The Refusal Turn

Natalia Smirnov

Emergency Exit 0 by Dounya Salehi (full series)

Every scholarly discipline has been enriched, expanded, and enlivened by a number of historical “turns.” In Educational Theory and Research – the field I was trained in – the foundation of psychological behaviorism took a “cognitive turn” after the 1960s, which led to the application of new methods and models to the study of human thinking and learning. Previously, scholars would only advance scientific claims based on observations of what experimental subjects did and said, but the cognitivists bravely endeavored to make maps and schemas of what people might be thinking inside their heads. Their explorations gave us such now-popular concepts as “mental models,” “procedural memory,” and “conscious competence.” The field’s path was further opened up by encounters with sociolinguistics, anthropology, computer science, economics, each paving a “turn” of their own and setting up new constructs as visitor attractions and fuel stops for future theorizing. The many monickers of the Special Interest Groups at the field’s annual conference catalogue the proliferating sub-turns of the 100-year-old discipline: the cultural historical turn, the political turn, the post-structural turn, the sociomaterial turn, the embodiment turn, the organizational turn, the hip-hop turn, the queer theory turn, the social network analysis turn, the digital turn. 

I carved out my own doctoral journey by stretching my field’s normative expectations into “post-qualitative feminist research” and “participatory socio-technical design” –  quasi-esoteric detours that my dissertation committee mostly tolerated. Still, they encouraged me to pay homage to my discipline’s most driven highways–these, of course, led to the few available academic jobs. The turns I made had to include within them a re-affirmation of the canon, even when the point of making the turn was to avoid the discipline’s positivist foundations and the fetish for churning out findings abstracted from living contexts of research.

I remember an academic writing group I briefly organized with some of my graduate colleagues. We called the group “Beating the Dead Horse.” The grim name meant to capture the experience of trying to publish our early-career research in academic journals: re-working the same idea for multiple years, anxiously constructing elaborate paragraphic demonstrations of our mastery over the discourse and the field’s prior literature on the subject, excising any evidence of our messy desiring bodies from participating in (and thus contaminating) the research, just to contribute an idea that by the end of the process felt so small and obvious yet made so intricately complicated that it was embarrassing to talk about it with anyone other than fellow academics that had spent years drinking the same Kool-Aid. 

Recently, several disciplines have been signaling something potentially new, a turn of a different order. Kyle Olson (this issue) writes about an example of ethnographic refusal that so shook the field Anthropology it ended up winning multiple academic awards. I saw it emerging in my field too, led, as always, by people who had already risked everything and had the most to lose:  Indigenous scholars refusing the basic neocolonial contract of education research – getting “subjects” to offer up “data” to fuel more “contributions” to the academy (Tuck & Yang, 2014), Black scholars refusing to treat images of policed Black bodies as “texts” (Dumas, 2015) or to feed poverty-/resilience-porn narratives when studying learners who happened to be non-white. 

Is the Refusal Turn something different than the previous turns, something that refuses to pay tribute to the canon and beat its many dead horses? Could this turn, rather than branching fractally off of the original DNA, instead turn on itself, begin to eat and metabolize and decompose its own material, like a cancer, an ouroboros, an auto-cannibal? 

Many of the contributors in this inaugural issue experiment with this form of refusal – a refusal that turns back on and eats itself. In their essay celebrating artistic risk-taking, Mat Keel and Liz Lessner reference Brasilian poet Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 Cannibal Manifesto (Manifesto Antropofago), which calls for cultural cannibalism as a method of “absorption of the sacred enemy.” We see this method ceremonially and almost surgically demonstrated in Alexis Quinlan’s poems, which cannibalize texts from a public school curriculum and an international political science journal to evoke solastalgia – the feeling of existential distress caused by environmental destruction. We see it in Luke Martin’s instructions for creating and reciting erasure poems as “spectral cries” for the dead. We see it in Henry Blanke’s personal struggle against becoming a thing inside a Thingification factory and Akilesh Ayyar’s poetry that plays with alliteration and crunch, as if masticating a flavorless existence, a contrast to Steve Koteff’s fictional vision of the annihilatingly addictive vegan burger and the self-consuming culture that produces it. 

There’s another kind of refusal that haunts this issue: refusal of the savior, the curative fantasy, the expected path. In his poem “At the Gate,” Alan Seltzer refuses the sadistic guru, while in “Playing the Hats Off Game” Kim Willis rejects the whimsical therapy that wants to liberate her from her private attachment to the constantly lurking void. In their essays, Fulano de Tal and Kyle Olson respectively refuse the conservative and complicit fantasies of the superhero narrative and the hero-archeologist narrative, wishing to metabolize a new kind of story that’s worth the life energy and attention it demands. Dounya Salehi’s digital image series Emergency Exit helps to visually tie this issue together, presenting 11 surreal scenes of paradoxical and self-recursive escapes. 

In Pleasure Activism, activist and author adrienne maree brown writes that refusal makes room for a more authentic “yes.”  We have created this journal with the hope of nurturing a space for generative breakdown and reassemblage of life. We expect our inherited world will give us many things to destroy and decompose. Join us as we dance on the graves of our former heroes, and party in the ruins of tradition. 


Brown, Adrienne M. 2019. Pleasure Activism: the Politics of Feeling Good. Chico: AK Press. 

Dumas, M. (2015). “Antiblackness and Black Futurity in Research on Urban Communities and Schooling.”

Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2014). Unbecoming claims: Pedagogies of refusal in qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry, 20(6), 811-818.

Natalia Smirnov is a writer, researcher, and experience designer living in Philadelphia. She works as an independent consultant to various institutions and organizes post-capitalist educational experiments at Incite Seminars and other non-legacy organizations. She has a PhD in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University.