In an autobiographical essay, Dorothy Allison writes that her teenage reading of science fiction was when she first learned that life “didn’t have to be the way everybody said it was.” The “secret” that sex, gender, and life itself “could be different” was one that could “change everything”––and, she goes on to write, it did. Transformative moments like this, where realizing the arbitrariness of social norms makes the world suddenly different and a new world more possible, can take place through fiction, media, theory, political protest––and in the classroom. While my research, ranging across texts, media, and disciplines, concerns itself with the forms of imagination such transformations require and produce, my teaching aims to make these possibilities available and accessible to the students I encounter. Feminist, antiracist, and queer pedagogies insist that the classroom’s transformations of ways of thinking, through critical processes of knowledge production and transmission, can open onto larger transformations in the social and political world. Strong lines of connection run between amateur creators who transform media to highlight its faultlines, the political and social transformations imagined in speculative fiction and enacted by activist movements, and the transformative work of education itself.
Transformative learning theory focuses on education as a process of deep mental change, a development of pathways for critical analysis that can be emancipatory. In my teaching practice, whether the subject matter is literature, film, or digital media, I try to open spaces for such change through encounters with unfamiliar histories and critical theories of sexuality, gender, race, and/or technology. One of the evaluation comments of which I am most proud describes my classroom as a site of “delightful uncomfortable conversations that forced us to unpack the ‘norms’ we so easily take for granted.” It would be too much to hope that every student would find every moment of discomfort, whether talking about race or gender or facing up to a difficult task, delightful. But I work to make sure any discomfort is productive––and has the potential to be transformative––rather than silencing, especially for students whose experiences or opinions place them in a minority or whose learning styles are less well served by traditional academic structures.
My work on digital and subcultural knowledge production highlights transformations instigated and literacies gained outside educational institutions, and I seek to harness that force in my teaching. Familiarity with and critical analysis of the skills of of digital participation are particularly crucial amid our present cultural saturation with the rhetoric of media revolution. I assign students to blog, tweet, make remixes, and develop assignments through a variety of online tools––and I have found that the playfulness of these forms can energize students’ engagement with critical ideas about culture and media. Such assignments also draw attention to the in-built limitations and biases of the forms through which we think. Yet I would never wish to leave behind close visual and textual analysis, lectures and presentations to explicate a difficult text and spark off trains of thought in listeners, or intense in-person discussion of the meanings and aesthetics of a text, word, image, sound, or concept. I have experienced intense intellectual transformations in such moments, reminding me that transformative learning does not only flow from teacher to student.
As a scholar committed to discourses and communities with little mainstream representation, I work to broaden the range of reference points available to my students, while also remaining open to what their reference points can offer me. A former student recently let me know that reading about alternative gendered structures in my seminar, and bringing those possibilities into the real world through discussions and assignments, had brought an important personal transformation as the student developed the self-understanding and confidence needed to come out as transgender. Moments like this remind me why my queer work as a teacher matters––and of how the classroom can open spaces for personal and collective transformation beyond the walls of the university.