Professor Tim Dean encourages his students to think about sexuality in new ways
His bold British accent can be heard through the crowd. With his briefcase in hand, Tim Dean stands tall and poised amongst his students. He watches and cheers proudly as one of them performs in the UB Drag Show in the Student Union.
When Shania Elizabeth Understood, better known as senior English major Clinton Hodnett, stood on stage, smiles spread across almost every face in the audience - especially Dean's.
Dean, who teaches Queer Theory and Introduction to Poetry, began his career 19 years ago and has been out living his passion ever since. He feels that his homosexuality is a quality that helps him give a unique perspective in the classroom.
He makes sure to maintain an open relationship with his students and informs them of his sexuality right away. He isn't ashamed of who he is.
"I think I was one of those people where when I came out, they were like, 'yeah we know', so some people were not surprised and that made [coming out] easier in a way," Dean said. "I think because it was not a big of a deal for me, it was not a big of a deal for other people, mostly. I found if you treat people like people, they would treat you as a person. It's not the only thing important about me because there are other aspects to who I am. If I seem like I'm comfortable with myself, you would be comfortable with me, too."
He hasn't always been a success at UB. When he started teaching a course similar to Queer Theory in 2002, it was a disaster.
"When I explained to the students what it was, they freaked out," Dean said. "By the second class, there were only two people left enrolled and the course was canceled."
Despite his first failed attempt, Dean taught a similar course titled Literature and Gender four years later, but it wasn't much more popular than the first class. He blamed it on the scheduling - it was a three-hour night class.
"It wasn't a total disaster, but from my point of view, it wasn't a success either," Dean said.
Fortunately for Dean, the third time was the charm. This semester, he started teaching Queer Theory. This time around, he designed it as a class intended to examine the theoretical and political critiques of identity and sexuality delving into gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) studies during the process.
"I remember getting an email from professor Dean over the summer and I could tell right then that it was going to be an interesting class," said Rachel Cala, a senior English major. "Just the way that he addressed us as a class ... I knew it was going to be something else, and I was 100 percent correct."
Dean is very familiar with the topic because of the research and studies he has done over time. He believes the class is helpful to the college population partially because younger people have become more receptive to issues of sex and sexuality compared to older generations.
"Young people are thinking about their sexuality, so why not talk about it in a way that introduces some of the ideas from the humanities about sexuality?" Dean said. "In other words, it's not just scientific, because sex is more than just biological."
Now that there is greater acceptance of the LGBT community than when he was growing up, Dean acknowledges how the class can be helpful. He desires to give people a better understanding of sexuality, whether they are homosexual or heterosexual.
"It's hard to imagine what it would've been like if there was a class like this back in my day," Dean said. "The laws have changed and in general there's a greater acceptance and a greater knowledge out there of gay, lesbian and queer themes, so people are curious."
Seeing the enthusiasm at the UB Drag Show instilled pride and passion in the drag performers, such as Hodnett.
"Performing is an expression and an escape to me and a chance to say what I'm feeling without saying it outright," Hodnett said. "I become another person onstage, channeling the emotion of the song and how it applies to my life, and just living in the moment, trying to entertain a group of hundreds of people for the few minutes I have on stage."
Hodnett spends two and a half hours prepping his makeup and costumes for a 10-minute performance. That time commitment makes his time on stage all the more enjoyable, Hodnett said.
Dean took his Queer Theory class to watch their fellow classmate as a learning experience.
"[Dean] is very, very unique, but the first thing that I would say about him is that he is an extremely intelligent, witty, funny, learned man," Cala said.
School fascinated Dean at an early age. But he knew it had to be more appealing to get people into it. He was always interested in literature and remembers being younger and thinking he could do a better job than his teacher.
He remembers that philosophy every time he steps in front of his classroom.
"I try to either broaden people's horizons or blow their minds," Dean said.
At 19 years old, Dean seized the opportunity of a lifetime and came to the United States to work at a camp as a dishwasher in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. Though it wasn't the best job, he took the free trip to the states as a chance to travel around the world.
"I was always fascinated by the Americas," Dean said. "It's a crazy place."
As an undergrad in Britain, Dean developed an interest for American Studies and decided to change his major. During his junior year, he had a second opportunity to visit the United States, as a study abroad student at Brandeis University just outside of Boston, Mass.
He has lived in the United Sates ever since.
Though there are some gay students in Dean's class, there are others who are just curious and want to learn about sexuality.
"I never questioned my sexuality until I took a course like this, where I got a different standpoint: breaking down why societal norms are how they are or why people treat a certain sexual identity the way they do," Cala said.
One of the challenges of teaching Queer Theory, according to Dean, is finding the best vocabulary to approach the topic of sex.
"If we talk about [sex] in a very rarifying, expert, scientific language and technical language, it's very far removed from how anybody lives it," Dean said. "So how do you talk about [sex] in a way that people can relate to and understand without being completely vulgar or completely pornographic? That's what I try to balance."
Touchy subjects like sex and homosexuality may be considered unsuitable or inappropriate in an educational environment, but Dean disagrees.
"Human sexuality is about more than reproduction," Dean said. "You need something other than the church on one side and Internet pornography on the other side to educate people about sex."
As Dean embarks on his 20thyear of teaching, retirement is the furthest thing from his mind. He is 47 years old and, in his eyes, he could continue teaching for at least 20 years.
Dean's students agree that he shouldn't retire anytime soon, according to Cala.
"Every single time I walk into that classroom, I know that I'm going to walk out with something thought provoking and something new," Cala said. "I feel like the respect that he has for us shows in the way the conversation takes place in class."
Even with all of his scholastic accomplishments, there is one thing Dean desires most: time.
"I would rather have more time in my life than more money," Dean said. "What I would like in a way is more time to read, write, think and do more research."
Dean hopes his students will walk away with two important things.
First, he wants students to understand the range of sexual desires, practices and identity is much greater than society assumes.
"Society tends to divide it into gay and straight, but life is much more complicated and rich," Dean said.
Dean also strives for his students to understand there are conceptual ways to examine sex. While guys in college are continually thinking about sex when they contemplate how to get laid, according to Dean, those students are not fully grasping the political or analytical aspect of sex.
Dean strives to make his students think.
"Queer theory is important because it challenges the ideas which have been assumed by the gay rights movement at large," Hodnett said. "All too often, we start accepting ideas held across a collective society to be true. Queer Theory turns those ideas around to show the other side is worth considering and allows us to continue re-evaluating the intentions and strength of our arguments in favor of equality."