Creating Trans-Inclusive Curricula

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is a tattooed, sex-positive, queer intersectional feminist and a pansexual, nonbinary trans person. She holds a B.A. in Chinese language and literature with a focus in folklore. She is a writer and translator focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. She currently resides in Ohio with her partner and two cats. She maintains a personal website.

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In an earlier post, I discussed ways in which college instructors can use gender-inclusive pedagogical techniques in their classes, offering specific practices that professors might use to create a trans-inclusive environment in their classroom. In this essay, I offer additional advice for professors to develop curricula that are inclusive of transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) individuals. I draw from personal experiences as a nonbinary trans person, as well others’ writing about curriculum development.

My Experiences

My college course experience consisted mainly of white, cishet (i.e., cisgender, heterosexual) men instructors who assigned readings by white, cishet men authors. Even in classes taught by women instructors who attempted to make their curricula representational — including some transgender authors — the work was often narrow in focus. Most of these essays were coming-out stories, and anecdotal experiences and views were seen to represent the authors’ entire community.

The learning objectives of those readings were not made clear from the start of the course. Discussions of the readings typically devolved into inappropriate probes into the personal lives of trans and GNC authors, usually regarding their personal anatomy and sexual experience. The readings were also usually relegated to their own section in the syllabus, so that two sessions out of the entire semester might touch reflect on trans and GNC voices.

The few times that I did encounter a multiplicity of voices were in classes dedicated entirely to them, such as Gay Fiction of East Asia or Gender in Chinese History. While it may not be immediately obvious as to why these types of courses are problematic, they illuminate the ways in which curricula communicate and reinforce hierarchies of power. Intentionally or not, these curriculum choices exoticize, tokenize and discipline the experiences of transgender and GNC folk in various ways.

Problems

Chandra Talpade Mohanty has written about three models of courses when it comes to feminism — an analysis that is applicable to, and helps me to identify the problems inherent in, the aforementioned approaches to supposedly gender-inclusive curricula.

A course in which trans or GNC voices are presented in single, exclusive unit of the syllabus is what Mohanty calls the tourist model. This approach uses the voices of the Other to try to diversify the otherwise homogenous curricula. It perpetuates normative assumptions about power hierarchies; it assumes that the students reading are cishet. The cishet students are separate from the trans and GNC voices they read. Cishet students simply “visit” the experiences of trans and GNC folks without having to engage with them on their own terms.

When trans and GNC students are present in these classes, it can be marginalizing for them. I had this experience in one of my college courses. As the only out trans student, I was asked to confirm or deny the experiences of someone else, as if I was the single representative for the entire trans community. As a white trans person living in the northern part of the United States, I shared none of the experiences of the Black transfemale author living in the Deep South. Tourist classes maintain the dominant cishet power structure and reiterate normative assumptions about folks on the margins of society. Because students are separated from the material, they are not forced to engage the reality of the social complexities these texts are meant to highlight.

A course in which the voices of the Other are the sole ones highlighted is what Mohanty calls explorer model classes. These are often recognizable by their titles, like the ones I mentioned above. Explorer model classes posit the experiences of Other in contrast with normative ones. Students perceive what they do and the information that they learn in “regular” classes as normal, and the trans and gender-nonconforming folk in these classes as exotic, strange or deviant. Intentionally or not, these classes perpetuate and reinforce “us/them” dichotomies. By being offered separately, the voices presented in these courses are not seen as relevant to mainstream education.

Solutions

So how can professors avoid these curriculum pitfalls? I recommend that instructors provide varied, sometimes conflicting trans and GNC voices so that students can engage and connect with the content more deeply. Cishet student may not normally connect with the story of a trans or GNC person if their experiences or views are too different from their own. Similarly, cishet students may take the narrow views and experiences offered as representative of the whole community, reaffirming their previously held beliefs. By providing a wide variety of trans and GNC voices, cishet students should be better able to find an experience or view with which they connect; they can engage with the complexities of the trans and GNC community by seeing that we are as varied as mainstream society.

In this light, instructors should avoid focusing solely on anecdotal accounts like coming-out stories or representations of trans and GNC people that are exclusively positive or negative. Coming-out stories make the experience of the author personal, which has its place in connecting the cishet world with our experiences. However, focusing solely on this aspect of a person’s life ignores the broader systems of power and oppression — namely cissexism and transphobia. Students can’t properly understand coming out without the social context that is cisnormative (wherein each individual’s gender is assumed to correspond to their sex assigned at birth, either male or female) and cissexist (wherein trans and GNC people face systematic violence, discrimination and exclusion).

For example, my own coming-out story is mostly positive. My family and friends were quick to accept and support me. From this angle, all looks well, but it excludes the unemployment and inaccessibility to proper health care that came with coming out as trans. The complexities of our lived experiences as trans or GNC people are not highlighted, and opportunities for conversations on equity and justice are missed.

Mohanty calls a more nuanced and exhaustive approach to inclusion the solidarity model. A course that uses this approach focuses on the links and intersections between different groups, topics and histories. This approach helps students see the connections between the classroom and the real world by emphasizing what she calls “relations of mutuality, co-responsibility and common interests, anchoring the idea of feminist solidarity.” By focusing on intersections among class, nation and race, (cishet) students are better able to grasp the interconnectedness of marginalized folks’ existence. They walk away with a deeper, more realistic understanding of the diverse experiences within trans and GNC communities.

In sum, curriculum design can unintentionally reinforce gender hierarchies and exclusion. Instructors who wish to resist the status quo in their curricula must take care to provide a variety of trans and gender-nonconforming voices in ways that do not exoticize or tokenize their experiences. By following the tips above and establishing a clear connection between trans and GNC perspectives and the broader learning goals and objectives of a course, students will be able to engage with the material and begin to move beyond the gender binary.

Fostering Trans Inclusion In The Classroom

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is an able-bodied, sex-positive, queer intersectional feminist and a pansexual, nonbinary trans* person. She holds a B.A. in Chinese language and literature with a focus in folklore. She is a freelance writer and translator focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. She lives in Ohio with her partner and two cats.

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As a college student, I never directly met another transgender or nonbinary student at my university — a major research institution with a student population of more than 40,000. I am sure that I may have seen some around the campus and in my classes. But none of my close trans and nonbinary friends and acquaintances are from my alma mater. I did not have the time to seek out extracurricular activities while juggling 15 to 18 credit hours each semester — at least not while also working a full-time job and engaging in independent research to prepare for graduate school.

I was a nontraditional student in many ways. I was a community college transfer student, lived off campus and commuted half of my time there. And there was the more visible fact that I was a nonbinary transgender student with no intention on hiding it. I also come from a working-class background. I grew up in the country, where the idea of college did not exist and gender variant visibility was unheard of. So it was disappointing that the experience that I thought would connect me with other trans and nonbinary folk turned out to do the opposite. Being so invested in course work and research meant that I was home by myself most of the time outside of class. I lost out on the opportunity to connect with the greater transgender and nonbinary community outside of campus. I was isolated.

Life on the campus as a nonbinary trans student was difficult, too. I felt frustrated with the general environment of exclusiveness on the campus, as well as the administration’s lack of services and engagement with the gender and sexually nonconforming population. I was even more frustrated when this exclusion, lack of support and silence permeated the classroom. I saw little material on gender nonconformity on my syllabi and had only a few instructors who maintained trans-inclusive classrooms. I felt invisible and was often chastised in classes for having “too narrow” a focus by including queerness and transness into all my class assignments.

Even if I had the time to be involved in LGBTQ life on campus, the university was not supportive and, at times, was hostile to queer and trans issues. I was forced to develop many strategies to cope with my instructors’ ignorance. It was distracting; I spent a great deal of time educating the people who were trained and paid to teach me about the basic issue of who I am as a person in this world.

This must change. No other trans and nonbinary college student should feel invisible, unsafe, silenced or ignored at their university.

Campus culture and student engagement are the largest issues and require the most attention. Thus, an important first step is for faculty members to strive to create inclusive classroom environments through specific pedagogical techniques. Working from the individual classroom to the curriculum and then to the larger culture will delineate a manageable path to inclusiveness — and ultimately address university-wide transphobia and cissexism. From my own experiences and a lot of trial and error, as well as through conversations with professors, I have formulated ideas for change that I will share with you in this essay.

Creating Inclusive Classrooms

To create inclusive classrooms, faculty members should first identify gaps in their knowledge about gender and become equipped with the necessary vocabulary and concepts. Knowing the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity, between gender identity and gender expression, and between sexual identity and gender identity (as well as the intersections between the two) is a good place to start. You can find a lot of great lists of vocabulary online.

Second, professors should take some time to learn about the plight of transgender and nonbinary folks. Being familiar with our historical and contemporary oppression allows you to better recognize the micro- and macroaggressions that we face, and therefore be better equipped to help protect us in the classroom.

After becoming familiar with the terminology and social aspects of transgender and nonbinary life, faculty members should then implement inclusive pedagogical practices. For the faculty members who are reading this, here are some suggestions:

  • Correct yourself when you have improperly gendered (or misgendered) someone, even if the misgendered person is not present.
  • Do not talk about a student’s gender identity unless they have given you their permission.
  • Do not ask inappropriate questions! I’ve been asked all sorts. “What is your ‘real’ name?” “So what do you have ‘down there’?” and “So are you gay?” are some of the questions I get asked most often. I’ve never heard such questions posed to cisgender folks. Asking questions like those trivializes trans issues, conflates gender identity with sexuality and ultimately further dehumanizes trans folk.
  • Offer your name and pronouns and include them in your email signature. Even as a cisgender person, offering your pronouns helps to create a welcoming, shame-free environment that normalizes gender inclusivity.

Make a sustained conscious effort to use nonbinary language and foster mutual respect.

Above all, a faculty member should set the tone of respect that a classroom must abide by and act as moderator of discussion and defender of civility and inclusion. It is imperative that professors defend marginalized students by recognizing microaggression, eradicating shame and creating spaces where their voices can be elevated.

In a future essay, I plan to provide tips for creating a trans/nonbinary-inclusive curriculum, paying particular attention to incorporating gender nonconforming voices without exoticizing or tokenizing individuals’ experiences.