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Teaching and Learning Forum 2007 [ Refereed papers ]
Queer(ing) history: Queer methodologies, pedagogies and interventions in the Discipline of History

Zoe Anderson
Discipline of History
The University of Western Australia

Queer theory is an often contested and controversial version of critical theory. Aiming to destabilise normative taxonomies of gendered and sexualised identity, Queer theory has offered enormous potential not only in terms of radicalising and disrupting the now established methodologies of gender and sexuality, but in providing a way of reflecting on the notion of disciplinarity itself and the binaries that continue to exist. In this article I explore the introduction of a module on Queer theory to an Honours history course to interrogate the way in which this theory can effectively 'queer' the discipline itself, opening up the possibility for more self reflective student engagement with these issues and encouraging a more fluid, open ended inquiry into methodologies of history and the place of history itself.

Teaching in the discipline of History has evolved dramatically in the last twenty years and has been one of the most fertile grounds for engagement with, and contestation of, varying postmodern theoretical developments, expanding to more readily explore issues of groups previously marginalised by traditional 'universal' history. As such, new styles of history writing have sought to fracture previous 'grand narratives' of historical chronology. Within this context the position of women's history and gay and lesbian histories has been one of the most popular and exciting areas of historical scholarship (Curthoys, 2000, p.26), utilising theoretical methodologies such as Foucauldian genealogy and feminist theory to bring alternative histories into the mainstream. It is within this framework that this article will explore Queer theory's potential and utility within the teaching of history. To do so, the discussion of an Honours module I prepared and taught will be used as an example of one approach within tertiary history teaching.

The theoretical influx into the discipline of history has created enormous tensions for the 'stability' of the discipline at large and the fears of the nuances of subjectivity undermining the legitimacy and materiality of the work produced. As early as 1991, Ann Curthoys aptly commented that "Historians...can no longer just 'do history'" (p.17). Indeed, recent media and political debates regarding the teaching of history in schools have reflected the anxieties that those (often outside the system) feel regarding the 'progressive lobby' that has 'overrun' the humanities in general. With these feelings of disquiet lingering in the background, the place of radical theory in the discipline of history is one of interest to me and became a focus of my teaching this year. In teaching future historians to expand their thinking on what 'history' is, and how it can be done, the increasing fluidity of the discipline becomes central. A key element of potential and inquiry that will be explored in this article is thus whether the binarisation that Queer theory itself interrogates - the hetero/homo divide - can provide a way to expose the regulatory mechanisms that occur within the history discipline, and illuminating the way that students engage with history.

Queer Theory

The concept of 'queering' has emerged in recent years as a follow-on from, and appropriation of, the study of non-normative sexualities within what is known as Queer theory. Emerging in the early 1990s through a series of heterogeneous texts, such as those by Judith Butler (1990, 1993), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1990) and Teresa de Lauretis (1991), Queer theory has developed to encompass the destabilisation and radical questioning of all forms of identity that presume themselves to be the norm, drawing on the dissatisfaction of working within the binarised categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality, in analysing social identities and structural concerns. Traditional analyses of homosexuality in particular have left in place the master binary of hetero/homo sexuality. As such, distinct categorisations of 'gay' and 'lesbian' themselves have come under scrutiny, as hegemonic norms within any group began to look suspect., failing to address the inextricable nature through which they operate. As Diana Fuss (1995) has brilliantly illuminated,
To protect against the recognition of the lack within the self, the self erects and defends its borders against an other which is made to represent or to become that self-same lack. But borders are notoriously unstable and sexual identities rarely secure. Heterosexuality can never fully ignore the close proximity of its terrifying (homo) sexual other, any more than homosexuality can entirely escape the equally insistent social pressures of the (hetero) sexual conformity. Each is haunted by the other, but here again it is the other who comes to stand in metonymically for the very occurrence of haunting and ghostly visitations. (p.235)
Queer theorists argued that homosexuality should not be treated as just an issue of the lives of a social minority. In this regard, they place the question of sexuality at the centre of society and cultural analysis. So where the sex/gender divide had became a familiar basis upon which notions of masculinity and femininity could be deconstructed, 'queer' then questioned the category of 'sex' itself, recognising that the categories of 'man' and 'woman' are themselves social constructions, relying on cultural-historical specificity to derive meaning. Pivotally, these two signifiers, sex and gender, are then legitimised through the matrix of heterosexuality. In addition, in this cycle, sexuality is constructed and understood as not something confined to sexual acts but, vitally, the appearance of the appropriate gendered identity of the subject; in other words, if the subject is behaving and dressing in a manner consistent with the culturally accepted norms of that sex (feminine if a sexed woman) then her heterosexuality is assumed. In this way, sexuality is the lens through which we comprehend the sexed subject.

Judith Butler's theoretical innovations in both Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter in particular provided radical opportunities to pull apart the assumed innate relationships between sex, gender and sexuality. One of her most groundbreaking arguments is that gender roles do not simply reflect the biological given of anatomical sex, but rather it is gender that creates the appearance of an inner 'essence' of the biological body. As she has argued,

That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. This also suggests that if that reality is fabricated as an interior essence, that very interiority is an effect and function of a decidedly public and social discourse, the public regulation of a fantasy through the surface and so institutes the 'integrity' of the subject. (1990, p.173)
This interrogation issued a strong challenge to the existing order of 'natural' corporeal acts, creating a new, more radical fluidity within the understandings of identity. The rejection of a universal truth or narrative, the embracing of fluidities and multiplicities within the discipline has been part of this trend. Such theoretical interventions therefore have radically disputed traditional ways of doing history.

Applications to teaching and learning

While critics such as Stephen Shapiro (2004) have dismissed Queer theory's influence as brief and already outdated (p.77), the prevalence of issues of sexuality, gender(s) and the suspicion of any category of identification as 'normal' or 'natural' asserts the infiltration of 'queering' throughout the humanities, even when it has not been presented as a single course or program. In doing so, Queer theory's applications have evolved beyond its original focus on sexualities to interrogate all manner of identification, such as ethnicity and nationalism (Reid-Pharr, 2002, pp.7-9). Further to these theoretical innovations has been the shift in terminology; 'to queer' has now come to act as a verb in all manner of inquisitions; as Childers ( 2003 )has stated, "'To queer' is to disrupt the dominant cultural understanding of the naturalness of heterosexuality and conventional gender relations. Queer studies is an epistemology, an approach to knowledge, as much as it is a topical field" (p.39). Going beyond deconstruction of post-structuralist inquiry, queering has become a mode of teasing out the strange regulatory manner in which normalised identities regulated themselves.

In this manner, the introduction of queer theory to historical teaching and learning not only is a challenge to the traditional methodologies of history writing, but inevitably 'queers' the discipline itself, provoking a mirroring of the shifts in its theoretical development with the interaction of students and teacher as well. As Halberston (2003) has demonstrated, resisting disciplinarity has been a defining element of Queer theory's appeal and desire, and in doing so, offers a "critique of disciplinarity itself" (p.362). Student engagement within this experience is predicated upon, and acts through, notions of interrelatedness. In learning about queerness in this space, the queering of education is furthered. However this too has been a contested element of Queer theory within the university system, as some have argue that it integrated too easily into the recognised curriculum. Halperin (2003) has asserted that

[Q]ueer theory, being a theory instead of a discipline, posed no threat to the monopoly of the established disciplines: on the contrary, queer theory could be incorporated into each of them, and it could be applied to topics in already established fields. (p.342)
This assimilation into the traditional discipline structure is, he implores, the antithesis of its original definition, turning 'queer' into a "badge of subversiveness, a more trendy version of 'liberal'" (p.341). Such a perspective is echoed by Giffney (2004) who, in reference to the use of Queer theory to refer only to Gay and Lesbian syllabus, has explained, "they have reduced queer to an identity category alone, or the ontological and epistemological extensions of an identity category/umbrella descriptor" (p.73).

In terms of teaching Queer theory and its influence in history, the idea of queering the subject matter itself is useful. As Clarke (2004) has suggested, queer theory can be utilised most successfully as "a method or practice, a set of tools which can help us re-read and over-read historical traces, spaces and gaps" (p.80). Conversely, others have reflected on the complexity in introducing all things 'queer' into a history praxis, and the apparent incompatibility with established disciplinarity and the original theoretical motivations of queer methodologies. As Childers (2003) has explained

This 'trouble' is because the approach of queer studies would probably require many of us to rethink and rework our own courses. Remember, the intent of queer studies is to be disruptive. I imagine that the contributors want us to rethink our own categorisations and ways of teaching gender, sexuality, race, class, and nationality. (p.39)
The introduction of Queer theory can therefore be an act of queering in and of itself. In addition, the updating of the material concerning gender and sexualities within the History Department is of importance here. As Meyers (1997) has commented, how we put queerness into academic discourses is a vital and increasingly pressing question, for
[I]f the category of the normal is exploded, will that displace or reinforce heterosexual regimes? To what extent is the proliferation of queer academic discourses an antidote to homophobia and heterosexism? ... Perhaps the overarching question of this piece is how can our critical and pedagogical practices counter or contain the potentially conservative effects of queer theory? My provisional answer is that we must first recognise the existence of such effects. (p.171)
In exploring methodological problems, the very questions that Queer theory asks, such as the 'natural' and ontological status awarded many things like the sexed body, apply more broadly to history itself and the nature of historical scholarship. It creates a tension and ambiguity concerning the boundaries of the discipline and the markers by which we measure our writing.

As Bryson and de Castell (1993) have demonstrated, Queer pedagogy is itself an amorphous and undefined praxis. They suggest here various ways in which it could manifest within the university system: specificities of gay and lesbian students and teachers, including gay and lesbian specific syllabus, or 'education for everyone about queers' (p.285). In this instance, they have focused on the more literal interpretation of 'queers in the classroom' rather than the application of 'queering' to pedagogy. My intent, therefore, has been to explore this dissonance when it enters a disciplinary area, such as history. In particular, how does the self reflexivity of queer theory itself offer methodological opportunities for the historian and student beyond simply learning the theory? How do we teach students to think differently, not just with more insight or grasping central tenets of a theoretical concept? How might we get students to think about theory without just labelling it irrelevant to the 'real' discipline? These questions focus the pedagogical issues of bringing Queer theory into history.

Teaching historiography: Gender and sexuality in history

Some institutional contextualisation is required here. Historiography is a mandatory year-long course for those enrolled in the Honours program in the History Department at the University of Western Australia. It consists of six four-week modules, which are broken down into one lecture and two hour-and-a-half seminars in the following weeks. Finally, the students may elect to write a short essay for the module, needing only to complete four of the six modules' essays to conclude the course.

The focus of historiography is an introduction to a wide array of alternative methodological approaches that can be used in the writing of history. In this manner, it is a theoretical and practical space for learning various ways to approach historical material. The teaching is conducted by people often aligned to their particular module, offering an equally unique experience in the presentation and teaching of the different theoreticalpositions. This is usually a rich and inquisitive course. My module had previously been one focused solely on feminist historiography. However, I chose to expand the curriculum, and, as such, it incorporated various literature regarding gender and sexuality and offered a genealogical examination of the shifts in this field of history writing.

Here I planned to compare and encourage critical reflection on the evolution of women's history, feminist historiography, gay and lesbian history, with the opportunities and difficulties of Queer theory as methodology. Rather than aiming for a dismissal of previous methodologies of gender and sexuality within the discipline, I sought to encourage a way of looking at the development and contestation between these theoretical positions, both the complementary nature and the inconsistencies. My intention here was to encourage analysis of the various ways that gender and sexuality can be evaluated, to elucidate the pivotal position histories of the 'natural' can occupy, and to reveal the intricacies and myriad ways of exploring these subjects, rather than assuming that the history of 'gender' or of 'sexuality' is something coherent, marginal and contained.

The module aimed to explore the vital ways in which gender and sexualities can frame our approaches to history/History, and the significance they hold for those seeking to understand any aspect of culture. In addition, the impact of cultural theory on the practice of History as a discipline was a key consideration, creating revision both in previously marginalised subject matter and methodology. In Giffney's (2004) words, the potential for Queer theory is "in scholars' use of it for interrogations of all normative and non-normative acts, identities, desires, perceptions and possibilities, for those relating not even (directly) to gender and sexuality"(p.74).

Queer interventions

As Duggan (1998) has argued, the so called 'theory wars' between history and Queer theory are themselves a false dichotomy dividing differing disciplinary camps along artificial binaries (p.20). With this in mind, the intentions for this module were to explore the ways that gender and sexuality can be used as methodology for history and History. Additionally, I wanted students to assess the significance and similarities/differences of different methodologies associated with gender and sexuality; how do their perspectives differ/overlap: is there a distinct difference between them? Finally, I wanted the students to engage with these uses on gender and sexuality within the broader methodologies in historiography - to see the 'big picture' and the interrelationships between these and other modules in course.

Conceptually, I wanted the students to direct their questions to two main areas. First, I asked how the notions of the assumed linear path between sexed body, gender and sexuality fit together, and whether the project of questioning these as non-normative could bring about a denaturalised understanding. What is 'sex' and how does it relate to the sexual identity? Is it always a 'natural' path? Is the body itself a construct rather than a pre-discursive fact? These inquiries questioned the apparatus of gender and sexuality in maintaining the coherency of the sexed subject and the notion of clear corporeality.

Second, I inquired whether these destabilisations of gender and sexuality, and inevitably of the ontological sexed body itself, contributed anything to our understandings of History. The breakdown of assumptions of the sexed body (in particular) existing a priori to discourse was vital in asking students to engage with the limits and opportunities this presented for the discipline in general. Given that I proposed to analyse the way in which history and theory operated through a false binary as much as the subject matter of artificialities of naturalised sex-gender-sexuality, I deliberately sought to make the ambiguities of the boundaries between each of the areas amplified, echoing the anxieties that can arise from the everyd ay interaction with the non-normative.

In the first seminar I asked students to explore the initial forays into women's and later feminist historiography. Some of the questions I posed were: What was the Foucauldian legacy? How did these new historical methodologies move away from social histories? How was the treatment of sexualities different to that of gender? Here the use of Carolyn Dean's Frail Social Body, utilising a Foucauldian perspective, laid the foundations for broader implications. In the second seminar, I asked students to take this further. They were to consider the specificities of Queer theory and its applications to history. Here I explicitly asked whether it has a place in History/history. The limits and/or opportunities of Queer theory in relation to the discipline required them to differentiate how this methodology differs from other versions of social construction already being utilised.

A Queer pedagogy for history?

The shift here to a more densely theoretical module was in itself a catalyst for a different mode of teaching and learning. As Bryson and de Castell (1993) have asked "What could be made 'queer' about pedagogy?"(p.285). Their answer is one that appeals most to me as an educator; as they propose: "Queer pedagogy could refer to the deliberate production of queer relations ...that is to say, to a kind of postmodern carnivalesque pedagogy of the underworld, as agitation, implemented deliberately to interfere with, to intervene in the production of so-called normalcy in schooled subjects (p.285)." With such an approach to teaching, the disruption of Queer theory to a discipline such as History would go beyond the literature and the more obvious confrontations to established methodological certainties (those which seemingly remain).

In 'queering' history, I would hope to ultimately encourage the students to engage with the connection between the disciplinary divisions and the ways in which layers of unequal binaries are maintained within their own learning practices: history and theory, 'real/relevant' history and women's/ gay/ lesbian/ queer histories, men and women, hetero and homo sexualities, to name a few. This multifaceted dimension means that students are offered the opportunity - through a critical self reflectivity - to engage with their own position within the texts, rather than learning new theoretical literature for an abstract sense alone, and only in the context of its strict application to historical study. In my own experience with this module, I was surprised by the level of contestation such a move had with the students. Over half deemed that it remained 'irrelevant' to 'regular' history, despite my intent to explicitly facilitate the critical use of a more 'general' non-normativity.

Nevertheless, the response was one that could not disassociate from the specificities of sexual experience. In this regard, one student, stridently opposing Butler's work, stated that "I resent that Queer theory is asking me to question the stability of my heterosexuality". The destabilising of cultural normalising structures, through the practice of queering, was confused with a personal affront to the student's subjective sexual identification. Here then is one of the greatest challenges within this field, and one that the brevity of a short course seemingly does not allow time to more deeply explore, through all its complexities and implications for personal understanding: The dissolving of the binary between history and 'theory' (as such) both reinforced and created a dichotomy between gender and sexuality, and heterosexuality and homosexuality. Without that element of student self-reflexivity, Queer theory exemplifies the anxieties created by blurring boundaries of any kind.


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Author: Zoe Anderson is a PhD candidate in the discipline of History. Her thesis utilises Queer theory to examine issues of migrancy and citizenship in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. Her research interests are nationalism and cultural belonging, theories of sexuality, ethnicity and bodies, post-structuralist and Queer theory, and the politics of biomedicine. She has taught history units at all levels at UWA. Postal: Discipline of History, M208 School of Humanities, The University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley WA 6009. Email: zoeand@cyllene.uwa.edu.au

Please cite as: Anderson, Z. (2007). Queer(ing) history: Queer methodologies, pedagogies and interventions in the Discipline of History. In Student Engagement. Proceedings of the 16th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 30-31 January 2007. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2007/refereed/anderson.html

Copyright 2007 Zoe Anderson. The author assigns to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.

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