Stone Butch BluesToday I finished teaching Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues in my Lesbian & Gay Lit class. I have to admit that I’m frustrated with teaching this novel. I’ve taught it 4 or 5 times in the past 6 years, and I seem to have the same issues each time I assign it.

It’s unquestionably one of the most important GLBT novels ever written, and I sincerely love it. Perhaps more than any other book I teach, it’s a wise novel and an educational novel. Students can’t possibly come away from reading it without learning a lot about transgender issues, gender issues, race issues, class issues, and just life in general.

But there are also problems with teaching it. My biggest gripe is that this novel always seems too difficult to get. This year, for example, I had wanted to start my class with Blues, since it provides such a rich sense of history; I thought it would be a great way to get into the subject matter of our course (post-Stonewall GLT lit — we’re not really doing any bi stuff). But several of my students couldn’t get a copy of the book during the first week or two of class because there weren’t enough copies at the bookstores. This is the second time in three years that my students have had trouble buying it. I assume this difficulty comes from the fact that everybody teaches it, making it difficult for the publisher to keep it stocked and for bookstores to get enough used copies. But it’s so frustrating to have to reorder the syllabus — and thus disrupt my perfectly arranged reading list — in order to give students enough time to get copies of the novel.

I’m also frustrated by the fact that every year I vow to spend more time on Blues next time I teach it — it’s such a rich text that I feel we should spend more time on just about every page of the book. But then the next year comes along and I find myself without enough time to do that closer study. Partly this is why teaching on the quarter system sucks: you never have enough time. This problem was reproduced again this year by the fact that we had to delay our reading of the novel and therefore had to squeeze it into just a week of class rather than a week and a half, which is what I had originally planned.

And finally, I’m frustrated by the fact that my students didn’t seem to really get into it this year. I think this is due in part to having to rush through it. And it’s also partly a result of the fact that Blues is not an artistically polished novel; it has a rather quirky style. But it’s also due in part to the fact that my students this year just don’t seem all that interested in the issues Feinberg raises. They were wowed by the big bang of the opening chapter but seemed to get less and less interested with each chapter thereafter. More than one student admitted that they stopped reading it at one point or another because they just couldn’t take the pessimism any more. I tried to show them that it’s not a pessimistic novel, but I think it was too little too late.

So, I’m seriously considering whether I should take a break from teaching Blues for a year or so. Some of my lesbian students last year complained that we don’t do enough lesbian literature in the class (I always end up counting Blues with the lesbian works). Maybe I should replace it with a lesbian novel next year and see what happens. I hate to drop it from the syllabus since it’s such an important, rich text. But maybe I need a break in order to figure out how to teach it more effectively.

P.S. I read a great article on Stone Butch Blues this week: “Queering Class: Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues” by Cat Moses, which appeared in Studies in the Novel in 1999. It’s a great reading of the book — I highly recommend it.

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