This is the ninth post in the series, Succession II: Queering the Environment, a fourteen-part series in which contributors explore topics related to unruliness, care, and pleasure. Succession II centers queer people, non-humans, systems, and ideas and explores their impact within the fields of environmental history, environmental humanities, and queer ecology.
I live in Texas, a wild environment that the Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa once called “borderlands.” Texas is a pro-gun, pro-life state. Its government defends abortion restrictions, calls gender-affirming parenting of teens abuse, and mobilizes the National Guard to deter refugees and migrants at its land ports. Its law invades individuals’ rights to liberty under the 14th Amendment and infringes on rights to marital, familial, and sexual privacy that are guaranteed by the United States Bill of Rights. It’s a land of threatened species in unique ecosystems — a land of scrublands, forests, and brutal deserts; of drought, flood, fire, and rapid urbanization.
The innate wildness of the environs I inhabit made me ponder upon the multiple meanings of the word wild. As someone working on queer theories in Tejas, I decided to design a course on this seemingly simple yet hyper-complex, liminal notion. This brief piece of writing is about my experiences teaching “Rhetoric of Wild Things” in Austin between 2021 and 2022. The journey had some queering and creative outcomes. My students formed multimodal final projects on wildness, queerness, and environment, some of which I showcase throughout this post.
Before I formed the syllabus, there were several questions in my mind: what do people mean when they call something wild? Is it an expression of admiration, acceptance, or a means of othering, marginalization? If so, how? How does this work lexically and colloquially? What kinds of things, phenomena, people, communities, feelings, and iterations fall under wild? I wanted to find satisfactory answers to these multilayered questions with my student. Thus, I designed the course in a way that would help us treat wildness as a rhetorical act. This approach helped us observe how the term was/is used, misused, produced, and reproduced in our lives through written, verbal, and visual rhetorical circumstances. Put differently, we tried to collectively understand “where the wild things are” situated in our lives via different realms such as literature, art, music, film, popular culture, and sports. To this end, I split the course into three units, consisting of five weeks each, and aimed toward completing a major writing project.
Check out the Wild Things Project, an online archive built by “Rhetoric of Wild Things” students.
On the first day of class, we started off by brainstorming the possible meanings of wild on an interactive blackboard. Students had differing ideas and feelings around this notion, but the consensus was that the term had to do with a state of being odd, queer or outside the norm. I took a screenshot of the blackboard, which became our first collective archival material to be revisited throughout the semester.
In “Unit 1: What’s the Wild?” we inquired who/what shapes wild’s definitions, what those include or exclude, and who/what falls under the category of wild, especially in the early 2020s — an era of ever-rising political tensions, pandemics, natural disasters, and economic difficulties. As students completed low-stakes weekly assignments, they were also collectively building a blog called Wild Things Project. This unit’s final step was a project called “Mapping Wildness” where students wrote about their own understandings of wild/ness and built a relationship between the word’s lexical/canonical meanings versus its day-to-day, colloquial usages. They conducted further research into informative and viewpoint articles to discuss the ideas and terms surrounding the notion of wildness.
“Unit 2: Writing the Wild” was about wild/ness in literature and literature about wild/ness. We zoomed into censured texts to see how the idea of wild/ness was constructed, reconstructed, and deconstructed throughout literary History. Each week, students analyzed wild stories and poems they chose, concurrently posting their responses to our class blog. The final step of this unit was the project called “Rhetorical Analysis of a Wild Text.” For this, students chose two previously challenged texts that they thought treated the theme of wild/ness. Their goal was to produce a detailed rhetorical analysis of their chosen texts and explain how they think the works speak to rhetorics of wild/ness. Among the texts students analyzed were George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Little Red Riding Hood by the Grimm brothers, and more.
In our third and final unit “Rewriting the Wild,” students used skills gained from previous units in order to build original arguments about and around the notion of wild/ness. Moving onto a more abstract discussion on wild/ness, we talked about the interplay between the wild and the tame around keywords such as animality, animosity, bestiality, humanity, and humanness. This helped us explore other well-known linguistic and ideological dichotomies such as white versus black, normal versus non/abnormal, civilized versus non-civilized, modern versus backwards etc.
Gloria Anzaldúa’s legendary essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” was undoubtedly the most apropos piece for us to further think about these topics in a place like Austin. Students reacted positively to this essay for it was not only a piece on wildness and language, but was also penned by an internationally-renowned UT Austin alumna. We were lucky to have the Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa Papers — a special collection at the Benson Latin American Collection — right next to our classroom, available for students to consult. As we close-read Anzaldúa, we circled back to our initial thoughts about wild/ness and the blackboard screenshot from the first day of class to discuss how our ideas about wild/ness have changed in fifteen weeks.
The final step of this unit was Project 3: “Creating a Wild Thing” where students were completely free to create an authentic wild subjects. This was supposed to be a fictional character with a tangible name, message, and intended audience whose rhetoric would be conveyed through either a short story, a poem, a song, a video, a comic strip, or an infographic. Students freely experimented with multimodal ways of composing rhetorical arguments. During our very last class day, we held a “Wild Things Parade” as people presented their wild creations to the class. Some students came to class with costumes and special make-up. Several courageous individuals sang and performed.
Sophia Martinez created a comic strip on wildness and climate change as part of her final project for “Rhetoric of Wild Things.” Scroll down or click “View Fullscreen” to see the full comic strip. Pdf courtesy of Martinez, 2021.
Throughout this collective teaching and learning journey, we watched films such as Looking for Langston, Paris is Burning, Relatos Salvajes, went to see a roller derby match in Austin, watched some American football to understand how people “play” gender and perform masculinity and femininity via sports. We also close-read some wild poems by Oscar Wilde and read stories by the world-renowned “vilde chaya”1 Maurice Sendak. Then we turned to music and analyzed the rhetorics behind wild singers like Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Madonna. While doing so, our departure point was always the lexical meaning of “wild” in English, which, as Jack Halberstam points out in the beginning of his 2020 book Wild Things: Disorder of Desire, means “to grow or develop without restraint or discipline.”
Throughout the course, we used “wild things” as a launching point to bridge our in-class conversations with global debates such as human rights, non-equal wage distribution, racial perceptions of crime, illegalization of abortion, climate change, differing social media mediums, and growing surveillance mechanisms. Meanwhile, I tried to draw on contemporary queer pedagogies to encourage students to think critically about how “wild things” are constructed, and to participate in conversations about “wildness” that take place via different cultural productions.
If you want to know more about the course and the queer pedagogies I utilized, you can check out Wild Things Project. This is an online archive about wildness built by students. It is free and will live on to inspire any wild/ness aficionado/a/x.
- Means “wild child” in Yiddish. Maurice Sendak noted that his mother used to call him in this way. The reflections of this are seen in Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The protagonist Max is called “wild thing” by his mother and sent to bed with no supper.
- Discipline-wise, this upper-division undergrad course was somewhere in between rhetoric and writing, cultural studies, and queer theory.