Reviewed by Rachael A. Ryerson, Ohio University, OH (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Starting Saturday, March 21, 2015, members of the Writing Program Administration listserv (WPA-L) sent a host of messages praising this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). And rightfully so, because as Beth Daniell (2015) said, “The only problem was there were so many good panels you just couldn't do them all.” While I did not post my sentiments about the conference to this listserv, I too had a great CCCC, which made me wonder what was it about this year’s conference that had me reflective, excited, and inspired weeks after it was over? Certainly, having my Ohio University cohort there in full force had something to do with it, and we all bonded during this time. It could be that I presented on a panel with two people whose intellect and personhood I highly respect and admire. But, perhaps the biggest reason I enjoyed this conference so much was because I primarily attended sessions that connected queer theory to composition and rhetoric. I attended one session on feminist rhetoric and pedagogy (D.36) and one on the risk and rhetoric of universal design (E.16), but otherwise, the sessions I attended addressed queer theories and composition/communication in some manner. I did not attend all 29 queer-related sessions, but this review collects my responses and reflections on the sessions I did attend in an effort to capture, albeit cursorily, how rhetoric and composition scholars are thinking about, working with, and pushing against the combinations of queer and composition.
The first session I attended was A.30, “Queering the Ear: Queer Riffs on Rhetoric and Listening,” and it set the tone (get it?) for the incredible queer work and play informing and erupting in the queer sessions I attended. On the whole, this session troubled the ocular focus of queer theorizing, beginning with Timothy Oleksiak’s “Listening Language as Queer Compositional Practice.” Oleksiak asked us to think about time, about “straight time” and “queer time” (Halberstam, 2011), and about queer futurity and potentiality (Muñoz, 2009). More than that, this speaker wanted us to think about time in relationship to the ear and to queer, to consider how “Quear (sic) is an act of creating cultural conditions that shift temporality to the ear.”
Devon Kehler, the second presenter, further explored the nexus of queerness, time, and rhetorical listening. Kehler explained that queer time and temporality resists the telos of starting and stopping, or as José Esteban Muñoz (2009) said, “queerness is always in the horizon” (p. 11). Kehler suggested that queer rhetorical listening is a listening that isn’t already destined to understand… is a listening that comes up against the limits of logos. Kehler desired “listenings that nourish our becomings,” and those who listened to her were certainly nourished. As Jacqueline Rhodes mentioned in the Q&A portion, Kehler delivered a spoken poem that was as much a treat for the ear as it was for the mind, so much so that Rhodes commented the following on Twitter:
The last presenter, Kendall Gerdes, was just as playful as Kehler and Oleksiak in a talk that challenged notions of good style like defining terms, eliminating ambiguity, and clarifying points. Gerdes reminded us that Judith Butler won a bad writing award (see Dutton, 1999) for an article she published in Diacritics, but Gerdes contended that the difficult style of Butler’s most well-known work, Gender Trouble, is appropriate, since trenchant social conventions call for complex language. These three presenters, with their thoughtful, playful, and meditative presentations, indicate that as far as aurality and composition are concerned, queer is alive and well and full of sonic possibilities.
After this session, I attended session B. 39 on queer epistemologies and pedagogies in writing studies. Caroline Dadas began the session with excerpts from student projects produced in an Introduction to LGBTQ studies course. Dadas did not outline a queer pedagogy as much as she illustrated how pedagogy might encourage queerness through digital media projects. According to Dadas, the multimodality of digital spaces enables students to resist the dominant discourse of the academic essay. Moreover, digital media, because it is so often in a public space, offers students the opportunities for political agitation and disruption of the status quo.
The second speaker, Matthew Cox, also highlighted the role of disruption in any college course with a queer framework. Cox specifically discussed an online, graduate-level course he taught on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, (dis)ability, and class as they are connected to professional writing. Cox encouraged disruption in the course’s online discussion board, in the form of student projects, but the course’s goal overall was to teach literacies of difference and queerness, to highlight heteronormativity, homonormativity, institutional and embedded racism and sexism, transphobia, ableism, and so on.
Michael Faris spoke last, and of the three speakers, he most emphasized disruptions of compositional form. Faris used Geoffrey Sirc’s Composition as a Happening as a touchstone because it resonates with queer sensibilities. In his book, Sirc tried to open up new ways of doing and being in composition studies, and Faris wanted to do the same at the level of the essay. He argued that composition studies have privileged print-based texts, and in response, he calls for aesthetic ruptures of the symbolic order. Perhaps most memorably, Faris echoed Adam Bank’s dismissal of the essay—although he more emphatically and more queerly does so by saying, “Fuck the essay!” Similar to other queer sessions, this session mobilized queer as a disruptive force in online and textual spaces, thereby maintaining the critical marginality of queer that it would lose were it to become mainstream.
So many of the sessions centered on queer possibilities for composition, especially in terms of form. For instance, session I.25, “Risking Method/ology for Queer Reward” considered how multimodality and queer methods and methodologies make room for and elicit the multivariant discourses of queer lives.
And they didn’t just talk about queer methods and methodologies, they enacted it through their conference presentation. Instead of individually reading three separate papers, the three panelists, Jon Wargo, Rebecca Hayes, and Casey Miles, collaborated to create a joint presentation where they took turns reading and playing portions of a video that further demonstrated how queer methodologies intersect with multimodality to produce queer meaning and being in the world. Wargo demonstrated how online composing spaces, like those of SnapChat for example, can sponsor queer literacy. Hayes applied queer theory to historiography, reminding us “queer archives are sites of rhetorical intervention that act as political resources and collective memory. They allow us to rethink the bounds of our evidence and histories.” Miles emphasized the role that video can play in queers beginning to see themselves. More importantly, this session emphasized how radical content calls for radical form, which the speakers enacted in the conference setting. They refused and challenged the norm that each presentation was individual and to be given separately, and they showed those of who attended what is possible when a queer method and methodology informs the structuring of a conference presentation.
Following this session, I attended the J.15 session on the risks and affordances of queer failure. This session’s all-star panel included Steve Parks, David L. Wallace, Jacqueline Rhodes, Daniel Gross, and Jonathan Alexander. With five speakers of this caliber, it is no surprise that the session was as overwhelming in its content as it was inspiring. For this reason, this part of the review will largely consist of tweets, with a few of my own remarks here and there. Steve Parks spoke first, and like a couple of other sessions, Parks connected queerness with the university and administration. He argued that we need to reimagine the habits of mind we promote in the classroom. Eric Detweiler offered the following two snippets from Parks’ talk via Twitter:
From what I could find, there was only one tweet for Daniel Gross’ talk:
The majority of attendees tweeted on the talks given by Wallace, Rhodes, and Alexander. David Wallace focused primarily on the relationship of failure with college composition classes. He debunks two false goals, one that composition courses should prepare students to participate in academic and professional discourse. For Wallace, there should be some play in what we see as acceptable academic discourse. Second, we have to accept we will fail to arrive at a pedagogical approach that wholly addresses all issues of diversity. To move forward, we need to embrace the ends of our understandings. We need to fail because, as I tweeted,
Wallace questioned success as a goal and argued, like Judith (now J. Jack) Halberstam (2011), for queer failure because it “turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, for being” (p. 88). For Wallace, queer failure imagines other goals for the college composition classroom.
Similarly in his talk, Jonathan Alexander contended that something is elided when we rush toward student success. A tweeter captured it this way:
And like Wallace, Alexander questioned the goals of academic discourse, recalling Peter Elbow’s deep frustration with academic discourse and citing the free-writing Elbow promoted as an implicit critique of an education that induced shame. The following three tweets encapsulated how Alexander connected Elbow to a larger discussion of negative effect in the success-obsessed university setting.
Of the five presenters, Rhodes was the most popular on Twitter, but as Les Hutchinson tweeted, Rhodes spoke “slow enough to live tweet and paused to help me contemplate the meaning of what she (said).” Like the other panelists, Rhodes connected queer to academic settings like the classroom, but she focused specifically on queer (im)possibilities. As she argued in her JAC article with Jonathan Alexander (Alexander & Rhodes, 2011), and as Karen Kopelson would later assert in her CCCC session (K.35), Rhodes posited that queer is an impossible subject for the academy as a whole. For her, there can be no queer pedagogy because pedagogy is about disciplining the subject, a disciplining the queer would resist and challenge. Or as these tweeters noted,
Like the other panelists, Rhodes embraced failure for the sake of play, composing and teaching composition for fun—not for mastery or production. Indeed, Rhodes undermined any neoliberal goals of composition that might emphasize the rules/conventions of academic discourse and fetishize the final product. Instead, Rhodes queering of pedagogy entailed the following:
Altogether, this session demonstrated how queer remains possible in academic settings through failure, or through disruption of institutional norms aimed toward success.
While many sessions utilized queer as a means of disrupting normalizing systems and measures, the term queer itself, when paired with composition or institutional settings, seemed a site of conflict. For example, panelists in our session (F.40) questioned and explored the consequences of using queer as a verb. In my case, I was concerned with queering a first-year-writing classroom populated by nonLGBTQ first-year-composition students, because some students tend to conceive of and write about queer lives in superficial ways. In her talk, Hillery Glasby expressed her unease with nonLGBTQ folk teaching queer texts when they do not have the lived experience to recognize and discuss the rhetorical, critical significance of students replacing the word queer with gay because they are more comfortable with the latter over the former. Finally, Sherrie Gradin highlighted how the gentrification of queer in the university setting has allowed administrative bodies to narrowly define sexual harassment laws along heteronormative lines. In common among all three panels was an interrogation of queer in academic settings, be they classrooms or committee meetings.
Presenters like Karen Kopelson felt queer should no longer be paired with composition, especially an institutional position like a Writing Program Administrator. In session K.35, sponsored by the Queer Caucus (K.35), Kopelson and Tara Pauliny took polarizing positions, with Kopelson arguing that a queer WPA is an oxymoron in terms and Pauliny making the case that there is enough potential in queer WPA work to warrant its continued exploration. A fellow attendee of the session posted a photo to Twitter of the panel discussion questions, which best highlights the tensions between Pauliny and Kopelson’s perspectives.
Both made compelling points. Pauliny highlighted the important ways being a lesbian has impacted her administrative decisions, as well as influenced how she approaches, thinks about, and tries to solve the problems she faces. She pointed out that the university has not magically become a place where norms are disrupted, which is why she maintains a skeptical optimism for queer futurity in academic spaces. For Kopelson, however, queer theory had its moment in the 90s, and maybe the early aught years, but at this point, to queer a Writing Program Administration seems strangely nonkairotic, as she further explained in a Journal of Writing Program Administrators article that she “shamelessly” borrowed from for this panel discussion. More to the point, queer and queer theory may be irreconcilable for a field whose programs and institutions are inherently normalized. Still, according to Pauliny, the normalization of universities and their goals seems ripe for queer disruption.
Aneil Rallin ended this panel with a decidedly queer paper full of questions and rage about the fact that the previous year’s conference was held in a state where it is a felony for an LGBT couple to apply for a marriage license. He seemed most incensed by how the CCCC’s leadership addressed the issue. Instead of speaking through a removed voice, Rallin’s response was personal because this issue is personal. For CCCC to be held in a state that upholds homophobic laws and supports anti-gay legislation is a slap in the face of any queer, whether they want to marry or not. And so, Rallin talks of retreating to his bed or popping a Xanax because of the CCCC leadership’s quietism. But, Rallin refused to be quiet and started a WPA-L thread titled “Homophobia and the CCCC convention” (Rallin, 2013). Some of the initial responses wondered, like Rallin, why we would hold our national conference in a mostly homophobic state, but to his dismay, the responses quickly turned into justifications for keeping the conference in Indianapolis. Perhaps more hurtful was Chris Anson’s removal of “Homophobia” from the thread, calling it “Indiana as CCCCs site,” and thereby eliding the decidedly queer, challenging tone of Rallin’s initial inquiry. The quietism Rallin spoke of was most pronounced at the conference proper, which tried to address the issues raised on the listserv by holding a special meeting to discuss the issues and through two pins one could wear. For Rallin, the ideas and issues for which the meeting was held quickly became colonized and domesticated, and in response to the two pins the Queer Caucus helped develop, Rallin wondered, “this is what queer activism at CCCC has come to?”
Rallin ended his talk with this same question, wondering where all the queer radicals have gone? Queerness necessarily entails challenging oppressive institutions, discourses, and legislation, and that sort of action is better accomplished through a “Fuck You” attitude than it is by sporting a supportive pin or having a meeting. Queer resistance seems so much a part of the CCCC scholar’s interrogation of queer + composition. Coursing through many of these discussions is a fear that queer is no longer queer, that it has been co-opted and tamed by institutions like academia. And yet, these scholars’ discussions demonstrated a continued push back at such normalizing measures. That being said, there is a sense in which the struggle will never be over, as the aim of queer is to avoid the containment that so often accompanies systems of power constructed by a heteronormative ideology. For those scholars who continue to envision and engage the productive power of queer, they do so by employing queer as a tool for disruption of hegemonic institutions and discourses. I was unable to attend many of the sessions I hoped to attend, like C.39, D.16, and G.37, but a quick perusal of the presentation titles, as well as some of the presentation materials uploaded online, suggest that queer remains an active, transformative approach for composition studies if it continues to interrogate systems of power, typically at the level of form and discourse, that shape our knowing of the world and ourselves.
Alexander, Jonathan, & Rhodes, Jacqueline. (2011). Queer: An impossible subject for composition. JAC, 31(1-2), 177–206.
Daniell, Beth. (2015). Great CCCCs. (Writing Program Administration electronic list message). Retrieved March 21, 2015, from https://lists.asu.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1503&L=WPA-L&F=&S=&P=377152
Dutton, Denis. (1999, February 5). Language crimes: A lesson in how not to write, courtesy of the professoriate. The Wall Street Journal, W11. Retrieved December 6, 2015, from http://denisdutton.com/language_crimes.htm
Halberstam, Judith. (2011). The queer art of failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Kopelson, Karen. (2013). Queering the writing program: Why now? How? And other contentious questions. WPA: Writing Program Administration,37(1), 199–213.
Muñoz, José Esteban. (2009). Cruising utopia: The then and there of queer futurity. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Rallin, Aneil. (2013, September 30). Homophobia and the CCCC convention. (Writing Program Administration electronic list message). Retrieved April 2, 2015, from https://lists.asu.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A2=ind1309&L=WPA-L&P=R339438&1=WPA-L&9=A&I=-3&J=on&d=No+Match%3BMatch%3BMatches&z=4