Queering Student Participation: Whispers, Echoes, Rants, and Memory

Queering Student Participation: Whispers, Echoes, Rants, and Memory

Matthew Cox


Building on Critel’s commonplace of embodiment, this chapter explores the meaning and function of queer participation. In valuing the place of student participation in the writing classroom (and Critel’s work around it), Cox asks how and when LGBT and queer students participate, suggesting through an examination of several case studies that participation is already always a queer activity. He examines instances of LGBT/queer students’ writing work (both graduate and undergraduate) and how they bring LGBT and queer issues into their writing and learning. He acknowledges that dealing with issues of sexuality and orientation in a writing classroom can be tenuous and risky for all involved but argues the effort is important. His study offers practical methods for engaging in such conversations and for expanding our conceptions of student participation.


I always tried to pick the desk in the room that would make me as inconspicuous as possible. Something on the side. Towards the back. Where fewer people could sit behind me and cast mean or suspicious glances at me. I kept waiting for someone to find me out. Figure out I was gay that is. In those years in the early-to-mid 1990s at a large state university (Indiana University Bloomington), I was deep in the closet. Sure, the campus had an active LGBT student organization and, in my last year there, would open the university-sponsored LGBT student center, but I was coming from a small-town background in northern Indiana. I was afraid every move gave me away. Every word pronounced with a slight lisp, every flick of the wrist or hand movement. I was terrified. I dared not bring up who I was in the classroom. I felt safest when I felt invisible.

Now, as an openly gay scholar in the rhetoric and composition community, it is sometimes hard to look back and let myself truly be in those moments again. I worry about forgetting my roots, my past, about losing track of how hard it really was for me and keeping that in my mind when I see where I am today.

Twenty years later, I often wonder how LGBT and queer students are participating (or not participating) in writing-classroom environments. This chapter explores how queer students participate, specifically how they negotiate their queerness in the classroom and in their work in college writing classes. I analyze the work of five students, four LGBT and queer identified, and one straight-identified LGBT student ally. Throughout the piece, I also explore my own memories and stories as both an LGBT student and LGBT instructor and those of Dr. Genevieve (Gen) Critel and her work around student participation more generally.

In her 2012 dissertation titled Investigating the Rhetoric of Student Participation: Uncovering and Historicizing Commonplaces in Composition Studies, Genevieve Critel tells her own story of being a queer student in a writing classroom. She talks about how it was initially easier for her to draw from a combination of real and fictitious events than to address difficult issues (like being queer and her own father’s passing). She describes her own struggle to participate in a first-year writing course in 1999:

I was also constrained in my creation of stories from life experience by my reluctance to come out in class as queer. The summer before the class I had been an intern for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in San Francisco and had done a youth retreat run by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) in Minneapolis. But using either event or any event that occurred when I was in San Francisco or Minneapolis for the subject of a story in class meant either coming out or adjusting the subject enough to cover up my sexual orientation. I couldn't imagine sitting there in my small group, our desks always moved into a circle, and my group reading my essay and finding out I was queer. Though I was perfectly willing to write such an essay directly to my instructor, the idea of being present to watch my peers read my story and discover my identity was not something I could bring myself to do.

Curiously, at the time I was the president of a GLBT student organization on campus. And, the same semester I spoke at a coming out day rally, gave quotes to the student newspaper for articles, and was generally one of the more “out” students on campus. But with the intimacy of that small, basement classroom in the English building, the desks always arranged in one big or many small circles, and the personal nature of the writing, I just couldn’t do it. In asking our students to participate in the classroom, we are often asking them to be vulnerable, even in the most mundane or impersonal of tasks. (171-72)

Gen smartly brings in the issues of place and space as they affect an LGBT or queer student’s ability to be open and honest. Classrooms spaces do often feel constrictive and invasive in ways that make students want to hold back. She additionally explores the ways embodiment affects participation when she states in that same work, “The embodiment of participation is complicated by difference—race, gender, nationality, dis/ability, class—all play a role in the representation of student and teacher bodies in the classroom” (168). The intersectionality of the bodies students bring into the classroom is often one of the only things that seems off-limits to students to grapple with and open up about and yet it’s the one thing that often holds them back the most from becoming more honest, effective writers and communicators.

[Go to "Defining Queer and Situating Participating"]