October 2016
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A CALL TO QUEER L2 WRITING
Joshua M. Paiz, New York University Shanghai, Shanghai, China

The social turn in applied linguistics brought with it an increased awareness of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, etc. (LGBT) issues in language learning and teaching. However, a survey of second language (L2) writing literature on the matter and of its flagship journal, The Journal of Second Language Writing, shows that the field has not kept pace with these important advances in applied linguistics and TESOL.

Making matters more complicated is the fact that “queering” can be a difficult term to operationalize. This is in part because of how queer theorists have viewed the term, with some arguing that to define queer(-ing) is to strip away its political power (e.g., Sullivan, 2003). Failure to properly define the term, however, limits its ability to be deployed in the classroom in any way that goes beyond merely introducing token queer characters in texts, holding mock marriage and adoption equality debates, watching shows that feature LGBT characters, or making facile statements that the classroom is a “safe place.” Nevertheless, queering will be defined here as the act of facilitating dialogue and critical discussion about sexual identities and their sociocultural relevance in a way that is respectful of individuals’ lived experiences (Nelson, 2006; Paiz, 2015).

The L2 writing classroom is in need of purposeful queering for a number of reasons. First, queering plays a key role in students’ academic lives because it aids students in the acquisition of the academic literacy skills that will enable them to be successful in their studies. For example, by queering our practice students are exposed to, and trained to use, another set of tools to critically engage with texts and the identities presented in them. This may help to facilitate critical thinking and close reading skills (Nelson, 2006). The L2 writing classroom is also a space where students are acculturated to their universities, which necessitates discussion of and practice with skills such as critical thinking, inquiry, and analysis. Finally, Ferris and Hedgcock (2014) stated that it is problematic to view the L2 writing classroom as values free and ideologically neutral, which suggests a possible space for queering L2 writing both in and out of the classroom.

The L2 writing classroom is an ideal site for queering because it is often times a place of sustained and concentrated engagement with students because of a more intensive meeting schedule and/or because of the smaller student-to-teacher ratio. Thus, students can begin to explore their own identities and thoughts on a variety of topics. Because their writing is often seen by a smaller group of people, students may feel more at ease with a controlled “outing” of themselves. For example, at the Sino-American University where I work, I have had one student in a year-long writing course who has consistently written end-of-term papers exploring queer issues in China, often using his own lived experience as evidence. However, in classroom activities, including in peer review of his term papers, he performs a heterosexual identity, referring to his girlfriend at a Beijing university. This performance may be due to worry about ostracization from his more conservative peers. For this student and many like him, classroom compositions may be seen as an important place to perform and explore their LGBT identities.

Queering L2 Writing

Regarding queering L2 writing, there are three possible paths forward, each of which might offer important contributions to practice. First, research is needed for both informing practice and better understanding the phenomena of L2 writing and teaching L2 writing. Despite close links to applied linguistics and its related fields, L2 writing has not kept pace with emerging queer research in these fields. This is evidenced in how difficult it is to find published articles that examine queer issues specifically in the L2 writing classroom, as opposed to in the four-skills second and foreign language classrooms. This absence in the L2 writing literature is problematic for three reasons: 1) It reinforces the primacy of speech, as existing literature focuses mostly on listening and speaking classes; 2) it downplays, through its absence, the potential significance of the writing classroom in student acculturation and future success; and 3) it reifies a potentially latent heterosexist bias in the field of L2 writing, which must be addressed with a concerted research agenda looking at a number of LGBT issues in the L2 writing classroom.

A second possible path to queering L2 writing is teacher training. Un- or misinformed efforts to queer the classroom can actually have a deleterious effect on students’ perception of queer issues and individuals that they may encounter in their daily lives. Misguided efforts can actually reify the normative discourses that they seek to problematize. This means that there is a need for future educators to receive proper training in how to effectively queer their practice. This must take place in the teacher-training classroom, and a more experienced individual must lead it. It must not be left up to the pre- or early-service teacher to queer their own professional development, as they are often balancing other competing professional development and identity acquisition demands. Queering teacher training can also be done by creating additional space in foundational TESOL theory and practice classes for contributions from the growing body of queer literature. Equipping future practitioners to queer their own practice can be furthered by the teacher-trainer modeling in the classroom how to purposefully queer practice by troubling dominant, heteronormative, disciplinary discourses. This may have the added benefit of highlighting how “queer” can go beyond sexuality to impact other aspects of our lives and the inherent variety and ambiguity that may exist within them.

The third part forward is through materials creation, as it is important to keep in mind that textbooks are not values-neutral. They manifest dominant cultural discourses and they provide students with a variety of vetted identity options as an artifact of more conservative review and editorial processes (Paiz, 2015), which makes them very potent pedagogical tools and facilitators of acculturation. Many mainstream publishers have a clear economic imperative to remain conservative in the materials that they publish in order to ensure deeper market penetration. Because of the dearth of mainstream materials that include LGBT-conscious content, teachers must be prepared to queer their own curricular materials. This may mean modeling for students how to carry out a queer reading by revisiting previously assigned readings and seeking to trouble presented identities.

Potential Outcomes of Queering Classrooms

There are a few potentially positive outcomes in queering the L2 writing classroom. Primarily, queering leads to the creation of an educational space that is validating of all identities and equips students to parse queer and nonnormative identity performances that they encounter in their lives. By validating queer identities, students are shown that these identities make up part of the human experience and should be respected and valued. Through careful queering, students can also be shown that identity is never a dichotomy, but rather a complex spectrum that transcends, in this case, sexuality and attraction.

Secondly, queering creates a space where students can engage and experiment with queer and critical discourses that seek to trouble the normative social discourses in which they are embedded. This may allow the practitioner to find new ways that the normative discourses of their disciplines and/or institutions might be challenged and subverted to the benefit of the students. Finally, queering may also lead to students and practitioners alike seeing the L2 writing classroom as not just a queer space in terms of sexuality, but also in terms of linguistic practice. That is, queering the L2 writing classroom may also lead to students and teachers troubling the dominant discourses surrounding the notion of the successful college writer and English language user.

Conclusion

Queering L2 writing is important because of the profound impact that issues identity can have on language learning. Queering must be carried out purposefully and carefully, with attention paid to preparing all practitioners during their professional development. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that it is not only up to LGBT practitioners to queer their practice; straight practitioners must seek to queer their practice as well (Rodriguez, 2007). This must be done in order to create safe spaces inside the classroom and the institution. Also, it shows queer students that they are not alone; they have allies in an otherwise seemingly heterosexist world. Though it may seem challenging, self-identified LGBT teachers are not at any particular advantage when it comes to queering the classroom (see Nelson, 2006; Rodriguez, 2007).

In this piece, I have called for the queering of L2 writing. This is just the beginning, as there are many important questions to be considered, both by individual practitioners and the field as a whole. These questions include ones such as: How do we actually teach our students to think and write through a queer lens? How can queer pedagogy empower students to reflect and challenge their own subjectivities and identities? What are the philosophical, practical, and political impacts of adopting a queer pedagogy? By addressing these questions, the field of L2 writing can make meaningful strides that will benefit students, practitioners, and the wider discipline of TESOL.

References

Ferris, D. R., & Hedgecock, J. S. (2014). Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Nelson, C. D. (2006). Queer inquiry in language education. Journal of Language, Identity & Education, 5(1), 1–9.

Paiz, J. M. (2015). Over the monochrome rainbow: Heteronormativity in ESL reading texts and textbooks. Journal of Language and Sexuality, 4(1), 77–101.

Rodriguez, N. M. (2007). Preface: Just queer it. In N. M. Rodriguez & W. F. Pinar (Eds.), Queering straight teachers: Discourse and identity in education (pp. vii–xiv). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Sullivan, N. (2003). Queer theory: A critical introduction. New York, NY: New York University Press.


Joshua received his PhD in second language studies from Purdue University, where he served as a graduate teaching assistant and coordinator for the Purdue Online Writing Lab. He is currently a language lecturer at NYU Shanghai, where he teaches freshman writing and graduate-level professional writing. His research interests include online writing labs and L2 writing, LGBT issues in applied linguistics, and sociocognitive approaches to second language acquisition.

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