March 2021
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QELTI-AN INITIATIVE TO DISRUPT HETERONORMATIVITY IN ELT

Justin Jacobs, Sabancı University, Istanbul, Turkey

In 2013, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the emergence of Black Lives Matter, a new era of the ongoing movement for civil rights emerged. Now, the concept of social responsibility seemed to permeate popular culture in a way that it had not done for some years. A new generation of people seemed to suddenly become cognizant of inequalities present in all societies, in all countries around the world, coinciding with the emergence of a fourth wave of feminism. Due to the concurrent rise of social media, most of us were able to observe other cultures, and some people realized they could no longer ignore the blatant oppression happening in at least the realms of race, gender, and class. These events shaped many ELT professionals, and we began to take issues of social responsibility very seriously.

In ELT, what I refer to as “the -isms” (racism, sexism, classism) are ubiquitous, yet they are clandestine. They are everywhere, but they are so embedded in our quotidian ways of understanding the world that we often fail to acknowledge them on sight because they are hidden and working in obscurity within our personal perspectives, classroom materials, and institutional policies. While there is much work being done to expose them, there is still much more to accomplish. In this age of social responsibility, it is simply not enough to illuminate the -isms; we must work together to disrupt them. To disrupt them, it will be necessary to understand that all -isms employ a similar mechanism. They all function as a powerful superordinate group acting to oppress a subordinate group, be it white people oppressing Black, Indigenous, and people of color; men oppressing women; or the upper classes oppressing the working classes and underclasses.

With this understanding, my colleague L. Alp Akarçay and I formed a task group at our university to address queer issues in ELT. One of our main goals of this task group was to establish an initiative to increase awareness of sexism, heterosexism, and cissexism in ELT and work with other professionals to develop ways to disrupt these issues. It became the Queering English Language Teaching Initiative (QELTI).

A particular focus of the QELTI was to work to disrupt heteronormativity, defined by Richardson (1996) as the institutionalization of heterosexuality (attraction or sexual contact between two people of different genders) as a “coherent, natural, fixed and stable category; … universal and monolithic … unified and distinct” (p. 2). Put simply, it is the normalization of heterosexuality and the othering of any different sexual identity or expression. The QELTI focused on igniting the disruption by reading relevant literature and having lively discussions, workshopping experimental materials for improvement, workshopping already existing materials to problematize them and halt their reifications of heteronormativity, and working to develop a toolkit as a reference for any professionals looking for support in their own disruption of heteronormativity.

Most of the participants in the initiative reported that they had little understanding of the issues, so we began with terminology. We did a vocabulary-matching activity all together to make sure everybody clearly understood what was meant by the language used outside of the heteronormativity bubble; items such as “ally,” “sex,” “gender,” “cisgender,” “sexual orientation,” “sexual expression,” “sexual identity,” and more were discussed in detail. We then spent several meetings reading articles Alp and I proposed and then we asked the participants to share some articles to read. Once we all shared a common understanding, we used a queer pedagogical approach to interrogate the ways heteronormativity directs the English language classroom. By utilizing this approach, we emphasized the interrogation and investigation of all identities and concepts, disrupting the notion that a commonly accepted heteronormative perspective is the normal, natural perspective (Sumara & Davis, 1999). This applies to all ideas and concepts within a pedagogical framework.

Meeting with other professionals, we understand that this is not limited to learners, but it is also important for all those involved in education, from instructors to administration. We encouraged interrogation and investigation as a way of looking at the world, using critical thinking to approach difference as a way to ensure socially responsible behavior and policymaking within an institutional setting and in the outside world beyond the ivory tower.

An example of a classroom approach we developed to implement follows the work of Deborah Britzman (1995). This approach works not only for disruption of heteronormativity, but it can be applied to the disruption of white supremacist and classist discourses. Britzman suggests some techniques for a queer pedagogical critical reading: acknowledging the limit of what is thought to be possible, confronting the knowledge of the self and the utilization of reading practices. She refers to three reading practices, which are (1) to acknowledge difference without attempting to identify with it; (2) to dialogue with oneself as a reader to interact with the text; and (3) to realize how one reads. With this in mind, we used an in-house text on film history to analyze with the learners. Remembering these techniques and reading practices, and a queer pedagogical framework of destabilizing the normative via questioning, we asked the learners a series of questions about the text, posing questions such as “Who is visible in the text? Who is the intended audience for the text? Who is missing from the text and from the audience?” We followed these questions with exploratory discussions, now asking, “Who would you like to see represented in the course content? Is it important to include others in the content? How does visibility in a text or as intended audience impact your motivation level or interest in your understanding of diversity?” We used Britzman’s reading practices as a guide to encourage the students to reflect on that which may not occur to them, what they know of themselves, and how difference plays a role in their outlook on the world.

Within the context of teaching EAP in a Turkish university, I found significance in the level of engagement the students displayed when asked these questions. They reported that they had never considered these ideas before and they were curious to discuss them. They were also quick to identify those present in the text and its intended audience as white. The text did not indicate whether the films were American, but the film titles were in English and the names mentioned were anglophone names; given that this activity was delivered in a class where the majority of the students did not identify themselves as “white,” this is a direct insight into the ways the -isms work to set up a cultural default. Furthermore, one student noted that they thought the text was written for “straight people” because “[the critics] never mention if [a character from any of the films] is straight or not. If you don’t say anything, people might say you’re straight.” That student seems to have a keen understanding of the ways heteronormativity works to make heterosexuality the standard.

During meetings with the initiative, we acknowledged that our activities designed to disrupt heteronormativity also would work well to disrupt white supremacy and socioeconomic oppression (such as in the aforementioned activity). This is possible because not only do the -isms all operate in the same manner, but it is almost impossible to parse them. Thus, it is imperative to adopt an approach based on the concept of intersectionality, proposed as an understanding of the confluence of multiple identities, in particular subordinated identities such as race and gender, and their simultaneous and mutually inextricable impacts on an individual (Crenshaw, 1989). Queer pedagogy must be acknowledged as anti-racist pedagogy and vice versa. A socially responsible pedagogy for ELT should aim to prepare students to enter the anglophone world ready to confront the issues that plague that world. To interrogate and rethink all ideas and concepts from a perspective that is not controlled by a heterosexist or white supremacist narrative opens space for acknowledgment and appreciation of every person. After all, do we not say that the goal of education, in general, is to educate every person?

During this time of cultural disruption due to COVID-19 and its subsequent response by the world at large, we can no longer return to the way our lives were. Therefore, it is essential that we all adopt a socially responsible pedagogical approach and work together to disrupt the -isms the same way that COVID-19 disrupted all our lives: staunchly and irrevocably.

References

Britzman, D. (1995). Is there a Queer pedagogy? Or, stop reading straight. Educational Theory, 45(2), 151-165.

Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, Feminist theory, and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), 139-167.

Richardson, D. (1996). Heterosexuality and social theory. In Richardson, D. (Ed.), Theorising heterosexuality: Telling it straight. Open University Press.

Sumara, D., & Davis, B. (1999). Interrupting heteronormativity: Toward a queer curriculum theory. Curriculum Inquiry, 29(2), 191-208.


Justin Jacobs is an EAP instructor in Istanbul. He has a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from Eastern Michigan University and a master’s degree in TESOL from New York University. His research interests are linguistics, phonetics, phonology, queer theory, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, racism, and classism.

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