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Oleksiak, Timothy. Queer Praxis for Peer Review. CCC, Dec. 2020. Posted 02/17/2021.

Oleksiak, Timothy. “A Queer Praxis for Peer Review.” College Composition and Communication 72.2 (2020): 306-32. Print.

Timothy Oleksiak proposes an approach aligned with queer rhetorical theory to replace the “entrenched” (328) process of student peer review that he feels is not only unproductive in terms of what teachers hope from it but also inimical to helping students achieve what he considers the true role of writing.

Oleksiak argues that current peer review paradigms are inextricably invested in “the improvement imperative” (307); he presents composition scholarship to support his view that teachers almost universally imagine that the routine of “share,” “respond,” and “revise” will produce better writing (306). He notes critical scholarship addressing the ways that many writing professionals find peer review inadequate even on these terms, noting student tendencies to rush the task and teachers’ “undercut[ting]” of the process when they “augment” peer responses and take on the role of final “expert” on the quality of writing by assigning grades (311). 

Theorizing by Peter Elbow and Robert Brooke et al., Oleksiak contends, takes the idea of peer review “in a very good direction” in focusing on how readers feel as they encounter texts rather than on external criteria for “fixing” deficient work (309), but finds that even this work “slips improvement through the back door” (308) by continuing to maintain that such review, as Brooke et al. write, “significantly improves the writing” (qtd. in Oleksiak 309).

The improvement imperative, Oleksiak claims, enacts an ideology in that it presumes that “control and mastery over texts” is a valid goal and privileges “a coherent subject outside of the immediate context” (311). In addition, this focus precludes the practice of “worldmaking,” which Oleksiak considers “the primary concern of writing” (307).

Oleksiak’s concerns about extant peer review processes align with Lauren Berlant’s concept of “cruel optimism,” which focuses on the tendency to retain allegiance to an “object” even when that object is inadequate to deliver the life improvements it promises (312). In Oleksiak’s view, peer review with its promise of improvement, if the process could be corrected effectively, is an example of such an object, one that actually impedes the very progress it supposedly addresses (313). Oleksiak advocates abandoning the optimism embedded in peer review for a process based on “[q]ueer rhetorical listening” that concerns itself with a new approach to “maintaining attachments.” This approach requires relinquishment of widely held conceptions of individual agency in creating a “good life of writing” (313).

Oleksiak draws on Krista Ratcliffe’s theory of “rhetorical listening” but moves beyond it to incorporate “the potentials of queerness” (314). Ratcliffe’s construct, Oleksiak writes, involves “four moves”:

Listeners “understand how texts function on their own terms”;

“Individuals hold themselves and others accountable for the consequences of their words”;

“Individuals seek out meaningful similarities and differences” with attention to context; and

“Individuals explore the cultural logics” that provide meaning for claims. (314)

Oleksiak argues that Ratcliffe’s formulation lacks the worldmaking potential of queer listening in peer review in that it limits the imaginations of interlocutors to  the “immediate context” (316); queer rhetorical listening foregrounds “what (im)possibilities are created through drafts,” inviting consideration of worlds beyond what individual responses might envision (316). Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening, further, assumes “a coherent subject [who] decides how to employ her agency,” while queer rhetorical listening proposes “a social, communal notion of agency” in which individuals cannot fully understand the circumstances in which they are acting nor predict how their decisions will play out (317). Agency, in this view, arises from the drafts as they are addressed.

For Oleksiak, peer review grounded in queer praxis becomes “slow peer review,” a process that abandons what he theorizes as the neoliberal emphasis on “efficient, market-based solutions” and on a mindset that “overvalues productivity” (317). He explores what he considers a queer sense of time in that in the LGBTQ community, the present is not welcoming and queer time holds onto “both imagined pasts and imagined futures,” searching for “worlds not yet built” (318). Adjunct to this sense of time is queer desire, manifested in Oleksiak’s argument as “cruising,” that is, refusing to “believe texts inherently” but rather “looking for a space for me and for the ways a text shapes my body in new and pleasurable ways” (318). Slow peer review, he maintains, allows students “a way to cruise drafts” (318).

Oleksiak provides specifics of the slow peer review process, including prompts. At each step students read drafts several times and formulate responses only after this slow process. Twelve questions guide the responses, focusing on a “thick description of the world that is being created in this piece of writing,” with emphasis on who would be able to thrive and even survive in that world (319-22). Two more sets of questions guide students in reacting to these responses, with a focus on how the reader’s description of the world created aligns with the world the writer hoped to present (325). In Oleksiak’s view, these activities clarify for students that their words have consequences far beyond the inhabitants of the worlds they posited and even far beyond the lives imagined by the immediate participants. Oleksiak writes, “This is queer” (323).

In slow peer review, the use writers make of the understandings they develop through each others’ drafts is the writer’s choice, even if the responses are not incorporated into further writing. More important than improvement, in Oleksiak’s view, is the generation of “a serious document of effects and affective responses to consider” that demands ethical decisions (326). Oleksiak focuses on the opportunity the process provides for students to share voices while understanding that “writing is never complete” and that the constraining obligation to produce a “perfect” text can be removed (327).

Oleksiak agrees that slow peer review requires adjustments to teachers’ use of time. Not only does the process demand more class time, it also asks teachers to prepare students for complex concepts like cultural logics. Merely handing out the prompts, Oleksiak maintains, will fail (327). While commitment to slow peer review might cut into time for other writing activities, Oleksiak values the process for its queer investment in “reconfigur[ing] normative temporalities” and “checking the forward progress of fast learning” (327). Oleksiak sees these possibilities emerging only in the process of sharing drafts and therefore chooses not to provide an example of slow peer review in action.

Rhetoric and composition, Oleksiak contends, would benefit from using the “backward glances” that have informed his exploration of peer review to examine other accepted practices and to take advantage of queer components such as queer rhetorical listening and the willingness to allow readers to “disengage” from worlds they encounter in texts if these worlds appear “unlivable” to them, albeit not as a sign of failure but rather as “a promise to return” (328). He advocates seeing the purpose of writing as “the ethical negotiation of textual worldmaking activities,” in his view a more productive use of time than the improvement of individual texts (329).