Proclivities: The Irregular (Dis)Positions of Queer and Composition/Rhetoric Studies


Pauliny, Tara
McBeth, Mark


The here and now is simply not enough. Queerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.
—José Esteban Muñoz

What is the relationship between language and identity? The field of composition has for decades wrangled with these interconnections, sometimes explicitly, sometimes tacitly, and sometimes with their implications hovering just beneath the observable/audible surface. In the 1990s, Robert Brookes and Thomas Newkirk directly addressed how identity interplayed with the development of student writing in their scholarship. Brooke wrote, “I have tried to see learning to write as but one part of the larger problem of negotiating identity in a complex social world” (4). Likewise, in Facts, Counterfacts, and Artefacts, Barthomolmae and Petrosky layed out a curriculum in which students worked through a process of essays devoted to “adolescent development,” identifying “subjects that would bring forward powerful and pressing themes from our students’ experience” and showing them “that they have a stake in the transformations they can perform on the ways they see and, thereby, participate in the world” (30). In their curricular model of the 1980s, students’ experiences lead them to self-reflect upon their own identifications and how identities are formed through psycho/social theories but, also, through the act of writing that students perform in the curricularly-driven classroom. Even in our organizational policies the intersections of language and identity recur: the Students’ Right to Their Own Language Resolution adopted in 1974 states in its first sentence, “We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style” ( [emphasis added]. Through a series of related resolutions and documents (1974 Position Statement onSRTOL; 1986 Position Statement on English as the Official Language; 1988 Language Policy Resolution; 2003 CCC Reaffirmation of the 1972 SRTOL; 2003 NCTE Reaffirmation of the 1972 SRTOL), the field’s flagship organization has consistently advocated for the rights of a poly-sociolinguistic community—one where cultural identity gets expressed and shaped through the processes of language acquisition and adaptability. In these three abridged yet integral examples of our disciplinary content and timeline, the field of composition and rhetoric has obviously invested a considerable amount of intellectual, pedagogical, and bureaucratic energies in investigating the sociolinguistic characteristics of students’ identities. It has also investigated students’ developing relationships to language and, vice versa, how culturally-affiliated language usage shapes individual identities. This ongoing dialogue has driven much of the field’s conversations and constantly reinvigorates it as revealed—again—when in “Reimagining the Social Turn,” Rhodes and Alexander state:

[…] then the challenge of this latest turn to the social is to invite and even insist on a reimagination of the complexities of teaching writing right now, in this particularly vexed sociopolitical and economic context. Identity markers and categories such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and class are not discrete and dealt with simply through inclusion. (485)

Rhodes and Alexander (along with other c/r scholars) aver over the past four decades that composition and rhetoric has shifted through a series of “social turns”; we would suggest, with a hyperbolic however, that rather than just a turn, the field has been in a virtual tailspin of identity-based language complexities, contexts, and challenges.

Arguably and surprisingly, a theoretical lens that emerged in the midst of these identity/language interchanges in comp/rhet studies has had only qualified influence on how the field has re-imagined its sociolinguistic spinnings. Queer theory, while steeped in critiques of identity-structuring and -fracturing, performances of (self)re-presentation, and the performativity of language (or how words do things) has had a mere rangebound effect on how our field has shaped its dialogues about identities’ relationship to language. To this point, Alexander and Wallace have asserted that “the particular critical power of queerness remains an under-explored and under-utilized modality in composition studies” (301). In fact, a chorus of queer compositionists have lamented the under-utilization of queer theory within the field and have also speculated about its applied value for us: Alexander and Rhodes have alluded to its “impossible,” “difficult,” and “incommensurable” relationship to comp/rhet; Banks and Alexander consider if ever “the twain had met” (88); and Kopelson forthrightly claims them “irreconciliable,” suggesting we “might simply leave queer to its own proclivities” (210). In her 2013 plenary address to the CWPA Conference, she cited the conference’s CFP and asked, “But, still, are the ‘key considerations of queer theory’ a ‘proper’ lens or intellectual apparatus for such tasks, for thinking about ‘programming,’ ‘policy,’ and ‘institutionalized systems […]?’” (WPA 203). She (along with other queer compositionists) remain inconsolable about the overlaps that might occur between queer theory and the established order of educational things and, equally, express concern about the implications of those interactions.

We, however, would like to respond affirmatively (albeit with optimistic skepticism) that, yes, queer theory still has generative and productive potentialities in looking at all aspects of composition and rhetoric: theoretically, pedagogically, programmatically, and administratively. Our queer composition colleagues—despite their concerns cited above—seem likewise to concur: in “Dis/Integrating the Gay/Queer Binary,” Kopelson explores the “queer and performative objections, challenges, and counterproposals to the identity-based pedagogies still dominating composition studies […], bringing to the foreground pedagogies that take the instability of identity as a starting point and move toward even greater deconstruction” (19); Banks and Alexander, despite recognizing limitations, “are hopeful that our queerness offers us insights into how we can improve both our lives as WPAs and the ‘lives’ of our programs” (93); and in their concluding line to “Queer: An Impossible Subject for Composition,” Alexander and Rhodes admit that “A conclusion, at this point, would be impossible” (204). The spinning centrifugal and centripetal forces which corroborate or contradict the impact of queer theory within composition may leave one a bit dizzy, yet the nuances of the queer lens that both focuses and blurs the critiques of classroom practice, programmatic design, and institutional policy still instigate progressive and sometime bracing responses even if they don’t immediately stamp out student/teacher bigotry, normative conditions, and status-quo-as-they-have-always-been educational politics. As Pauliny states in “Queering the Institution,” “queer agendas are not only useful to queer theorists; rather [they are useful to anyone] dedicated to challenging institutional norms, to critiquing the rote reproduction of disciplinary knowledge, and to exposing the inherently changeable nature of academic structures.”

Queer theory has had as its project the ongoing endeavor of deconstructing and disrupting often fossilized social ideals (Foucault’s “repressive hypothesis,” Sedgwick’s “homo/hetero binary,” Butler’s “gender troubles,” Warner’s hetero- (now also homo-) normativities) and, furthermore still, its deconstruction of established institutional structures can help the composition community to see what we have overlooked—or couldn’t bear to know—within our classrooms and programmatic methods. Queer theory’s methodologies of revealing societal power structures that heretofore remained invisible and unspoken may allow us to shift our visions from the challenges that students, instructors, and programs face (often articulated in a rhetoric of deficiency or “what students can’t do; what instructors aren’t teaching?; why a writing program’s curriculum doesn’t work?”) and direct that accountability to the institutional structures in which they learn (or which don’t allow them to learn or, more tragically, even join in the learning). When educational institutions and organizations must reconsider how they define the (in)educable or the (un)educated, and examine closely the blurry lines between passing and failing, they may also have to reframe what composition studies has asked for a long time: how do we understand struggling student writers (but really all writers) “not in what they are but in what they have not yet become” (Otte and Mlynarczyk, Basic Writing 97). While we have added emphasis to this preceding quote, we concede that there is still “not enough” attention to queer opportunities in composition and rhetoric and that, as a field, we may have to admit that we have become so wedded to our procedural educational traditions and definitions that we cannot envision “learning to unlearn—learning, in other words, how to break with some disciplinary legacies, learning to reform and reshape others, and unlearning the many constraints that sometimes get in the way of our best efforts to reinvent our fields, our purpose, and our mission” (Halberstam “Unlearning” 10). Yet before admitting queer defeat, we would suggest a more skeptical optimism in considering how to re-appropriate queer claims and strategies: how queer words and actions do queer things in seemingly paralyzed institutionalized normative situations.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan and Rhodes, Jacqueline. “Reimagining the Social Turn: New Work form the Field” College English 76.6 (2014): 482-87. Print.

—. “Queer: An Impossible Subject for Composition” JAC 31.1-2 (2011): 177-206. Print.

Alexander, Jonathan and Wallace, David. “The Queer Turn in Composition Studies: Reviewing and Assessing an Emerging Scholarship” CCC 61.1 (2009): 300-20. Print.

Banks, William P. and Alexander Jonathan. “Queer Eye for the Comp Program: Toward a Queer Critique of WPA Work” The Writing Program Interrupted: Making Space for Critical Discourse Ed. Donna Strickland and Jeanne Gunner. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 2009. 86-98. Print.

Bartholomae, David and Petrosky, Anthony. Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 1986. Print.

Brooke, Robert E. Writing and Sense of Self: Identity Negotiation in Writing Workshops. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1991. Print.

Kopelson, Karen. “Queering the Writing Program: Why Now? How? And Other Contentious Questions.” Writing Program Administration 37.1 (2013): 199-213. Print.

—. “Dis/Integrating the Gay/Queer Binary: ‘Reconstructed Identity Politics’ for a Performative Pedagogy.” College English 65 (2002): 17-35. Print.

Halberstam, Jack. “Unlearning.” Profession. New York:The Modern Language Association of America, 2013. 9-16. Print.

Muñoz, José Esteban. “Cruising the Toilet: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Radical Black Traditions, and Queer Futurity.” GLQ: A Journal of Gay and Lesbian Studies. 13.2-3 (2007): 353-67. Print.

Newkirk, Thomas. The Performance of Self in Student Writing. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Heinemann, 1997. Print.

Otte, George and Rebecca Mlynarczyk. Basic Writing. West Lafayette: Parlour Press. 2010. Print.

Pauliny, Tara. “Queering the Institution: Politics and Power in the Assistant Professor Administrator Position.” Enculturation: A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture. 9: Open Issue. March 21, 2011. Web.

“Students’ Right to Their Own Language” Students’ Right to Their Own Language: A Critical Sourcebook. Eds. Perryman-Clark, Staci, Kirkland, David E., and Jackson, Austin. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015. 19-57. Print.


This text was an invited submission reviewed by TWI editors prior to publication.

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