my teaching philosophy (or, a pedagogy of the dysphoric)
It has taken me roughly a decade of teaching at universities, high schools, community-run letterpress studios, gardens, bookstores, and inside my computer screen to arrive at the below teaching statement, which I have come to refer to as my personal pedagogy of the dysphoric. In this context, I use “dysphoric” to refer not only to the experiences of the hundreds of trans writers I have had the privilege of teaching and mentoring, but also to my cisgender students of different races, backgrounds, and experiences who arrive in my courses depleted of connection to their bodies, imaginations, and personal voices. Dysphoria is a word which I believe is an apt descriptor of the feeling of separation, grief, anxiety and disembodiment plaguing most humans today attempting to live ethically and with joy under capitalism, changing climates, and a rise in global nationalism. As such, there are several animating questions that power my teaching practice:
How to embody learning when the ground, the body, is dysphoric? When it resists embodiment?
And how to do so when the classroom is a membranous online space?
How can sensuality and connection encourage learning when the present moment is unbearable?
( thinking slowly )
While I draw on my experience as an editor, writer, bookseller, and former publicist to demystify the publishing world for writers who want to know more, as a teacher I rely on mindfulness and reflection, somatic exercises, metaphor work, and meditations in combination with writing prompts and discussions. I believe this approach has something for everyone, whether a student is looking to polish a manuscript of short stories, map out a memoir in essays, or is seeking to cultivate a sustained practice of writing as part of a holistic, self-reflective life.
I encourage my students to think of their creative growth as a process of change and decay; less up and out like the branching tree, and more attuned to change and decay like fungus or lichen. Coming into our own voice as a writer isn’t always a forward motion, and thinking in this way can discourage new writers from trying and failing and trying again. Sometimes it’s also internal and down and in a different chassis; sometimes it’s calving whole sheets of who we thought we were.
My inclusion of fungi and lichen above is not accidental—I have been thinking and writing with these symbiotic, poorly understood beings for many years in an effort to better understand relationships and creative interchange. As a result, many of my metaphors and much of my class structure pulls from the rhizomatic shape of mycelial networks. When an artist or writer thinks slowly and deeply about one subject or work over a long period of time, this invites others to think slowly with them. It becomes a practice of continued investigation and perception, instead of about producing commodity after commodity to be consumed. This is why I include a period of silent or guided meditation in almost every class session I teach.
( communal inquiry )
Among other things, these parenthetical membranes are a reminder of the importance of silence and listening in a teaching practice. A pedagogy of the dysphoric is not a top down process. Inside the membrane is constant interchange, oscillation, percolation. It also doesn’t mean a constant invitation to embodiment. How exhausting. No, it’s equal acknowledgment that sometimes embodiment is a chore, a drain on our resources. Sometimes we need to escape our constricting membranes. Fiction and literature are among the primary ways this can be accomplished.
The communal inquiry approach I use in my classes invites students to push our study in new directions, new disciplines, if necessary. Resisting the idea of expertise is important to me as a teacher. One of the things I encourage my Publishing Trans Stories workshop students to do is cultivate a relationship with the physical sensations that happen when they’re writing, especially the feelings that happen in the body when the writing is “good.” This feeling may be the only validation they receive for a long time. And It can tell you a lot—when to listen to your critics and rejections and return to the page, or when to press on until you find the right readers, the right press. Who gets to decide if our stories are worthy of publishing? At least some of the time, we should listen to our bodies on this matter.
( dragging pedagogy )
Often in dysphoric pedagogy, self awareness comes about by engaging in drag, by imagining and performing different selves on the page (shoutout to the brilliant & generous moonyeka and their House of Kilig for helping me articulate this connection.) By becoming a self of residues from other creatures, other beings. Sometimes in my classes we do this by imagining we’re the water cycle, accumulating runoff from droplet to storm. Sometimes we’re swarms, murmurations, tadpoles, whales, worms. Sometimes we’re blank sheets of paper. Sometimes we’re palimpsest of bark beetle. Sometimes we’re a whole biome catching up in the chat.
A pedagogy of the dysphoric is not a comfortable thing. Asking trans writers, the traumatized, the marginalized, the depressed, the overwhelmed, to dwell in their bodies is not always pleasurable. I try to be careful, try to be mindful, try to provide rest and alternatives. I’m also always learning from my students how I could have done things better or differently. I’m always being reminded in ways that let me see through the barrier, the membrane, from my life to theirs.
Dysphoric pedagogy can also resist the body. Sometimes it means allowing students to show up disembodied, camera off, wavering on the edge of being there and not. This does not bother me. While Zoom has opened up many opportunities for me to connect with other bodies around the world, in classes and otherwise, I do sometimes miss the feeling of being just voices or just words in instant communication.