Earliest political memories in the classroom

epm-36_medLast autumn we ran an experimental online public engagement series called ‘earliest political memories’. We collected a total of 68 memories that were generously contributed by members of the public. You can read all the contributions here. The series caught the attention of our colleague Rachel O’Connell in the School of English who convenes the MA in Sexual Dissidence. Rachel saw a pedagogical opportunity in the series and went on to use the idea of ‘earliest political memories’ in her teaching. Below Rachel reflects on practice. 

I heard about the Connectors Study Earliest Political Memories series through a colleague and was immediately struck by its central concept. The idea of “earliest political memories,” for me, encapsulated one of the founding and central insights that drives my field, gender and queer studies: that the personal is political. I saw, in this concept of earliest political memories, a way to support students in their ongoing efforts to connect in a real, experiential way to that insight. The concept of earliest political memories asks us to see the political in our own lives and at the same to consider and perhaps reconsider what we define as “political.”

I convene the MA in Sexual Dissidence, affectionately known as “Sex Diss,” at the University of Sussex. This historic MA programme in queer studies, the first programme of its kind in the UK, celebrated its 25th year in 2016. The MA brings together unique, brave, and inspiring students to spend time studying queer politics, history, and identities. I teach the introductory module on the MA, a survey of queer theory from the 1980s to the present entitled “Critical Issues in Queer Theory.” This first module sets in motion the ongoing conversations about politics and identity that students will engage in with academics and with one another throughout their time at Sussex.

A question that I regularly reflect on, as the teacher of this module, is how best to bring together students’ experiences with the theoretical texts that we study – how to reach out to students, and incorporate their experiences, in ways that are appropriately mediated and structured by the intellectual and political parameters of our studies. This is an issue that I think is familiar to many people that teach in the areas of gender, sexuality, class, race, and dis/ability. This year, in our very first class session, I gave out some examples of posts from the Connectors Study Earliest Political Memories series for my students to read. Then I invited them to each write out their own earliest political memory. The students then shared and discussed their memories in pairs, and afterwards we fed back as a whole group, with some students choosing to share their memories with the whole group.

The exercise allowed us to have a promising discussion about what the students perceived to be political; unfortunately, this was somewhat curtailed by the end of class! Even more so, I liked the way that the exercise helped us all, on the first day of class, to get to know one another specifically through memory and politics – two facets that, to me, are crucial for the study of gender and sexuality.

It was fascinating, in doing this exercise, to notice that for so many in this generation of students (most of my students are in their early 20s), their earliest political memories as they defined them circulated around 9/11 and the Iraq War – for instance, memories of adults discussing the war or of images seen on TV. It was also interesting to me, as someone trained in gender and sexuality, to note that for the most part (though not all of them) the students seemed to be defining the political in relation to institutional or official politics. I would define the political more broadly, to include all aspects of everyday life. However, this focus on institutional politics may also have been partly because the students didn’t know one another in our first class session and didn’t want to delve into personal matters – this is also why I kept sharing optional and low-stakes in the way I designed the exercise.

When I joined in one of the in-pairs discussions, I was reminded of the challenges involved in rethinking the personal as political. One student had chosen to write about 9/11 as their earliest political memory. In their paired discussion, they also recounted an entirely different, earlier and more personal memory, one that touched on their childhood resentment about different clothing conventions for girls and boys that were enforced in their family. They ambivalently nominated this memory as political, choosing to tell the story of it to me and their partner, and yet at the same time downplaying its importance several times. This made me think of the things that any number of queer and feminist thinkers could tell us about the complex, often difficult processes – of demystification of the family, of learning to see one’s own experience as important – that are involved in rethinking our pasts as political. It also pushed me to acknowledge the rules, conventions, and hierarchies that can curtail discussion in academic contexts, and that may have affected my student’s willingness to talk through this memory in depth.

In our very last class of the term I brought us back to this exercise. I invited students to rewrite the experience they had written about in the first class of the term, exploring it in more depth or in a new way; or, if they had changed their mind about what their earliest political memory was, to write out the new memory that they had chosen to nominate instead. We then shared and discussed as a group. Our conversation about why students had changed their nominated memories or kept them the same allowed us to reflect on our ideas about the nature of the political after a term of exploring gender and queer theory.

Perhaps the most striking contribution came from a student that had chosen on their own initiative to write, not about their earliest, but rather about their most recent, political memory; and I think this idea of the most recent political memory (which will of course be productively ever-changing) is a great way of following up on the idea of the earliest political memory. The memory that the student wrote about was an incident that had happened to them only a few days before, in which they had encountered a set of assumptions about their gender that had troubled them and left them feeling unrecognised in the world. This memory, of an incident that was fleeting and yet had had a strong negative impact on the student, really encapsulated for me how the tiniest interaction comes freighted with an extraordinary weight of cultural, historical, and social conditions – and how, as another student said, “everything is political.”

Working with the concept of earliest political memories allowed me, too, to rethink my memories. In the final class session of term, as I wrote about my own earliest political memory alongside my students, I chose to change the memory that I felt constituted my earliest political memory. I realised that for me my earliest political memory is, simply, my earliest memory.

Thinking about earliest political memories while teaching gender and sexuality also prompted me to speculate about the loss of memories, and about the loss of the political in memories. Early in the term we looked at the AIDS epidemic in the USA and the UK in the 1980s and 1990s. This is often a difficult topic for students to confront due to their very varied relationships with this history. While some students have personal experiences, tellingly, many of them have very low awareness of this episode in history, despite its being part of “their” queer history. To try to negotiate some of these difficulties, in advance of the class session I set up an online forum in which I invited students to share their thoughts and anything they wanted to disclose about their relationship with this issue.

I shared a post in which I described some of my memories of growing up in the 1980s and the discontinuous, haunting appearances of the epidemic in my childhood (adverts on TV, half-understood conversations overheard among adults, family friends that died). These were memories that I had rarely thought about in my adulthood and that I had not linked together; they came back to me as I wrote. By writing the forum post and thinking about the concept of earliest political memories, I was able to connect and re-chart these memories as some of my own earliest political memories. I was also able to see how they were, in some ways, unclaimed or uncared-for memories. Vague and unmoored, they seemed to me to constitute a site of memory that had not been chosen for collective working through and raking over, that had not been anchored to a shared narrative or consciousness. This, to me, bespeaks a kind of ongoing, implicitly homophobic, historical amnesia, an amnesia that has also deprived many of my students of a fuller sense of queer history: a failure or refusal to truly remember, memorialise, and acknowledge the AIDS epidemic.

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