Building Understanding

byMatthew Lemus '18
Professor-Morris
Professor Morris's Transgender StudiesView Photos

Denison students are excited about new classes in Queer Studies and Dance taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Dr. Michael J. Morris, including “Transgender Studies/Transgender Issues,” which students describe as challenging. Not only does the class get students to work hard, but it prompts them to see the world in new ways, understanding how we engage with difference and the many diversities of people in our world.

Professor Morris (who prefers they/them/their pronouns) is a choreographer, performer, scholar, and educator working across and between dance studies, performance studies, sexuality studies, and gender studies. Students read and discuss material from the emerging interdisciplinary field of transgender studies, feminist studies, and queer studies, including both scholarly and first-person writing by transgender people. Part of the class involves studying media representation. Says Professor Morris, “We’re in a particularly saturated media moment in 2016, in which there’s a lot of visibility for particular transgender people—on the covers of TIME Magazine and Vanity Fair, on television shows like 'Orange Is The New Black,' 'Transparent,' and 'I Am Cait,' in books like Janet Mock’s 'Redefining Realness,' and all across social media.”

Professor Morris does a great job of getting a lot of information in one class. Even if it is challenging to confront media images, doing so can illuminate inequalities and prompt students to think critically about these issues and how they shed light on how society thinks about the transgender community. And there are many very important issues that the class reveals about transgender life. Morris explains, “We consider many of the issues that transgender people have faced historically and are facing today, issues such a criminal prosecution and psychological pathologization, access to healthcare and employment, disproportionate exposure to violence—particularly trans women of color—the lack of adequate language for discussing and describing transgender experiences, and difficulties with everyday necessities like proper documentation and which bathroom facility to use.”

Students in Queer Studies classes also think critically about gender expression, investigating the norms that our society creates and maintains around gender. Many people don't usually pay attention every day to the gender binaries that society has constructed, usually taking them for granted, but in this class, Professor Morris illustrates these binaries and the power they have over us. “Transgender studies also considers how the experiences of trans people provide opportunities to analyze, critique, and potentially deconstruct how gender as set of social phenomena functions,” says they. For instance, many of us assume a male-female binary, but gender isn't just male or female: people exist between and outside of these social and biological categories. The stakes in engaging these issues are high, as they remind us that, in Morris's words, “the social norms of gender create conditions for life and livability that affect all of us, whether w e identify with the gender we were assigned at birth or not.”

Taking this class will allow you to be more aware of difference in the world and how we interact with it. Students take away a lot and bring their new knowledge into their daily lives. It’s important to understand that everyone is different and, thus, to respect those who are unlike yourself and know that they might be going through different struggles but that they, too, are human. We all participate everyday in this gender system, and by being aware of this system we can question and challenge these norms particularly because of how these norms place people into categories and hierarchies of power. Says Professor Morris, “With that recognition comes a certain amount of responsibility for how we participate in such norms, how we question them, how we might subvert or resist them, not only for ourselves but because of how they affect others as well.”

Transgender studies/issues will allow for students to be informed about the transgender community and aware of the gender system that is in our society. With more awareness and knowledge from classes like Dr. Morris's, here at Denison we are changing how we think about gender, understanding more about transgender issues, and acting on this awareness by having conversations and bringing people together to talk about the differences we experience.

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May 3, 2016