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Boler, Megan. Affect and Media Literacy. RTE, Nov. 2019. Posted 01/09/2019.

Boler, Megan. “Digital Disinformation and the Targeting of Affect: New Frontiers for Critical Media Education.” Research in the Teaching of English 54.2 (2019): 187-91. Print.

Megan Boler contributes a “provocation” to an “In Dialogue” section of Research in the Teaching of English focusing on “Media.” She calls for attention to the influence of emotion in rhetorical communication, particularly in social media (187).

Boler argues that media literacy scholars and educators “lag behind advertisers and tech companies” in understanding the power of emotion to elicit responses (188). Social media, she writes, have enabled propagandists with this kind of understanding to target and manipulate public opinion in new and more powerful ways. In her view, such agents deliberately stoke emotional responses in order to create anger and division as well as distrust of public fora (187). In today’s media, Boler argues, “emotion and affect have become central currencies” in today’s “(digital) attention economy” (188).

To examine how media literacy education addresses the sophisticated use of emotion she describes, Boler’s team did a “preliminary review” of nine media literacy handbooks from 2017 and 2018 (188). She finds that these handbooks exhibit a consistent “cognitive bias,” focusing on fact-based critique including the recognition of “questionable URLs, . . . biased language, or missing sources” (189). Only four mention emotion at all.

She reports on one of the latter that provides guidance on recognizing “intentional” emotional appeals in fake sources but, in her view, absolves consumers of responsibility for their own emotional engagement. Another provides classroom activities that encourage students to “identify how the source affected their emotions” (189). While a first step, this approach, Boler feels, isolates emotion as an individual response (189).

Boler suggests a “pedagogy of discomfort” that asks students to examine the effects of identity, peer pressure, and other “unconscious emotional habits, patterns, and assumptions” that influence responses to media (190).

Emotion, in this view, is “not merely an ‘add-on’ that can be understood through a checklist.” Instead, emotion and affect are “fundamental,” Boler contends, and should be central to media literacy scholarship and education (190).


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Andrus et al. Teaching for Transfer at Two-Year Colleges. TETYC Sept. 2019. Posted 12/13/2019.

Andrus, Sonja, Sharon Mitchler, and Howard Tinberg. “Teaching for Writing Transfer: A Practical Guide for Teachers.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 47.1 (2019): 76-89. Print.

Sonja Andrus, Sharon Mitchler, and Howard Tinberg report on participating in a study to examine the effects of Kathleen Blake Yancey et al.’s teaching-for-transfer curriculum (TFT) across a range of institutions and student populations. Andrus et al. applied the curriculum from Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing at three community colleges, one “small, rural,” one “suburban,” and one “urban” (77).

The study group consisted of nine writing professionals at different institutions who taught “parallel courses” in fall 2017. The curriculum from Writing across Contexts had been deemed useful in first-year writing courses at a “large research university”; the study considered how the assignments and scaffolding materials could be effectively adjusted for a wider sample of settings (77).

Arguing for the importance of helping students understand the usefulness of their learning beyond the college-writing classroom (76), the authors note the students who are likely to enroll in community-college courses may differ in age, experience, and life situations from students at four-year institutions. They write that differences in institutional structures, such as class sizes and higher class loads, can also affect the efficacy of the transfer curriculum (77).

Andrus et al. report that the TFT curriculum includes three components: key terms, reflection requirements, and four major assignments (77). The key terms, which are meant to provide students with “a single vocabulary for talking about writing in the classroom and for thinking about writing,” are

  • Audience
  • Genre
  • Rhetorical situation
  • Reflection
  • Discourse community
  • Purpose
  • Context
  • Knowledge (78)

The authors endorse the reflection component for its power to “slow student writers down” so they can become more “self-aware” and develop metacognitive sensibilities that will allow them to understand the process of writing as well as themselves as writers. All assignments come with reading lists and reflective elements that act as “perpetual glue” supporting the curriculum’s scaffolding (80).

The authors explain how they believe that each of the first three assignments leads students toward the final task, which is

[a]reflective composition, in a genre of the student’s own choosing, . . . [that] state[s] a fully developed theory of writing drawn from the course’s key terms and grounded in the course’s readings, a theory upon which students may draw when asked to write in new contexts. (80)

The first assignment is a “source-based definition and synthesis essay” (78) in which students apply the terms genre, rhetorical situation, and audience to assigned readings and in the process “describe the relationship among the terms” (79). The rationale for basing an assignment on sources early in the term is to introduce students to addressing varied perspectives “from the start” (79).

This assignment, the authors aver, is “daunting” and “unfamiliar” for students and for instructors, who, like Tinberg, may be unsure their classes are ready for the synthesis required (84). The requirement to relate the unfamiliar terms to each other and apply them to a challenging reading, the authors believe, immediately confronts students with the need to explore “what writing is and how it works” beyond the basics of a specific college requirement (84).

The second assignment also “flips” traditional practice by asking for research into “large, genuinely interesting questions rather than simplistic thesis-driven answers” (79). Andrus et al. state that teachers may need to support students in a process that not only presents the basics of research writing but also confounds their expectations by asking them to explore an issue rather than working to support a preconceived opinion (85). Included in this assignment is an emphasis on a key term, “discourse community,” as students are asked to see research and writing as important elements of knowledge-making in context (85).

In the third assignment, students recast their prior work in three different genres (79). The authors caution that it may be tempting to limit students with tight semester schedules to a single genre, but they argue that “at least planning the work for multiple genres is significant here” (86). One recommendation is to allow students to work in genres they already understand so that students who may be disoriented by college have a “stable” starting place for the new learning required (87-88).

The authors encourage instructors to prepare for a range of responses to the final assignment, noting that some students may repackage the reflections they have already completed while others may try to frame the assignment in more familiar forms (86-87). They provide an excerpt that they believe illustrates a student “conspicuously and knowingly deploying critical terms from the course” in which she articulates increased awareness of the importance of audience, genre, and rhetorical context (87).

The authors discuss ways they adjusted the TFT process to serve their community college environments. They emphasize the importance of conferencing and illustrate ideas for managing the time demands of one-on-one interaction with students (80-81). The assignments differ from those students have experienced previously, and both the cognitive load and pace of the work can benefit from enhanced “reassurance” and “direction” (81), in the authors’ view.

In addition, the authors changed some of the required readings, emphasizing their efforts to meet the goals of the curriculum while finding a balance between readings that were too long or dense and those that were too “short and easy” to accomplish the curriculum’s goals (81). These decisions, they write, allowed students to address readings in more depth (82). Andrus et al. analyze the effects of some of the listed readings, including students’ resistance to articles that cast them as “objects to be studied” and their appreciation of works in which the challenges they faced as community-college students were seen as “important and central to the course” (83). The authors also provide ideas for increasing the reflective writing considered essential to the course goals (83-84).

A list of recommendations includes as well the importance of being “frank and upfront” with students about the course and of being flexible and innovative within the bounds of the curriculum goals in order to make the course more effective for the particular students involved (87-88).

 

 


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Canagarajah, Suresh. A History of Orientations to Text. CE, Sept. 2019. Posted 11/24/2019.

Canagarajah, Suresh. “Weaving the Text: Changing Literacy Practices and Orientations.” College English 82.1 (2019): 7-28. Print.

In a special issue of College English, “Reorienting to the Text,” Suresh Canagarajah’s guest editor essay explores the reference to “weaving” in the etymology of “text” to trace a progression of attitudes toward texts in academic and intellectual circles since the advent of alphabetic writing. He writes that these attitudes have tended to produce binaries like “orality versus writing,” “community versus artifact,” and “mobility versus stability,” among others (8). Approaches that Canagarajah groups under “modernist literacy,” he states, valued the second binaries in this list, while later orientations shifted the focus to the initial concepts (8).

Cautioning that the history of text is not a linear path to “an enlightened conclusion” (8), Canagarajah writes that modernist literacies result from what he calls the “Great Divide” that divorced oral and written communication, privileging the written because of its supposed “transparent meanings” and permanence (7). Under the heading “Autonomous Literacies,” Canagarajah discusses various approaches to text that focus on its claim to convey stable meanings across contexts to those able to receive those meanings (9-10). He sees this approach deriving from the Enlightenment’s “orientation to reality” because such an orientation “transform[ed] experience into manageable and abstract information” (10). Similarly, colonization worked to silence disruptive local or unsanctioned communication, and the need of religion to manage ideas required official language represented as incontrovertible (10).

Canagarajah points to the New Criticism as an example of adherence to this view of text as separate from author and context (10). However, in the 1970s, he writes, an “ethnographic bent” led scholars to challenge the claim that texts could produce meaning not influenced by the social circumstances in which they functioned (11). Scholars like Shirley Brice Heath produced work that Canagarajah classifies as “Social Literacies,” which examined how the diverse contexts in which language was both constructed and interpreted was shaped by a “text’s social functions” (11). Inherent in this literacy was a recuperation of spoken communication, which was seen as “complementary” to writing (11). Meanwhile, interest in “new literacies” deriving from multimodal practices drove attention to “vernacular” literacies (12).

Canagarajah writes that this social turn retained a view of the community itself as “homogeneous,” tending to respond to a particular “bounded object” like a text in uniform ways (12). Reaction to this tendency led to attention to the effects of power, even within communities, on the dissemination and uptake of texts (12). This turn advanced “critical literacy,” which, in turn, paved the way for the “social-constructionist orientation” (12).

Social-constructionism, Canagarajah writes, may have been equally sanctioned by the sense of loss of agency and control occasioned by late capitalism. The social-constructionist move to reduce the social, the material, and the effects of power to textual representation may have produced “greater order, coherence, and control over life” (13). This “textual turn,” as Canagarajah calls it, means that the force of the text itself is replaced by the interpretations with which it is received across divergent contexts. There is no constant meaning; power resides in the reader, whose ideology, in turn, is formed not by any exterior reality but by earlier texts: “That is, our knowledge and interpretations are a chain of unending texts” (13). As a result, texts are not seen as “reflecting social practices and material life,” but rather as “constructing” them (14; emphases original). Returning to the metaphor of weaving, Canagarajah writes that in this turn, society and text became interwoven so that complex social threads could be deciphered in texts, with the result that nothing existed outside text (14).

He characterizes a new turn as a “mobility turn” engendered by the degree to which world events “bled outside the text” (14). The need to address the reception and uses of texts by widely divergent communities across multiple borders led, in his view, to a rejection of the idea of “bounded communities” and to a conception of society as composed of “liminal contact zones” (16) where people with different ideologies and needs interact. The “traveling text,” in this view, can be appropriated endlessly, with consequent ethical implications for such repurposing (15-16). “Recontextualization” captures ways in which power-relations within contact zones can be revised as texts are taken up for new uses; “entextualization” refers to the ways in which speech can become text as it is taken up and embedded across divergent spaces (17): “It is as if the textual fabric gets rewoven with new threads every time people wear it” (17).

Canagarajah next examines a “material turn” that heralds enhanced awareness of the ways that context and physical objects have agency and impact the production of texts (18). In this view, texts are one object among many that construct meaning. Ancillary to this approach is the “recuperat[ion]” of “the agency of the textual artifact” itself as an object acting on contexts it encounters (17). Scholarship noted “performative” aspects of text/materiality interactions, with the activities involved in meaning making replacing the product as central to production and use (18-19). This emphasis, in Canagarajah’s view, underlines the “unpredictability” and expansiveness of texts in the world and reveals the ways in which experiences with texts are “mulitisensory,” with aspects that are “affective, aesthetic, imaginative, and social” (20).

Canagarajah notes the role of technology as a material actor, using the hashtag as an example of the kind of entextualization that emerges as meaning builds and shifts from activities within a “whole network working together” (21): rather than crediting a single author, such entextualization sees meaning as “coconstructed in the doing” (21). For participants, creating text becomes an “everyday practice” (22).

Such approaches to textuality, Canagarajah argues, call into view prior literacies that practiced texts as embodied and social and that were erased by Western culture (22). He uses his own Tamil heritage to explore how a single text, preserved orally, drew its significance from performance in varied settings across time: “The transcribed version was not the full ‘text’”; rather, the emotional experience engendered by encountering the text in specific material, social, and affective moments gave the text its meaning (23).

After summarizing the contents of the special issue, Canagarajah contends that movement from autonomous literacy to the fluidity and expansiveness of the material turn does not guarantee “more inclusive and democratic literacies” (26). The resources that permit coproduction of meaning, in his view, also serve interests that may wish to hide their own agendas. As a counter to this danger, Canagarajah argues that “critical intervention” remains possible because “[n]o one can control the weaving of the text” (26).


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Elbow, Peter. Text and Time. CE, Sept. 2019. Posted 11/07/2019.

Elbow, Peter. “We’ll Sing Like Birds in a Cage: Text and the Dream of Eluding Time.” College English 82.1 (2019): 29-40. Print.

Contributing to an issue of College English dealing with the relationship between literacy studies and “text,” Peter Elbow explores the implications of different lenses we can use to look at language: speech, writing, composition, and text.

He prefaces his piece with a quote from the Greek philosopher Anaximander of Miletus regarding the boundedness of human activities by time and a sections from a poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” by W. H. Auden. Elbow later quotes two lines of this poem: “O let not Time deceive you,/You cannot conquer Time” (37). His article addresses the ties among the four lenses and human attitudes toward time.

Elbow maintains that writing itself arose from the need to cross from the embodied actions of speech to the more distanced communication of the written symbol. All writing systems, he contends, owe their existence to the use of rebuses, “visible pictures that represent audible sounds” (30). He illustrates the use of the rebus technique to convert an abstract word like “belief” into writing through images of a bee and a leaf, then goes on to trace the transition from using the meanings of the pictures to using their initial sounds to represent phonological sounds; thus, the Semitic word aleph, meaning “ox,” led to a drawing of an ox’s head that represented the initial sound of the word and that came to be the letter A (31).

In Elbow’s view, “writing” retains the connection to the embodied through its invocation of the physical actions and environments associated with putting marks on page or screen. However, he states, as writing studies aspired to academic standing, the implication of the “ordinary” and “everyday” inherent in “writing” no longer served and practitioners sought “a fancier word” (32). “Composition,” denoting something that Elbow claims no ordinary person ever sat down to write, does at least, in his estimate, capture the “process” involved in writing (32). However, Elbow claims, “composition” soon became ordinary in its own right and succumbed to an even more erudite term, “text.”

Elbow provides definitions for the three lenses. Text “foregrounds writing as a transaction of pure meaning” that “disconnects writing from persons, bodies, sound, time” (33). The writing lens, in contrast, evokes writing as “action by humans taking place in time,” while composition “ties writing to the classroom,” where it is “an exercise—not the real thing” (34; emphasis original). Elbow discusses a tension between seeing writing as private in that most of what people write, in drafts for example, will never be read by anyone else, and seeing it as public because “in the process of producing anything, we are haunted by that third-grade teacher-reader peering over our shoulder at every word we put down.” He proposes that such oppositions are each, “in a sense,” correct, and the true discussion should focus on “which lens is most useful” in a specific context (35; all emphasis original).

Elbow ties the “text” lens to time with an analogy to King Lear, arguing that Lear’s fatal actions were failed efforts to control and elude time. The effort to “create works that will last,” in his view, is a similar strategy to escape time (36).

Contending that text lends itself to the sense that words can “last forever” as well as to an illusion that we can take in the entirety of a “string of words” simultaneously, Elbow responds not only that texts can disappear physically but that meanings are ephemeral; moreover, reading is an activity bound to the progress through a text in time (37). At the same time, he writes, the success of text ultimately is a function of narrative, which “carrie[s] us forward from word to word” (37). He also finds the imprint of time in intonation, the way even silent readers have been shown to hear emphasis and even musical qualities in what they read, thus returning writing to the space of the body and therefore time (37-38).

Elbow proposes the “voice” lens, which he says reminds readers that “the words emerged from a physical body” (38). “Writing” similarly evokes a living being making choices, while “the text lens downplays time, person, voice, sound, and body” (38; emphasis original). He endorses reading aloud to audiences as a way of producing language that is “clearer and easier to process” (39). Ultimately, he claims, in order to come to life, text must give up “the dream of eluding time” (39).


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Borgman & McClure. Advantages of Online Teaching and PhD Studies. FORUM Fall 2019. Posted 10/30/2019.

Borgman, Jessie, and Christine I. McClure. “The Ultimate Balancing Act: Contingent Online Teaching and PhD Coursework.” Forum: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty 23.1 (2019): A3-A8. Print.

Jessie Borgman and Christine I. McClure recount how the opportunity to both teach and take courses online allowed them to develop professionally and pursue rewarding careers.

The writers are long-time contingent teachers with wide experience in online environments. Both are pursuing PhDs in technical communication programs. MClure takes both face-to-face and online courses, while Borgman’s are all online (A3). As they pursue their graduate studies, they have both experienced teaching full loads as contingent faculty, taking on multiple courses at a range of institutions (A4-A5).

They note that they encounter negatives common to contingent positions, such as pay levels not commensurate with their professional standing (A4), “identity issues,” and “lack of professional development opportunities” (A5). They report heavy workloads, including the need to read and respond to a huge amount of student work, to keep with their own coursework, and to continue their own research and writing (A4). They write that this workload has affected their stress levels, their abilities to find time for their families, and their health (A4).

However, the authors contend that their strategies for dealing with these characteristics of their teaching jobs as well as their PhD coursework have allowed them to pursue career directions that would not have been possible without online education. Acknowledging literature that claims that online teaching is more time- and energy-intensive than face-to-face work (A4), Borgman and McClure simultaneously find the ability to work online both as teachers and as students “freeing” (A3).

A strategy they cite as both freeing and enabling is the recognition that they are not tied to “9-to-5 lives”: they “must always be prepared to do what [they] can when [they] can.” They characterize this situation as “a new fluid workspace” that has allowed them to meet demands that would otherwise be impossible (A4).

They also note personal characteristics they believe contribute to their achievements. These include being “extremely organized,” “highly motivated,” and possessed of “excellent time management skills” (A3). They have developed the ability to use synched calendars to coordinate the many intersecting threads of their job, coursework, and home requirements (A5-A6).

The lack of professional development led them to accumulate their own strategies over their years of teaching; they cast their decisions to enter PhD programs as a desire for “more” (A5). They also find that their coursework has led to networks and collaborative alliances that allow them to grow “more confident” about their career trajectories (A5).

One advantage they cite for their online trajectories is the ability to avoid heavy debt loads. They find that flexibility in their programs and employment allows them to take time off as needed to accumulate funds and that financial assistance may often be available from institutions where they work and study (A6).

Borgman enjoys the freedom afforded by contingent work, as well as the opportunity to teach at a wide range of institutions; she does not seek tenure-track employment. McClure notes the value of the benefits she now receives in her current full-time position as an instructor, but is pursuing her research agenda to work toward a tenure-track job (A6).

The authors stress that working online as contingent faculty and studying online need not, “at least for some,” be a “disadvantage” (A6).

Being online students and educators has been more of a blessing in both our lives than a hindrance; we have been able to pursue more opportunities than we had imagined. (A6-A7).

 


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Flowers, Katherine S. CCCC’s National Language Policy Revisited. Sept. CCC. Posted 10/24/2019.

Flowers, Katherine S. “Writing Studies’ Concessions to the English-Only Movement: Revisiting CCCC’s National Language Policy and Its Reception.” College Composition and Communication 71.1 (2019): 31-59. Print.

Katherine S. Flowers reports on the creation and reception of the National Language Policy (NLP) approved by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in 1988. Noting that a large body of scholarship has addressed the 1974 statement on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (32), Flowers contends that her focus on the NLP highlights the “potential pitfalls” inherent in some of the moves she traces in the creation and dissemination of the NLP (33).

Policy development for CCCC, Flowers writes, is about “engagement” with important stakeholders and issues surrounding writing studies, but she argues that scholars contributing to the creation of policy may not always accord perfectly with each other as to exactly what the policy is meant to do or what it means in practice (32). In the case of the NLP, Flowers sees in it a desire to find common ground across constituencies, which, in her view, led to a problematic policy that should be re-examined and revised (36, 51).

Flowers traces the NLP’s inception from the early 1980s, when Geneva Smitherman-Donaldson advocated for “a new policy that ‘would reassert the legitimacy of languages other than English, and American dialects other than standard’” (qtd. in Flowers 35). Though some argued that the “Students’ Right” document was sufficient, the rise of the “English-only” movement inspired increased attention to the question (36). Chairing the new Language Policy Committee, Smitherman-Donaldson pressed for the new statement, and the policy was passed at the Annual Business Meeting, March 19, 1988 (36, 54).

Flowers examines the policy and its reception through a “sociocultural linguistics approach” that explores “what meanings are being presupposed and created, and by whom, and how those meanings evolve, and to what ends” (37). She analyzes the NLP itself along with archival contents held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) (37).

A decade of correspondence in these archives detailed the development of the policy over time as well as a mailing done in 1991 to disseminate the policy to a wide range of stakeholders, including “school district superintendents,” “the state director/supervisor of language arts in each state,” “every member of Congress,” “every governor”—in short, a long list of recipients (37-38). Responses arrived from governors, representatives, and education professionals from twenty-six states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C., as well as from the executive director of the prominent English-only group, U.S. English (37).

Flowers explores scholarship contending that English-only policies advance the oppression of marginalized groups while obscuring the degree to which communication consists of more than languages. This scholarship points out that multiple languages have always been a part of U.S. classrooms and communities and sees the existence and encouragement of diverse language use as a strength. Yet, Flowers argues, “many of writing studies’ policies and pedagogies” adhere to what Xiaoye You and Suresh Canagarajah call a “monolingual orientation” (34-35). Flowers sees signs of this orientation in the language of the NLP itself, for example in that it twice refers to English as “the language of wider communication” and promotes “respect” for English, which, in Flowers’s view, does not need enhanced respect (36).

The main focus for Flowers is the response to the 1991 mailing. Noting that many of the responses were almost certainly written by staff, she assigns authorship according to “whose office or organization sponsored that letter” (38). Her research question was “How did public policymakers interpret CCCC’s stance on English-only policies?” (38).

Expecting her coding to lead to many variations, Flowers writes that in fact each of the 60 responses she examined could be assigned to one of four categories (40). The largest category, represented by 24 letters, was “Noncommittal.” Respondents in this column may have sent standardized forms or, as she says about the example from a Michigan state representative, “grappled with” the issue (47), writing only that they “remain[ed] flexible” (qtd. in Flowers 47). Such responses, Flowers posits, may indicate that the writers may have been persuadable.

The next largest category, consisting of 18 responses, praised CCCC’s anti-English-only stance. Responses from officials and public figures like Texas Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez reinforced concerns about the negative effects of English-only policies and echoed contentions about the importance of multilingualism to the United States’ place in the global community (39-40). Others envisioned putting the policy statement to use in developing future initiatives, although Flowers suggests that such hopes may have been overly optimistic (41).

In eleven responses, Flowers’s coding revealed a view of CCCC as a “hesitant critic of English-only policies” (41). Flowers cites replies from Alaska and Hawai’i as examples of the argument that American culture has always been multilingual (42). In Flowers’s view, “the NLP essentially calls for English Plus” while the superintendent of the Hawai’i Department of Education references “programs that do not center English at all,” such as courses taught in and requiring immersion in the Hawai’ian language (43). The emphasis in such responses, Flowers writes, is on promoting “language rights and diversity” (43).

Flowers finds most troubling “how easily” (47) knowledgeable policy makers such as Senators Paul Simon and Dennis DeConcini found the NLP to be supportive of English-only positions. Flowers quotes instances in which the seven who took this view drew on the text of the policy itself to depict it as advocating monolingualism as an aid to widespread “communication” and as an antidote to “segregation” (43). Flowers foregrounds the response from the executive director of the English-only organization, U.S. English, who writes that his group “fully supports the resolution adopted by CCCC” (qtd. in Flowers 43). In her view, the text itself “was so focused on the English language” that even careful readers could arrive at such conclusions (46).

As remedies, Flowers suggests research into how such public engagement by writing studies is developed and functions as well as how such policies are read across time (49-50). In terms of action, she proposes, first, that “[d]ecentering English” should lead policy writers to “abandon the notion that English is a necessary component of composition” rather than, in Ellen Cushman’s words, “one of many language assets available to writers in this world” (qtd. in Flowers 51). Second, scholars should refocus on “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” recognizing challenges to the assumptions behind language as a right while promoting “a reflexive, practice-based approach” that accords users agency in determining their own language needs (52).

Finally, writing studies can more fully endorse the existence and value of “translingual practice,” which would “focus less on particular codes and more on creating opportunities for students to learn to communicate across languages and modes” (53).

 


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

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).