Trans* Inclusion in the Classroom: Building Inclusive Syllabi

In April 2017, the Duke Graduate School, Duke’s Department of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies, and the Duke Center for Instructional Technology (now Learning Innovation) co-sponsored a workshop on Transgender Inclusion in the Classroom.  The workshop offered a look at models and training in creating a classroom that incorporates trans* students, including best practices and example scenarios.  This is the second of several blog posts written by guest authors in which Learning Innovation will highlight important concepts covered during, and inspired by, the workshop.

This post was written by Cameron Awkward-Rich, a Postdoctoral Associate in Transgender Studies with the Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Program at Duke. He earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought and Literature in 2017.

There are many scholarly articles available that reflect on how best to include transgender material within the baggy monster of Gender/Women’s/ Feminist/Sexuality Studies, and every combination thereof. Because we’re at Duke, let’s call it Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (GSF). The question of selecting materials to foster trans-inclusion in GSF classrooms has spawned so much reflection precisely because it touches on some of the core anxieties of the field: What is the relationship between the component parts of the field (women, gender, sexuality, feminism)? “Is our subject matter women and men, gays and lesbians, transgender people? Or is it rather the production of those categories and how they come to matter? What, exactly, is the object of our study, when that object is so often our own subjectivities and a necessarily moving target?” (Drabinski, 10).

So, on the one hand, it’s complicated. On the other, these articles all share some pretty simple, general takeaways: 1) Avoid the model of having a “trans day” on your syllabus; 2) Avoid asking “trans” to stand in for “the social construction of gender” writ large, especially in introductory courses; and 3) Avoid, when possible, material that uncritically assumes “woman” = “female” and “man” = “male.” However, on yet another hand, if it’s more or less clear how these takeaways might be applied in a GSF classroom, it’s often less than clear what they might have to do with the teaching of, say, Introduction to Cultural Anthropology or Biology 101 or American Literature after 1865. If you’re still with me, that is precisely what I’m going to try to address in this post.

Let me frame this discussion with two, brief, anecdotes from when I was a transgender student about to leave for college or newly there; that is, about the age of the students who tend to be taking introductory classes.

1) As a freshman in college, I took Anthropology 101, the gateway to the major. It was, overall, a strangely structured course, alternating biweekly between readings in cultural anthropology/social theory and archeology. For one of the cultural anthropology days, we read Judith Butler’s essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” and, in class, watched clips from Paris is Burning, a documentary about the black and brown drag/ball subculture in 1980s New York. This was our unit on the social construction of gender; Butler provided the theory of gender as not a stable identity issuing from the interior but an “identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler, 519), and the queens and trans women in Paris is Burning provided the evidence. Queer/trans people made no other appearances on the syllabus. I do not remember exactly how the class discussion unfolded, but I do remember being sullen, defensive, and utterly unreceptive.

2) In high school, I took AP Biology — I was a junior, I think, maybe a sophomore. Sometime during our unit on genetics, we learned about sex-linked inheritance patterns, which necessitated a definition of “sex” as a matter of chromosomes, XX or XY. While the textbook did spend some time discussing the fact that variations do occur, my teacher made a point of elaborating on this material, pointing out the variety of livable chromosomal configurations, as well as the variety of ways in which chromosomes do not simply determine secondary sex characteristics, what we ordinarily think of as a body’s sex. She even brought in material from another textbook, which included photographs of a range of intersex folks and one transsexual. While, now, I have serious reservations about the use of photographs like these, which more often than not are used to scrutinize bodies for their strangeness—outliers that prove the rule— at the time, I admit, I experienced this as a profound opening. When I looked at those pictures, I learned that biology wildly exceeds human attempts to fix bodies to discrete categories, which was a huge relief.

Now, neither of these classes were about gender, but it turns out that gender is everywhere. Also, it’s likely that you—whether you know it or not—have, have had, or will have trans, intersex, and/or gender nonconforming (gnc) students in your classroom whose ability to engage with the course material will be enhanced or blocked by the way gender and bodies are dealt with when they inevitably arise. Retrospectively, I understand what my Anthro 101 professor intended. We were supposed to learn that gender is not in us, but in culture, it is one of the ways culture is embodied. We had to know this if we were to be good anthropologists, because we had to learn to treat the organization of sex/gender as a question, not a given. But I certainly did not learn that then. Rather, as Toby Beauchamp and Benjamin D’Harlingue have described, positioning transgender bodies as the exemplary sites “through which students are meant to understand the divide between sex and gender, as well as how these categories are socially constructed…can easily displace gendering processes onto only transgender bodies, effecting the way that all bodies are continually gendered” (Beauchamp and D’Harlingu, 38). And for trans students who have likely had lifelong experiences of feeling or being told that their genders are less than real, finding themselves used as the example of the social construction of gender will likely feel like more of the same.

Long story short, in Anthro 101, “trans” was framed as an exceptional figure with no life of their own that proved a theoretical point about gender, whereas, in my AP Bio class, trans, intersex, and otherwise non-normative bodies were thought of (and so presented) within the expected range of human variation. Because I’m not an expert in your field, it would be both impossible and presumptuous for me to set out to recommend specific texts and best practices. But I can say that the difference between a trans-inclusive classroom and one that is not tends to come down to this difference in the way trans, gnc and/or intersex people are conceptualized, by you and/or your syllabus: either as abstractions/outliers/exceptions or as included within the expected range of human variation.

So, back to the three rules of thumb. Note that each of these “things to avoid” is symptomatic of an approach to trans/gnc/intersex people, texts, and topics that corrals them into the role of exception or abstraction:

1) Avoid having a “trans day”

One of the simplest ways professors try to incorporate trans material into the classroom is by having a day devoted to “transgender issues.” There are several problems with this model, which are not distinct to trans-inclusion. Most obviously, including a single day or text reduces the complexity of trans discourse, asks one person or a few people to stand in for trans people generally. Mainly, though, having a “trans day” tends to isolate trans issues from the larger issues of the course and usually—though not always—works from the assumption that trans scholars, texts, and bodies can tell us about “gender” and “identity,” but not much else.

Instead, integrate trans material fully with the arc of your course by having students read texts that engage trans material alongside texts that do not. Trans studies has a lot to say about labor, law, gendered violence, poetics, developmental psychology, migration, settler colonialism, historiography, affect, and so on, and treating trans people as within the ordinary range of human variation requires thinking of trans studies as within the ordinary range of scholarly approaches. Try perusing the Transgender Studies Reader, the Transgender Studies Reader 2, or issues from Transgender Studies Quarterly (helpfully divided into thematic issues) for work in trans studies that complements your course concerns. Kim A. Case, Briana Stewart, and Josephine Tittsworth have written an article (cited below) with some helpful tips about how trans material might be integrated into the psychology curriculum. Finally, if you are in the humanities, try looking over Troubling the Line; Meanwhile, Elsewhere; and/or the backlist of Lambda Literary awards finalists and winners in order to get a sense of the range of trans writers you might incorporate into a literature class.

2) Avoid using trans people as abstractions

I’ve already harped on this one a lot. But, one last time, using trans people and bodies as thought experiments or abstractions from which to theorize will, more than likely, make your trans students feel like you think of them as thought experiments or abstractions; that is, it will likely make them feel as if you do not consider them to be fully human. This is especially true in introductory classes, where you will have students still in the throes of figuring out who they are and will be, students unable to grasp the density of Judith Butler’s early prose, students who are, well, students. The strategy of integrating trans material into overall course trajectory will mostly solve this problem.

3) Avoid, when possible, using material that uncritically reinforces “male” = “man” and “female” = “woman.” If impossible, reaffirm your commitment to a trans-inclusive classroom by making this assumption part of the discussion, rather than an unspoken, implicit truth.

If the previous two “things to avoid” are most readily applicable to social science and theory classrooms, this one applies equally across fields. Personally, I think that this is simultaneously the simplest and most difficult rule of thumb, because it requires us to be precise in instances where we are used to using shorthand. On the surface, it requires only a shift in language — for example, say “people with XX chromosomes” or “people who menstruate,” if that’s what you mean. After all, many women—trans women, some intersex women, older women, some women who have had cancers of the reproductive system, etc.—don’t menstruate, while many trans men and gender non-conforming people do, so this kind of language is simply more precise. While shifts in habits of speaking take some getting used to, they can be practiced. So, although it might be difficult to find readings that don’t assume male = man and female = woman, you can point out to your students that this is an assumption that the reading makes and shift the terms of your in-class conversation. Relatedly, if you are, for example, teaching a course on “women writers,” include some trans women writers or, otherwise, be clear with your students about why it is “women” in your course turns out to mean “female.” This is slightly different, and more difficult, than making adjustments to habits of speaking, but it is likewise about precision. Ask yourself: what is it, precisely, that makes this group of texts cohere?

In closing, my apologies if you read this looking for simple or clear-cut answers—there are none—but I do hope these three rules of thumb are helpful in thinking about how you might design trans-inclusive syllabi in the future.


Beauchamp, Toby and Benjamin D’Harlingue. “Beyond Additions and Exceptions: The Category of Transgender and New Pedagogical Approaches for Women’s Studies.” Feminist Formations, Vol. 24, Issue 2, Summer 2012, pp. 25-51

Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in
Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec.,
1988), pp. 519-531

Case, Kim A., Briana Stewart, and Josephine Tittsworth. “Transgender Across the
Curriculum: A Psychology for Inclusion.” Teaching of Psychology, Vol. 36,
No. 2, 2009, pp. 117-121

Drabinski, Kate. “Identity Matters: Teaching Transgender in the Women’s Studies Classroom.” Radical Teacher, No. 92, Winter 2011, pp. 10-20

Further Reading

Harbin, Brielle. “Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary in the University Classroom.”
Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. (Accessed November 6, 2017).

Maday-Travis, Lewis. “6 Ways I Make My Science Class LGBTQ-Inclusive as a Trans
GLSEN. (Accessed November 12, 2017).

Malatino, Hilary. “Pedagogies of Becoming: Trans Inclusivity and the Crafting of
Being.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 3, August 2015,
pp. 395-410

Preston, Marilyn. “Not Another Special Guest: Transgender Inclusivity in a Human Sexuality Course.” Radical Teacher, No. 92, Winter 2011, pp. 47-54

Spade, Dean. “Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies.” Radical Teacher, No. 92, Winter 2011, pp. 57-62.


Cameron Awkward-Rich is a Postdoctoral Associate in Transgender Studies with the Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies Program at Duke. He earned his PhD from Stanford University’s program in Modern Thought and Literature in 2017.