Teaching heroes: Gender Studies’ Beaulieu encourages diverse views

Julie Beaulieu work with student


“There is a presumption in gender and sexuality courses that everybody is on the same page,” sharing the same progressive views, says Julie Beaulieu, a lecturer in Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies.

Being in the classroom today is “a mutual exchange,” she says. “You have that little opportunity to make some kind of impact. (Students) push me around too — sometimes they have ideas that are much more progressive than mine. Having all that contact with young people, I’m learning from them. It always changes me.”

Not that progressive thought in Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies (GSWS) is monolithic, she adds. There are lots of different definitions of femininity, for instance, and many ways to challenge those definitions: “Where did they come from? Who is served by those beliefs? How is our own gender expression served by those beliefs?”

Beaulieu says it was “actually terrifying for me to enter the classroom in 2007.” She had started part-time that year and was a Pitt graduate student just the year before. Today, she calls it a “privilege” to teach her classes: a GSWS capstone course on feminist research methods; Sex and Sexualities; Introduction to Transgender Studies; Queer Theory; and Global LGBT Literature. She is helping to develop a new GSWS minor for this fall: LGBTQ and Cultural Sexuality Studies.

Students may bring ideas from a different tradition or era to class. “How do you respect religious belief in a class trying to allow for diversity of sexuality?” she asks. If there are more conservative students in the classroom, “you don’t want them to be silenced,” she adds.

“I can do my best to say there are no stupid questions, but (students) can get really nervous if they have the presumption that other students know more than they do.

“But that’s a perfect environment too,” Beaulieu says. “If you can keep all those diverse views in the classroom, that’s a perfect classroom tool.” Having long-held beliefs challenged can create “a lot of epiphanies in the classes, which I think is a good thing.”

Todd Reeser, who directed GSWS during most of Beaulieu’s time here, says: “Besides having knock-out teaching evaluations from students, she essentially invented LGBT studies at Pitt.” Beaulieu has been full-time only since 2013, but this year was one of Pitt’s three Bellet Teaching Excellence Award winners.

In her capstone class on feminist research methods, Beaulieu’s students learn to use interviewing as a research tool for data collection. They may be tempted “to say that good listening is something that feminists do,” she explains in one afternoon session, but it might instead just be a good human practice.

After watching a pair of students try a mock interview, she prompted the class to notice what got the interview subject to open up.

“Often times the goal of the interview is to have it seem like you’re having a conversation,” one student volunteered.

“We really need to pay attention to nonverbal signals,” offered another.

Other students noticed that simply staying silent or saying “um,” and then pausing, prompted the interview subject to resume talking, politely filling the conversational gap, but also revealing new information.

Her teaching philosophy, Beaulieu explains, might be encapsulated simply: “We spend a lot of time in disbelief that somebody has a different point of view about something. What happens when we try to understand them? The classroom is really about that experience — how can we be different and learn from one another?

“Part of it is creating that open space where we can exchange ideas,” she adds, “with curiosity about why we have these positions, especially on gender and sexuality.”

She comes by her open attitude honestly, she says: “I’m a first-generation college grad. I’m really, really aware of how important the mentorship was I received, both as an undergraduate and graduate student.”

Her family felt her college studies were “a waste of time,” Beaulieu says. “I really needed that (mentorship). You can uplift a student. Just believing in them can be one of the most transformative ideas.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.