In Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference, Stephanie Kerschbaum makes disability theoretically, methodologically, and analytically important, yet her book avoids the tendency to either focus solely on disability or include disability in a long list of diverse identities (and then roll on by). Instead, this book suggests that disability is particularly important as a vantage point from which to position arguments about difference. Kerschbaum's is a new kind of book at a time when disability scholars can and must consider how to include disability in the broader context of diversity and difference.

At the heart of this book is Kerschbaum's claim that we must be critical of difference as a pre-existing or static entity, which she refers to as "fixing difference." This common practice is characterized by "treating difference as a stable thing or property that can be identified and fixed in place" (6), and she argues that this is problematic because it reads individual interactions as semi-inevitable manifestations of broader identity categories, and over-emphasizes taxonomizing and categorizing difference (2, 9). Instead of fixing difference, she suggests "marking difference," which considers difference as produced in interactions between people, or as Kerschbaum notes, marking difference is the process where "speakers and audiences alike display and respond to markers of difference, those rhetorical cues that signal the presence of difference between two or more participants" (7). She suggests that marking difference can "provide a new set of tools for tracing and analyzing patterns in how we might understand each other" (7), and she's right.

To articulate this concept of marking difference, Kerschbaum engages in sustained theoretical discussion, with attention to her own experience as a deaf woman (introduction and Chapter 2); she examines discourses of diversity in university policy documents (Chapter 1 and a brief coda); and she closely analyzes students talking to each other about their writing (Chapters 3 and 4). This book is clearly situated in the field of writing studies, particularly students' interactions in peer writing groups in first-year composition classrooms. The data for the second half of the book (Chapters 3 and 4) comes from her sustained observation of a composition course, and her voluminous data includes recordings of class sessions, all student writing produced in the course, interviews with particular students, and more (11). Her goal, in part, is "the development of pedagogical resources that attend simultaneously to the broad categories that shape our perception of the world and to the highly individual encounters we experience on a daily basis" (6). As such, she considers how difference matters when we teach, work one-on-one with students, and respond to student writing. However, while the book's thorough research, particularly around peer review, clearly reveals the value of the text for those in rhetoric and composition, Kerschbaum's broader point about how we consider and analyze difference is relevant for all scholars, and is particularly important for disability scholars because Kerschbaum's grounding of difference in specific, everyday conversations (in the classroom and beyond) importantly complements the typically more theoretical writing focused on negotiating disability identity in disability studies scholarship.

Teachers will be particularly interested in Kerschbaum's attention to the difficulty of taking what is learned in theoretical scholarship into real-time classroom situations, and she is attentive to the experiences of new teachers. I was engaged by the ways she positions students as authorities on difference, as revealed by the ways she not only analyzes what students say, but truly listens to their wisdom, instead of positioning herself as the diversity scholar who inevitably knows more than they do. Her claim that we learn with, instead of about, students, is at the heart of her arguments about difference, particularly in Chapter 2 (57). As I read this book and finished up teaching an undergraduate class, I found my own views regarding what I was teaching students about disability, and what I was learning from and with them, to significantly shift.

I believe the most ground-breaking part of this book is how Kerschbaum positions herself as a researcher and teacher. While she does not explicitly focus on reflexive methodology, she makes clear how her subject position as a disabled researcher is relevant to her work on difference. Early on, she comments on how her own subjectivity shapes her interactional theory of difference: "My own identity as a deaf woman has contributed to the development of this theory, as I regularly find myself making minute adjustments in response to unfolding awareness of how others perceive my deafness and assume its relevance for our interactions" (7). She returns to this topic again later in the introduction, when she identifies "[a]s deaf woman who is often the only deaf person in the room," and how this shapes her "interactional preferences" (24-25). In these ways, disability traverses this text, even though the data she examines, particularly in Chapters 3 and 4, is not disability-specific; indeed, her book does something different than existing, important work on disability and intersectionality (see Erevelles and Minear).

Disability also subtly shapes Kerschbaum's methodology. She describes the interdependent manner of transcribing the audio recordings of conversations students had with each other and with her, and she notes that she reviewed some of the recordings herself, that others also did some processing and reviewing of the audio, and that she chose not to focus on certain audio features, both because they weren't central to her study and because she couldn't hear them. As someone who has done similar work transcribing interviews with students, her description made me realize the richness of her interdependent approach compared to my solitary one, and how traditional research methodology functions in ableist ways by assuming that there must always be a primarily single "listener" to audio recordings (see Price).

Kerschbaum's chapters work together without repetition. Chapter 1 is a thoughtful reading of institutional discourses of difference via an analysis of diversity documents at "Midwestern University" from 2003-2012, with particular attention given to a ten-year plan known as the Midwestern University Diversity Agenda. Kerschbaum focuses on the "incongruity between justifications for diversity based on social justice or educational quality and justifications for diversity that draw on market values" (35). I found the analysis of these diversity discourses to lay a solid foundation for the book's later chapters, though given Kerschbaum's focus on how difference is interactionally negotiated, it was less clear to me how this happened in these diversity documents.

Chapter 2 continues the work of the introduction by tracing "difference as dynamic, relational, and emergent" (57). Emphasizing how teachers learn with students, Kerschbaum is careful to locate difference in interactions, not against some real or perceived norm (71-72). She spends time reading how teachers interpret difference, using Bakhtin and revisiting Ann Jurecic's "diagnosis" of Gregory, which draws on the work of other disability rhetoricians. This chapter is also where Kerschbaum digs into her own positionality as a researcher, and she uses herself as an example of her theory of difference when she claims, "I am not the same person I was when I felt that excitement at 'passing,' and I never seem to answer questions about my deafness the same way twice. I am always yet-to-be, always moving toward a new position or awareness, using different tools and resources for managing my identity in those situations" (69). She also subtly utilizes metaphors of hearing in this chapter, noting that marking difference asks us to "listen for what we cannot hear" (58), and she advocates for a "strategy for flexible listening" (63). This chapter provides rich possibilities for those thinking about how to integrate their own disabilities into their research.

Chapters 3 and 4 move into close analysis, and Kerschbaum is adept at both patiently parsing and thoughtfully interpreting her data. In Chapter 3, her "microanalyses" focus on interpreting transcripts of a peer review group consisting of three women, who discuss and debate concrete issues such as commas and using the phrase "in conclusion," as well as the larger topics of their high school experiences and their uneven abilities to understand each other's essays. Chapter 4 moves into more contentious territory, where students "mark difference but fail to engage those markers" (118). Kerschbaum focuses on the interaction of two students in a peer review group, Timothy and Emily, who disagree about Timothy's discussion of gay-bashing and sports in his paper, mostly through a discussion of an "if-then" clause. She also analyzes the discussion of three women in a peer review group, and how two white women in the group "identify with each other and pick up on cues that signal to them their similarity" (147). This chapter really pushed me to think about what it means to consider difference in interactions, rather than as pre-determined categories acting on students. In fact, as I read the analysis of Emily and Timothy, I found myself saying, "But Timothy is gay, shouldn't we be talking about that?" But this is Kerschbaum's genius — she doesn't ignore Timothy's identification, but instead focuses on what is happening in the interaction, rather than assuming that his categorical identification is the determining factor.

The vehemence with which Kerschbaum states her argument regarding marking difference is primarily a strength, but for me, also an occasional weakness in this book. Though she typically balances her theory of difference as interactional against other more categorical work on difference (see 92-93 for an example), she sometimes states more unequivocally that "difference is emergent" and "does not exist outside of the interactional moment, but rather, takes shape as individuals make choices about what to reveal about themselves, what to notice or comment on — or to not notice or comment on" (70). I find her point about how difference arises interactionally to be ground-breaking, but found myself agreeing with her more at the moments where she resists dismissing categorical work on difference.

Kerschbaum's book is primarily about opening up conversations rather than proffering prescriptive suggestions. Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference offers smart questions that urge readers to discover answers in contexts that are most relevant to them. Among many questions are these: "What conditions or factors motivate engagement with difference?" (15); "How do individuals position themselves alongside others?" (74); and "What spaces are available for teacher and student talk and interaction?" (115). Kerschbaum offers many answers, but ultimately begins rather than ends the conversation, mirroring her own arguments about the importance of finding meaning in interaction.

For those just beginning to consider disability in the context of diversity and difference, Kerschbaum models a passionate but flexible approach to considering how disability shapes scholarship on difference, and she offers a disability-accessible scholarship that emphasizes disability as always relevant, not simply topical. For disability scholars, she raises the bar on writing with disability, rather than about disability, much as she convincingly argues that we learn with, and not about, students on matters of difference.

Works Cited

  • Erevelles, Nirmala, and Andrea Minear. "Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality." Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 4.2 (2010): 127-145.
  • Price, Margaret. "Disability Studies Methodology: Explaining Ourselves to Ourselves." Practicing Research in Writing Studies: Reflexive and Ethically Responsible Research. Eds. Katrina M. Powell and Pamela Takayoshi. New York: Hampton Press, 2012. 159-186.
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Copyright (c) 2014 Amy Vidali

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