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  • Breaking Out of the Basic Writing ClosetQueering the Thirdspace of Composition
  • Joyce Olewski Inman (bio)

How one moves along institutional lines is affected by the other lines that one follows.

—Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

The politics of remediation in higher education are more evident in public discourse now than ever. Indeed, technological advances and various political initiatives have led to calls for basic writing instruction that adheres to a pedagogy of expediency and linear norms.1 This public discourse encourages writing programming that moves students more efficiently through the composition sequence required at most universities (i.e., without the barriers imposed by remedial course work that may precede traditional composition course work for underprepared students) and with little regard for local circumstances. This particular movement in higher education reveals the continued trajectory of what Gerri McNenny (2011: 3) calls the "ascendancy of a conservative sentiment toward public education." The public propaganda for these models stresses "access" and "completion," but the models themselves are nested in politically conservative meritocratic beliefs in education that privilege standards, efficiency, and mastery based on disciplinary norms and, as suggested in the brief epigraph above, straight "institutional lines." Similar [End Page 1] discussions are taking place at my current institution, as the composition program attempts to negotiate an institutional emphasis on retention and the lack of sustained support typical of programs that serve marginalized students. In our attempts to rethink the ways basic writing is taught at my institution, I am finding it helpful to think about the identity politics at play among the stakeholders in basic writing classes, how theories of geography and space characterize pedagogical spaces, and the ways queer theory provides a particularly useful lens for conceptualizing and disrupting these models.

Given the othered status of both students labeled as basic writers and the courses that serve them, I suggest that many students experience basic writing courses as institutional attempts both to identify them as basic writers and, simultaneously, to closet them and separate them from the institution at large. Let me quickly point out that I am not comparing the label of the basic writer to being labeled as queer. And I find it similarly important to note that discussions of the spatiality of the closet as "one that conceals, erases and makes gay people invisible and unknown" are specific to the powerful forces of heteronormativity that have led to violence and hate toward individuals who identify as queer (Brown 2000: 141). Nor am I the first to suggest the ways the closet metaphor applies to binaries some might not consider directly linked to sexuality. Disability studies has made use of the closet metaphor to describe some experiences of "invisible" disabilities, such as learning disabilities and mental illnesses (which can also be associated with "remedial" student populations), as a way to recast a student's lack of preparation as a personal rather than a social or institutional problem (see McRuer 2004, 2006). This said, considering the basic writing classroom via the closet metaphor encourages a contemplation of the basic writing classroom as queerable—as a space that deviates from the traditional institutional lines observed in higher education but also as a space designed to remediate deviant students and allow them to "pass" in the traditional academic setting.

Beginning with this suggestion that students experience the basic writing classroom in terms similar to the metaphorical closet, I wish to begin the process of unpacking our conceptualizations of the basic writing classroom and the basic writer and begin the complicated process of imagining "existing alternatives to hegemonic systems" (Halberstam 2011: 89). Indeed, I want to consider the intellectual and physical spaces our students inhabit by thinking through the ways the closet metaphor applies to traditional basic writing courses and spaces and how we might rethink the studio model of basic writing instruction via queer theory. In this article, I first explore the ways the traditional basic writing classroom functions via the closet metaphor [End Page 2] and how we might queer that space. I then address how supplementary basic writing classroom spaces such as the thirdspace writing studio recommended by Rhonda Grego and Nancy Thompson (2008) provide a physical and theoretical space in...


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