A Tool of Queerness? Queerness and the DALN




What might queerness—as an epistemological and ontological concept untethered from sexuality and gender—and the DALN offer to the discipline of composition studies? I contend that the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives is both a queer and queering archive for classrooms and research. The underlying structures and implicit values of the DALN are queer in that they simultaneously push against and embrace dominant binary values that shape archives, archival research, and literacy. The DALN’s structure and values surf between the values, structures, and conceptions of conventional archives and Archives 2.0 (technologically-enhanced archives), embracing a queer middle ground that values movement and both/and. Instructors and students may use the DALN to better understand conventional binary values of archives (restriction/openness, impersonalness/personalness, expert-direction/self-direction) and how they manifest in archival spaces, classrooms, and research. These binary values normalize and privilege particular configurations of archives and classrooms, including when, where, and how archives and the personal appear (or don’t) in composition classrooms and research. The DALN may be used to expand understandings of what archives and literacy can be, what archives and literacy look like, how archives and literacy are used, and who/what are preserved in archives or who is considered an expert. I argue the DALN may be used in classrooms to meet practical and institutional goals for composition courses as well as meet the personal, philosophical, and intellectual goals of instructors, students, and researchers.


Archives have the power to privilege and to marginalize. They can be a tool of hegemony; they can be a tool of resistance. They both reflect and constitute power relations. —Terry Cook and Joan M. Schwartz (2002)
Queer archival practices… are nontraditional, anti-institutional, and ephemeral. They challenge basic understandings of what counts as evidence and where and how… experiences can be represented. —KJ Rawson (2012)

Archives are not just repositories but complex histories of activities, cultures, memories, and sociocultural values. When archives 1 is used to identify a collection such as the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN), the term’s baggage impacts how that collection is understood. The DALN is a typical archives in that it is a complex repository of histories and values, but I contend it is an unusual and queer/ing archive: it preserves first-person stories of everyday people who may contribute independently of DALN representatives, and contributors determine what literacy means and looks like and what topics will be covered. As Rawson (2012) argues, queer archives “challenge basic understandings of what counts as evidence and where and how… experience can be represented” (p. 239), and I argue that this quality makes queer archives especially fruitful for classroom use. Students and instructors alike can engage with DALN as researchers, curators, and subjects, honing and circulating their own literacy expertise through engagement with the DALN. Unlike most archives, the DALN allows ordinary people to take control of their archival experience and become part of the history and legacy of literacy.

I argue that the DALN is an example of 21st-Century, queer archives because it embraces an oscillating path that reflects our complex, multiplicitous, and self-directed technological moment. The DALN surfs between the values, structures, and conceptions of conventional archives and Archives 2.0 (technologically-enhanced archives), embracing the queer middle ground that values both/and. As Comer and Harker (2015) note, “the DALN is shaped by tensions” that “resist easy access,” and I argue that these tensions are how the DALN navigates and moves between the binary values that surround archives (and literacy). This movement and these tensions can make it difficult to engage with the DALN, but they are central to the DALN’s queerness and its malleability as a resource.

Further, the usefulness of the DALN’s position as an queer archive reflects the archival turn in composition studies more broadly. Within composition studies, the “archival turn” in the field is generally traced to the May 1999 issue of College English, which was dedicated to archives and archival research (see Comer & Harker, 2015; Gaillet, 2012; Ramsey, Sharer, L’Eplattenier, & Mastrangelo, 2010). In general, the archival turn has concentrated on preserving, reimagining, and adding to the histories of the field as well as looking to spaces outside of the field for inspiration and insight into composition, its histories, and its praxis. The DALN, although not developed until nine years after the College English issue, could be considered part of the archival turn in the field because composition scholars have been a driving force in its development.

However, for the most part, this archival turn has not made archives themselves the subject of the scholarship but instead has focused on archives’ contents. My goal here, and my contribution to composition’s archival turn, is to examine archives qua archives as a way to better understand their underlying values. In particular, I am interested in how the DALN, as a public archive of composition and literacy  studies, might help us understand queer values and the possibilities of queerness for classrooms and pedagogy.  My goal is to take a queer view of archives, literacy studies, and pedagogy as a way to open up the possibilities for literacy narratives, archival research, and composition classrooms, expanding established knowledge and creating new knowledge.

The DALN fits into the conversations (and conventions) about personal narratives and archives already present in composition studies and archival studies but also pushes against those conversations (and conventions), helping demonstrate its position as queer/ing archive. The DALN provides a space for scholars, teachers, students, and others to not only research literacy practices and values but also create and circulate literacy-focused personal narratives and knowledges specifically for an archive. In the process, ordinary people shape the knowledges and stories of literacy and the role and goals of archives.

In this chapter, I explore the dominant values underlying archives in order to better understand how the DALN might function as a “queer influence… [to foster] new ways of thinking about the archive, including new practices of research and exhibition” (Cvetkovich, 2012), in archival spaces broadly and within composition studies and composition classrooms more narrowly. Queerness (and queer values), according Sedgwick, lives in the “open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” (1994, p. 8). Understanding the values that underlie archives reveals not only the realities of archives (both in general and in particular) but also how they might be a “tool of resistance” and/or a “tool of hegemony” (Cook & Schwartz, 2002). Particularly important for this project is how archives such as the DALN might be a tool of and for queerness, and I use this chapter to ask what it might mean and look like if we consider the DALN to be a tool of/for queerness in college classrooms and writing pedagogy.

This chapter unfolds in two major waves: analysis of archival structures and values, including queer archives, and discussion of how the DALN fits/doesn’t fit within that category, followed by exploration of how the DALN might be useful and productive for the work of writing classrooms, based on instructor feedback gathered in an open-ended questionnaire. Thoughout, this study evaluates the foundational values of archives that shape everyday archival structures, realities, and expectations, and how archives and their values appear in our classrooms. 

The DALN and Me: A brief and queer personal literacy narrative
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself
(I am large, I contain multitudes).
   —Walt Whitman (1855)
The DALN contains multitudes of not just personal stories but perspectives, experiences, and knowledges, many of which contradict each other, and sometimes the contradiction appears within a single narrative. I think this is why, from the moment I was introduced to the DALN, it spoke to me—not a specific narrative per se, but the archives as a whole. It was like academia and communities and literacy had a nerdy love child and the DALN was it. I was in love.

Sitting down to listen to and gather people’s personal stories invigorates me because it combines the things I enjoy most: sharing and learning about people, their histories, knowledges, and the identities and communities that they claim. After I had worked at collection events and uploaded a few dozen narratives, I began to realize that I connected with the DALN because both the it and personal literacy narratives seemed queer to me—not queer in that they are about LGBT people or culture, but queer as in peculiar and unusual, as in pushing against established binaries and cultural values. 

Queer has everything to do with world orientation, with epistemological orientation, with social and political orientation; queer is often more about values than personal sexual or gender practices. For me, the DALN and its narratives are queer because they can potentially highlight and challenge normative binaries and expectations for academic (especially composition) resources, archives, and the role of and contexts of personal storytelling. The DALN reminds me of Whitman’s contradictory multitudes: a space when anyone from anywhere can share their personal stories with the public, where contradictory ideas and experiences can and do exist side by side without  privileging one thing over another. To me, this both/and disruption of binaries is the essence of what it means to be queer, what queer values enacted could be.

Queerness, which has been so central to my life and intellectual development, has helped me explicate how and why the DALN could be a useful resource for expanding broader understandings of archives, composition pedagogy, and fostering inclusivity and diversity. For a long time, I had been trying to force myself and my research into a mold that I thought would be widely acceptable and understood without much controversy, and in my mind, this meant it must be decidedly less queer. I suppose this is because “Queer is not a neutral term” (original emphasis, Pinar, 1998, p. 3); when I use queer, I mean unconventional and at times even “oppositional, fragmentary, transgressive” (Rallin, 2008). I am not using queer simply as a substitute for gay and lesbian or LGBT (see Ahmed, 2006; Alexander, 1999a, 1999b; Butler, 1990, 1993; Halberstam, 1998, 2005, 2011; Rallin, 2008; Sedgwick, 1990, 1994, 2012; Vocat, n.d.).

My project with the DALN is not about queer people or even gender or sexuality, but about the potential of queerness in the DALN and queer approaches to the classroom. Luhmann (1998), following the work of Britzman, argues if “queer pedagogy… is foremost concerned with a radical practice of deconstructing normalcy, then it is obviously not confined to teaching as, for, or about queer subject(s)” (p. 51). I argue that the DALN provides one way to bring queerness and queer values into our classrooms in productive ways. Instructors, students, and researchers may use the DALN to interrogate value systems and sociocultural norms and the impacts of these on spaces and concepts such as archives,

Jacqueline Rhodes (2004) in “Homo Orgio: The Queertext Manifesto” claims that “to identify or come out as [queer] is to resist the connection between” signifier and signified (p. 388). In the case of the DALN, using a queer approach to understand the DALN helps disrupt the signification of “academic,” “archives” and “literacy,” opening up the possibilities for understanding what these terms and ideas might mean and look like to different people in different contexts. Plummer (2005) argues, “In general, ‘queer’ may be seen as partially deconstructing our own discourses and creating a greater openness in the way we think through our categories” (p. 365). To queer something is to critically question the traditional frameworks and epistemologies we use to interpret and explore the world around us. The DALN functions both as a queer resource with implicit structures and values that embrace all sides of dominant discourses and binaries, and I argue that it functions as a resource that can be used by instructors and students to queer academic spaces and subjects. These queer possibilities are why I fell so hard for the DALN.

In working with the DALN, I am returning to older understandings of queer as complex and unexpected as well as using queer as a heuristic to understand personal literacy narratives and the DALN in academic spaces. Like Kumbier (2014), “I use queer as an adjective and a verb” (p. 3). As an adjective, I am using queer to describe the content, structure, and processes of the DALN. Kumbier argues:

As a verb, [queer] suggests disruptive, transformational, or oppositional practice designed to challenge normalizing systems and structures… [my] use of queer is informed strongly by queer activist discourses, and somewhat (but much less so) by scholarship in queer theory… [and my] understanding of queer… emphasizes the oppositional, unruly, and coalitional aspects of queer thought, action, and identification. (2014, p. 3,4)
Like Kumbier, I bring my personal understandings of and experiences with queer and queerness (as a personal and community identity and value system) to bear on how queer can function as the guiding concept for my work with the DALN. Through this process, I am demonstrating the ways in which the personal can be productively wrapped up in the academic and vice versa.

I celebrate the queerness of choosing both/and instead of either/or. My work is a celebration of the personal, a celebration of queerness, a celebration of contradiction, a celebration of the multitudes Whitman references. It is a song of myself and a song of the thousands who have contributed to, explored, and used the DALN.

Thinking about structures and values: What are archives and their values?

At the heart of this project is definitional and metaphorical understanding: what are the values of archives, and how might those impact how the ways we research in and about, engage with, and teach about and with archives (including the DALN) in our classrooms? When does something become archives or archival research, and when is it something else? Who decides what is or is not an archives, and what is the definition being used to measure whether something qualifies as an archives? And ultimately, does it even matter?

I argue that this all matters because archives are powerful; they provide evidence of events, perspectives, lives, and connections. Archives are a feedback loop of power: they preserve certain stories and materials and in that process, grant power to the knowledge and truths in the materials—and the preservation of the knowledge and truth claims justifies their power. Definitions of archives and archival work (and underlying values) constitute the limits of what we can imagine for archives in composition scholarship and classrooms. I argue that the DALN helps push those limits beyond conventional understandings and values.

Implicit values are central to understanding how different types of archives exist, function, and reinforce a range of values and beliefs about archives, their purposes, and their contents. Values are mapped onto everyday structures, from the physical (e.g., buildings) to virtual (e.g.. computer interfaces), and these values are most often implicit (Hunter, 1997). This is true for archives, where discourses and structures are seeped in binaristic values, reflecting (both overtly and tacitly) the perspectives and values of those who maintain and control archives. Skinnell (2010) argues, “the structure of the archive…determines what can be archived, and therefore the rhetorical uses to which the contents may be put.” Archival structures reveal archives’ implicit values—even if those engaging with (or designing) the interface do not “acknowledge or support” such a position (Selfe & Selfe, 1994, p. 481)—including processes of access and use, contribution and accession, and audience and location. Structure impacts what or who can be part of archives, who can access archives, and what can be and what is done with archives and their records.

Exploring the implicit values of conventional and 2.0 archives provides us a way of understanding how the DALN queers those values and structures.  To talk about the structure of archives (or most anything else created by humans) is to talk about the values (and attendant binaries) that serve as the foundation for archives. Exploring and exploiting archival structures, particularly the DALN’s structure and attendant values vis-à-vis conventional archives and values, are ways to (re)consider the role that archives and their knowledges may play in writing classrooms and research.

The Society of American Archivists and archival values

Talking about archives and their values means engaging with The Society of American Archivists (SAA), which establishes the central values and code ethics for archival professionals in the United States. Though most in composition may not have read the SAA’s documents, we still feel their impacts when we research and teach in and about archives. The SAA provides two documents to establish the field’s values: “Core Values of Archivists” (Society of American Archivists Council, 2011) and “A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology” (Pearce-Moses, 2005a). The glossary establishes the values of the SAA by providing definitions or delineations of different terms, including archives. When examined together, these documents provide a more complete understanding of the values central to and shaping the archival profession in the U.S.

“Core Values” stresses the social responsibility of archives and archivists, including “the widest possible accessibility of materials,” by promoting the use of materials through public policy and advocating for the preservation of diverse materials for a range of communities (Society of American Archivists Council, 2011). Despite the seeming openness of the “Core Values” document, the SAA’s definition of archives rests upon expert-direction and restriction. Archival experts (i.e., trained archivists and occasionally librarians) determine what records to preserve and how to describe those records, which are then stored in a particular, often restricted, building or area of a building. The purpose of conventional archives is to maintain materials “as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creator, especially those materials maintained using the principles of provenance, original order, and collective control” (Pearce-Moses, 2005a). Unspoken here are the specific values that such judgments are based on. Who, exactly, is making the judgment of value or usefulness, using what standards, for what communities or groups?

Archives, like history itself, have been controlled by the victors, by those in power, and often to the detriment of less powerful groups because, according to Cook (2000), “Archives traditionally were founded by the state, to serve the state, as part of the state’s hierarchical structure and organizational culture” (p. 18).  Although implicit, these behind-the-scenes, expert-driven judgments impact the values, contents, access, and goals of archives and archival practices. As I detail below, these values are evident through examinations of archival structures. If we are working with archives in our classrooms, we must explicitly name and explore the values and norms archives rest upon.

“I don’t have a very good story”: Downplaying our literacy stories
Generally, when the public thinks of archives, they tend to think of spaces where the experiences, thoughts, and personal effects of famous, rich, and/or powerful are preserved. There is an assumption that only spectacular or extraordinary stories of so-called important people are worth preserving in archives. The DALN, by focusing on ordinary people and their often ordinary stories, expands what an archive might be.
We all have stories that reflect our unique sociocultural positions and provide insight into the sociocultural realities of literacy in our culture, even if we think our own stories are not very interesting. The public might assume that the President of the United States would be someone whose stories are interesting and important enough for preservation in an archive. However, even presidents may think their literacy stories are nothing special. When President Jimmy Carter contributed his literacy narrative to the DALN in 2015, he began by stating, “I am afraid I don’t have a very good story” (Carter, 2015; included below in Fig. 1). This belief—that one’s own story is boring or not very interesting—seems to be common, whether one is a Dungeon and Dragon-playing Air Force veteran (Williams, 2013) or a former President of the United States and award-winning humanitarian.
Figure 1. Image of President Jimmy Carter's literacy narrative.
Figure 1. Image of President Jimmy Carter's literacy narrative. [Text transcript | PDF]

Carter, like Eric Williams (2013) and countless others, sees little that is special or unique about his literacy experiences, despite being a farmer, a governor, President of the United States, university faculty, author of dozens of books, a human rights activist, founder of the Carter Center (which has helped improve the health and political state for millions), and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. 

Reading his brief narrative reveals a range of literacy stories left untold, from his parents’ motivations for wanting him to attend college and whether his siblings were also pushed to attend college, to the types of books he read around the dinner table, to his writing processes over time from his first to his 29th book. He does not seem to see himself or his literacy experiences as noteworthy. Though Carter held one of the world’s most powerful offices and has had a high profile life as a humanitarian, which certainly required a large degree of literacy practices, this part of his life is not discussed in his brief narrative at all. 

Exploring narratives such as Carter’s and Williams’s might help students better understand the ways literacy (and its values) is at once central and invisible in lives both famous and unknown as well as challenge overall understandings of what archives are and can be.

Conventional Archives, Archives 2.0, and Values

Evolutions in technology and social and cultural norms have meant emphasis on different aspects and values of archives, but much of the literature in library and archival studies and in composition studies still tends to position archives and archival materials—including Archives 2.0—in conventional ways (Theimer, 2009, 2011; cf. Burton, 2005; Donahue & Moon, 2007; Kirsch & Rohan, 2008; Ramsey, Sharer, L’Eplattenier, & Mastrangelo, 2010).  Conventional archives’ content and structures are generally shaped by gatekeepers: libraries and librarians; professional archivists and professional archival organizations; and institutional representatives and institutional goals, mission, and values. 

Cook and Schwartz (2002) argue, “Archives validate our experiences, our perceptions, our narratives, our stories… Users of archives (historians and others) and shapers of archives (records creators, records managers, and archivists) add layers of meaning, layers which become naturalized, internalized, and unquestioned” (emphasis added, p. 18). Cook and Schwartz’s categorization of users focuses on expert gatekeepers (historians and researchers) who interpret materials for a larger and often more public audience and demonstrate that expert vetting of people, materials, and access is central to archives, determining the who, what, when, and how of archives’ contents, access, and use. In other words, within conventional practices and studies, archives are about restriction, experts, and expertise.


As noted earlier, the archival turn in composition is generally understood as beginning with the May 1999 issue of College English. More recent work from the past decade can help us understand composition’s general conception of archives, which is quite similar to archival studies’: Local Histories, 2007; Beyond the Archives: Research as a Lived Process, 2008; Working in the archives: Practical Research Methods for Rhetoric and Composition, 2010; and College Composition and Communication’s September 2012 special issue on “Research Methodologies.” For the most part, composition’s archival concern has been uncovering and emphasizing forgotten or buried experts and histories of composition studies as a way to shift understandings of the field’s foundations and growth (Donahue & Moon, 2007; Kirsch & Rohan, 2008; Ramsey, Sharer, L’Eplattenier, & Mastrangelo, 2010). These edited collections and the special issue provide insight into the complexities of archival work being done by rhetoric and composition scholars, but at the same time, archives themselves are positioned as relatively stable and straightforward. The purpose of the collections and special issue (like the purpose of much archival-focused scholarship in composition and elsewhere) is not to define and explore archives as archives but to explore how they fit into the established research methodologies of the field and provide evidence and inspiration for research. In the process, archives (and their values) are indirectly defined and that definition is based on the values and structures that originate in archival studies, leaving the primary values of conventional archives originating in archival studies in tact.

Following work in composition studies, the SAA, and Cook and Schwartz (2002), I argue that the primary values of conventional archives (and including many Archives 2.0) are restriction, impersonalness, and expert-direction. These values exist in an often unspoken binary tension with their (perceived) opposites (see Table 1).

Table 1: Binary values shaping archival structures and content.
Restriction Openness
Impersonalness Personalness
Expert-direction Self-direction
The binaries (restriction/openness, expert-direction/self-direction, impersonalness/personalness) manifest in archives many ways, and for conventional and archives 2.0, the emphasis is on the left side of these binaries. Among archival professionals, there is still a concern with “tightly controlled access to the files” (Nelson, Shaw, Deromedi, Shallcross, et al., 2012, p. 15), including the processes of storage and use. Conventional archives include many university and state archives (e.g., The Ohio State University Archives; State Archives of Ohio), and many of the archives featured in the popular celebrity genealogy television shows Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots (see Table 2 for conventional archives’ values). In nearly every case, conventional archival spaces are not open for anyone to explore but instead feature a range of restrictions, whether physical, intellectual, or credential.

Table 2:
Values in Conventional Archives*
Values=Gray; Structures=Green

  • research and academic-based
  • credentialed or otherwise qualified researchers
  • Materials must be accessed in institutional spaces.
  • Researchers must remain onsite to complete work.
  • Experts (archivists, librarians, subject experts) determine who may access.
  • Experts determine how materials may be used.
  • limited to items deemed worthy by experts
  • tend to be paper-based
  • Assessment and description of materials are done by experts rather than the creators or contributors.
  • Contributions tend toward transactional and hierarchical  materials (financial statements, meeting minutes, official communications, etc.).
  • Experts determine what is worthy of preserving and describing.
  • All descriptions are provided by experts rather than by contributors.
  • located in official spaces
  • designed for those familiar with such spaces
  • Archives are housed within relatively impersonal institutions such as universities, research libraries, and governmental spaces
  • Only certain people have access to university libraries and official/governmental spaces.
  • Experts determine appropriate audience.

*Examples: The National Archives; The Byrd Polar Research Center Archival Program; The Ohio State University Archives.  See: Jenkinson, 1937; Schellenberg, 2003; Society of American Archivists; Stapleton, 1983

Archives 2.0

So what of archives that are available online? Discussing modern archives means engaging with a variety of technological changes and issues, such as born-digital content and Web 2.0 resources and functions such as social media, cloud computing and storage (Evans, 2007; Monks-Leeson, 2011; Nelson et al., 2012; Theimer, 2011). Archives 2.0 are commonly theorized as conventional archives-plus-Web 2.0—that is, online archives containing digital surrogates of physical archival materials, sometimes with Web 2.0 usability such as commenting, saving materials into a favorites list, and so on (Manoff, 2004; Monks-Leeson, 2011; Theimer, 2011). 

In common practice, most Archives 2.0 are the digital presence of physical archives, such as online components of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the U.S. National Archives, where nearly all of the online records are digitized surrogates of physical items held in relatively restricted buildings. Other examples of Archives 2.0 include Ancestry.com, ONE Archives, and QZAP: Queer ‘Zine Archive Project, which contain digital surrogates with occasional born-digital content and a range of interactive Web 2.0 features. Ultimately this means that most Archives 2.0 rely on the values of conventional archives, maintaining similar structures and processes (see Table 3).

Table 3: Values in Archives 2.0*
Values=Gray; Structures=Green

  • online, so publicly accessed and used
  • restricted to those with computer access and technological literacy
  • Access can happen on user’s time.
  • No intermediary stands between user and records.
  • Appropriate credentials are occasionally required.
  • Experts play a much smaller role in access/use due to the accessibility of the internet.
  • Experts (archivists, librarians, subject experts) determine what materials are accessible.
  • often restricted by copyright
  • similar to conventional archives, of which these are digital surrogates
  • As in conventional archives, assessment and description of materials are done by experts rather than creators or contributors.
  • As in conventional archives, contributions tend toward transactional and hierarchical  materials (financial statements, meeting minutes, official communications, etc.).
  • As in conventional archives, experts determine what is worthy of preserving and describing.
  • As in conventional archives, descriptions are provided by experts rather than by contributors.
  • on the web for general public, behind password-protected walls, or on university websites
  • Users are able to access materials in private, personal spaces.
  • Appropriate credentials are occasionally required.
  • Materials are available to a potentially wide audience if materials are not behind paywall or password-protected walls.
  • Both paywall and password protection are determined by experts.

* Ex: Ancestry.com, QZAP: Queer ‘Zine Archive Project; Mass Observation Archive; ONE Archives; See: Eichhorn, 2008; Hui, 2013; Monks-Leeson, 2011; Theimer, 2009, 2011. Although popular collections such as YouTube may be used as archives by some users and groups, it is not necessarily an archives (i.e. it is not used for historical preservation or items of enduring value but rather as a type of cloud storage). Unlike most collections considered Archives 2.0 in the archival world, one may delete contributions and remove one’s account from YouTube whereas Archives 2.0, like conventional archives, are focused on long-term preservation and do not allow items to be removed.

Conventional archival structures and practices tend to be on the left side of the value binaries, privileging restriction, impersonalness, and expert-direction. Archives 2.0’s values alternate somewhat between the restriction/openness and impersonalness/personalness because their digital existence means that there is inherently a larger degree of openness and personalness to access/use, contribution/access, and audience/location. At the same time, though, experts play a major role in determining what and who are excluded and included in archives and what will be widely available.


At a basic level, the DALN defies standard archival theories, practices, and values because the contents of the DALN are not natural accumulations of organizational or institutional records, as archival scholars and theorists describe archives’ contents (Hunter, 1997; Jenkinson, 1937; Schellenberg, 2003). Hunter (1997) claims, “Archival materials… are never explicitly created—no one in an institution says, ‘Today I think I’ll create some archival records.’ Archives grow organically as part of the creation of record in the normal course of an institution’s business” (p. 8). When narrators share a narrative with DALN, they are deciding to “create some archival records.” Individuals consciously create media for archival storage/retrieval, and these records are individually authored (though occasionally multi-authored), personal stories rather than records of institutional workings.

Further, unlike conventional and archives 2.0, the focus of stories is self-determined within the large category of literacy as defined by the narrators as are the metadata (i.e., finding aids). The purposefulness and personalness—the knowledge that what one is creating is intended for an archives and is based one’s own personal experiences—defies both conventional and Archives 2.0 values and practices. These practices and values align with queer understandings of archives as noted by Cvetkovich (2012) and others, such as contributors to Make Your Own History, edited by Bly and Wooten (2012), who argue that queer archives rely on a valuing and conscious preservation of ideas, experiences, and knowledges. The following section explores queer archives and their values as they relate to the DALN.

Preserving queer/ing stories
The DALN’s tag line, “everybody has a literacy story,” emphasizes that everyone has a story, no matter how small. This unofficial mission has shaped the DALN, and in some ways it has become a space for less visible literacy stories, experiences, and communities (for examples, see the collections from Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, African-American professors, Black Columbus, and so on). 

One way I have engaged with the DALN is by soliciting narratives from communities I am/have been a part of as well as communities and identities that are not always visible or heard in their own words in the mainstream. On my end, this has been a queer act, a conscious and purposeful preservation of particular communities’ and individuals’ experiences and worldviews.
Some of the places where I have set up a recording booth and some communities I have focused on: the annual TransOhio and Allies Symposium; the International Drag King Community Extravaganza (IDKE); Glamarama (burlesque craft and skills event); GED graduations/graduates; on the street at the Short North Gallery Hop (monthly arts event) outside of Stonewall Columbus LGBT Center; feminist entrepreneurs (as part of the Columbus Bicentennial collection effort, which also included narratives from street performers, other entertainers, and more); and LGBTQ activists and leaders, especially LGBTQ people of color. My goal has been to help ordinary and extraordinary people preserve their personal and community histories, stories, and to better understand how literacy shapes different communities and identities. In many ways I see these groups as queering dominant narratives and binaries shaping our identities at almost all levels, including narratives and binaries of literacy.
Exploring what the margins know, think, and how they interact with the centers (hooks, 1984) and exploring the double (or triple or quadruple) consciousness (DuBois, 1994) of marginalized communities through literacy narratives can provide insight into how some individuals and groups make sense of powerful institutions that shape literacy practices and values, such as schools, churches, families, and so on. 

Minnie Bruce Pratt in S/He (1995) claims “the institutions of power are based, at least in part, on controlling difference… No wonder we may feel there is safety in moderation, in assimilation, in a ‘normal’ expression of [identity]. But moderation means ‘to keep within bounds.’ Inside whose boundaries are we living?” (p. 20). Though I have been concerned with the particulars of the Venn diagrams where I and those close to me live, I argue that the DALN can be used to explore the literacy practices, values, and dominant binaries that shape anyone’s overlapping identities, communities, and institutions.

One narrative that sticks out to me is Sile Singleton’s (2010), “Finding Myself,” recorded in the library of The Ohio State University’s African African-American Studies Extension Center as part of the Narratives of Black Columbus collection efforts and course. Her narrative crosses different collections efforts. For example, her narrative uses the keyword IDKE—though it was not collected at IDKE—because she is one of the founders of the organization and conference, and it also includes the keyword BlackColumbus because the narrative was recorded as part of that effort.

Clocking in at nearly 47 minutes long, Singleton’s narrative centers on the intersectionality of being a Black, queer, gender non-conforming, female-bodied, “country” person of faith, and the influences of family, church, and the public on knowledge, reading, education, and sense of self. Despite departures from traditional understandings of literacy as reading and writing alphabetic text, Sile’s narrative is her personal journey as a literate person. Although many narratives explore the intersections of different identities, Singleton’s more explicitly “reflects differences in how gender intersects with subject positioning according to race, ethnicity, class, religion, sexuality, and regional location, as well as… from the varying, sometimes competing interests of specialized institutions and fields of discourses” (Hale, 1996, p. 96). The complete narrative is provided here. Despite the length, after this recording was over, she stated that she forgot to focus in on some experiences and issues that she had planned on exploring during the narrative.

In 2015, Singleton also recorded another narrative, “the first word is love,” again as part of the Black Columbus collection. Though there are overlaps in between the two narratives, the 2015 narrative focuses more on “why [she’s] an activist in the church” (Singleton, 2015). There are numerous other DALN narratives focused on religion and identity, but the one that stands out most to me when thinking about Singleton’s narratives is Alexis Taylor’s (2010).

In that narrative, Taylor discusses her experiences as a voracious reader and writer. Near the middle of her narrative (around the 4:35 mark), she mentions that she was trying to ignore her transgender identity, so she threw herself into her non-trans life, which included her wife and Christianity. Her (now ex-)wife’s church asked her to sign a profession of faith, and this request took her on a year-long journey to better understand Christianity and herself. She says when she was given the paper to sign professing her allegiance to the church and their beliefs, she immediately read it. She says:

[B]eing in construction at the time, I knew contract law—you better read a contract before you sign it. And so I decided I was gonna read what I was signing on for, and I read the entire Bible and could not justify it with myself. So I said, you know what? I need to see where this thing came from. And I spent a year studying early Christianity, I read the Nag Hammadi library, which is the Gnostic scrolls that were kicked out and hidden, and a whole bunch of stuff that led into how the Bible was formed. And that led me to make an informed decision, which, you know, ultimately led to me deciding to transition. Because I found in some of that knowledge the acceptance or the philosophy that it was my job here not to oppress myself the way the church wanted me to, but rather fully realize who I was. You know, that was our jobs as souls on this planet was to be the best soul that you could be, whatever you are, be the best at it. And that all came from that study.

The goal of the church was to bring her into their ideological circle, but the result of studying Christianity was that Taylor came to consciousness as a transwoman (which was at odds with the church). The Bible and other materials made her realize that in order to be the best person she could be on this planet, she had to embrace her true self, her gender identity—even if that meant loss of family and job, and loss of the life and community she had always known.

For both Singleton and Taylor, religion, faith, Christianity, and gender identity play different roles but in both cases, reading, studying, and engaging with these ideas and various literacy artifacts has helped them come to understand themselves, their identities, and faith in more nuanced ways. Both narrators queer what we might know or think we know about Christianity and its role in gender and identity development. Singleton and Taylor may be queer and/or trans-identified, but one does not have to have such an identity in order have queer/ing literacy stories related to faith and gender.

Queer archives and the DALN

Part of my process and purpose of examining the DALN is to explore how the it functions as a queer archive and therefore how the DALN might help us understand and envision queerness as a set of (malleable) values that may provide a different or differently nuanced understanding of the world, including classrooms. Whereas conventional and Archives 2.0 tend to fall on one side of the binary values noted in Figures 2 and 3, queer archives (including the DALN) move between restriction and openness, between impersonalness and personalness, and between self-direction and expert-direction, demonstrating that binary values are not either/or but exist on a continuum. 

Tom Boellstorff (2010) argues that it is impossible to exist outside of binaries completely because we live in a culture seeped in them, but at the same time, no binaries determine our values unilaterally. He claims surfing binaries as “a queer method could recognize the emic social efficacy and heuristic power of binarisms without thereby ontologizing them into ahistoric, omnipresent Prime Movers of the social” (2010, p. 223). Our values are not determined solely by any binary extreme, and surfing binaries recognizes meaning in the movement between oppositional ideas and values rather than taking one side or the other.

In terms of its structures and values, the DALN moves between restriction and openness, between impersonalness and personalness, and between self-direction and expert-direction, demonstrating that binary values are not either/or but exist on a continuum. I argue that this movement reflects lived reality, and as such, the DALN provides a model and a space for exploring how we might surf dominant binaires and values of not only archives but also classrooms and the world more broadly. The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives raises questions of:

  • what archives and literacy are, look like, and how they function,
  • who can access and contribute to archives,
  • what is appropriate for archival preservation and storage, and
  • how we might incorporate archives and archival- and literacy-based research into our classrooms.

Similar to composition scholarship involving archives, scholarship about queer archives tends to focus on the contents and their uses in classrooms and research rather than the archives themselves (see Table 4). Generally, queer archives are conceptualized as archives containing records of LGBTQ lives and LGBTQ cultural productions, with little attention to what it might mean to conceptualize archives that are not exclusively about LGBTQ lives as queer (cf. Archivaria #68, 2009; Cvetkovich, 2003, 2012; Halberstam, 2005; Rhodes & Alexander, 2012). I ask: What are the possibilities that queer values in archives might provide? and What are queer ways of structuring, preserving, accessing, and contributing to archives and “surfing the binaries” of archives and beyond?

Table 4: Queer Archives*
Values=Gray; Structures=Green




  • accessible during specific times and places
  • able to handle or copy materials
  • Materials are available with or without credentials.
  • Materials may be used for any purpose (personal or academic).
  • Experts determine what materials to make accessible to which users.
  • All materials are accessible to all users.
  • any materials related to the archives
  • contributed by any user
  • Materials may include transactional records (organizational minutes, membership roles, etc.).
  • Materials may include personal records (photo collections, journals, etc.).
  • Anyone with materials related to the archives’ focus may contribute.
  • In some cases, description is done by experts.
  • interest in the subject
  • online: available to anyone anywhere with internet
  • physical: located in public, minimally restricted space or in academic or research spaces with more restrictions
  • Archives are designed for expert and lay audiences, often with greater focus on non-experts.
  • Archives may be in traditional impersonal archival spaces but also in unusual spaces such as festivals, homes, online, and more.
  • General public audiences and experts participate.
  • Online and public spaces allowing self-determined exploration.
  • Some academic spaces require expert guidances.
* Ex: DALN; Occupy Archive; Lesbian Herstory Archives; Grassroots Feminism.net; ComFest Archives.  See: Danbolt, 2005; Halberstam, 2005; Cvetkovich, 2003, 2012

When we turn to queer values as a way to understand and interact with archives (particularly the DALN) in our classrooms and research, we can help to disrupt not only our own pedagogies and students’ understandings of archives and archival research but also broader understandings of what it means to engage with and research in and about archives. Perhaps more importantly, we can disrupt the signifier/signified relationship of queerness, demonstrating how queerness is more about values and worldview rather than limited to sexuality and gender.

Queer archival values are about re-imagining the values of archives and what manifestations of those values might look like. Viewing queerness in terms of values helps demonstrate how queerness is not only about sexuality or gender but also about the ways we view and engage with the broader world. Queerness thrives in space of disruption, or the spaces and movement between conventional, official (and powerful) concepts and understandings of the world and alternative, often oppositional understandings (Harper, White & Cerullo, 1990; Renn, 2010; Warner, 1993). Shifting between binaristic values demonstrates that each side, each extreme, is implicated in the other. Further, by exploring queerness as a set of values we disrupt the notion that queerness is only about sexuality or gender and therefore valuable only for certain communities.

Though scholars who engage with queer archives, such as Ann Cvetkovich and J. Jack Halberstam, tend to focus on archives about and for queer people and their cultural productions, Cvetkovich (2012) provides a set of questions for re-examining what is worthy of archives, what should count as archival material, where archives exist, and how they are accessible. In the process of asking these questions, Cvetkovich provides a framework for understanding queer archives as a set of values and an aesthetic rather than only a sexual or personal identity. Cvetkovich (2012) asks:

[W]hat kind of archive [do] we want: a traditional archive with paper documents and records, or one that uses ephemera to challenge what we mean by archive? Inclusion and assimilation into existing archives, or a separate (but equal) archive? Or do we want an entirely different version of an archive, one that perhaps lies outside a bounded spatial enclave? What (and where) is the queer archive? (original emphasis)

In many ways, Cvetkovich’s questions are philosophical and ontological. I believe the questions she poses can be used to push against conventional understandings of archives and composition, literacy, and classrooms. Further, she argues that queer archives and queer archival projects “produce new and unpredictable forms of knowledge including new understandings of what counts as an archive and hence what counts as knowledge” (Cvetkovich, 2012). I argue that the DALN’s structure encourages unpredictable contents, partly due to the self-direction required to contribute and openness and self-definition of literacy. As a result, projects involving the DALN may provide different perspectives on literacy, expertise, identities, research, and archives.

Cvetkovich also provides three tenets that queer archives often rely upon. These tenets correspond to the binary archival values discussed throughout this chapter:

  • creative understandings of subject matter and genre, including the genre of the archive [openness];
  • emotional connections and expressions [personalness and self-direction]; and
  • a degree of visibility and invisibility [openness/restriction; self-direction/expert-direction]. (Cvetkovich, 2012)

Although Cvetkovich is concerned with archives produced or curated by LGBTQ people, the tenets she highlights revolve around the binary values that shape archival discourse, regardless of whether queer people/productions are the focus of the archives. The DALN’s refusal to provide a singular definition of literacy and acceptance of a broad conceptualization of literacy goes against the academic grain and is evidence of how the DALN’s queer structure can lead to queer contents. 

For example, the DALN narrative “From a Drag King to Just a King” (2010) by Adam Apple focuses on his experiences as a drag king performer and his transition as a female-to-male transgender person (see Figure 2 for a screenshot).

Figure 2: Screen capture from Adam Apple’s “From drag king to just a king” (2010).
Figure 2: Screen capture from Adam Apple’s “From drag king to just a king” (2010).

In some ways Apple’s narrative, like Singleton’s 2010 and 2015 narratives, could be considered more of an autobiographical sketch tracing his transgender identity than a personal literacy narrative. (Other examples of narratives that may seem to be more life, community, or family narratives than personal literacy narratives include Shingledecker, 2012; Martin, 2011; Potts, 2013; there are an untold number of narratives that weave personal and family histories and literacy experiences and provide insight into far more than an individual’s literacy practices.) However, his narrative is all about language and learning—how to read gender and identity as inherently multiple and complex in a society that is based on binaristic notions (and language) about gender and identity. In this way, Apple’s narrative is a literacy narrative because it is about reading the body and reading the world. If the DALN restricted narratives to only those that explicitly discussed reading and writing alphabetic text, Apple’s narrative (and Sile Singleton’s and dozens if not hundreds of other narratives) might be excluded because it is based on a queerer understanding of what literacy is and looks like. Letting the concept of “literacy narrative” be self-determined on a personal basis permits an open interpretation of the genre. As stories meant for an archives, self-direction also means openness in understanding the purpose and genre of archives. Additionally, self-directed and personal interpretations of literacy, literacy narratives, and what is appropriate for an archive impact the social meaning of literacy and archives as the narratives circulate in spaces outside of the DALN.

Queer archives beyond sexuality and gender

Figure 3: Screenshot of ComFest’s Archives Committee webpage (ComFest, 2016). Though the committee has a page, the items in the archives are not available online or outside of the weekend-long festival in June. Please note that there has been discussion about collecting oral histories of ComFest and digitizing current records.
Figure 3: Screenshot of ComFest’s Archives Committee webpage (ComFest, 2016). Though the committee has a page, the items in the archives are not available online or outside of the weekend-long festival in June. Please note that there has been discussion about collecting oral histories of ComFest and digitizing current records.

Some examples of queer archives that are not primarily about LGBTQ people and productions include the ComFest Museum and Archive (see Figure 3, a screenshot of museum/archive website), which does not have a digital presence, is available one weekend per year, encourages people to contribute, and allows viewers to touch and interact with materials, most of which is ephemera; and GrassrootsFeminism.net (see Figure 4, a screenshot of the site’s digital archive), a site dedicated to growing a global feminist community and preserving relevant materials (as determined by the users of the site). Both of these examples are not primarily about queer people and their cultural productions, but they are queer due to their structures and values, which alternate between restriction/openness and expert-direction/self-direction.

At its core, the DALN, like the ComFest Archives and Grassroots Feminisms Archives, is a queer archive because its structures and values both embrace and resist the structures and values of conventional and 2.0 archives. I argue that one of the largest tensions—and a barrier to easy access—in the DALN is between visibility (openness) and invisibility (restriction). What or who is visible or invisible, allowed or barred access, and what values are invisible or visible in the DALN as a whole and within individual narratives? Unlike other archives, the tension between visibility and invisibility in the DALN does not rest solely on expert, curatorial decisions or a lack of space (see Davy, 2008).2 The openness of the structure and materials, such as the demographic information form that contributors complete, is a central source of the restriction/openness tension in the DALN (see the DALN website for a copy of the demographic and keyword form); contributors choose which information to provide (or not provide) and provide whatever terms they would like to use to identify themselves and their contribution, from demographic information to keywords.

Figure 4: Screenshot of GrassrootsFeminism.net’s Digital Archives. Some of the topics in the Digital Archives are visible in the dropdown menu. (Digital Archives, n.d.).
Figure 4: Screenshot of GrassrootsFeminism.net’s Digital Archives. Some of the topics in the Digital Archives are visible in the dropdown menu. (Digital Archives, n.d.).

The open-ended, self-determined forms and self-archiving nature of the DALN can be a major frustration for users, especially academics and those performing research, because there is no consistency in terms or the amount of data provided with each narrative. This may also dissuade instructors from using the DALN in the classroom. However, the reality is that archival research is always already difficult. Lawrence Stone claims, “Archival research is a special case of the general messiness of life” (as cited in Blouin & Rosenberg, 2011, p. 132). In other words, archival research is messy regardless of the type of archive because lives are messy. I contend that in the case of the DALN, this messiness is more evident due to its overall openness and self-direction. Unlike most archives, the DALN puts its messiness on display.

Instead of becoming frustrated by the limitations of the DALN, instructors can use it as a starting point to perform rhetorical analyses of archives as archives (including a discussion of research methodologies and expectations in different contexts), power/authority, and the ways in which power, structures, and practices of archives (and classrooms) reveal implicit values and the ways those values play out. Ulman (2012, 2013b) emphasizes again and again that in order for the DALN to be successful (i.e., engaging contributors and users from a range of backgrounds), the process for contributing must be as simple and straightforward as possible, and this places emphasis on the self-direction of contributors: what terms and which stories will make sense for their participation in the project?

As a result of this self-direction, some narratives are virtually hidden because they do not have much or any searchable data such as keywords and demographic information. For example, at the 2010 TransOhio Transgender and Ally Symposium, a woman recorded a narrative with explicit instructions that she did not want any information (such as demographic information, the symposium name or keywords) other than her name attached to her narrative. This means that unless one knows the contributor’s name or the date on which she contributed her narrative, the narrative is practically impossible to find. A user likely would have to know beforehand that the narrative exists in order to do this type of search. However, even if so-called hidden narratives in the DALN are difficult to find, they are not completely impossible to find.

A queer value system recognizes that the play between visibility and invisibility can be important for survival, community, and knowledge production, even if these are not visible or understood by viewers or users. This particular contributor decided to tell her story and place it into a public space, even if no or few people hear it, because it serves a personal, undisclosed purpose. Any DALN contribution, including those that are tagged and have attached demographic information, may never be listened to, just as the records of many archives are never viewed after they are archived. The distinction for the above-mentioned narrator is her personal and conscious choice to limit the visibility of her narrative.

Surfing the binaries

Some DALN narrators position literacy as both an impersonal concept or skill defined and determined by experts and experienced by individuals and as something that can impact and be defined by individuals personally. For example, the DALN narratives from HoratioCraver (2009) and Jody (2009) demonstrate the tensions between personalness/impersonalness, self-direction/expert-direction, and openness/restriction. Both HoratioCraver and Jody position themselves as experts and novices, and traditional literacy as both freeing and constraining. HoratioCraver has struggled with school-based writing and reading, yet is a prolific fan fiction writer who shares her work publicly with other fans. Because the fan fiction is personally important to her (indeed she uses the name HoratioCraver so that members of her online community would be able to identify her narrative), she is able to approach these tasks without hesitation, but the relatively impersonal and expert-directed expectations for many writing classrooms and the emphasis on a correct way of writing has meant she struggles with school-based literacy. Similarly, Jody has a life-long love of reading, detailing the hours she spent at libraries and reading, but has struggled with school-based literacy. For her, school literacy is about restriction to reading and writing tasks chosen by experts (e.g., instructor or department). She sees herself as very literate, but not in the ways that matter in many classrooms.

Both HoratioCraver’s and Jody’s narratives focus on the literacy’s cultural relevancy for their lives. Halberstam (2005) calls for expanding our understandings of what archives are, to move toward understanding archives as theories of “cultural relevance,” and I argue that the DALN can and does function as an archives of composition and literacy’s (multi)cultural relevance.  In A Queer Time and Place Halberstam (2005) argues:
[T]he notion of an archive has to extend beyond the image of a place to collect material or hold documents, and it has to become a floating signifier for the kind of lives implied by the paper remnants of shows, clubs, events, and meetings. The archive is not simply a repository; it is also a theory of cultural relevance, a construction of collective memory, and a complex record of queer activity. (pp. 169–170)
Halberstam, like Cvetkovich, discusses archives produced by and about LGBTQ people, but also points to something beyond personal identity: archives are not just records repositories but complex histories of relevancy, activities, ideals, values, and memories. The DALN functions as a repository of complex and contradictory histories and knowledges of literacy, as experienced on the personal level. In the process, the DALN, as an archives and artifact of composition studies, makes visible the values that underlie composition studies, literacy, and archives in their various forms. Throughout this chapter, I have nodded toward the ways that the DALN might be used in our classrooms and research. In the following section, I further explore how the DALN might provide a space for both our research and our classrooms to examine these ideas and provide an example of a(n implicit) queer value system in action.

The DALN: A queer archives, queer pedagogies for composition classrooms

Comer and Harker (2015) suggest that “the DALN, in itself, offers a fascinating artifact for study.” In part, that has been my goal with this project: to make the DALN itself, as an archives (rather than only its contents), an object of study, with the goal of understanding how its structure and underlying values might impact how some instructors, students, and others understand and engage with the DALN, archives, and literacy narratives as well as what counts as research into literacy.

In addition to examining the DALN through the lens of archives, archival studies, and queer studies, I distributed an open-ended survey to small selection of college compositions instructors (n=9) from around the country who use the DALN in their classrooms. The questionnaire asks specific demographic questions and questions about personal narratives and other literacy resources vis-à-vis the DALN. I believe this type of contextualization may provide a nuanced perspective of the DALN-in-context as well as encourage questionnaire participants to think about the DALN as a resource in and of itself, rather than thinking about only its contents.

My questionnaire consisted of all open-ended questions because I sought to mimic the experience of filling out the DALN paperwork, which contains only open-ended questions. I also used open-ended questions because they generally produce narrative responses, which, according to Reja, Manfreda, Hlebec, & Vehovar (2003) can provide “a much more diversified set of answers…. [and] the possibility of discovering responses that individuals give spontaneously, and thus avoiding the bias that may result from suggesting responses” (p. 166, p.163). Though open-ended questions can result in a lot of (messy) data, the data may provide nuanced insights that could not be anticipated by those administering a questionnaire. 

The results of the questionnaire, though not generalizable to all composition classrooms and instructors, suggest that the DALN provides a space for students and instructors to (queerly) explore, define, research, and ultimately surf the binary concepts and values related to literacy, scholarship, and research. Questionnaire responses confirm my own experiences: the DALN lends itself to queer pedagogies because of its implicit values and explicit structures for contribution and access.

Queer pedagogies

Queer pedagogies focus on exploiting normalizing binaries, many of which are implicit and/or invisible in our day-to-day lives, and this requires reflection and meta-analysis. Shlasko (2005) argues that one of the goals of queer pedagogies is to “critically examine processes of normalization and reproductions of power relationships, and complicate understandings of binary categories” (p. 125). Contextualized, critical reflection by instructors and students is required in order for queer pedagogy to be effective. In working with the DALN, this may manifest in explicit discussions about dominant discourses, values, and the various binaries that shape traditional classroom spaces and dynamics, including our own.

However, examining dominant binaries and power hierarchies is not enough; Luhmann (1998) argues that “a queer pedagogy must learn to be self-reflective of its own limitations” as well (p. 121).  For different classrooms and instructors, the limitations will be different—from students invested in dominant power hierarchies, values, and binaries (and therefore resistant to critiquing binaries), to university/employer restrictions on course content and outcomes, to basic resistance to the word queer regardless of how it is defined or discussed. In other words, though I argue that the DALN is a queer resource and well suited to queer pedagogies, I recognize that others may not not view it in this way or may not be able to articulate or utilize the DALN’s queerness due to contextual restraints.

The Challenges of Queer Pedagogies
I recognize there are challenges to enacting queer pedagogies. As I note, some students are invested in dominant power hierarchies, values, and binaries (and therefore resistant to critiquing binaries); universities/employers restrict course content and outcomes; and there can be basic resistance to the word queer regardless of how it is defined or discussed.

The first two issues—investment in the dominant structures and restrictions imposed by employers and institutions—are more difficult to ameliorate and might not be possible to resolve completely. Nevertheless, it is possible to work with and around the challenges imposed by these limitations. It requires openness, flexibility, and creativity; it requires a queer mindset. For example, some institutions delineate exactly what assignments, prompts, rubrics, texts, and lessons instructors must use. Even with detailed institutional requirements, it can be possible to incorporate  queer ideas and a queer frameworks into a classroom. 

For example, extra credit assignments can be useful for incorporating queerness into classes because most institutions do not have rules or requirements governing extra credit. Another way is to tweak in-class examples and lessons as well as the resources available to students. These may be small, subtle changes, such as using an example or context for a lesson that provides a queer(er) view or approach to the topic at hand by demonstrating the artificiality and necessity of dominant binaires.

Student investment in the status quo and the various institutional constraints shaping classrooms can sometimes be rooted in resistance to queer(ness) as a concept and term. Recognizing this resistance is key. We can help resolve some of the apprehension through the ways we introduce and deploy queer concepts and pedagogies. Overall, pedagogies do not (typically) explicitly name themselves. Someone using a progressive or conservative pedagogy generally will not announce, “I use a progressive/conservative pedagogy”; the progressiveness or conservativeness is implicit. The same is true for queer pedagogies: you do not have to name your pedagogical orientation in the classroom in order to deploy it.

To introduce queerness as a method and worldview, begin with a discussion about dominant binary values, with examples of how we are often placed into a false either/or position, where one side of the binary is privileged. Then provide resources and facilitate small and large group discussions about the realities of both/and, and the ways in which binaries rely on the movement and relationship between the extremes in order to have meaning while at the same time movement between the extremes is downplayed (or punished). This could all be done without ever using the term queer, yet would provide a framework for queer approaches to some of the pressing and dominant binaries shaping our classrooms.

But the next step could be introducing resources about queer values, aesthetics, and knowledge that emphasize or otherwise illustrate that queerness has a value that is not necessarily tied to sexuality or gender (a couple possible resources include Rallin, 2009; Vocat, n.d.; see references for others). This might even include historical contextualization of queer, which may be especially important for many students who may have never heard the term used to refer to anything other than gender and sexuality.

Wittgenstein said, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” There are great benefits and risks in naming one’s identity, worldview, or orientation. There is a danger of erasure in not naming queer and not acknowledging that queer values originate in particular communities. But just as queers often make strategic choices to be invisible based on self-preservation, ease of movement, and safety, so too must instructors and others.

The DALN in classrooms: A questionnaire

Overall, questionnaire results reveal that the DALN can be used by instructors and students to meet a wide range of pedagogical, institutional, community, and personal goals, from academic research and analysis to preservation of community to personal expression. Questionnaire responses reflected the concerns of Branch (1998), Elbow (2002), and others: there is a need to attend to the personal aspects of teaching and learning in order for education (and academic spaces, which tend to be impersonal) to make an impact for both students and teachers—and I argue, based on the questionnaire responses, the DALN is one possible resource that may help teachers and students to surf the binaries of openness/restriction, expert-direction/self-direction, and academic/personal in useful ways.3

The breakdown of course offerings mentioned by questionnaire participants was similar to the responses found by Comer & Harker (2015): first-year writing courses (including honors sections) were the primary site where questionnaire participants used the DALN (n=7) in college classrooms. However, questionnaire responses indicated that the DALN was also used in graduate courses (n=1) and mixed graduate/undergraduate courses (n=2), advanced composition (n=2) and upper level undergraduate courses, including business/workplace writing (n=2), digital media/multimedia composing (n=2), introduction to digital media studies (n=1), global communication (n=1), and English special topics in literacy (n=1). 

More than half of questionnaire respondents (n=5) positioned the process of collecting and telling personal literacy narratives as a service to the composition and literacy studies communities as well as a service to broader understandings of literacy, suggesting that the DALN provides a platform and inspiration for service-learning and other community-focused pedagogies. Two participants, Harold and Karen, specifically noted that their DALN-focused courses contained a service-learning component, even if the courses have not been officially designated by their institutions as service-learning courses. Service learning integrates teaching, learning, and community service, emphasizing reflection, civic responsibility, and community collaboration to create meaningful educational and civic experiences. Karen indicated that the DALN lends itself to this type of community-based use because it is so focused on communities and literacy-in-context (Karen, 2014, personal communication).

Responses discussing service-learning justified the openness of the questionnaire. The DALN is used in ways both anticipated and unanticipated, and if I had not provided an open text box for participants to supply additional information not explicitly mentioned in the questionnaire, I may not have learned about the service-learning angle that some participants used with the DALN or the DALN service-learning projects and courses that some of the questionnaire participants taught. The openness of the questionnaire allowed the participants to be more self-directed and personal and identify what information and details they felt were most important to them, their students, and their uses of the DALN.

Though questionnaire participants generally did not explicitly position the DALN within binaries, the responses overall highlighted or illustrated binaries that the DALN reflects and resists. For example, in some responses participants focused on the benefits of the DALN’s openness, yet in other responses they also suggested that there be more control or restriction in order to improve users’ and contributors’ experiences. Rather than see the simultaneous calls for openness and restriction as a contradiction, I understand this as evidence of the queerness of the DALN—how it both reflects and resists simplistic binaries—and the queerness of working with it.

Using the DALN to connect our classrooms and communities can provide a queer learning space, allowing us to move between dominant educational binaries such as self-direction/expert-direction, impersonalness/personalness, and restriction/openness as students and community members engage, learn, and reflect on learning, literacy, community, and the power of the personal. 

Though not specifically mentioned by any questionnaire participants, a version of an OSU general education course English 2367 (Literacy Narratives of Black Columbus) has been taught at The Ohio State University’s Department of African American and African Studies Community Extension Center. OSU undergraduates, graduate students, and local community members learned side by side, eventually collecting narratives from subsets of the broader African-American community such as church elders and musicians. Using the DALN as a way to connect students and the communities in which they live is a way to bridge between the classroom and the public, queering popular understandings of when and where teaching, learning, and knowledge production take place, and who has the right to claim authority and expertise. Teaching university courses (for credit) in the community in a community center with a mix of traditional undergraduates, graduate students, and community members is pretty queer. The DALN’s valuing of openness, personalness, and self-direction makes it an especially useful resource for queer learning spaces because it can be used to disrupt and exploit power hierarchies that govern educational spaces.

Ultimately, my questionnaire participants revealed that there are many ways to honor their own, other scholars’, their students’, and disciplinary expertise, and the DALN was one resource for doing so. According to questionnaire responses, the DALN’s structure—its personal, open, self-directed nature—provides advantages as well as disadvantages for users and classroom application. The tensions between personalness and academic (which manifests as impersonalness) were also evident in Laura’s questionnaire responses. When asked “What role, if any, do personal stories play into your understanding of the following… literacy, your classes/courses in terms of content (readings, lesson plans, informal and formal activities, examples/models, research projects, assignments, research)?” Laura responded, “Personal stories of others or my own play a vital role in helping connect with and relate to subject matter such as literacy, course content, and research. Understanding only the theory without real application and stories can be meaningless” (2013, questionnaire). For Laura, personal stories had the power to illuminate relatively impersonal academic work and make it more meaningful for all involved.

However, her response to the question, “How do you introduce and describe the DALN and literacy narratives to your students?” did not reflect the personal aspect of the DALN. Laura said,  “I… explain the DALN as a nation-wide [sic] database of literacy narratives intended for use by academic researchers. I stress that… the database is publicly available, though intended for academic use” (emphasis added, 2013, questionnaire). By stressing researchers and academic use, Laura placed the DALN’s value squarely in the academic, expert realm, which seemed to obscure the non-academic or personal use and significance of the DALN. At the same time, as noted above, in her other responses, Laura emphasized the importance of personal experiences and knowledges for understanding literacy. So although Laura did not explicitly identify the binary of academic/personal, her responses reveal that she surfs between these binary concepts in order to understand and use the DALN. An instructor could point to the tensions between personal, impersonal, academic to explore what it means and looks like to say yes to both/and.

The DALN’s queerness—the ways in which its structure facilitates surfing between various binaristic values—could allow it to become an invaluable resource for teaching composition and literacy (and related research). As 21st-Century education becomes more digitally-based and moves more and more to online spaces, with miles (and even countries) separating instructors and students from one another, the DALN’s open access and self-directed nature provides one way to engage students and instructors across the miles. The rise of both online education and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) requires resources and projects that are accessible to all students, regardless of how far flung they may be, and the DALN could be one of the resources that composition instructors turn to for their online courses, including MOOCs. The DALN is well positioned for online courses due not only to its open and accessible nature but also to the range of resources the DALN website provides. In some ways online education tends to be more personalized and personal than traditional classroom-based education (McKee, 2010), though MOOCs, with hundreds or even thousands of participants, can provide a less personal experience than the conventional lecture hall. Perhaps the DALN could queer online education—MOOCs especially—by providing a public and academic space for exploring and sharing personal knowledges and experiences. 

Practically, then, instructors can use the DALN and its contents to meet a variety of goals, and the structure of the DALN provides opportunities for users to inhabit a range of positions in the research and composing processes. One questionnaire participant, Harold, contended that the DALN could be used to help students not only “serve their communities and learn about literacy,” but also teach about and practice qualitative research, such as “conduct[ing] oral history field work [and] writ[ing] about primary materials in a research/writing class” (2013, questionnaire). Other participants, such as Brian, argued that using the DALN in their classes provided the opportunity for students to take on the role of researchers, informants, and writers all within a single class. Brian said that he has tried to “emulate the DALN ‘life cycle’ on a smaller scale: going from the submission phase, to the collection phase, and finally to the research phase seemed tidy… it made sense to have my students play these different roles so that they could consider literacy from multiple angles” (2013, questionnaire). Users and contributors can use their own self-direction for exploring and understanding the DALN and so too can student researchers.

In many ways, student and teacher movement between different subject positions can help disrupt the teacher-student hierarchy by placing more emphasis (and value) on students’ (non-expert) ideas, interests, and knowledges. The ability to use one resource, such as the DALN, to inhabit different subject positions within a single course or project is queer; in a majority of classrooms, students are learners and perhaps researchers, but taking on the role of experts and contributors to broader public knowledge is not a standard component of most classrooms.

Perhaps most queer about the DALN is how it can be used to breakdown the perceived gulf between classrooms and the broader world. The DALN, questionnaire respondents indicated, was one way for students to share their personal knowledge and experiences beyond the walls of the classroom and see themselves as a kind of expert and perhaps feel a greater stake in their work with the DALN. Though Beth voiced concerns about having students submit to the DALN due to issues with truly informed consent, she said that students generally enjoy “the feeling that they are contributing their own [personal stories and knowledge] to public knowledge” (2013, questionnaire). Other respondents echoed this sentiment. For example, Sue said that she used the DALN in classes because it “provide[d] an opportunity for students to become published themselves, potentially part of someone else’s research into this topic” (2013, questionnaire). Christopher said the DALN “provides an added benefit” to the classroom study of literacy: “after analyzing and engaging with narratives from the DALN they get a chance to contribute to it. There’s no other resource like this with respect to literacy and literacy studies more generally” ( 2013, questionnaire). Sue, Beth, and Christopher contended that when students submit narratives to the DALN, their personal stories become part of the public and academic knowledge on literacy that others may then use to inform their own understandings of literacy. Students rather than teachers become literacy experts using self-direction to shape the content, implications, arguments, and accessibility of their personal DALN contributions.

Based on the questionnaire responses, I argue that the DALN may provide one way to shift the emphasis from instructor and academic experts and expert-direction to the personal expertise, situated knowledges, and direction of selves—students and other so-called non-experts. Though other archives may provide opportunities to curate or create a collection within individual research projects, most archives do not allow any individual to contribute to archives without expert permission and without following strict guidelines. Student use of and contribution to the DALN can help expose the artificiality of the expert/self binary and facilitate movement between experts (teachers, researchers, and scholars) and selves (students and novices). In the process, the binary of expert/self is not dismantled but it is queered. The artificiality of the either/or choice is exposed as false and replaced with the options of both/and and neither.

Uncovering the Values of the Archive

At a basic level, instructors can use the DALN alongside more conventional archives such as University Archives (or State or National Archives) to explore the ways in which archives and archiving are not passive processes, but based on implicit values which determine who and what stories end up preserved for future generations and therefore who are privileged as experts. Additionally, students can use self-reflections to explore the ways in which research and academic work is deeply personal yet de-personalized when it is shared publicly, and more specifically, they can examine how they erase or don’t erase the personalness of their work and the ways in which their intellectual work has been shaped by self- or expert-direction. Further, when instructors use the DALN to draw attention to the structures and values underlying archives, literacy, classrooms, or whatever, students and teachers alike may better understand the power hierarchies, values, and binaries that shape knowledge production and the usefulness of a flexible queer approach that embraces and resists powerful dominant sociocultural binaries.

The DALN blog’s (thedaln.wordpress.com) resource section provides a variety of links and suggestions for instructors, students, and anyone else who desires ways to engage with the DALN and its narratives. The college-level assignments and activities illustrate the ways instructors may use the DALN to navigate between the dominant binaries that have been discussed throughout this project such as academic/personal, expert(direction)/self(direction), and restriction/openness. The DALN’s resources also demonstrate some potential uses of the DALN in classrooms, including qualitative research, multimedia composing, rhetorical analyses, and personal and critical reflection, all of which could be used to facilitate synchronous and asynchronous learning. However, relying on only the activities and resources provided by the DALN would be a disservice to the possibilities for the DALN. Part of my argument about the DALN rests on its flexibility, on its queerness, on its ability to be used differently depending on the self-direction and whims of its users and contributors.

The key to using the DALN to queer classrooms is ensuring that student knowledge and experience are at the center of the intellectual work, regardless of whether these prompts are used for online or face-to-face courses, and truly, that is what I argue is a major (queer) contribution of the DALN: a disruption of the hierarchies that place students and their knowledges below instructors or experts and their knowledges.4 Just as online education challenges traditional notions of education and composition, so too does the DALN. 

The queerness of the DALN and the ways in which it may be used queerly may provide the metaphorical and literal space to re-imagine the relationships between literacy, identity, power, and the dominant binaries that shape archives, literacy, and associated values. I contend that the DALN’s position provides an opportunity for instructors and others to focus “not [on] the correctness or prevalence of one or the other side but, rather, the persistence of the deadlock itself” (Sedgwick, 1990, p. 91).  As this chapter has endeavored to demonstrate, drawing attention to the “deadlock” of dominant binary values—that is, the necessity of both/and can become the basis for for choosing both/and rather than either/or and open up the possibilities for archives, personal narratives, and composition.

Overall, the DALN pushes against the dominant binaries of archives by embracing the queer practice of “surfing the binaries” of both/and. This position provides the room for contributors and users of the DALN to push the connotation and denotation of archives, research, literacy, and even queer, expanding the ways we understand, engage with, and use these spaces, actions, and concepts.

Concluding, but only beginning

Amy Winans (2006) argues, “A queer pedagogy draws attention to the parameters of questioning, thus highlighting the process of normalization as it draws attention to the places where thinking stops” (p. 113). The DALN may be used in our classrooms to:

  1. highlight the implicit values that shape those spaces and related spaces (such as archives);
  2. discover and compare expert-authored and self-authored truths of literacy; and
  3. identify the spaces where our thinking about literacy, archives, research, and classrooms has been stunted.

A queer pedagogy is a “queer studying” (Boellstorff, 2010), and this chapter has been a “queer studying” of the DALN and literacy. Similar to queer theory and queer communities, the DALN, its narratives, and its narrators “borro[w] refashion[n], and retell[l]” (Plummer, 2005, p. 369) dominant and minority narratives about archives, literacy, composition, and identities, helping draw attention to the edges, the contradictions, and the excess of meaning.

The possibilities for the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives are limited (primarily) by the imaginations and desires of those who contribute to and use the DALN. Though it is a digital archives of personal literacy narratives, the small stories shared during a literacy narrative can cover almost any topic or issue, both related and unrelated to literacy. DALN narratives have the potential to disrupt dominant narratives and discourses about literacy, identity, and who has the right (and privilege) to contribute to the public record about literacy because many DALN narratives examine “personal issues of being, becoming, and belonging in contextual and relational analyses of their situated experiences” with literacy (Grace & Benson, 1999, p. 93). Personal contextualization can result in an open interpretation of what literacy is, can, and does for people as well as what is appropriate for archives. The DALN demonstrates the usefulness and power of both/and in academic spaces. Ultimately, due to its queer values, I believe the DALN can help us reimagine the role of archives and literacy narratives in a range of classrooms.


  1. The Society of American Archivists’ glossary notes that using the term archive (without the –s) as a noun is generally disapproved of by U.S. and Canadian archivists, but is commonly used in other English-speaking countries. Archive (without the –s) is used as a noun throughout professional publications, perhaps because many professional publications include scholars and archivists from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and a variety of other countries who write and publish in English.
  2. Space is still a concern, though. For example, in 2011, contributors and field researchers could not upload narratives to the DALN because it had filled the digital storage amount provided by the Ohio Digital Resource Commons.
  3. After initially coding questionnaire responses, I realized that though impersonal has been useful for discussing the expectations for and values of archives and literacy narratives, impersonal is not as useful as the code academic for characterizing questionnaire responses related to teaching and research. Teaching is inherently interpersonal/personal, so impersonalness does not quite fit  When academic work—such as research—is presented or published, research is often as an impersonal, objective process (though composition studies is one field where the personal aspects of academic work tends to be a little more visible). So academic is often related to impersonal though they are completely or always synonymous.
  4. I must mention assessment here: in most classrooms, assessment happens unidirectionally, from instructor to student, with instructors evaluating and grading students and their work. There are ways to disrupt this process as well, such as students and instructors collaboratively developing rubrics and grading schema so that the assessment guidelines reflect the needs and ideas of both students and instructors; and basing grades on an average of instructors’ assessments and students’ self-assessment or peers’ assessments. These methods could be used with or without using the DALN.


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