Stepping Outside the (Straight) Box: Queering Literacy in the First Year Writing Classroom

Molly Ryan



Year Published

First Seen In
The Sandbox

On a late Summer evening in 2022, I finalized the syllabus for my first year writing class: roiling with both blind terror as a new graduate instructor of record, and inquisitive enthusiasm as a budding scholar so passionate about this work. I didn’t know what the path forward held—in fact, envisioning myself at the front of a classroom of twenty undergraduates felt impossibly surreal.

In my graduate work, I’d focused on how the first year writing classroom could become a place of resonant belonging for students. I wanted not only to learn the theoretical foundations of critical pedagogues like bell hooks, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and Carmen Kynard, but to actually practice my own tentative, green pedagogy with commitment to the same values. This meant dousing my fears of what could go “wrong.” I had to fully embrace walking into the room with humble, empathetic kindness and hope my students were willing to meet me in that mutual space. 

It also meant I needed to reconcile my classroom identity with my personal identity.

When I returned to graduate school after a five-year hiatus working in Student Affairs—to the very same department I’d attended as an undergraduate, no less—I found myself confronted with the very real, very unsettling question of how exactly I was going to portray my own queerness. As an undergraduate, I was completely closeted. With little representation of my identity in my coursework, department faculty, or even in my university landscape at large, I divorced my sexuality from my scholarship. My queerness occupied an “underlife,” as described by Robert Brooke,[1] a role that extended beyond the norm of my day to day, that lived outside of my life as a student. I wanted to build a classroom where my students were not only accepted, but encouraged, and allowed, to be their full selves—something I never had.

As I built my assignments and my syllabus, I spent a significant amount of time considering how I wanted to approach the first project in our curriculum: the literacy narrative. I’m glad that our writing program sponsors this option from the outset. First, it introduces students to positioning themselves within their writing, articulating their own experiences inside an academic context that they may be unfamiliar with. Second, it emphasizes consciousness and critical recollection, as well as memory work as method. Third, and this is the essence of this piece: it invites, subtly—even tacitly—students to explore literacy, and ultimately their identity, as something lived, something embraced. 

For me, this prompt also invited an unexpected through-road—I saw an opportunity to situate this project as something queered, something generously “anti-,” something othered from standard literacy praxis. In other words, my first instinct was to take an approach beyond the genre conventions of learning to read and write. Literacy, queered.

Within this thread, the idea of the anti-literacy narrative was naturally curious for me. The longer I theorized my approach, the possibility only grew more prevalent in my mind. This was perhaps due to my own position in a liminal space of personal and professional identity, but more saliently, the anti-literacy narrative—to me—brought metaphorical queerness to the prompt. I felt very “anti” myself—not in that I was inherently against literacy or teaching or the field, in that sense I was all in. But as a queer, unseasoned graduate instructor, there were pieces of me that stood out in anterior contrast to my department, my college, and to my institution at large. Even my desire to teach among my cohort was culturally other. 

I wrestled with how to frame this connection, however. I knew what I was seeing and what I was feeling, but I couldn’t easily articulate how exactly I wanted to introduce it to students. To formulate an anterior approach felt risky. What if I couldn’t support students in this way, or what if I unintentionally asked them to engage with trauma or harm in an unwelcome manner?

A student writing

As I debated in offering the choice to students, I recalled how, in my university’s Theory and Practice of University Writing Instruction course—where we complete the assignments we later ask our students to do ourselves—I was paralyzed by writing about my own literacy. In that course, we explored what it means to define literacy and all the possibilities therein: in scholarly interpretations, in writing across the curriculum (WAC) contexts, even in work from students themselves. Still, despite my extensive English training, despite my intimate relationship with literacy, I couldn’t define it for myself. All I could think throughout the writing process was that I did not fit into the traditional contexts in which literacy is taught or defined. I struggled to the point of pain.

I realized, in completing the assignment myself, my tension and friction with defining literacy was stemming from my own lack of literacy in my identity. I was literate in my undergraduate persona. I knew the academically strong student, with a grasp of how to write and read for a grade. But I was illiterate in my fledgling graduate, and instructor, persona. I was unfamiliar with the queer, passionate, pedagogically invested apprentice who wanted her research to make a real difference in the lives of students. 

This personal revelation pulled me closer to the anti-literacy narrative. While I did not intend, in my inaugural go at teaching, to center my identity explicitly—it wasn’t in my pedagogical plan to say “I’m a lesbian” to my students on the first day of class—in the spirit of Paulo Freire’s critical consciousness or conscientizaçāo,[2] I wondered if approaching the literacy narrative, and the anti-literacy narrative, from a queered angle might allow students to discover a nuanced, evolved sense of literacy for themselves, as I had. Calling back to Robert Brooke, I wanted to open the possibility for students, should they choose to, to explore their literacy beyond their established “student” identity.[3] To do so, I needed to step outside the box. 

Approaches to queering the composition classroom illustrate the significant possibilities, and fluidities, of how this positionality can manifest: Jonathan Alexander indicates how students might find empowerment in their own identities,[4] and Connie Monson and Jaqueline Rhodes argue that “…disrupting regimes of subjectivity and sexuality such that of first-year composition is a critical endeavor, a ‘literacy’ that lies at the very heart of queer composition.”[5] While I did not choose to position the literacy narrative as overtly queer, I instead embraced the queer theoretical thread of otherness, of literacy beyond the conventions of traditional reading and writing.

In the assignment, I asked students to consider what literacy meant to them. Yes, they were welcome to write about their reading and writing—but I invited them to think beyond those bounds, to think about the literacies of who they were. Their hobbies, their passions, their curiosities, all were welcome avenues ready for them to take up. 

To offer the anti-literacy narrative, I expressed within the assignment that students could, should they choose to, write about literacy as something hard and difficult. They might explore literacy as something painful, something complex, something fraught. By opening the possibility of an anti-literacy narrative, I hoped to attend to, or make space for, some of the significant trauma and damage that literacy can carry.[6]This decision to offer an anti-literacy narrative further reflected my own sometimes charged, sometimes uncomfortable moments in my literacy of becoming: my queerness, my scholarly identity, my teacher identity. And, in the spirit of true queering, I placed the option on offer without assertion, without requirement. Students had the option to choose what felt true to them.

We discussed the options in class. I lectured on how rhetorics of literacy can be expansive and rangy, and we did activities to approach literacy from all angles: tied to literacy sponsor[7] experiences, tied to past experiences, tied to their daily experiences—and throughout, I emphasized that allowing their feelings to come forth to the surface was welcomed and encouraged.

To be very clear: I did not know if this would work. I suspected I was just as likely, if not moreso, to get twenty projects on writing and reading, and I was absolutely okay with that. What I wanted was for students to have a choice. I wanted to step out of their way as the instructor, to lay the typical tight-knit college writing prompt to rest, and let them approach this onset project in a way that was honoring of their identity in this moment, that might be tentative, unsure, or imperfect. Because I used a contract-based grading[8]approach, I hoped students would feel comfortable taking a risk, writing beyond their normal conventions, and exploring something new, because I’d made an effort to lower possible fears about a poor grade. 

What resulted from this choice was exhilarating beyond measure. 

Students sitting on a campus studying

My students produced work on every topic from the literacy of adulthood to literacy of family recipes, to literacy of moving from another country, to the literacy of mathematical analytics, to the literacy of swimming and baseball. They incorporated multimodality, using photos of mentors, meaningful places, even their original artwork. So, too, they explored literacies lost. Passions damaged, literacies taken and stolen, moments that were difficult and harrowing.

My students were brave. They made bold moves in grammar and punctuation and word choice (with my encouragement.) They honored their native languages. They departed from conventional stylistic convention to compose in vignettes and dialogue and tactile narrative. They brought forward moments and emotions from childhood to adulthood. They treated this project as a cleansing, transformative opportunity to address their feelings. They courageously examined the intricacies of their relationship—the good and the difficult—to their chosen topic. 

I was humbled, and deeply proud, of their commitment, their trust in me, their ability to see what I hoped they would see: that literacy does not belong exclusively to the gatekept realm of English studies, but that it’s something that belongs, wholly and truly, to them. 

I think back to that evening when I finalized this prompt, so unsure of myself as a teacher, so unsure of whether this was even a good idea. This experience is just one example, of course, but if I could step back into that moment, I’d tell that shaky version of myself to be brave, as my students would later be. To embrace seeing prompts through my queerness, as something other, as something different. That sentiment, too, I believe carries beyond my own experience. Allowing a literacy narrative assignment to be something “anti,” to welcome student agentive interests and enterprises to interpret the definition of literacy, not only introduces tacit queerness into the curriculum, but allows students to feel invited into the space. And having the privilege of fostering that discovery, especially as a new teacher, is a gift I won’t soon forget. 


Alexander, Jonathan, and Michelle Gibson. “Queer Composition(s): Queer Theory in the Writing Classroom.” JAC 24, no. 1 (2004): 1–21.

Brandt, Deborah. “Sponsors of Literacy.” College Composition and Communication 49, no. 2 (1998): 165–85.

Brooke, Robert. “Underlife and Writing Instruction.” College Composition and Communication 38, no. 2 (1987): 141–53.

Dutro, Elizabeth. The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy: Centering Trauma as Powerful Pedagogy. New York: Teachers College Press, 2019.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1970.

Inoue, Asao B. Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom. Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse, 2019.

Monson, Connie, and Jacqueline Rhodes. “Risking Queer: Pedagogy, Performativity, and Desire in Writing Classrooms.” JAC24, no. 1 (2004): 79–91.

[1] Robert Brooke, “Underlife and Writing Instruction,” College Composition and Communication 38, no. 2 (1987): 141–53,

[2] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, (New York: Continuum, 1970), 36.

[3] Brooke, “Underlife,” p. 153.

[4] Jonathan Alexander and Michelle Gibson, “Queer Composition(s): Queer Theory in the Writing Classroom,” JAC 24, no. 1 (2004): p.1,

[5] Connie Monson and Jacqueline Rhodes, “Risking Queer: Pedagogy, Performativity, and Desire in Writing Classrooms,” JAC 24, no. 1 (2004): p. 79–80,

[6] Elizabeth Dutro, The Vulnerable Heart of Literacy: Centering Trauma as Powerful Pedagogy, (New York: Teachers College Press, 2019).

[7] Deborah Brandt, “Sponsors of Literacy,” College Composition and Communication 49, no. 2 (1998): 165–85,

[8] Asao B. Inoue, Labor-Based Grading Contracts: Building Equity and Inclusion in the Compassionate Writing Classroom, (Fort Collins, CO: WAC Clearinghouse, 2019).

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