Blog Post

Reimagining the History and Future of Queer Studies in Higher Education: By Students, For Students

This coming academic year, the HASTAC alliance is launching an exciting new project, a loosely affiliated collection and cross-pollination of courses and instructors interested in studying, probing, debating, and reimagining The History and Future of Higher Education. Initiated by Cathy Davidson (who will also teach a Coursera MOOC on the theme alongside her face-to-face class), colleagues and students will be interrogating the topic from various angles and from our current perspective on the past and present moment of higher education--through a glass, darkly, so to speak.  This seems like an especially apt metaphor since many of us are actively engaged in rethinking the relationship of (computer) screens to face-to-face education. 


I won’t be offering a whole course on this topic, but I’m excited to contribute a teaching cluster on a topic near and dear to my heart: the history and future of LGBTQ studies in higher education.  My Stanford course entitled Queer Literature and Film, on the agenda for next Fall and meant for undergraduates and graduate students in Comparative Literature and Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, will turn into a collaborative, hands-on digital teaching project by students, for students in the last three weeks of the course.  Students to will learn how to apply and build on what they themselves have learned in the course in order to teach others as they would like to see our topic taught: the history, present, and future of queer representation in literature and film from the 1890s to 2013 and beyond.  In small groups of two or three, they will develop a “mini crash course” on the history and present of representations of LGBTQ people in literature and film, designed as a compact three-week syllabus package complete with texts, handouts, assignments, and visual or video excerpts.  It will most probably be aimed at high schoolers, incoming college students, and the general public, the populations most likely to benefit most from our material. The students’ general task starts here:


After having learned about important milestones and developments for LGBTQ representation in literature and film since the 1890s, what would you want others to know and consider when they first learn about these topics, and why?  Ideally, what should teaching the history, present, and future of queerness in literature and film look like, for your generation, and why? What would you [Stanford students] do in a course for others that this course has not yet done?  


The goal is to use what you have learned, making choices, picking the most important ideas and points, milestones, problems, conundrums in the history of LGBTQ representations in literature and film and build a pedagogical sequence out of it—use both new knowledge and research skills to put together an interesting, engaging package for others that “makes sense” as a brief unit and has specific teaching goals, to be defined and explained in your course rationale (which accompanies the syllabus and materials you will develop).


Public function: aim your course at a specific audience (define it, research it). Put your course rationale in context with current debates and controversies about LGBTQ rights in the United States.


Each student-developed mini crash course will engage the students who develop it in textual research, teaches them how to construct a pedagogically structured syllabus that makes sense and helps learners learn and connect the dots through a set of self-developed teaching materials (such as a certain number of handouts to support the syllabus topics and texts) and a written-up rationale for the course.  There will also be a class conference in which the final projects will be presented and undergo a peer review process: each group ranks and gives constructive feedback on the other groups’ projects, then gets a chance to revise its own based on others’ feedback.  (Hey, we may even develop our own sets of badges for the in-class conference.)  Finally, there will be an official launch of our teaching units made freely available to teachers and other students on the web, advertised on social media and our various personal and professional networks. I'll encourage simple web pages--students can do this work without much technical expertise or special skills.  I'll coach the students along the way, but much learning will take place in the group setting as well, by design.  Reflecting and strategizing on how to get from A to B, and the possible choices and steps along the way, will be integral components of this work.


Talk about grades as motivators? I hope that the grade I give each student at the end will be just one part of a much larger set of motivating factors for students’ work in this course, as they will know from the beginning that everything they learn about the history and present of queer literature and film will become building blocks for their own teaching projects and writing at the end of the course, and as they experience the collective brain of their peers who will know and critique their work along with me.  The idea of teaching others in the most responsible, interesting way, and publicly so, with intellectual accountability, can be downright thrilling.  For the purpose of spreading the word on the finished products, I can imagine the students writing to and offering their mini courses to LGBTQ community centers and programs at high schools and colleges around the country.  And finally, I hope that my class will get a chance to interact with students in other classes on The History and Future of Higher Education, to contribute our hands-on example of reimagining at least a small portion of it from the student perspective.  I bet these students will know their stuff by the end of the course!


In a recent talk at MLA 2013, Cathy Davidson publicly called for greater pedagogical investment in what she wonderfully termed “critical contribution,” students’ public service to society’s knowledge and skills as a necessary sister art to that holy grail of a college education, “critical thinking,” whose primary focus is on the individual, not the collective brain.  I fully embrace this notion, and I’d also add to it a “learning in public” component: throwing the classroom open to the world is a powerful tool and motivator for the students themselves and gives their work a sense of purpose that can go way beyond grades. I see wonderful potential in critical contribution and learning in public, not just for the public who benefits from the students’ expertise but also for the students themselves, who will live and breathe the contrat social of teaching and learning.


I love the idea of a teaching unit/cluster instead of a whole course, by the way. "The course" is an increasingly questionable unit in the digital pedagogy realm because it is so narrow and ill suited to the “always available, always open” nature of the web.  In addition, by dedicating only two or three, admittedly precious, weeks of a face-to-face class in a regular semester or quarter to a teaching experiment such as this one, we can experiment from where we stand, with what we usually teach, and try to learn something new along the way.  Another wonderful contrat social: teachers as co-learners.


If this experiment goes well, what a powerful experience it will be for the students and for me, and how much better and publicly useful than anything I (as the initial teacher of the Stanford course) could ever come up with.  As we imagine the History and the Future of Higher Education, let’s think about what we teach already, let’s experiment with how it could or should be taught with digital means not only to translate it but to make it better, and most importantly—let the students have a voice in the future of their own education.



What an absolutely inspiring, profound, marvelous course, Petra!  It will be an amazing addition to our co-located extravaganza.  I can't wait for all the students to have the chance to talk to one another across our campuses, subject matters, and beyond.    The "learning in public" and "critical contribution" components are wonderful.  I am so moved.  Thank you.  We will make sure to move this over to the "curated collections" as one of the signature co-located courses.  


Thanks so much, Cathy!  This will be a great experience for me, too.  I look forward to teaching and learning with all of you!


And my apologies for getting your affiliation wrong, Petra.  I corrected it on the Curated Collections page


Great, Cathy, and no problem.  Thanks for the correction.



What a wonderful idea and potentially invigorating teaching experience this will be. I can't wait to hear more about how it all pans out for the students, as well as what the response will be from those receiving their instruction. It will most truly be an experience in active teaching and learning. It seems one of the challenges would be finding enough time within the limits of one course to teach the topic then train the students and organize the resources. I hope to hear more afterward about how you managed to balance these aspects.


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If anyone is interested in the outcomes of the students' ideas for their teaching projects, please check on our blog here:

The number of students in this seminar was small (six students, mixed undergraduate and graduate), but I was blown away by students' inventiveness and motivation as they designed their own syllabi/teaching sequences for others at the end of the course: one unit on bisexuality; a four-week sequence on trans of color critique; one unit on heteronormativity and queer identity aimed at high school students; an entire ten-week syllabus on the literary history of sex, including a unit on feminism and pornography.

Students turning into teachers, applying what they have learned and deepening it by teaching others: I hope this final class assignment and the students' amazing responses to it will inspire and live on.


Thanks for directing me to the outcomes of this project. I was immediately intrigued and it's great to be able to see how things actually played out. It also strikes me that this course (and the teaching strategy/final project more broadly used) is of such particular importance to graduate students. I am fortunate enough to be in a program that provides a (crash course) training in teaching as a requirement before we take charge of our composition classes, but many programs sent TAs out with little to no training at all. I think getting graduate students to think about teaching a little differently, to get them invested in issues of audience and purpose, is so critical to creating engaging classrooms. Thank you!