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Too often as teachers we feel that we are doing the right thing by assigning our students "open-ended" essay topics or by inviting students to argue "both" sides of a controversial current event. The ideologies and institutions of liberal pluralism tell us that this is the way to promote "free speech," "democratic" argument, etc. But these kinds of topics and discussions have the effect of privileging dominant power relations and of further silencing our queer students. For example, if we ask our students to debate whether homosexuality is "wrong" or not, we are expecting our queer students to justify their very existences in the classroom--a debate over the rightness or wrongness of heterosexuality would be unthinkable--and to endure painful and threatening homophobic remarks from their colleagues. Queer students have a right to expect not to be wounded in this way in the classroom. Teachers should avoid texts that adopt this type of "pro" and "con" approach (i.e, most generic composition readers) and should create assignments that do not invite homophobic responses. For instance, instead of asking students whether homosexuality is "wrong" or not, we might ask them to analyze a homophobic article, explaining who they think the intended audience is, what assumptions the writer makes, what values the argument embodies, what rhetorical strategies the writer uses, etc. Better still, we could invite students to analyze, for instance, Queer Nation's founding manifesto, "I hate straights." Instead of asking students to agree or disagree with the article (an invitation bound to elicit some virulently homophobic responses) we could ask them to discuss the article's use of the pronouns "I" and "we." Or we might ask students to conduct some research that could indicate why the article's authors adopt the positions that they do. Or we could say to students: "You are a member of Queer Nation. Explain what you hope to accomplish with this manifesto." The topics that I have suggested are no "narrower" or more "restricted" or "less free" than any other topics. Every time we give students an assignment we circumscribe their possible responses. The question is not one of "censorship," then. We can choose how to circumscribe assignments, not whether or not we should circumscribe assignments. If teachers don't want to have to read homophobic papers and don't want queer students in the class to be subjected to such papers, we have to frame our assignments in ways that do not invite such responses. It would be disingenuous to ask students if homosexuality is "wrong" and then chastise those students who answer affirmatively. At least we should be honest when we assign papers.


This article was originally published in Radical Teacher, volume 45, in 1994.

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