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Today I am joined by Dr. sj Miller, an associate professor of teacher education at Sante Fe Community College. sj is an expert on social justice and challenges the gender and gender identity binary (e.g. trans*+, gender dynamic/fluid youth.) sj is an award-winning and well-published author, including writing for The International Journal of Transgenderism, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, and the Teachers College Record. You can view sj's speech on gender identities and young people via TEDMED.
In this podcast, we talk about how schools can best serve nonconforming gender identities, how classrooms can be liberated for social justice, and the mistakes we make in professional development and addressing the complex topic of gender in schools.
Dr. sj Miller, associate professor of teacher education, expert on gender identity justice and social justice, and published author/researcher.
Chris McNutt: Hello, before we get started, I wanted to let you know this podcast is brought to you by Human Restoration Project's fantastic patrons. All of our work, which includes free resources, materials, and this podcast are available for free due to our Patreon supporters, three of whom are Ray O'Brien, Nadine Lay, and Joshua Sloat. Thank you for your ongoing support. You can learn more about the Human Restoration Project on our website, humanrestorationproject.org, or find us on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 27 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast of the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today I am joined by Dr. S.J. Miller, an associate professor of teacher education at Santa Fe Community College. S.J. is an expert on social justice and challenges the gender and gender identity binary, for example, trans asterisk plus, gender dynamic and fluid youth, and creative youth. S.J. is an award-winning and well-published author, including writing for the International Journal of Transgenderism, International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, and the Teachers College Record.
sj Miller: Currently, the core of my research is looking at pre-K through university level issues around inequities related to social justice, and specifically around gender identity. The work evolved out of my own coming to terms with my identity. Initially, I thought that I might be trans because I never felt comfortable in my own body, but then I came to realize that gender is entirely a social construct. And so if in fact I was refuting and refusing to be captured within the social construct, I realized that I wasn't trans because that is actually part of a binary now, like LGBT, like it is a codified, understood term. And I was like, that doesn't really speak to my truth, and I realized that I was agender, meaning the absence of gender, and also am apronoun, meaning the absence of, because those two go together in my head rather than be identified as the peer or any of the other pronouns we often see connected to being trans. And so my work then really came from that space around wanting people to self-determine their gender identities, which meant not walking into a classroom or a space and presuming someone even has a gender similar to me or uses a pronoun, but creating a space through discourse tools that invites a level of communication that signifies, hey, in this space, I really want to encourage you to be whoever you are. So the book I wrote about gender identities in schools and communities talks about that process, it gives concrete tools, and it actually demonstrates models for how to welcome somebody into that conversation in what I hope is a very non-confrontational way. Because what I've realized over time, and I appreciate questions that come to me, because people want to know, and those questions actually become our research, rather than push back and be antagonistic, as I've actually seen a lot of people do, like, you should understand me. You need to already be here. I find that a welcoming attribute that really does become taxonomy throughout my work.
CM: It's really interesting how you weave through your research, especially I was reading through terms like liberatory pedagogy, or I mean, just drawing upon themes of critical pedagogy to welcome others into the classroom and kind of place students on the same level as the teacher. So do you then see different studies of gender identity and welcoming gender identity into the classroom as kind of one facet of just giving students more power in the classroom?
SM: Yeah, I've seen a lot of work stem from the work I've done. I think what happened was I broke through a gender identity glass ceiling in teacher education, and work's been there in other fields. But that's why I call my work trans, asterisk, plus disciplinary. It's not about being transgender, but it means about crossing boundaries, it means about integrating what other fields are saying, hence the asterisk and the plus, because the plus for me means indeterminate, that which we have yet to see evolve. And so that plus is a signifier that my work is open-ended. So bringing in work from social welfare, from sociology, from women's studies, from anthropology, queer studies, all of these fields have really informed my own thinking around specifically within teacher ed. And I think bringing that those various epistemologies have really helped kind of broaden the way that people bring that lens into the classroom, if that makes sense.
CM: For those that are listening who are mostly K-12 educators, what are some things that someone could do to welcome that lens into the class?
SM: One thing I really want to encourage on Teachers College Press website, if you actually look for my book, you'll see there's a massive appendix, and people can pull from those as examples like placards to put up in your wall, like this is a space that welcomes all identities. And then I have those terms enumerated, because it's not enough to say, and I don't use the word this as a safe place, because you can't just walk in and know a place is safe. That is something that has to come from self. It may say safe space, but you're the one who ultimately needs to experience its safety. So safety is something that is determined from within and from without. So what I say is this is an inclusive space. And again, puncturing like just saying that term is to actually identify as many terms as I can, to the extent possible. And again, that last word is and the indeterminant. Because again, I can't possibly identify every term in my writing or on a poster, but at least what I do in my classroom is on the first day, I hand out that placard, I read from my syllabus, which says, this is a space that welcomes all identity on continuums of and I go, ethnicity, social class, immigration status, medical status, mental health, I mean, etc. It goes, it's probably three lines. So when you say that, even if a student doesn't understand all those terms, you're likely to hit on somebody who's never heard a term validate their own identity. And all of a sudden, and studies showed that when you have your identity validated, you're more likely to engage, you're more likely to actually feel like you're part of a community. And I've often had students come to me or in writing say, I've never heard my identity reflected back in a class. And so that goes all the way, you know, from university down now, obviously, I'm not going to use the broad term, like the, I guess, the more densely understood terms with kindergartners from preschool, preschool kids. But that's part of the work that I find my colleagues are picking up, because I'm not a preschool specialist. So just a term like that, also putting up pronouns that say, you know, all pronouns are welcomed. And I give some examples on a poster and then I say, and I don't use pronouns. So again, giving some full examples, and saying no pronouns, again, becomes a message about who matters and that everybody matters. So those are really easy tools. And they go a long way. I do lots of other things around welcoming people to self-determine who they are, but that's a little more complex to go into, I assume, than the time that we have.
CM: And when you go about doing this, is it something that I've done in my own classroom, any of the teachers at our school do things like having like a sign that has like what your pronouns are, like normalizing the fact that pronouns are something that you would display or something that someone know about you. I teach in a very conservative district, for the most part, and about 50% of our district is like, Oh, this is cool. Like, I want to know more, I want to learn more about it. 30% are like, I guess I'll go along with it. And there's probably a solid 20%, maybe less of students who are vehemently against it. They see that as either going against their faith or something just from like a Trumpian culture, I guess, that's just, they're anti that. What recommendations would you have for teachers that need to talk to students about these things because they're likely getting it from the media or their parents or the culture that they grow up in? What do you do?
SM: This is a really complex issue. And I think it's something that we are all going to grapple with till the end of time. But one thing I want to push back on is you used the word, how do we normalize? I think normalization is one of the, I mean, the norm is a four letter word because the norm is what created these problems to begin with. This is what's right, this is what's different, right? So we're automatically othering people when we call something the norm. So I use the word ordinary, how do we make this ordinary for everybody? And I actually use ordinalize rather than normalize kind of from the similar syntactical perspective. But the question you asked about recommendations, what I typically do is I go to the standards and I've audited state standards where I've lived. And I type in the word, because this is what comes under in our class is the word diverse or diversity. Right? So maybe it's reading standard 3.2 point B point C, you know, at 8:02 in the morning. I mean, those are really specific. And I use that as a lens to then say, well, this is what diversity, this is a word, like, what does diversity mean? And it's a pushback actually on superintendents, on principals, on teachers and parents, because that term is there and they don't, it's not defined, right? It's not actually. So that's kind of our job is to step in and say, you know, I have leverage to really work within these terms. And so when I have students who are coming from conservative spaces, I often try to trouble that. And I'll use a text or some example to say, does it actually show images to say, does this person have any more rights than this person? Are we all, aren't we all allowed to have be treated in the same way? Aren't we all entitled to human dignity? And it might have some pushback, but I think it also problematizes, like, why are you more important than this person? Now, if they say, because I'm heterosexual or I'm cisgender or I'm Christian or Catholic, why does that give you any more power than somebody else? And ultimately we know it doesn't, but I think that it helps students really think about it. And I think also having examples from the, from the media and drawing in examples around healthcare welfare you know, the HUD, the ways in which people have been pushed back and not given the same opportunities and, and with parents, it's the same thing. Like I will always justify it through a standard. And again, I mean, sometimes that's the back door and I hate to say it, but the trouble with social justice work is that we should just have work around justice. And when we say social justice, ultimately everybody has the voice because we don't get, we don't get to pick and choose, right? So I think my conservative kids have every right because otherwise I'm positioning the left as the only people that get to have a voice, right? And then I'm not really being a justice based educator, but when you cross the line and someone is experiences like physical, emotional, psychological oppression, that's when we're talking about injustice. Now when you go to a conservative student and you say, well, are you really experiencing injustice when, when someone says I'm allowed to be cisgender, I mean, I'm trans or non-binary and that's complicated, but I think that there's a troubling that can happen when you have those conversations. I think that there's a place too, for saying that school is probably a best of place as possible to bring up these conversations.
CM: I think sometimes they tend to be avoided because people don't like conflict and they're worried about the political nature of everything that is that we do. Definitely brings it to the forefront. But I imagine that if you never brought up these things that no one would, it would just get worse. People will become more radicalized.
SM: I also think you could look at the hate crimes law. I think you can pull up the GLSEN's reports and show the maps of where, you know, look at the actual laws around bullying and no bullying and cyber bullying, because I think all of those types of larger discourses are really powerful in the classroom.
CM: And drawing upon that, you were mentioning your research spans really vastly across a lot of different things. It spans into poverty, but it also expands into things like grade-less learning and restorative justice and other forms of systemic change. What's the connection between having a classroom that accepts everyone to grade-less learning or restorative justice?
SM: I don't believe in grades. I think grades kind of reinforce this, like, self-hating, self-internalizing identity where like I'm an A, I'm a B, I'm a C. And to me, like, while the system promotes this, like, these type of, like, meritocratic values, I don't want any student feeling more or less than. And so coming into my class, what I say to everybody is, I know I have to give grades. I mean, this is part of what we do. And I say, actually, everybody gets an A. I start off that way in the class. And I say, but it's your job to hold it, okay, because I know I have to do this. And so I actually go through and work, we talk about kind of the criteria that would help maintain an A. And then students actually do a lot of self-monitoring, because ultimately the way I approach teaching is that as a coach approaches a sport, right, ideally, we want to help cultivate, develop, and instill a level of confidence around a specific skill. So lots of personal checklists, lots of personal, what did I do in this paper? How do I move it forward? And then to kind of keep monitoring that. It doesn't always work, because students are like, well, how do I know I learned something? I said, well, I want you to look back at your at your grade, what did you do prior? And that's always been a very powerful strategy. Now that's not to say that's around, you know, specific to gender identity, but it also gives students a real clear message that they have a lot of power and agency in being a participant in a classroom.
CM: Yeah, yeah. And as a follow up, then, when you give students power, there's something to be said about students then using that power to say no, like, I don't want to do this specific thing. I don't agree with your feedback, etc, etc. There's power in their ability to speak up for themselves. So then how do you allow students to speak up for themselves while still getting the point is that you want to get across?
SM: That's a fantastic question. What I do is they have their own narratives around why they think they deserve this. And usually I'm passive about it, right? So I actually sit down in conference with students. And I already have the higher grade in mind, I want to see the critical thinking around that. So I already have like, I don't really care. All I want them to do is be able to support why they think what they think they think because I have power because I'm the teacher I’m ultimate authority. But they're the ones that know better than I do, if they've grown in a in a topic. I mean, I have some insight, obviously, because I have some level of experience. But they're the ones who know mostly, they have a better sense of their own, I think, development as a learner and thinker.
CM: Yeah, in my experiences, I also do conferences, the students tend to think of themselves a lot lower than I would think of themselves, they tend to give themselves much lower grade.
SM: That's exactly it is they've already been conditioned to be part of this kind of institutionalization around thinking. I mean, what we're looking at is, is how do we restructure the system to begin with? How do we, what I call everything is default, I mean, sorry, everything is set through like the cisgender heteronormative, cis-sexual gaze, like we already walk into a space where we don't know how we don't even know what we don't know. And so this work is about, well, how do we how do we shift that default? And how do we reset it and recalibrate it and, you know, hit refresh, like, are we able to do that? And that's what my research is about. And that's, I mean, that's a monumental task. But at least the work that I'm trying to do is to impart that to enough people that it can spatialize and evolve.
CM: I can see how, like, I can see a place to start when that comes to like a humanities classroom, social studies, English, if you were listening in and you were math or science or even like art, where would that what would be the starting point there?
SM: And again, that's a great question. I have about one hundred and twenty five student teachers right now, and I'm teaching one class in particular called Theories of Learning. And so we did exactly that because my class is transdisciplinary, I have math, science, I have PE, English, art and theater. I mean, it's an incredibly rich, rich experience. Everyone's bringing their perspectives. And I did an equity based. So I do theories every week and then we look at how to put that into practice. We just did queer and trans theory. But when we did an equity centered theory and we did anti-oppressive theory, we did Kumashiro's work and then I did my work on equity centered pedagogy and change. My students were like, OK, so how do I bring that into my class? What does it look like in math? What does it look like in science? And it was their job after understanding the theory of looking into practice. And they they really struggled. But for math, for instance, it's creating a word problem, right? It's not coming from a binary set, you know, having instead of these kind of what we might call these, quote unquote, normative types of assignments, it's it's pushing it's pushing beyond. It's also doing what I would call real world or real time. So math isn't just relegated right to a textbook, but it's going out in your community needs to measuring. It's doing math. It's I mean, it's doing calculations. And again, having them look for like if I say something like, where did you go? Who was there? You know, looking at the demographics. So again, even though they might not necessarily be particularized in the math part per se, but they're looking at the larger story right behind the numbers. You know, there were two women there, the trans kid, et cetera. So it's thinking more broadly than the it's putting it's putting science in the context of the world. Right. It's putting I think history and language arts and humanities are lend themselves to that space more. But my people in PE, they're like, how do I do this in PE? You know, and again, maybe inviting people at the very beginning using that language around a welcoming space. My PE teachers say they hear all these foul words all the time. You know, they hear faggot, they hear lame, gay, and it's stopping that it's stopping and having conversations rather than condoning it.
CM: Where I work and many of the teachers I know, when we think of talking about students rights and who they are as individuals, a lot of it dates to like tolerance training. Yeah. I know. I figured that would be your reaction. But could you talk a little about the issues with tolerance training?
SM: It needs to be eradicated from all of our vocabularies, first of all, because tolerance is a sense of all put up with like, right, I tolerate a headache, or I tolerate you being like to school, you know, you're kind of forced to experiencing that we don't tolerate people. We want to, again, invite people and learn about people. So I think those kinds of programs need to be reset and rethought the same with like these character, what do they call character based programs as well. So schools are bringing in these kind of these models. And first of all, there is no one size fits all. And especially when you think about the vast number of students that are coming from multilingual, right, or multi ethnic backgrounds, you know, you walk into one of these prepackaged programs, and you don't see yourself. And you see the word diversity, where you know what the word diversity actually means, right? It's in contrast to whiteness, right? That's what it is. And it's a it's a word that means nothing and yet means everything. You know, so it lives in this space of paradox to begin with. And so I really think that those programs are very damaging. And if you don't fit into those paradigms, you know, then you're not you don't have the character traits that are basically supposed to be in that school. The other problem is that is everybody has a different discourse pattern, right? So students that might like, learn through music or through rhythm, you know, very, it's very situated right in, in African American culture, or black culture, or Latino culture, Latinx culture. And when those patterns are up against what we would say, like the white Eurocentric normative culture, you know, those students are already positioned where they're forced to, you know, move into what James G talks about is the big D discourse. And if you don't like, do the big D discourse again, and then you're marginalized, it's wrong. I think one of the biggest gaps in teacher education, I have been saying this for 20 something years, is that we need class classes to understand the various discourse patterns, because we are bringing white people bring a lens that this is the way you're supposed to write. When in fact, every single culture, ethnicity has their own way of communicating information and knowledge. And the same goes for standardized testing, right? The same goes for, for reading and for writing and I mean, for any discipline, there is a right way, and there is a wrong way. And the same goes with assessment, because the way that knowledge is assessed in each of those cultures vary. That is why I come back to not giving grades. I am not an authority on every, you know, discourse pattern across cultures, and I'm the first to say that. I said, it is not fair for me to grade when I have very limited knowledge, I've been conditioned into white culture, right? I also have studied Black English vernacular, what we were calling Black English. It's like we have American English, Black English vernacular is how it used to be called. Yvonnex predated that, but when you say Black English vernacular, you're subverting that to white culture. So we can say there's a Latino English, there's an American English, right? All these, there's all these different pockets of Englishes, which puts them all on parity. However, you know, it's the dominant way in schools, unless you're in a school that is situated, you know, you have, what are they called? They're schools that are situated in students' historical identities, like you have just a, why am I, like just a school for Latino children, Latino, just a school for Black students. And I don't believe in segregation, but I also believe in empowering students to understand their own histories.
CM: And to clarify, when you say, like a character, a character value system, would that be something instituted via like PBIS, Positive Behavior Incentive Structures?
SM: Yeah, some of those different like, character down, character, I don't know, I don't use them. I use them as a sense of critique.
CM: Yeah, I personally hate PBIS stuff. So PBIS is required for funding in our state. So you have to institute some kind of quote unquote value structure that has some form of positive, typically extrinsic motivator. And they tend to look really gross, because you're, again, reinforcing what is appropriate in the culture, as well as giving out something for acting that way, which is a whole separate issue, because that's saying that it doesn't matter if you act kindly towards others, for example, unless you get rewarded for acting kindly towards others, even if you were taking it without the cultural component.
SM: And even each of those terms are defined, what does kindness look like, right? So the danger is what, you know, is coming up with a criteria that's broad enough to hit every single culture.
CM: Are there any things that you would want to throw out to K-12 educators that we didn't hit that you feel like would be super important to throw out at this time? I would really encourage people to take a look at my gender identity complexity framework that's in my book. Again, it's free for download on the Teacher College Press website. But what it is, it's a frame for learning about how do you create a space for gender identity self-determination. You can easily take out the word gender identity and create a space for self-identity determination. And on the left are the frames, and on the right are the commitments. And they work together, so I think that's a really good resource, and it's been widely used. I'm going to give a big presentation on my TED Talk and read from my new book about it. And it used to be one on gender and sexuality framework, and it evolved to a trans framework, and now it's on gender identity, because that, to me, is a much more critical—it's a critical awareness that we—it's on the forefront of change right now. I think it's what's pushing back on boundaries. And it's not to say that we stop the other work that we've done, but what we're seeing is we've seen the word intersectional in research, and I think that that has actually been kind of codified into, like, a collapsible way of thinking about identity that is threefold. I'm doing what's called transsectional work, which, again, is that space of integration where there's no one, two, three, four, but it's this continually evolving space around different levels of oppression that are always operating at the same time. So I think that's something that's important. Again, it's about how do you approach the classroom through that lens, and that's the work that I'm going to continue to push out. And I've kind of reached a—I wouldn't say a plateau in my career, but I'm at a point now where I feel like I've written enough theory, and people are taking it up. I want to write young adult literature, especially for youth of color, where that voice tends to be sublimated even within the non-binary work, where still white voices are the ones that we're hearing.
CM: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope that this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.
sj Miller’s recently published book, about Gender Identity Justice in Schools and Communities
sj Miller’s TEDMED talk: “Why gender identity justice matters for everyone”