Halberstam’s Take on Pedagogy

In the introduction to the The Queer Art of Failure Judith Halberstam challenges pedagogy, when it comes to the intention, method and the result of how students are educated. The options students are left with are limited to either success which is finding “the land of milk and honey” or failure, or being delegated to “gift shops” which is the only other option.  Halberstam’s use of the SpongeBob SquarePants dialogue lay the groundwork for how he defines failure and pedagogy. His use of SpongeBob SquarePants quotes and examples from other popular cartoons and comedic movies is his way of interpreting and challenging academia. (1)

In school, both primary and secondary, failure is not an acceptable option and doesn’t offer any positive reward or praise from the outside, yet Halberstam points out that not only “[f]ailing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well” (3), but he emphasizes out that failing can be rewarding, unlike what pedagogy implies. In academia there is a “members only” attitude.  Exemplary of this is when Halberstam’s use of terms “serious” and “rigorous”. Additional evidence of this attitude is found in work of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. They emphasized the words: “rigor,” “excellence,” and “productivity. These words seemed to strongly support the notion of “members only” attitude.  .

These words are often found in pedagogy. And, can found function as “code words…for disciplinary correctness” (6).  This not only limits the membership pool, but it doesn’t “allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy” (6). Flexibility is not allowed and because of this, many members, especially in the sciences, have vacated the field.

In pedagogy according to Halberstam, university students are assessed based standardized exams results and “knowledge of cannons” over intellectual vision to keep the “dictates of the discipline” unchallenged, even in the fields that have been proven unstable in recent years. “[Q]uirky and original thought” (7) or thinking that takes place outside the box is being squashed by primary school education and universities and Halberstam further explain how this is being done. How he explains the “university structure” in the introduction reads more like a description of a watchtower from another time than an educational institution by his use of terms such as “jealously guards” and “boundaries”. (7)

One of the ways Halberstam challenges the pedagogy is by quoting Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, an American academic scholar. She “once said, ignorance is “as potent and multiple a thing as knowledge” and that learning often takes place completely independently of teaching” (12). In Halberstam’s personal experience as a student he lightly questions, probably in jest, his ability to be taught. He states:

As someone who never aced an exam, who has tried and tried without much    success to become fluent in another language, and who can read a book without retaining much at all, I realize that I can learn only what I can teach myself. (12)

His personal experience affirms his previous statements. Not only is he speaking for many in academia, he is speaking for himself, and his fellow “queers”.  His personal example is followed by an example that is also familiar to many students and teachers around the world and that is the conundrum of “cultural and racial and class differences between the teacher and [their] students”. While summarizing the French documentary, The Class, Halberstam further explains the issues that arise when instructors insist on using a cookie cutter method for teaching their class, especially a racially and ethnically diverse class. “[L]earning is a two-way street” goes against the standard pedagogy of the teacher simply pouring knowledge into the head of the obedient and thoughtlessly compliant student.  (13)

Halberstam’s challenge of the pedagogy emphasizes more on how students, ideally, should be instructed. Using the experience of a French instructor, Jacques Ranciére, Halberstam explains that “teaching was not in the slightest about cramming students with knowledge and having them repeat it like parrots.” Ranciére’s noticed that his Belgian “students were learning to read and speak French and understand the text Télémaque without his assistance”.  Ranciére observed, listened and leaned from that experience. (14)

Halberstam’s claim about the standard way of retaining knowledge in an academic setting sets students up for failure, and failure in our society is unsatisfactory.

Halberstam, Judith. “Introduction.” The Queer Art of Failure. Duke University Press, 2011. 1-25. Print.


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