Chapter Seven: From Doctoral Student to Dr. Sweetie Darling: My Queer(ing) Journey in Academia
If my experience as a doctoral student at the Pennsylvania State University during the mid-1990s had much to do with encountering a broad constellation of critical ideas that would profoundly reshape how I see the world, then my experience as a professor, especially over the past 12 years, has been about how to piece together these ideas in ways that would sustain my queer work and identity in the academy. In this chapter, I reflect on the shifts in my institutional/intellectual location in academia, starting from being a doctoral student of critical pedagogy and cultural studies at the Pennsylvania State University. My memoir then moves to a primary focus on the past 12 years at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), that is, on my movement from being a professor of education to my current position teaching mostly sexuality and queer studies courses within the context of a women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department. Utilizing several courses I’m currently teaching, I consider what queering academia has meant during this period by making use of a number of concepts to think with, including affect/emotion, border crossing, criticality, and (queer) Eros. I don’t theorize here each of these concepts; that will need to wait for another project. Instead, I sketch out how these concepts have informed what I do in terms of queering my approach to the teaching of a range of courses across the spectrum of educational, gender, and sexuality studies. In relation to scholarship and teaching, I then conclude my memoir with a discussion of the next phase of my work of queering academia. ← 59 | 60 →
A “QUEER” DETOUR THROUGH THE PENNSYLVANIA STATE UNIVERSITY
Throughout the mid- to late 1990s I pursued graduate study in State College, Pennsylvania, at Penn State. My program, in terms of coursework and dissertation topic, was broadly organized around the study of critical pedagogy and cultural studies. Pursuing a Ph.D., however, was not part of my original plan when I made the decision to attend graduate school. I was living in Miami, Florida, at the time and was teaching writing/composition courses as an adjunct at Miami Dade Community College (which now goes by the name Miami Dade College). I really enjoyed the work I was doing there, and my colleagues truly valued it. It was even intimated to me on several occasions that if I had had a master’s degree I would have likely been hired into a full-time teaching position. My motivation, then, for pursuing an advanced degree was the hope that I could one day return to Miami Dade Community College and be hired full-time. Of course, this game plan did not come to pass.
I applied to Penn State’s master’s program in Curriculum and Instruction with a literacy studies focus. I also applied to the English Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. I was accepted into both programs. I really had my heart set on attending Teachers College, but they didn’t offer much in the way of financial assistance. Penn State, on the other hand, offered me significant financial assistance in the form of a full tuition waiver and stipend, so off to Penn State I went. I quickly fell into the hands of several critical theorists of education, including Joe Kincheloe (who became my dissertation advisor) and Henry Giroux. If memory serves me well, I think I met Joe by way of his partner, Shirley Steinberg, who I originally met early on in my program of studies in a doctoral seminar titled, Theory and Teaching of Composition, offered through Penn State’s English Department. We sat next to one another on the first day of class. I sensed she knew I was a queer boy, and I remember thinking she might be a “fruit fly.” We were both correct. Soon thereafter, Shirley introduced me to Joe who introduced me to Henry, and for the next several years I enrolled in their doctoral seminars. These included: Public Memory and Education, Power and Pedagogy, Pedagogy of Whiteness, Popular Culture and Critical Pedagogy, Postmodern Cognition, Cultural Studies Research, Historical Foundations of Critical Pedagogy, and Multiculturalism and Media. Rounding out my studies, I also took a number of seminars in the English Department, including Early American Literature (with Carla Mulford), Contemporary Literary Theory (with Jeffrey Nealon), and Introduction to Cultural Studies (with Evan Watkins). I also sat in a course taught by Sharon Crowley and another (I think on the topic of Deleuze and Foucault) taught by Richard Doyle. ← 60 | 61 →
Combined, these courses—and the readings and ideas I encountered in each—profoundly reshaped how I now make sense of and experience the world, especially in relation to the broad categories of power, identity, and social justice. I was introduced no doubt to the world of “criticality.” That is, by way of these professors and their courses, I encountered the pedagogical, political, and theoretical conditions needed to border cross and grapple with a vast constellation of critical ideas, ideas perhaps best encompassed by the phrase “critical theories,” and an overall experience that I would describe as queer(ing). It’s difficult for me to imagine now not having the capacity to think critically in the way that I was trained while at Penn State. To be sure, the kind of critical encounter (and process of thinking) I’ve been describing has been absolutely central to my own transformation and survival both as a queer person and as a cultural worker in the academy. Eventually my critical education culminated at Penn State with researching and writing a dissertation on the topic of critical whiteness studies and teacher education. Among the many books and articles I read in whiteness studies, it was Ruth Frankenberg’s (1993) critical ethnography, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, that inspired the focus and direction of my dissertation. Coming out of this experience was also my first (1998) book publication, co-edited with Joe Kincheloe, Shirley Steinberg, and Ronald Chennault, titled White Reign: Deploying Whiteness in America. It’s a bit ironic that as I write this memoir I have returned to the topic of critical whiteness studies by way of reading and discussing with my students Jane Ward’s (2015) study, Not Gay: Sex Between Straight White Men, only now as a professor situated in a women’s, gender, and sexuality department teaching courses primarily in queer studies.
THE COLLEGE OF NEW JERSEY, PHASE 1: SCHOOL OF EDUCATION
In the fall of 2004, I was hired into a tenure-track position at The College of New Jersey. At that time, I had been yearning to find a place in academia where I could do more critical work, particularly in my capacity as a professor of education. From 2000 to 2004 I lived in Boston, Massachusetts, teaching at Northeastern University. Overall it was a good experience, but I wasn’t really doing the kind of critical work/teaching that I had been trained to do in graduate school. Hence, I looked for a new job, and found one: in educational foundations and research methodology at The College of New Jersey. I applied, interviewed, and was offered the position. As many in the business know, “educational foundations” can be understood as a phrase to describe “critical approaches to education,” or at the least it can be conceptualized this way by some of us. (Such an approach, for instance, might ← 61 | 62 → examine questions of schooling and education by way of the lenses of sociology, history, philosophy, critical theory, etc.) For the most part, this conceptualization proved to be true in my case. Indeed, during my first several years in the School of Education at TCNJ, I taught a range of different undergraduate and graduate foundations courses, including: Schools and Communities; Historical and Political Context of Schools; Introduction to Educational Research; Social Problems and Education; and Cultural Foundations of Education. These courses provided me with the rationale I needed to work criticality into my curriculum and teaching. This included exposing students to scholarship in the areas of critical whiteness studies and/or in queer theory/studies (e.g., we read Pamela Perry’s Shades of White: White Kids and Racial Identities in High School, 2002, and Mindy Blaise’s Playing It Straight: Uncovering Gender Discourses in the Early Childhood Classroom, 2005). As time passed during my initial years at TCNJ, I started to feel that I needed to take up queer topics in a more sustained way in my courses. Gay, lesbian, and transgender issues were quickly becoming more front and center in public discourse, especially in light of the marriage equality movement that has sparked a global conversation and set of robust debates on “gay rights.” Given this sociopolitical context, I also wanted to be able to take up queer studies, especially in my teaching, without always feeling the need to anchor such work solely within the context and concerns of schooling and education. I wanted to take up lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) concerns with as many students, and across as many topics, as possible. In short, I sensed the importance of engaging in a critical praxis of “queering academia writ large.”
THE COLLEGE OF NEW JERSEY, PHASE 2: SCHOOL OF HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES
While I don’t remember exactly how it happened, in the fall of 2005 I was offered an opportunity to teach a course in critical masculinity studies during the spring 2006 term for TCNJ’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department. The course title was Men and Masculinities: Literary Perspectives. Teaching this course became a defining moment in my career at TCNJ, as it quickly led to further invitations to teach other gender studies courses. In addition, it became the catalyst that prompted major shifts in my institutional location, that is, from being positioned initially in a tenure-track line in the School of Education, to moving into a joint appointment scenario between the School of Education and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (then called the School of Culture and Society), to my current position as fully appointed within the School of Humanities and Social Sciences within the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department ← 62 | 63 → (WGSS), where I am now tenured. These shifts, it should be noted, started to take place prior to receiving tenure, so the politics were a bit intense!
Even within WGSS, my teaching focus has shifted, from initially teaching courses mostly in gender and feminist studies to what I am doing now: teaching mostly sexuality and queer studies courses. Spanning the entire curriculum, from introductory courses to the capstone senior seminar, to date I have taught a total of 13 different WGSS courses: Senior Seminar: Methods and Theory (WGS 495); Topics in WGS: Critical Heterosexual Studies (WGS 470); Gender Equity in the Classroom (WGS 350); Transgender Studies (WGS 344); Queer Studies (WGS 343); LGBTQ Issues in K–12 Education (WGS 342); Feminist Theories (WGS 325); Men and Masculinities: Literary Perspectives (WGS 320); Politics of Sexuality (WGS 250); Introduction to Sexuality Studies (WGS 241); Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Studies (WGS 240); Gender and Popular Culture (WGS 220); and Women, Culture, and Society (WGS 200). When factoring in the education courses I mentioned previously, and add in a freshman seminar, I’ve taught a total of 19 different courses at TCNJ since 2004. I also created an abroad course, Queer Amsterdam, that I’ve yet to teach. It’s only now in writing this memoir that I have paused to really think about how much work and energy it has taken to do all of this. I suppose it is the continued sense of urgency I feel to discuss all things LGBTQ with my students, especially at this historical moment, that keeps me inspired, that keeps me going.
Utilizing several of these courses, I would like to take a few moments to discuss how I enact queering my approach to teaching two introductory courses and several advanced seminars. As a related aside, it should be noted that the very presence of LGBT, sexuality, and queer studies constitutes in itself a queering of academia, especially when these courses are known about and populated by students from a wide spectrum of majors. But beyond visibility, I have begun over the last several years to reflect on how I queer my courses, reflecting on what queering means in these educational contexts. As I explain below, the vectors of queering often come through deploying and intersecting the concepts of affect/emotion, border crossing, criticality, and/or Eros.
In both of my introductory courses—Introduction to LGBT Studies and Introduction to Sexuality Studies—I have invited students to engage in significant forms of border crossing that tap into affective dimensions of learning. By border crossing, I mean the sustained process of crossing into “other knowledge domains” where encounters with new epistemologies can lead to ongoing transformations of the self. This notion is conveyed in the title, Finding Out: An Introduction to LGBT Studies (Gibson, Alexander, & Meem, 2014), the main text I’ve been using in my LGBT Studies course. In this course, many of the students have had little to no exposure to, say, U.S. LGBT histories. Encountering knowledge, for example, ← 63 | 64 → about the 1950s Lavender Scare or about the homophobic response on the part of the U.S. government to the 1980s AIDS crisis in gay urban communities can, and often does, create the conditions for students to reconstitute or shift their sense of self in light of such epistemological encounters that critical forms of border crossing instigate. In teaching about the AIDS crisis, I often enhance discussions by using documentaries and films (e.g., Epstein & Friedman, 1990, Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt; Weissman, 2011, We Were Here; and Murphy & Kramer, 2014, The Normal Heart) that require a great deal of “emotional work” that potentially queers students’ identities by positioning them in a location of possible ongoing formation: that is, in a place where the relationship between the construction of knowledge, the development of critical consciousness, and identity formation is an ongoing one, ongoing during the course and hopefully beyond it.
In addition, I utilize Eros or the erotic as a way to queer my courses, in part because such deployments often position students (once again) to border cross into an understanding of and bearing witnessing to the immense spectrum of (queer) sexual practices. This in turn can generate a certain level of ongoing “identity work” as one responds affectively to the complexity of desire. In my Sexuality Studies course, for instance, we might watch the pilot episodes of Queer as Folk that depict the first simulated sex scene between two men in American television, exploring masturbation, rimming, and anal sex. Or produced more recently, we might view clips on the topic of BDSM practices by way of James Franco’s (Voros, 2013) documentary, Kink. Or, we might read a range of scholarly articles and view any number of filmic texts on the Puppy Play scene that has become highly popular in places like San Francisco. In addition to the potential affective negotiations of identity that these various forms of border crossing engender, what makes this approach to teaching “queer” is that my students and I are in a public space—a classroom— discussing these topics. But here I draw from Haggerty and McGarry’s (2015) reformulation of Gayle Rubin’s (1993) declaration that “the time has come to think about sex” (p. 3) when reminding us that “the time to think about sex is always now” (p. 2), and to do so quite publicly, in light of the fact that sexuality continues unabated to be one of the most publicly political topics in circulation today on a global scale (e.g., see Altman & Symons, 2016; Plummer, 2015).
In my upper division courses, I also utilize the same concepts to create opportunities for students to border cross and “feel knowledge.” In my Queer Studies seminar—a course in Queer Theory—students find themselves in a head-on collision with a theoretically robust anti-identitarianism set of discourses that deeply challenges them to rethink the very idea of “stability” across identifications related to biological sex, gender, and/or sexuality. In a course on “critical heterosexual studies,” students encounter knowledge that highlights the social construction of heterosexuality as “performative,” an “accomplishment,” and what that potentially means in terms of identity formations in post-closeted culture (see Dean, 2014). ← 64 | 65 → And in a course on LGBTQ issues in K–12 education, students grapple early on in the semester with an encounter with a compelling theoretical vocabulary on social justice education that could profoundly impact their ongoing identity work as future educators and/or parents (see Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012).
QUEERING ACADEMIA: THE NEXT PHASE
As I embark on the next phase of my academic career, I feel well positioned to continue the work of queering academia. I continue to believe in the importance of sustaining a “visible dialogue” on all things LGBTQ in the academy. I see such a dialogue continuing to unfold in two ways: across scholarship and teaching. First, I remain committed to organizing, collaborating on, and publishing a broad range of scholarly projects situated at the intersection of queer studies and education. Generating ideas for new book projects is something I really enjoy doing. Ideas thankfully keep coming, and many times they emerge when I’m doing something else, for example when exercising! Some of these ideas/projects include organizing a collection of original essays on Michel Foucault’s ideas on friendship and how they might be brought to bear on queer studies and education scholarship. I’m also planning a new volume showcasing a cross-section of work on the topic of “queer research methodologies in education.” The production of a textbook on queer theory in education for the undergraduate market is also in the pipeline, as well as a reader on the same topic for graduate students. And finally, among many other projects, I’m excited to be currently organizing a volume that provides a cross-section of theoretical reflections on approaches to teaching LGBTQ studies within the field of education by way of drawing from one or more critical perspectives other than, or in addition to, LGBTQ studies—for example, affect studies, disability studies, critical race theory, critical science/environmental studies, critical theory, critical feminisms, among others.
I’m also thankful that I can help showcase the brilliant work of others by way of the two book series I currently co-edit—the Queer Studies and Education series (published with Palgrave Macmillan) and the Routledge Critical Studies in Gender and Sexuality in Education series. I’m also working on a new series with several other wonderful folks that will soon launch on the subject of queering teacher education.
In terms of teaching, I see a delightfully winding queer road ahead. I’m thankful I was able to recently organize, and receive approval for, a new minor in sexuality and queer studies. This new minor is quite timely and will serve well the students and faculty at TCNJ. Over the next two to three years, I also anticipate putting forward a proposal to create a new major in LGBTQ Studies. During this same period, I will be developing several additional new courses across a variety ← 65 | 66 → of topics, including global sexualities, media studies and sexualities, the contemporary gay male experience, kink 101, and critical methods in sexuality and queer studies. As LGBTQ social, cultural, and political issues continue to transform on a global scale any number of societal institutions, courses in sexuality and queer studies have become a significant way for generating a much-needed educational grounding in queer epistemologies in order for students to participate as politically engaged and informed citizens and intellectuals on the subject of LGBTQ as they move across space and time, both within the academy and well beyond.
MOVING FORWARD AS DR. SWEETIE DARLING …
In the spring of 2012, I was voted to be TCNJ’s faculty speaker at commencement. (Each year the graduating class votes on and invites a faculty member to speak at that year’s commencement.) In May 2012 I stood in front of the graduating class and their family and friends, and introduced myself as “Dr. Sweetie Darling,” a name I had pieced together from my longstanding admiration of Freddie Mercury’s queer flamboyance coupled with my love of the BBC television sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous, a most-queer show for sure. After the commencement ceremony was over, a member of the Board of Trustees complimented me on creatively working Freddie Mercury and Absolutely Fabulous into the same speech. She also very much appreciated my name. Since then the name has stuck with my students. I look forward with queer exuberance to this next phase of queering academia in my capacity as Dr. Sweetie Darling.
Altman, D., & Symons, J. (2016). Queer wars: The new global polarization over gay rights. Malden, MA: Polity.
Blaise, M. (2005). Playing it straight: Uncovering gender discourses in the early childhood classroom. New York: Routledge.
Cowen, R., & Lipman, D. (Creators). (2000). Queer as folk. [Series]. United States: Showtime Networks.
Dean, J. J. (2014). Straights: Heterosexuality in post-closeted culture. New York: New York University Press.
Epstein, R., & Friedman, J. (Directors). (1990). Common threads: Stories from the quilt. [Documentary]. United States: Telling Pictures.
Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Haggerty, G. E., & McGarry, M. (Eds.). (2015). A companion to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer studies. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Kincheloe, J. L., Steinberg, S. R., Rodriguez, N. M., & Chennault, R. E. (Eds.). (1998). White reign: Deploying whiteness in America. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Murphy, R. (Director), & Kramer, L. (Writer). (2014). The normal heart. [Motion Picture]. United States: HBO Films.
Perry, P. (2002). Shades of white: White kids and racial identities in high school. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Plummer, K. (2015). Cosmopolitan sexualities: Hope and the humanist imagination. Malden, MA: Polity.
Rubin, G. (1993). Thinking sex: Notes for a radical theory of the politics of sexuality. In H. Abelove, M. A. Barale, & D. M. Halperin (Eds.), The lesbian and gay studies reader (pp. 3–44). New York: Routledge.
Sensoy, O., & DiAngelo, R. (2012). Is everyone really equal? An introduction to key concepts in social justice education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Voros, C. (Director). (2013). Kink. [Documentary]. United States: Rabbit Bandini Productions.
Ward, J. (2015). Not gay: Sex between straight white men. New York: New York University Press.