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Penn Hosts Queer Method Conference

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Penn Hosts Queer Method Conference

By Lauren Shapiro

In the first week of the school year, social science (and natural science) professors switch on their projection screens and review what many college students consider the most painfully redundant subject ever--research methods. We enter these first classes and yawn; have we not listened to teachers praise the almighty scientific method since our middle school days? By college, every student has memorized this system, and the importance of objectivity and dangers of bias have been beaten into our brains just a few too many times. While my major, political science, is a field that embraces traditional methodology, this is partially because political science has existed as an academic field for centuries, and has largely developed through Eurocentric (and American) elite perspectives. Political scientists often study the nature of hegemonies, both political and methodological, but without necessarily working to dissolve them. A field like queer studies, on the other hand, takes that extra step, challenging both conventional frameworks of sexuality and gender and providing routes of acquiring knowledge that break from institutionalized methods. As Penn professor of queer theory and literature Heather Love explains, queer studies is at once the study of sexuality and “a critique of business as usual in the academy…it interrogates traditional understandings of scholarship, questions institutional frameworks, and attempts to create new norms of inquiry, ethics, and praxis.” Queer studies, then, holds true to its name in both content and form.

Gay and lesbian studies emerged as an academic field in the 1970s. In the next two decades, several universities, particularly in the United States, began to offer courses with focus on lesbian and gay literature and history. However, by the 1990s, this field shifted with the birth of queer studies and the expansion of critical work in the history of sexuality (this was the moment of the publication of Judith Butler’s highly influential Gender Trouble and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet). As knowledge and resources in the field have accumulated over the past few decades, LGBTQ studies has grown to include analysis of sexuality and gender through biological, psychological, sociological, and political lenses, and it has continued to explore activist practices and sexual communities.

What research methods can do justice to the subject of sexual diversity? As Penn Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies’ Dr. Melanie Adley asks, how can queer studies adopt interdisciplinary methods and “mix up the tone and ‘genre’ of academic texts?” And what other disciplines could benefit from employing queer research methods? On October 31st and November 1st, Penn GSWS, along with numerous other departments and programs, will host a conference on Queer Method dedicated to exploring these issues.

If you are new to queer studies and would like to know more about it, this conference is a must-attend if simply for the caliber of the speakers scheduled to present. Professor Love notes that the speakers are “doing some of the most interesting work out there.” Speakers will present on queer studies’ content as well as its methodology, addressing new methods such as feeling as method, or using the subjective experience of touch to gain information, or queering the history of gender.

The conference is filled with important contributors to queer theory and practice, but the highlight of the event will surely be Thursday evening’s keynote speaker, cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel. Best known for her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and memoirs Fun Home and last year’s Are You My Mother?, Bechdel’s work deals with themes of queerness, feminism, and gender bias. Though Bechdel is not an academic, her work supports a shift in scholarship towards the idea that valuable knowledge can arise from unconventional and critical (queer) methods such as personal account and storytelling through art. For example, Ms. Bechdel is known for the “Bechdel test,” which asks if a film includes at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man (you’d be surprised how many recent movies still fail this test). While this method involves a traditional procedure (establishing guidelines for “passing” or “failing” the test and then applying them to real-life situations), the “Bechdel test” arose through a rather queer process. The concept behind the test, which Bechdel attributes to her friend Liz Wallace, was first introduced by a character in a 1985 strip of Dykes to Watch Out For.  Though the “Bechdel test” was not established through traditional methods but rather through the “queer” method of fictional comic strip dialog, it is now used in many disciplines, including cinema studies, literary studies, and sociology.

The Queer Method conference will address the development of methodology within queer studies, but it will also consider the broader implications of unconventional and critical research processes. It will argue that while traditional methods are useful, they may be constraining. Queer Method will revolutionize your understanding of research; perhaps, knowledge is not only formed through objective and distant observation, but also through subjective, eccentric, and intimate methods. 

For more information and a full schedule of events, please visit: http://queermethod.tumblr.com.

    • Queer Method 4
    • Self-Portrait, Alison Bechdel

    • Queer Method 3
    • Fag Face Mask, Zach Blas

    • Queer Method 1
    • Undocuqueer Project, Julio Salgado

    • Queer Method 2
    • Photograph of Tangle Circus Arts, Mike Ermilio

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Participants include: Alison Bechdel (artist), Mel Chen (UC-Berkeley), Kandice Chuh (CUNY Graduate Center), Ann Cvetkovich (University of Texas, Austin), Roderick Ferguson (University of Minnesota), Carla Freccero (UC-Santa Cruz), Eva Hayward (University of New Mexico), Katie King (University of Maryland), Mara Mills (NYU), Afsaneh Najmabadi (Harvard), Mimi Nguyen (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Cindy Patton (Simon Fraser, Visiting Scholar Penn), Jasbir Puar (Rutgers), Mark Rifkin (University of North Carolina, Greensboro), Peter Sigal (Duke), Susan Stryker (University of Arizona), Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley (University of Texas, Austin), Valerie Traub (University of Michigan), Robyn Wiegman (Duke)

Alison Bechdel's keynote talk will take place on Thursday, October 31, 7:30pm - 9:00pm. 

Location: Harrison Auditorium, Penn Museum. 


Lauren Shapiro is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences, majoring in Political Science and English with a concentration in Creative Writing. Aside from writing for Penn Art & Culture, Lauren co-directs Penn’s poetry workshop and performance collective, The Body Electric. She also serves on the executive board of SREHUP (Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia), an inter-college organization that supports and volunteers for homeless shelters citywide. In her free time, Lauren enjoys writing, playing piano, traveling, and eating sugary foods.