As we approach a new term and a new academic year, Ellis Saxey examines strategies that edge LGBT+ perspectives away from the periphery and towards the fore.
LGBT+ inclusion in the academy can use a variety of strategies, connected and informed by one another. A 2012 special issue of Diversity and Democracy outlines some of these issues and gives strong rationales for their use. Advocacy and support creates a warmer climate for LGBT+ students, but also shapes “healthier environments for robust discourse” among all students. Bringing back questions of gender and sexuality from “the edges of the curriculum” can enhance the participation of LGBT+ people, and also give all students “important opportunities to explore critical aspects of human experience.”
In this post, I explore these two angles on inclusivity, and add one more. Firstly, institutions can improve the experience of LGBT+ students; their experience can be investigated, obstacles reduced, and opportunities enhanced. Secondly, pedagogy can be made inclusive and critical. Finally, curriculum content and research can encompass LGBT+ perspectives and debates. Within each of these approaches, there is additional complexity; a balance between challenge and opportunity, and between smaller-scale changes and wholesale transformation.
Higher education has been a contradictory environment for LGBT+ students. It offers a transformative opportunity, with relative freedom, new community, and intellectual development. However, students can also find themselves sharing spaces with homophobic peers or staff and making difficult calculations about whether to come out and how to self-present.
Richard Taulke-Johnson in 2008 interviewed six final-year, male, gay students at a UK university, mapping both their positive and negative experiences. Taulke-Johnson is cautiously upbeat in his analysis: “despite heterosexuality being the assumed, expected, and compulsory discourse at university, the participants made positive sense of their experience.” His interviewees report a benefit in moving away from family and hometown to attend university: “it was far enough away for me to be myself.” However, their domestic and social spaces are not “care-free or care-less,” with university parties focused on “pulling girls” and the Student Union seen as a “laddish” environment. Ultimately, housemates and friends are supportive, and the young men (and the article) conclude on a positive summary: “The university actually opened myself up and created a positive identity which I wouldn’t have done had I stayed at home.” Taulke-Johnson’s participants lay out the benefits that come from enhanced independence. Recent necessary campus closures have jeopardised these for many students. Katelyn Burns, writing about the US, and Kirsty O’Connor, based in the UK, report similar situations: students moving back in with families and losing community and privacy, part-time jobs ending (which further reduces students’ independence), and on-campus support (both institutional and unofficial) becoming less accessible. Birkbeck, one of the University of London institutions, is currently conducting research into the well-being of 18-35 year old LGBT+ people during Covid-19 and lockdown.
Inclusive pedagogy seeks to extend what is ordinarily available to everybody and similarly spans a spectrum from inclusive actions to more thorough transformations. Whilst COVID-19–related stressors are likely to be experienced by the general population, these experiences can often be placed in tandem with LGBT+-specific interpersonal, intrapersonal, and physical challenges within the living environment. One simple, but meaningful, consideration for teaching staff in 2020/21 is that students’ living spaces and privacy may determine how they contribute to online seminars. Turning on a camera, or offering verbal contributions, may be more difficult for LGBT+ students in constrained environments, and they may benefit from other channels for contribution.
But there are more positive and holistic ways to approach inclusive pedagogy. Michele DiPietro (also writing in the Diversity and Democracy special issue in 2012) takes some key principles of good teaching practice and shows their relevance specifically in relation to LGBT+ students. She discusses incorporating prior knowledge, building on students’ intrinsic motivations, and creating an inclusive environment to reduce unhelpful cognitive load.
There is an intriguing degree of overlap between the politics of sexuality and pedagogic theories over the last four decades. Both discussions emphasise a reorganisation of authority, and a commitment to hearing those who have been silenced
Curriculum content and research
LGBT+ analysis in the curriculum is not new. 30 years ago, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argued that any analysis of culture which fails to analyse the homo/heterosexual binary is “not merely incomplete, but damaged” because that binary has informed so much else. Social-sciences specialist institutions such as the LSE may be particularly well-placed to do so, as this 2017 report from the University of Birmingham suggests that social sciences are a “natural home for discussions about social identity as its relates to gender and sexuality.”
However, as the Birmingham report also notes, sexuality can remain uninterrogated in the curriculum. One student reports, “I don’t have any open or overtly negative experiences. However, all classes are usually positioned against a backdrop of heterosexuality, whiteness, maleness and able-bodiedness as the norm.”
Academia can begin to include LGBT+ data, history, and perspectives in a variety of ways and at different levels. The Birmingham report gives a useful overview of benefits and possible approaches on a spectrum from inclusive language to critical transformative thinking.
I have focused in this post on LGBT+ students, but LGBT+ teaching staff also walk a line between self-fulfilment and self-censorship. My own recent article examines how non-heterosexual teachers have understood their teaching practice, their sexual identities, and their politics since 1970s. There is an intriguing degree of overlap between the politics of sexuality and pedagogic theories over the last four decades. Both discussions emphasise a reorganisation of authority, and a commitment to hearing those who have been silenced. This overlap has supported some significant shifts in teaching practice, with teachers working to empower learners, and to amplify student voices. My article celebrates these developments, but also offers a cautionary note: that when students speak, they do so from multiple subject positions, and their speech can also negatively impact their peers.
Disclaimer: This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.