MaWSIG in Malta: This post will make you gay (or your materials anyway)

In the second of our mini-series of blog posts following the 8th Malta ELT conference, Tyson Seburn explores the representation (or lack of representation) of LGBTQIA2 themes in published ELT materials. This post was first published on Tyson’s blog, 4C in ELT, on 31 July, 2019. The Malta ELT conference was held over the weekend of 18–20 October 2019.

 

The invisibility of LGBTQIA2 (LGBT+Queer+Intersex+Asexual+2Spirited) themes within traditionally published ELT materials has been adequately highlighted through both popular and scholarly texts (see Thornbury 1999, Gray 2013, even me in 2012, to start), as well as a handful of past conference talks that have focused on our community. While some materials writers and publishers themselves recognise the desire for increased inclusivity and diversity, the self-imposed limitation of producing materials that appeal to the widest array of markets tends to create an ‘our hands are tied’ reaction to change. As a result, we can easily stagnate at problematisation. Many teachers have taken it into their own hands to create well-intentioned lessons that aim to be inclusive; sometimes, however, they are unaware of, or fail to address, potential problem areas in their methodology or content (see LGBTQ in debates).

My talks at IATEFL2019, BCTEAL19 and the 8th MALTA ELT conference aimed to move the discussion forward by first defining inclusive materials writing, then by exemplifying two approaches to doing so appropriately: normalisation and disruption, terms I have not created, but adapted from Queer Pedagogy for an ELT materials-writing audience.

In this post, I explain and share an example of an ELT LGBTQIA2 inclusive coursebook unit based on a normalisation approach.

First, it helps to situate a few principles on LGBTQIA2S inclusivity by contrasting them with their opposite, i.e. othering.

Normalisation approach

One ‘soft’ yet effective mode for creating inclusive materials is to increase the frequency with which LGBTQIA2 narratives appear through related imagery, stories, and language without overtly focusing on the uniqueness of the community above other groups represented in the materials. In other words, the goal is to include LGBTQIA2 as just one section within society.

For example, take the theme of work/life balance where the language focus is compare/contrast (e.g. however, but, even though, etc.). In a listening task, learners hear a number of people describe life pressures contrasted with activities that make them happy. Learners take notes about these in a chart, where speaker names (Christie and Jorge / Jen and Lee / Sam and Suzanne / Javad and Leila, etc.) are arranged by row with blank spaces for their pressures and activities by column. As each person on the audio uses the target language, they also refer to each other using relevant pronouns. Some, like Jen and Lee, reveal LGBTQIA2 narratives by using she and her when referring to how each other copes with money issues. Another includes Sam’s mum (Suzanne) talking about academic pressures Sam faces at university and refers to Sam with non-binary they and them pronouns. While learners focus on completing the chart, these pronouns are used alongside cisgender, heterosexual counterparts, without being the target language. On the next page, images of these speakers appear in random order for learners to match with their notes. Following this, they collaborate on meaning from their charts by identifying and using compare/contrast target language.

In this brief example of normalising LGBTQIA2S narratives, what’s emphasised is not the specialness (which when purposely compared to a heteronormative default implies strangeness), but the language tasks. LBTQIA2S narratives are by-products of the diverse society represented within the materials.

Individualism

Normalisation can be criticised because the focus is not on the LGBTQIA2-ness itself and therefore an inexperienced writer (or perhaps one who has been given a tiny bit of leeway from a publisher) may (intentionally) wish to normalise LGBTQIA2 more literally than intended. By this I mean trying to make the narratives as ‘normal’ as possible in terms of how the majority of the population defines what ‘normal’ is. This can result in breaking the principle of being ‘represented as individuals’; we are portrayed as just one type of LGBTQIA2 likely in the most heteronormative possible light. This, too, can misrepresent and ‘other’ many members of our community since they only see one version of LGBTQIA2 (quite often the clean-cut, white version…) and one which they may not identify with.

So this should be considered carefully by writers as well. In the coursebook unit example described above and linked below, we see same-sex romantic relationships, a drag queen, and a non-binary person’s familial relationship, but across our materials, we must also be cognisant of realistically representing a wider variety of LGBTQIA2 people’s lives (e.g. different and mixed races, troubled youth, older people, differently abled people, etc.) as we should (and more often do) with other members of society.

Sample coursebook unit

Here, after long last, I’d like to share a sample mock-up coursebook unit I’ve put together based on these principles. It’s important to first note that its creation primarily centres on characteristics of normalised inclusion, and secondarily the language content

As this unit is not commissioned by a publisher, it has not been restricted to particular vocabulary lists, specific rubrics for activities, approach, or topics and narratives to avoid. Even though I am not bound by such external restrictions, I am bound by space restrictions: note, then, that full diversity cannot be accomplished authentically within the confines of one unit; it should be viewed as part of a larger whole.

The general level of this unit is aimed at intermediate learners, and the main language point used throughout is contrasts. Part 1 (pp. 52–57) focuses on contrast words and phrases. Part 2 (pp. 58–63) focuses on using clauses to show contrast. I do note the irony of exemplifying inclusion in a unit centring on contrasts (looks like you can do both <clears throat>). These language points in use are purposely not exhaustive in variety, nor used in every imaginable way. These are situated through the backdrop of discussing work/life balance.

Despite the fact that it is meant to mimic a coursebook unit, the focus here is on inclusion and not so heavily on the detailed instruction. Not surprisingly then, I’ve chosen not to write out a full teacher’s accompaniment or spell out exactly what learners should do on all pages (see linked teacher’s notes below for a little guidance, though). Beyond this caveat, I hope that this small contribution adequately demonstrates the normalisation approach through a coursebook platform in a way that makes sense alongside this relatively long blog post about it. If not, maybe you might come to my talk at some point! 

To see the unit

Tyson Seburn, author of Academic Reading Circles and Coordinator of IATEFL TDSIG, is an instructor and Assistant Academic Director at the University of Toronto. He holds an MA in Educational Technology & TESOL (University of Manchester). His interests focus on exploring teacher development as well as inclusive and critical pedagogy.

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