Hiatus: Back to School

It’s that time already! Time for me to get into an aluminum tube that will hurtle itself through the sky at 500+ MPH for over 15 hours. Said another way, it’s time for me to leave my family in DC and to head back to Shanghai for the start of what is sure to be an exciting Spring 2018 semester. This, of course, means that I need to do laundry, pack, cram in some more family time, and actually fly back to China.

So, this means that there will be no update this week. Rest assured, however, that I’ll be back next week with more exciting updated. Next up on the docket, and exploration of the way that early 21st-century inquiry highlighted the scope of LGBTQ+ issues in English language teaching and learning. Fun stuff!

Until then!


The Early Days of Queer TESOL/ALx 1993-2000

The ESL Classroom is composed of a mixture of people with various backgrounds and identities. This mixture of identities is a given and a large part of the identity of the ESL class itself. But besides the obvious identities—ethnic and language backgrounds, gender, teacher versus student—many identities can be or are hidden, invisible (emphasis mine (Vandrick, 1997, p. 153)

Often, or at least in my Intro to TESOL Theory seminar at Purdue, the formal inception of the field of TESOL is set in the early 1960’s. From this start date until the early 1990’s many critical issues in the field were largely ignored—race, ethnicity, native English speaking teachers (NESTs)/non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs), and sexuality among them. Now, part of this is because of the strong cognitivist bent to TESOL and Applied Linguistics that was a hallmark of the fields during those early decades. However, in the 1990’s things began to change and what David Block (2003) would come to identify as the social turn in the field would start to nudge the research and scholarly agenda of these two fields away from their cognitivist roots. All that to say, identity was on the menu; it was now an option for research and scholarship.

Coupling this newfound interest in identity issues with a time of increasing awareness of identity politics-related issues and increased visibility of LGBTQ+ individuals in the public sphere—at first because of the AIDS crisis (Parkinson, 2013) and then through a slow process of normalization in popular media during the post-AIDS era (Lewin & Leap, 2002)—LGBTQ+ issues slowly rose to disciplinary attention.

In this brief review of the early days of queer TESOL, I focus on the two women who drove much of this early work, calling out the inequality and invisibility that they saw as problematic in the system—Cynthia Nelson and Stephanie Vandrick. Without their pioneering work, and the bravery highlight the ways that disciplinary discourses force LGBTQ+ educators and students to remain hidden, queer TESOL and lavender ALx would both have had a rougher and a later start.

Heterosexism and Invisibility

The earliest piece that I’ve been able to find in mainline disciplinary journals that explicitly engages with LGBTQ+ issues is Nelson’s (1993) “Heterosexism in ESL: Examining our attitudes. In this piece, Nelson makes the bold for its time statement that we LGBTQ+ teachers, researchers, administrators, and students exist—even if the discipline had, at best, turned a blind eye to our existence or, at worst, had willfully painted us as straight even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Pinning this invisibility on heterosexism, what more modern takes on queer theory might refer to as a heteronormative bias, or presenting heterosexuality as the only valued and valid sexual identity, Nelson identified seven attitudes in the field of TESOL that she saw as contributing to the invisibility (or erasure) of gay lives and of queer perspectives. They ranged from the seemingly pedestrian, student-centered attitude that many ESL students come from counties that have so few gay people that talking about it opening in the classroom would be controversial (Attitude 3, p. 146) to the more exceptional attitudes that view LGBTQ+ issues as non-issues because “there are a lot of gay men in ESL (Attitude 4, p. 147).

Taken as a whole these attitudes shed light on some of the major issues with taking a queer-informed approach to ESL that adequately gives spaces not just to LGBTQ+ issues, but to how all identities are shaped by dominant social discourses through tools like language. Many of the attitudes in Nelson (1993) are ones that you’ll still encounter today. For example, her attitudes 1, 2, 4, and 5 all attempt to take paint the attitude-holder as taking a neutral stance. There’s one major problem with this stance. There’s no such thing as a neutral stance in education. Every positioning, evening claiming to take no position, is an ideologically fraught act, and one intimately tied to matters of social power. Any critical educator can see that when we attempt to take the neutral road, our students often see it as a tacit endorsement of the status quo, of heteronormative, marginalizing discourses that may be sidelining either themselves, their friends, or their loved ones. And, this can have profound impacts on language learning and teaching by creating environments that encourage some to disengage, to fall silent because they feel that they don’t have the right the speak.

Vandrick (1997) focused on what she termed as hidden identities, which could encompass an identity or identity positioning that individuals might wish to hide from others. She gave examples that included socioeconomic identities, such as the girl from an upper-class family in a class of lower-middle-class peers wanting to hide her wealthier class identity in order to better fit in; religious identity, such as the muslim boy wanting to mask his religious identity in order to prevent being singled out because of the global impacts of radical Islam and its conflation with the West’s so-called War on Terror and mainstream Islam (a slightly modern updating on my part); and, of course, sexual identity, such as the bisexual femail student who only highlights their opposite sex relationships out of fear of teasing or being told for the umpteenth time that they, “just haven’t met the right guy yet.”

In this work, Vandrick gave the discipline two very important wake-up calls about identity. First, identity can become salient in the classroom and can impact teaching and learning. Second, individuals are invested in their various identities and will, if they feel threatened or ill at ease, attempt to hide their identities leading to increased cognitive and affective strain—think of the mental stress of having to keep track of the half-truths told to peers and the emotional burden of not being able to share important parts of your life with your close classmates and friends. ..

Calling attention to hidden identities

After this early and, in some ways careful, starting point of awareness raising, Nelson and Vandrick returned a short time later with discussions about what disciplinary next steps should be. For Nelson (1999), an apparent moment of opportunity could be found in interfacing TESOL and Applied Linguistics theory with advances from queer theory. This would lead her to call for the creation of LGBTQ+-friendly pedagogies through the careful deployment of queer theory in the ESL classroom. For Nelson, this included a careful examination of the various ways that classroom materials and practices constructed and constrained student identities, with a central focus on issues of power and control. Once this was understood, the student would be better positioned to understand how these discourses created social value around specific identities while marginalizing others. The end goal is to give a voice to the marginalized and allow them to find a voice and value.

Vandrick (2001) gave a thoughtful and impassioned plea for greater engagement with LGBTQ+ issues in the field. Two of the most memorable moments in this pieces is an explicit engagement with transgender issues, which are still largely ignored by the field and by researchers, and the call for straight-identified teachers to take up the baton of helping address LGBTQ+ issues and of creating inclusive classroom spaces. Vandrick, perhaps correctly, pointed out that straight-identified educators may be less at risk when introducing queer topics into the classroom, something true even today in some educational and national contexts. Regarding how to go about bring queer content into the classroom, Vandrick advised tying it to a discussion of human diversity and human rights. There is one critical note here, one more nail in the coffin of so-called neutral approaches. Vandrick (2001) is very clear in stating that homophobic comments must be met head-on and explicitly and publicly addressed. Failure to do so, even in the name of ideological neutrality, is tantamount to endorsement and will be seen as such in the eyes of the students.

Selected References

Block, D. (2003). The social turn in second language acquisition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Lewin, E., & Leap, W. L. (Eds.). (2002). Out in theory: The emergence of gay and lesbian anthropology. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Nelson, C. D. (1993). Heterosexism in ESL: Examining our attitudes [The Forum]. TESOL Quarterly, 27(1), 143-150. DOI: 10.2307/2586966

Nelson, C. D. (1999). Sexual identities in ESL: Queer theory and classroom inquiry. TESOL Quarterly, 33(3), 371-391. DOI: 10.2307/3587670

Parkinson, R. B. (2013). A little gay history: Desire and diversity across the world. New York: University of Columbia Press.

Vandrick, S. (1997). The role of hidden identities in the postsecondary ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 31(1), 153-157. DOI: 10.2307/3587980

Vandrick, S. (2001, February 28). Teaching sexual identity in the ESL classroom. Paper presented at the 35th annual meeting of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Saint Louis, MO: TESOL.

Unit Introduction: What is Queering and Why Should We all Do it?

Requisite Housekeeping

For this project, I’ve decided to break up the blog posts into thematic units to make it easier for me to plan and write, and hopefully more accessible to readers. To help with moving between topics in a unit, I’ll be using WordPress’ categories feature to make navigation a bit easier. So, if you’re interested in material that helps you think about why queering English language teaching (ELT) is important, you can just search for the category tag “Unit 1: Queering” and the related posts will pop right up.

Unit Introduction

This unit will explore what it means when people talk about queering ELT and begin to provide some justification for adopting queering-informed pedagogies in the ELT classroom. This unit will stretch for about five to six weeks depending on my work and scholarship schedule. The discussions in these sections are geared towards helping the practitioner and teacher trainer in two ways. First, it will provide an overview of the history and development of LGBTQ+ issues in the field TESOL/ELT. Second, it will provide useful tools for thoughts about why adopting a queer-informed pedagogy is important to critical practice—this can also be helpful when encountering resistance to queer pedagogy in what I will be calling ‘frigid environments.’ Allow me to begin by answering the question what does it mean to queer ELT, or to take a queer-informed pedagogical approach?

What does Queering Mean Anyways?

One of the conversations that I have time and again is what it means when we take the adjective ‘queer’ and turn it into a verb. What exactly does it mean when we go about ‘queering’ ELT. My initial response, based off of way too much time spent in the Lavender Applied Linguistics and Queer TESOL literature is that it’s a complicated question to answer. But, just because something is complicated doesn’t mean it isn’t worth learning and thinking more about. So, let me begin with the definition of queering that I prefer and have used in pieces published in TESOL Journal and the Journal of Language and Sexuality.

Queering the English language classroom involves the development and deployment of pedagogical strategies and curricular materials that trouble all identities, not just sexual ones, and how they are performed through language during communicative events. Moreover, it attempts to create lessons that make clear to students they ways that they are positioned by dominant social discourses and expectations that in effect “police” the identity options available to them (See also, Paiz, 2017)

Now, what makes this definitional work so complicated, so fraught? Well, this is because of the intellectual history of the term queer and queering, as they understood by the Queer Theorists. For example, scholars like Annamarie Jagose and Nikki Sullivan would argue that by pinning down a definition for the term queer, we are unqueering it—this would make it complicit in and influenced by normative discourses of the western academy and of the social sciences. While I understand their concerns, I disagree. I believe that to carry out responsible scholarship and to create a space for praxis, that marriage between theory and practice, we must create tools-for-thought to guide that work; this necessarily means pinning down definitions, but making it clear to our readers that these descriptions, much like our analysis of qualitative data are emergent, in-progress, and changeable.

Reflection Questions

As we move through this unit, I would like to ask that you think about the following two questions as you critically reflect on your own practice and relationship to LGBTQ+ issues in ELT.

  1. What place do I feel LGBTQ+ material and approaches have in the English language Classroom? And, what is underpinning those feelings?
  2. What steps will I need to take to challenge my current views in order to maintain a critical edge to my professional development and teaching practice?

What Lies Ahead

So, to keep you interested here’s a peek at what’s on the docket in the coming weeks:

  • The Early Days of Queer TESOL/ALx – Heterosexism and Hidden Identities
  • Picking up Steam: The “Sexual Revolution” in TESOL and ALx (2000-2010)
  • Expanding Contexts for Inquiry: Current Work in LGBTQ+ Issues (2010-present)
  • Areas of Invisibility: Bi and Trans Issues in ELT
  • Towards a Queer Pedagogy for ELT
  • Wrap Up and Reflections

Selected Resources

Jagose, A. (1996). Queer theory: An introduction. New York: New York University Press.

Paiz, J. M. (2017, forthcoming). Queering ESL Teaching: Pedagogical and Materials Creation Issues. TESOL Journal.

Sullivan, N. (2003). A critical introduction to Queer Theory. New York: New York University Press.

Exigencies & Positionalities

For any project like this one, I think that it’s important to be forward with readers as to the why and the who of the project. Answering why tells us about the exigencies of the project, at least as the author sees them. This can begin to lay bare what direction the project is going to lean. And, make no mistakes all projects are values-laden, ideologically driven works. If anyone tries to sell you a piece of social research that is values and ideologically neutral…well, that’s a modern snake oil slinger if ever there was one. Answering who does much of the same work; it lays out potential biases by telling you about the person doing the work. Because, let’s face it, as social sciences researchers/scholars/practitioners we bring a lot of ourselves to our work with us. So, I’m going to use today’s post to discussion exigencies and positionalities for this undertaking.

Exigency: Or, What Makes This Topic Right for This Moment

I’m pushing this blog in this direction because it is needed. First and foremost, identity matters in language learning and acquisition. It can drive people to want to learn new languages, and it can motivate people to acquire greater and greater proficiencies in a language (see Block, 2007; Paiz, 2015). Over the past decade or so a great deal of interest in identity-based research has been generated by scholars and practitioners that have been increasingly aligned with social approaches to the field. This has led to books, journals, and encyclopedia entries being commissioned that have examined race, gender, sexuality, social identity, professional identity…the list goes on and on. This speaks to the strength of the perceived role that identity can have in the language classroom.

More specifically, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc. (LGBTQ+) identities have received increased attention in recent years, in part because of the increased visibility of LGBTQ+ peoples in the public eye. Looking to the statistics on LGBTQ+ youth/young adults and bullying, suicide, homelessness, and drug use speak to the need to prepare teachers to work with and to create space for, language learners to engage with this topic. Failure to adequately prepare educator to queer their practice maintains the invisibility of LGBTQ+ populations (see also Paiz, 2017), ones where students, not seeing viable or preferred identity positions being made available to them, feel shut out of the educational space. It’s crucial for LGBTQ+ language learners who might want to integrate into language-specific LGBTQ+ communities, and it’s essential for non-LGBTQ+ language learners to be better able to interact respectfully with LGBTQ+ individuals.

Positionality: A More Targeted “About Me”

I am a married, mixed-race, gay man that holds a doctorate in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) from a large, public, land-grant university in the American Midwest (Flyover Country). I was raised by two politically conservative, evangelical Christians who were, at one point or another, both employed in law enforcement—My dad would prefer the term peace officer, but that seems a bit of a misnomer in the current American political climate around policing, police brutality & accountability, and engagement with people of color. Having said that, I know tons of great cops that make our communities safer. However, poor training and vetting and a slew of systemic inequality issues make for a bad mix. But, I digress…

Earlier this academic year, I was labeled a radical leftist by a colleague that studies Marxism, Capitalism, and superheroes. Despite being professionalized into a relatively liberal discipline in a somewhat liberal program, my conservative upbringing means I am, like most humans, conflict made animate. And, I’m sure that will show up in future blog posts. From my teens to my mid-twenties I had an on again, off again love affair with the closet as I explored my sexual identity. Engaging in scholarship and inquiry about LGBTQ+ issues in TESOL/ALx helped me to better understand not only my own space in my profession but my own sexuality. That is, I am close to this project. It matters to me as a professional, as a language learner (L2 Chinese), and as a human being. So, that’s the baggage that I bring to this project with me. I’ll attempt to be unbiased by also considering, or at least presenting, opposing arguments where appropriate.

Next week, I hope to start digging into the first unit of blog posts, which will focus on operationalizing what it means to queer educational practice. I’ll begin with an overview of the unit before I begin discussing the moments in TESOL that helped give LGBTQ+ issues increased visibility.

Introducing ALx Lavender

Welcome to 2018 and more blogs. Last year, when I first started blogging under the site title of Applied Linguistics (ALx) (Re)Coded, I set out to cover a range of topics in applied linguistics and to do so in a way that would be more widely accessible than in standard reports of research—including some of my own occasionally obtuse published works. While that was fun, and it allowed me to cover just about anything that I found interesting, I’ve decided to change it up for the 2018 calendar year…and perhaps a bit into 2019 as well. To start, however, it’s time for a thematic update to the site’s name. So, for the foreseeable future, the ALx (Re)Coded moniker is being retired in favor of our new name ALx Lavender, which should give you a hint of the new site direction, especially if I point out that it’s not the flower, as shown in the post’s featured image. ALx Lavender will be the site’s new name for the duration of this project.

Now, at this point, you should notice the ambiguous referent in the last sentence. What project? Well, after about three or four years of working and researching LGBTQ issues in ALx/TESOL, I’ve decided that I want to dedicate some more time and thought to what I see as a central problem in this topic. While we’ve had some brilliant minds outline pedagogical schemes to address LGBTQ issues in English language teaching (ELT), we’ve really yet to see a practitioner accessible model pop up. Much of the work, despite how much I adore Cynthia Nelson (formerly of the University of Sydney) her work can be a bit theory heavy. We’ve also seen some significant journal contributions, but these have primarily been anecdotal (as in Curran or O’Mochaim’s Journal of Language, Identity, and Education forum pieces in 2006) or more targeted at the researcher (as in Moore’s TESOL Quarterly focus article in 2016). What we need now is a researcher-driven, practitioner-oriented guide to queering their practice; one that has been specially tailored to speak to their needs and in an accessible, everyday language. Something that can be consumed, reflected on, and applied to their practice without having to wade through pages of theory or research findings that may or may not be localizable to their context. Given my love of teaching and my own work in this area, I have decided to take a shot at writing such a guide—and what better platform than this blog.

Now, understand, that I’m not doing this because I think I have all the answers, but because I want answers myself. When I present on queer issues in language learning and teaching at conferences, I will regularly encounter practitioners that are there to fulfill their professional development (PD) requirements, and they all ask the same set of questions, “How do I apply your research to the classroom? How do I create a critical space that is also one that celebrates and acknowledges the diversity of sexual and social identities out there?”

So, I’ve gone on long enough here’s a quick preview for the coming weeks:

  • Project exigencies and blogger positionalities
  • What is queering and why should we do it?
  • The early days of queer TESOL/ALx
  • Increased visibility of queer issues in language learning and teaching
  • The recent explosion of queer-focused research
  • Where did the B and the T go? Bi and Trans invisibility in TESOL/ALx
  • Moving towards a queer pedagogy for ELT
  • Queer Inquiry as pedagogical practice
  • A much, much more!

So, until then!