Unmanageable Subjects

Trans Life and the Struggle for Self-Determination in School

April 25, 2023 | 3:00-4:00pm PDT | Online via Zoom

In the midst of “Don’t Say Gay” legislation banning early elementary school teachers from discussing gender and sexuality with their students in Florida, an increasing number of schools are embroiled in controversy over the meaning of gender in education.

Early elementary school represents a period in the life course when the majority of children begin spending most of their time in public institutions, which feature a variety of messages about what it means to participate in public space. Within this context, the conditions surrounding transgender and gender non-conforming youth in education raise fundamental questions about the institutional regulation of childhood and the function of schooling in shaping the terrain of civic life.

In this presentation, Dr. Harper B. Keenan argues that trans people are positioned as unmanageable subjects within the context of K-12 schools in the United States. This phrase has an intentional double meaning, referencing

  1. the treatment of transgender existence as a taboo topic, and
  2. the challenges trans children pose to the administrative and social regulation of gender.

How might educators embrace unmanageability? What might it look like to practice education that resists rigidly scripting the world, including who children are allowed to be and become within it? To engage with these questions, Dr. Keenan present emergent findings drawn from his recent multi-site qualitative study of five early elementary school classrooms and one LGBT-led after school program in the San Francisco Unified School District, which included more than 50 interviews and 10 inquiry groups with teachers, 30 play-based inquiry groups with children, as well as over 500 hours of participant observation.

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About the Presenter

Harper B. Keenan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia. He currently serves as the inaugural Robert Quartermain Professor of Gender and Sexuality in Education.

Dr. Keenan’s scholarship examines how adults and children relate to each other within the structures of schooling and other educational contexts, and what their interactions reveal about the possibilities and challenges of education. His research has been supported by a National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation postdoctoral fellowship, the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council, and the Roddenberry Foundation.

Dr. Keenan earned a Ph.D. from the Stanford Graduate School of Education, a dual M.S. Ed. in Childhood Special and General Education from Bank Street College, and a B.A. from Eugene Lang College at The New School. His scholarship has been published in a variety of academic journals, including the Harvard Educational Review, Educational Researcher, Teachers College Record, Curriculum Inquiry, and Gender and Education. He has also written op-eds or been interviewed by popular press outlets like Teen Vogue, Them, NPR, Reuters, NBC National News, EdWeek, and Slate. Dr. Keenan is a proud former New York City elementary school teacher.