Interview: Cole Rizki on teaching transgender studies

This week, our Civic Engagement Fellow, Lucia Constantine, spoke with Cole Rizki, a PhD candidate in literature and Service Learning Fellow who is teaching the only transgender studies class currently offered at Duke. Rizki talks about how he designed the course and what it’s like to teach this class in light of HB2. 

LC: Tell me how intro to transgender studies came about.

I’m able to teach a self-designed course in my fourth year as Instructor of Record which is actually quite a privilege. I knew that I wanted to teach intro to transgender studies because it’s both my field of study and personal to me as someone who is trans.

And this is a class that’s new to Duke?

It’s new to Duke. Right now it’s the only transgender studies course offered at Duke and it’s housed in Literature and cross-listed with English, Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies, and Sexuality Studies.

Tell me about the process of designing your course.

I wanted to design a course that would consider how transgender as an identity category is produced in different sites, which can be physical, institutional or discursive. So I began thinking about this in terms of textual representation, political representation, legal representation, visual and cultural representation of transgender identity and also thinking more largely about how questions of race, class and sexuality impact the ways we can theorize transgender.

What’s it been like to teach this class in light of HB2?

Well, I proposed the course before HB2 ever happened so the course wasn’t designed in response to HB2. But once HB2 did in fact occur, I immediately altered my syllabus to reflect what was happening and to make sure that we were taking into account the context in which we live. It feels urgent and necessary in light of HB2, and it’s really a joy to teach because it’s my field and it’s something I have such personal and professional investment in. Being able to further these conversations right now feels really vital to me.

One way in which I’ve been able to bring some of these issues to life is by bringing in a variety of speakers: Joaquín Carcaño, the lead plaintiff of the ACLU case against McCrory came to class to speak with students. Students attended a panel at the law school where multiple legal scholars discussed HB2 and skyped with Jaime Grant, one of the lead authors on the National Transgender Discrimination Survey dataset. And Gayle Salamon who is a major transgender studies scholar will be coming to the course to speak about her work on critical race theory and trans studies more largely.

So it’s unlike any other transgender studies class in the country.

Yeah, it is absolutely unlike any other transgender studies class in the country in that it’s taking place in North Carolina in the midst of HB2 so it’s pretty impactful in that way.

Why did you choose to bring in the service-learning component?

Most of my students are seniors graduating this spring and are in STEM or other fields. So many of my students are not necessarily going to be taking another humanities course or continuing to think about gender/sexuality in a theoretical framework within an academic institution. I wanted to allow students to take some of what they’ve been learning in this course and think about it in terms of application through engaging with organizations as opposed to writing a traditional research paper. Service-learning is both a theoretical engagement and a practice: a bodily practice, an intellectual practice and I think it can alter how we conceptualize ourselves as subjects and shift many of the perspectives or perceptions we have about the ways power operates in the world.

Class discussion of Queer Heartache.
Class discussion of Queer Heartache.

What types of projects are your students working on?

We were able to establish a real breadth of community partnerships and a range of projects that defy more traditional understandings of “service” in that my students are not directly interacting with trans communities—in part because these communities are vulnerable and marginalized. To me, it’s an ethical imperative: who benefits most from these interactions? Students who are learning to navigate difference? Or those whose difference ends up on display as an ethnographic object of inquiry? Marginalized people should not bear the burden of educating others about their “difference.” Those interactions produce more harm for already vulnerable populations.

I am committed to a service-learning model that’s about resource generation that has a life beyond a semester-long course and is not dependent on the students’ presence. So most of the service-learning projects are designed to generate resources with longevity for communities rather than one-time volunteering opportunities that, while still impactful, often have less long-term benefit to an organization.

So we sat down with community partners to brainstorm projects that would generate lasting resources that community partners needed and that students could work to produce. For example, I have three students who are working with the Adolescent and Child Gender Care Clinic at Duke and they are developing a set of resources that can be given to patients like self-care tips, lists of trans-competent mental health providers in the Triangle, tips for safe-binding and tucking practices, and also a transition map that is broad in scope and works to visualize many different conceptualizations of transition such as transitions that are non-medical, non-linear, and non-binary. Some of my students are math majors, so I wanted to help them structure an opportunity modeled on what they would likely see in the workforce, so they are working remotely with another student at Smith College and Jordan Crouser, a colleague of mine at Smith, to analyze the National Transgender Discrimination Survey dataset, continuing some of the work I did this summer with Data+. I have a Master’s student of education in my course, as well, and she’s working with Riverside High School to help lead the Queer Straight Alliance there, and I know she’s working to develop training resources that can be used in the public school system for teachers and staff. And then I have a student working with the Museum of Durham History who is conducting ethnographic style interviews with community participants wanting to share their stories which will be archived online through community member Luke Hirst’s LGBTQ archive project “Love and Liberation: a History of LGBTQ Durham” hosted by the Durham Public Library website. There will also be physical archives on site for public use, and one of my students is also helping to digitize archival materials.

What have you learned from the students?

I’m just really floored by the rigor that they bring to analyzing our material, to their service-learning projects and to our class discussions. Their willingness to be vulnerable with material that is often really challenging and to show up to discussions really ready to engage with each other is inspiring. My experience of the classroom – and I think my students would say this too – is that it does feel very inviting and I don’t want to say safe, because classrooms are never safe spaces, but I do think my students are willing to take certain risks in sharing information or questions, and I know that they’ve really valued the discussion that we’ve been having. 

Read more about Introduction to Transgender Studies on Duke Today.