You are here

TA/TG: The Pedagogy of the Cross-Dressed

No matter how much they challenge accepted cultural standards or straddle societal binary divisions, everyone deserves a bathroom they can call home. From there we can create a pedagogy of the cross-dressed.
Tanya Olson

Issue #59, February 2002

Queer theory promises that work done in the academy will affect the day-to-day life of queers and straights alike. Queer theorists assure readers that re-labeling historical figures as queer and questioning the nature of language are not just intellectual exercises; they are also a step towards greater sexual freedom and equal rights for all. The presence and activity of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are open in a way they have never been before, particularly in the United States. But at the same time, queer theory appears to remain still trapped in humanities departments.

As queer theory begins to leak out of the academy and into the streets, queer theorists must ask themselves what other applications exist for their work. Does queer theory have applications outside of literature and history? Can queer theory change economic policies? Will queer theory change current concepts of urban planning? Is it possible for queer theory not only to reclaim a queer past, but also to redefine a queerer future?

As a queer academic, I believe transgender theory has much to offer to pedagogy.

Learning from Bathrooms

In 1992, I started as a graduate student at University of North Carolina-Greensboro. At the same time, I began working as a teaching assistant in the English department. The TA office was located on the same floor as the other English faculty offices. The floor featured four restrooms. There was a men's room, a women's room, a faculty men's room, and a faculty women's room. Although not designated as such, the bathrooms labeled simply "Men" and "Women" were clearly to be used by students. Beyond the question of why the faculty needed separate restrooms was the question of what bathroom the other TAs and I should use. Would I be trespassing if I used the faculty ladies room? Was I merely posing if I used the student women's bathroom? If challenged, I had no strategies to explain my presence in either bathroom, but I considered carrying a grade book when I used the faculty bathroom, and homework when I decided to use the students. What made the situation harder was that I knew I should choose the ladies room because I had female genitalia. But as a TA, I was unsure which bathroom the university and my colleagues expected me to choose.

As a butch woman who usually wears men's clothing, I am used to being challenged about my presence in the women's bathroom. Sometimes it is an overt verbal challenge; other times, I see doubt in the eyes of another woman. She walks into the bathroom, looks at me, and opens the door again to make sure it says "Ladies" or checks that the figure on the door is wearing a triangular skirt. (I resist the urge to point out that since neither of us is wearing a skirt, maybe neither of us should be in here.) This happens less often than it used to, but I am not sure if that is some of the above-mentioned promise of queer theory paying off or because I have learned how to fend off challenges before they even start. Anytime I use a public restroom these days, I stand a little straighter so my breasts are more visible, while at the same time fixing my hair. If possible, I try to talk while entering the restroom, as my voice is not very deep and most people who aren't initially sure of my sex decide I am female when I speak.

With its stringent male/female divisions, the bathroom is a site that highlights the disruptive aspects of an uncertain or third sex. But sex is not the only binary disrupted in the bathroom. In the same way public restrooms mark a site where the duality of sexual identity is challenged, the plethora of public restrooms in my state-sponsored university corresponds with a similar position of teaching assistants.

Queering Teaching

An underlying belief of the American educational system is that teachers and students are separate categories. Like the popular image of men and women, each identity has a different role, different characteristics, and different values. Anyone should be able to tell a teacher from a student just by looking at them, in the classroom or out. Teachers are supposed to be knowledgeable; therefore, they get to stand in the front of the classroom and impart knowledge, most commonly through lectures. Students have deficient knowledge; therefore, they sit quietly facing the teacher to better absorb knowledge through listening and note taking. Students read what teachers write (books), and teachers read what students write (papers).

These are the characteristics of what Paulo Freire labels a banking-style education in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Anything that falls outside this mirrored pairing (students reading the work of other students or loud classrooms) is considered to be bad teaching. Teachers are from Mars; students are from Venus. What then does the university do with the TA who might in the course of one day both stand at the front of a room lecturing and sit behind a desk taking notes?

Queer theory addresses similar questions about marginalization, particularly in the area of transgender theory. Currently, transgender works as an umbrella term. Transvestites, transsexuals, butch women (both straight and queer), intersexuals, drag queens, nelly fags, and anyone else who performs a gender that doesn't appear to follow from his or her biological sex is identified as transgendered. Theorists like Leslie Feinberg, Kate Bornstein, and Patrick Rice-Califia have all written works essential to building this new definition of transgender. They have also stressed important theoretical considerations brought to light by transgender theory. Because this work is primarily being done by people who themselves identify as transgendered, the theoretical and the personal are often intimately linked. It is perhaps in this regulation of the personal and political where queer theory comes closest to its promise of using theory to better the life of the individual. This separation of sex, gender, and desire opened the way for theorists to explore the cultural insistence on a direct link between sex and gender.

One example of this type of study is Vested Interests, Marjorie Garber's exploration of the social roles of cross-dressers and the links between clothes, sex, and culture. Garber argues that cross-dressing challenges the binary idea of sex, as well as the perceived inherent nature of sex roles. This challenge to the traditional, dualistic idea of sex, similar to the challenge of public restrooms, produces a category of "the third." This third space is potentially revolutionary and radical because it marks a location of cultural discord.

cruising picture!Garber defines individuals occupying this third space as having characteristics of both of the binary extremes between which they fall. Since these two extremes are supposed to be separate and distinct, this third position highlights the constructed, artificial nature of the binary. Therefore, the third is a blended middle, not a separate identity of its own. The third merely incompletely imitates characteristics from both sides of the dichotomy. For example, American culture considers male transvestites as neither real men nor real women; instead, they are portrayed as poor imitations of both, neither really male nor really female. Transvestites, as well as other transgendered individuals, are denied a stable identity of their own as an attempt to disguise the crisis they indicate in the gender binary. This denial of identity is similar to the way universities deal with teaching assistants. TAs also occupy two identities traditionally defined as contradictory. Occupying both of these positions simultaneously reveals the artificial nature of this pedagogical binary.

In some ways, universities treat TAs simply like all other students. For example, TAs follow the same procedures in registering for classes as do other students. Their status as TAs does not allow them earlier or special access to the registration process. TAs are also expected to produce work in their classes. Teaching two classes a semester doesn't excuse them from essays, tests, or presentations. At the same time though, TAs are often asked to produce publishable quality papers in the classes they are taking. Publishing papers is an expectation that used to be limited to tenure-track professors. Today an applicant for any entry-level humanities position is expected to exhibit not only a substantial publishing history built while in graduate school, but also show promise for continued publications. Of course, no professor produces three to four publishable papers each semester, but a publishable essay is a common expectation for graduate students in each of their classes. In this way, TAs are expected to display student qualities, but the professional quality of the work they are expected to produce denies them the identity of a mere student.

Although held to "teacher-quality" instead of "student-quality" standards, a TA is still denied the identity of a teacher. TAs must match the same classroom standards as full professors. They are asked to design and lead a university-level course and evaluate the students in that course in a manner similar to that of other professors. While these expectations are the same as tenure-track teachers, the university expends a great deal of effort denying that they are equal to professors in other ways. TAs are limited to teaching entry-level, required courses. The courses they are typically assigned have little connection to their areas of interest or specialty. Texts are often pre-determined by committee for these types of courses, as are occasionally syllabi. They are not allowed to participate in faculty meetings, nor are they allowed other privileges faculty members enjoy. For example, loan times at the library are usually shorter; TAs share offices with at least one other person; and parking privileges and costs are usually more generous for faculty members. Again, TAs are expected to show some characteristics of professional faculty, but are prevented from identifying themselves completely with that group. TAs may imitate faculty characteristics, but the university assures them they are not real professors.

False Binaries and New Pedagogical Identities

Universities work hard to define TAs as only students or only teachers, but in their treatment of them demonstrate an expectation that TAs be both. At the same time, universities deny TAs the identity of "real" students or "real" teachers. Because TAs possess characteristics of both at the same time, they illustrate the false division of teacher and student.

What could the dismantling of this binary mean to pedagogy?

If it were recognized that one person could concurrently hold the role of both student and teacher, changes would have to be made in classroom practices. A classroom where each individual brings knowledge to a topic is one where each person is expected to share that knowledge with others. In a classroom where everyone has something to learn and everyone can bring relevant information to the table, knowledge can be recognized as a product constructed by that particular group. What a class of eighth graders in Spokane, Washington needs to learn about environmental science might differ from what a class in Savannah, Georgia discovers about the same topic. Common educational practices like national measures or standardized tests would therefore be rendered meaningless. Instead, each classroom would work as its own learning community with distinct goals based on the knowledge necessary for that group, and contingent on what participants bring to the subject. Students are no longer empty vessels waiting to be filled with the knowledge of their teacher.

Numerous other changes would result from this shift as well. For example, classroom assignments would have to be more interactive and individualized; class size would have to be reduced; and the context and background of each person in the class would need greater emphasis. None of these changes would solve all the problems currently facing education, but it is clear that a pedagogical system that recognizes the blended third definition the university grants TAs would be radically different from the system that defines them as alternately imitating students or teachers.

Current transgender theory has also conceived alternatives to the blended third definition of transgendered subjects. Judith Butler contributed to these other definitions in Gender Trouble where she defined gender as a constructed presentation. Instead of a natural correspondence between biological sex and gender presentation, Butler argued that all gender was merely a performance, a copy of a copy. One result of Butler's work was a grave distrust of labels and categories, especially in the area of gender identity. Casting doubt on the binary identities of sex and gender led to the assumption that all categories of identification were overly restrictive and reductive. In reaction to this, Judith Halberstam argues in Female Masculinity that a greater proliferation of categories is needed, as labels themselves are not necessarily essentialist. Halberstam suggests that finding new labels creates identities for positions that often go unnamed and unnoticed. Forming new categories, like females with masculine gender expressions, not only challenges existing gender identities, but also broadens the concept of what is acceptable in a culture. In turn, naming gender possibilities encourages a culture to recognize and incorporate those identities. For example, being a tomgirl is recognizable and acceptable up to a certain age. There are identity labels for it and so it is understood, accepted, and in some ways encouraged. However, maintaining the identity of a tomgirl past puberty becomes unrecognizable, unnamable, and unacceptable. Identifying female masculinity as an acceptable identity gives the tomgirl a personality she can aspire to and grow towards if she wishes.

Halberstam's insistence that new identities be acknowledged demands a definition for marginalized positions, even if those positions do highlight the artificiality of a cultural construct. Recognizing a new identity legitimizes this situation and demands cultural or societal changes to facilitate the new identity. For Halberstam, that means masculine women would have to be recognized by lesbian history and incorporated into legal, medical, educational, and other systems. Recognizing that TAs can occupy the identity of teacher and student would require that the university then grant them a new identity along the lines of Halberstam's masculine female. At the same time, granting TAs a new identity that concedes they are simultaneous teachers and students would force universities to address the issue of pay and benefits, as is currently being wrestled with at several institutions.

Real Wages for Real Employees

In many universities, TAs are demanding a livable wage and access to the same benefits as other university employees. Traditionally a TA receives a small stipend for the year and no benefits. The salary is so small that barring outside employment or support, it places any TA below the poverty line. A TA's contract usually restricts working outside the university or for another department within the university. Few TAs have the time to work an outside job, especially when they are teaching classes, studying for their own courses, publishing and presenting, and preparing for their department exams or dissertation.

One method universities use to defend not paying TAs a livable wage or offering them benefits is to deny them university employee status. While they may be teaching the same classes with the same requirements as a tenured faculty member, TAs are not "real" teachers. Instead, since TAs are neither really teachers nor students, university administrators define them as being in an apprentice-type situation. Since TAs get valuable on-the-job training, this theory goes, it isn't necessary to pay them the same as the other teachers they teach alongside. Of course, with the current glut of Ph.D.s on the market, few new graduates are receiving tenure-track jobs. Instead, graduates take a series of contract positions that last for 1-3 years, work a variety of part-time adjunct jobs, or accept a post-doctoral appointment. None of these jobs are tenure-track, offer a salary commensurate with other faculty, or have any stability. Most do not offer access to benefits. They offer the university a money-saving way to get their lower level, required classes taught by professionals. Should the need for a class either increase or decrease precipitously, the university is free to hire or fire people at the last minute. Most TAs will spend 5-7 years apprenticing for another low-paying job, teaching the exact same introductory classes, simply at a different university. When that position finishes, they move on to the next one. Higher education meets Manpower, Inc.

Recognition that TAs are not only students but also teachers both grants them a new identity and highlights the faults of the apprentice system. Several changes would then follow. First, TAs would have to be recognized as legitimate faculty members with needs different from those of adjunct or tenure-track faculty. This recognition would require equitable pay and access to the same benefits all other university employees enjoy. With this recognition, other models would have to be encouraged. For example, a more accurate model would allow TAs to teach while recognizing that few will move on to higher paying tenure-track positions that require research and publications. This model acknowledges TAs as both faculty and students. As instructors, they would receive equitable pay and access to benefits. As students, they would be held to graduate school, not professional, standards. Those TAs who wished to pursue tenure-track jobs could, in conjunction with the professor, set a goal of producing publishable quality papers that intersect with their area of interest. TAs who wanted to remain at the adjunct level could focus on class work and teaching. Changes also need to be made in a university's treatment of adjunct faculty, but recognizing this new identity for TAs would instigate changes in the system; changes at other levels would surely follow.

For me, queer theory and pedagogy first met in the bathroom, but the personal applications of this intersection soon spread. One day while talking in the shared TA office, a group of us discovered we all shared a phenomenon we came to call "the pretender." This is the belief that your department is on the verge of discovering you do inadequate academic work, are a poor teacher, and never should have been admitted to the department, much less granted an assistantship. In fact, several of us confessed we spent our first year waiting to be called into the department chair's office and dismissed. Naming this fear allowed us to laugh at and help each other through it. Confessing to another TA that you had just turned in an essay and felt like the pretender always brought about a round of empathy and reassurance.

It is little wonder that we all felt like impostors as teachers and as students, as though we were trespassing in a place we did not belong. We were occupying a role whose very definition by the academy involved posing and impersonation. Maybe re-defining TAs in the academy will help stop the sense of masquerade that currently characterizes their work. No matter how much they challenge accepted cultural standards or straddle societal binary divisions, everyone deserves a bathroom they can call home. From there we can create a pedagogy of the cross-dressed.

Tanya Olson currently lives in Durham, North Carolina and teaches Developmental English at Vance-Granville Community College. She completed her Ph.D. in May of 2001, but still is unsure which bathroom to use when at UNC-G.

Copyright © 2002 by Tanya Olson. All rights reserved.