A year of reading, what’s it good for?

This is a draft of my 10-15 minute introduction, which I will present at the beginning of my oral exams tomorrow. Comments are welcome before 9am on Wednesday 10 September 2014.

Rather than spending this time at the beginning of my oral exam describing my three lists to you again, I thought I would talk a bit about my motivations in putting them together and how this exercise has been useful to me so far. I won’t go much in detail into what I learned from reading the individual texts (since that will certainly come up as I answer your questions); instead, I want to focus on practical concerns, on next steps based on what I know and don’t know now, on real world applications for all this thinking I’ve been doing. So, having spent a year or so reading, what’s it good for?

My motivation in putting these lists together was to help me get the scholarly acumen to pursue my personal commitments as an activist scholar. My own perspective as an activist scholar emerges from three different but related images of myself:

First, I see myself as a cultural theorist. I have a long history of work in critical race studies, feminism, and queer theory. Disability studies offered me a natural extension of my interests in social and cultural analysis, a new way of asking impertinent questions about what we think we know and how we have agreed as a society to operate.

Second, I am also a writing teacher, a worker within the contentious and pervasive institutional mechanism of literacy instruction that extends through nearly every college and university in the nation. This field offers me new ways to understand the importance of writing and education for adults, and it also gives me practical knowledge of how universities work, especially from the perspectives of writing program administrators, writing across the curriculum directors, and other hybrid faculty/administrator roles that folks like me tend to hold, often immediately after earning our degrees.

Finally, I am a person with learning disabilities who has chosen to make academic work his career. I’m someone who has difficulty carrying out the tasks of academic life for reasons believed by some to have root in my atypical brain–specifically my dyslexia. I am personally invested in understanding the kinds of challenges people like me face working in academia as it currently exists; and I am personally invested in imagining ways people like me–people we might call “neurodiverse”–can play an active role in changing the status quo of teaching, learning, and working in colleges and universities.

So, the purpose of this exam for me has not been simply to gain knowledge of a set of canonical texts for their own sake–it’s been more about utility. My aim was to get the lay of the land, as it were, for how currently published scholarship can support me in my commitments as an activist scholar.

My reading led me to some well-laid paths: for example, it led me to a robust body of scholarship by disability studies scholars in the humanities published over the last twenty-plus years. Likewise, it led me to the works of writing teachers and writing program administrators who, since the days of Open Admissions in the late 1960s, have been imagining new ways literacy instruction can support the success of students at odds with academic environments because of racial, ethnic, gender, and class differences.

It also led me to relatively obscure paths, especially in trying to better understand learning disabilities and other disabilities associated with neurological difference as they are experienced in colleges and universities. Here I had to draw upon a wide range of discourses from fields as diverse as neuroscience, psychology, educational technology, as well as the first-person accounts of memoirists and former students.

I still don’t feel I’m an expert in the topics I studied for this exam. While I have a much better lay of the land of what others have written, and while I feel I have grown much more conversant in the discourses of disability, learning, and teaching in higher ed, I still feel anxious about the gaps in my knowledge.

For instance, I still know very little about the history of disability accommodation practices on college campuses following the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973, an important landmark moment for disability in higher ed. Likewise, I don’t know, exactly, the rates at which LD or other neurodiverse student populations end up in remedial writing programs, or the ways their experiences in writing courses might contribute to the abysmal retention rates for these populations.

I don’t know these things partially because the secondary research doesn’t have much to say about them yet, or what is said is only provisional, out of date, or simply offers hints. It is partially for this reason that at the same time I’ve been doing this secondary research I have also begun my own primary research.

I have begun an IRB-approved study examining the history of disability service provision and disability policy in the CUNY system. Through a series of interviews and focus groups with current and former disability service providers, and by gathering and examining an archive of disability policy documents and service provider publications, I am attempting to study how disability politics and disability discourse have worked in real world institutions.

I am hoping that this research will move me out of the abstract realm of disability theory and into a practical understanding of how disability in higher education is affected by things like administrative policies and on-the-ground work by staff and faculty working in classrooms and boardrooms. I hope that I will discover insights from this research to help inform my work promoting access as as a progressive writing program administrator and activist scholar.

I will give just a few quick examples of the ways I’m trying to put my emerging expertise from this secondary and primary research to use. In March and July of last year, I gave presentations at national conferences arguing that writing teachers and WPAs have much to learn by better understanding the history of disability politics and inclusion on college campuses. I presented this timeline which synthesizes insights from all my research to re-present the history of progressive writing program theory, drawing new parallels to pushes for disability inclusion in higher education. Timeline Shared WPA/Dis ServicesBy contrasting the well-known history of writing-studies’s evolving approaches to student difference with the largely unknown history of disability activism and progressive inclusion in higher education, I hoped to help WPAs understand how current emerging interests in disability studies within composition/rhetoric represents not a disruption, but a culmination of our longstanding investments in social justice, diversity, and innovation.

To those same audiences, I also presented some early findings from my interviews and archive gathering, showing how disability service provider work has direct application in the writing classroom and the work of WPAs. For instance, I described the work of Anthony Collarossi, a former disability director at Kingsborrough Community College. Collarossi–an LD specialist, a former school counselor, and a self-identified person with disabilities–developed training materials for instructors at his campus based on Multiple Intelligence theory and cognitive psychology research on different learning styles. Class profile of learning styles He also designed and piloted a set of credit-baring gateway courses for at-risk students both with and without diagnosed disabilities, courses that blended together academic support, self-advocacy, and multimodal writing instruction. Writing teachers and WPAs alike have been enthusiastic, and have easily understood the importance of recovering these kinds of disability-inspired innovations for potential application to our own practices.

Finally, I have also applied my developing expertise to my work in peer teacher training. I have given three workshops over the last year for instructors in a range of disciplines, talking about disability and universal design for learning in college classrooms. Since my responsibilities as a future WPA will certainly involve teacher training and curricular design, it’s vital for me to have good working models for helping instructors understand disability as a more than merely a medical/legal concern for service providers to deal with.

I aim to develop workshops to help instructors work through their own disability biases and come to understand the power of disability stigma, allowing them to re-envision disability not as a problem of student deficiency but as a problem of curricular access, of social discrimination, and of cultural bias. I hope the next two years of my dissertation work will give me more opportunities to develop workshop models, teacher resources, and other tools for working disability praxis in real institutional contexts.

I’ll wrap up by saying that one final outcome of this year of study, the feeling that I have found other scholars in my field interested in the intersections of disability studies and composition/rhetoric, people actively publishing and supporting the work of emerging scholars like myself. In short, that I’ve found my tribe, especially in places like the active DisabilityRhetoric online community and the faculty working in the CCCC committee on disability issues. I’ve made personal connections with scholars whose work inspires my own, and as one result of this connection, I will be presenting on a panel with Margaret Price about disability studies methodologies for composition research next March.

None of what I’ve said so far directly addresses the questions of what I’ve been reading for the last year and what I think about the ideas and concerns of individual scholars, how I make sense of the wide range of debates that focus my lists. I’m eager to talk about that now. I hope what I have done, however, is give you a sense of what I see this exercise as being good for, both so far and looking forward toward my future research and practice. So let’s get down to the questions.

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3 thoughts on “A year of reading, what’s it good for?

  1. Mikayla ZM says:

    Hey Andrew,

    I think this is a beautiful piece. It’s a strong opening statement and I might find myself referencing this as I rework and revise my opening statement for my own exam (next week– eek!). Here’s my question/issue/clarification: you mention that it is a year of reading and ask what it is good for, but it lead me to wonder what you mean by a year of reading. If it’s a year of reading outside of the classroom and just on lists you had solidified a year previously, that’s great– if you solidified the lists six weeks ago and you spent a year reading and put the texts onto the list, then that is great too. My big question is what you mean by a year of reading, so that I can better understand that experience in the other experiences that you put forth for your committee.

    Overall, it is a beautiful piece… I just want to know what form your ‘year’ took to help understand your process (or point this out, especially if your committee may or may not know this journey).

    • Thanks for the encouraging comment, Mikayla! I totally get your confusion about what I mean by “a year of reading.” Since I wrote the draft to be read to my orals committee, it assumes the reader understands in advance what my orals reading process was like, how and when I made my lists, etc. I should have included a longer introduction for the blog audience, or perhaps linked to a previous post where I explained the list formation process.

      Good luck on your own exam–not that I think you’ll need luck. I hope we get the chance to de-brief and generally chat when we’re both on the other side of the woods. Feel free to send any drafts my way if you want me to return the favor you’ve done me by reading my work.

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