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Queering Ethos: Composing Across Media

By Jennifer Ansley


As a person who teaches and writes at the intersection of Writing Studies and Queer Studies, I argue that Queer Studies is uniquely positioned to help think through what’s at stake in students’ address to diverse reading audiences.

In the teaching of academic writing, significant attention is often given to how writers rhetorically establish themselves as credible authorities on the subjects they’re writing about. Ethos, sometimes translated as “ethical appeal,” is taught as a set of rhetorical strategies that help to illustrate that credibility, the underlying assumption always being that credibility equals authority.

I’m interested, however, in the question of how the increased emphasis on composing across media, in both composition classrooms and across the humanities, might create opportunities to expand—to queer—our understanding of ethos; in other words, to cultivate students’ awareness of themselves as ethical, not merely authoritative, subjects in relationship to their audiences.

Multimodality and Diverse Reading Publics

This question becomes especially important in the context of multimodal composition projects that create opportunities for students to use their writing as a tool for community engagement. I think, for example, of my colleague Josh Davis’s work in his course “Writing on Durham,” in which students exhibited their poster projects on the history of Durham, North Carolina at the Durham History Hub.

I think also of Rachel Alpha Johnston Hurst’s “Doing Feminist Theory through Digital Video,” in which students reflected on their service learning projects via videos that are now collected in an open access online library. These projects call on us to remember that when our students are composing across media, they are also often writing for and alongside increasingly diverse reading publics.

Who constitutes the diverse reading publics for which our students write? Queer Theorist Michael Warner, writing in 2002, reminds us that the internet and new media were at that time already altering notions of “the public,” expanding relations among strangers, and—implicitly—relations across difference (68). In his influential essay (and later book), “Publics and Counterpublics,” Warner argues that a reading public always exists in excess of who we predict or imagine that public to be. In other words, a public necessarily constitutes a relation among strangers (55).

In this essay, written in the wake of the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Warner is tacitly arguing for the need to think about our ethical relationship to those strangers: “In the context of a public, strangers can be treated as already belonging to our world. More: they must be. We are routinely oriented to them in common life. They are a normal feature of the social” (57).

I read this as a call to not only be aware of the strangers in our midst, and the differences among us, but to consider—as queer people and Queer Studies scholars often have—how we treat strangers, how intimacy and care might be constituted across difference and unfamiliarity.

Ethics and Audiences

What, then, constitutes an ethical mode of relating to—of treating—the strangers who make up our own and our students’ reading audiences? And how should these ethical modes inform our approaches to teaching public digital composition projects?

In “Are the Lips A Grave?” Lynn Huffner argues for a queer feminist ethics in which “ethics” is not reducible to authoritative assertions of what does or does not constitute a moral good—the type of assertion we might affirm with ethos—but operates as a relational concept in which the “dual burden” is to “first, [acknowledge] harms, and second, [to actively elaborate] alternatives to those harms” (521).

Rather than postulating an “ethical agent” whose moral judgments arise from knowing certainty, Huffner’s queer feminist ethics is a practice of self-questioning, a historically-contextualized interrogation of one’s own subject position and its relationship to the production and erasure of others, that makes space for critical and caring attention to alterity.

In this context, “credibility” is not defined by an assertion of authority, but a willingness to recognize difference and the potential for harm that exists in relations across difference. This queer feminist ethical praxis is reflected in the design of Rachel Alpha Johnston Hurst’s digital video project, which asks students to self-consciously reflect on the knowledge being produced in their projects within the context of broader structures of power. This ethic is also at the heart of how I ask students in my courses to think about themselves in relation to both their audiences and the broader social networks they come in contact with.

Queering Ethos in Theory and Praxis

In my course “Queer Theories of Place & Space,” the question of one’s ethical relationship to strangers is not only at stake in students’ work as writers, but inextricably linked to the content of the course. Students are asked to reflect on how their embodied presence in different spaces (including the space of our classroom) is both affected by and affects others.

We collectively attempt to create “a space in which to see, simultaneously, both the place where we are and the place where we are not” (Huffner 6). Cultivating self-consciousness regarding their own subject position in relation to others and the power structures that determine those relationships is part of our shared work.

For example, a recent discussion centered on the work of George Chauncey, Jose Munoz, and Martin Manalansan. These authors share an interest in the ways that gay men have used the act of cruising to build intimacy and group identity, even in the face of aggressive policing and surveillance. One student raised a question about what norms structure our communication with strangers in public. I asked students to pause and reflect in writing on their own ways of relating to strangers in public.

Those reflections served as a jumping-off point for a discussion of how we interpret different bodies in public spaces and about the uneven distribution of vulnerabilities we experience in public. Our experiences depend on our race, class, gender, gender expression, sexuality, and ability, vulnerabilities that we recognized some of us had experienced and others had not.

Reflecting on the Reading Public

When I ask students to compose across media, my goal is for them to cultivate an awareness of audience that maintains a mindfulness of these unevenly distributed vulnerabilities. Inviting students to do so is an attempt to have them reflect on their ethical position in relationship to the communities they are writing with, for, and about; it also prompts them to consider the larger social and political implications of the claims they make in relationship to those communities.

With this goal in mind, their final writing project gives students the opportunity to produce their own zines, websites, blogs, scholarly journal articles, and/or other forms of public writing. It then asks them to design a ten-minute presentation in which they distribute that text to their classmates and reflect on the conventions of that genre and why they’ve chosen to write in that style. The presentation also requires each student to situate their text within broader academic and cultural discourses on their topic and to evaluate the significance of that intervention.

This opportunity for reflection is crucial. It compels students to imagine how their texts circulate, and to be purposeful about and critical of how they address—of how they treat—their reading publics.


IMAGE CREDIT: Peace dove carrying an olive branch by Agilmente is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Ansley specializes in Queer Studies, Writing Studies, and 19th and 20th American Literature. Her current research focuses on rural queer communities, cultural discourses of care, and the harms that queer and trans* people experience in their encounters with social services.

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