College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

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).


1 Comment

Gruwell, Leigh. Wikipedia’s Gender-Gap Problem. C&C, May 2015. Posted 08/19/15.

Gruwell, Leigh. “Wikipedia’s Politics of Exclusion: Gender, Epistemology, and Feminist Rhetorical (In)action.” Computers and Composition 37 (2015): 117-31. Web. 28 july 2015.

Leigh Gruwell examines Wikipedia’s “gender-gap problem,” the fact that only 13% of its editors are female. Gruwell recounts interviews with three women who regularly contribute to Wikipedia to argue that a number of aspects of the Wikipedia process are not welcoming to women.

Gruwell reports that Wikipedia is widely used by both men and women and has earned the approval of a number of composition scholars who see it as “a collaborative site of writing and knowledge production that emphasizes revision and challenges traditional models of textual authority and authorship” (117). Compositionists have valued wiki technology in general and have incorporated Wikipedia into classroom assignments (119). Gruwell points to scholarship that casts Wikipedia as a way of showing how texts arise through a “socially constructed, ever-unfolding process” that does not stem from “a single, unified identity” (119). Scholars also value Wikipedia’s public nature and its message that knowledge is not limited to “credentialed experts” and is, in James Purdy’s view, “framed as up for debate” (qtd. in Gruwell 119). But Gruwell argues that Wikipedia, like any technology or text, emerges from its culture and encodes “biases and assumptions” that scholars should be alert to (119).

Gruwell examines Wikipedia as a discourse community; she notes that the scholarship on such communities demonstrates how, within the community, some modes of communication are sanctioned while others are discouraged or even denied. Gruwell argues, however, that members of one discourse community are also members of other communities and that these varied simultaneous memberships shape individuals’ relationships across communities. Wikipedia, she writes, does not acknowledge the diversity or multiplicity of the people who contribute; for example, the site does not ask editors to register and minimizes the information users have to supply. As a result, Gruwell states, “it is difficult to discern who these users are” (121). She contends that a user’s “standpoint”—his or her “allegiances . . . , politics . . . , [and] social positioning”—affect the knowledge that the user incorporates into the Wikipedia interface (121).

This dissociation from users’ lived experiences is further enforced, she writes, by the site’s style preferences. She demonstrates these preferences with a screen shot of the entry for “Feminist movement,” which is deemed unacceptable because it is “written like a personal reflection or essay” rather than in the mandated “encyclopedic style” (Wikipedia entry for “Feminist movement,” qtd. in Gruwell 118). Gruwell critiques this style choice through the lens of feminist standpoint theory, arguing that Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” requirement, which, according to the site’s guidelines, asks writers “to describe debates rather than engage in them” (qtd. in Gruwell 121), excludes writing from an “embodied” positionality reflective of the kind of “lived experiences” that shape knowledge and that characterize a feminist approach to discourse (119).

Gruwell details her own experiences with Wikipedia. After regularly turning to Wikipedia for “quick run-down[s]” when needed, she fulfilled a graduate seminar assignment by enlisting as an editor (122). Discouraged by the difficulty of the “idiosyncratic” mark-up language then in use and by seeing her edits revised, Gruwell returned to using Wikipedia solely as a resource. However, the discovery that only 13% of editors were women encouraged her to see her experiences as grounds for investigation (122).

After promised help from Wikipedia recruiting women study participants failed to materialize, Gruwell located a “Wikimedia Australia gender gap listserv” (123) populated by women who contributed regularly to Wikipedia. Participants took a short survey on their experiences and then responded to a request for a longer interview over Skype or phone (123, 128-29).

Gruwell focuses on three interviews that provide useful insights into women’s relationships with the Wikipedia community (123). The three women were “relatively privileged . . . , well-educated, [and] economically advantaged” (123). Gruwell posits that these women’s positions may have enabled them to engage successfully with Wikipedia because they had both the time and the skills to do so (123). The women cited their emotional commitment to Wikipedia’s goals or to the community, with one explicitly expressing a political purpose, calling attention to issues she considered important. Gruwell notes that all three wrote “about topics that mattered to them, as individuals and professionals” (124) and with which they had a personal connection.

Gruwell’s interviews suggest three reasons why women fail to thrive at Wikipedia. First, her participants note that even professional women are still burdened by traditonal women’s duties and thus cannot prioritize becoming expert users (124-25). Second, though Gruwell notes that Wikipedia is making its coding simpler (123n4), historically learning to edit has presented a considerable learning curve. Her participants suggest that because IT has generally been a male-dominated domain, people comfortable using the interface may well more often be male. Finally, Gruwell emphasizes the degree to which the discourse expectations at Wikipedia exclude the kinds of knowledge many woman may bring to the project (124-25).

Gruwell explores these issues by examining how her three interview subjects have succeeded as Wikipedia editors. Beyond bringing some IT expertise, as one participant does, the women exhibit “a sophisticated sense” of how Wikipedia operates that enables them to meet the rigid community requirements (125). They recognize the mandate to direct their work to “the widest possible audience” (“Lekha,” qtd. in Gruwell 125); they copy and develop templates to structure their work in formats that will be accepted (126). Gruwell especially addresses the epistemological standards the women must meet. Of particular note is the need for “sourcing” that will be considered “reliable” (126). The women’s experiences in academia, Gruwell posits, makes meeting this standard easier for these women than it would be for others. However, she provides examples of how this standard excludes individual and local knowledge, as does the site’s sense of what constitutes the “notability” necessary for inclusion on Wikipedia (126). In Gruwell’s view, such practices create a “homogenous” body of information that claims authority as decisive when it fact it excludes rather than enables debate (127). Moreover, citing Andrea A. Lunsford and Lisa Ede, Gruwell identifies Wikipedia as an example of “hierarchical collaboration,” in which differences must be smoothed out rather than acknowledged (127).

Gruwell cites Wikipedia’s recent efforts to address the gender issue, but argues that these efforts do not challenge the limiting epistemology the site endorses (127). She introduces #tooFEW, a feminist group hoping to change the Wikipedia culture rather than simply “align with” it, and notes composition journals that do similar work (127-28). She reminds composition scholars that academic fields also value the “‘objective,’ detached writing” privileged by Wikipedia, and urges feminist scholars to take the “risks” involved in resisting such standards (128). Teachers should bring Wikipedia into classrooms for examination of the assumptions underlying its concept of knowledge and driving its discourse conventions (128). Finally, teaching Wikipedia critically can identify other excluded positionalities in its depiction of reality (128).