Dennis Sumara, PhD
Werklund School of Education
Queer Singularities: LGBTQ Histories, Cultures, and Identities in Education
Teaching Education Journal
Alberta Permanent Professional Teaching Certificate, Alberta Ministry of Education, 1982
BA English Literature, University of Lethbridge, 1980
BEd Drama Education, University of Lethbridge, 1980
MEd English Language Arts Teaching, University of Lethbridge, 1990
PhD Education , University of Alberta, 1994
A short biographical story.......
I was born and currently live on the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta, which includes the Blackfoot Confederacy (comprising the Siksika, Piikani, and Kainai First Nations), the Tsuut’ina First Nation, and the Stoney Nakoda (including the Chiniki, Bearspaw, and Wesley First Nations). The City of Calgary is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III. My current place of employment—the University of Calgary—is situated on land adjacent to where the Bow River meets the Elbow River, which in the Blackfoot language is called Mohkinstsis.
Over the past 30 years I have focused my research, teaching, service, and academic leadership on what it means for educators to work in and through what I consider to be the repressive effects of narrowly defined expressions of the category and idea “normal.” Using action research methods informed by narrative hermeneutics and phenomenology I am interested in better understanding the experience of self-identity across school and non-school contexts. I am an interdisciplinary scholar whose work is informed by curriculum theory, queer theory, literary theory, reader response theory and narrative hermeneutics.
My academic work has critiqued problematics associated with normativity in teaching and teacher education and it also has informed creating productive ways to make teaching and teacher education more inviting to the many individuals and groups who have in the past found themselves excluded. In so doing, I have been able to demonstrate how critically analyzing conceptions of normal and normativity in teaching and teacher education can create more inclusive and productive situations for everyone.
It was my university education that provided me with the ability to be both critically aware of context and become an agent of change. I am committed to situating my academic work and leadership within those institutions that truly value and support the importance of the university as a safe and productive place to enact transformational change within a teacher education context.
A longer (restorying) biography
What story about me does my profile picture tell? Who am I when I am here (on the University of Calgary’s faculty profile site)?
There are books behind me that you might assume are on my bookshelf in my office. They are. In my home office, not my University of Calgary office. The picture is at an angle. Not straight. This might be irksome to you. Does this mean I am not detail oriented and couldn’t bother to straighten the photograph? Or am I trying to be different? Why is the book Your Oldest Fears Are the Worst Ones” (Holzer, 1992) so prominent? Does it mean I am thinking about my oldest fears or that I want you to be thinking about yours? Or both? Or Neither? What about that row of images at the bottom—which as you may know are the described tone choices available on the iPhone photo editing function. What does it mean that I went with “dramatic cool” tone? Is that a story about me others have told? Is it one I believe to be true about myself? Or is it one I would like to be true about myself and, if so, does it mean that if I tell others that story it will become more real? Is it the story I want you to believe to be true? What does it mean that I am directing these questions to you, the person reading this text? Does this imply any sort of commitment on my part (to be a good writer) or your part (to be a good reader)?
These questions are all speculative on my part. Although I created the “text” that is the photo, I am not in control of how it will be read or what stories about me that text will suggest to different readers. It matters that this photo is a profile pic on the University of Calgary Faculty Profile Page—a place that people go to when trying to learn about different faculty members or if they are interested in particular kinds of research, or if they are deciding which course to take and from whom. What story does my profile picture tell? Who am I when I am here (on the University of Calgary’s faculty profile page)? In the end, it does not matter what I might have intended. I might not even know that myself. What matters is that you, the reader, will imagine an implied author and I the author will imagine and implied reader (Iser,1978), both of which are conditioned in different ways by the text that is this profile. The reader, the text, the context the act of reading together create what become “readings” and “meanings.”
I will say now that I happened upon that particular profile pic in the midst of a playful process of taking selfies against different backgrounds. From about a dozen or so I decided that the one in front of my books seemed to be how I like to think I look and want to be known. It was in the final edit of the photo that I realized that the “tone” I selected also might capture how I am/could be/should be/would like to be seen/known/interpreted. Now I am realizing that this one photo can show several intersecting lines of research that I have been involved with since commencing my doctoral work in 1991: the literary imagination and the curriculum; school and non-school uses of the imagination; normative structures and counternormative practices in teaching and teacher education; narrative hermeneutics for teaching and teachers.
Since commencing my doctoral work at the University of Alberta in 1991 I have been focused on trying to better understand the place and purpose of imaginative engagement in both school and non-school settings. My dissertation, The Literary Imagination and the Curriculum, selected as the 1994 dissertation of the year by the Canadian Association of Curriculum Studies, offered hermeneutic readings of teachers reading and teaching in school and non-school settings. It was through that work that I began to more deeply understand how the normative structures of formal K-12 schooling can (and usually do) override the productive functions of the literary reading experience. Adapted from my dissertation, my first book Private Readings in Public: Schooling the Literary Imagination discusses these normative schooling structures in more detail and, as well, offers a starting point for counternormative responses by student readers and by teachers. It was through the work completed on Engaging Minds (Davis, Sumara and Luce Kapler, 2000, 2008, 2015) that I came to better understand the complex way different learning systems influence the ways in which our identities are learned, deployed and experienced. While on a one year sabbatical in 2000-2001 I wrote my second single-authored book entitled Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters, which was awarded the National Reading Conference 2001 Ed Fry Book Award.
From the years 2006 to 2019 I served in two academic leadership roles: Head of the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at UBC (2006-2009) and Dean of the Werklund School of Education at University of Calgary (2009- 2019). During those periods of time I had the opportunity to not only use some of the ideas I had been studying with others within the context of a leadership role, but also to notice first-hand how difficult it is to lead change in higher education, particularly change that intentionally aims to disrupt existing normative power structures. And by that that I mean those structures that emerge from and are guided by sexist, heteronormative, racist, ageist, ableist (to name a few) beliefs and actions.
As a scholar who wrote many years ago about the possibilities of queer theory in curriculum and who for many years has been open about my counternormative beliefs, actions and, indeed, my queer identity I believed that as a formal leadership role I could interrupt pervasive sexism and heterosexism within the context of higher education. Easier thought and said than done. Despite the challenges, and with the support of many, I believe that some meaningful change happened. But there were unintended personal and professional consequences, which I have written about recently in an article titled “On the Power of Not Passing: A Queer Narrative Hermeneutics of Higher Education Leadership” (Sumara, 2021).
While on my two-year administrative leave (2019-2021) I embarked on a program of reading, writing, and critical reflection. I had to sort out what relationship there was between my earlier academic work and my years of academic leadership. What I found were as many discontinuities as continuities. Theory alone cannot change practice; indeed, it may be that it is more likely that critical practice (praxis) creates the conditions for the theory needed to affect our knowing, doing and being. I learned this in a deeper way during the two years I worked with my colleague Professor Donna Alvermann on our Co-Edited book Ideas that Changed Literacy Practices: First-Person Accounts from Leading Voices (2022), honored with an Outstanding Book Award by the Association of Professors of Education (USA). It was while working closely with 32 contributing authors on their chapters (and my own chapter) that Donna and I saw how tricky it can be to pin down what counts as an “idea” and even more treacherous it can be to then argue that ideas change practices.
The process of writing “On Becoming What the Story Needs” helped me to more clearly understand the importance of being very vigilant and careful about exactly how identity stories are told, remembered, recognized, revised and re-told. Influenced by the work of Claire Robson (2021), I have become convinced that it is through critical arts-based work informed by theory and philosophy that I and others with whom I work can more clearly see how some (or many) of the stories we are given, told about us, told by us about ourselves can be “unbecoming”. We are more than stories. We are biological beings, connected to the earth, the biosphere, to one another, to our ancestors in ways that are more than what our human cultures can say about those connections. Although I have been thinking and writing and researching the complex ways biology and culture mix to create what we experience as personal and collective identities, it is only recently that I have felt compelled to make these ideas more public through what I have come to call my shapeshiftrestory project; there is a shape to our stories—the ones we acquire from others, the ones we create, the ones told about us, the categories that we are given and/or choose, the labels we re given and/or choose (to name a few). Sometimes those storyshapes need to be changed, shifted, restoried.
About two years ago I decided I had to find a way to use my own biological body as an explicit curriculum artifact—a curriculum provocation to what I hoped might become public pedagogies—and so I started getting tattoos. I currently have about a dozen on my left and right forearms and the back of my head. I wanted these markings to be visible, hoping that people would ask me about them or, possibly, to use the markings as a kind of curriculum both in formal and informal settings. On my left are I have a stylized version of the 1972 Pink Floyd album cover “Dark Side of the Moon,” the first line from Rebecca Luce-Kapler’s poem “Dark Moon” (in The Gardens Where She Dreams 2003, p. 25) (“I don’t know sometimes where I end and you begin”), a stylized image of the cancer constellation, a stylized image stages to a full lunar eclipse, the title of performance artist Jenny Holzer’s (1992) book Your Oldest Fears are the Worst Ones (“YOUR OLDEST FEARS ARE THE WORST ONES”). Songs, poems, paintings, sayings, astrology—all forms of knowledge that are well known, popular, and sometimes celebrated and admired—but not usually counted when authoritative knowledge is expected. My right forearm includes images that are meant to point to or represent stories I know; more generally, knowledge of which we are aware; knowledge that has taken the form of narrative stories.
I have yet to do any formal research on the impact/effects of my tattoos. Instead I have been conceptualizing them as public art that can foster different kinds of conversations. I am asked about them a lot. “I like your tattoos!” “Your tattoos are so different.” “Can I ask you about your markings?” I get these questions from people of many ages – usually younger people (15-30) but also from those older than that. I’ve had to sort out what I would say, since really there’s usually only a minute or two (standing in line, at a bar, a restaurant, at the bank, etc.). I now can say quite quickly something about how together and in different ways the markings represent knowledge that counts (normative, authoritative, factual) and knowledge that does not usually count (counternormative, informal, unable to be easily shown or proven), and how our lived and remembered experiences exist somewhere among and between these two. Education is the process we use to make them coherent to ourselves and others.
You can imagine how many ways this conversation can go! What I can say is that they are always pedagogical (learning happens through our conversation) and they are always public—a kind of public pedagogy, one that is both constrained and enabled by the “text” that are my tattoos, which are no longer mine once they become a text read by others. In ways I could not have anticipated, these micro public pedagogies are also helping me to deepen my knowledge and interest in the question: Who am I when I am here (with whatever person or persons are present in whatever location we are in talking about my tattoos). Who am I when I am here with you doing this public pedagogy work? Who are we when we are here? Who are you when you are here with me? With Us?
Some of what I am thinking about with this project will be included in a series of speculative essays I am writing for my next book, the working title of which is On the Fear of Being Ordinary and the Desire to Belong: Restorying Education for Empowering Change. Other aspects are being taken up by a emerging project I am developing with my doctoral students that describe as shapeshiftrestory—a term I coined to capture the subtle critical work that must be done in order to change the shape of the stories that we have been given or that we have created that may not be becoming to us in ways that we expect or want or need.
It is the case, however, that this particular biographical story must end here for the time being. The act of taking up more space than is expected may have pushed the boundaries of what is usually allowed or expected or wanted or needed in a faculty profile. A productive transgression? Perhaps. A shapeshiftrestory for sure.
Davis, B., Sumara, D., & Luce-Kapler, R (2002, 2008, 2015). Engaging Minds (1st, 2nd, & 3nd Editions). Routledge.
Holzer, J. (1992). Your oldest fears are the worst ones. Universe Publishing.
Iser, W. (1978). The Act of Reading. The John Hopkins University Press.
Luce-Kapler, R. (2002). The gardens where she dreams. Borealis Press.
Robson, C. (2021). Writing beyond recognition: Queer Re-Storying for Social Change. Myers Education Press.
Sumara, D. (in preparation). On the fear of being ordinary and the desire to belong: Restorying education for empowering change.
Sumara, D. (2021). On becoming what the story needs. Journal of Applied Hermeneutics https://doi.org/10.11575/jah.v2021i2021.72050
Sumara, D. (2020). On the power of not passing: A queer narrartive hermeneutics of higher education leadership. Journal of Educational Administration and History. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220620.2020.1814224
Sumara, D. (2002). Why reading literature in school still matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. Routledge.
Sumara, D. & Alvermann, D. (Eds.). (2022). Ideas that changed literacy practices: First person accounts from leading voices. New York: Myers Education Press.
Areas of Research
Participation in university strategic initiatives
- 2022-2023 - Book-length manuscript currently in preparation
- 2009 – 2012. Principal researcher: R. Luce-Kapler; Co-researcher, D. Sumara. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Amount $124,500
- Ed Fry Book Award, National Reading Conference (USA) for Why Reading Literature in School Still Matters: Imagination, Interpretation, Insight. 2001
- The Canadian Association of Curriculum Studies Dissertation of the Year Award, 1994
- The James Macdonald Prize in Curriculum Theory, Awarded by the Board of Trustees of JCT: Journal of Curriculum Theorizing.
- The Ed Fry Book Award, National Reading Conference (USA). 2002
- Lifetime Achievement Award for Research Contributions in Teacher Education, Canadian Association of Teacher Education. 2019
- Outstanding Book Award, Association of Professors of Education. 2022
- University of Lethbridge 2022 Distinguished Alumnus Award, University of Lethbridge. 2022
- Governor General's Gold Medal, University of Lethbridge. 1990
- Journal of Applied Hermeneutics. 1-9. (2021)
- Sumara, D. Journal of Educational Administration and History. (2020)
- Robson, C. & Sumara, D. International Journal of Qualitative Studies Education. (2016)
- Robson, C., & Sumara, D. Journal of Lesbian Studies. 19(1). (2015)
- Robson, C. & Sumara, D. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies. 11(1), 23-40. (2013)
- Davis, B., Sumara, D., & D’Amour, L. Journal of Educational Change. 13: 373-399. (2012)
- Sumara, D., Friesen, S., Takasugi, C., & Doucette, J. In R. Tierney, F. Rizvi, K. Ercikan & G. Smith (Eds.) Elsevier International Encyclopedia of Education.
- Sumara, D. & Alvermann, D. (Eds.). Myers Education Press. (2022)
- Sumara, D. In Sumara, D. & Alverman, G. Ideas that changed literacy practices: First person accounts from leading voice. Myers Educational Press. pp. 297-306. (2022)
- Sumara, D. & Alverman, D. In Sumara, D. & Alverman, G. Ideas that changed literacy practices: First person accounts from leading voice. Myers Educational Press. pp. 1-5. (2022)
- Robson, C. & Sumara, D. In S. Steinberg & B. Down (Eds), Sage Handbook of Critical Pedagogies. New York: Sage Press. pp. 1255-1268. (2020)
- Sumara,, D. In Klausen, K. & Black, G. (Eds), The Future of Action Research in Education: A Canadian Perspective. McGill-Queens University Press. pp. xi-xvi. (2020)
- Sumara, D. New York: Routledge. (2019)
- Robson, C. & Sumara, D . In Wearing, J., Ingersoll, M., DeLuca, C., Bolden, B., Ogden, H., and Christou, T. (Eds), Key concepts in Curriculum: Perspectives on the Fundamentals. New York: Routledge. pp. 282-287. (2019)
- Lockett, M, Luce-Kapler, R., & Sumara, D. In J. Joseph & W. Crichlow (Eds.), Alternative offender rehabilitation and social justice: Arts and physical engagement in criminal justice and community settings. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY. pp. 165-180. (2015)
- Davis, B., Sumara, D., & Luce-Kapler, R. 3nd edition. Routledge. (2015)
- Sumara, D. Routledge. (2002)
- Sumara, D. Peter Lang. (1996)
- Sumara, D., Luce-Kapler, R., & Iftody, T. In M. Mason (Ed.) Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. (2008)
- Sumara, D., Davis, B., & Iftody, T. Changing English: Studies in Reading and Culture. 13(1), 55-68. (2006)
- Sumara, D. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. (2002)
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