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Turned On: On the Impossibility of Queer (and) Composition

 Published on September 29, 2015 /  Written by and /  Reviewed by Gregory Zobel and Sean Michael Morris /  “Rhythm of nature” by gags9999; CC BY 2.0 /  1

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

When, exactly, do we want less eroticism? ~ Geoffrey Sirc

If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution. ~ Emma Goldman

This essay explores boundaries: the artificial peripheries demarcating the disciplines we practice; the arbitrary conceit of teacher and student occupying different but conjoined spaces; the troubling assumption that selves and desires can be partitioned. We seek to explore the possibility of introducing a practice of queerness into teaching composition while resisting the temptation to crystallize such an approach into pedagogy or definitive best practices. In this process we acknowledge the disciplinary complications of frequent “turns” in attempting to find a definitive, all-purpose pedagogical model, while also examining how queer practice has been obscured and/or subsumed by social justice concerns and our aversion to causing risk and potential disaster in the classroom and/or the lives of our students. Our endeavor proves complex and even confounding because it requires resistance to the impulse to seek or offer prescriptive advice and then apply it. Our open invitation is to dance alongside us with the complexities and uncertainties of thinking and practicing queer in composition, relinquishing any imperative to operate in conventional, expected ways or to offer concrete suggestions.

  • We attempt to offer rhythm — even a seductive beat — but we cannot plot out each specific step, nor can we faithfully reproduce lyrics that they might be memorized and repeated.
  • We focus instead on the potential of experience and sensation.
  • We try to delineate the difference between believing students thinking they are learning because of a systematic, sensible, comforting, scaffolded plan given to them and the disruptive conflict that occurs while undermining such a system.
  • We court the simultaneous embarrassment, discomfort, and liberation, if you will, of letting loose and dancing.
  • We are ambivalent about the various iterations and re-imaginings of the “social turn” (and other turns) in rhetoric and composition. We applaud aspects of such efforts, but worry that linking composition to something so neoliberal, anti-experimentation, and criticism-averse will inadvertently turn composition fascist, vigilantly protective of and satisfied with its social role in activating student-beneficiaries for their future citizenship in the (heteronormative) academy, professions, and world. This futurity creates, as it does in any society, an earnestness constructed to revere that future, to make it sacred and reasonable beyond critique.  

The earnest, well-intentioned, and product-centered discipline of writing studies presents as an unlikely bedfellow for disruptive, surly, and unpredictable, not to mention sexy, queer theory. In fact, at times it would appear that these disciplines are actively turning from one another, eagerly staking out their own corners, safe from reproach or substantive change. In most cases, ideas never clear the disciplinary barricades and end up heightening the garrison walls, nurturing silence and starving neighborly dialogue. One such potential turning-off seems to be Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s “Queer: An Impossible Subject for Composition,” which questions whether queer might be or not be possible for composition pedagogy. They ask compelling and worthwhile questions, ones we ask ourselves but, perplexingly, their answers have been met with the definitive acceptance of resounding silence. Inexplicably, writing studies scholars seemingly embraced the authors’ cheeky, half-serious claim of impossibility and promptly turned to more certain, less playful topics.

Re-turning to Alexander’s and Rhodes’ question, we suggest that if queer could be a pedagogy, it would be ephemeral, antagonistic, opportunistic, adversarial, and spontaneous. But then, perhaps, it wouldn’t be a “Pedagogy,” as is commonly put forward, for Pedagogy happens when teachers codify their good intentions and good experiences. It’s the two-step without free-styling; a medium of so-called best practices whose dominion and ossification often stifles creativity and spontaneity with a kudzu-like chokehold. Pedagogy transpires when, as D. Diane Davis says, “a mechanics of solids freezes the movement of writing and then calls it teachable” (229). This Teachable Pedagogy, by its very nature, plans, regiments, renders stodgy, replicates, and mass produces — placing all faith in the decidedly un-queer non-marginalia, which explains why Alexander and Rhodes deem queer composition pedagogy’s “impossible subject.” But queer’s excess does not mean our practices, even our best pedagogical ones, must be discarded or looked down on as strictly normative. The constraints of Teachable Pedagogy create aversion to uncertainty. In other words, deeming queer and composition as “impossible” says to us: “No way, don’t try” — preventing the illegible or disruptive from ever occurring, or deflecting and shutting it down if it does. Educational critique encourages us to be positive, hopeful, productive, to deny and/or avoid the impossible for everyone’s best interests, but we are tempted by alternative terms for the central question — are queer and composition impossible, or rather improbable or uncomfortable? Like a first dance, these words say to us: “Experiment.”

Outside impossibility’s cage, we home in on what makes queer composition improbable: the enveloping social justice-oriented classroom. Alexander and Rhodes recognize the danger in attaching queer identity to LGBT and other social justice topics: “multiculturally inflected pedagogies have resulted, if unintentionally, in the containment of queerness, in the trimming of excess that robs queerness of its potential critical power” (185). As they suggest, composition’s penchant for “containment,” with its insistence on orderly purpose combined with a commitment to exploring and even advocating for social issues, makes it liberally sensible to set the queer jar next to the LGBT jar or the Diversity jar to enable tolerance and acceptance — and yet the queer jar keeps breaking and its contents leaking out, with little being captured anyway. Queer cannot be jarred into an identity, caged in a rubric, nor crystallized in a syllabus — nebulousness being its chief charm.

The problem, we believe, stems not from a fundamental impossibility of teaching writing queerly, but from those disciplinary walls built so high that they prevent interdisciplinary dance parties that “set us in motion” more than seeking mutual understanding. Though we do not criticize anyone’s choice to identify as queer, we resist it, and struggle with the educational “tendency to collapse queer sexualities into recognizable LBGTQ identities” (xv). Reducing queer to an identity assumes containment, even though it can be liberating to claim it. That illusory liberation proves paradoxical, for queer theory dissolves the fixity, subjectivity, and other modernist frames undergirding the social-justice liberalism that creates such categories in order to recognize, tolerate and/or accept, and finally control them. Queer cannot become a (political) (productive) Pedagogy because it operates as a sensibility, a modus operandi, a lens through which we may glimpse. But composition labors at its containment, because in addition to its job-training communicative purposefulness, writing is also supposed to be helpfully “unsettling.” In fact, Alexander and Rhodes, like many others in writing studies, “are increasingly convinced that part of our work as compositionists is to work with students on writing that is threatening, that fundamentally questions what we believe or hold to be true” (203) — an idea going back at least to the days of Socrates. Such a feel-good pedagogical stance presumes a better world if students would only (un)learn, which only reifies the systemic belief in improvement that propagandizes us daily, inevitably sustaining the forward-looking status quo — the Child produced by heterosexual reproduction must be protected to guarantee its successful Future, as Lee Edelman suggests. The problem with that frame of thinking, he asserts and we agree, is that if we forever focus solely on offspring and their future, we end up thinking only about how to improve our current model of living (and teaching) rather than experimenting freely with possibilities. Queer is not made impossible by composition’s mission of social justice, it is lovingly subsumed and then benignly ignored out a sense of presumed politeness, progress, and positive productivity.

These disciplinary elements lead to our position that composition by premise and practice is very straight. It takes itself very seriously.  J. Jack Halberstam, in The Queer Art of Failure, reminds us that this insistence upon serious legitimization forfeits queer potential:

Being taken seriously means missing out on the chance to be frivolous, promiscuous, and irrelevant. The desire to be taken seriously is precisely what compels people to follow the tried and true paths of knowledge production around which I would like to map a few detours. Indeed terms like serious and rigorous tend to be code words, in academia as well as other contexts, for disciplinary correctness; they signal a form of training and learning that confirms what is already known according to approved methods of knowing, but they do not allow for visionary insights or flights of fancy. (6)

The seriousness in Writing Studies, its inherent humorlessness (despite Victor Vitanza’s or Davis’ efforts to crack things up), its lack of irony, its prudishness about sex/libido; these make composition seem impervious to queering. Even attempts at so-called queer humor operate in a vaguely sexual, highly caricatured form, lacking campy nuance, irony, or self-deprecation. For example, when Alexander and Rhodes attempt humor, it appears cartoonish:

You offer us an identity, a category with expectations, and we try on a different gender’s clothes. You ask for guidelines about treating LGBT students, and we turn away to go dancing. You want to publish our articles, and we talk about bodies, fucking. You try to figure out a place for us at your table, and we spit in your plate. (190)

This conception of queer resembles a court jester’s performance — the exceptional token(s) responding to legitimate requests with befuddling nonsense about dancing and fucking, irrespective of context. Don’t get us wrong, we would love a world where we dance in our offices, or where nonsensical gobbledygook answers sincere, if misguided, inquiries, but such responses create distance without being radical nor helpful.

Unlike Paul Lynch, whose casuistic frame of Deweyan “experience” allows for engaged liquidity but still insists on it as a way forward — an answer to the “what do we do with our theory?” question — we refuse, Bartleby-like, that imperative, that impulsion for forward movement. We gladly dance with Vitanza’s “dreams of being in a ‘festive’ mood, being nondisciplinary, nonlogical, f[l]avoring ‘category mistakes’” (49), but we prefer not to “counterattack” with “Antibody Rhetoric.” We refrain from offering any hint of determination, nor a third way — something even Davis in her (queerly) playful resistance lightly advocates in suggesting an affirmative “pedagogy of laughter” that “pledges its allegiance to an/other politics, and ethical and feminist politics, determined to fold back on itself, to laugh at itself laughing, to tune its ears to the rustle of finitude” (252). Instead, we dwell in the proximate, in the unknowable orgasmic jouissance, in the dancing turns that heed rhythms without predetermined choreography. By letting “what we do” occur because of “where we are,” our approach avoids shoe-horning queerness into the current model of composition, infusing composition teaching with queer, and we accept more than tolerate the resulting incommensurabilities (49).

Resisting solidification, hard quantification, and containment, queer in its nebulousness feeds on ambience, atmosphere, circumstance; but this does not render it unknowable, uninterrogable, or impossible. Composition, Alexander and Rhodes suggest, resists the unknowable because it is monolithic and metonymically tied to the student-produced text, but queering composition becomes plausible when one sees queer potential, which we conceive as akin to Audre Lorde’s erotic:

Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe. (341)

In the rejection of “the shoddy, the conventionally expected […], the merely safe,” — descriptors which strike at the heart of composition practice — we believe that queer operates as a life-force — not just as a consciously adopted mode of teaching — one which invites searching into dark corners and awkward alleys and affords turns most consider wrong or unproductive. Lorde further contends,

that deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible, and does not have to be called marriage, nor god, or an afterlife (nor pedagogy, nor curriculum, nor best practices). (341, our emphasis and parenthetical additions)


  • Queer in the composition classroom can be(come) anything — in our experience it has involved provocative action, openly addressing sexuality and otherness, as it is the province of all sexualities and desires. It requires being open about oneself with students and facing their disdain and regard in equal measure.
  • Queer understands the pitfalls of asserting that failure, without fail, leads to breakthroughs and success; it rejects the assertion that we can all be whatever we wish to be.
  • Queer acknowledges that progress is not a given, nor is it willing to battle for the absolute emotional and intellectual transformation its second cousins feminism and LGBT rights aspire to. It practices living in resistance to worshipping so-called forward motion or “progress,” and not just in the sense that identity-centric movements find themselves in problematic, regressive positions — e.g. radical feminists who reject transgender women.
  • Queer suspects discomfort may eventually enlighten, that disorientation might, just might, serve a purpose, and yet it is no caped crusader achieving social justice and eradicating discord through heartfelt earnestness and genuine good intentions. It finds the endless “war on…” rhetoric wearisome and distressingly totalitarian and wonders if the same nursery rears neoliberalism and fascism.
  • Queer always feels at least partially ambivalent, grasping that the assertion of self-interest sometimes inspires a modicum of liberated self-expression or even appreciation for the contours of the behaviors and/or beliefs of someone other.

As teachers embracing queer we hope to take students for a turn, disrupt their calm — for there is no guarantee that these disruptions will make them kind and accepting; in fact, that is the least likely occurrence of queer practice. We know from experience, though, that students struggle to forget that decentering, disruption, insecurity — and those memories sometimes facilitate alteration. Ultimately, queer teaching is a sensibility, related in spirit to Susan Sontag’s camp, which cannot be “snared into words” and “crammed into the mold of a system” but is also not “ineffable.”

We, in fact, have different queer sensibilities. Josh views the queer overlay of composition in terms of outlining conceptions of queer practice in his/her classroom while Paul frames the queer overlay with examples in which composition pedagogy failed and facilitated queer classroom experiences. To illustrate this, Josh describes queer in his/her classroom and then Paul responds with his/her example. We emphasize, once again, that we are not advocating a Pedagogy based on our experience. We acknowledge the incommensurability in our descriptions in terms of traditional frames, but we invite you to be provoked.

Josh: I believe in turning students out, helping them discover what’s strange, difficult, and paradoxical in their existences. I don’t believe we can “be whatever we want to be,” but we can learn to grapple with what holds us back. We can anticipate queer — though not in a planned, failsafe manner — as one anticipates movements and gestures when dancing, playing sports, or having sex. Such an endeavor demands awareness and engagement; it is the art of syncopation. It resembles the feeling one experiences when playing badminton — that moment after striking the shuttlecock when it hangs aloft before hurtling forward — when one must assess and act rapidly without fear. It is context- and terrain-specific. The opportunity to queer is omnipresent, imminent, ephemeral. Can this be made more tangible for readers? Perhaps, with a caveat: queer cannot be universalized and my methods may not be yours. I offer the following list (à la Sontag in “Notes on Camp”) to evoke only my sensibility’s contours. Queer, as danced in my classroom, demands

  1. Frank language: no euphemisms or soft-pedaling.
  2. Emotion — expressing and reading it. I engage (and gauge) students’ opinions based upon facial expressions and body language. If they look annoyed, I ask why. They find it unnerving; I find it productive. They usually learn to do the same with me. We don’t buy the Cartesian divide.
  3. Engaging the difficult, impolite, unpleasant; enjoying the so-called frivolous, inconsequential, and non-academic.
  4. Impasse.
  5. Objectification — 19th century human hair mourning jewelry, transgender rap artists, and football uniforms all become culturally inscribed texts targeted for critique.
  6. Antisocial impulses — to form a society enforces specific silences and protective hierarchies, to dream of (and work toward) unknowable futures and their people. My views are shaped here by Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004).
  7. Incompleteness, imperfection, perviousness, changeability, conflict, disappointment, failure.
  8. Movement: intellectual, emotional, physical.
  9. Humor. We must cackle, guffaw, and bray. We should all demand entertainment.
  10. A beat. Move to it.

My engagement with composition and rhetoric was forged of necessity — I started teaching it as a doctoral student — and I did so with a heavy dose of direction and pedagogical influence. My teaching then was predictable and fairly unoriginal. I considered composition — an antiseptic, mechanical discipline to me — as cordoned off from my teaching in literature and gender studies. When I stopped thinking of composition as a lock-step science and started seeing it as a practice, then I began infusing that teaching with complexity and creativity, which involves bringing my own passion, oddity, and perversity to class and I frequently elicit powerful writing from my students by tangoing when they expect a waltz.

If my assertions have failed to illuminate queer practice in teaching writing with dance as its metaphor, consider a definition by George Bernard Shaw: “Dancing: the vertical expression of a horizontal desire legalized by music.” Befuddled still? Then turn your attention to Nietzsche, philosopher fleet of foot and hand, backup dancer par excellence: “Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education; dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen?”  Queer is there; just listen for the beat.

Paul: Queer in my classroom emerges less from overt effort to engage with unusual or uncomfortable (for students) topics than from a space and sense of failure and resignation regarding learning itself. Not merely fatigue, but resignation to the reality of the disintegration of my plans as the semester passes, resigned to the realization that my (failed) delivery of material or the students’ (failed) receptivity of it is due to wishful thinking at the outset. My sensibility of how, not what, we are failing leads to spontaneous alterations, not TBD, but determined the night before or the morning of class, and often hinges on ideas and exercises on which I am no expert, but want to explore through conversation with others, even students, because they are available. I agree with Lauren Berlant, who says that “both politics and pedagogy emerge from within the disturbing encounter of these various modes of being incomplete, contradictory, and out of control” (67).

Being out of control is how I would describe the final few weeks of a recent semester, in which I was more than willing to end a certain class prematurely. My students were attending intermittently, they weren’t reading any of the assigned texts, discussions were overwhelmingly dominated by me and a handful of students, the winter weather lingered far beyond normal, and I had serious goings-on in my personal life that required a lot of attention and thought. Everything was failing in a far larger sense than usual, resigning me to simply the passing of time, still unsure how I would conclude. My pedagogical responsibility hinged on that question — should I finish with the always-acceptable reflective final paper or was there something else, something that might be amenable to my mood and their mood and my energy?

In class during the penultimate week of the semester, I leaned on the lectern and thought out loud about the state of the class. I knew they felt its discombobulation as much as I did, and in our little back and forth I had an idea, which I expressed to them: there would be no final exam paper if in class the following week everyone passed a reading quiz on our final reading, Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” A pause. Then cries of, “But, half the class isn’t even here! And they never attend!” I shrugged. That’s the deal, I told them. Suddenly, one student pulled out her phone and quickly sent “my deal” via email to the rest of the class through our learning management system. And another student did the same, imploring everyone to show up the next week having read the story.

I created a simple but atypical quiz (quizzes are rare in my classes): a few open-ended questions about the LeGuin reading, a non-sequitur — “Write a haiku,” one question about a previously assigned Sartre excerpt, and finally, “How much should this quiz be worth?” At the top of the quiz I wrote, “There are no guidelines for this quiz.” In class, upon receiving the quiz, the students (they all showed up) felt its oddity, and proceeded slowly, wondering about those “no guidelines.” But I just sat there, not answering their questions nor responding to their sidelong glances hoping for my approval or disapproval; I just repeated the statement. And then numerous things happened. With growing smiles on their faces, they organized themselves into answering all the questions. Someone looked up what a “haiku” was, and wrote one that everyone copied onto their paper; relatively lengthy debates about the story’s meaning broke out as they attempted to answer the open-ended questions. I was surprised (and pleased) at how interested they were in what they were saying about the story. Eventually, once the rest of the questions were answered as a class, they were stuck on how much the quiz should be worth — they didn’t know how to negotiate their own perceived power within the system of grading in relation to the time they spent on the assignment. In short, they were flummoxed with the structure that they were so vehemently trying to avoid by following instructions and doing minimal work. I didn’t rescue them.

Once they turned in the quiz, I shared with them my observations of their quiz-taking, of which they were unaware but amazed once they recognized what they had done. Having been through the novel experience, they had a fleeting glimpse about learning and education independent of the system that has been so rigidly emplaced to deliver it. Was the concluding class a social justice victory? I have no way of knowing. A queer theory victory? Hardly. A replicable queer Pedagogy? Fuck, no. Instead, there is unbearable negativity, a “vertiginous nonidentity, the disunity we fail to comprehend however much we think we know our own and the world’s incoherence” (121). Grades still had to be given, papers still have to be written (and did my students miss out by not writing the final paper?). As such, the class turned out to be incomplete, disruptive, impermanent, probably forgotten, only significant on that day in that room. Unlike the pedagogical imperative, this “experience” of mine, despite its situated meaningfulness, does not help me know what “to do” next time, as with Lynch’s hopefulness, for it was based on my disconsolate state of mind at the time and my circumstances of the moment influencing my being/becoming, which is not and should not be replicable, which makes my situation neither exceptional nor casuist — and therefore unamenable in any doable way to pedagogy’s pull toward anyone’s future “improvement.”

For both of us, the intersections of queer and composition echo Halberstam’s cri de coeur: “we want more undiscipline — more questions and fewer answers” (10). We call for this un-doing because composition’s student-centeredness stifles queer sensibility. Because it replicates a parental, nurturing model where, for example, failure and negativity must be overcome and some degree of student success is paramount. Students are constantly reassured that teachers will hold their hands through the process, staving off failure — but we feel that we should, instead, slap students’ hands away. Not in an authoritarian or punitive way, but as in “Sorry, my hands are busy, and you need both your hands as well.” We believe, and have often discussed among ourselves, that our value as teachers is as examples of humans engaged in critique, analysis, synthesis and reflection, and that the most meaningful learning results from how our personas, presence, and situated practice make students think about their world differently, as Lauren Berlant describes Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s style:

It is as though her pedagogical compulsion to make people smarter translates, after a while, into making them merely proximate, as in the intimate pedagogy she frames …where intimacy is about cospaciality and not predictability, recognition, or exchange. (49)

We love the idea of proximity and cospatiality in teaching, of being present in presence with others, of “model[ing] the suspension of knowing in a way that dilates attention to a problem or scene” (117). The proximate cospaciality of queering composition sidesteps the theory vs. practice skirmishes, where for many scholars the thrill of theory succumbs to the agony of practice. We recognize why Lynch attempts a teacher-centered, complex, and thoughtful solution, encouraging uncertainty and allowing for the exception. However, that exception is construed as a temporary learning experience on the way to what inevitably becomes better uncertainty. For, as he states, casuistry “offers a temporary exception that will evaporate when the specific circumstances evaporate” (112). We posit that specific circumstances never evaporate, for “you can invite queerness into the classroom, but you cannot anticipate what will arrive” (92). Similar to feminist, post-postprocess, posthuman, and new materialist theories, our queer sense of proximity to students and other objects of classroom interactions creates a complicated chaos that disrupts and disorients and fails to articulate successfully, but we do not feel impelled to rectify it. Instead, we dwell in it.

We don’t care to overcome or skirt or erase the difficulties of learning or teaching or sexuality. Our refusal to center on student (or professorial) success and our rejection of the insistence of our own and our students’ progress and improvement are beneficially liberating and frustrating, and result from a queer-inspired dismissal of futurity enveloped in pedagogy and heteronormativity. Queer theory elicits this for composition, and while improbable for most, it is not impossible. Sometimes we must begin dancing in order to realize it is exactly what we wanted to do.

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1 Response
  1. If you renamed Queer Theory to Dance Theory, you may lift some veils of ambiguity. Dance is Universal and ancient, and She surrounds all aspects of Queerness and more. The amorphous creativity of Queerness as you write so profoundly here, is analogous to the receptive energy in the left hand in Traditional Japanese Reiki . . . female energy. The right hand sends energy, is male, like the above “hetero-pedagogy” in its hierarchical structure.
    So which hand (modus operandi) do you choose? This is missing the point . . .
    Both male hierarchy and female amorphous creativity are needed to manifest an unhindered flow of One River in a person, on a page, on a stage, on a planet.
    What I am describing is my experience of the significance of the Yin Yang Symbol in its universal balance. Male and female energies have to blend into each other yet still have delineation . . . Achieving this kind of moment . . . on the page, on the wood floor, in the political realm . . . is truly relaxing into the ultimate healing Flow. (see Japanese Butoh dance on YouTube . . . all move in that healing flow, and take us into their slow trance)

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