Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Review of Shari J. Stenberg's Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions of a Neoliberal Age

Stenberg, S. (2015). Repurposing composition: Feminist interventions of a neoliberal age. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.

By S.D.C. Parker, University of Alabama

In an academic climate where adjunct has become a dirty word, Shari J. Stenberg offers a timely look at how neoliberalism and a profit-driven academy can be harmful to pedagogical principles in composition. Stenberg’s Repurposing Composition: Feminist Interventions for a Neoliberal Age (2015) considers a growing, though certainly not new, concern for scholars—how do post-secondary educators address the conflicting goals of the academy as a place for job training and as a place to “help students become active and thinking civic members of society” (p. 8)? Assessment practices for student writing are driven by these conflicting goals, and a student’s ability to conform to neoliberal aims does not necessarily produce meaningful and thoughtful work. But even in this somewhat dark educational climate, Stenberg offers hope. She calls us, as researchers and educators, to alter the neoliberal timeline by changing our pedagogical practices, or rather, by repurposing composition through feminist practices and ideologies, including shifting from an accountability logic to a responsibility logic when assessing student writing.

Stenberg defines neoliberalism as the “set of economic principles and cultural politics that positions the free market as a guide for all human action” (p. 4). To repurpose the educational guidelines and standardizations inspired by these neoliberal aims, Stenberg asks us to challenge “the habitual or status quo” by departing from it and enacting “new purposes” (p. 17). Feminist scholarship has a rich history of highlighting and criticizing practices that appear “neutral”; when we see our assessments as impartial, we are more likely to undervalue the work of students whose voices are already marginalized. Stenberg believes we must continue to identify the “cloak of neutrality” Adrienne Rich (1973) observed, which leads to a renewed focus on marginalized voices in the academy (p. 10).

Repurposing requires teacher-scholars to consider the ways in which race, gender, ethnicity, and other identity markers are not accounted for in the academy, and as a result, not accounted for in writing assessment. Chapter two considers emotion and emotional management as a critical part of feminist repurposing. Rather than support the reason/emotion binary advanced by classical rhetoric, Stenberg offers a more complex view of emotion, a concept she claims is often feminized and therefore devalued in the academy. Stenberg, however, reframes emotion as a feminist site of “resistance, inquiry, and new knowledge and writing practices” (p. 42), rather than as an “impediment to rationalism and productivity” (p. 41). Importantly, Stenberg identifies how quickly students dismiss emotion in written texts from marginalized groups, which not only upsets the student’s ability to engage with that text, but worse, condemns the text as “not worth engaging because of the writer’s presumed emotional state” (p. 57). For example, Stenberg quotes a student describing a passage from Gloria AnzaldĂșa’s work as “too angry to be useful” (p. 58). Her solution to this kind of dismissal is a repurposing of emotion—in the case of AnzaldĂșa, asking students to engage with how and why this emotional response can be seen as a rational, rhetorical move.

The act of recognizing the use and necessity of emotion in both authored and student texts is in keeping with the larger trend toward emotional education. Stenberg argues the importance of valuing our students as not only intellectual, but emotional individuals, and supports the emotional education movement that has grown in education for the past thirty years, which includes a feminist repurposing of writing practices. Stenberg traces how rhetorical practices have been remade according to traditionally masculine concepts such as cutting “excess,” and notes, “women’s rhetoric will often sound different than the self-assured, strident voices that have long defined the tradition” (p. 23). As a teacher, I encourage the kind of writing that comes from this masculinized tradition, just as I was trained and encouraged to do. Yet Stenberg’s arguments force me to evaluate how my own practices, some of which I had considered to be “neutral,” may actually represent gendered, ethnic, racial, and other standards that are decidedly not neutral. What we see as assessment according to “neutral” guidelines (essentially, the rules and restrictions that accompany academic discourse or Standard American English) may actual reinforce writing standards that potentially discriminate against marginalized identities.

In the third chapter, “Repurposed Listening,” Stenberg leans heavily on Krista Ratcliffe’s (1999) work, and asserts that corporate leaders have appropriated the act of listening for their own means—that listening becomes an act to gather client intel and gauge consumer desire and satisfaction. Listening is marketed as a skill needed for individual success. But through a feminist repurposing of listening, Stenberg identifies the act as a generative practice, one that encourages the reciprocity of speaking/listening to create new knowledge (p. 77). For this practice to be successful, however, it becomes necessary to understand how the speaker and listener are rhetorically situated through power dynamics, cultural differences/similarities and assumptions, among others (p. 77). Teacher-scholars must encourage students to create “arguments that listen,” a concept that acknowledges and accounts for a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints within the argument. This listening includes finding a located agency, wherein teachers and students take responsibility for their own positions and subjectivities as a way to understand how marginalized positions can serve as resources for “teaching, learning, and knowing” (p. 100).

Readers of this book will not, however, find a set of instructions on how to assess student writing. Rather, Stenberg’s solution calls us to shift from an accountability logic, which compares student writing to an external, predetermined norm, to a responsibility logic, which relies on transparency between educators, students, and community members to generate, rather than simply follow, a standard approach used for writing assessment. Repurposed responsibility is itself “grounded not in compliance” but rather in relation to dialogue and responding well to the individual (p. 137). By inviting multiple audiences into discussions about assessment, teacher-scholars can include rather than excluded public audiences and marginalized voices within a particular community (p. 135). Just as students should invite a multiplicity of voices into their arguments, so should teacher-scholars invite a multiplicity of voices into their assessment practices.

Overall, I find Stenberg’s Repurposing Composition a critical read for current teachers of writing, and an important text for providing real and practical examples of how feminist practices can be implemented in the writing classroom. As Stenberg herself admits, this repurposing is not easy; it requires reflection, listening, dialogue, and potentially failure (another concept Stenberg argues needs repurposing). Accountability methods can feel safe, because we have a norm from which to assess. Responsibility methods, however, view students as individual subjects and provide a much improved approach for assessing writing in the reality of a diversified academy.


Ratcliffe, K. (1999). Rhetorical Listening: A Trope for Interpretive Invention and a “Code of Cross-Cultural Conduct.” College Composition and Communication, 51(2), 195-224.