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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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Coleman et al. Risky Equity Work. TETYC, May 2016. Posted 06/07/2016.

Coleman, Taiyon J., Renee DeLong, Kathleen Sheerin DeVore, Shannon Gibney, and Michael C. Kuhne. “The Risky Business of Engaging Racial Equity in Writing Instruction: A Tragedy in Five Acts.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.4 (2016): 347-70. Web. 27 May 2016.

Taiyon J. Coleman, Renee DeLong, Kathleen Sheerin DeVore, Shannon Gibney, and Michael C. Kuhne recount their experiences attempting to deal with equity issues at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) between 2005 and 2015 (348, 353). They argue that white dominance is entrenched in higher education and that faculty, administrations, and institutions must recognize and act on the material and emotional consequences of this dominance.

The article grows out of a presentation at CCCC in Tampa in 2015. It is structured as “Five Acts”; each author presents personal perspectives illustrating the struggles involved in making the curriculum of MCTC more responsive to the students it serves.

Michael C. Kuhne recounts his participation in curriculum changes designed to restructure the English department and its developmental writing program so that they no longer mirrored the pedagogical assumptions of the older white male faculty (348) but rather more nearly met the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Of special concern in this shift was improving low retention and graduation rates, particularly among African American men and Native American students (349). The developmental sequence shifted from a “formal, structural approach” built around paragraph structure and timed tests to a portfolio system and then to the Accelerated Learning model in which developmental students enroll in regular first-year writing but participate in additional class time with their instructors (349-50).

These changes led to some success, and Kuhne was among the faculty instrumental in changing hiring practices to bring the faculty make-up more in line with student demographics (352). But Kuhne contends that because of his “naïveté and white privilege,” he “was not able to see that simply hiring faculty of color without changing the culture within the department and institution would not move equity forward” (352).

DeVore follows with a history of changes at the college that, she writes, show “How We Broke” (352). Central to her account is the effort to include a request in the hiring language that new hires exhibit “an awareness of Critical Race Theory [CRT] and a demonstrated connection to communities of color” (Position Description, qtd. in Coleman et al. 354). DeVore offers definitions of Critical Race Theory, including one from Tara J. Yosso: “A critical race curriculum exposes the white privilege supported by traditional curriculum structures and challenges schools to dismantle them” (qtd. in Coleman et al. 354). DeVore argues that the new hiring language “simply referred to the need for applicants who understand that we live and teach in a nation with a raced social order” (354).

Including these qualifications resulted in new hires, several of color, changing the department makeup. However, a white male adjunct who had not been hired brought discrimination charges against four members of the hiring committee (355). After a “yearlong investigation,” the committee members were cleared but were required to strike the CRT language from the hiring language (355).

Meanwhile, a new hire of color acquired funding for series of workshops with Tim Lensmire of the University of Minnesota (356). After the first workshop meeting, DeVore reports, “a majority of faculty of color asked to caucus out into two groups, one for faculty of color, one for white faculty, as levels of experience, awareness, and understanding of white racial identity formation and white privilege were painfully low in the combined session” (356). DeVore states that this practice was “a common move in racial equity work,” but in her view, it led to a drop in workshop participation; subsequently, the new hire resigned (356). DeVore recounts a final department meeting dominated by emotions as faculty of color expressed their frustrations with the department (356). According to DeVore, the program has not been able to return to constructive equity work in the three years since (357).

Shannon Gibney adds her account of returning to the mass communications classroom after a personal health and emotional trauma and attempting to begin a discussion of “the legacy of ongoing racism in American life” (357). A “small group of students” exhibited what Gibney describes as “animosity at this black female body in front of them” (357); their reactions led to a reprimand from the college vice president that cast Gibney’s “tone as ‘defensive, angry, and disrespectful'” (358). She was ordered to attend training sessions to “learn to model ‘civility'” (358). She reports being the only faculty member of the 172 who had faced student complaints to be “disciplined” (358). After two appeals, as her case was about to enter arbitration that would make the case documents public, the president removed a letter of reprimand from her file (358). She reports being “offered ‘a blank check’ to leave MCTC altogether” (359).

Gibney argues that her willingness to speak up led to the unease with which administrators and colleagues regarded her. In her view, institutional pressures generated within a white-supremacist system act to silence those who would critique the status quo (360).

Renee DeLong, a “white, child-free lesbian,” was moved to protest the establishment of a creative-writing associates’ degree because she sees such courses as invested in white privilege. However, she found her role in the discussion “just erased” in favor of the voices of the black women faculty (362). This experience, in her view, suggests the need for victims of oppression to recognize their interconnectedness, as called for in the 1977 Combahee River Collective’s Manifesto (363). She urges attention to black LBGT women (362) “through the lenses of both critical race theory and queer theory” (363). White faculty, she maintains, must move beyond making claims about their love for students of color to recognize that their motives, in her description, are born of a sense of themselves as students’ “white savior[s]” (363). She deplores “this grandiose vision of pedagogical prowess” as “damaging [to] the health and lives of colleagues and students of color alike” (364).

Taiyon J. Colman discusses the degree to which she contends most educators see dominantly white institutions and classrooms as “normal” (365). She draws on her own experience as a marginalized student to suggest that a context in which the majority of faculty and the bulk of the administration are “institutionally constructed as white” (366) cannot serve student populations that are largely non-white (365). She argues that racial constructions of the type she describes deliver a message to black students that they are “not supposed to be there”:

If I am not supposed to be there through the continued normalization of racially constructed and dominantly white spaces, places, and teaching positions, then who, too, is still not socially, historically, and institutionally constructed to be in the writing or literature classrooms? (366)

She agrees with Gibney that efforts to address this problem result in the derogation of those who speak up (366). She offers eight preliminary steps for addressing equity issues (367), focusing on rejection of “silence” and “rationalization”; attention to institutional and systemic accountability for the development of equity (367-68); and recognition by privileged faculty of their own responsibility for these changes (367). She emphasizes the importance of “moving forward collectively” because “achieving equity benefits all members of the institution and the communities that we serve” (368; emphasis original).