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Dr. Harper Keenan

Robert Quartermain Professor of Gender and Sexuality Research in Education

Assistant Professor, Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy

Broadly, Dr. Keenan’s research analyzes how adults teach children to make sense of the social world. Much of his work investigates the management, or scripting, of children’s knowledge, and ways that educators and their students might work together to interrupt that process and imagine something different.

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Dr. Harper B. Keenan is the Robert Quartermain Professor of Gender and Sexuality Research in Education at the University of British Columbia. Before coming to UBC in 2019, Dr. Keenan was a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, where he also earned his PhD in Curriculum and Teacher Education in 2019. Dr. Keenan completed his undergraduate studies at The New School in New York City, and earned a Master’s Degree from the Bank Street College of Education. He is a proud former New York City elementary school teacher.

Dr. Keenan is interested in social issues that many adults find difficult to talk about with children, such as racism, gender, sexuality and violence. He is perhaps best known for his 2017 article in the Harvard Educational Review, “Unscripting Curriculum: Toward a Critical Trans Pedagogy.”

Today, Dr. Keenan’s research projects center around two themes:

  1. The interaction of colonialism, race, and gender in schools – particularly in early childhood and elementary education, and
  2. The continued development of anti-racist queer and trans pedagogies.

Dr. Keenan’s work has appeared in a variety of scholarly journals and popular press outlets, including the Harvard Educational Review, Teacher’s College Record, Gender and Education, Theory and Research in Social Education, Slate, The Huffington Post, The Feminist Wire, and multiple edited volumes.

Q&A with Dr. Harper Keenan

What are helpful approaches adults can adopt when teaching children to make sense of the world?

The ways that adults interact with children contribute to either reproducing the world or transforming it. Generally, it is helpful when an adult receives a child’s question with openness and engages the child’s question with support and curiosity. While that may sound like a simple idea, it can become complex in practice as adults may allow their own discomfort to interfere with their openness to children’s questions.

One of my research goals is to help educators engage children in a process of respectful and careful inquiry about the world. The areas in which adults tend to shut down children’s questions centre around topics that make adults uncomfortable. When adults are aware of their own discomfort, it can help them become more supportive and open in micro-level interactions with children.

It’s also helpful to consider practical applications, such as how the design of classroom spaces can support or foreclose opportunities for children to explore, ask questions and follow those meaningful inquiries into careful study.

What are examples of educators and learners working together to interrupt conventional teaching practices and imagine a different way of thinking about the world?

Example One: Drag Queen Story Hour is an imaginative example of interrupting conventional teaching practices. As drag queens read stories to children in libraries, schools and bookstores, elements of queer culture are brought into children’s worlds and children are encouraged to look beyond gender stereotypes. The program also confronts what is often made shameful, and transforms it into a joyful experience.

Example Two: Children often ask their teachers disquieting questions about colonialism, such as “Why did settlers take the land?” and teachers often avoid answering those types of questions. However, the same questions that are disquieting for settler educators, are questions that Indigenous educators are often well prepared to discuss with students.

At a historical museum about colonization, Indigenous educators lead field trips for children who are often not Indigenous. As children learn about colonial history from the perspective of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous educators often help students make connections between colonialism and their own lives with age-appropriate, illustrative examples. It’s a great model for settler educators and parents who are usually with the students on these field trips.

What challenges and opportunities arise in the interaction of colonialism, race and gender in schools?

A lot of my research has documented how adults teach children to turn their attention away from what might be painful or difficult to address.

Children are born into an incredibly complex world, shaped by various oppressive systems. And so, the questions become: How do adults support children as they navigate in this complex world? How do adults remain honest with children about the world from their first educational experiences, instead of turning their attention away from it and teaching them to avoid or ignore it?

When considering these themes, opportunities emerge. Children are incredibly imaginative, and there’s a lot that adults can learn from them. Through engaging with children around the questions that they often present and then following their inquiries, we are collectively invited as a society into new ways of relating to one another and imagining the world. Rather than assuming the children are the only participants in learning, we can cultivate flexible relationships that are structured around inquiry, in which both the adult and child change in the process.

What challenges and opportunities arise in the continued development of anti-racist queer and trans pedagogies?

My work is predominantly in countries maintained through settler colonialism, where schools were designed as a part of the colonial effort. One of the challenges in the continued development of anti-racist queer and trans pedagogies is to rethink educational systems and create alternative educational methods that engage colonial history in a critical way.

One of the opportunities in the continued development of anti-racist queer and trans pedagogies is creating educational environments where we don’t have to leave parts of ourselves at the door. When people move into and through instructional spaces, they often experience a filing away of their complex selfhood. We have the opportunity to create a different experience, where people do not have to filter parts of themselves.

If we engage young people around these topics, there’s an opportunity to resist creating dynamics that reproduce harmful structures and to develop solutions collectively.

What role does technology play in the development of anti-racist, queer and trans pedagogy?

Technology has helped democratize knowledge in an important way. Even with all of its challenges and complexities, social media has allowed historically oppressed and minoritized communities to connect, organize, share and produce knowledge in unprecedented ways. In recognizing that these opportunities are possible, we question what it is about schools that have foreclosed that possibility.

“When we think with transgender knowledge, which teaches us that gender is more complex than man-woman binary, we understand that gender binary norms restrict everyone.”

Technology has allowed transgender people to connect on social media in new and exciting ways. Transgender knowledge produced through technological mediums can help us think differently about schools and classrooms, and teach us how to imagine a different way of being and living.

How can transgender experiences help us to think differently about the practice of teaching?

“Transgender experiences teach people about the possibility of change and living a life that is different than the one that was handed to them.”

There’s a common approach to teaching about transgender identity that focuses on defining various terms, such as gender expression, gender identity, etc. While these terms are important, it’s enriching to focus on transgender worldviews and the structures that are commonly limiting to us. When you consider what you can learn from the experiences of transgender people and what the experiences of transgender people reveal about how the world works, the knowledge produced from that learning can be beneficial to everyone.

How can schools support gender and racial diversity?

“By engaging children in a process of respectful and caring inquiry about the world from their earliest experiences in schools, they will be able to greet difference throughout their lives with respectful curiosity and care that can support the cultivation of a less violent world.” – Dr. Harper Keenan

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