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Schey and Blackburn. Queering Normative Literacy. RTE, Aug. 2019. Posted 10/16/2019.

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Schey, Ryan, and Mollie Blackburn. “Queer Ruptures of Normative Literacy Practices: Toward Visualizing, Hypothesizing, and Empathizing.” Research in the Teaching of English 54.1 (2019): 58-80. Print.

Ryan Schey and Mollie Blackburn discuss a study of their students in an “arts-focused charter high school in a Midwestern city” (64) as the students responded to Steve Brezenoff’s novel Brooklyn, Burning. The course was an “LGBTQ-themed” (58) literature course for juniors and seniors (64). The authors argue that the book created “ruptures” of normative literary practices, highlighting how readers’ responses to these ruptures could either shut down discussion or provide opportunities for learning (59).

Schey and Blackburn detail their research methodology, in which they combined ethnography and teacher research (63). Schey acted as participant-observer while Blackburn conducted “practitioner inquiry,” designing curriculum and assessment procedures (64). Materials for analysis included curriculum documents and student work, as well as field notes, audio and video recordings, and entrance and exit interviews (67). Thirteen of the fourteen enrollees in the course participated. Schey positions himself as a “white straight cis man” and Blackburn identifies as a “white queer cis woman” (66). Both have extensive experience working in support of LGBTQ groups.

The authors differentiate between LGBT scholarship and queer theory. The former, they write, “tend[s] to characterize sexuality and gender as stable, using positivist and modernist lenses” (60). In contrast, queer studies “destabilize fixed notions of gender and sexuality” (60). The authors review a number of studies that they feel can endorse not only “heteronormativity” but also “homonormativity,” when “binary framings” lead to “oversimplification” of students’ perceptions of sexuality and gender (61).

Literacy, for these writers, is itself ideological, influenced by context and extant power relations; they discuss how differently a student might read a text with friends as opposed to under the scrutiny of teachers (61). Classroom power relations make some forms of literacy response “normative and dominant”; queer theorists like those reviewed by Schey and Blackburn attempt to disrupt such processes and open the way for alternatives (62).

Reading experiences that confront students with ruptures in their normalized expectations, in the authors’ view, force them to attend to inherent possibilities that are otherwise obscured (63). Rather than addressing confrontations with such ruptures as “individual cognitive experiences,” the authors argue for a perspective contextualized within a social environment, an approach that they write requires more attention to race than is often provided (62). They turn to R. A. Ferguson as a scholar who, by “vehemently den[ying] the discreteness of any category such as gender, sexuality or race” offers a lens through which students can encounter generative ruptures (63).

Arguing for their ethnographic approach as a means to address “oppressive power relations,” the authors write that of their thirteen students, one was “white and Asian,” while the rest were white (64). A chart classifies the students, with a caveat that the students’ gender and sexual identities were “mulitiple, variable, and fluid,” with some changing after the study ended. Five were straight and cis gendered; a gay trans man was not named in the study, while another woman identified as queer and another as a lesbian (65). Three of the named students are listed as fluid in gender.

Brezenoff’s book, Ryan and Blackburn contend, functions as queer in that the “ruptures” it creates resist normative modes of literacy. They follow a brief plot summary with the statement that the novel “queers gender . . . but it also queers sexuality, families and homes, and time” (66). The gender of two of the main characters cannot be ascertained, nor can their sexuality. The novel contrasts the heteronormative contexts from which these characters emerge with a context in which characters play changing roles as partners and caregivers; moreover, an unusual chronology defies attempts to impose “order and stability” (66).

In the introduction to the article, Brezenoff suggests that his work reacts to attempts to assign fixed gender and sexuality through stereotypical, sexist characteristics; the authors write that his refusal to gender the two characters “destabilized not only sexist practices and ideologies but also those grounded in cisnormativity” (59).

The authors recount classroom discussions in which students grappled with “seeing” versus “visualizing,” “understanding” versus “hypothesizing,” and “connecting” versus “empathizing.” Some students expressed frustration that Brezenoff’s handling of characters made it hard to “gaze directly at the characters and find them legible according to [their] normative definitions of gender and sexuality” (69). The authors contrast other students who used the textual ambiguity to “visualize alongside” the characters, as if “looking over [their] shoulders,” thereby adopting new perspectives (69). Ambiguity, one student suggests, invites more readers to identify with the characters because they can imagine different characteristics.

Similarly, some students wanted to understand definitive answers to questions raised by the text, such as the cause of a fire (71). The authors contrast this need with the willingness of other students to “hypothesize” alternatives in which concrete characteristics were seen as contextual and fluid rather than fixed in specific bodies (72). According to the authors, the need to reduce ruptures to “fixed, stable, and singular knowledge” cast ruptures as “problems” rather than as “expanded epistemological practices” that invited “different ideas through different pathways” (76).

The authors recount a single mention of race as a rupture students struggled to address. One of the more resistant students said that he could not deal with ambiguity in race along with his uncertainties about gender and sexuality (72-73). Other students explored various ways of finding empathy across what the authors see as “white homonormative interpretations” (73), but the bell rang and ended the discussion. In contrast, the authors argue that the book’s depiction of a character’s addiction encouraged students to visualize the addiction as only one part of the character’s situation, thus allowing them to empathize in ways a narrower portrayal would have curtailed (74-75). Schey and Blackburn contend that the ability of several students to connect with characters with addictions but not people of color reflects national attitudes that equate addiction with criminality in Black people but with illness in need of care in whites (76).

In the authors’ view, presenting students with texts that create ruptures in their normal reading processes imposes risks, but that such ruptures can become “opportunities” rather “obstacles,” means, they contend, that “reading with ruptures is a risk worth taking” (77).

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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