Thursday, May 31, 2012

New Queer Histories

John Irving's new novel, IN ONE PERSON, is fascinating, for lots of reasons.  Those who know Irving's previous work will be tempted to read the book biographically:  it is written in the first person with an author as narrator; it is set in new England; it features wrestling, bears, of a sort, and lots and lots of transsexual and transgender characters.  The narrator is bi, attracted to both men and women and, especially, or also, transvestites,  transsexuals or pre-op transgender people. (there is a lot of talk in the novel itself about how the names for various types have changed over the years, so I am using all that are used in the novel.)  Reading it, one wants to know, is this Irving's coming out?  Is he the bi narrator?  Does this explain the earlier books?

But the book is interesting in other ways, too.  It revisits the AIDS crisis and reminds us that the Reagan years were not the perfect years presidential candidates seem to imagine, but years of misery (Many of us never forgot that -- in addition to AIDS, I recall masses of homeless people, strongly charged racial issues, a bad economy and a culture of violence and indifference).  In the context of conversations about gay teens and bullying, it posits a queer child who has the "wrong" crushes, one on his soon-to-be stepfather, one on an older woman who turns out to be a transsexual, and one on a fellow male student. It lays claim to the idea that being queer is inborn, literally, as the narrator has an absent but queer father.  And characters who try to "nurture" queerness out of other characters are seen as idiotic and ineffectual.   Against the model of the lonely child whose desires not only cannot be spoken, but make the child feel isolated, Irving creates a world in which there are multiple, helpful and understanding adults, and in which the narrator is far from the only queer in town.  In addition to a cross dressing grandpa and the transsexual crush, among the adults, the narrator retroactively discovers that more than a few fellow students are gay, bi, transsexual or otherwise queered.  Straight people exist in this world but feel like a minority.  In fact, one character late in the novel complains to the narrator that his books make difference seem normal! 

But the book is also somewhat misogynist.  A transsexual is highly valued but only one woman with a vagina is valued.  She functions more or less like the gay best friend has functioned in so many narratives -- as a safe place and best friend for the polymorphous narrator.  Lesbians exist in the novel but they come across poorly - as man-hating, vicious, or embarrassingly womanist.   It is a bit of a disappointment in a book that imagines a world of difference and demands tolerance on every page that people with penises are the best she-characters and women are somehow painted as the most negative forces.   And not just women, but mothers -- in particular, two mothers are blamed for trying to deny their son's gayness.  The "best" mother is one who leaves her husband because he can't accept his son's queerness, then kills herself when her son dies of AIDS.  I'm not asking for a politically perfect fiction, but, in a fiction so attendant to gender stereotypes,  I'd have expected a little more.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


So, I just got what are described as Course Instructor Feedback forms, which are course evaluations.  Of course, I never feel that the course is being evaluated.  It is me.  And my evaluations this time placed me in the very good but not quite excellent category -- a number that should satisfy but feels like failure. 

This semester, I taught two theory classes.  One in film theory and one in feminist and gender theory.  These are always tough.  Both are required courses for the major and both involve lots of dense and difficult reading, with lots of jargony language. I try to account for that as best I can, to unpack the readings and make them seem relevant to the students.  Generally, there are a small number of students who love the courses -- the super smart kids, the ones who like the really tough stuff.  And there are a few who hate it, and me.  Often, these are kids who do not like or cannot handle super academic stuff  (weird, right?  at college?  But the vast majority do not like theory, want film classes to be more or less film appreciation, or to teach them what they already believe.)   Usually, the ones who hate it latch onto feminism as a way of saying what's wrong with me.  "How was the teacher?"  "She was a feminist."  So, in a sixteen week class in which we discussed feminism one week and queer theory one other week, one of the film theory respondents said that I spent the whole semester doing feminism and that it was not a film theory class at all.  I guess he forgot about Munsterberg, Benjamin, Metz, Altman, Kracauer, Bazin, Chion, Gorbman and all the others we read who had NOTHING to say about feminism or gender.  Others will complain that I make them see old movies -- they want me to show what is in theaters, I guess, instead of things like THE PAWNBROKER, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, FRANKENSTEIN, KLUTE, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP (isn't that recent?), DR. HORRIBLE'S SING A LONG BLOG (again, isn't that kind of recent?), ALIEN (how bad is that?), LETTER TO THREE WIVES, SOME LIKE IT HOT, PILLOW TALK, or HAIRSPRAY (okay, that is three that are from this century) I am supposed to show, what, TWILIGHT?  IRON MAN?
So, I know that evaluations will reflect this span and that in a difficult required course I am facing an uphill battle.

But what baffles me is the gap between my experience of the class and the final evaluation.  In the gender theory class, especially, I felt like I was reading the wrong evaluation.  This was a class with students who had chosen gender studies and therefore would not blame me for being a feminist.  This was a survey in which the span of readings -- from Wollstonecraft to Halberstam -- was clearly mapped out. This was a class in which the kids came to class every day prepared and ready to speak.  They had opinions about the readings and always seemed excited to talk about them.  And they were able to talk about them on their final exam.  We got into deep discussions daily and we also laughed and seemed to form a bond. It seemed like a love fest.   But when I got the evaluations, there were clearly some people who felt differently. 

But even more baffling is that in both classes the numbers did not match the comments.  In the written portion, they said I was a great teacher, well organized, knowledgeable, accessible, that the class was well organized, that I explained things clearly, was accessible, etc.  In gender, they loved that I had them blog and do a PR project.  In film, they appreciated that I let them do a film instead of a paper for their final assignment. 

Ad it isn't just me.  A very good friend of mine has also faced this lately.  I taught with her, have seen her in the classroom, admire her teaching tremendously and know that she really teaches her students well.  But the evaluations never reflect that. 

So, where was the failure?  Part of me imagines that people who get the tip top marks on these things pander to students.  But that is probably a cop out. Maybe I am the teacher they remember later?    Maybe challenging students is undesirable in the current student as client climate?   Maybe I just have a dissociative disorder and can't tell a good experience from a bad? Is this what it will feel like when my kids have to go to therapy to deal with whatever damage I have done to them, whatever troubles I am blamed for?