The Perils of Queering the Curriculum

A student came into my office the other day who provided a direct challenge to my efforts to
queer the curriculum. Let me say first that, although I respect the value of teaching courses on
topics that are presented as queer-marked — indeed, I teach graduate courses in English on
Queer Theory and Queer Filmmaking — my ideological preference in the courses I teach in both
Spanish and Portuguese is to engage in queer readings across the canon, toward demonstrating that
1) sexual/gender identity is problematic in all texts, and any facile or obvious attribution is likely to
be the result of un/undertheorized reading, and 2) the force of homophobia keeps us from seeing
the problematics of sexual/gender identity or intimidates us into ignoring it if we happen to see it.
While queer-marked courses are likely mostly to attract those committed to queer interests, courses
taught under the aegis of queering the curriculum may take many students by surprise, and some
act like they have stumbled into the wrong course: “Wasn’t this course supposed to be about
Argentine theater? So why are we talking about the constructing of sexual/gender identity?”
But the challenge I experienced went beyond the matter of confusion. Rather, it had to do with
privileging the point of view the student took, by definition (herein was one problem to begin with),
as refuting, perhaps even disrespecting, her own personal beliefs. In short, she was being forced to
attend to a point of view that she found to be morally reprehensible.
I tried to explain to her the importance of listening to all points of view, and the particular
importance to us as individuals to understand in particular those we hold to be unacceptable. I also
tried to explain to her the matter of “correcting the balance” — in this case, that the heterosexist
presumption (as do classist, ethnocentric, racist, and sexist ones) provided a compelling reason for
affording a queer view of things.
But I realized neither of these rather tepidly liberal ploys were exercising any persuasive magic in
the face of her sincere indignation. I wanted to insist, with professional olympicness, “But you are
here to learn, and this is what I have to teach. It is your responsibility to learn it if you want to pass
the course, and whatever you do with it after the course is over is your business.” But I bit my
tongue, as I sensed this would only fuel her indignation.
It is not so much that the Phoenix area has an unusually high number of those on the political
or religious right; I personally don’t think it does, but many of my colleagues would disagree and
insist that dealing with such reactions is just the price of teaching in a massive public institution in
this area. Rather, in American society in general, there is still a panic, even in many academic
quarters, that attaches to discussing gender and sexuality, and the fact that one is a white male in his
sixties only feeds a distracting stereotype about being a dirty old man obsessed with sex and, therefore,
unable to focus on the supposedly real issues of culture. Reading cultural production in terms of
issues of gender and sexuality is for so many of my students and colleagues (and ones that are not
necessarily homophobic) simply not the business of our profession.
Meanwhile, I remain groping for a better way of answering what for me remains my student’s
stubborn, but no less sincere, indignation. u
David William Foster is Regents’ Professor of Spanish, Women’s Studies and Interdisciplinary Humanities at
Arizona State University.