“This was a teaching experience beyond anything I could have imagined. This was a dream come true, the icing on the cake for my U-M experience, and added great depth to my education. I really loved this class.”
A 3rd year Ph.D. candidate, Cass created and taught “Transgender Politics and Community Activism” in the Residential College during the Winter 2014 term, as a one-term GSI appointment for an engaged-learning course sponsored by the Residential College (RC) and Rackham’s Arts of Citizenship program.
“This kind of work is a project for tenure track faculty in terms of the academic protocol of developing a curriculum. I used some transferable skills from my graduate studies, but some were completely new. This was an amazing opportunity.”
“Teaching in the RC here was perfect. I really desired the chance to replicate the relaxed but rigorous classroom environment from my small, liberal arts undergraduate experience for students in my class – and for myself,” he describes. He noted that writing a syllabus was an easier exercise after teaching Freshman Composition, albeit on a much smaller scale. “I received so much support from my faculty advisor and my department. I had to take my candidacy exams two months early because the logistics would have been too challenging to teach this class and prepare for my exams. I was strategic about balancing this opportunity and my academic work. This was really central to my academic work.”
The class syllabus revolved around identification systems – the legal and felt identities around transgender issues and what this means for and to state systems and policies. The rhetoric of transgender identity issues and the steps needed to manage state systems for the transgender community offer a unique perspective on the complexity of how we identify ourselves. “It’s interesting to see how the students evolved the class during the course of the semester. What began with an emphasis on transgender politics shifted to disability politics once we dug deeper. The students planned and hosted a movie night around “Toilet Training: Law & Order in the Bathroom,” making the process completely accessible to those attending, right down to getting the film close captioned.”
The class was distinct from Cass’ doctoral research. His dissertation involves studying novels regarding immigration and analyzing the identification systems, how immigrants see themselves, and how they are viewed in terms of their official identities. “I examine the documents themselves and explore how politics correlated to class and immigrant group.”
As a Rackham student, Cass sought out Rackham programs for new opportunities to grow as a graduate student. “Arts of Citizenship has been amazing. Teaching this class has been such a unique opportunity. The faculty show you how to be an engaged scholar and stay on track for a future faculty position.” He’s writing an article about his experience to document the process and show its value in creating opportunities for community groups, students and scholarship to intersect.
He came to U-M because Rackham provided the best funding and healthcare. “U-M is a really trans-supportive environment,” he says. “I flew in for a visit the day before the acceptance deadline. It was April 14 – and it was snowing. I’m from the South. Despite all that, it wasn’t a hard decision. I know I’m in the right place. I am well supported in so many ways here, it’s shocking.”
When asked what he does for fun, he replies, “I hang out with my roommates, watch Twilight, and go rock climbing.” He recently went climbing in the Red River Gorge area in Kentucky, saying, “My main de-stresser is climbing up stuff and falling off. It is the least like my academic work.” He laughs when thinking about the interdisciplinary group of friends who climb with him. “There are a lot of grad students from the math department. They look at rocks and are thinking angles of ropes and force. I just think about climbing until I fall.”
“Now, I spend my mornings writing, and hope to work towards a tenure track faculty position. I’m being realistic and keeping doors open to other careers. Through Arts of Citizenship, I found I have other skills that I wouldn’t necessarily have identified with. That helps me be open to more choices.”
“I have no idea when I’ll get to teach a class like this again. I know faculty who are jealous of this opportunity. I’m sad it’s over, and I’m sad I have to wait a few years before I’ll get to jump back in, but I have great ideas to make it better next time. I did what most people who teach in colleges don’t get to do.”