Aerial View of Brandeis UniversityCreating the Project

Our Process

Spring 2011:


English 181a: Making Sex, Performing Gender
Brandeis University
Associate Professor Thomas A. King

Students in English 181a, Making Sex, Performing Gender work across the semester on written and/or creative projects applying critical theories of gender and sexuality to the practices or artifacts they choose. Students analyze how individuals and groups perform sex, gender, and sexuality in any domain of social or cultural production, with particular attention to sex/gender performance here on campus at Brandeis.

Gender is a performance:  (a) it exists or is instantiated in discursive practices, representations, and behaviors that we, as social subjects, are compelled to repeat in our everyday lives, both unconsciously and consciously; (b) repeating those behaviors has the effect of reconstituting and confirming the binary difference between the "two" genders and the asymmetries of power which accrue to gender positions; and (c) those behaviors could be repeated differently (revised or combined differently) to contest and perhaps revise the binary difference between the "two" sexes and the relations of power surrounding those differences.


Gender is performative: (a) gender is always performed for an other (for whom we display our genders); (b) the meanings of any gender performance are unstable and provisional; from the point of view of the "receiver" of or audience for our gender performances, there is always some "excess" or "failure" which escapes our intentions to present our genders as coherent and stable; and (c) we might find ways to "seize on" or foreground this instability in gender in order to transform gender and power relations.


By grounding analysis in a particular, located practice on the Brandeis—a specific classroom, sidewalk, or cafeteria, for example—students explore the ways spaces and spatial relationships shape gender and sexuality.  How are gendered practices, identifications, and desires constrained or enabled by particular spaces and spatial relationships?

Examples might include:

  • the gendering of private and public spaces on campus, from dorm rooms to sidewalks to the Shapiro Atrium to campus restrooms;
  • the gendered politics of reading and writing, or of speaking in the classroom;
  • the gendered negotiation of looking and being seen;
  • the display of cultural artifacts in the Rose Art Museum and the gendering of one's participation as an observer of those artifacts;
  • gender performance during Family Week or at Pachanga, the Bachelor Auction, or the annual Triskelion Drag Show;
  • organizing on campus in support of LGBTIQ students and their allies;
  • the construction of gender in dance rehearsals and sports practices;
  • the construction and regulation of gender in religious and cultural rituals;
  • the gendering of child care on campus;
  • and creating formal performance (dance, theatre, film, music and singing) reflecting on sex, gender, and sexuality. 


Students consider: (1) their own behavior; (2) the behavior of groups of individuals on campus (rather than any single individual)—for example, social actors interacting in a classroom setting, in a religious ceremony, at a club event or party; or (3) a representation of gendered practices on campus (a series of advertisements, a campus policy, a dance or stage production). 

Examining situated practices, students consider the ways in which genders and sexualities are specified by class, race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion. Conversely, students explore how class, race, ethnicity, nationality, and religion produce (enable and constrain) gender identifications and identifications with categories of sexuality.

Questions considered include:

  • From where do these repeated behaviors come? 
  • How does one learn to repeat those behaviors? 
  • What effects does repeating (or not repeating) those behaviors have? 
  • What are the stakes (social, political, economic, religious, familial, etc.) involved in repeating (or not repeating) those behaviors? 
  • What opportunities and techniques might be available to you to perform gender differently? 
  • From where in society do you take (borrow or "cite") these alternative behaviors?
  • Does the space and behavior you've chosen enable pleasures, unleash desires, or open up possibilities of identification, counter-identification, and disidentification in excess of the norms governed by that space?


USING PERSONAL EXPERIENCE:  Feminist principles encourage critical engagement of one's experiences. But one must think rigorously about that experience.  What conditions that experience? To what extent is it unique? What aspects of your experience maintain existing social relations? How is your experience implicated in power relations? and so on.