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The authors considered the capacious feeling that emerges from saying no to literacy practices, and the affective potential of saying no as a literacy practice. The authors highlight the affective possibilities of saying no to normative understandings of literacy, thinking with a series of vignettes in which children, young people, and teachers refused literacy practices in different ways. The authors use the term capacious to signal possibilities that are as yet unthought: a sense of broadening and opening out through enacting no. The authors examined how attention to affect ruptures humanist logics that inform normative approaches to literacy. Through attention to nonconscious, noncognitive, and transindividual bodily forces and capacities, affect deprivileges the human as the sole agent in an interaction, thus disrupting measurements of who counts as a literate subject and what counts as a literacy event. No is an affective moment. It can signal a pushback, an absence, or a silence. As a theoretical and methodological way of thinking/feeling with literacy, affect proposes problems rather than solutions, countering solution‐focused research in which the resistance is to be overcome, co‐opted, or solved. Affect operates as a crack or a chink, a tiny ripple, a barely perceivable gesture, that can persist and, in doing so, hold open the possibility for alternative futures.
The authors considered the capacious feeling that emerges from saying no
to literacy practices, and the affective potential of saying no as a literac y
practice. The authors highlight the affective possibilities of saying no to nor-
mative understandings of literacy, thinking with a series of vignettes in which
children, young people, and teachers refused literacy practices in different
ways. The authors use the term capacious to signal possibilities that are as
yet unthought: a sense of broadening and opening out through enacting no.
The authors examined how attention to affect ruptures humanist logics that
inform normative approaches to literacy. Through attention to nonconscious,
noncognitive, and transindividual bodily forces and capacities, affect deprivi-
leges the human as the sole agent in an interaction, thus disrupting mea-
surements of who counts as a literate subject and what counts as a literacy
event. No is an affective moment. It can signal a pushback, an absence, or
a silence. As a theoretical and methodological way of thinking/feeling with
literacy, affect proposes problems rather than solutions, countering solution-
focused research in which the resistance is to be overcome, co-opted, or
solved. Affect operates as a crack or a chink, a tiny ripple, a barely perceiv-
able gesture, that can persist and, in doing so, hold open the possibility for
alternative futures.
In this article, we consider the affective potential that emerges from
saying no to literacy practices, and the affective potential of saying
no as a literacy practice. We drew on our fieldwork in diverse
social and geographical contexts to attune to the different registers of
no, including a teacher who quit (“No, not like this”), a child who was
silent (“No, not now”), and a student who refused to write (“No, not
here”). Thinking beyond no as a problem to be solved, we considered
the capaciousness of saying no. By this, we mean that rather than clos-
ing down or reducing possibilities, moments of no can create a lot of
space: to draw a breath, to open out and open up the potential for
something else to happen. No can conserve energy, and it can pre-
serve privacy.
As cis, white, enabled academics, predominantly from middle-class
backgrounds and all educated at Oxbridge or red brick–level institutions in
our various countries, we are aware that we write from a position of
privilege. Further, each of the projects in this study was funded by
national-level grants. We have encountered many yeses to be able to
think about no in the ways that we put forth in this article. As such, we
are cognizant of not wanting to fetishize no but attend to the affect that
no generates as prompts for further thought.
Sarah E. Truman
University of Melbourne, Victoria,
Abigail Hackett
Kate Pahl
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK
Larissa McLean Davies
University of Melbourne, Victoria,
Hugh Escott
Sheffield Hallam University, UK
The Capaciousness of No:
Affective Refusals as
Literacy Practices
Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
pp. 1–14 | doi:10.1002/rrq.306
© 2020 The Authors. Reading Research Quarterly published
by Wiley Periodicals, Inc. on behalf of International Literacy
This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License, which permits use,
distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
[Correction added on December 21, 2020, after first online
publication: The word ‘cis-hetero’ was changed to ‘cis’ in
the sentence ‘As cis-hetero, white, enabled academics,
predominantly from middle-class backgrounds and all
educated at Oxbridge or red brick–level institutions in our
various countries, we are aware that we write from a
position of privilege’.]
2 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
We argue that affect circulates through, between, and
around the refusal to comply with normative understand-
ings of literacy practices, which, in many instances,
remain tethered to a humanist, Western-centric, and
patriarchal logic. There is frequently something excessive
about no. We present vignettes as spaces to think within,
to provide glimpses of the space of no and what it could
be. We see the literacies of no not as owned by individuals
but as affectively circulating among students, practitio-
ners, and researchers, hinting at the affective and specula-
tive potential of no. This is not to say that, as a group of
researchers, we speak with one voice; affect does not result
in a unison chorus but rather a polyphonic rendering of
readings and meanings that stems from our own dia-
chronic experiences. As we open up the spaces of no, then,
we attempt to show, while writing in concert, resistance to
a homogenized position or single agreement. Thinking
about the affective and capacious potential of literacies
of no requires that we move beyond new categories or
descriptions for literacy events, or even new ways of
rethinking the notion of social literacy, and acknowledge
that for each individual, the spaces offered by “no litera-
cies will be different and uniquely impact practices and
understandings. We begin by unpacking, nuancing, and
describing the intersection between New Literacy Studies
and theories of affect. We then give a brief summary of
affect theory, which we argue can rupture humanist logics
that continue to undergird conceptualizations of literacies
through an attention to more-than-personal, excessive
feelings and their potentials.
The Field of Literacy
New Literacy Studies conceptualizes literacy as a social
practice, often realized through ethnographic encounters
with script and oral language (Barton & Hamilton, 1998;
Street, 1993b). Its initial radical promise was that literacies
were not skills-based sets of practices associated with
schooling but could be found anywhere: on walls, within
homes, and in communities. These literacies often went
unrecognized, located in communities where it was pre-
sumed that there was no literacy. Street (1993b) argued
that “the recognition of these problems was a major
impulse behind the development of an alternative model
of literacy that could provide a more theoretically sound
and ethnographic understanding of the actual signifi-
cance of literacy practices in people’s lives” (p. 7).
Street’s (1993a) edited book acted as an explicit chal-
lenge to Western-centric notions of what counted as lit-
eracy, by highlighting overlooked literacy practices and by
challenging the assumption that literacy practices were
universal, capable of being abstracted from and working
independently of place and community. For Street, the
problem of recognition is illustrated by the Buddhist story
of the turtle and the fish:
There was once a turtle that lived in a lake with a group of fish.
One day the turtle went for a walk on dry land. He was away
from the lake for a few weeks. When he returned he met some
of the fish. The fish asked him, “Mister turtle, hello! How are
you? We have not seen you for a few weeks. Where have you
been?” The turtle said, “I was spending some time on dry land.
The fish were a little puzzled and they said, “Up on dry land?
What are you talking about? What is this dry land? Is it wet?”
The turtle said, “No it is not.“Is it cool and refreshing?’ “No it is
not.“Can you swim in it?” “No you can’t.” The fish said, “It is
not wet, it is not cool, there are no waves, you can’t swim in it.
Don’t tell us what it is not, tell us what is.” “I can’t,” said the tur-
tle, “I don’t have any language to describe it.” (Nirantar, 2007,
pp. 11–12)
From this story, we learned that
an ethnographic perspective shifts us out of this mindset and
helps us firstly to ‘imagine’ things that do not exist in our own
world, and then to understand them on their own terms rather
than to see them within our terms, as simply deficit. (Nirantar,
2007 p. 12)
Here, we want to dwell with Street’s notion of “no” lit-
eracy and the problem of using words to describe some-
thing according to what it is not. Turning to the turtle and
the fish story, we wonder not only about practices that are
defined by what they are not but also about what happens
when language itself falls short in terms of its capacity to
adequately describe what is important in a given situa-
tion. Sometimes, language is required to describe a prac-
tice, to explain it, to give it a rationale, to respond, and to
draw others into a new way of seeing the world. However,
at other times, what is important is not capable of being
articulated in words, and significance lies instead in the
silences, the gaps, the refusal to perform, the missing data,
and the things that are left unsaid or said differently.
The notion of something within literacy practices that
exceeds representation, or cannot be easily explained in
words, was discussed by Leander and Boldt (2013), who
drew on Deleuze and Guattari to critique the overempha-
sis on logic and intent within conceptualizations of liter-
acy practices. Leander and Boldt argued that a vision of
literacy as “the design of texts to achieve already-known
goals…projected onto students as the trajectory of their
activities” (p. 28) overemphasizes human intentionality
and misses “literacy’s ability to participate in unruly ways
(p. 41). In the same year, MacLure (2013) wrote about lan-
guage in a similar vein, pointing out that the frequent
conflation of words with language loses the bodily mate-
rial nature of language, including language’s wild elements
that refuse representation.
New materialist, posthuman, and inhuman thinking
alerted researchers to the unspoken, nonrepresentational
aspects of literacy studies and affect (Burnett & Merchant,
2020; Ehret, 2018; Hackett & Somerville, 2017; Kuby,
Gutshall Rucker, & Kirchhofer, 2015; Truman, 2016) and
helped develop a more nuanced recognition of things that
The Capaciousness of No: Affective Refusals as Literacy Practices | 3
did not necessarily make sense. Yearning to grasp, or at
least to begin to be able to account for, the unruly and
wild within literacy practices, scholars increasingly have
turned to posthumanism and Deleuzian theories, with a
sense that the ways in which New Literacy Studies, multi-
literacies, and multimodality have defined literacies was
not enough (Lenters, 2016), that something was missed
(Leander & Boldt, 2013). As Ehret and Leander (2019) put
it, “where did life go?” (p. 8).
Affect theory brings to light the difficulty of repre-
senting what is felt. As Boldt (2019) observed, “so much of
this occurs in non-symbolized forms, through flows of
affect, a sudden and perhaps fleeting awareness of reci-
procity and mutual recognition” (p. 40). Affective litera-
cies were always there, lying at the edges of ethnographic
explorations until researchers bumped up against them as
they moved through the world, prompting a greater con-
sideration of, for example, sensations within bodies and
what remains inarticulable, how people felt as they ges-
tured in the sand, stretched out to do a drawing, or
enacted the sweep of a pen on paper.
Complicating the Humanism
of Literacies
Scholars of color have critiqued the whiteness of literacies
for decades (Kinloch, 2010; Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995;
Richardson, 2006), including the role of literacy in other-
ing and colonizing practices (Stanley, 2016; Tarc, 2015;
Viruru, 2012). In our various research, we have turned to
affect theory, feminist new materialist, Indigenous, and
critical race scholarship to help us make sense of literacies
that are both sensible and nonsensible, material and
immaterial (Burnett, Merchant, Pahl, & Rowsell, 2014;
Tarc, 2015). Although this scholarship is not to be con-
flated, it has helped us dislodge literacy from its humanist
framework. We are grateful to Tuck (2010), Smith, Tuck,
and Yang (2019), and others who have resituated knowl-
edge production practices away from the powerful raced
and classed discourses of the global north academics.
This is important because, as Tarc (2015) contended, we
cannot “continue to practice literacy without thinking
about the dominant forms of life it produces” (p. 130). In
this section, we unpack the humanism of literacies, which
we see as a connecting thread between the diverse litera-
ture discussed so far and the tension lying at the heart of
the project to account for affect within literacy studies.
To conceptualize the affective potential of saying no as
a literacy practice, we drew on Simpson’s (2016) significant
work on refusal to comply with settler colonial logics in
research settings. Refusal for Simpson is a way of moving
away from resistance, which she noted is overinscribed
with control structures or domination. Instead of func-
tioning from a position of being against a dominating
structure, “refusal offers its own structure of apprehension
that maintains and produces sociality through time
(p. 329). Our work for this article was an attempt to read
literacy from the position of no, to see where, affectively, no
could lead us in an attempt to reconceptualize what liter-
acy could be. It was both a speculative and a tautological
Scholars of postcolonialism, anti-racism, and literacy
have drawn attention to the intertwining of literacy prac-
tices with colonialism and civilizing of non-Western
groups (Nxumalo & Rubin, 2019; Tarc, 2015; Viruru, 2012).
Literacy scholars working with affect and the posthuman-
ities have also explored how literacies operate within a
humanist logic (Kuby, Spector, & Thiel, 2019; Snaza, 2019;
Snaza & Weaver, 2015; Truman, 2019a). By this, we mean
that what counts as literate, literacy, or literature is gov-
erned by values associated with European humanism
that reinforce the human or Man as the dominant form of
life (Snaza & Weaver, 2015; Wynter, 2003). Historically,
humanism has been linked to the European Enlightenment,
wherein enlightened thinkers turned away from medieval
theocracy and exerted the right to make rational decisions
about the world and exert dominion around the globe.
Aristotles notion of an animacy schema has been linked to
the construction of the human (Chen, 2012), in which the
white, enabled, cis-hetero male is at the top of the pyramid
of animacy, and other bodies (e.g., blacks, females, queers,
the disabled, animals, plants, rocks) are seen as less than
human (Springgay & Truman, 2017). The ideals of human-
ism rely on the exclusion of nonhuman others and are
inextricably linked with transatlantic slavery, continuing
settler colonialism, and white monoculture (Tuck &
Gaztambide-Fernández, 2013; Wynter, 2003; Yusoff, 2018).
As Mignolo (2011) put forth, modernity depends on colo-
niality. Humanist ideals of rationalism and freedom from
theocracy came at the price of rendering others nonhu-
man. As Jackson (2016) put forth, slavery was not main-
tained through merely denying humanity to black slaves
but through an enforced formlessness or plasticity of their
humanity. For Jackson, the plasticity of humanity referred
to how, within the hierarchy of the great chain of being,
slaves were deemed human enough to be treated humanely
under the laws of slavery that continued to subjugate
slaves, yet the practice of slavery itself was not incongruous
with humanist ideals.
Since the founding of studia humanitatis, the Renais-
sance humanism–inspired school curriculum, literacy
and education more broadly have operated within a
humanist mode in the West and in places that Western
imperial forces have invaded and colonized (Wynter &
McKittrick, 2015). This manifests through ongoing prac-
tices of excluding those who do not fit into a humanist
logic (and deeming them illiterate) or rehabilitating some
(making them literate enough) to function within the
system. An example of how this logic operates is the
4 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
Canadian Residential School System, which used the
practices of civilizing Indigenous people through literacy
practices (Stanley, 2016). The overrepresentation of white,
cis-hetero, male authors and characters in literary texts
used in the school curriculum demonstrates the figure of
humanity that is deemed universal and valued in coun-
tries such as Australia, England, and Wales, where we
conducted the research discussed in this article. The
endorsement of white, Western, middle-class child social-
ization practices, such as talking directly to preverbal
babies, as natural, neutral, and essential to child develop-
ment (Avineri et al., 2015), and allegiance to white lin-
guistic norms as more appropriate for academic contexts
(Flores & Rosa, 2015) are further examples of literacy
education operating as a humanist project.
Something different is needed in order for the field of
literacies to escape its humanist logic. Although a rich
body of work has stressed unrecognized literacy knowl-
edges and competency of children and young people, it is
important to continue to interrogate against which (or
whose) standards knowledge and competency are defined
and measured. For example, as Moje et al. (2004) noted,
much work drawing on community literacies to mingle
with schooled literacies has traditionally been seen as a
way of addressing the literacy competency curriculum,
yet it has not addressed the underlying issues of hierar-
chies of literacies within schooling. The term competency,
for example, alludes to efficiency or success in carrying
out a task or completing a goal. As such, it carries the fin-
gerprints of logic and rationality. If arguments for unrec-
ognized knowledges and competencies continue to sit
within a humanist logic, the effect is a continued uphold-
ing of an existing world order, albeit with the increased
possibility of inclusion into that order for some. As
Springgay and Truman (2018b) highlighted, the problem
with the notion of inclusion is that although it purports to
promote diversity and equity, inclusion regularly “oper-
ates as a symbolic gesture that fails to undo the structural
logics of racism, ableism, homophobia, and settler colo-
nialism” (p. 13).
Wynter (Wynter & McKittrick, 2015) compared the
dominant, universalizing approach to education to Roman
Empire builders, offering citizenship status to selected
natives who, in return, would invest and uphold a particu-
lar (Roman) mode of being in the world. Truman’s (2019a)
framing of Wynter’s (2003) concept of Man as the epit-
ome of a literate subject, against which others are mea-
sured, is grounded in a critique of Western humanism
that posits knowing as connected to a certain type of lit-
eracy: a literacy that is white and rational, schooled and
sensible. Such a capital-L literacy is not one that is found
on walks, scratched on bedsteads, stuffed under furniture,
or enacted in gesture, sound, and drawing (Leander &
Boldt, 2013; Pahl, 2002). The shadow of rationality, logic,
and intent (Leander & Boldt, 2013) continues to haunt
literacy studies, despite the strong orientation of the field
toward social equity, racial justice, and inclusive pedago-
gies. This complexity was discussed in a review essay by
Gadsden and Harris (2009), who argued that for African
American youth, literacy itself becomes a definitional
concern, because when discussing vernacular literacies,
“not all of these literacy forms fit neatly into common
definitions of literacy” (p. 199). Here, literacy takes up no
as a counterpoint to the humanist yes and becomes a site
of resistance.
Embracing Affect
Affect theory offers significant potential to rupture humanist
logics. Through attention to nonconscious, noncognitive,
and transindividual bodily forces and capacities, affect
deprivileges the human as the sole agent in an interaction,
thus disrupting measurements of who counts as a literate
subject and what counts as a literacy event. What has been
called the affective turn has signaled the need and the
means to theorize the social beyond the discursive, to
decenter humanism and move away from representation-
alist thought (Clough, 2007). A variety of academic lin-
eages have conceptualized affect in different ways. Many
scholars of affect conducting empirical work in the social
sciences have drawn from the tradition of Spinoza,
wherein affect can be described as the capacities of bodies
to act or be acted on by other bodies (Massumi, 2002). In
this regard, affect might be partially understood as the
forces (Seigworth & Gregg, 2010) at work in an encounter,
that build and debilitate capacity as part of a relational
exchange. Such affective capacities are coproduced
through intensities, proximities, and viscosities circulat-
ing between, through, and transversal to individual bod-
ies and are sometimes generated as what Stewart (2011)
called atmospheres.
These definitions of affect might begin to sound
abstract, and because of the tendency to ascribe affect to
prepersonal sensations or circulations between bodies,
some theorizations of affect may appear to erase identity
and become apolitical. Significantly, affect theory has
been critiqued for neglecting to account for intersectional
considerations, such as race, and an inability to engage
with issues of oppression and the “politics of lives and
liveliness” (Lara et al., 2017, p. 33). As Truman and Shannon
(2018) wrote, “when affect is depoliticized and assumes a
neutral circulation, as well as (state-sanctioned) capacity
for affectation, it masks its conflation of neutral as white
(p. 62). Critical scholars in the field of affect studies have
noted that within the swirling production of capacity,
atmospheres, or intensities, affect not only circulates
between bodies but also sticks (Ahmed, 2004) to particu-
lar bodies, such as racialized, gendered, poor, queer, and
dis/abled bodies onto whom capacity and debility are
The Capaciousness of No: Affective Refusals as Literacy Practices | 5
always already written (Puar, 2017). In conversation with
Teresa Brennans The Transmission of Affect, Ahmed
(2004) wrote, “we may walk into a room and ‘feel the
atmosphere,’ but what we may feel depends on the angle
of our arrival” (p. 37). Angles might include intersectional
markers such as gender, religion, race, and ability that
shift in different circumstances.
Massumi (2002) distinguished between affect and
emotion, wherein an emotion is affect that has become
personalized and named happy or sad. In contrast, Ahmed
(2004) theorized affect through critical discourses of emo-
tion, arguing that emotions are activated on the surfaces of
bodies, structuring how bodies are lived and felt. In our
uptake of affect in this article, particularly when dealing
with people refusing or saying no as practices of literacy,
the relations among the personal, prepersonal, affect, and
emotion are constantly shifting. In our reading, affect is
both personal and more than personal and draws atten-
tion to “intensities that pass body to body” (Seigworth &
Gregg, 2010, p. 1) and “the becoming sensation, a force or
intensity manifested at the surface of the body” (Springgay
& Zaliwska, 2017, pp. 276–277). This intensity and force
can build or diminish in different circumstances, affecting
a body’s capacity to act. Animacy hierarchies are linked to
taxonomies of affect (Chen, 2012) or economies of affect
(Ahmed, 2004) that work through exclusionary logics to
dehumanize particular bodies. These taxonomies and
economies of affect work like atmospheres: regulating par-
ticular bodies, rendering some bodies toxic, other bodies
illiterate, other bodies disposable, other bodies overaf-
fected, and still other bodies not affected at all (Palmer,
2017). As such, queer, feminist, critical disability, critical
race, and qualitative researchers have prioritized the neces-
sity of attending to intersectional markers and the affective
intensities that circulate within literacy events (Truman,
2019a). Following Puar (2012), who put forth the produc-
tive potential of holding seemingly incommensurate lines
of thought frictionally, or what Springgay and Truman
(2018a) called (in)tension, we attend in this article to inter-
sectional concerns of identity and representation in liter-
acy settings and the circulation, capacity-building, and/or
debilitating features of affect.
“No” Literacies and
the Literacies of No
In this section, we think with affect in connection with
literacy practices. We do this in two registers: First, we
highlight the affective potential of saying no to normative
understandings of literacy, and second, we examine how
attention to affect might rupture humanist logics that
inform normative approaches to literacy. No as a mode of
thought has many potentialities; it moves across registers
and can mean many things. What is distinctive about
literacies of no is that it leads us into a not-ness that is
nonrepresentational, because the word no instantiates a
refusal to do words and to do literacy. Our work, as we
illustrate in the vignettes in the next section, highlights
the importance of no as a way of tracing language pre-
scriptivism practices that deny literacy to those who
refuse to spell correctly, write correctly, or speak correctly.
No is an affective moment. It can signal a pushback, an
absence, or a silence.
Dutro (2019) suggested that affect theory offers the “crit-
ical potential to make more tangibly available the visceral
stakes of the political in classrooms” (p. 74). Drawing on
affect theory, we sought to further explore what we might
learn, not only about spaces and gestures that appear from a
Western-centric position to have no literacy but also to focus
on what we term literacies of no. We also recognize how
mainstream conceptualizations of literacies continue to side-
line those who do not adopt middle-class ways of communi-
cating and are consequently deemed less literate (Grainger,
2013; McClean 2019; Morrell, 2008). We build our under-
standing of no in conversation with approaches to literacy
that acknowledge the power of the deliberate silence, such as
of preservice teachers of color where “revealing one’s whole
self was full of risk while remaining silent allowed them to
safeguard their most personal beliefs and ideologies”
(Haddix, 2012, p. 175). When being the humanized literate
subject requires students to strip themselves of their respec-
tive cultures to achieve academic success, many might decide
that their group or community identification is worth more
than identifying with a school that does not value them for
who they are and what they know (Delpit, 2006). For some
students, such decisions are unconscious or intuitive; for
other students, they represent active resistance (Kohl, 1994).
Kulick and Stroud (2003) described how villagers in
Papua New Guinea resisted Western missionary literacy
practices by refusing to read or write, instead taking hold
of literacy practices that they themselves found useful.
Finnegan (2015) pointed out that “language, not least in
the extensive projects of biblical translation, was a pri-
mary vehicle in the missionary conversion process and
crucial for the civilizing vision of the West” (p. 18). She put
forth instead a need to rethink parameters for communi-
cation, as “the once-hard concept of ‘writing’ has turned
into something more fluid and unstable” (p. 22). Within
this instability and indeterminacy, beyond the verbal and
inside affective dimensions, lie the literacies of no.
Vignettes: Attuning
to the Registers of No
The term vignette, derived from the French vin (vine) that
framed early photographs, was later used to describe photo-
graphs themselves and, even later still, to describe short but
evocative pieces of writing. We put forth vignettes as
6 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
efficient, and potentially poignant ways to articulate affec-
tive experiences” (Truman, 2014, p. 89) in our research sites.
In keeping with nonrepresentational thought (Thrift, 2007;
Vannini, 2015) inspired by affect theory, the vignettes are
not intended to be representations of research findings but
as more than representational probes for further thought
inspired by affective moments (MacLure, 2013; McC ormack,
2008; Truman, 2016). We offer four vignettes—a teacher
who quit in their first year, a silent child, a poet who refused
to write, and crumpled paper in a bin—in conversation with
one another, across different countries, time-spaces, and
research projects. In dialogue with the vignettes, we ask,
How can no offer more capacious frontiers for literacy edu-
cators to work within? This is something we ask ourselves as
we move through the many spaces of no that we have found
in our research studies. The vignettes offer ways into the
conversation, heuristics for our own process of affective
understandings, residues and traces of our research practice,
residing both within and outside of us.
Vignette 1: Lee
Lee, a queer, nonbinary, Jewish teacher in their first year of
teaching English
Someone painted a swastika on the school wall, right outside
the classroom.
“I was trying to teach [Harper Lee’s] To Kill a Mockingbird, yo u
know the idea of people having agency to try and address
systemic issues.
Departmental processes in the school delayed the removal of
the graffiti.
“The principal sort of wanted to see it as an isolated incident. It
was there for months. With that there…it was just too much.
Lee left teaching English after one year.
Vignette 2: Beth
Beth, 2 years old, in her first term at nursery school
Playing outside, in nursery rubber boots and waterproofs,
clutching her own sparkly trainers close to her chest
The children sit in a circle to sing the hello song.
Bright sun causes eyes to squint.
“Hello, everyone, how are you? Hello, everyone, who’s sitting
next to you?” sings the teacher.
Beth sits in silence, swinging her rubber booted feet.
“What’s your name, Beth?” prompts the teacher.
Amid the sound of the wind and rustling waterproof suits,
Beth presses her lips closed, silent.
As the song continues on, Beth whispers her name to herself,
under her breath.
Vignette 3: Abida
Abida, a black Muslim girl in English class, refuses to write.
“I want to write about race but don’t want to write about race.
Begins her poem, rips it up, the sound tearing through the class
Folds her arms
The other students turn and stare.
Time passes. Now third week of Ramadan
All the other students complete their poems, peer-edit them,
and type them up.
“I want chips and a falafel wrap, and a nice cold juice
To lay somewhere with a bit more wind where water—a stream
or the ocean passes by”
“I can’t write at school. I can’t write it.
Vignette 4: Bin
Four white 9- and 10-year-olds in a classroom
The brief: to make a film responding to the question, What do
they think is important about spelling?
They film the story of a boss who tears up a job application
because it is badly spelled.
The boss shouts in the face of the rejected applicant, stuffs the
paper down the applicant’s shirt.
They all laugh as the applicant plays at angrily tearing the
paper out from his shirt.
Moves faster.
Throws the paper into a wastepaper bin. It CLANGS to the
fl oor.
The moment stills and turns sour. Loud CLANGS are not usu-
ally permitted in the classroom.
They make another film. One planned to be less noisy.
The applicant never meets the boss. His application is calmly
put into the bin by the boss with little explanation. Someone
else gets the job; they are overjoyed.
The group is pleased with the film; they all feel that it is good,
that it shows what would happen to adults.
The vignettes are not exceptional and have a mundan-
ity (Stewart, 2007) that may well be familiar to the reader.
Yet, at the same time, they are specific. They have stayed
with us personally and have become a meeting place for us
as educators and researchers as we have grappled with the
question of affect and the politics of inclusion and exclu-
sion within literacy practices. Affect is slippery, atmo-
spheric, and asks us to reckon with emotion and the
geopolitical contexts in which affect is produced (Dutro,
2019). In this section, we think with the vignettes and offer
some context in which the studies were situated, and situate
ourselves across these contexts. Although all of us as
researchers are captivated and moved by the vignettes, and
we wrote this article as a group, the vignettes do not, can-
not, resonate affectively with each of us in the same way. As
stated earlier, affect can glide past particular bodies and
land on others. Perhaps intersectional markers such as gen-
der, race, and sexual orientation come into play, perhaps a
certain mood that day, or our investment in a particular site
or idea. As researchers who are all embedded in different
time-spaces, methodologies, and countries, something dif-
ferent is at stake for each of us in relation to affect and lit-
eracy. As such, there is plurality to our perspectives, and we
offer the following as an analysis in concert, rather than as
a synthesis. We explore the vignettes in an attempt to dem-
onstrate how they prompted us to frictionally feel and
think together about the affective capaciousness of no.
The Capaciousness of No: Affective Refusals as Literacy Practices | 7
Lee’s story (vignette 1) was collected from interview
transcripts as part of a four-year longitudinal Australian
research project, Investigating Literary Knowledge in the
Making of English Teachers, which tracks early-career
English teachers’ changing understandings of the role and
purpose of literature in the English content area. Larissa
(fourth author) is chief investigator on the project and
also has some responsibility for English teacher prepara-
tion at her institution. Inhabiting these different roles, she
was affectively confronted by the ways in which Lee’s
refusal offered insight into how school literate practices,
around and through the classroom, are not being driven
by teachers.
Sarah (first author), a dual citizen of both Canada and
the United Kingdom, had recently joined the project as a
research fellow. Notably, Sarah was not present when Lee
was interviewed, but was affectively struck by reading the
interview transcript in which Lee details the events sur-
rounding the swastika and other factors that led to their
leaving teaching so early in their career. Lee’s interview
transcripts center on the ways in which the environment
where Lee was expected to teach literature consistently
undermined their practice. Lee mentions the rise in white
nationalist sentiments circulating around the globe and
how the atmosphere generated by a swastika hurt them
personally as a queer Jewish person. The symbol of the
swastika that the school was unable to remove quickly
due to “departmental processes” also resonated with Lee’s
curricular requirements of teaching To Kill a Mockingbird.
While not conflating antisemitism with black experiences
of racism, teaching the text alongside news reports of
emboldened white supremacy and a swastika on the
school wall demonstrated how systems of power and
oppression reinforce each other across networks scholas-
tically, politically, and interpersonally. Highlighting the
power differentials of a classroom, de Freitas (2012)
argued that even inanimate objects are “active mediators
in a social material network” (p. 593), yet affect is always
relational, and the mediation of certain objects can be
experienced by different bodies in different ways, depend-
ing on “the angle of our arrival” (Ahmed, 2004, p. 37). The
swastika, culturally appropriated from Buddhism and
Hinduism in central Asia by the Nazis and now used to
signify white supremacy around the globe, is an extremely
charged symbol. As an actor, or what Latour would call an
actant, in a social material network, the swastika has affec-
tive, material effects on Lee personally and as a teacher in
the classroom and broader school community.
Where affect circulates, who and what it clings to and
how it is experienced differ across bodies (Ahmed, 2004).
These differentials can draw intensity and significance
from community and biographical histories, even those
that lie beyond the personal experience of the individual.
Ways of making sense of, or orienting to, the world
can remain largely unarticulated yet still carry a deep
and powerful capacity to affect bodies (Ivinson, 2018;
Walkerdine, 2016). Abi (second author), an early-career
re searcher carrying out her first postdoctoral research
project, collected Beth’s story (vignette 2) as part of a two-
year ethnographic study, The Emergence of Literacy in
Very Young Children. Abi visited the nursery, located in a
former coal mining community, regularly for deep hang-
ing out (Powell & Sommerville, 2018) with the children
and staff, collecting field notes and small video clips. In
Beth’s community, since the closure of the pit, many fami-
lies have experienced long-term unemployment.
The stories of poor physical and mental health, family
breakdown, poverty, and low educational achievement in
a postindustrial community are familiar, particularly for
Abi, who had worked in community outreach in similar
communities before beginning as a researcher. The hello
song was a frequent and popular part of the nursery rou-
tine, delivered as part of a government-approved scheme
of phonetic skills for young children. This program of
adult-led engagement for children from the age of 2 is
intended to enable staff to measure and develop young
children’s language competencies against developmental
trajectories that, although presented as neutral and natu-
ral, work to uphold white, Western child socialization
practices as a gold standard (Avineri et al., 2015). Writing
in the context of postindustrial working-class communi-
ties (e.g., the one to which Beth belongs), Ivinson (2018)
described the significance of affective ways of knowing
and being in the world to these communities. These ways
of being are drawn from specific community biographies
of loss and struggle, ways of knowing that are “less avail-
able for linguistic regulation” (Bernstein, as cited in
Ivinson, 2018, p. 543) and are manifested in language
practices that rely on insider knowledge and the signifi-
cance of that which remains unspoken. In contrast to
these home language practices, Beth now found herself
attending nursery school specifically as part of a national
scheme to address a perceived lack (of language skills, of
parenting skills, and of child development) assumed to
reside in her community. The request to speak, on cue and
with clear articulation, we argue, might have a different
kind of affective intensity for Beth. This affective intensity
could never be proven or solved; it will always elude mea-
surement or rational explanation.
Morrell (2017) argued that unless we reconceptualize
literacy, we will be unable to fully recognize the children
who participate in literacy practices in different ways.
Abida’s story (vignette 3) was collected as part of a four-
month sensory ethnographic study of the relation between
walking and creative writing practices in English literature
class. Sarah was both the teacher and the researcher on the
project, which took place in a middle-class neighborhood
in Wales. Twice a week, 18 students from five different
classes and levels were extracted from their regular English
classes and formed a new class outside, where they walked,
8 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
wrote, and collaborated on the research project. Abida
contributed significantly to the project and participated in
each class, creating video poems, speculative writings, sen-
sory maps using literary devices, and various other tasks
that were set. However, when the task was presented to
walk through the city and compose a poem on contemporary
injustices modeled on William Blake’s poem “London,
Abida tried at first and then refused to write. At this point,
the ethnography was in its third month. Abida, the other
students, and Sarah had a good working relationship.
Sarah was in the position as a teacher and researcher not
to force Abida to write, while recognizing that this is not
always the case for teachers when deadlines and standard-
ized tests or assessments need to be met. Abida continued
to refuse to write the poem for several weeks, although she
completed other tasks. Ramadan began, and her reason
for refusing to write the poem changed. She cited being
too hungry/thirsty to work due to fasting: Abida’s refusal
affected other students, and many of them wrote about
her in their own notes.
In many classroom settings, Abida’s refusal to perform
her task might have resulted in her being placed in after-
school detention, with a note home to her parents, or in a
remedial program for students with behavioral problems.
In such classrooms, literacy manifests because assent is a
form of compliance, as a yes to the rationale or white
space of humanism. It is social, and the social is always
framed as positive, or good. Thus, saying no can lead to
coercion in the form of being on report or getting told off
in class. Ahmed (2017) described how a critique of will-
fulness is frequently leveled at women, people of color,
children, and anyone whom normative society deems
should not have a will of their own. Writing about ease,
Ahmed described how individuals who refuse would find
ease and rest if only they would willingly give up their will
and, in Abida’s case, write now. We understand her refusal
to write as a literacy practice and as work. She was not
working on the specific task in a normative way, but her
refusal was work. Sarah as teacher and researcher, uncon-
strained by normative assessment procedures, had the
time and space to dwell with Abida and her refusal, just as
we have had time and space to ponder her refusal as lit-
eracy work while writing this paper.
Abida’s story takes place in Brexit era Britain, where
discourses and debates have filled the media and mundane
public spaces with vitriolic rhetoric and a demonstrable
rise in hate crimes against people of color, specifi cally
Muslims, and the LGBTQ+community. Brexit’s affect is
sticky, attaching itself to different bodies in different ways
(Ahmed, 2004). Part of the research study looked at how
different bodies move through space and how walking
as a method of gathering inspiration needed to be under-
stood through an intersectional lens. During the months
of this research project, Abida noted how walking on the
street was statistically becoming more dangerous for a
person of color like her who wear hijab. In a geopolitical
tide of white supremacist violence, she was taking her
classroom writing task very seriously, although a cursory
analysis at her behavior might have interpreted her as a
troublesome student refusing to just get on with her work.
The account of four students making a film (vignette
4) shows what happens if someone chooses to refuse or
cannot adequately participate in discourses of correct-
ness, and the felt experience of being refused by these dis-
courses. The job application narrative emerged from a
project called Language as Talisman, situated in the con-
text of a postindustrial area in Northern England, an area
where the loss of the coal and steel-making industries has
led to long-term unemployment. The project was con-
cerned with the need to recognize everyday language in
communities. Kate (third author) led the Language as
Talisman project, and Hugh (fifth author) was the re-
searcher on the project. They worked in a school where
the inspectorate regime, Ofsted, had commented (nega-
tively) that the teachers and students did not speak with a
received British accent, instead using their own dialect.
The school staff were keen to explore with the research
team the ways in which Standard English, including spell-
ing, was understood by the students and the implications
of this understanding. Hugh worked directly with a small
group of students to explore the nature of language and
the implications of correct spelling on their futures
(Escott & Pahl, 2019).
A group of students was encouraged to explore what
spelling means to them through film. Their films simu-
late what possibilities emerge for individuals who cannot
spell correctly, recognizing the inescapable impact that
literacy practices have on life, through felt and embodied
understandings of discourses of correctness. The films
trace how not being able to spell means that you have less
value: less value as a worker, a citizen, and more signifi-
cantly, as a person. The chaos of the first film affectively
recognizes how the myth of good spelling and grammar,
as a neutral skill related to a meritocratic job market, is
inscribed on people’s bodies in humiliating ways. The
film shows an embodied understanding of how prescrip-
tivist ideologies informing spelling practices construct
those who are not correct: as someone who provokes
(good-natured or malicious) humor or chastisement; as
someone who will be angry, disappointed, and confused
by rejection; as a person who understands that if you
cannot spell correctly, you invite poor treatment toward
yourself and are individually responsible for this; that
spelling properly, and accepting any humiliations
involved in coming to spell correctly, is part of becoming
an adult. In the first film, the group revel in the possibili-
ties that refusal of a person’s attempt at correctness
affords, playing up the authority and violence of the boss
and improvising with the feelings of anger and rejection
that the applicant experiences. The laughter, physical
The Capaciousness of No: Affective Refusals as Literacy Practices | 9
violence, and chaos were written out of the story in the
final film, but in both versions, the students explored
spelling in relation to feelings of anger, confusion, and
disappointment. They were satisfied with their final film,
as it shows how things would or should be. Yet, the previ-
ous film traced an embodied understanding of how dis-
courses of correctness justify symbolic and physical
violence toward, and mistreatment of, individuals. The
students comment in the films on the reality of their lives
(poor spelling means poor job chances), affectively trac-
ing how notions of correctness construct them.
When I write or speak about desire, I am trying to get out from
underneath the ways that my communities and I are always
depicted. (Tuck & Ree, 2013/2016, p. 648)
The affective intensities that stick to individuals and com-
munities in the vignettes discussed in the previous sec-
tion might easily be dismissed by the educational machine
and its incontrovertible truths about what works: where
individuals should just speak when prompted, teach in
the buildings provided, and write in the time allocated or
be subject to remediation and reform. How, then, does
affect, and its tendency to elude being pinned down or
adequately articulated, achieve a leakiness and persistence
that evade being explained away? Writing in the context
of settler colonialism in North America, Tuck and Ree
(2013/2016) pointed out that damage narratives are fre-
quently told about certain communities as a way of con-
taining them. Desire narratives, in contrast, foreground
complexity and contradiction, a recognition of communi-
ties thriving despite suffering (Tuck & Ree, 2013/2016).
Refusal can have a role to play, then, in both rejecting the
damage narrative and refusing to endorse the right of the
dominant to choose the framework and tell the story in
the first place. For example, writing about abstention from
the Israeli army, Weiss (2016) explained that a public
refusal, a clear no, would “be claimed and co-opted by the
state (p. 352), such as through tests of autonomy, where
lack or pathology is used to explain away the refusal.
Answering yes or no in itself becomes “an explicit recog-
nition of the state’s right to request consent” (p. 353),
hence the popularity, in this context, of other means of
avoiding conscription. Thinking about damage narratives
and the risk of no being co-opted and interpreted in unin-
tended ways, it is clear that both participation and certain
kinds of resistance to participation in literacy practices
risk validating the frameworks against which ones par-
ticipation is being measured, serving to lend evidence and
truth to damage narratives about individuals and com-
munities. Bringing this scholarship into dialogue with the
story of the turtle and the fish at the start of this article, we
see refusal operating both as a rejection of describing
practices according to what they are not (i.e., not adult
Western literacy practices) and as the potential of absten-
tion, through silence or averting the eyes, for example, as
an affirmative investment of energy in something else.
“‘Tell us what it is,’” demanded the fish. “‘I can’t,’” replied
the turtle, at least not in terms that you are able or pre-
pared to hear.
In Beths case, for example, the very existence of the
free nursery places scheme and the drive to extract Beth
from her community and indoctrinate her into alterna-
tive, more explicated and more abstracted forms of lan-
guage are all grounded in assumptions of lack, deprivation,
and the risk that these things potentially pose to her
school readiness. Working-class language practices that
tend toward what Bernstein called restricted codes
(Ivinson, 2018) have long been criticized as inadequate
for child socialization (see Walkerdine & Lucey, 1989),
inappropriate for school (see Heath, 1983), animal-like
and barely human (see MacLure, 2016), and the cause of
poverty itself (Field, 2010). From this perspective, Beth’s
engagement in mainstream early-years language exercises
such as the hello song from any other starting position
than lack and remediation would be impossible. The ways
in which she simultaneously participated in (by sitting in
the circle) and refused her role in the hello song (by press-
ing her lips together) are important to the ways in which
affective refusal unfolds. When children in early childcare
settings overtly break the rules, processes of special inter-
vention and a search for lack, blame, or explanation tend
to begin. Resistance can validate the existing structure,
rendering the individual subject to judgment within that
structure (Weiss, 2016). Beth’s refusal is something else: a
tiny ripple that calls into question assumptions that are
sitting heavily in this space. The mundanity of sitting
silently when requested to speak, but whispering her
name a few moments later, shifts the atmosphere in subtle
and unpredictable ways, catching up other bodies in its
affective flows (Stewart, 2007). A moment of silence, of
averting the eyes (Weiss, 2016) from what is demanded,
rippled the surface of a seemingly predictable and clearly
defined situation. Literacies of no are capacious because
they can hold open the possibility for some as-yet-
unknown alternative.
In the case of the group making the bin film, a narra-
tive about the straightforward consequences of failing to
acquire mainstream literacy practices was cocreated
through literacies, language practices, affective qualities,
and objects. There is something ironic about a straight-
forward story about the importance of spelling being cre-
ated through a complexity of meaning making that is
often disregarded or devalued by mainstream models of
literacy and prescriptivist ideologies about language (see
Escott & Pahl, 2019). On one level, the overall narrative of
the film conveys what the students have been taught to
understand about spelling: that being a good speller leads
10 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
to getting a good job. The final film describes a world in
which correctness is rewarded. The codified English
spelling system, itself a product of middle-class social
practices, becomes the measuring stick by which regional
and social spoken variation in language is judged (Clark,
2013). The complexities and potentials of orthographic
sign making are reduced to benchmarks that certify
whether students have enough competency, and the per-
ceived stability of Standard English orthography is used
to perpetuate notions of correctness that delimit who or
what is seen as valuable. The cultural value associated
with this form of orthography is “a precipitate of sociohis-
torically locatable practices” (Agha, 2003, p. 232), a crust-
like sediment that formed over time, and is now inherited
by those coming to spelling in the present, with little
opportunity for young people to be involved in reassess-
ing this cultural value.
At the same time as being positioned as lacking, and
frequently described in terms of what they are not, the
individuals and communities in our vignettes are also
considered capable of being known, explained, and solved
through social science research (Burman, Aono, &
Muramoto, 2012; Tuck & Yang, 2014). As Tuck and Yang
(2014) pointed out, refusal is important for indicating to
those in power what is off-limits, “that there are publics
and ethical life beyond the state, in places that the state
cannot reach” (Weiss, 2016, p. 357). We return here, then,
to the capaciousness of no. For Tuck and Ree (2013/2016),
complexity and contradiction in desire narratives are
important for keeping community knowledge private and
unavailable for co-opting into damage narratives by the
dominant. “I care more about concealing parts of myself
from you. I don’t trust you very much” (Tuck & Ree,
2013/2016, p. 640).
Refusal in the form of averting the eyes (Weiss, 2016)
can be capacious in that it keeps things unavailable to
outsiders, unreachable by researching and educating
machines that seek to measure, benchmark, and make
knowable literacy practices in communities. Perhaps this
is why young children, such as Beth, who refuse to speak
(particularly when they come from pathologized commu-
nities) tend to provoke a “rage for explanation” (MacLure,
Holmes, Jones, & MacRae, 2010, p. 494) from adults.
Children who will not speak or write, especially when
there is seemingly no good reason to refuse, render them-
selves not completely knowable and transparent before
the adult evaluative gaze.
“Trying to get out from underneath the ways…[we
are] always depicted” (Tuck & Ree, 2013/2016, p. 648)
can take different forms. Ahmed (2017) described femi-
nist snap as the point at which one refuses to reproduce
what one has inherited. Critiquing rhetorics of resil-
ience as “a deeply conservative technique, one especially
well suited to governance” (p. 189), Ahmed described
affective processes through which bodies are asked to
accept and accommodate increasing amounts of pres-
sure. We see an affective snap in Lee’s story: Teach,
inspire, and instruct. The pupils must be engaged. The
swastika remains. There is a departmental process to
follow. After taking account of the possibility for their
practices in the English classroom, as it was bounded
and overwritten, Lee left the teaching profession at the
end of their first year.
Snapping is a rejection of resilience, a refusal to take
more pressure. To reclaim feminist snap as an affirmative
action, Ahmed (2017) argued, we “might insist on renam-
ing actions as reactions; we need to show how her snap is
not the starting point” (p. 189). A snap can be refusal to
remain complicit in a certain kind of system; a snap can
be the start of something new. It can be capacious.
Resigning can be a way of speaking out or conducting a
feminist hearing (Ahmed, 2016). Lee is now enrolled in a
PhD program where they believe they might have the
ability to enact social change and where they have time to
reflect. Having the resources and time to be away from
school allowed Lee to think deeply about teaching in ways
that were not possible before. Lee is in a space of privilege,
as some teachers might not be in the economic position
to quit. Yet, leaving teaching, rather than being an ending
or a failure for Lee, points to the speculative potential of
saying no to what is not working, as an opening to some-
thi ng ne w.1
Of course, the affective potential of Lee’s resis-
tance is double-edged: It cuts one way to release them
from literate practices that overwrite their own texts and
discourses, and cuts another way to separate Lee’s stu-
dents from the texts and readings that Lee conjures when
teaching. Lee’s own antisocial response (removing them-
selves) was an act of justice and power. However, in failing
to address racist and homogenizing literacy practices, the
school and, more to the point, Lee’s students lost an excel-
lent teacher.
The willful child, the recalcitrant student, the vulner-
able and affected teacher trainee—one who resists—is
often seen as a problem (Ahmed, 2017) that requires
action, a solution, at least a compromise. Saying no in a
way that evades solution or judgment involves complex
negotiation and maneuver. This is what we intend to
approach and honor when we write about literacies of no
and their capaciousness. Simpson (2016) discussed how
people want an easy answer, one that makes a situation
explainable and those participating in it capable of being
sorted, ordered, and ranked. Rather than the literacies of
no signaling a shutting down, we understand no as burst-
ing with affective potential, while recognizing that affect
not only builds capacity but also might limit a body’s
capacity to act: Those who refuse can experience pressure,
inconvenience, and precarity. At the same time, no can
provide an affective space for a different kind of identifi-
cation. For example, McClean (2019) wrote about pro-
cesses of silencing that constructs the no:
The Capaciousness of No: Affective Refusals as Literacy Practices | 11
As an insider to a cultural and racial identity group whose
identities, historically, have been silenced and/or operates in
the margins, I understood the power of embodiment of iden-
tity through the telling one’s story. As Ngũgĩ (1993) noted, the
voices of the silenced and marginalised have the power to shift
the dominant narrative. (p. 102)
We take from Abida’s story the importance of saying
no to literacy practices that do not recognize intersec-
tional concerns affecting students and that uphold nor-
mative time-spaces. At the same time, we acknowledge
how the same intersectional concerns that might have
inhibited Abida’s writing also may have enabled her to
practice literacy in different ways: through refusing but
also through home literacy practices. Abida reported that
she did not feel comfortable writing the sensitive poem
that she had chosen to write at school. Although it was not
homework, she chose to write it at home predawn, when
she ate and drank for the day during Ramadan. She wrote
it with her older sister beside her. Refusal is a quality that
is not prized in schools, yet home literacy practices can
tell counterstories (Pahl, 2012, 2014). These practices lie
outside the rational world of the good child writing the
acceptable story for the teacher, coupled with all the
underpinning assumptions about proper and innocent
childhood (Dyson, 2015; Nxumalo & Ross, 2019). We do
not focus on the fact that Abida eventually wrote her
poem to tell a story of success in turning a no into a yes
but to demonstrate the capaciousness of what no might
enact through its refusal. The following is an excerpt from
Abida’s poem:
Everyday we are treading on eggshells
Being outrageous raises alarm bells
Simply wearing hijab is suspicious
Can’t we express ourselves,
and can you stop being so vicious?
Not Conclusion
We argued in this article that literacy has historically
functioned as a humanist and humanizing project that
produces a particular kind of literate subject through
inclusionary and exclusionary logics. Thinking along
with critical literacy scholars who have troubled this poli-
tics of rehabilitation and inclusion, and more recently
drawn on affect theory to attend to the more than human,
we offered four vignettes of no as affective cracks in liter-
acy’s humanism. The vignettes are both mundane and
poignant for us as researchers. Thinking with them
through writing this article highlighted for us how, in a
globalized world of literacy, saying no is both a geopoliti-
cal gesture and a very personal one for the research par-
ticipants and researchers. We propose that thinking with
what we term literacies of no might offer a way into
exploring facets of the experience of refusal, nested within
an understanding of literacy practices as being ideological
and situated, but also felt, affectively, as power flows in
and out of the mix. As demonstrated by the variety of our
research settings and participants, no surfaces for many
reasons and has a capacious potential when regarded not
as something to be overcome but as a force calling our
attention to injustices built into the fabric of literacy
under humanism.
Socially engaged literacy scholarship runs the risk, as
we highlighted earlier, of serving to find a space or loca-
tion for participants within existing or slightly expanded
or modified literacy frameworks. One way in which edu-
cation perpetuates this colonial infrastructure is through
the notion that knowledge is property to be tamed and
commanded for the benefit of the learner and society at
large (Patel, 2014). Increasingly, educational and literacy
researchers are recognizing the problem with research
that seeks to offer solutions and quick fixes. We are aware
that the vignettes presented in the first parts of this article
could be read as problematics to be overcome: how to
change teaching practice or the conditions and contexts
of learning to ensure that teachers stay in the profession,
children participate as required at singing time, or young
people are offered the appropriate time and conditions for
creative writing. The usual narrative of research is that if
practical solutions to these challenges can be identified,
situations can be fixed, not only in this instance but also
through replicable and generalizable models, on a wider
scale. In this case, the dehabilitating tendencies of mastery
(Singh, 2018) serve to debilitate no itself, rendering it no
longer necessary or appropriate. When educational sub-
jects submit willingly to the will of others, they can find
ease (Ahmed, 2017).
Our final gesture of no in this article is refusing to
propose such answers. We ask readers to dwell in this fric-
tional, unsettled state and recognize how affects are not
neutral and not convivial; affects are bound up in power,
gliding past some bodies, building others up, and landing
firmly on still others with the full weight of intergenera-
tional inequality. As a theoretical and methodological way
of thinking/feeling with literacy, affect refuses to be cap-
tured and proposes problems rather than seek[ing] solu-
tions” (Springgay & Truman, 2018b, p. 208). As our not
conclusion, we are asking readers to consider unthinking
mastery (Singh, 2018) and dwell instead in the affective
capaciousness that these literacies of no have generated.
For Massumi (2015), affect occupies a differential space
between the actual and the virtual. Such a link, according
to Truman (2019b), is speculative in that it “proposes, pro-
pels, and potentializes what could be” (p. 33). The various
noes that we articulated in this article and the current
proposition to sit in the affective space of not knowing
and not mastering enact “an affirmative investment in
another possibility” (Weiss, 2016, pp. 351–352). We know
there is privilege in being able to not know, to proposing
problems instead of solutions. However, it would be
12 | Reading Research Quarterly, 0(0)
irresponsible at this point to attempt a simple solution to
the problems that affect studies bring to the critical mod-
ernism and humanism of the Euro-Western project of lit-
eracy. We are not alone in our misgivings. Others have
written against the white savior narrative, against narra-
tives of rehabilitation, inclusion, and mastery (Luciano &
Chen, 2015; Puar, 2017; Singh, 2018; Tuck & Gaztambide-
Fernández, 2013).
Our argument in this article is that we need a kinder,
more capacious way of describing students (and teachers)
who refuse, a better recognition of the work involved in
refusing, and of honoring practices of refusal and the
affective atmosphere generated by them (Gadsden &
Harris, 2009). We would like to enter the space of no, the
space of the student who falls silent, who says no to par-
ticipating, as well as the teacher who leaves. These stu-
dents have too long been consigned to the bin of academic
writing to privilege the good girls who, unlike Abida, pro-
duce poetry on time. We are interested in the field of no as
a porthole to an alternative universe, a TARDIS (a nod to
Doctor Who) that rocks with the intelligence of another
kind of resistance. This is the beginning of many more
noes. We are aware of the grand narratives of literacy fix-
ing as a discourse of subjection (see, e.g., Northrop, 2017),
and we propose thinking alongside refusal and moments
of no as a way of reaching toward a way forward, a way
out, and a space for something else to take shape. We offer
this article as a failure (Halberstam, 2011) that refuses
rational knowledge, literacy as a panacea, saying yes, and
being good. Yet, we hope that within the cracks of this
article lies another vision, one that engages with no as a
moment that can lead us through a crack into another
universe that contains new answers and new questions.
This work was supported by grants from the following institutions: the
Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (158381),
the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/J011959/1), the
Australian Research Council (DP160101084), and the British Academy
1Affect builds capacity but also can decapacitate a body’s ability to act in
the future. In this regard, no, as well as being a political gesture, can
signal privilege and desperation. There is a risk in saying no in many
instances, but in others, it might be accompanied by the privilege of
being socially positioned in a way that allows someone to refuse.
Similarly, although we focus on individual actors in these vignettes, we
want to highlight that neither no nor affect is tethered to an individual.
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Submitted March 25, 2019
Final revision received December 1, 2019
Accepted January 7, 2020
SARAH E. TRUMAN (corresponding author) is a postdoctoral
research fellow in the Literary Education Lab at University of
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; email sarahe.truman@unimelb. She researches speculative fiction and literary
education, codirects WalkingLab (, and
is one half of Oblique Curiosities (http://obliquecuriosities.
com/). Her personal website is
ABIGAIL HACKETT is a research fellow at the Education
and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan
University, UK; email She is interested
in place, the more-than-human, and children’s lives.
KATE PAHL is a professor in the Faculty of Education at
Manchester Metropolitan University, UK; email k.pahl@ Her work is concerned with literacy practices in
communities, artistic methodologies, and coproduction.
LARIS SA MCLEAN DAVIES is an associate professor in the
Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne,
Victoria, Australia; email Her
research spans the fields of literary studies and English
HUGH ESCOTT is a senior lecturer in the Department
ofHumanities at Sheffield Hallam University, UK: email His research focuses on how language
and literacy are understood in everyday contexts and how
individuals negotiate or subvert institutional
conceptualizations of language and literacy.
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This essay offers a diffractive experiment in thinking and writing about the ethics of considering children as less than fully human by presenting readers with a text split in two columns with double-exposed pictures without humans.
It is well established that literacy as a social practice is fundamental to supporting and facilitating student learning across the years of schooling, and research has shown the importance of all teachers understanding the literacies of their learning areas and being able to mobilise effective literacy practices to support student learning outcomes. During the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic teachers across the globe were forced to (re)negotiate the reading, writing and speaking demands of learning and teaching in uncharted, digitally mediated environments. In this paper, we report on findings from a research project undertaken at a large secondary school in Victoria, Australia which investigated the ways in which teachers’ priorities during online learning impacted on their approaches to and enactment of disciplinary literacy. We identify two priorities that emerge from interviews with teachers during and after the COVID lockdown: (1) to support the development of student disciplinary and content knowledge and (2) to engage in pedagogies that consider cyber-safety and student-wellbeing. We explore these priorities in the context of teachers’ literacy knowledge and practices and students’ literacy engagement and learning, and consider the implications of this analysis for issues of equity and quality in fully online digital contexts.
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This article asserts that despite the salience of race in U.S. society, as a topic of scholarly inquiry, it remains untheorized. The article argues for a critical race theoretical perspective in education analogous to that of critical race theory in legal scholarship by developing three propositions: (1) race continues to be significant in the United States; (2) U.S. society is based on property rights rather than human rights; and (3) the intersection of race and property creates an analytical tool for understanding inequity. The article concludes with a look at the limitations of the current multicultural paradigm.