Jean Bessette

Department of English
University of Vermont
Burlington, VT 05405


Jean Bessette

I am an Associate Professor of English and the Director of Graduate Teaching Assistants at the University of Vermont.

My research and teaching bridge rhetoric and composition; gender, sexuality, and women's studies; archival and historiographic theory; and digital and multimedia studies.


Much of my work has been concerned with the rhetorical and ideological work of historiography: how collective rhetors have revised, composed, and leveraged versions of the past for present ends. Expanded Description / Downloadable CV

In particular, I investigate how the composition of history and the construction and manipulation of archives are rhetorical acts, deployed to shape gender and sexual identifications and negotiate difficult cultural and political terrain. This investigation undertakes an expansive understanding of "composing," looking to a range of primary sources from print newsletters and books to material archives to documentary films and digital media. In other projects, I have pursued related avenues of inquiry, including feminist historiography and digital humanistic methods and pedagogical approaches concerned with feminist/queer theory and audio composing. Downloadable CV

Peer-reviewed Publications


  1. Jean Bessette

    Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives: Composing Pasts and Futures. Southern Illinois University Press, Studies in Rhetorics and Feminisms Series, 2018.
    *Winner of the 2018 Winifred Bryan Horner Outstanding Book Award
    Book / Amazon / Flyer / Abstract

    From the 1950s to YouTube, American lesbian collectives have engaged in “retroactivism”— efforts to propel change in present identification and politics by composing and appropriating versions of the past. Through an archival and multimodal “scavenger methodology” (Halberstam), this book investigates the historiographic rhetorics employed by queer/lesbian communities as they contest and cohere in identification.

  3. "Unsettling the Archive Story" Unsettling Archival Research: Engaging Critical, Community, and Digital Archives. Southern Illinois University Press, forthcoming in 2022. Abstract

    This essay examines how the term “story” functions in archival research, noting both the power and romance of the term. Bessette argues that if we want archive stories to unsettle rather than settle archival research, we need to unpack what we mean by story, constellating the variations so that we might better understand its power and promise.
  4. "'Rightness' in Retrospect: Stonewall, the Archive, and the Sacred Call of Kairos." Responding to the Sacred: An Inquiry into the Limits of Rhetoric. Penn State University Press, 2021. Book / Abstract

  5. "'Love in a Hall of Mirrors': Queer Historiography and the Unsettling In-Between." Re/Orienting Writing Studies: Queer Methods, Queer Projects. Utah State University Press. 2019.
    *Collection won the 2020 CCCC Lavender Rhetorics Book Award
    Book / Abstract

    In this essay, I challenge and complicate binaries that can sidle into queer historiography in rhetoric and writing studies, arguing instead for a historiography of "love in a hall of mirrors" (Perrine). I investigate a series of binary pairs that can tempt queer historiographers, exploring how the mutual exclusivity and exhaustiveness of these pairs can be illusory and limiting. Beginning with the scene of archival research, I focus on the tensions between queer and archive, silence and speech, and how these tensions manifest through the ambivalent trope of the “closet.” I then move to reconsider evidence and ephemera, truth and fiction, as a way to rethink what evidence in the archive “proves” about queerness. Finally, I investigate the messy relations between past and present, self and other, in queer historiography, moving toward a more spectral—and rhetorical—understanding of history writing.
  6. "Closets and Classification: The Archive as an Epistemic Resource for Identity." Retellings: Opportunities for Feminist Research in Rhetoric and Composition Studies. Parlor Press. 2019. Book / Abstract

    This essay poses classification as a fundamental rhetorical topos in the context of queer history and archives. Taking the Lesbian Herstory Archives' schema of selection and arrangement as a case study, I identify three rhetorical strategies for composing a fluid, multiplicitous lesbian identity in the archive including fractured research, analogical association, and material synecdoche.
  7. "Queer Rhetoric in Situ." Rhetoric Review 35.2. March 2016.
    *Winner of the 2017 CCCC Lavender Rhetorics for Excellence in Queer Scholarship Article Award
    Article / Abstract

    Queer theory often poses normativity as a primary exigency and target for queer resistance, which can result in anticipatory and ahistorical readings. A methodology of “queer rhetoric in situ” intervenes in this propensity by examining the contingent, historically-specific relations between locally enforced norms, rhetors, acts, and multiple audiences. Queerness and normativity should be understood as shifting, fractured valences, rather than two cohesive opposing forces attached to perceived forms of sexual orientation, families, or activisms. A rhetorical case study of the Gay Liberation Monument’s controversial and delayed instantiation in New York’s Greenwich Village illustrates the stakes of this methodological shift.
  8. "Audio, Archives, and the Affordance of Listening in a Pedagogy of 'Difference'." Computers and Composition 39. December 2015. Article / Abstract

    In this article, I argue that the focus on production in theories of affordance can sublimate the engagement with texts and materials involved in any process of multimodal composing. While readerly engagement is important in any compositional process, attention to students’ engagement with texts and materials is particularly imperative in multimodal composition curricula that enact what Karen Kopelson has called a “pedagogical focus on ‘difference’,” (117) such as feminist, queer, or critical race perspectives that can face resistance from students. I contend that media that afford listening in the service of polyvocal audio collage may stoke greater student engagement with difference than technologies that afford less sustained kinds of reading, like blogs. In particular, I argue that audio archives, with their vast and incongruous contents, may afford more critical, iterative engagement.
  9. "Past-Writing: Negotiating the Complexity of Memory and Experience." Critical Expressivism: Theory and Practice in the Composition Classroom. Eds. Rosanne Gatto and Tara Roeder. Parlor Press, 2015. Chapter / Abstract

    This chapter argues for a "critical" personal writing pedagogy that accounts for the dynamic, processual, presentist, and social character of memory by drawing feminist writing pedagogies into conversation with theories of collective memory.
  10. "Meaningful Engagements: Feminist Historiography and the Digital Humanities.” With Jessica Enoch. College Composition and Communication 64.4. June 2013. Article / Abstract

    This essay explores potential connections between feminist historiography in rhetoric and the digital humanities. We investigate how specific digital innovations might invigorate feminist historiographic study, and we pause to consider how a turn to the digital might run counter to feminist methodological imperatives.
  11. "An Archive of Anecdotes: Raising Lesbian Consciousness after the Daughters of Bilitis." Rhetoric Society Quarterly 43.1. January 2013. Article / Abstract

    This essay attends to the archive as an “inventional site for rhetorical pasts” (Morris, “Introduction”) by examining the construction of a queer archive and its effects on lesbian subjects. Drawing on queer archival theories of ephemera, I argue that Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon’s Lesbian/Woman (1972) constitutes an archive of lesbian experience that functioned rhetorically as a communal and identificatory resource. Martin and Lyon rendered the experiences of women associated with the lesbian homophile organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, in the form of “anecdotes” and strategically curated them into middle-class categories designed in direct contrast to the gender and class transgressions of the lesbian bar scene. I identify the rhetorical effect on readers, “archival consciousness raising,” by analyzing autobiographical letters Martin and Lyon received in response and tracing the limits of this effect for more diverse lesbian readers.
  12. Associate Editor. The Best of Rhetoric and Composition 2011: Essays from the Independent Journals.. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press. Book

    Other Publications

  13. "Making Space." Journal for the History of Rhetoric 23.3. November 2020. Review Essay

  14. "Stacey Waite's 'Teaching Queer: Radical Possibilities for Teaching and Knowing'" Literacy in Composition Studies 6.1. April 2018. Book Review


Courses at the University of Vermont

ENGS 107: Writing in the Digital Age Description

In the dynamic medium of the web, writers “weave and orchestrate” language, sound, image, video, and code to produce the immersive and binge-worthy artifacts we all consume daily. In this project-based course, you will learn to compose creatively and effectively in multiple modes, making website portfolios, online magazine features, inquiry-based serial podcasts, and video remixes. No prior experience with digital technologies is necessary!

ENGS 50: Expository Writing Description

English 50 has been called “Expository Writing” for many years to signal its focus on writing that informs and explains; this is what “expository” means. But many experiences, phenomena, and feelings defy easy and clear communication. In this course, you will examine and enact non-fiction writing that attempts to express difficult subjects with imagination, art, and care. Authors include Eula Biss, Ta-Nahisi Coates, Edward Said, and others.

GSWS 200: Senior Seminar in Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Description

In "Feminist and queer theories of pasts and futures," this interdisciplinary seminar examines how feminist and queer writers, scholars, and activists have theorized, leveraged, and complicated experience and history in various, often divergent ways in the name of politics and action.

ENGS 345: Graduate Seminar on Theories and Practices of Composition Pedagogy Description

The goal of this course is to introduce Graduate Teaching assistants to some of the major pedagogical conversations in rhetoric, composition, and writing studies that should guide, inflect, and invigorate their work as a teacher of writing in English 1. Over the course of the semester, we will explore a variety of topics that have concerned scholars of composition pedagogy—ranging from inquiry to citizenship to digital composing to multilingualism. The project of the seminar is not only for us to listen to what scholars have had to say about these topics but also to engage these conversations ourselves, reflecting on how and why certain scholarship might resonate with our own pedagogical investments as well as with the programmatic goals of the writing program at the University of Vermont.

ENGS 281: Senior Seminar on Feminist History and Memory Description

Feminism has long been invested in the politics of personal experience. As Catherine MacKinnon wrote, "To say that the personal is political means that gender as a division of power is discoverable and verifiable through women's intimate experience…[T]o feminism, the personal is epistemologically the political, and its epistemology is its politics." This course takes up MacKinnon’s claim, thinking capaciously about how the maxim “the personal is political” has propelled feminist theory, politics, and practice. We will read a wide variety of critical and creative texts to consider how women have leveraged personal experience to forward theoretical principles and political projects, but we will also quickly move on to explore how broader understandings of experience, such as history, archives, and public memory, have invigorated feminist thinking and real-world activist work. The goal throughout the course will be for us to think expansively about how feminists have used the past (theirs and others) to reshape the world in which they live. The course culminates in a major research paper, annotated bibliography, and presentation.

ENGS 189: Contemporary Women Writers Across Media Description

This course focuses on contemporary women writers in ways that interrogate both terms, “women” and “writers.” We will read and interact with women’s work in a variety of genres and media, including short stories, poetry, comics and collage, documentary film, electronic literature, creative nonfiction, and theory. Our task will be to examine how and why these composers chose and adapted these forms to investigate issues of gender, race, relationships, embodied experience, and cultural life in the 21st century. We will become, in a sense, historicists of our own moment: asking what we can come to know about now through the language, experiences, and design of these "women" "writers."

ENGS 360: Graduate Seminar in Rhetoric and the Digital Humanities Description

As scholars, teachers, and students read, write, research, and experiment in digital environments at ever increasing rates, the field of English studies—including both literary and rhetorical studies—has transformed and expanded considerably. What has resulted (within and outside of English) is the “Digital Humanities,” a transdisciplinary, diverse field with roots from the post-World War II era to the present. The Digital Humanities (DH) has posed significant challenges to English studies, raising new intellectual problems, disciplinary paradigms, and well-financed institutional projects. This course serves as an introduction to DH: what it is, how it shapes research methods, expression, and epistemology in English Studies, and how you might begin to connect your particular research interests to the aims and practices of DH. At the same time, this course is a brief introduction to rhetorical studies—another field that is thriving in the English academic job market. We will consider: in what ways are DH questions, methods, representations, and tools rhetorical? Digital technologies and tools, such as data visualizations, mark-up languages, and interface design, shape our interaction with scholarship and research; these technologies and tools rely on assumptions about, and even transform, our objects of study. The rhetorical impact of digital tools and DH advancements has also shaped approaches to pedagogy in the contemporary university through emphasis on collaborative, student-centered, and digital learning environments.

ENGS 212 and ENGS 107: Digital Rhetorics

Contemporary writers in digital spaces combine text, image, sound, video, and code to communicate more publicly and more quickly than ever before. This course is an in-depth survey of these reading and writing practices, focusing on theoretical innovations in rhetorical, new media, and technology studies, as well as on digital composing practice. You will compose in a small variety of media, from alphabetic essays to websites to video remixes. However, you need no prior experience with digital composing to succeed in this class. Think of our class as a “collaboratory,” wherein you experiment with new digital tools, learning from and teaching your peers. This is a rhetoric, rather than literature, course, so the readings and forms of analysis may differ from other English classes you might have taken. Instead of book-length fiction, our readings will primarily be article-length theory that explores how language, audio-video, code, and the Internet create meaning, connection, and change. But we will also spend a good deal of time with creative digital objects, such as remixes, interactive e-literature, and visualizations, which you will both analyze and make. This course, then, combines theory and practice, the abstract and particular, thinking and doing.

ENGS 1: Written Expression

This first-year writing course for students outside the CAS focuses on teaching the tools and habits of mind to craft written expression for a variety of audiences. With an enduring focus on process, students are introduced to strategies for inventing and organizing their ideas, and given opportunities for frequent and substantial revision. Students write, revise, and revise again with increasing attention to the effects of their rhetorical choices and participate in regular peer review workshops to practice reading, speaking about, and revising their writing. Assignments range from creative non-fiction to specialist research essays to magazine-style informative feature stories.

ENGS 50: Expository Writing

In this mid-level composition course, students compose "expository" writing (writing that explains and informs) in a variety of genres, from complex creative nonfiction to fully-designed magazine features with images and layout. There is a research component to this course that bridges the major assignments, as students transform and translate their research for different audiences, purposes, and genres.

ENGS 107: Feminist Rhetorical and Critical Theory

This mid-level course for English majors focuses on feminist theories that critique and experiment with language, modes of persuasion, and meaning making. We consider how feminist scholars, writers, and activists have challenged traditional language practices and proposed innovative alternatives for thinking about communication and composing. Our readings include Judith Butler, Jack Halberstam, Adrienne Rich, Dorothy Allison, Joan Wallach Scott, and Sojourner Truth, among others. Writing assignments encourage critical and creative invention with opportunities for substantial revision.

Courses at the University of Pittsburgh

  • ENGCMP 203: Composition: Gender Studies Description
  • In this first-year composition course, cross-listed with Women’s Studies, I designed sequences of alphabetic and multimodal assignments that help students develop an understanding of how they and others use writing to interpret and share experience, affect behavior, and position themselves in a world organized by gender. Toward these goals, students read gender theory, feminist blogs, gay liberation radio show archives, and graphic novels; they also compose alphabetic, audio, and video essays.
  • ENGCMP 422: Writing for the Public Description
  • This mid-level course, part of the Public and Professional Writing certificate program, examines the theory and practice of writing to various publics. I ask students to select, research, and compose a single activist issue of their choice throughout the semester, and assign writing in a variety of public genres such as feature stories, newsletters, blogs, and fact sheets. The course explores the impact of rhetorical contexts on writing, persuasive strategies for addressing different audiences, and the ethics of writing for the public(s).
  • ENGCMP 420: Written Professional Communication Description
  • This mid-level course is part of the Public and Professional writing certificate program and explores the methods of inquiry, analysis, and composition of written communication in professional settings. I design sequences of reading and writing assignments to encourage students to examine such writing’s specialized use of language, conventions, formats, premises, motives, purposes, and ethical considerations. By preparing letters, resumes, proposals, reports, and other genres, students examine how and why “professional” communication functions.
  • ENGCMP 200: Seminar in Composition Description
In this first-year composition course, I design assignment sequences that encourage students to engage in writing as a creative, disciplined form of critical inquiry; to address challenging questions about the consequences of their own writing; to compose thoughtfully crafted essays that position their views among those of others, and to write with precision, nuance, and awareness of textual conventions.


Selected Scholarly Activities

I am a Managing Editorial Board member of the journal, QED: A Journal for Queer Worldmaking.

I also serve as an Editorial Board member for Enculturation

I direct, train, and mentor Graduate Teaching Assistants as they teach first-year writing at UVM

For department and university-level committee service, please see my CV.


PhD. University of Pittsburgh. 2013

Dissertation: Composing Historical Activism: Anecdotes, Archives, and Multimodality in Rhetorics of Lesbian History. University of Pittsburgh.

Supervisors: Jessica Enoch (University of Maryland) and Jean Ferguson Carr. Abstract

My dissertation investigates the rhetorical strategies three lesbian collectives used to compose and leverage their historical work, focusing on the Daughters of Bilitis (the first lesbian activist organization in the US), the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and contemporary multimodal composers of lesbian historiography. I examine these collectives’ activist efforts to deconstruct pejorative historical accounts of lesbianism that support then-present accusations of pathology and to create new accounts in their place. I contend that they employ inventive rhetorics of history such as “anecdotal clusters,” experiential queer archival classifications, and fabricated or manipulated archival evidence in multimodal compositions. Taking into account the various technologies through which these lesbian activists compose history, ranging from print to archivization to film to digital media, I argue that their rhetorical strategies and different uses of technology help lesbian historical activists compose radical versions of a queer past that challenge present oppressions and static consolidations of lesbian identity. My methodology entails archival research contextualized by queer and feminist rhetorical, historiographic, and multimodal theory.

BA. Seattle University. 2006.