“No:” affect and refusal as theoretical interventions into literacy design and practice

Year: 2019

Author: Truman, Sarah, Pahl, Kate, McLean, Davies, Larissa, Hackett, Abi, Escott, Hugh

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper considers the productive potential of designing research in literacy practices around theories of affect. In conversation with critiques of design discourses as being telos driven and knowable in advance we posit how an attention to affect, specifically the affect generated through participants and research subjects saying ‘no’ to literacy practices and research design makes room for productive indeterminacy. The paper draws on our collective fieldwork in three different countries to attune to the different registers of ‘no’ including: ‘no not like this’ (quitting), ‘no not now’ (whispering, later), ‘no, my own way’ (writing as refusal), and ‘no not at all’ (refusal to participate in research).

Theoretical Perspectives

Affect theory is gaining momentum in literacy research and offers significant potential to untether literacy practices from euro-western colonial practices. Through attention to non-conscious, non-cognitive, and trans-individual bodily forces and capacities, affect disrupts measurements of who counts as a literate subject and what counts as a literacy event. Specifically focusing on the effect/affect of participants’ refusal to participate in literacy designs, this paper holds space for indeterminacy as a potentially generative approach to research. In normative approaches to literacy the wilful child, the recalcitrant student, the vulnerable and affected teacher trainee who resists are frequently framed as a ‘problem’ that requires action, a solution, a redesign. We think “frictionally” with affect and literacy to propose problems rather than solutions: along with our participants we resist ‘solution focused’ research design in which resistance is to be overcome, co-opted or solved. Drawing on affect theory in conversation with critical literacy scholarship that acknowledges the power of the ‘deliberate silence’ and other forms of ‘refusal’ our paper highlights how saying no to literacy design on various registers can rupture knowability in productive ways that can’t be planned in advance.


We highlight the affective potential of saying 'no' to normative understandings of literacy design by thinking with a series of vignettes from our research settings with diverse participants including: a secondary English teacher; a two-year-old child; and a group of secondary school students – all of whom refused to participate in literacy events and research in various ways. We think-with affective vignettes in connection with literacy practices in two ways; firstly, we highlight the affective potential of saying no to normative understandings of literacy design, and secondly, we examine how attention to affect ruptures humanist logics that inform normative approaches to literacy.