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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).


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Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc. Scalar Analysis in Literacy Studies. RTE, Feb. 2016. Posted 03/20/2016.

Stornaiuolo, Amy, and Robert Jean LeBlanc. “Scaling as a Literacy Activity: Mobility and Educational Inequality in an Age of Global Connectivity.” Research in the Teaching of English 50.3 (2016): 263-87. Print.

Amy Stornaiuolo and Robert Jean LeBlanc introduce the concepts of “scales” and “scalar analysis” as tools for examining how people locate themselves in a stratified global context. Scalar analysis moves beyond the dichotomy between “local” and “global,” shedding light on the ways in which locations are constantly in flux and in interaction with each other, often shifting as a result of strategic moves to respond to asymmetries and inequalities.

Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc applied their analysis to five teachers in four countries—India, Norway, South Africa, and the United States—who worked with adolescent students on “a Space2Cre8 (S2C8) project,” which was “oriented to helping young people in challenging circumstances engage in cross-cultural communication” (270).

The five teachers worked with the S2C8 groups once or twice a week during the two-year duration of the project; students engaged in various forms of media to communicate with each other about their lives and cultures. During the project, the teachers met ten times via Skype, communicated in emails, and produced memos and notes; additional data came from interviews and classroom observations (271-72, 284-85). The teachers came from varied disciplines, such as technology, art, history, and design (271). Much of the work took place in English, which was the “only shared language” across the sites (270).

According to Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc, scalar research is useful for literacy studies because of its power to examine how meaning gets created and how it shifts as it moves into and through different contexts (267). Understanding literacy through scales “compels several shifts in literacy research” (268). These shifts revolve around moving from a sense of literacy actions and artifacts as fixed in time and space to understanding them as products of “ongoing and often contentious labor” that evolve through “the active and strategic working/reworking of texts in unequal globalized contexts” (268; emphasis original). Scalar analysis asks scholars to examine “how people are positioned and position themselves and their literate identities in and through literary practice” (269).

Such a focus on the “mobilities” of meaning, Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc contend, is necessary to understand how inequalities are created and sustained, how meaning becomes more or less “understandable” (269) as it enters different scalar levels, and how people negotiate the hierarchical contexts that characterize globalization and in which they inevitably locate themselves. The authors were specifically interested in the ways that educators functioned in an environment understood through the lens of scales; the use of scales as a heuristic can both “explain how difference is turned into inequality” as well as how movement within and across scales can enhance agency for individuals and groups addressing their own marginalization (266).

Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc delineate six scalar “jumps” or “moves.” “Jumps” include “upscaling,” which involves “invok[ing] a higher scale rationale to prevail over lower-scale orders of discourse” (272); for example, institutional factors might be named as a reason for a particular choice. Kgotso, working in South Africa, refers to exam schedules and a teachers’ strike “to justify how he had been using his time” (280). Via “downscaling,” an actor asserts his or her local circumstances to validate a choice (272). Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc recount how Amit, writing from India, focused attention on how local technology limitations affected his group’s participation in the project (275). “Anchoring” privileges the actor’s location in the “here-and-now” without necessarily invoking higher or lower scales. The authors cite teacher emails in the project, in which the teachers claimed authority in reference to “an issue at hand” (273).

Other moves do not necessarily involve jumps. “Aligning” occurs when actors compare scalar locations to strengthen positions. As an example of aligning, Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc present the efforts of Kgotso in South Africa to compare his concerns about the dominance of English with similar issues he saw as affecting Amit’s work in India (278). Kgotso further engaged in “contesting,” a scalar move in which he challenged the “US-centric imprint” of the project, suggesting that the curriculum be reconsidered to address the needs of the two “linguistically disadvantaged” sets of participants (qtd. in Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc 278). Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc provide an example of “embedding” in the way that Maja, in Norway, saw the project as “nested within a number of other entities” such as school and university commitments that affected her own use of time (281).

Such examples, for Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc, indicate the usefulness of scalar analysis to illuminate “gaps” that reinforce inequality. Differences in resources, such as adequate bandwidth, affected the ease with which the teachers were able to integrate the social-media exchanges the project hoped to foster (275). Another important research gap uncovered was the varied access to English as the primary language in communications among students. For example, Maja in Norway saw the need to translate S2C8 contributions into English, and Kgotso contrasted his students’ use of Afrikaans with the need to “cross over” to an outside language when working in the project. Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc consider moves like Kgotso’s and similar ones by Amit to be examples of downscaling, asserting the validity of students’ local practices and needs (277, 281).

Gaps in availability of time also figured prominently in the findings. Materials presented by Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc suggest that the teachers regularly made scalar jumps and moves to position themselves in relation to the amount of time required by the project in comparison to the demands of their local situations and of the higher-order scales in which they found themselves embedded. The teachers, Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc suggest, saw S2C8 as such a higher-order scale, one in some sense “imposed” on their immediate missions and requiring strategic negotiation of the scalar landscape (281).

Although Stornaiuolo and LeBlanc acknowledge that their account of the S2C8 project echoes “familiar narratives” about the issues that arise when the promise of digital communication across space and time is actually put into practice, they argue that these narratives “mask” what scalar analysis can illuminate: “the ongoing labor of producing texts and contexts over multiple affiliations in time and space” (283). Especially visible, they indicate, are the ways that literacy productions are valued differently as they move through different scales. The authors contend that attention to scales provides a “concrete set of tools to highlight the constructed and contingent nature of all literacy practices” (283).