Today I graded my undergraduate students’ queer notebooks, a new assignment that I’m experimenting with. Last quarter, I had my eighteenth-century students compile a commonplace book (and my graduate students are doing that assignment this quarter), but I didn’t think that would quite work in the Lesbian & Gay Lit class.

Over the summer, I visited a colleague’s class to observe her teaching. She used a very effective notebook assignment in that class, so I asked her if I could steal it this term. So, I adapted her assignment for my class.

The goal of this assignment is to give my students a place to demonstrate that they are engaging in an ongoing process of thinking carefully, critically, and personally about issues of sexuality raised by the literary works we study, our class discussions, and the world around them.

I require them to prepare at least two substantive entries in their journal each week. I want them to show their processing of what we have read, studied, and shared. I’m interested in what speaks to them and how it speaks to them. (That conjures images of ghosts or something interrupting their studying!) I’m interesting in having them record their thoughts, feelings, and emotions—whatever it is that helps them move from inert to alive, passive to active, bored to interested. They can share their thoughts in essay or other forms, as long as they make sure to review aspects of class discussion. This journal is also a place for them to agree or disagree with their classmates’ contributions to class discussion if they don’t feel comfortable speaking up in class.

I’m trying to assign them one required entry each week. One week, for example, they had to compare two scenes in Larry Duplechan’s Blackbird. In each scene, the main character has sex with someone else. The first scene depicts his sleeping with a girl; the second shows him having sex with a boy for the first time. I specifically wanted my students to examine how Duplechan uses language to describe each event and then draw some conclusions about his attitudes towards each. This week they’ll have to write about a poem by Paul Monette and compare it to the last section of Borrowed Time that we’ll also read for Wednesday’s class.

If they include two entries each week, I’ll start their grade at a “C,” moving it up if the essays are especially good. They can also achieve a higher grade by writing in their journals more often than twice a week. Some examples of additional writing might be

 

  • Standard essay writing (narrative, informative, analytical, persuasive)
  • Poems (original and/or transcribed from others)
  • Short stories (original)
  • News articles
  • Sketches
  • Collages (with explanations)
  • Captions photos

I want them to look for issues relevant to our class to write about. These might include topics such as:

  • Homosexuality
  • Bisexuality
  • Transgenderism
  • Queerness, gayness, and lesbianism
  • Compulsory heterosexuality
  • Sexual attitudes, activities, and orientations
  • Homophobia
  • Race and sexuality
  • Age and sexuality
  • Desire
  • Eroticism

I’m hoping that they’ll find examples and illustrations of these topics in their daily lives, on television, in movies, in conversations they participate in or overhear, in advertisements, in music, etc.

Having read them all now, I’m really happy with what they’ve done. I’m most excited by the fact that this assignment gives them a forum in which to write about topics that they may not always feel comfortable discussing in class yet. For example, several students wrote about various aspects of transgender issues. Some of these students have a great deal of experience with these issues, some don’t. Because of the kinds of things they wanted to write, they didn’t always feel comfortable just blurting out their opinions or experiences in class. As we go along together, I hope they become more comfortable in class discussions, but in the mean time this is a good outlet for some of those thoughts.

This assignment also allows me to respond to students’ ideas in a more private way. One student, for example, complained about a documentary I showed on the second day of class: Gay Sex in the 70s. It’s a somewhat sexually explicit documentary about New York City gays and their promiscuity and drug use in the 1970s. This student contended that we could have gotten the point without watching the movie. Not surprisingly, I disagree with his contention and briefly explained why in my comments on his journal. I don’t he or I would have felt comfortable talking about this issue during class so early in the quarter. He might feel weird about criticizing the professor’s choices, and I would definitely feel weird to have to explain to this student that he’s coming across as a homophobe and should really examine why he could only see depictions of sex when most every one else saw much more to the the documentary than that.

Finally, reading these journals has really helped me get to know some of my students’ points of views much better. Many of them have close gay or lesbian relatives. Some know nothing about gay culture. Others are out and face all kinds of situations with parents, girlfriends or boyfriends, in the community, and as students. In a very practical way, we don’t have time to talk about all of these issues in class, so this journal gives them a relatively safe space in which to explore their thoughts and lives. I’m especially gratified by some of the straight students’ acknowledgment of their own heterosexist views and revelations about gay and lesbian people.

So, I’m really happy with the assignment so far. I’ll take up the notebooks twice more this term. I hope it continues to be a productive and interesting assignment for them and for me.

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