it’s not without its genuine
rewards. A great deal of the pay-off, as in all cases, relates to how he is presented. But before I
addresses that subject, I’d like first to focus on the course I teach for which the History of Sexuality
constitutes the main theoretical framework; I’d also like to speak about the student population in the
course, since they have a great deal to do with the way I approach Foucault.
I cover the History of Sexuality in a contemporary queer lit course I developed at Baruch College,
which by now I have offered about ten times. The class is a senior level survey which, in its
conception at least, was geared on the one hand toward literature majors and on the other toward
LGTB students, particularly those who were thinking of going on to grad school. My aim in part was
to help prepare them so that when they began their careers they’d have a familiarity with queer
theory. The course, therefore, was designed with a two-pronged approach. It was meant to deal with
literary-historical movements and developments, as well as major cultural trends from the late
nineteenth-century to the present. Its main theoretical bias was meant to be, and is, both feminist
and race-conscious. The theoretical texts that we read in addition to Foucault are by poststructuralists
who augment the History by foregrounding both gender and race .
The literary texts we’ve read so far have ranged widely, but over time I have settled on a system
of four novels of varying accessibility. The schedule of readings, however, has always turned out to
be a best-of-all-possible-worlds scheme that in most cases must be reworked because students
usually can’t keep up with the material.
It isn’t that they lack the intelligence or that they aren’t motivated. On the contrary. The
problem relates to their training for the most part. Though the course was designed with lit majors
in mind, in fact there aren’t enough of them to go around given the number of electives offered
each semester in my department. I usually end up with two or three majors—students who by and
large are the most prepared and who do the best overall. The majority of the class, however, consists
of business majors, many of whom have never taken a literature class beyond our sophomore
survey; in many cases they know little about the rudiments of reading—basics like figurative
language and rhetorical devices—let alone literary history. Many struggle with writing as well.
Inevitably I find myself explaining things as fundamental as the way a metaphor works.
To complicate matters, students are likely to bring more “baggage” to that class than to any I
teach. Many are either just coming out or are contemplating it (the class frequently becomes a space
for that). This spurs other challenges: In some cases students are evicted from their homes during
the semester; in other cases they’re totally taken with their first queer relationship—or devastated by
its dissolution. For the most part the student population is composed of minority students dealing
with the complications of race-and-sex, gender-and-sex, ethnicity-and-sex—all of which become
elements of the classroom environment to various degrees. From time to time I also have students
with serious health concerns. Although I try to emphasize in as delicate and sensitive way as possible
that the class isn’t a therapy session, that it’s a bona fide course on a serious body of work, I find I
must constantly make allowances given the magnitude of what most of the students face with
amazing consistency from semester to semester.
Interjecting Foucault’s rather slippery text into this mix presents definite challenges. To help
them focus—and, to be blunt, to get them to read the text in the first place—I’ve learned to give
frequent quizzes, especially in the beginning. In addition, I spend a fair amount of class time
furnishing background information, spread out over
several classes. This includes: a traditional overview of
historical periods in the West, from the classical age to
the present; a detailed outline and explanation of the
major epistemological sources; a discussion of Western
dualism and constructions of the body; a literary- and
art-historical presentation on the major themes of
modernism; and a short introduction to the major
postmodern theories. As daunting as it sounds—it
exhausts me just thinking about it!—this seems to help.
Actually they indicate feeling empowered by the
information, by the new language that goes with it.
What they don’t necessarily feel empowered by is
Foucault. On the contrary, they complain about him
constantly: “Why can’t he just say what he means?” “He
thinks he’s superior.” “He doesn’t even know what he
wants to say.” They view him as an adversary, as though
his language were intended to fool them or trip them
up. Explanations about the problem of finding a novel
language in order to say something new go nowhere.
The most successful approach I’ve had is in trying to
get them to consider reading Foucault the way they
would a famous poet, like Shakespeare (whom they also
often see as adversarial but for whom they make
allowances because they’ve been told so many times they
must). Pointing out the stylist in Foucault isn’t very
difficult, but it’s an element of the text that is often
overlooked. For instance, the passage “Beyond these few
phosphorescences, are we not sure to find once more the
somber law that always says no?” (72) to me is a
fascinating line in the way the diction so intentionally
elucidates the meaning. We discuss it at some length,
attempting to pin down the metaphorical referents the
term “phosphorescence,” as well as the polyvalence of
the French “sombre,” which is useful in understanding
F o u c a u l t ’s playful, revealing personification. In many
cases, the standard translation is so well done, however,
that knowing French isn’t necessary. When Foucault
speaks of Kraft-Ebbing’s research as a carefully assembled
“mosaic” both “pitiful” and “lyrical” the English is clear
enough. Of course, Foucault is famous for his paradoxical
w o r d – p l a y, which I find reminiscent of Thoreau. One
example is when he comments that “massacres have
become vital” (137), or when he writes in that wonderf u l
passage on “The negative relation”: “It never establishes any
connection between power and sex that is not negative . . . .
Where sex and pleasure are concerned, power can ‘do’ nothing but
say no to them; what it produces, if anything, is absences and gaps
. . . .” (83). To consider the ludic quality of lines like that is one of the things I enjoy most about
teaching Foucault, and to whatever degree I can get them to focus on this aspect of his writing is the
degree to which they usually begin to work through their resistance to it.
It also doesn’t hurt to present an entire class on irony. What often throws students most is their
inability to detect that element of the text. Frequently they read the entire “We ‘Other Victorians’”
and “The Repressive Hypothesis” completely missing the point, and I’m forced to back up and
explain the long tradition of the ironic essay in the West (I focus especially on Swift’s “Modest
Proposal”), and in European literature in particular.
Another element I take pains to explain is Foucault’s structure. Because, at least in my
experience, few students think about structure when they write—and if I may be school-marmish for
a moment, it seems instructors these days pay little attention to structure generally—they often are
ill-equipped to read a text architecturally. Moreover, because many have no training in even intro
philosophy, most if not all have no understanding of a basic syllogism. For that reason, I find it
necessary to unpack first the assumptions that Foucault is working against, couched in the form of a
metaphysics, before I can explain how he is turning it against itself.
Beyond that, teaching Foucault is pure gravy. I highlight all the usual suspects that are by now
almost too familiar: sexuality as a cultural production rather than a preexisting given; the
deployments of alliance and sexuality; the multi-sited vs. the juridical views of power; reverse
discourse—again, the usual stuff. To help clarify these themes, I often bring in newspaper articles to
illustrate the point, and I offer exercises when I think they might be useful. As we move on to the
novels, I try to keep the theoretical texts we’ve read an integral part of the discussion.
What is not straightforward, is evaluating “success.” Quizzes help to some degree, if only
because responses like “I have no idea” tend to shift to hazarded guesses to statements of genuine
insight—at least, in some cases. Term papers help in this regard as well, though often I get the sense
that much of what’s being said is merely parroted and not grasped in any real depth. When we
move on to the literary texts, I require students to deal with both Foucault and the other theorists
we’ve read in their term papers. In most cases it becomes clear in reading the second essay that
there is a fuller grasp of the theoretical material, even if their use of the vocabulary remains slightly
awkward. Also, students often report a better understanding at some point in the semester. At the
end of the course my general sense is that the ones who’ve remained in (there’s always a onequarter
to one-third drop rate) are only now prepared to sign up for the class that I had planned.
That is, they become the audience I had in mind when I designed the course.
For me, evaluation remains a problem, however. There is the handful of students who actually
go on to graduate school and find their reading of Foucault helpful (I know this because they tend to
contact me just to say just that). Still, though I continue to teach the History of Sexuality every time I
offer the course, I have questions about the usefulness of having them slog through it, given what an
enormous challenge it is. For some time I wondered if the problem didn’t have to do with the
deficiencies of my particular students. But colleagues with students a great deal more prepared for
college generally, who are far better-off economically, report a similar frustration. It may be that
teaching Foucault, and postmodern theory generally, to American undergraduates, at this moment
in history, with its overwhelming emphasis on capital and consumption as opposed to ideas, is
simply hell. u
Donald Mengay is Associate Professor of English at Baruch College-CUNY, where, among other things, he
teaches an elective in Lesbian and Gay Literature — the only LGTBQ Studies course in the college.