“An Experience Worth Wanting:” An Interview with Peter Grevstad

Professor Grevstad launched a new breadth elective in LBGTQ+ Studies this Fall—the first such course at Sheridan, and one of the first at an Ontario college.

Professor Peter Grevstad

Alchemy: Can you tell me a little bit about why this is important to do?

Peter Grevstad: First, it’s necessary that everyone sees themselves in the curriculum. So this course is one way to include people. And it’s not just queer people I’m teaching: there are allies, there are people from many religions and ethnicities—it’s a diverse group of people who come together to learn.

David Rayside’s research suggests that Campus Climate is essential to whether or not students persist in education.

You could be a racialized person, a person of the global majority, you could be marginalized by disability, you could be queer—all of those are different experiences, and I can only speak for mine. But what determines whether you actually stay around and finish your credential? All of that comes down to the climate that you encounter, and part of that is whether you see yourself around, in the community and in the material.

What has the response been like?

It’s amazing. They’re all there, ready to go. We all have pandemic fatigue, and Zoom fatigue, but I show up every week and they’re all there, the full cohort.

That is amazing!

Everyone’s there, and we start every class with a dance party. They were asking this week if they could get more reading, because they’ve read everything. They come digging and looking for more things to do. Blumenfeld et. al., in education studies, called this “An experience worth wanting.” [i]

The students have also made their own community around the course—they’ve started a Discord server, and invited friends (I’ve asked them to keep it to Sheridan friends), so it’s now a community of a couple of hundred people. Queer people have always had a physical presence on campus, of course, but the Discord gives us a centre, a safe space. The students started it themselves, I guess because they have things to say.

And someone might have asked, why are you doing this? Who’s gonna care? But now they’re here and they give it to me. And I get to say, this is great. I care.  

What are some of the projects involved in class?

The course goes everywhere in terms of disciplines. We engage with history, biology, sexuality, sociology, pure science. We interrogate statistics, and the reporting of social demographics – and of course, we study narrative. Queer goes everywhere, and that’s part of why it’s so wonderful to study.

At the end, they do a 30% assignment where they have to make a podcast. We’re calling it the Super-Queero Podcast—they have to research queer heroes. Who are our local heroes, our critical theory heroes, our historical heroes? I introduced them to James Baldwin last week, who’s definitely one of them—someone put Baldwin in my hands as soon as I got to undergraduate, and said you need to read this. When I had students compile lists of Super-Queeroes they came up with a massive list. These people have always been out there.

They also bring me their own projects, things they’ve been doing over the years. One student has been working on a spreadsheet since high school, that charts all the books that have ever been banned in Ontario schools. I said to her—this is amazing, this is like a project for a PhD in Archival Studies.

But it’s something to think about: some students have come from small places, religious communities, lots of socially restrictive environments. And quietly while they were living that way, they researched and collected and created their own archive, their own lists, as they bided their time until they could get out and go on to further education and be themselves.

That’s wonderful. And now they get to share it with you.

They’ve been sitting around archiving their thoughts. And someone might have asked—if I had been their friend at 17 I might even have asked—why are you doing this? Who’s gonna care? But now they’re here and they give it to me. And I get to say, this is great. I care.  

Everyone’s there, and we start every class with a dance party.

Is the course something you’ve been planning for a long time, then?

To be honest, I’ve thought about this my whole career at Sheridan, and since it’s 2021, it’s time to bring this into focus through the curriculum! As you may know, it takes a year or more to bring an idea through development to a course that the province recognizes. So, it’s a process, but worth it, as there are so many people to help the faculty.

I’ve been around the community college system since 1967. We moved from Manitoba when my father got a job at South Porcupine college in Timmins, before moving on. He coordinated work for international students, way back. He was always concerned with helping people become a part of things. After that I had my own career here, but since I was a child I’ve been immersed in college culture. There were always international students around the holiday dinner table, and while we’d all just met, it was great to know diverse people while growing up. That includes queer people my parents knew.

In my case, I ended up writing a doctoral dissertation on Queer Presence in higher education, and this course was a natural extension of my research.

And now, a Queer Studies elective! This is the first time at Sheridan, and one of the first at any college in Ontario. A queer boy from St-Boniface, Manitoba made it happen, and here we are.

What do you hope the students take from the course?

I want them to get what Brazilian educator Paolo Freire calls Critical Consciousness—I want them to understand that they are part of a larger network, a community. They may not have met allies, or other queer people yet. It’s also part of identity formation: when you go off to higher education, you get to decide how you will present yourself, who your friends will be, what you will study together. So bringing queer into the conversation is crucial, because there are people who haven’t found community before. To some of them, it’s the undiscovered country—they notice how much queer erasure there was in their lives before. They get into class, and you see them lower their shoulders. They can relax.

[i] Blumenfeld, W. J., Weber, G. N., & Rankin, S. (2016). In Our Own Voice: Campus Climate as a Mediating Factor in the Persistence of LGBT People in Higher Education . In P. Chamness Miller, & E. Mikulec (Eds.), Queering Classrooms: Personal narratives and educational practices to support LGBTQ Youth in Schools (pp. 1-19). Information Age Publishing.