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Composition Forum 41, Spring 2019

Review of Stacey Waite‘s Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Writing and Knowing

Joshua Barsczewski

Waite, Stacey. Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Writing and Knowing. Pittsburgh, 2017. 208pp.

The word “queer” is often used as an umbrella term to encompass any non-normative sexuality or gender identity. Yet, queer theory has typically attempted to blur identity categories, specifically by positioning itself against identity politics and stable notions of the self. Karen Kopelson’s 2002 call for performative pedagogy describes “queer” as “an epistemological position—a way of knowing, rather than something to be known” (25). The field of Composition has never fully embraced this notion, instead discussing queerness largely in relationship to multicultural pedagogies that encourage inclusivity. When queer theory gets discussed, it is mainly used to emphasize the blurred boundaries between homosexuality and heterosexuality, not as a larger critique or way of understanding (Alexander and Wallace 300). Stacey Waite’s Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Writing and Knowing is an exception that suggests a larger intellectual and political rationale for “teaching queer” (7).

Waite thinks of “teaching queer” as a methodology that uses queer theory to reconsider normative assumptions about literacy, writing, and knowledge itself. Describing queerness as “a kind of deviant mark, an excess, a bodily expression that exists outside a normative construction of the body” (24), Waite’s work suggests that to “teach queer” is not just to teach about queers or to teach as a queer, although both remain important, but rather to teach in a way that encourages deviance, excess, and anti-normative thinking and writing. As Waite says:

Working as a queer person on the subject of queer pedagogies, I have been asked many times some version of the question, Are you just interested in queer pedagogies because you’re queer? I get asked this as a kind of ‘gotcha moment.’ But the answer is what the answer could only be: yes, absolutely. I advocate for queer methodologies because I am queer, because queer teenagers all over the world are killing themselves at horrifying rates, because if oppression is really going to change, it’s our civic duty to think in queerer ways, to come up with queer kinds of knowledge-making so that we might know truths that are non-normative, and contradictory, and strange. (186-187)

Non-normative, contradictory, and strange indeed. To review this book as though it were a typical academic monograph with a singular argument and supporting evidence would be to miss the point entirely. Rather, the book calls on readers to experience it as a strange, perverse mess—a queer mess, so to speak. Within this queer mess, readers are treated to a narrative of Waite’s experience teaching a first-year writing course at the University of Pittsburgh, with reflective analyses of the documents used and produced for this course: syllabi, readings, writing assignments, and student work. Interspersed within the more straightforward teaching narrative are a series of anecdotes and digressions about the author’s childhood and educational history, as well as interruptions about dolphins’ whistling habits, loons’ diving strategies, and tai chi. The argument builds through a collage of vignettes that slide over, under, and past one another. Some themes emerge and recede just to reemerge later, resurfacing for air. Waite’s experimentation brings to mind Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’s Techne: Queer Meditations on Writing the Self. But where their work argued for multimodal writing by using a Web platform to incorporate texts, images, and videos, Waite instead performs what Jack Halberstam calls a “scavenger methodology” that produces information and theory through odd juxtapositions, parallels, and relationships that might seem incommensurate with one another (13).

One unusual and discomforting relationship Waite explores extensively in chapter one is the relationship between bodies in the classroom. Rather than emphasizing the discursive or rhetorical dynamics of gender and sexuality (pronoun usage, coming out narratives), Waite asks: what does it mean to teach queerly in a queer body? What challenges to students does Waite make merely by occupying a space of authority in the classroom as a visibly queer person, whose “female masculine” body might betray students’ sense of normality (31)? For example, Waite describes one student who expressed frustration with Kate Bornstein’s Gender Outlaw, specifically Bornstein’s use of the term “gender terrorists.” As this student said, “you can’t run around calling people who think women look ridiculous and funny in ties gender terrorists” (38). Bornstein says nothing in the text about women wearing ties, although Waite wears a shirt and tie to teach, thus possibly prompting the student’s frustration and horror. Rather than dismissing this student’s latent prejudices outright, Waite thinks about how the illegitimately masculine body can be “an opportunity for confusion of the productive kind” that encourages more complex ways of knowing for students (41).

In chapter two, Waite reflects on moments of failure in the classroom and in the discipline, asking us to use failure as a lens to think through the writing process more generally. As Halberstam, Rhodes, and others have indicated, failure can be an opportunity to create new ways of knowing. One prominent failure is the failure of language to discuss essay structure. Normative ways of describing essays include terms like “thesis,” “introduction,” or “body paragraphs” that limit the possibilities for writing. In Waite’s class, students collaborated to build a new language, renaming parts of the essay after the body: heart, muscle, lungs, etc. In renaming and creating a new language for understanding, the students created new ways of knowing. This process reminds Waite of the “inevitable and infinite ways there are to embody,” which like queer bodies, destabilize and decenter previously established truths (66-67).

As teachers, we need to consider our own failures too. As Waite said, those of us who wish to be attuned to student difference need to ask “how we are implicated in reaffirming the very ideas about difference we seek to disrupt” (83). In other words, how do our measures of success undermine the very work we seek to do? Waite had to ask these questions after realizing the ways silent students would be disadvantaged in a discussion-based writing course. Despite having already read Cheryl Glen, Mary Reda, Krista Ratcliffe and others who have reexamined disciplinary assumptions around silence, Waite had not yet developed a way to “practice a politics of silence” (73). A student’s essay forced this realization, and this recognition of personal pedagogical failure led Waite to reconsider student behavior and the deeply normative assumptions about student success implicated in writing pedagogy.

While we should reconsider some, perhaps even many, disciplinary assumptions, Waite is certainly not asking writing teachers to throw out everything the field holds dear to embrace the queer and anti-normative. As chapter three discusses, Judith Butler and other queer theorists have long contended that normativity is both inevitable and itself a source of agency. But instead of treating writing classes like a set of skills to learn, Waite instead asks us to consider how we can use the classroom to help students develop queer habits of mind, such as “uncertainty, confusion, fluidity, self-reflexivity, multiplicity, embodiment” (100). Waite examines curricular goals, syllabi, and writing assignments to demonstrate the habits of mind different pedagogical decisions promote. For example, one assignment asks students to consider their own reading practices, particularly what types of readers they become as they go through the course. Rather than imagining their responses to texts as static, Waite is interested both in how they construct and are constructed by their reading. But teachers need to provide space for students to explore their own evolving mindset. Waite illustrates the perils in not doing so by discussing an assignment that asked students to “take an already established position in relation to a text” (121). The assignment did not allow room for students to become somebody new or think in new ways; as a result, students commented that there was “nowhere to go” (122).

Central to Waite’s imagining of how students are constructed is the belief that identity is not a stable state, but a becoming, a fluid and “constant state of movement” (113). To move fluidly, one needs to be open to what was previously unthinkable. In chapter four, Waite relates this process of becoming liquid to literacy practices. To move beyond “notions of thinkability” is very different from normative notions of literacy (126). Literacy typically involves a mastery of some kind. When it comes to gender and sexuality, literacy can involve not knowing or not asking—that is, accepting the normative without questioning. As Waite says, while this is a certain type of literacy, it is not queer literacy. Queer literacies instead embrace fluidity, questioning, renaming, and defying convention.

Blurring binaries is a mainstay of queer theory, and Waite likens it to a queer literacy practice. In class, Waite asked students “to engage with the limitations of binary thinking by writing about something other than gender and sexuality” so as to encourage students to try out new ways of thinking or knowing (156). Yet, while commenting on a student’s draft, Waite asks one student to clarify her argument. The student did not understand how to do so as she thought writers could only “argue” by choosing between one of two options. That is, the terms “argue” and “argument” have assumed binaries built into them for some students (157). Another student wrote about how they don’t know what to do with ideas that are “too far out” (165), which Waite reads as a resistance to moving beyond binary thinking even while the student acknowledged other possibilities exist. As Waite suggests, sometimes that’s the furthest students are able to go.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to stretch students further. In chapter five, Waite sketches out some possibilities for a revised understanding of Composition. Queering Composition demands seeing new possibilities for writing, for what types of writing students can do, and for what types of writing a classroom should promote. In particular, Waite focuses on rethinking what we value in the essay’s structure, content, and ideas. Rather than linear and straightforward, Waite encourages the non-linear, messy, and disorienting. Instead of safe and expected content, Waite encourages students to be scavengers who bring together unusual materials that surprise readers. And instead of clear, logical, and consistent, Waite advocates for the contradictory and reflective.

Although Waite does briefly discuss the need for Composition to embrace multidisciplinarity, much of this final chapter focuses on student writing instead of a larger indictment of the discipline. Perhaps Teaching Queer’s greatest argument, then, is one it winks at, dances around, and implies: a critique of the discipline’s increasingly powerful pull toward normativity. A lot of prominent and lauded recent work in Composition is concerned with codifying knowledge practices into digestible threshold concepts and explicitly named disciplinary maxims. Yet from where does this impulse emanate other than a desire to be legible, mainstream, and understandable to outsiders? In other words, a desire to be the opposite of queer. Waite’s work hints that such pulls towards normativity will confine the field’s future to that which has already been done or thought, but at a cost. “Perhaps it’s naïve to think that changing our patterns of thought can change the world, but, well, I think it can,” Waite concludes (189). And if all of this sounds a bit impossible for one course or even one teacher to do, that’s because it is. But as Waite says, queerness is a space of impossibility, and embracing the impossible is a goal worth failing over.

Works Cited

Alexander, Jonathan, and David Wallace. The Queer Turn in Composition Studies. College Composition and Communication, vol. 61, no. 1, 2009, pp. 300-320.

Alexander, Jonathan, and Jacqueline Rhodes. Techne: Queer Meditations on Writing the Self. Utah State UP, 2015. Computer and Composition Digital Press,

Halberstam, Jack. Female Masculinity. Duke UP, 1998.

Kopelson, Karen. Dis/Integrating the Gay/Queer Binary: ‘Reconstructed Identity Politics’ for a Performative Pedagogy. College English, vol. 65, no. 1, 2002, pp. 17-35.

Return to Composition Forum 41 table of contents.