Notes: Rhea Estelle Lathan, Freedom Writing: African American Civil Rights Literacy Activism, 1955-1967

Lathan, Rhea E. (2015). Freedom writing: African American civil rights literacy activism 1955-1967. Urbana-Champagne, IL: Conference on College Composition and Communication.


Logan considers the pedagogical and literacy acquisition strategies of African Americans of the Civil Rights Movement, locating histories in interviews both personally conducted and archive-located.

Keywords: social histories, literacy, rhetoric


“Finding redemption, for my purposes, is a means of explaining how deep cultural resources that develop in the church and spiritual life transfer to a secular context as intellectual and spiritual strategies that enhance literacy activism” (p. 24).

“Finding redemption is the overarching theme of gospel literacy. It’s a theoretical interpretive concept centered on recovery, a means of dispelling the myth of grassroots literacy acquisition and use as basic, simple, or mechanical” (p. 106).


One of the things that I’m struck by in this book is the “Memory itself can be considered composition” (p. 109). For Lathan (2015), memory can give “special attention to illogical, supernatural, spiritual, or otherwise unexplainable events” and “puts the unexpected, unpredictable incidents and directions of our lives into perspective” (p. 109). This allows for “making intuitive connections to articulate truth that cannot be directly spoken” (p. 109).

This made me think of Castiglia and Reed’s (2012) If Memory Serves about gay culture and the AIDS Crisis in which they discuss cultural imperatives to forget the ‘crisis’ and to cast the past in the light of sexual irresponsibility. Instead, they argue, a queer counter-memory would allow for the radical sexual potentialities without painting the past as utopian: rather, queer counter-memories allow for productive disruptions and imaginations within dominant cultures. This makes me think, too, of “the refusal to submit to the burdens of history” (Lathan, 2015 p. 25).

These two texts seem to tend to the ways in which memory can be a productive way to conceive of histories in that they encounter the rhetorical constraints and material conditions that surround ideas of remembering and forgetting—which is making me think of Enoch’s (2013) idea of feminist memory studies approaches as attending to scholarly inattentions and also the rhetorical act of forgetting.

We’ve read a lot this semester about encountering forgetting or recovery projects, but I’m not sure that we’ve talked so much about negotiating forgetting with power, which is something that I see this text trying to do by both highlighting how the subjects themselves were writing those negotiations within their daily lives but also how larger culture forgets these figures due to elements of power.

Queer chickens and queer eggs: Reflection on a class discussion on primary and secondary discourses

I wanted to reflect on some of my thoughts in response to a class discussion of Gee’s Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics.

In one of my graduate classes, we discussed literacy as empowering and transformative. Much of this conversation circulated around the idea of a “home”/”primary” literacy or discourse that was built upon, left behind, or was impacted in the acquisition of a secondary discourse.

This discussion brought up Gee’s articulation of literacy having more to it than the verbal: there is an identity kit to literacy. That literacy is bound up in identity and ideology. The class discussion circled around this idea that the overlap between your primary and secondary [read “school” or “academic”] discourse facilitates your acquisition of the secondary discourse. Through acquiring a secondary discourse, you can look back on your primary and think metacognitively.

That model of thinking may be represented as:


I couldn’t help but think about some things that might complicate this model. For one, what does queerness offer this discussion?

I was thinking of my own situation as a gay man and asking what was my primary discourse? I did not acquire access to a queer community in which I could be apprenticed into norms or contribute to queer discourses until much later in my life, and yet my queerness required no acquisition processes: that is, I was acutely aware of my difference from early on which shaped my interactions with heteronormative discourses. I had to participate and perform in these spaces far earlier; before I was necessarily even conscious of what I was “passing” as. Even if I was not so consciously aware, I was aware enough of my performance—my passing into spaces—and the consequences of performance: which I suppose is to ask where the work of metacognition begins in discursive practice.

So what is primary discourse? Is it the discourse that I acquired “first”—and, if so, is it the discourse that I had access to participate in first despite cognizance of difference? Is it the discourse that most impactfully shapes my identity—and, if that is the case, what does that suggest about the nature of acquisition and apprenticeship, if one can acquire first and be apprenticed second? And what is necessary for metacognition—is it a looking across borders with explicit reasoning, or something that can be intuited through an awareness of consequences and lived experiences?

Which came first, and does that matter?

I think queerness resists this kind of model I’ve depicted above. Most immediately as queer often implies a resistance to binary thinking, such as primary and secondary. I think it raises the question too of orientation (to draw from Sara Ahmed—as one does), to ask what these objects or ideas of literacy orient us toward: some of which I have attempted to make explicit in that model through a visual/spatial representation and the use of arrows. There is a pulling to this model that pulls toward the secondary, the apprenticed, the acquire, the institutional. It seems to value the primary only as it informs and provides explicit vocabulary for reflection on the secondary: it only values the primary as other.

This discussion was interested in primary as facilitating the acquisition of the secondary. There’s space, then, to acknowledge the privileging of those whose primary discourses overlap more, that touch more, that are oriented toward, that allow one to reach more easily the secondary. However, that potential to acknowledge seemed lost in the language of efficiency: how can we facilitate this acquisition?

Many thought the Gee text left students and instructors in a helpless position.

The text seemed to be asking for immersion into a discourse in a way that they felt uncertain of schools being able to facilitate. But I can’t help but wonder about the moments of border crossing, moments that contact, touch, overlap helps facilitate: perhaps even the moment that an oriented trajectory begins its movement. Moments of crossing are invitational and/or transgressive, they are thresholds of being.

Jacqueline Rhodes writes in Techne:

What is a threshold, the site of such unraveling? A point between, belonging to neither. A doorway facing both sides; and when one threshold opens to the next, we find an endless chain of facing/approaching/leaving. Like the rhizome, like rootstock, thresholds assume—no, demand—a dynamic, bobbing-and-weaving approach that, as I wrote in Radical Feminism, Writing, and Critical Agency, is a hallmark of feminist textuality. Our own radical alterity, and our own tangled response to it, can work as resistance, as critical energy.

I’m curious about a queer inhabiting of that threshold, or is it situating queerness in that threshold, or is it making that threshold a site of queering? The potentiality of the endless facing/approaching/leaving, of the orienting and reorienting that happens in situ.

Is a queer literacy a literacy of the threshold? One that was always already primary and yet also secondary and always orienting and reorienting within the “fractured valences” of multiple discourses and identities (Bessette, 2016).

Which is to say that perhaps we should attend to the orientations, trajectories, and movements within us, our pedagogies, our understandings of literacy and how they contribute to the value and valuation of identities.

To take seriously a queering of this model, too, means to also attend to the ordinal, the situated ordination in structural hierarchies, the directive and coordinating force of number and taxonomy, or immediacy and latent, of proximity and distance, of elevation and baseness.

The idea of apprenticeship seems to want deep, contextually rich moments of immersion in a way that this discussion had difficulty situating within classroom contexts: but what if we were to consider literacy as culturally located and mediated through interactions with technologies, such as language or writing tools.

By ordinating literacy (x, y axes brought-to-bear here) we locate literacy within a locative model, but one that loses its abscissa. It’s a one dimensional model of literacy, one that insists that locating yourself in particular regions of a line means success. But what does an abscissa offer us? What do we get if we look at literacy as 2D, 3D, 4D?

I think at the very least we trouble the idea that literacy is singular, linear, and apolitical and we trouble systems and institutions that privilege the singular literacy. We would instead offer more complex ways in which people locate themselves within the big ball of wibbly-wobbly, unstableness that literacy is.

I do not in any way feel as though I am ready to answer these questions and these initial graspings leave so much to consider that I am yet unready to wrestle with.

A Smattering of Citations:

Ahmed, Sara. (2006). Queer phenomenology: Objects, orientations, others. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bessette, Jean. (2016). Queer rhetoric in situ. Rhetoric Review, 35(2), 148-164.

Gee, James P. (1989). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: Introduction. Journal of Education, 171(1), 5-17.

Rhodes, Jacqueline and Jonathan Alexander. (2015). Techne: Queer meditations on writing the self. Logan, UT: Computers and Composition Digital Press/Utah State University Press.

What and Who We Sponsor

In EMU’s two week graduate assistant training workshop, we were asked to write our literacy narratives. Below is my draft for that assignment:

Literacy seems to always be a deceptively easy word to define. It may be easy enough to use it as the ways in which one comes to communicate with others—often discussed as being through reading and writing alphabetic texts. However, if literacy is only talked about as reading and writing alphabetic texts, there is something that seems flat and emptied about it. Literacy has the capacity to understand communicative acts and practices as culturally located and imbricated with the technologies used to create or surround such acts (See Haas, 2008; Cushman, 2011; Shipka, 2011).

When I was in preschool, my teacher asked my class what we each wanted to be. Many of my male peers responded with “lawyer,” “doctor,” “astronaut,” or “president.” Many of my female peers replied with similarly interspersed with answers such as “mother,” “wife,” or “princess.” I answered that I wanted to be a mermaid and was immediately informed that this was not an appropriate answer—it is hard to be a successful mermaid in this economic climate—and so I answered with father and was again shot down. Defeated, I answered writer. Whether out of spite, stubbornness, genuine interest, or some premonition of a four-year-old’s intuition, it is an answer that I’ve stuck by ever since.

I include this as an opening anecdote as it at once sets up my journey toward understanding writing and literacy, if simplistically, but also seems to meaningfully come into contact with the boundaries of acceptable literacies that permeate the educational contexts I’ve inhabited since disciplinarily or institutionally. In many ways, my teacher and my answer pushed me in a direction that made visible these demarcations of valued and acceptable literacies within education—I could be a writer because that was something that was understood by my teacher to be something appropriate for a male student proceeding into grade school to pursue.

My family moved from Delaware to Virginia when I was eight, midway through the school year. That year would be the first that I encountered standardized testing. The SOL’s. I failed the test in Virginia history—a subject widely taught in early education in Delaware. By whatever assessment apparatus was used, I landed in a series of “slow track,” remedial classes going forward. This lasted until my family moved to North Carolina when I was twelve, where I would be tested again and placed into all advanced classes. How does this connect to literacy—and why is this writing so episodic? My momentary occupation of this system was yet another encounter of boundaries, of ways of being and knowing that would be valued in an institutional context. This is not to say that this essay should be concerned with the woes of standardized testing—in fact, it was in some of these remedial classes that I was able to play—really play—with writing. I was able to tell stories and communicate through more experimental language, but technologies: I composed through Legos and toys, I wrote an essay through still shots of myself using sign language that I edited post-print, I learned code from a friend and turned in a hacked version of the school’s website as a final.

The writing strategies I’d been able to explore in that setting allowed me to subversively compose in future settings—though often unsuccessfully until later into my undergraduate experience at East Carolina. After hearing many of the questions I had about writing and my interests within English Studies, my mentor, Will Banks, encouraged me to change my area of focus from Literature to Rhetoric and Composition and to apply for a job as a peer tutor in the University Writing Center. The writing center and my classes that focused in rhetoric and composition gave me a vocabulary to talk about writing and to explore the possibility of writing much more formally with instructors and mentors who encouraged playfulness as a form of invention.

But what I’m struck with, even now, is how these literacies I’ve discussed all take place within classrooms for instructors, or are in service of such enterprises. Why haven’t I described the cruising practices I learned in gay clubs and bathhouses? Or the ways in which queer neighborhoods and spaces can be “read” as much as they are navigable or traversable? Or the ways that I learned to code my performance of self with levels of masculinity so that I would appear nonthreatening to the cis/hetero men that I interact with in professional settings? Or the countless other literacies or literacy moments that my cultural positioning as a queer person informs my sense of self and citizenship, my research, and my pedagogy? I feel this is largely because of those interactions with boundaries of acceptability I interacted with earlier on that have been continually reaffirmed. Literacy, with all of its bagginess as a term, within institutional contexts seems to make so much distant, inaccessible, and invisible. Instead, conventional uses of the term literacy seem to only promote a certain list of activities, technologies, and products, promoted by sanctioned professionals, within certain contexts. Subversion of such should only be done cleverly and not too radically in order to avoid discomfort (What would a student think if they knew their instructor had history in the baths?).

However, as a potential literacy sponsor, am I to also affirm these boundaries that surround and contain acceptable literacy? Would that be “professional”—another word that seems coded with implications to appear, perform, and act in ways that support a white, cis/heteropatriarchy (See Cox, 2012)? Are there ways to explore the subversive and potentially disquieting capacity of literacy productively and still set up students for success, in so far as success is measured?

I don’t mean to suggest that my classroom explores the cruising practices of gay men. Though, I do intend to raise the questions surround why it does or does not explore those practices and forms of communication, to raise the questions of what and who we sponsor. I was fortunate to have mentors that sponsored disruptive and subversive literacy practices and I intend to do the same in my own work.

Brief List of Citations

Brandt, Deborah. (1998). “Sponsors of Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, 49(2), 165-185.

Cox, Matthew B. (2012). Through Working Closets: Examining Rhetorical and Narrative Approaches to Building LGBTQ & Professional Identity Inside a Corporate Workplace.

Cushman, Ellen (2011). The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Haas, Angela M. (2008). “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 19(4), 77-100.

Shipka, Jody (2011). Toward a composition made whole. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Notes: Lil Brannon, Jennifer Pooler Courtney, Cynthia P. Urbanski, Shana V. Woodward, Jeanie Marklin Reynolds, Anthony E. Iannone, Karen D. Haag, Karen Mach, Lacy Arnold Manship, and Mary Kendrick, “The Five Paragraph Essay and the Deficit Model of Education”

Brannon, Lil, et al. (2008). The five-paragraph essay and the deficit model of education. English Journal, 98(2), 16.

3 pens on a composition book

3 pens on a composition book


The UNC Charlotte Writing Project Collaborative draws on the large body of scholarship and theory in the teaching of writing to critique the continuing and pervasive practice of teaching the five-paragraph essay. Instead, they argue for a pedagogy that does not reiterate the status quo, but offers students a more nuanced understanding of writing.

Keywords: composition, literacy, pedagogy, teaching of writing


Knoblauch, Cy, and Lil Brannon. (1984). Rhetorical traditions and the teaching of writing. Upper Montclair: Boynton/Cook.


“There is, according to Halasek, a dangerous paternalism surrounding this pedagogical practice, which stems from objectivist rather than constructivist notions of language and discourse. Such practices, she argues, are repressive acts that compel students to master this one form before proceeding. The premise that this form is somehow ‘foundational’—’an all purpose approach to writing’ (99)—is false because it ignores the generative nature of forming and ‘disregards the intimate relationship among audience, social context, subject, and author’ (100)” (p. 17).

“When students are considered lacking—lacking organization, lacking ideas to write about, lacking understanding—writing in an arbitrary formula merely sustains the deficit perception. Students learn that writing means following a set of instructions, filling in the blanks. Such writing mirrors working-class life, which requires little individual thinking and creativity combined with lots of monotony and following orders. It’s obvious what training the five-paragraph essay is really practice for. Writing, we argue, should not be yet another way to train students to be obedient citizens, but rather provide them with opportunities to develop their thinking as individuals, making meaning through the act of composing” (p. 18).

“A deficit understanding of students would see the diversity of languages and cultures in classrooms as a problem rather than a strength. A deficit understanding labels the language of low socioeconomic students as a problem, often marking them as ignorant. The deficit model labels these same children as remedial or even having learning disabilities. This model is largely responsible for placing minorities or children of the poor in remedial classes. The deficit model gives these children worksheet drudgery and formulaic writing that will occupy the students into passivity” (p. 18).

Questions, Reflections, and Responses:

Lil Brannon is always brilliant and the UNC Charlotte Writing Project is a powerhouse of amazing and talented teachers. This idea of going against the problem with the “common sense” pedagogy of the five-paragraph essay seems to reflect a lot of what teachers of writing have to go up against and the narratives that surround our work. The endeavor of creating a pedagogy that creates this more nuanced sense of writing, that goes beyond the all-purpose approach, deficit model means undertaking an articulation in what we value in writing and changing the “grand narrative” of its instruction.

Notes: Todd DeStigter, “On the Ascendance of Argument: A Critique of the Assumptions of Academe’s Dominant Form”

DeStigter, Todd. (2015). On the ascendance of argument: A critique of the assumptions of academe’s dominant form. Research in the Teaching of English, 50(3), 11-50.



DeStigter critiques the fundamental assumptions behind the overemphasis of argumentation as an ideal in the teaching of writing, drawing on three semesters of ethnographic research in Tejada High in Southwestern Chicago.

Keywords: critical pedagogy, literacy, literacy changes, literacy studies, pedagogy, teaching of writing


Walkerdine, Valerie. (1990). The mastery of reason: Cognitive development and the production of rationality. New York: Routledge.


“Again, if this paradigm sounds familiar, it’s because the privileging of argumentation indicates widespread acceptance of the assumption that truths established by reasoned argumentation correspond to ‘real’ truths, thereby positing argumentation as a cognitive ideal” (p. 17).

“I worry that in our professional conversations a new divide theory has emerged–one that posits an intellectual dichotomy not between the literate and preliterate, but between people who can write what is sanctioned as a rational argument and those who can’t” (p. 19).

“However, merely shifting the rationale for privileging argumentation from noumenal to the phenomenal realm does not eliminate the problem that whatever is designated as “good thought” is revealed through rational arguments is determined by people who are in a position to make and enforce such designations” (p. 19).

“However, as my responses to these theorists suggest, in order to believe that argumentation has inherent cognitive and social value, one must reassert the autonomous model and strip language uses from their ideological bases and consequences. One must bracket the notion that such value is not predestined in human nature or the organizing principles of the universe, but is discursively produced. One must, in other words, create a world of intellectual and communicative hierarchies and then forget that we are its creators. Unfortunately, in such a world it is also possible to forget that, in most arguments, the person with the most power just has to say, ‘Your argument is unreasonable,’ and he wins” (p. 20).

“First, in order to assert a reciprocal relationship between argumentation and democracy, one must ignore the fact that people have unequal access to power that would enable them to participate meaningfully” (p. 22).

“Second, history and current U.S. politics are replete with examples of how rational arguments supported by overwhelming evidence get trumped by ideology. Because there is no neutral ground where individuals can converse unencumbered by their values and prejudices” (p. 22).

“Third, it seems only reasonable to insist that even though argumentative skills don’t guarantee access to political deliberation, lacking such skills virtually ensures that a person will be excluded…. However, this insistence that argumentation is a necessary (albeit insufficient) requirement of political agency dismisses substantial evidence that the most effective forms of democratic participation emerge not from rational argumentation but from identity and class-based solidarity” (p. 23).

“Fourth, tying democracy to rational argument greatly restricts the kinds of thought and action considered permissible in the public sphere” (p. 23).

“To be sure, Bourdieu makes clear that cultural capital plays a role in reproducing social and economic privilege. But this is not the same as saying that cultural capital produces social and economic capital for those who don’t already have it” (p. 27).

Questions, Reflections, and Response:

I found myself saying “Werk!” quite a bit reading this piece. This is one of the first pieces I’ve read in secondary ed scholarship. I believe these assumptions that DeStigter sheds light on in secondary ed have a lot of resonance in the ways that many of us teach first year writing in the college level as well–which I suppose relates to looking at the teaching of writing as a k-16 enterprise instead of a separation between secondary and post-secondary ed.

Computers and Writing Reflection: Writing is Multimodal

All writing is multimodal. It’s one of 37 “threshold concepts” in writing studies published in Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle’s Naming What We Know. The word “multimodal” appears across FYWP outcome statements. Multimodality appears to be a central value in writing studies, but how is it implemented, how is it defined, and how is it assessed and housed in FYWPs?

Many of my early conversations with faculty around multimodal composition alluded to some of these questions. One even compared it to many notions of literacy that too easily become some sort of apparently “neutral good” that has a tricky definition. It doesn’t quite mean computers; it doesn’t quite mean words in a row writing.

In my reading Jody Shipka’s “Rethinking Composition/Rethinking Process” chapter in Toward a Composition Made Whole, I am understanding a definition of multimodal composition that may not utilize a certain technology, but rather, argues for an understanding of composition that calls attention to the technologies used to produce that writing. She writes, “By asking students to examine the communicative process as a dynamic, embodied, multimodal whole–one that shapes and is shaped by the environment–students might come to see writing, reading, speaking, and ways of thinking and evaluating as “a function of place, time, sex, age, and many other elements of life” (Malstrom 1956, 24)” (26). This sort approach mixes object-oriented ontology with multimodality in a compelling way that forces an understanding of technologies and environments for writing that shape the writer and what is produced as a function of that space, time, object, etc. This kind of encounter with an object unessentializes and deinstrumentalizes objects and process for the production and evaluation of a given text. Instead, it calls for an encounter with the impression the objects of production have on the composition through the recognition of the liminal spaces objects and environments afford.

I can hear this echoed in composition’s past in Kathleen Blake Yancey’s 2004 CCCC address, where she calls attention to the way that technology is rapidly and dramatically creating and changing genres and understandings of literacy. She writes that students are writing more on their own than ever before with these (then) new technologies. Though not articulated in quite the same way as Shipka’s (2011) chapter, Yancey seems to be calling attention to this same understanding of composition; one that encounters the modes of production and recognizes their contribution to the production of that text. The idea that all writing is “interfacing,” I find a compelling way to conceive of texts as creating interaction and invitation.

This is certainly something that I strive for in my own pedagogy. The idea of making as composing is language that I’m slightly more familiar with, largely coming out of the hacking vs. yacking debates in the digital humanities and the maker movement. I’ve attempted to structure the courses I teach around this idea of multimodal composition and emphasize the means of making a text to call attention to the underlying assumptions about what a text is and the technologies that go into its production.


Notes: Jonathan Alexander, “Transgender Rhetorics: Sex and Gender” in Literacy, Sexuality, Pedagogy

Alexander, Jonathan. (2008). Transgender rhetorics: Sex and gender. Literacy, sexuality, pedagogy: Theory and practice for composition studies. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 127-150.


Alexander advocates for a transpedagogy for students to not only encounter transgender voices, but also to attempt to grapple with the embodied reality of gender. Alexander includes a paired-fiction writing activity in which he asked his students to attempt a narrative gender transition with their writing partners, sharing out with the group to discuss the gender-narrative tropes and constructs that go into the composition of gendered realities.

Keywords: composition, literacy, literacy studies, LGBTQ, pedagogy, queer, queer rhetorics, sexuality, transgender


Houle, Brian R., Alex P. Kimball, & Heidi A. McKee. (2004). ‘Boy? You decide; girl? You decide’: Multimodal web composition and a mythography of identity.” Computers and Composition Online.

Prosser, Jay. (1998). Second skins: Body narratives of transsexuality. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rubin, Henry. (2003). Self-made men: Identity and embodiment among transsexual men. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.


“Without a doubt, gender is a compelling, even controlling construct in our narration of identity to ourselves and others. An attempt to understand how our narrations of gender are formed, how they circulate socially and politically, and how they can be productively challenged when found to be too constricting should be an important component in becoming literate about the discourses of gender in which we are immersed and enmeshed” (p. 128).

“It strikes me that the exploration of  ‘harmful myths’ is a key part of a sexual literacy project, one that undertakes a close analysis of (with the ultimate aim of provoking productive resistance to) controlling and normalizing narratives and tropes of gender” (p. 130).

“[H]aving students write about gender, particularly to excavate the narrative tropes in which conceptions of gender and identity are embedded, fosters a sense of how discourse and normative rhetorics of gender are conduits of power, shaping our sense of what kinds of identities are “normal,” appropriate, and allowed” (p. 148).

“But moreover, such work is about writing, about looking at gender through the critical work of writing about gender, and about understanding writing, particularly narrations of self, as not just the “recovery” of a self but the construction of self” (p. 148).

“But we must also remember that gender is never purely discursive. It is experienced as a material reality, even as such realities may be discursively enabled, and I maintain that working with students on the narration and construction of gender is perhaps better served by metaphors and tropes that capture some of that lived and embodied complexity of gender” (p. 149).

Questions and Reflections:

I wonder what sorts of reflections and hacks can be made on harmful myth explorations particularly about gender and sexuality issues which so often play on our bodies, if an activity centered on hacking these harmful myths might be a productive way in to discussing a sexual literacy. If, through composing narratives, we can identify the tropes and gendered constructs, I wonder what would come of asking writers to attempt a history of those tropes, to identify the signifiers and how they are reproduced.