Thursday, July 22, 2010

Queer Curriculum Conversations

As I've mentioned a time or two on this blog, last week was Sudbury Pride week. One of the events that I attended was called "Youth Speak Out!", which involved both queer youth and queer adult professionals who are employed in the school systems in Sudbury and in Toronto talking about the challenges that queer youth face.

At least at this point in its history, Sudbury is hardly overwhelmed with opportunities to have public, non-university-based discussions about important issues, so any time a group of people takes it upon themselves to put something like this together, they deserve to be applauded. I could probably come up with a few constructive suggestions about some of the details of how this event was put together, but I'm not going to do that.

I say that to make it clear that the following observation is not a criticism, just an observation about where the interests of the panelists and the audience took the discussion: Though the youth from Toronto made some important, strong statements about the need to pay attention to curriculum, the details of what might be wrong with curriculum in Ontario when it comes to queer youth did not actually get discussed very much. And I was a little disappointed about that.

I'm interested to know what queer youth have to say about curriculum. What is done well? What is done poorly? Where are they erased? What strategies have they developed to both privately and publically read themselves into the curriculum? How do different teachers take the curriculum up?

The reason I ask is, I suppose, connected to the sorts of things I had to think through in detail as I wrote my recently completed (but still not published) book on Canadian social movement history and history from below. Based on the reading and thinking and writing that I did over many years in the course of that work, I would suspect that there would be at least two different levels to understanding the problems of Ontario curriculum when it comes to queerness.

The first is obvious, and would probably have been more present in any discussion that happened at this event. It is most clearly about issues of representation. Are queer people ever visible in the unit on the family? In sex ed? In word problems in math text books? As writers or characters in English classes? In history?

Representation is important but when considered on its own it leaves much unchanged and unchallenged. When the focus is representation, the overall space remains centred on whatever is dominant or understood as "normal," while, in the spirit of liberal mutliculturalism, the Other gets to have a small space in which not to be erased. Who matters is left unchanged, and who is dominant is left unchallenged. But you over there can have your little bit of space to celebrate yourself as long as you behave and don't challenge the rest of us to rethink or change anything.

In that way, you might get a unit on the family that mentions the existence and even the acceptability of families with two moms or two dads. You might get some mention in sex ed that two people with the same bits can get it on. You might get a token novel by James Baldwin or a token short story with a lesbian protagonist in Grade 12 English. In history, there might be a passing mention of Pierre Trudeau's law reform in 1969 which, among many other things, decriminalized sex between men under certain circumstances, or there might be a call-out box in the text book that presents a one paragraph profile of a queer historical figure.

Part of what makes it tricky to talk about more than this is that even these things might be explosively controversial. Look at the rapid success that a small but well-funded group of right-wing malcontents had recently in Ontario in derailing new sex ed curriculum that contained modest but hardly earthshaking improvements, including around queer issues.

So a small space of non-erasure in the context of an overall environment that still centres the dominant group and subordinates the Other, while it may be important to fight for and important to defend, hardly solves the problem of curriculum that reflects and reproduces oppression.

What would it mean to have curriculum that did not just carve out a tokenistic niche for the visibility of queers (or Black people or women or indigenous peoples or people with mental illness or people with disabilities)? What would it mean to have a curriculum that put the Other at the centre? How could learning spaces be created that were multi-centric and that transcended liberal lets-just-get-along politics to name and challenge domination?

Following along with the focus of this post, what would it mean not just to have a picture of a family with two dads on the wall, but to approach the entire idea of family centering the hard-won insights and radical experiments of queers? What would it mean to do age-appropriate sexuality education that not only allowed for the existence of gay men and lesbians but that treated seriously the idea that everyone might benefit from thinking about sexuality starting from the insights and possibilities of queer cultures? How might discussions of literature be queered? What would it mean to examine Canadian history, from pre-contact times to the present, in ways that centred the standpoint of 21st century queer youth?

The fact that such questions are so close to unthinkable in the context of education as currently organized does not make the problem to which they are a response go away. The fact that retooling high school history curriculum to retell Canada in ways that centre a queer standpoint seems a total political non-starter even to those of us who think it would be a good thing is actually evidence for the seriousness of the problem -- for the ways in which domination is a core feature of how schooling is currently organized in ways that go far beyond questions of representation.

It seems to me that seriously attempting to end the marginalization of queerness and queer people in curriculum would result in more than just the transformation of specific subjects, however. It seems to me that if you were serious about starting to think about curriculum from the insights of historical and contemporary queer experience (or, really, from any other Othered experience), that would mean taking oppression and resistance as integral features of past and present much more seriously. It would inevitably mean a kind of openness and listening not just to one oppression but to all oppressions, and the seeking of interconnections among them. What would it mean to have schools that took seriously a commitment to see, name, and end violence and other forms of oppression against queer people, people of colour, indigenous people, women, people with disabilities? It seems that to really take that seriously -- not just a liberal response that substitutes representation for substance, but real serious responsiveness to the political and moral implications of such an understanding -- would result in a radically different understanding of the responsibilities of educators, learners, and institutions. I don't think schools could look anything like what they look like now.

So I'm not sure how much the discussion at the event would've touched upon issues that go beyond representation in curriculum. It's a hard conversation to have, particularly given how dominant norms make it so easy to see truly just and liberatory curriculum in truly just and liberatory institutions as ludicrous, as simply not practical. But I wonder, even if none of us there had a fully formed vision of what such a thing might look like, whether hints and pointers towards such a vision might have intruded into the discussion particularly from youth, in the face of all the self-imposed limits of practicality. What might those hints have looked like? Where might they have pointed?

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