Before my first graduate school teaching orientation, we had to fill out a questionnaire in which we were asked our goals. I wrote: to become a queer role model. This was over a decade ago, and I still feel the embarrassment of having written such a thing,
The last thing I would ever want any gay male to do is emulate my behavior. In or out of the classroom. As a gay man, I’ve made a lot of choices. I often am confused as to whether they were good or bad choices. But they were choices, and I made them.
At the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, I took a creative writing course with a gay male instructor. There were several homosexuals in the class. I remember being intimidated. If he didn’t like my fiction, then I was not a legit queer. If he did, I was on my way of becoming someone important. It was that simple.
I still feel that way. There’s something special about having another gay male’s approval.
I am not a creative writing teacher who does in-class writing exercises. As a student, I hated them. They felt like a waste of time. Why do something that you can do at home? The teacher was lazy and didn’t prepare for class. It’s like putting students in small groups. That never felt like real teaching. Still doesn’t. One of my required texts is "The Practice of Poetry," a book full of poetry writing exercises. If a student tells me they don’t know what to write about, I tell them to look at the book. If they press me further, I say, “Page sixty-three.” I have no idea what’s on page sixty-three. But they walk away satisfied.
I am interested in the act of criticism. Before you can talk about a text’s strengths and weaknesses, you must be sure that the student can describe what is going on it. So much student writing evolves from the presumably autobiographical. Everyone wants to appear tolerant. Everyone wants to be a good person. A lot of gay students are dealing with coming out issues; their first poems will reflect that. As a result, the class' first inclination is to offer charmingly meaningless praise.
Courageous, they say. This writing is courageous. It took guts.
Courage is a very trick thing to evaluate. How does one slap a letter grade on the abstraction?
(I would like to add here that I am a teacher who believes that undergraduate students need to receive midterm assessment, and yes, some sort of grade. It is unethical, as far as I’m concerned, to tell a student that they shouldn’t be interested in grades, as if there’s something shameful in asking. These teachers need to be reminded that their workshops are situated in an academic institution. Students are paying for that letter on a transcript. That letter has a cost. It has worth,)
How do you lead a discussion and evaluate an openly gay male student who has produced his first openly gay poem in a predominately heterosexual classroom?
How do you protect that gay student from potentially hurtful critique and at the same time allow for an intellectually authentic classroom discussion?
This inquiry will be continued on Friday.