Teaching Judith Butler

Many of us avidly follow her work,
cite her in our own, and crowd
her lectures. But how do we
convey the ideas of Judith Butler that we
find so compelling to our students?
Judging by the large turnout—about 80
people on a windswept rainy November
night—to a pedagogy workshop hosted
by CLAGS and the Center for the Study of
Gender and Sexuality at NYU a lot of
people want to know. The guest
speakers, Robert Reid-Pharr, Professor of
English at the Graduate Center, CUNY,
and Jami Weinstein, Visiting Instructor of
Women’s Studies at Vassar College, laid
out very different approaches to teaching
the texts and ideas of Judith Butler.
Reid-Pharr, in fact, doesn’t teach
Butler’s texts in his classes. Instead, he
chooses to focus on her theoretical contributions
through the reading other texts.
Reid-Pharr said that when he agreed to
co-lead this workshop, “I thought it made
sense for me to ask people whom I took
to be absolutely in the know about such
matters how it is that they actually teach
Judith Butler.” His queries were met,
however, with a great wall of shoulder
shrugging.
“I did discover one thing that I take
as primary and essential here,” Reid-Pharr
continued. “Many perfectly competent
teachers have a fair amount of anxiety
when it comes to the matter of how to
address Butler’s work in the classroom, an
anxiety that I suspect is not altogether
distinct from the general anxiety that
many of feel when teaching theory and
especially that even more daunting entity,
philosophy.”
In teaching Butler’s ideas, Reid-Pharr
suggested, “we ought to pay attention to
the fact that our own celebration of
Butler’s work and by extension our own
celebration of the work of a variety of the
most significant of contemporary
theorists, queer or otherwise, may have
had the effect of actually de-familiarizing
us from that same work, of making it
seem much more opaque, difficult and
impenetrable than it actually is.” Reid-
Pharr suggested that, given the current
state of what he euphemistically calls
“Butler Studies,” “it is probably
worthwhile for us to return to basics, as it
were, to actually ask ourselves, what was
it about this work, work that many, if not
most, of us encountered as students
ourselves, that initially caused so many of
us to celebrate it and to turn the name,
Butler, into a sort of holy, high theory
talisman.”
“I would say an almost continual
failing among practitioners of queer
theory then, both inside and outside the
classroom is that though we genuflect
toward the gauntlet that Butler has
thrown down, though we praise it, stroke
it, announce it as our own, most often we
don’t actually pick it up.” Instead, Reid-
Pharr concluded, “queer teaching might,
in fact, involve undercutting the very
norms and standards that allow many of
us to announce ourselves as queer
teachers and indeed might initiate a
politics within the classroom for which we
are by definition ill-prepared. I would say
to you then that the great difficulty of
reading and teaching Butler is that
precisely by turning her into a sort of
queer icon, of sorts, we ultimately work
to short-circuit the most radical and
indeed frightening of her insights.”
Weinstein, who is trained as a
philosopher, takes a very different
approach to teaching Butler. She
regularly includes Butler’s texts in her
courses, despite the challenges, and there are many, according to
Weinstein: the vocabulary,
epistemology, and ontology can
be tough; the terms and
catch phrases they’ve heard,
“gender is performative,”
“repetition,” “citation,” aren’t
easily digested on the first
pass; Butler draws on many
sources the students won’t
have read, especially students
who aren’t philosophy majors.
While getting past these
intellectual barriers can be
difficult, according to
Weinstein, the aim for
instructors should be to adopt
a clear, jargon-free approach
to teaching Butler’s work.
Weinstein offered the
audience a variety of concrete
teaching suggestions. In her
women’s studies classes,
Weinstein teaches
“Performative Acts and
Gender Constitution”; in her
more advanced queer theory
classes, she uses “Imitation
and Gender Insubordination.”
Weinstein even provided the
audience with a diagrammatic
representation (see pg. 15)
that she developed to explain
performative and expressive
models of gender to her
students.
For Weinstein, Butler’s work
can be transformative for
students, potentially changing
the ways students think about
the fixity of their identities and
gender, and possibly unsettling
them as well. “It can rock their
world, they might need support
from you.” As for teaching
resources, she recommended
the documentary Southern
Comfort as a great film to
enhance discussions about
Butler’s work, and also referred
audience members to Dean
Spade’s article “Mutilating
Gender” (available on the web
at http://www. makezine.org
/trans.html).

Melynda Craig is a doctoral student
in the Department of Psychology at
the University of Rhode Island.