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Undoing the need to translate: Public Debates about LGBTQ histories in the Classics classroom

Marguerite Johnson

University of Newcastle, Australia

In Australia, the USA, and the UK, there is a debate in the Humanities and Social Sciences over the teaching of the western canon versus the teaching of identity politics. This paper examines the debate in Australia, particularly in response to the report by Bella d'Abrera, entitled The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities in 2017. The report was commissioned by the conservative thinktank, the Institute of Public Affairs, where d'Abrera is Director of the Foundations of Western Civilisation Program. d'Abrera’s research concluded that ‘244 of the 746 history subjects focus on 'Identity Politics'’ and the most common themes in the 746 history subjects are (in order): indigenous issues, race, gender, environment, and identity.’ (2017: 3). Furthermore, d'Abrera reports that ‘More subjects make reference to the theme of ‘Sexuality' (34) than either ‘Enlightenment' (20) or ‘Reformation’ (12)’ (2017: 3).

The report consistently implies a crisis in the teaching of History at Australian universities and incorrectly correlates this with the rise of identity politics in the curriculum. The mistake is the equation of identity politics with cultural history. One is a socio-political movement; the other is an academic and intellectual approach to a discipline. The former did not shape the latter; if anything, the reverse would be a more accurate interpretation. Furthermore, the report did not address the greater threat to the teaching and research of History, in any form, resulting from the decrease in government funding for the Arts per se, and for universities in general. The benefits of teaching cultural history, or even embedding it in broader world histories, were not addressed in the report. In response, therefore, this presentation focuses on the benefits of such, with reference to LGBTQ histories.

In the documentary film The Celluloid Closet (1995), Harvey Fierstein discusses his experience as a gay student in the 1960s: ‘All the reading I was given to do in school was always heterosexual. Every movie I saw was heterosexual, and I had to do this translation…I had to translate it to my life rather than seeing my life’. His response is testimony to the effects of a learning environment that did not consider the richness of cultural histories. In this context, cultural histories are not about identity politics, but inclusion, authentic pedagogy and the possibility of contributing to lifelong learning, personal enrichment, and deep knowledge and understanding. If history syllabi are also concerned with contribution, social awareness and positivity, there is an imperative to address LGBTQ histories, for example.           

As a Classicist who researches and teaches LGBTQ histories and their intersections with race, class and gender, and as a feminist and a lesbian, the personal also intersects with both the professional and the political. This is a not an impediment to teaching but an opportunity and a benefit, as this paper discusses and celebrates. 

Session/Panel Title

LGBTQ Classics Today: Professional and Pedagogical Issues

Session/Paper Number

89.4

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