John D’Emilio tells how teaching LGBT history to undergrads has evolved over time

Historians in the News
tags: LGBT

In the bleary morning hours on day two of the 129th American Historical Association Conference five teachers and scholars treated the twenty or so occupants of Concourse Room F in the New York Hilton to a seminar entitled “Teaching Queer History”. Despite nearly half a century of research on queer history, teaching the subject still poses challenges to academics. Mindful of the scepticism of other historical subfields toward studying sexuality at all, and the occasional backlash from students, administrators, and the wider community, scholars of queer history have had to tread lightly. Given the reputation of the AHA as the premier event for professional historians in the United States it was perhaps surprising that this panel, convened by the Goldberg Center for Excellence in Teaching Committee on LGBT History, would focus nearly all its attention on secondary schools. However, as the ensuing papers attested, teaching LGBT history is far more than the quixotic interest of a few isolated intellectuals. LGBT history is at the forefront of American educational reform and an integral part of teaching practices for educators at all levels from grade school to grad school.

The panel started off with remarks from the venerable John D’Emilio on how teaching LGBT history to undergrads has evolved over time. D’Emilio divided his recent cohorts into the “Pre-Ellen” and “Post-Ellen” generations. Familiar with the oppression LGBT people faced in the past, the undergraduate students of the “pre-Ellen” generation (before 2001 or so) were thrilled by the stories of resistance to that oppression. By contrast, D’Emilio found the “Post-Ellen” generation (undergraduates coming of age after 2001) more normalized to the idea of LGBT people and less comfortable with the narratives of oppression and resistance. Because of ongoing cultural normalization, LGBT oppression and the resistance movements they spawned seem distant and foreign to these recent students. This shift, D’Emilio noted, is reflected in the students’ own involvement with and awareness of LGBT politics today: while many students know of or attend pride parades, few of them have heard of Stonewall or know its significance.

D’Emilio ended hopefully, adding that while these somewhat more disengaged Post-Ellen-ites were unaware of much of LGBT history, they were nonetheless keen to learn. The clear solution was greater exposure to LGBT history earlier in their education.

To that end, Emily Hobson, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Felicia Perez, a high school teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, stepped in to offer their insights into how LGBT history could be integrated into curricula. Hobson’s presentation focused on the institutional barriers to including LGBT history in California high schools. Besides the prejudices of individual administrators and parents, and the chilling effect this can have on teachers who wish to speak about LGBT issues, Hobson identified the privatization of education as a key obstacle to wider discussion of LGBT history. Outsourcing of course preparation to private companies, decreasing teacher pay, the rise of charter schools, MOOCs, over-administration, and the adjunctification of faculty all place growing pressure on teachers to streamline their classes, militating against new topics of conversation. Worst of all culprits is the standardized test. Besides giving virtually no incentive for teachers to include non-tested material, the form of the examination emphasizes rote learning, memorization, and the complete absence of writing skills and engagement with primary sources that are the lifeblood of any LGBT history class.

Thankfully, neither Hobson nor Perez felt the need to despair. “LGBT history,” Hobson argued, “offers a way to actively resist the pedagogy of high stakes testing” because it “asks unexpected questions about the past.” Because of LGBT history’s very emphasis on critical thinking and source-based learning, it provides an antidote to the overweening influence of privatization....

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