Queering ELT: LGBT sessions at IATEFL 2017 | Some thoughts

LGBT in ELT.jpg

I was happy to see that there wasn’t just one, but two sessions at IATEFL 2017 that dealt with LGBT issues. Sadly, neither were recorded so this post is based on interviews with their presenters, Thorsten Merse and Angelos Bollas.

Thorston Merse (here’s the video) spoke about integrating LGBT issues into lessons through a focus on global issues. Coursebooks have no visible LGBT content but Merse explained that there are some coursebooks developed for Germany which have a few LGBT themes but that it’s really up to teachers to include LBGT-themed lessons.

Nik Peachey, the interviewer, mentioned that the coursebook industry is very conservative. In response, Thorsten suggested that even bad coursebooks could be rescued or subverted by teachers. He said awareness could be built through conferences although these cater to a privileged few. Teachers can also turn to publications and there is apparently a lot of literature on LGBT issues in ELT.  He recommended that open minded ELT teachers establish a global community for exploring practical ideas for ‘queering ELT’. I like the sound of ‘queering ELT’ but I’m afraid it seems a lot more radical than the halfhearted token gestures its going to translate into.

Nik then asked Thorsten about changes in Germany. As a policy, German state governments require gender and sexual diversity across the curriculum, not just for ELT. In practice, the implementation has been uneven with some states taking the lead. The process has been top-down but many teachers have also taken individual decisions about making their lesson content more inclusive thus enabling a bottom-up process to meet a top-down one.

I agree with Thorsten that we can’t wait for publishers to take ownership for inclusion. They’re always going to play a ‘blame the market game’ but at the same time most teachers simply don’t know how to introduce LGBT topics into their lessons. It would have been useful to discuss how these can be curated and made available as open-source materials (not sure if this was discussed in the actual session).

The second session by Angelos Bollas explored whether a lack of diversity in ELT materials has an impact on learning (titled ‘De-idealising the Heteronormative Self in the ELT Classroom’). Once again, there’s no video recording of the session but there is a recording of his interview with Scott Thornbury (here’s the video). His presentation was based on some research he’d done on whether the invisibility of LGBT identities in materials would adversely affect motivation and ultimately language learning. He apparently found that ELT materials, which are designed in a heteronormative way, do negatively impact the learning of students who identify as LGBT.

Thornbury questioned the relevance of the research given that the coursebooks Angelos had researched weren’t the latest editions. Angelos suggested that these editions were still in use. Thornbury also made a point about materials in the US being more inclusive because of the ESOL/ESL context and that this might be more challenging in an EFL context, where coursebooks are designed for the global market. Angelos’ initially explained that EFL students may come into contact with cultures like the US or the UK where sensitivity to LGBT issues may be important. This wasn’t a very convincing line of reasoning but he quickly expanded it to touch on the idea of social change within the students’ own cultures.

The discussion then moved on to what ought to be changed. Angelos seemed to think that it wasn’t necessary to introduce anything new in the coursebook but instead work with what was already there. Thornbury wanted to know whether this would translate into a greater and more equitable visual representation of LGBT individuals as has been the case with women in non-traditional roles, the disabled and women in headscarves. Angelos was against the compartmentalization of LGBT issues into a specific unit and instead spoke for representation within existing units such as for example a unit on family which portrays different kinds of families including an LGBT one.

Angelos rightly pointed out that pre-service training courses don’t equip teachers to deal with potentially controversial issues and that they may fear what might emerge in a lesson that broached such a topic and how they’d handle for example homophobic comments. However, he suggested that in his context, teaching is driven by coursebooks and so everything goes back to the coursebook. In response, Thornbury referenced a study from Japan where it was found that teachers were being overtly cautious whereas students were in fact more open and curious about LGBT issues.

Taking a page out of Thorsten’s book, I think it’s pointless to wait for publishers to take the lead on this. Thornbury used the phrase ‘banging on about this’ – in fact he wrote an article way back in 1999 titled Window-dressing vs. Cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture. I quite like the idea of subverting coursebooks and we could potentially design a playbook for taking existing material and making it more inclusive. Now that’s something teachers can be trained on.

I believe English has a role to play in social change, whether through connections with people across the world or through exposure to new ideas. I know this is an area that folks particularly from the West, tread cautiously, lest they’re accused of trying to impose alien cultural norms in a renewed colonial endeavour. But as both Hillary Clinton and Ban Ki Moon asserted a couple of years ago, “LGBT rights are human rights” and no culture has the right to deny that.

Image attribution: Rainbow Flag by torbakhopper | Flickr | CC by NC 2.0

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