Category Archives: Annotated Bibliography

Diversity for Sale, Difference in Action: Stephanie Kerschbaum’s Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference

Summary and Response

Stephanie Kerschbaum’s Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference (2014) represents a turning point in disability studies research for writing studies. While the monograph–published by CCCC and the NCTE and recently chosen to receive the 2015 CCCC Advancement of Knowledge Award–clearly claims disability studies its topical home, it is not primarily a study of either disability as a category or disabled students as a population. Instead, Kerschbaum applies a disability studies mentality to the study of difference across identity categories, especially racial/ethnic categories associated in higher education institutional discourse about diversity.

Kerschbaum analyzes a range of institutional documents from a large midwestern university (MU) to show how the university imagines diversity as a purely quantifiable demographic feature, measurable by the number of racially/ethnically marked bodied admitted and retained on campus. Within this model, diversity is valued for the marketability it provides both the university and the white students who learn about difference by virtue of their campus encounters with diverse others. She contrasts this static, determinist view of diversity with a recognition that difference is neither static nor inherent in bodies. By analyzing transcripts of students interacting in the writing classroom, Kerschbaum identifies how interlocutors experience difference as a rhetorical phenomenon, marking and negotiating interpersonal differences in worldview and identity in flexible, moment-by-moment interactions. Rather than fixating on rigid, determinist ideas about difference and diversity, Kerschbaum models a de-essentializing process of “flexible listening” that invites all classroom participants (instructor and student alike) to reflect on the effects of interpersonal difference for rhetors, learners, and instructors.

Those not already familiar with disability studies might miss how much Kerschbaum’s approach draws from the field’s central tenets, especially the relational model of disability. The most obvious moments where DS scholarship and perspectives enter the study appear in her second chapter, “Marking Difference: The Emergence of Difference as an Interactional Phenomenon,” where she contrasts two understandings of embodied difference that relate to disability. First, she summarizes work by Ann Juracic, who published two articles about presumed-autistic students in her writing classroom. Juracic drew criticism from DS scholars for “diagnosing” the student in her study with Asperger’s Syndrome and seeming to base her perspective on autism in the classroom purely on the medical-pathology model. Kerschbaum contrasts this approach to embodied difference with DS perspectives, which deny biological determinist definitions of difference (i.e. you are different as a result of your autism); rather, DS scholarship shows that that difference emerges in interaction among diverse individuals, and is thus and experience shared by everyone involved in a particular rhetorical act. This insight emerges in part from DS perspectives on communication across disability lines: whereas mainstream, ableist perspectives might hold that Deaf or hard-of-hearing people bear the burden of getting by in “normal,” auditory communication, DS asserts that the hearing person shares an equal responsibility to participate in accessible communication. This does not mean that hearing people should become experts in Deaf communication (as Juracic advocates writing teachers becoming experts in Autistic communication), but rather that they approach communication as a mutually-negotiated act, where they adapt to the needs of all parties on a case-by-case basis.

Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference. Urbana, IL: Conference on College Composition and Communication/National Council of Teachers of English, 2014.

Reflections for my own dissertation work: diversity discourse vs disability discourse? 

Like other recent work on disability in higher education–I’m thinking of Margaret Price’s work here–Kerschbaum uses a critical discourse analysis (CDA) methodology throughout her study. It is in this respect that her study offers a useful model for my own project on disability services and institutionalized discourse about “disability” in the CUNY system. Kershbaum’s first chapter shows a detailed analysis of a set of institutional documents from MU, including public reports and diversity initiatives penned by the administration. She uses CDA to unpack the ideology embedded in these documents, especially focusing on what we learn by the use of pronouns us, we, our. This approach inspires me to examine the rhetoric about disability inclusion put out by the CUNY administration–I may find it trickier to come up with prominent public texts to analyze. A few possibilities: each of the issues of CUNY’s internally published guide for faculty, Reasonable Accommodations, includes forewords by university chancellors and other administrators, often summarizing college attitudes about disability access or describing goals for the future. These might prove fruitful. Likewise, in the past, I have also examined the language used to address students and faculty on disability services web pages from across the system. I am still in the process of gathering artifacts that document institutional discourse about disability access: Kerschbaum’s work provides a useful model and a possible point of comparison for this work.

I am also interested in reflecting further on Kerschbaum’s analysis of the way college diversity rhetoric reflects values of neoliberal market awareness, framing the accumulation of difference as a valuable asset for the university. It strikes me that disability is rarely described in this way, but instead (this is a hunch that I need evidence for) described as a moral obligation for the system or as a disruption imposed from the law, rather than from the market. This question about marketability leads me to ponder two loose ends that have emerged recently from my interviews with disability services directors from across the CUNY system.

Strand one–Rebranding disability as diversity. A few of the disability service directors I interviewed discussed the desire to re-brand disability inclusion as a diversity issue. While CUNY markets its racial/ethnic diversity very strongly, they didn’t see disability being included in the diversity conversation. They discussed how diversity potentially provided a more positive, stigma-free connotation to the work, which could draw more students to seek out services. I wonder if one way to track this re-branding of disability might be to track the shift from calling them “disability services” offices toward more neutral-sounding names like “access-ability” offices.

Strand two–marketing disability in the workforce. Recently, I learned about the CUNY LEEDS program, which provides career counseling and job mentorship for disabled students, especially aimed at getting them good employment after they graduate. This program seems to be unusual on the national landscape of disability work in higher ed. Speaking with one of the program’s director, I learned that in March 2014, amendments to section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 came into effect that established a benchmark for federal contractors that 7% of their workforce be disabled people ( The program director suggested that this change in the law, essentially, provided a new opportunity for marketing disabled students following graduation, and potentially provided new leverage with the institution for justifying the work of the program.

These leads might not take me anywhere particular, but they both shook loose as I thought through Kerschbaum’s excellent study and how it might influence my own dissertation project in progress.

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Beat the system, win the game: Response to Mooney and Cole’s Learning Outside the Lines

In their hybrid memoir/self-help book, Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give you the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution (2000), Jonathan Mooney and David Cole reflect on their experiences as LD/ADHD students who endured educational failure and went on to succeed in the Ivy Leagues, not by conforming to the mold of traditional education, but by accepting their unique strengths as atypical learners and beating the academic game. They aim their book at other LD/ADHD students who are poised to make the leap into college; using a playfully wry tone, they deflate the hype of college as a utopian environment for learning, instead calling it what it is, a landscape that can be as restrictive and disempowering as elementary schools often are for LD/ADHD students. Learning Outside the Lines offers readers a set of models for confront the challenges of being an LD/ADHD college student realistically, showing that academic success is possible and within the grasp of even people who have faced extreme educational failure in the past.

The first section of the book is the most akin to genres of creative nonfiction. The first two chapters present biographical narratives from the two authors, documenting their traumatic experiences in elementary and high school and their eventual acceptance to Brown University where they met. In both narratives, the authors recount how they were demoralized and alienated from prescriptive educational systems sadistically bent on matters like spelling, handwriting, and sitting still. Despite the authors’ considerable creative skills as storytellers and artists, they were made to think of themselves as lazy, crazy, or bad — identities they were only able to dispel as unfair later in life. Here Mooney, who had discovered his talent for English studies, finds himself once again failing under an instructor who believes spelling and handwriting trump creative skill and inventiveness:

“I wanted to tell all of [the other students] that good handwriting and spelling and following the rules of some pathetic high school English teacher did not make them smart. But the most frightening thing that I grew to understand that year is how intelligence is a construct, and the rules of that environment, where form is the gatekeeper to content, did make them smarter than I was” (42)

Thanks to the autobiographical focus of the book, theoretical observations like Mooney’s musing on the constructed nature of intellignece emerge as reflections on lived experience, rather than theory for theory’s sake. In the chapter that closes their autobiographical segment of the book, “Institutionalized,” the authors reflect on how they met at Brown university and came to recognize their experiences as indicative of skewed institutional priorities in the educational system. In particular, they characterize most elementary education as being about moral and behavioral training, wherein students are taught that whose who learn easily and behave appropriately are rewarded and thought of as good, and those who learn poorly in the received environment and disrupt the order of the classroom are punished and treated as morally bad. While diagnosis of learning disability and ADHD in some way justifies this “bad” behavior, it does not identify the problem of the system in the environment, but instead locates it in the deficient/medicalized student.

Based on this experience, the authors lay out a curriculum for self-empowerment aimed to help their readers achieve academic and personal success. The key features of their plan are as follows:

1. Confront the trauma of educational failure, including lingering psychological effects

2. Understand individual strengths and weaknesses

3. Understand the tasks and rules of academic success in this new educational environment (colleges and universities)

4. Build skills and work habits that work with individual strengths and weaknesses

5. Build a positive self-image outside of academic performance

The majority of the book is devoted to number 4. In “Schooled,” the authors break down the necessary academic skills needed for success into chapters on topics like note taking, class participation, exams, and writing. In each one, they offer multiple routes to success, each articulate to match different learning styles. Employing Howard Gardner’s model of multiple intelligence, they allow readers to mix-and-match the study habits that will work best for them, including a heavy emphasis on oral, social, kinetic, and multisensory approaches to learning. In addition to these learning and performance tips, they also advocate self-advocacy skills, such as arguing for appropriate accommodations, and also recommend the usefulness of student support services like writing centers and campus mental health services.

I was impressed by many of the recommendations Mooney and Cole make in their extended skills section. Most compelling to me was their breakdown of the difficulties LD/ADHD students face with writing. In essence, they identify writing as a constraining linear practice, which opposed LD/ADHD ways of making/thinking which tend to be visual and multidimensional. Here’s an exemplary passage:

In short, our thoughts are three-dimensional, but the medium of writing is at best two-dimensional, drawing primarily on logical and sequential skills. . . . The second reason writing is so difficult is a historical one going back to elementary school (you could have guessed that one). Those feelings of shame and emotional distress while writing come from the fact that at an early age, we learned that writing is the gatekeeper to intelligence, right up there with reading. . . . However, writing is a confused and dishonest academic discipline.” (159)

Taking this skeptical view of academic writing, the authors break down the “game” of successful performance on a large writing task into tiny parts, offering students multiple alternatives for navigating the writing process designed to suit their individual writing processes. To make the process more manageable and less anxiety provoking, they advocate a system of multiple drafts, incorporating a range of visual outlining and brainstroming practices, peer feedback, and mental focusing activities. Their suggestions strike me as pedagogically sound, and their breakdown of the specific difficulties LD/ADHD folks face in writing will be useful for me later on in my research. I could imagine assigning this chapter to introductory writing classes at almost any level.

While I’m talking about writing, I should mention a growing trend I’m noticing in these memoirs, namely the way they reference their own composition. Looking back, Harry Sylvester, who described himself as a total non-writer, made much of the dictation/peer editing process he used to compose his memoir. Similarly, Temple Grandin describes her own compositional process changing over time as she comes to understand NT and ND people better. In his foreword, Oliver Sacks comments on the licidity of Grandin’s most recent memoir compared to her earlier work, which needed editors and co-writers to be coherent to an audience.

In Learning Outside the Lines, Mooney and Cole describe their composition process in similar terms, citing collaboration as a key factor in their success. Mooney and Cole collaborated on the book’s outline, but Mooney wrote the majority of the actual content, they explain. Cole (I gather from his narrative) has more extreme writing anxiety and less interest in literary expression (he is a visual artist). Mooney, however, explains multiple times in the book that he is entirely reliant on his mother for proof reading and copyediting, and he has a practice of faxing her manuscripts for correction, including the MS for this book.

I am not sure what to make of these moments where attention is drawn to the composition process. In one sense, they are unusual only in that the authors are drawing attention to a process that is typically erased by able-minded authors. Another author might give their editor a polite thank you in the acknowledgement, but they will typically not reveal the full negotiationan and revision process the work went through: this is all erased in the process of taking on the authority as “author” of a finished work. However, in the case of these memoirs, they are speaking to an audience of ND outsiders, who might see a project like writing a book as impossible. By foregrounding the collaborative composition process that went into making the books, these authors combat the idea that one kind of mastery alone is acceptable credential for writing a book that others can read, learn from, or even love. It’s perhaps a quality that identifies these memoirs as specifically disability memoirs.

One final point I want to mention is about the presence of institutions in this work. They focus much of their attention on the problems in elementary education and how restrictive opportunities for intellectual and creative engagement often result in trauma and disengagement from LD/ADHD students. They also comment on college environments, which they claim have the ability to be more open and accessible, but often fall into the same ruts of uniformity and oppression.

One important aspect of making education more open and effective, according to these authors, is the use of multisensory, project-based learning as opposed to uniform, standardizable means. They speak to the power of experience in the learning environment, building things, epermimenting, rather than simply relying on reading and writing to conduct learning and evaluation. They claim that there is no model in higher education that would institutionalize practices of multisensory, experienced-based learning — though I can think of a few methods that I admit have not taken on massive application, like service-based learning, digital-humanities-style making and building, blog and design projects, and the like. I imagine building a stable writing program around these kinds of experiential learning styles and building the kind of institutional environement Mooney and Coles ask for.

My final observation about institutionality is one that I noticed from other memoirs by LD educators, that is pull toward making new, alternative educational environments as the natural extension of theory based on lived experience. Mooney and Cole founded Eye to Eye, a national mentoring program that offers afterschool support to LD/ADHD children around the nation by linking them with LD/ADHD tutor/mentors at local colleges and universities. Likewise, Paul Schultz in his memoir My Dyslexia ends his narrative of self-discovery by describing how he founded an alternative creative writing school based on his insights about LD literacy talents for creative writing. This move to establish new learning spaces seems key for LD authors especially. More than simply succeeding in traditional academic environments, these authors seeks to model better environments by inventing novel systems of support and new ways to define success.

In the next few days, I will be posting some shorter blog entries on two more theoretical books I’ve been working through this week, Richard E. Miller’s As If Learning Mattered: Reforming Higher Education, and Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. I don’t think I’ll have that much to say about either of them, based on the notes I have, so I’ll be able to keep the posts short and to the point.

Mooney, Jonathan and David Cole. Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give you the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution. Foreword by Edward M. Hallowell, MD. New York: Fireside, 2000.



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Speaking from Experience: Response to Harry Sylvester’s Legacy of the Blue Heron

It’s been another long time away, dear Reader. I’ve spent half the semester running around, giving conference talks on disability and writing studies, and this has meant sadly neglecting my orals reading and this here blog. I hope to get some video versions of those talks up and running eventually, and if I do I’ll share them here.

However, now I’m back on the righteous path, reading and writing as much as possible. I’ve resolved to take my exams in the first week or two of September, so I have until then to get through the remainder of my reading lists.

For my list with Jason, I’m spending some time with memoirs by neuro-atypical authors writing memoirs about their educational experiences, esp in relation to higher ed. For this post, I’ll discuss Harry Sylvester’s Legacy of the Blue Heron: Living with Learning Disabilities (2002). Since this is my first post back after a long break, it’s going to be particularly unfocused and fragmented, mostlikely. I’ll get back into the swing of things soon and producing more readable posts. Bare with me, please.

This slim memoir dictated by Sylvester, a former president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, aims to show how claiming understanding and acceptance of learning disabilities can help people claim ownership of their lives and  . . . . . . .

Similarly to how Temple Grandin’s memoir alternates between following her own autobiographical narrative and focusing on topics of interest for her disabled population, Sylvester’s memoir moves through his life in major themes, each life period generating a thesis of sorts. In his chapter School Days, Sylvester describes his natural aptitude with machines, engineering, mathematics, and design–he contrast these aptitudes, for which he got parental and school-based encouragement, with his extreme weaknesses in spelling, writing, and reading. Having been educated during the 30s and 40s, there was little understanding of LD at the time, and Sylvester underwent substantial disciplining to correct the presumed “attitude problems” that were keeping him from succeeding like the other kids. As he says, “I was being punished because the school didn’t have an effective reading program for me” (8).

His experience of humiliation and punishment around literacy performance continues into his college years. While succeeding at the top of his engineering classes, he is publically chastized by his English teachers who tell him he is not suited for college because of his handwriting and spelling primarily.

The upshot of his analysis of his educational experience is that school systems tend to be designed for typical learners who can process language in predictable ways, and when students do not succeed, they are often blamed for not fitting into the system. Linguistic ability must be “explicitly taught” to students with LDs, employing multi-sensory phonetics training from an early age, he believes.

Though Sylvester leaves school successful in his degree, he takes with him the shame of his literacy failures. He describes trying to hide his spelling and reading difficulties in his work life: “I was so ashamed of my literacy problem that I did everything I needed to do to keep it a secret. I didn’t want people to know how “dumb” I was. [. . .] As I look back at all of this, I can see that keeping that secret was more disabling than the disability” (27).

At the same time that he tried to distance himself from his shame about literacy, he also recognizes his unique capacities for visual perception and its usefulness in his career as an engineer. In one passage, he describes his ability to visualize the design of a boat before he ever starts building it, a capacity that allows him to test out different designs and revise his plans based on the mental projections he generates for himself (31). He says it’s better than Computer Aided Design because he can do it freely in his mind. Temple Grandin describes a similar capacity when she talks about how she “thinks in pictures,” and how she designs prototype components of her feedlot equipment before ever drawing up plans. Both of these memoirists claim this powerful visualization capacity and apply it to the field of engineering — though their disabilities are very different. The upshot here is, of course, that LD is entirely context based, and that LD individuals can find jobs well suited to their strengths and succeed.

Throughout the narrative to this point, Sylvester has not yet been diagnosed with LD. In the third chapter, he reads a narrative by another LD writer and is deeply affected when the story he reads forces him to relive his school trauma. As he learns more about LD, he starts to reach out to others who experienced school failure like he did, and he also feels motivated to get diagnosed so that he can more fully understand his disabilities. Once he is diagnosed, he spends the remainder of the chapter explaining the specific learning disabilities he has and how they affected his experience in school and life.

This leads to one of Sylvester’s central arguments in this memoir: LD people must understand and accept their impairments in order to take control of their lives. This acceptance takes some re-thinking of central myths that affect the lives of all of us educated in an ableist system. We must admit that linguistic proficiency is not a universal marker of intelligence. We must to admit that our brains work in ways that make literacy tasks more difficult for us than for other people, and that this doesn’t make us less intelligent. Until we understand the specific weaknesses of our brains, we cannot accept them as part of us and find ways to be successful.

From this moment of epiphany, Sylvester moves on to become a full-time LD professional, leading support groups and national organizations on LD. He draws together anecdotes from the many young people and adults he worked with in this capacity to draw out a few other important issues with LD, including the social and emotional costs. He notes that an enormous proportion of people incarserated and in drug addition programs have LDs or ADHD. He also notes how social pressures in schools to perform in uniform ways can drive students to act out, close off, or become isolated.

One key tool this book offers to educators and parents is a model for LD support groups. He explains how he developed a system of emotional/social support for LD people to identify and claim their difficulties while at the same time also claiming and taking pride in their strengths. Interestingly, he offers Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence as a useful model for helping support group members start to understand their strengths and their weaknesses in context. Here’s a useful quotation (actually from the first chapter, but it pre-empts the discussion of MI theory in useful ways):

“It takes a long time to realize that there isn’t anything wrong with being learning disabled or dyslexic. It means that we have different abilities and disabilities than the norm. Some people are not musical, and it doesn’t matter; they still succeed in school and in life. Other people are not athletic, and it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, in a society where language and math are so important, for those of us who cannot do language or math it does matter. Our differences become disabilities.” (17)


So, two key insights here: First, like Gardner, he argues that some capacities are more privileged in society than others. Indeed, the kinds of capacities we even pay attention to and value as intelligences are historically and culturally specific. Second, through the process of support group work, Sylvester aims to help others understand that being linguistically weak is not something to feel shame or self-pity about. It’s something to accept and keep in proportion to the strengths of each individual.

In the end, Sylvester offers this model of acceptance and empowerment to anyone with an LD. To educators and parents, he argues for reform and understanding. Here’s a final quotation from his conclusion:

“We as a nation have tried to educate all of our children in language and math implicitly. It simply hasn’t worked. Those who haven’t been able to learn in this way have sat in classrooms and failed. Lack of a successful education leads to failure in all aspects of our lives, such as social interaction, emotional stability, health, success in our jobs and success in relationships. All these failures lead to low self-esteem, depression, and bahavioral problems. Even people like me, who can have a career and support a family, still pay a heavy price.” (154)

Here, as he concludes, he draws together the various parts of LD identity and locates the central problem in the educational system. I am intrigued by the relationship between the identity of LD and the specific impairments presumed to cause them. For instance, one of Sylvester’s imairments (and my own) is a weakness in processing speed for visual linguistic recognition. This in and of itself is simply a way our brains work (psychology tells us), not a disability. In restrictive school environments that expect uniform performance, people like us are unable to succeed, we fail, we are set apart from other children, and we internalize messages about our lack of worth which we carry with us through life. For some who experience extreme failures, the effects can be devastating. The impairment itself is actually responsible for only the slight difference in processing ability among a range of people: the emotional, social toll is where the disability really exists.

So, implications for my own work: I am interested in what perspectives like this do to justify making/design based pedagogies in composition. I was recently at a talk about digital humanities approaches to composition and rhetoric, where one of the speakers described using CAD or circuit boards or the like in composition classrooms. He spoke of it as another kind of rhetoric, a means of communication that didn’t rely on words. I think paying attention to the unique capacities of ND learners leads us to a new understanding of the importance of non-verbal composition, including making, building, visual design, coding, etc.

I should say a few things about the writing in this book: Sylvester and his editor both explain in their preface chapters that the book is dictated because Sylvester is a “non-writer.” Much of the work describes the strategies Sylvester uses to successfully give speeches or teach classes, ways that work well with his spoken abilities. I should think more about this model as I think about the composing implications of all of these memoirs.


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Machines and Mentors: Response to Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures

Temple Grandin is an extraordinary person by any measure. A world expert on animal science, industrial design, and engineering, Grandin has achieved a level of academic and professional success higher than any of us can reasonably hope for ourselves. She’s written both scholarly papers and popular books, and her designs for the livestock industry are used around the world. In Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, Grandin explores how her her unique way of thinking and being in the world have helped her to understand her own successes and challenges in life.

As I read chapter after chapter of Grandin’s, Thinking in Pictures, I found myself encountering a narrative style that was unique to me. Though it’s subtitled “my life with autism,” Grandin’s own personal narrative frequently falls out of focus for long periods of the book. Indeed, rather than focusing on her personal narrative as the central structuring feature, as many memoirists would, Grandin focuses the chapters on aspects of autistic life and experience more generally. It often feels much more like a book about autism, with her own life offered as one rich example of an autistic. So each chapter contains one part Grandin’s life story, one part literature review from clinical autism research, and one part storytelling from her knowledge of autism memoirs and her personal interactions on national tours talking about autism.

One challenge of this approach is that she does not always telegraph her transition between these components very clearly–as a result, within a single paragraph she might discuss her own childhood autism symptoms, clinical studies on verbal development, and advice for teachers, all without any clear transition. The effect of each chapter is cumulative, drawing together various strands to represent an aspect of autistic life as an impressionistic whole. Because autism is so many things, and because knowledge about it comes from so many different sources, this panoramic view substitutes for declarative statements about what autism is or is universally like. The effect in the memoir is mesmerizing, and it encourages me as a reader to be pliable and to follow Grandin’s lead to more fully understand different ways of being in the world.

Thinking back to my discussion of G Thomas Couser’s work on disability memoirs, I have been trying to decide where Grandin’s memoir would fit in terms of the rhetoric of disability. What is Grandin trying to achieve in this work? Is it politically efficacious for disabled people?

It seems to me that much of Grandin’s work is aimed at helping neurotypical (NT) people understand autism in all its complexity–seeing the beauty and possibilities of autistic experience as well as the realistic challenges. She does not sugar-coat the hard parts about being autistic in a NT world. (The opposing term to NT is neurodiverse or ND.) But I am left with the feeling that the main aim of this book is to encourage NT people to embrace autistic ways of being as valuable. In this regard, Grandin must dispel prejudices against autistic people as hopeless, pitiable, and deficient. Instead, she offers ways for NT people to imagine autistic people as employable contributers to society, if only they would be adequately taught, supported, and respected for who they are (rather than rejected for who they are not).

In her chapter “The Ways of the World: Developing Autistic Talent” Grandin talks about the unique challenges people on the spectrum face in achieving academic and professional success. Again, this chapter does many things at once. It’s one of the most straightforwardly autobiographical chapters, following Grandin’s education and professional development from her when she entered formal education in a preK program for the hearing impaired and brain damaged to her present day, working as an academic, public lecturer, and freelance consultant for the livestock industry. Using evidence from her own experience, she argues for the importance of personal mentorship for autistic people, especially from those who are willing to try to understand autistic difference, rather than simply normalize it. For instance, Grandin’s high school science teacher did not discourage her fixation on cattle behavior; instead, he encouraged her to dive deeper into this obsession, to become an expert, and to pursue higher education as a way to learn even more about the topic. At the same time, this mentor helped her navigate the difficult social landscape of NT high school life: Mr Carlock’s science lab was a refuge from a world I did not understand” (107).

Grandin extrapolated this experience to talk more broadly about how autistic talent can be encouraged at school. One general principle is that fixations (a typical feature of ASD diagnosis) should not be treated as a problem to be corrected; instead mentors and teachers should try to find ways to help autists pursue their fixations in productive ways. For instance, if someone is fixated on boats, Granding thinks teachers should use the fixation to get the student interested in math, physics, design, and engineering principles. She also sees the rise of computer and internet-related fixations as a potential boon for autistic people, since jobs in the tech sector tend to accept people on the spectrum more readily than other industries, and programming skills are highly valued at the moment.

At the same time that Grandin finds rewarding intellectual pursuits to motivate her involvement in the academic and professional worlds, she also finds mentors willing to help her navigate social challenges she faces because of her autism. As she explains when discussing the rules of behavior at her rural liberal arts college, she had to learn social behaviors through explicit heuristics, making rules about what could and could not be done in a college environment. (She calls the arbitrary taboo rules “sins of the system,” for instance the high stakes rules against having sex or smoking in the dorms.)

Indeed, this is the second part of the importance of mentorship for Grandin: at the same time as good mentors are able to recognize and foster talent in autistic people, they also need to provide direct social instruction to help them understand how to interact with NT people. For Grandin, what’s important is understanding that as an autistic person who thinks in pictures rather than in verbal language, she literally thinks differently from those around her. That knowledge allows her (and other autistic people she advises) to be more cognizant of their differences and to anticipate how NT people will perceive them. Again, citing her own experience, Grandin attests to the importance of mentors who help her to understand appropriate personal demeanor, grooming, speech in school and workplace settings. If autistic people had better access to this kind of responsive and thorough mentorship, she argues, they would be more able to succeed professionally, as she has.

While she names the real challenges autistic people face in succeeding in the professional world, she also sees autism as a source of power:

In some ways, I credit my autism for enabling me to understand cattle. After all, if I hadn’t used the squeeze chute on myself, I might not have wondered how it affected cattle. I have been lucky, because my understanding of animals and visual thinking led me to a satisfying career in which my autistic traits don’t impede my progress. But at numerous meetings around the country I have talked to many adults with autism who have advanced university degrees but no jobs. They thrive in the structured world of school, but they are unable to find work. Problems often occur at the outset. Often during interviews, people are turned off by our direct manner, odd speech patterns, and funny mannerisms. (111)

This passage has interesting implications for my thinking about access for ND people in higher education, and it also has compelling activist overtones on the most practical level. She claims that for some people on the spectrum, the regimented social conventions of academic life provide a level of stability that is useful. However, interviews and other Kairotic exchanges (I’ll talk about this more soon when I write about Margaret Price’s book about mental disability and academic life) put ND people at a disadvantage, exposing them to impediments based on NT prejudice. Rather than focusing on autistic deficiency, however, she aims her message at her NT audience:

Employers who hire people with autism must be aware of their limitations. Autistic workers can be very focused on their jobs, and an employer who creates the right environment will often get superior performence from them. But they must be protected from social situations they are unable to handle. (114)

I want to think more about Grandin’s take on activism in this book. She herself is a highly verbal, emenently successful autistic person; and yet she speaks with great certaintly about the limitations of people on the more severe end of the spectrum, as she does in this passage. Another moment at the end of that chapter confronts this issue directly. Talking about the ND movement, she acknowledges that drives to “cure” autism would remove from the human population important forms of creativity and genius. However, she also says “In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive.”  (122) This is not a stance that sits well with my perspective of disability activism or what I’ve learned from disability studies. It seems like Grandin’s activism might be limited only to the most capable people on the spectrum; that since her message is aimed at NT employers, educators, and parents, she does not have an answer for how to imagine life for severely disabled people in the workforce or in schools. I’m not sure where this observation will take me, but I don’t think I can leave severely impaired people out of my thinking. A thread to chase later.

Accessible Stories: Response to G. Thomas Couser’s Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (2010)

G Thomas Couser’s Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing documents the rise of disability life writing as a popular genre over the last thirty years. Whereas in the past the memoir market was dominated by celebrities, particular movie stars, athletes, and politicians, the last three decades or so have seen the proliferation of the disability memoir, which Couser names the “autosomatography” (11). Often written by people who have no previous claim to fame, disability memoirs present the reading public with stories about the experience of life with anomalous bodies (nobodies writing about bodies, he terms “nobody / some body memoir” [3]). These works force readers to “face the body” (5), to confront illness and disability not through cultural myth alone but also through the lived experience of those writing from the other side of culture’s heavily policed border between able and disabled.

Couser claims that all disability memoir provides a potential good because it offers “mediated access to lives that would otherwise seem opaque and exotic” to mainstream audiences. However, he is also careful to distinguish between disability memoirs he sees as politically empowering and those he sees as reifying of negative stereotypes about disabled life.

He draws connections between the rise of disability memoirs and the rise of disability rights activism across American culture. He claims that memoir has historically served an important political function across a range of civil rights movements. Analogies here are easy to come by: feminism, black civil rights, and gay pride movements have all embraced life writing as a genre in order to fight dominant cultural stereotypes that justify oppression. Utilizing the politics of the personal, memoir allows individuals to counter stigmatizing stereotypes and represent their lives as they themselves experience them, reframing the terms for what it means to be black or a woman or a person with AIDS, for instance. Life writing, as a popular genre, doesn’t tend to require the same kinds of literary conventions that novels or poetry rely on, and as a result, unlettered people with important stories to tell have had access to a reading public that would normally be accessible only to those with advanced literary training.

In these respects, disability memoir has a potential to serve a counter-hegemonic function within broader culture: the genre creates a counter-discourse, by enabling disabled people to represent their own lived experience to argue back against stereotyped myths about disability and the overall cultural imperative to deny disabled people live complex, interesting lives.

On the other hand, Couser admits that many (it seems, most) disability memoirs do not live up to this counter-hegemonic potential. In his third chapter, “Rhetoric and Self-Representation in Disability Memoir,” he presents a taxonomy of different rhetorical stances toward disability that characterize most memoirs. He charts a range of popular memoirs–stories of supercrips overcoming the limitations of their impairments and leading “normal lives”; stories of blind or crippled authors mourning and accepting their tragic impairments; nostalgic stories about pre-impairment days now gone; stories of impaired people seeking cures or enduring horrific treatments. Most of these narratives focus exclusively on the experience of impairment (the individual experience of loss or injury), rather than disability (the social/cultural experience of discrimination and inaccess). They employ rhetorics of horror, pity, inspiration, and in each case cast disability as a personal problem to be overcome by those strong enough to endure.

Opposed to these conventional images of disability as tragic or inspiring impairment, Couser offers on two categories of anti-hegemonic narratives: on the one hand, he discusses “emancipatory” accounts of disabled lives that focus on the disabled person as oppressed by medical authority and institutionalization (for example I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, about a woman who was imprisoned in a mental institution under wrongful diagnosis); narratives like these function similar to slave narratives, Couser claims, drawing attention to unjust systems of oppression that control people’s lives.

On the other hand, he offers a range of “disability studies memoirs,” such as  Simi Linton’s My Body Politic and Steven Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind (which I’ve read before but clearly need to add to my lists for its discussion of his college years). These memoirs are distinct in that they do not focus on the lived experience of impairment exclusively, but instead investigate the social and cultural experience of disability. They examine the effects of stigma and stereotype, often by documenting the author’s own development of a politically engaged and affirming disability identity. In this way, they bare resemblance to coming-out narratives, wherein the disabled person stops hiding her disability, rejects negative beliefs about herself, and comes to accept her disability as an important and potentially emancipating aspect of herself. These memoirs tend to acknowledge the influence of civil rights legislation on the lives of disabled people as well, connecting the personal quite explicitly to the political.

As I was reading Couser’s book, I often stopped to think about the implications of disability memoir for people with Learning Disabilities. While Couser’s main focus seems to be on disabilities written on the body–illnesses, mobility or sensory impairments, stories that make us “face the body”–he seems also to suggest that disability memoirs about invisible, mental disabilities serve important functions too. Certainly LD memoirs like Mooney’s The Short Bus take a disability studies perspective to tell stories about slow learners that fight misconceptions, and it certainly offers political context for understanding cognitively embodied differences. But there’s something unique that’s likely happening in terms of the politics of education that LD memoirs can tell us, which wouldn’t be the focus of most other kinds of disability memoirs.

Here’s an interesting passage from a comp/rhet perspective, and one that potentially has unique implications for LD:

Writing a life is an aspect of accessibility that may seem secondary, but it is pertinent here because it is peculiar to disability: despite important recent developments in assistive technology (such as voice-recognition software), the process of composition itself may be complicated by some impairments. People who are blind, Deaf, paralyzed, or cognitively impaired are disadvantaged with regard to the conventional technologies of writing, which take for grated visual acuity, literacy in English as a first language, manual dexterity, and unimpaired intellect and memory. For people with may impairments, the process of drafting and revising a long narrative may seem dauntingly arduous. (32)

Here Couser suggests that the genre of long-form memoir writing offers particular challenges to many people with disabilities. I wonder about the possibilities for other modes of life writing that employ nontraditional literacy practices, like web publishing, multimodal composing, and collaborative storytelling. This may be somewhere my own pedagogical experiments explore. I wonder, too, about the unique challenges LD memoirists face in performing literacy in this way, and how a meta-cognitive awareness of the self as an LD or dyslexic author might influence the genre. Couser’s models for disability memoir offer some useful framing for the political and rhetorical possibilities of disability memoir, but I will have to do some considerable work on my own to figure out the unique valencies of academic disability memoir. That’s my work this semester, I think.

Next up: Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures; Mike Rose’s articles on cognition, basic writing, and academic discrimination; and Howard Gardner’s theories of Multiple Intelligence.

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Images of Attack: Response to David B.’s Epileptic

I’ve spent the last couple of months reading from my lists with Joe (on disability studies) and Mark (on writing program administration). I’m now starting to dive fully into Jason’s list, which explores cognitive impairments, literacy, and academic life from a range of perspectives including educational theory, neuroscience, and memoir. It’s my most challenging list, partially because it takes in so much and tries to define a topic that doesn’t yet exist: academic disability. I won’t talk much about that here, but I want to reflect briefly on what the next few posts will explore–to set my sights and size up my target.

One strand I have already read but not yet blogged about comes from composition/rhetoric researchers working in the 1970s and 80s with cognitive models of writing. Here I have Mike Rose’s articles about writers block, cognitive reductionism, and language of exclusion. I also looked at Flower and Hayes’ article version of the cognitive model of composing, which I will eventually follow up with one of their book-length studies. These compositionists don’t think much about learning disabilities, but they do employ clinical models of the mind in the course of wrestling with academic challenges — an approach closely aligned to disability in ways I will discuss in future posts.

I have also been working through some works from the Learning Disability field, both from psychology and neuroscience. These include Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid and an excellent book of bibliographic essays Learning about Learning Disabilities which has important chapters about writing and college-level success for LD people. I’ll be posting about these texts soon.

Finally, I have begun working through the memoirs. The idea here is to find accounts of the lives of disabled people’s encounters with literacy and academic life. I am covering a wide range of cognitive or psychological disabilities, but my focus is on LD as much as possible, since very little work has been done on this condition (compared with, say, autism). To help me think more critically about disability memoir, I am using Tom Couser’s Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (2010). I have about six or seven LD memoirs I’ll be getting to and a handful of ones on other conditions that have something to tell me about literacy or academic life for folks with cognitive disabilities. Right now, for instance, I’m reading Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures, which I’ll try to post about before the end of the month.

David B.’ graphic memoir Epileptic (2006) does not focus exclusively on literacy or school life. Told in the first person by David B., a well-known French cartoonist, the memoir tells the story of Jean-Christophe, B.’s older brother whose severe epilepsy comes to consume his life. The narrative tracks the family history from Jean-Christophe’s first seizure as a child through into adulthood. Epileptic documents the family’s attempts to cure or manage his condition using western medicine, macrobiotics, faith healing, mysticism, and institutional care. Rather than simply being about Jean-Christophe’s experience of epilepsy, Epileptic shows how the entire family is affected by his condition, including how they all work together to resist social stigma of the illness.

David B. Epileptic p. 141

David B. Epileptic p. 141

I should note here about the style of the memoir. Drawn in black and white, the style alternates between realistic representation and highly stylized symbolic imagery. One central visual metaphor: Jean -Christophe’s epilepsy is depicted as a long, spotted dragon that creeps around him, attacking him unexpectedly.


Through rapid shifts in scale and degree of realism, the memoir achieves multiple tones of voice — here’s an extended example.

David B. Epileptic p95

David B. Epileptic p95

Here, in the first two rows of panels, B. uses a concretely representational style to depict a conversation between himself and his mother in the 1990s. They are discussing the memoir itself which he is in the process of writing (there are a few meta-moments like this, which always catch my interest). B. has been telling stories about his grandparents, about their lives and the personal demons they faced. Here B’s mother objects to the way he’s been telling the family history, warning him that he’ll lose his readers by focusing so much on tragedies that don’t seem to have anything to do with his brother’s epilepsy. Rather than spilling the family tragedy of her grandmother’s alcoholism, she  urges him to represent it abstractly, as a monster — the monster appears as a humanoid black dragon, similar to Jean-Christophe’s epileptic monster, swelling up to consume the entire frame. Returning to the family histories, the monster of alcoholism has become the ground on which the figures walk.

David B. Epileptic p 96

David B. Epileptic p 96

In the course of these two pages, we see the kind of stylistic leaps that make Epileptic spellbinding. The first two lines take a documentary tone, simply reporting realistically: real people in normal proportion, real furniture, it could be a snapshot of their actual home. This realism gives way to the fantastical, however, as the emotional weight of illness, shame, and despair creep in, until we’ve fully entered the realm of the unreal. The final frame shows B. using his storytelling voice, where we see these characters in tableau, like a picture book–not documentary, but instead representational, as in “here’s the way I imagine it”.

The central narrative follows the development of Jean-Christophe and David from childhood to adulthood throughout the 60s and 70s. We see David B’s development as an artist as he makes his first drawings and comics, as he attends art school, and as he publishes his first works. Parallel to this, we see Jean-Christophe’s initial interests in art and writing, though his development becomes stunted as his seizures get him kicked out of schools and moved into a less ambitious track of life. Soon after he is kicked out of a mainstream high school — because his seizures are too disruptive to the teachers and other students — he begins to attend a residential school for disabled youth. In one of his highly symbolic reveries, B.identifies this moment when his brother leaves mainstream schools and enters institutional care as a turning point:

David B. Epileptic p 142

David B. Epileptic p 142

Here we see Jean-Christophe transforming into the dragon of his illness as he begins seeing himself as handicapped. B. argues that it is this moment that he loses his ambition in life. This moment is set against the background that represents the mountain of his brother’s illness, an isolating, perilous landscape that all his family members must one point in the narrative. Here, B. shows his brother becoming irrevocably isolated on by his illness, climbing higher than B. is able to follow.

This is not, strictly speaking, a disability memoir as Couser would have it. I will talk more about Couser in my next post, I think, but here I’ll simply observe that this is much more a memoir about David B’s self development and his experience being the brother of a disabled person than it is, strictly speaking, about his brother’s experience of life as an epileptic. Indeed, the main focus of the narrative is on B’s interior emotional life and his developing ability to express himself artistically.

He uses drawing to express his repressed feelings of rage, shame, and hatred that associates with his brother and his illness. By training as an artist and starting his own professional and family life as an adult, he begins to resolve some of these internalized conflicts and starts to reconnect with his brother. This progress culminates in his decision to begin writing and drawing Epileptic.

I’m not sure where Epileptic will fit in to my research going forward. Since it’s the first memoir I’m looking at, its usefulness may only become clear when I have a few more stacked on the shelf. There are certainly interesting things about literacy in here to think about. Some I didn’t mention earlier: Jean-Christophe’s interest in fascism, in dictators, in war, in opera. I wish the book talked more about his experience at the residential schools, but since it’s told from David’s perspective, it makes sense that we wouldn’t have many details about this aspect of his brother’s life. They weren’t talking much at this point. I think the most important aspect here is the way disability and illness are represented, how they are narrated: that is the challenge of invisible disability, one that all memoirists will have to wrestle with. Grandin, as I will discuss later, likes mechanical metaphors to represent her autism (tape recorders, computers, etc). David B. likes monsters, and dynamics of scale, capturing the menacing quality of the disability. I’ll think more about this as I look to the others.


Writing as Therapy?: Response to Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power

Peter Elbow’s 1973 Writing Without Teachers was one of the first composition books I ever read. I carry its insights with me every time I teach or sit down to write. During the years I spent struggling through my own stuck place–when I could not write without extreme anxiety, when I piled up incompletes, when I was certain I was incapable of continuing in grad school–I took courage from Elbow’s model. This first book emerged from his close study of his own troubled writing process. Through the quotations from his own journals, we see the power of his arguments for freewriting and expressive practice. It’s a book about his own recovery as a writer, a kind of rehab-through-writing through which he discovered practices that could help other writers help themselves. He taught me to study my own writing problems, to learn from them, and to be patient with my progress toward fluency and confidence. I’m deeply grateful for that. If I get the chance to go back to this book, I want to think more about the force autobiography or auto ethnography plays in the development of his writing theories . . . and my own.

Writing with Power, Elbow’s 1981 followup to W w/o T offers something different. It’s a book jammed with short, practical essays describing in step-by-step descriptions a range of practices writers can use to free their verbal invention abilities, discover new insights about a topic, work with other writers and audiences, and strengthen their writerly voice. Theory is kept to a minimum, and Elbow’s own autobiographical comments play only a sideline role. He speaks at once to other writing teachers (who can use these techniques directly in their classrooms) and to writers themselves (who might, without teachers, use these techniques to refine and grow their practice). I assigned my own students four or five short chapters from the book this semester in the hopes that they will be able to better incorporate freewriting and other exploratory writing techniques into their developing process. I hope that reading Elbow describe writing processes unambiguously but without jargon, they will find new abilities to see their own writing processes for both the strengths and weaknesses that might be there.

As I read Writing With Power, I find myself seeking out moments where Elbow discusses either the thinking or emotional lives of writers. Unlike many writers emerging from the cognitive turn in composition whom I will discuss in my next few posts (Mike Rose, Flower and Hayes, Sondra Perl), Elbow’s interest in cognition and affect for the most part says hidden under the surface. I spot his conception of writing, thinking, and feeling blending together in a few key moments, however.

In Chapter 8, Elbow describes “The Loop Writing Process.” In essence, Elbow provides a series of focusing prompts designed to help writers explore their thoughts on a topic through freewriting. Rather than relying on completely open writing processes to explore a topic, Elbow provides a list of prompts to guide creative exploration: write first thoughts and impressions; write prejudices you hold about the topic, or make some up pretending you hold a more extreme view than you really do; tell stories about the topic, or tell lies; pretend to speak to vastly different audiences, or in different registers as you write. All are meant to be exploratory and to help the writer discover new possibilities for future drafts on the topic.

By indulging in these focused loops, Elbow claims “you are letting goals, meanings, and end-products slip partly out of mind in order to allow for restructurings of your mind and new points of view that would be impossible if you kept your eye on the goal all the time” (75). At the end of the process, he discusses “the voyage home,” the turn wherein the writer sets aside these playful redirections and points back to the real task at hand, the essay draft or report or other audience-centered piece he’s really trying to produce. Elbow calls this process a “return . . . to full consciousness of what your goal is” (ibid).

I am struck here by the way he describes the mind here. Though he describes the loop techniques as a sort of game, he claims that employing the approach allows writers to restructure their thinking processes, to take over their cognition and make intentional decisions about how it will be employed, to do the steering, and to choose to steer ones consciousness away from the obvious goal of writing for an audience. I think about Rose or Perl who studied disruptive thought processes in the writing process, and who developed techniques to help writers NOT think about certain things (like rigid genre expectations or premature editing needs). The element of cognitive training that’s going on here makes me think of the kind of cognitive training people with LD sometimes undergo as they learn to understand their own cognitive processes and to come up with metacognitive strategies to make the best of their capacities. Even if the particular prompts Elbow includes in his list of loop writing techniques do not all appeal to writers or teachers, I think there must be substantial benefit in simply helping writers make conscious choices of some kind about how they use their writing and thinking processes. I wonder what techniques like loop writing could provide Learning Disabled (LD) people who have serious troubles with connecting their ideas to writing.

In addition to exploring the cognitive aspects of writing practice, Elbow also investigates the affective connection–what feelings have to do with writing. His sixteenth chapter, “Nausea” focuses on the experience of anxiety that writers feel when confronted with their own writing in the drafting stage: “revulsion” “disgust” “The feeling that all this stuff you have written is stupid, ugly, worthless–and cannot be fixed” (173). This discussion gets me thinking about students with testing anxiety or other psychological impairments that interfere with their ability to work efficiently in high-stakes academic settings. It also makes me think of myself, and my own habit of dismissing my writing in its early stages, the shame and anxiety I feel at having produced shitty writing, how paralyzing it is.

I’ll quote Elbow’s advice at some length:

[. . . ] I have finally learned that nausea need not ruin everything. If you are a victim you can learn to fight it in various ways. First of all, recognize it for what it is: a stupid game you play with yourself, a sneak attack by demons, a bad habit. Gradually you will learn to see the pattern in it, a trick your feelings play on your as they try to keep you from being effective.   [. . .]

Once you come to understand the pattern of this recurring nausea, you can deal with the feelings: do a freewriting in which you let go and tell how disgusted you are by everything you’ve written and how worthless it all is. When you give the feelings full rein, it’s easier to see them for what they are. Or you can scream or cry the feelings out to a friend or a mirror or a closet. And it may help to turn back to some already completed writing of yours that you know is good–to reassure yourself of your powers.

[. . .]

Finally, learn to be prident about what you do to your writing during these attacks. Acknowledge that when these feelings are upon you, you are in an intellectually and emotionally wakened condition.”  (173 -74)

I’ve been seeing therapists long enough to recognize what Elbow’s doing here. First, he identifies the source of the anxiety in the writer–it’s something you do to yourself for reasons that might not be conscious to you, perhaps relating to your fear of failure, your doubts about your abilities, or your memories of being judged negatively by others in the past. Though these aren’t consciously in your mind, the feelings of distress are getting in the way of your ability to work on your writing. So Elbow advises using writing to help expose these demons and see them for what they are–disproportionate responses to the challenge at hand–which is that you’ve produced a draft that might not be ready to turn in yet. If I knew more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I could probably identify what he’s doing here more accurately, but I feel a deep familiarity between his approach to what I’ve experience in therapeutic settings. (Indeed, if I do end up talking about Writing Without Teachers later, I should think more about how he models his practice after group therapy approaches, which he claims.)

So, while Elbow doesn’t focus this book on studying the mind in the same way that Perl, Flower & Hayes, or Rose do, his practical writing techniques employ a deep attention to both the cognitive and emotional lives of writers: a close knowledge of what it means to think and feel while writing. For students with LDs and psychological impairments–for whom thinking processes and emotional states might be especially disruptive–Elbow’s approach might be especially useful. I could imagine service providers teaching students with LDs and psychological disabilities to develop meta-approaches like Elbow’s to help them better understand and manage their difficulties–at the same time providing useful writing tools for use in their classes.

The main criticism of process scholarship was that it was too clinical in its focus. But it’s this aspect of clinicalitly that appeals to me most. For some students, the university and the clinic are not such different institutions. Maybe folks like Elbow can help us better understand the role writing can play in bridging the institutional and philosophical gaps between these spaces that disabled students routinely inhabit.

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Response to Tobin Seibers’s Disability Theory (2008)

In his 2008 monograph, Disability Theory, Tobin Siebers presents critiques of major theoretical thinkers of culture and identity including Freud, Butler, Sedgwick, and Foucault. By theorizing from the standpoint of disability identity, Siebers mixes cultural criticism with a progressive identity politics, ultimately proving the intellectual insights made possible by including disabled experience within the realm of philosophy.

On the one hand, I am drawn to Siebers’ notion that within a theoretical paradigm that recognizes disability, the social construction of identity takes on a material valence. The built environments we currently move through are built for only some of the population; those whose movements are not accommodated, both rhetorically and practically, are disabled. By examining legal cases in which spaces like courthouses, polling stations, and the like exclude disabled bodies (especially bodies of people with mobility impairments), Siebers shows how participation in American citizenship and full personhood work within a system of compulsory able-bodiedness that naturalizes able-bodied supremacy. Emerging from this hidden (but obvious) “ideology of ability,” disabled people are cast as narcissistic malingerers, flawed in their ability to use spaces properly, and thus justifiably excluded from full participation in society.

While Siebers acknowledges that critical cultural theory has provided important tools for theorizing minority identities he grapples with the way deconstructive arguments have  “obstructed the capacity for the social model [of disability] to offer a strong and rational critique of ableism based on political ideals” (81). For instance, deconstructive arguments about gender often come down to the assertion that sex/gender identities exist fully within cultural discourse, that they emerge from discourse-laden perceptual lenses through which we, as products of a given culture, come to see the world. An anti-sexist politics, in this case, aims its efforts at denaturalizing sexist gender knowledge through cultural critique and the establishment of counter discourses. Within these theories, the essentialist notion that a woman can be identified by a particular body are eschewed, and identities are rendered entirely as products of accepted social convention, language, and traditions of representation.

Siebers worries that many deconstructive theories insufficiently attend to the realities of impairment and inaccess within the built environment as constituent forces in identity formation. As he puts it, “The body is, first and foremost, a biological agent teeming with vital and often unruly forces. It is not inert matter subject to easy manipulation by social representations. The body is alive, which means that it is as capable of influencing and transforming social languages as they are capable of influencing and transforming it” (68). Here Siebers argues for the centrality of the body as a complex space that exists prior to (or perhaps simultaneous with) language and social construction. While Siebers agrees that it’s important to intervene on ableist discourse that casts disability as a personal tragedy, he believes disability politics requires that we attend to material concerns within the built environment.

At the same time that Siebers defends identity politics as a necessary anti-abelist force, he also defends the value of personal narratives about disability, rejecting the idea that they are narcissistic or further group oppression. He sees storytelling as a necessary “political process through which private emotions and thoughts are made compelling to the public imagination” by “tell[ing] stories [about disability] in a way that allows people without disabilities to recognize our reality and theirs as a common one.” He argues that “only in this way will we be recognized politically” (48). Here Seibers acknowledges the power of disability identity for revealing the workings of abelist society, for laying bare the literal construction of disabled experience by the nondisabled majority.

Because of my interests in cognitive disabilities in educational spaces, I found myself most drawn to his chapter on “Disability as Masquerade.” While the majority of Siebers’s book theorizes about disabilities produced from mobility impairments, in this chapter he explores the performative nature of invisible disabilities. I’ve written about this chapter at some length here: Siebers himself does not delve very deeply into his claim that this performative model applies to dyslexia as well as a host of other disabilities not visibly written on the body. However, I believe an investigation of the ways dyslexia is performed in educational settings will lead to a compelling analysis of the archetecture of learning and education that renders some intellectual performances disabled and others not. I will keep these arguments in mind as I delve into other performance based theories on my list with Mark, including Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure and Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling.


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Response to Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature

At the moment, I’m working through the canonical Disability Studies texts–if there can be such a thing for a discipline so young–and there are few works more iconic or influential than Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies. Arguing that literary and cultural critics have neglected serious study of disability identity and representation, Extraordinary Bodies establishes a critical methodology for naming, theorizing, and critiquing the connections between cultural representation of disability and the modern American self.

Garland Thomson argues that although literary critics have not payed much attention so far, representations of disability are actually pervasive throughout literature. These “disabled figures” (like Tiny Tim or Ahab) represent disabled people as metaphorical devices, stereotyped to the point of caricature. As these representations have become commonplace in culture, they come to set the terms for how actual disabled people are treated and how they see themselves. Garland Thomson, taking a cue from other cultural studies arguments in African American Studies and Women’s Studies, draws our attention to the functions these caricatures serve for the able-bodied authors and culture that perpetuate them. (I am reminded of Tony Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, which examines Africanist representations in the imagination of white American authors, like the good an honorable Jim in Mark Twain’s Huck Finn.) She draws a range of exampled of disability representation, especially from the American freak show stage, sentimental women’s novels, and black feminist literature.

In order to make her argument, Garland Thomson, coins a particularly useful term, “the normate.” The normate is the composite identity position held by those unmarked by stigmatized identifiers of disability (or race or gender for that matter). The normate is the imagined everyman whose self-determination, independence, rational thinking ability, and physical sturdiness makes American democracy philosophically possible. The disabled figure–the cripple, the invalid, the idiot–comes to represent everything that the normate is not. While Garland Thomson identifies this dynamic as the driving constitutive force of disability identity in American culture, she acknowledges that ability/disability distinctions have meant different things within different times and cultural contexts; in theory, this assertion opens the possibility that by resisting oppressive representations of disability, the culture of abelism might be changed.

Ultimately, Garland Thomson’s work provides an invaluable model of literary disability criticism, elucidating the rhetorical forces pervasive of both art and popular culture that cause some bodies to signify meanings that constrain both what we know about disabled people and how disabled people experience the world.

My next stop will take me a decade forward in disability theory and criticism, to Tobin Seibers’s Disability Theory. Onward!

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Response to Patricia Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies

Nearly twenty years after its publication, Patricia A. Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies (1995) remains the most thorough and insightful study of learning disability within the field of composition. By bringing together decades of debate from fields as diverse as developmental psychology, cognitive neuroscience, special education, critical pedagogy, composition and rhetoric, basic writing, and critical literacy studies, Dunn provides a summative guide for college writing teachers who want to better understand what learning disabilities are and how to best work with students who bear the LD label. This is no small task, for as Learning Re-Abled shows, there are no easy answers about LD, no singular model of pedagogy to fit the population, nor even the most basic consensus among experts about whether the condition exists or what its root causes might be. By drawing together the existing scholarship and laying it next to testimony from actual LD college students about their learning, however, Dunn succeeds in demystifying this topic and providing practical approaches concerned teachers can take to improve their teaching and to educate themselves about their students who might learn differently from the norm.

Dunn limits her inquiry to learning disabilities associated with verbal language processing (specifically dyslexia and dysgraphia), focusing on students who, for whatever reason, have extraordinary difficulty learning through traditional language-centered education.

Instead of settling on one model of LD reality, Dunn constructs LD as a continuing controversy. Medical authorities claim LD is caused by innate neurological differences that result in atypical methods of information processing. Explanations have changed over time as clinicians and researchers have offered models for LD based on factors like left/right brain hemisphere dominance, short-term memory capacity, or visual acuity to explain why “otherwise intelligent” children do not keep up with their peers in written language acquisition. As Dunn observes, within this medical model, all learners are held against a nomative standard of development with many built in assumptions about what constitutes proper literacy education and how typical students are meant to respond to it.

Critics like Gerald Coles (whom I’ll be reading later in the course of my lists) find deep flaws in this research, arguing that medical models essentially place the blame on the student for the flaws in a failed one-size-fits-all education system. To explain why some students can’t learn language as efficiently, he points to social factors like economic disadvantages among different schools or cultural differences between households’ literacy habits: essentially, problems of upbringing.

Dunn keeps a skeptical distance from both sides of the controversy. On the one hand, she admits that the clinical research remains inconclusive and has failed to definitively prove innate neurological differences exist in LD people. On the other, she points out that Coles’s argument often uncritically blames the parents for “causing” their children’s LD issues, an assertion that also lacks conclusive evidence. (This reminds me of the “refrigerator mother” explanation that unemotional or overbearing mothering causes autism–see Joseph Straus “Autism as Culture.”)

Rather than splitting hairs over whose definition best explains “the cause” of LD, Dunn proceeds through this book with the assumption that there do exist a population of learners in the world (maybe 5% of the population) who have unusual difficulties processing language, and that these students often do poorly in school as a result of the missmatch between institutionalized expectations and their actual capacities. While composition studies has largely ignored the possibility of innate neurological differences (see “Chapter Two: Gaps in Composition Theory and Practice”), Dunn argues that composition teachers must confront the fact that some students do seem to process language differently for reasons that aren’t entirely explained through mainstream composition and Basic Writing research. (I made the same observation about George Otte and Rebecca Mlynarczyk’s history of Basic Writing, which offered no discussion of LD issues or research.)

To develop a new model of pedagogy more appropriate to serve the needs of this neurological minority population, Dunn draws knowledge from her own case studies and interviews as well as research from clinical disciplines compositionists would not typically reference. She details her experience teaching her young nephew, Joey, how to write letters and words using a mix of motivational, interest driven teaching (in which he writes about his favorite He-Man toy) along with multisensory phonics based teaching techniques (see Chapter Three “Multisensory Teaching Methods: Tutoring Joey”). While she admits that these techniques are not appropriate for LD college students, she extrapolates corollary pedagogical techniques to use in college classrooms in order to support LD students in using oral, kinesthetic, and social modes of learning to learn college-level literacy. (I’m sure I will learn more about these models in her second book, Talking Stretching, Learning: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing [2001]).

In the end, Dunn argues that the greatest barriers to LD student success in higher education do not come from any innate neurological differences, but instead emerge from faculty and institutional bias. By interviewing three LD students about their learning strengths and weaknesses, Dunn shows that students who perform poorly on multiple choice exams or in pure-lecture classes often possess impressive capacities for oral knowledge-making and collaborative or social learning methods. Because college-level education rarely privileges these modalities as much as traditional, text-based learning, LD students are placed at a considerable disadvantage. Furthermore, because faculty often do not understand or respect students with different learning abilities, LD students frequently face their most challenging impediments from faculty who are unwilling to change their practices.

* * *

Notes and Quotes:

Response to Simi Linton’s Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998)

My first stop on my disability studies list was the Disability Studies Reader, Lennard Davis’s omnibus field-in-a-box forth edition that amasses major debates and approaches from the last four decades of disability scholarship. Feeling like I have a fair scope of the landscape, I have now decided to dig in to the “classics” of the field, and I could think of no better place to start than Simi Linton’s iconic Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity (1998).

Linton is on the shortlist of disability scholars everyone cites; I knew from reputation alone that her work was foundational in establishing academic disability studies in the liberal arts. She brings together knowledge from disability activism and argues for its place in the academy, calling into being the field we know today as disability studies. And in so doing, she also critiques the segregation of academic disability knowledge-making within applied fields that have traditionally held exclusive expertise on disability and impariment, especially fields that train nondisabled people to “care for” disabled people. Mining her own insights as a disabled person and employing the social model of disability, Linton critiques the deterministic way that most academic fields that discuss disability approach it as a problem to be solved, a tragedy to be remediated, and–as much as possible–an unfortunate occurrence to be avoided. Her book calls for a new kind of academic study of disability, one that investigates disability as a social and cultural phenomenon, one that resists the medicalization of disability, and one that seeks to educate disabled and nondisabled people alike to support a future in which disabled people might participate actively and be respected and valued for their unique personhood.

One important assertion of Linton’s argument is that disabled people’s perspectives on disability have been systematically ignored in favor of how nondisabled people imagine them to be. Perhaps in response and as a kind of corrective, Linton–who outs herself as disabled early in the book–speaks fiercely from her own perspective in her critiques. For instance, on the topic of doctor-assisted suicide, she plainly calls it murder, rather than hedging her argument in politically correct relativistic thinking about differing cultural opinions about the value of life. Likewise, when evaluating the quality of other discipline’s knowledge about disability, she sees any model that inadequately comprehends the social or cultural manifestations of disability as insufficient (largely without presenting evidence of this insufficiency). In this way, the book takes on a polemical quality that decries institutional injustices in a confrontation fundamentally rooted in self-assertion: Linton’s own claiming of disability, then, becomes the powerhouse of theory and critique.

I don’t mean to claim that the book is poorly argued, though I feel that it does present many perspectives we must accept as true without their being proven. I do not think this work would convince people within the applied fields she discusses to change their medicalized understandings of, or paternalistic approaches toward, disability. The main work of this book is to articulate the exigence of forming a new field of Disability Studies whose mission it would be to integrate perspectives from disability activism into the work of the university. She claims that this field’s work could have larger positive effects on the lives of disabled (and nondisabled) people outside university walls, but proving this is so is not the work of her argument, I think.

I don’t know how useful Linton’s work will be to my own scholarship going forward. While many of the topics she discusses are useful to the topics of learning disabilities and education, her focus in this book tends to lean toward talking about disabled people with mobility or sensory impairments. Her discussion of overcoming narratives in her second chapter caught my interest, though I will likely find more in-depth confrontation with overcoming narratives elsewhere. Likewise, her discussion of the disability politics involved in distinctions between special education and inclusive education models, while compelling, speaks in broad strokes about education schemes and possible alternatives. She seems to be calling for further investigation by the field she conjures in this book, and in that it presents more openings than it does answers.


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Histories and futures of Basic Writing: Response to George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010)

George Otte and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010) presents a series of topic-focused historical narratives of the field of Basic Writing (BW). Each chapter–regardless of its focus on BW research, pedagogy, or institutional politics–begins its inquiry with the pivotal work of Mina Shaughnessy and the emergence of BW as a discourse in the era of CUNY Open Admissions and tracks through to the present day of the book’s publication. Through these narratives, we see how debates about assessment, pedagogy, administration, and educational politics have shaped the work BW scholars do. And by presenting not one unilateral history, but multiple interlocking histories, BW emerges not as a singular entity, but as a multiply articulated response to local and national institutional forces–with discourses and a contexts in constant productive (or disruptive) friction.

Because this book draws most of its evidence from BW scholarship as it is archived in journals, conference talks, and prominent books in the field, it’s able to offer a dynamic overview of the shifting discourses of basic writing scholarship. In the long view of each focused, topical chapter, we re-examine the bibliography of BW to see how ideas and ideologies shift as the field slowly swaps one set of questions for another. So, in the chapter “Research,” for instance, we see how the field’s initial questions about error–how to classify it when we see it in finished texts–led folks like Emig, Perl, and Flower to investigate error within the process of text production, allowing them to develop methods for applying close scrutiny to the behaviors of basic writers themselves, rather than their products. Once the field recognized the complexity of writing from a cognitive standpoint, research turned to exploring the equally complex social and cultural factors that affect students as they write. At each turn, we reject some of the questions asked by previous researchers and develop others into new paradigms for understanding the work of BW. And by tracking through these progressions with a range of different foci, I get some view of the conflicting, nebulous discourses that have evolved as BW scholars respond to the local and national politics of remedial writing programs.

I was hoping to learn more in this book about the administration of BW programs and the institutional life of BW–a more on-the-ground understanding of what BW has been since the days of Open Admissions. In some respects, I got this history most concretely in the book’s extensive discussions of assessment schemas and the implementation and revision of writing tests. In these instances, I see scholars like Edward White presenting models of thoughtful assessment to counter standardized writing tests, and all these contrasted to less regimented models like guided self-placement. Likewise, Otte and Mlynarczyk chronicle the shift in assessment processes from the college level to the high school level, as high schools begin implementing exit examinations that apply the “standards” filter one step down the ladder. These shifts in approaches to testing and placement correlate to changes in practical, on-the-ground administration of BW programs; though, since the focus of this book is bibliographic, I don’t get an in depth investigation of the practicalities of these institutional structures. That is to say, I think, that this book is not pitched as a WPA’s how-to guide; nor does it claim to be. Getting bogged down in the details of specific BW program administration would fight the narrative cohesion achieved throughout this book, no doubt. Though I think that’s one thing I wanted from it.

Predictably enough, I found myself most drawn to the sections of these narratives that discussed cognitive approaches to basic writing, especially the work on writing/thinking processes emerging in the late 1970s through the 1980s. In my list with Jason on cognitive impairments and education, I will be diving more in depth on nearly all of the authors cited in these accounts, especially Rose, Flower and Hayes. Since I took a course on comp/rhet pedagogies with Sondra Perl, I’ve been aware of this legacy, and for my work in my comprehensive exams, I explored many of the earlier cognitivists researchers and theorists like Janet Emig and Perl herself. I really should go back to read these works again.

Indeed, the biggest revelation for me in reading Basic Writing was encountering just how much of the scholarship discussed that I had encountered before without ever having thought of myself as a BW scholar. I don’t know whether it’s because I have been trained as a compositionist within the CUNY system where the legacy of BW is still alive and kicking, but I realized continually as I read this book that what what I had assumed was simply mainstream comp/rhet theory and practice had actually emerged specific to questions of BW. In Sondra’s Exploring Pedagogies class, I learned about cognitive process models, of course, but also about ethnographic research on k-12 literacy education, service learning pedagogy, and identity-based literacy pedagogy (Alexander on sexuality)–all important trends drawn out in Otte and Mlynarczk’s narratives. Mark McBeth’s course on Writing Program Administration introduced me to Shaughnessy’s and Bartholomae’s and even Mark’s own administrative practices, each rooted (as Basic Writing explained) in different answers to the implied questions of what basic writing is and who basic writers are. So, I was surprised that while I never thought of myself as knowledgable about BW scholarship–because it’d never been packaged to me as such–I found much of the scholarship described in this book to be comfortingly familiar. I don’t know whether my experience is consistent with compositionists trained outside the “hothouse” of CUNY that plays such a prominent role in Otte and Mlynarczyk’s accounts, but for me, the history of BW and the histories I’ve learned about comp/rhet in general showed enormous overlaps.

My final comment on this book relates to my interests in disability, which is notably absent from the discussion Otte and Mlynarczyk present. Particularly, I think about the late 80s and early 1990s as important moment of institutional shift in the administration of BW instruction, where remedial programs were being ousted from the four-year-college level, and progressively shifted farther away from their initial position as access points to higher education degrees–both by moving remediation one step away into the community colleges, and by establishing earlier gatekeeping structures in high school exit exams. I think also about how this is the same period that the ADA and disability activism were making inroads into institutions of higher education and creating new forms of access for previously excluded populations who, in some respects, share the vulnerabilities of BWers, and likely share many of the same stories. I hope that as I do more research about the institutional history of disability access in public higher education I will be able to write my own history to go alongside the ones in Basic Writing. And in this, Otte and Mlynarczyk’s models are supremely instructive while also leaving me an opening to explore in my own scholarship.
Otte, George and Rebecca Williams Mlynarczyk. Basic Writing. West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2010. Print.

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An unasked question for Cathy Davidson: response to Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It (2011)

I had the opportunity to spend the day with Cathy Davidson yesterday. She was visiting the Graduate Center for a series of job-talk events–a catered lunch with program grad students, a seminar with grads and profs, and a lecture, all exploring how higher education is poised to respond to shifting paradigms in digital education and Internet-based industry. I didn’t get to talk with her as much as I would have liked, and by the end of the day, when she was finally free enough to approach alone, I chickened out. She had already endured eight straight hours of conversation and debate, including some rather adversarial questions in the final lecture, and it didn’t seem like the best time to engage her with my rather specialized interests in her work. We’ll have other occasions to talk. And, besides, who needs to talk IRL anymore? If you’re reading, Cathy, it was a pleasure to meet you.

I wrote about The Future of Thinking, Davidson’s 2009 (mass-)co-authored monograph in my last post. There I found compelling institutional theory and a model for peer-to-peer academic work that surprised and inspired me. Now You See It (2011), Davidson’s newest book, addresses a more popular audience, bringing brain science and case studies from 21st century schools and workplaces together to dispel our contemporary fixation on the “attention crisis” caused by the proliferation of digital technology, especially as that crisis relates to today’s young people. Davidson narrates the history of American educational institutions and workplaces and their connections to mass-production models of industry, productivity, and uniformity. She argues that the newest revolution in mass communication–the Internet and the World Wide Web–have initiated a paradigm shift in the way we work and learn in the 21st century. Education, she claims, has been among the slowest sectors to embrace these possibilities, largely due to misconceptions about attention, productivity, and work life that we have inherited from older generations.

To aim her message at a popular audience, Davidson employs easy-to-follow narratives throughout Now You See It, leaving behind the carefully wrought academic language of Future of Thinking. Davidson’s choice of audience address has clearly contributed to the book’s massive popularity and appeal, but for me as a scholar, it initially turned me off to the book. While I found her case studies from classrooms and work places compelling and illustrative, they tended to leave me without many scholarly leads to follow.

However, I don’t want to make it sound like the narrative work Davidson does in this book is simplistic. In fact, I feel I’ve learned much from examining the ways she incorporates individual historical narratives (for instance, the history of IQ or standardized testing, or the history of the 20th century corporate-style workplace) within a broader narrative structure of the book itself, a cradle to grave examination of life in the Internet age.

She begins with infancy, when we learn to pay attention to our world by internalizing the values and habits of our home and our parent’s culture. She then examines the neural capacities that allow us humans teach and learn as they grow and go through schooling. She then takes us through both the public school and the university system, at each step confronting how contemporary educational systems respond to or ignore current understandings of how we learn. Because most education is justified as preparation for life in the work world, she takes us to 21st century work places and the new industries fostered by information technology. In the end, she speaks directly to an audience who sees itself as too old to learn the new technology, celebrating the impressive and sustained capacity for learning and growth possessed by even the most skeptical, behind-the-times, technophobes.

Throughout all stages of life, Davidson’s investigates what literacy and learning really mean in the 21st century. In particular, she explores the question of what role attention and attention-blindness play in our current work and school lives. She draws upon recent brain research about how we actually pay attention in order to dispel the common complaint that kids today don’t know how to pay attention like they used to. She turns this argument on it’s head, claiming that it is the popular press and tech-skeptics who distract themselves with hand wringing about multitasking, video games; because they fixate on what’s wrong with kids today, they themselves do not pay attention to the positives that come from embracing our universal capacities to pay attention in different, ever-changing ways. Rather than trying to force people to pay attention in old-fashioned ways better suited for the industrial age, Davidson believes we should be learning from what kids find important enough to pay attention to and teaching them to cultivate their own attentional and discernment abilities. Rather than pushing all students to pay attention in the same ways (the ways that are supposed to lead to good standardized test scores, usually), we should teach students to “collaborate by difference,” working together to fill in for one another’s attentional gaps. Davidson believes collaboration, flexibility, and creativity are the literacy skills necessary for survival in the Internet age. And our institutions should reflect this shift by becoming less hierarchical, less silo’d, and more conducive to the kind of peer-to-peer, self-directed knowledge making now possible through the Internet.

I found my own attention drawn to the way Davidson discusses learning disabilities throughout her book, including ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, her own dyslexia. Her general stance toward labels like LD, dyslexic or Autistic shows a careful skepticism, especially about what we as a culture believe these labels mean in our current moment. She walks a tense line between acknowledging differences in people who have “different brains” and also denying that there’s really such a thing as learning disabilities in any fixed definition. It’s a tension I myself feel when talking about learning disabilities as a progressive educator who at the same time wants to advocate a positive identity for LD people, while also changing education to remove impediments that make LD diagnosable in the first place. I see this tension throughout Davidson’s work.

On the one hand, because she has read a great deal of neuroscience work on these “disabilities,” she is willing to describe developmental conditions using some medicalized explanations. For instance, when narrating the way a typical baby’s brain develops more streamlined neural pathways as he learns, Davidson writes, “If his [the hypothetical Baby Andy’s] development unfolds as it should, he will lose 40 percent of his extra neurons before he grows up. If he does not, he will not be able to function independently in society and will be considered mentally handicapped or disabled.” (44 – 45) To me, this passage exemplifies the tension of talking about cognitive disabilities in a progressive educational context. On the one hand, Davidson is talking about a biological reality–something that is happening or not in an individual’s brain. On the other hand, she is talking about this person’s ability to “function independently in society,” which Davidson’s work acknowledges is no stable capacity–it is indeed a rapidly changing capacity as technology, industry, and social structure change over time. By setting the labels of “mentally handicapped or disabled” within their historical and cultural context, Davidson acknowledges that these labels are not natural or automatic or even value neutral–they are labels that name someone as a poor fit for our current social and economic systems.

I feel a great deal of consternation about her use of the phrase “If his development unfolds as it should.” Having read other examples from the book, I know that she praises the broad and diverse capacities of people our medical discourse labels as disabled, as evidenced by her extended examination of industries where neurotypical (NT) people are disadvantaged compared to their autistic coworkers, such as IT program quality control (see ch 7 “The Changing Worker”). However, this phrase signals to me a value-laden assumption that–all things considered–it would be better if people like Baby Andy developed along the normal path, the way they should. It would be nice if there were fewer cognitively disabled people in the world. I want to push back against that should, to say that it leads us toward seeing intellectual capacity as the most important factor and away from seeing the value in intellectually disabled people. I don’t want to push very hard, though, as I think that should speaks against the injustice of innaccess, rather than the tragedy of disability.

In almost every other case where Davidson discusses disability, she does so within a larger social and cultural context, rather than focusing on the shoulds or should nots of individual development. For instance, rather than speculating about biological causes of recent rise in autism, she carefully observes “it seems that more people who are born now will eventually be diagnosed with autism than a decade ago” (215). Similarly, when talking about her own dyslexia, she claims “I wasn’t always dyslexic. I am old enough that ‘learning disabilities’ didn’t exist as a category when I was a kid” (8). In each of these cases, Davidson foregrounds the historical contingency of our terms for discussing these seemingly stable, unchangeable brain conditions (dyslexic, autistic).

In so doing, she is able to focus not on what makes dyslexics or autistic people biologically different, but instead on how education practices workplace cultures perpetuate systems that exclude certain people and not others (10). Labels like autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities arise, Davidson claims, because doctors are asked to provide reasons and treatments for people who don’t fit into rigidly narrow education systems. As she puts it when discussing the rise of standardized learning and IQ assessment, “the more standardized our assessment, the more kids fail. Their failure is then diagnosed as a learning disability or disorder” (79). If schools employed broader approaches to education that respected (instead of seeking to correct) the differences between individual capacities, these labels of disorder and syndrome would no longer be necessary.

I will conclude this discussion with one final passage, where Davidson lays out her social perspective on disability most broadly. Here, she is discussing the fact that in our current age of constantly shifting literacy requirements–where this year’s newest technological innovation leaves us unable to do work with new software or hardware we need to carry out our lives–learning disability is in fact the norm, not the exception. She writes,

The issue isn’t whether you have learning disabilities because, in a larger sense, everyone does. No one does everything perfectly all the time. Given the inherent lack, it’s just not interesting or useful to label some disabilities and not others. Far better to diagnose what the issues are and then find the right tools, methods, and partners to compensate for those so that you are able to contribute in the unique ways you can. (140)

Here Davidson takes the social model of disability to its logical conclusion: disability is not about individual impairment, it’s about inability to function within the existing social structure, and in that regard the label could apply to anyone irrespective of actual “brain difference,” whatever that would mean. Even if you might be temporarily learning-abled now, a simple change in the technology could render your literacy abilities out of date, creating in you a deficiency that did not previously exist.

This leaves me with the question I never got around to asking Cathy Davidson when I saw her yesterday, a question I hope to discuss with her more in person, as it’s not quite answered for me in her work. How can we rationalize and resolve the tension between biological essentialism, educational progressivism, and positive disability identity politics when we talk about learning disabilities and education? From a biological essentialist view, Davidson and I are “different brained, ” as she describes in her recent blog post “How it Feels to be Learning Disabled.” From a progressive educational viewpoint, however, we are simply the most disadvantaged in an disadvantaging education system whose priorities fixate on a fictional “normal brain” that no human being actually has. To reform that system is to deny the relevance of our “brain difference,” that is, to render us as a population indistinguishable from everyone else. And yet, these two views do not preclude a third, a paradoxical middle ground in which Davidson (and I) can cheer for positive identity politics in which we can say it’s great to be dyslexic or autistic, and we can use these terms for community building and to fight a culture of stigma. I want to know what place positive identity building as “differently brained” plays in Davidson’s politics of disabilities and learning. Maybe I’ll get up the gumption to ask her about it next time I see her.


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Institutions for a Less Disabling Future: Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

In their pioneering work The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg argue that institutions of higher education sit at a tipping point brought about by the advent of web 2.0 technology.

Davidson and Goldberg explore implications for higher education of the new possibilities afforded by a range of social media and digital communication technologies, claiming, essentially, that universities must actively pursue the possibilities of digital connective technology and the values of “participatory learning,” even as it means confronting difficult challenges of integrating new styles of institution with old ones. Thanks to sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter (just to name a few immediately recognizable examples), we are now producing knowledge through perviously impossible processes of peer-to-peer, global collaboration, a knowledge-making environment that requires new definitions of literacy and learning.

Traditional institutions of higher education have been reluctant to embrace many innovations, however, often for deep seated structural reasons. For instance it is now possible to use virtual reality environments like Second Life to create large-scale collaborative learning institutions that could cross geographical and institutional borders. To allow for comparison of these seemingly incompatible conceptions of “learning institution” they posit a new model that applied to both material and virtual learning institutions: as mobilizing networks, systems sustain themselves over time and distribute resources to their participants based on agreed procedural practices.

Speaking about the range of institutional structures we employ to administer education to learners, Davidson and Goldberg argue that we must seek ways to make the flow of access to information, resources, and collaborative support more fluid and universally open. They ask,

If, at present, too many learning institutions post obstacles to the free flow of thinking, to collaborative knowledge formation, and to interactive learning almost as formidable as obstacles imposed by corporations and by governments, then how do we create free-flowing institutions? (15)

One answer the authors offer emerges as they examine the academic social networking community, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). As a test case, HASTAC offers unique possibilities for the future of learning institutions, but it also evidences the real difficulties involved in building and sustaining new mobilizing networks that would bring virtual and brick-and-mortar institutions together in the producing learning institutions fit for the digital age.

I believe Davidson and Goldberg’s notion of institutions as “mobilizing networks” has a number of compelling implications for disability scholars. Here I’m focusing particularly on the fifth chapter, “Institutions as Mobilizing Networks: (Or, ‘I Hate the Institution–But I love what it Did for Me’)”

It is in discussion what institutions are and how they work that the authors most specifically name disability as a relevant topic in the discussion of learning in the digital age (though race, class, and gender are mentioned quite frequently). On the one hand, the author’s initial framing of the “traditional institution” directly evokes the kind of brick-and-mortar institutions developed to house and “care for” the disabled, such as mental institutions and prisons (125). This is the model of an institution as building, as in a charity foundation or public service. Because they find this model of institution recalcitrant to digital innovation and the possibilities of participatory learning, they try to establish a definition that would support the development of new institutional arrangements demanded by the emerging field of digital learning.

By redefining institutions as “mobilizing networks,” the authors claim mobility as a dynamic capacity for change, open collaborative involvement, access to resources–a quality not evenly distributed across contemporary learning institutions. As the authors themselves put it, “institutions in and of themselves, are not intrinsically good or bad. Their utility is a function of what they enable or disable and make possible or restrict” (129).

As Davidson and Goldberg highlight the way institutions either provide access or obstacles to users, I can’t help thinking about the work of composition scholar Jay Dolmage, who has offered similar–though less digitally focused–definitions of institutions that exclude. In his essay “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door,” Dolmage also draws connections between traditional institutions of higher education and public institutions for the disabled (in Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook 2008). Dolmage observes that colleges and universities, because their institutional function involves subjecting students to challenges and judging their capacities as students, often justify practices that put high demands on students’ physical, mental, and social abilities. Dolmage employs an architectural metaphor of “steep steps” to explain this mentality–college is supposed to be a hard slog, and those who can’t make it don’t deserve to make it to the top.

Dolmage claims that before the rise of disability activism and the ADA requirements that disabled people have equal or comparable access to public institutions of higher learning, universities were designed only to serve the needs of able-bodied students and staff, and many of the “steep steps” that were justified by administrators and teachers actually disproportionally disadvantaged disabled people. Like Davidson and Goldberg, he advocates universities pursue new practices for designing and administering institutions of higher learning, ones that would remove discriminatory barriers to entrance and access by creating more adaptable, responsive, and participatory institutions.

While Dolmage is less focused on the role digital technology can play in fostering access, and Davidson and Goldberg focus less on the plight of disabled students as a particular vulnerable population, these authors clearly come together in the ways they picture the disabling effects of traditional, hierarchical, institutions of higher learning; they also share a goal of creating new institutions that would allow for improved access and inclusion for a diverse range of learners.

A second point of interest for me in their discussion of institutions as mobilizing networks is the way Davidson and Goldberg discuss the roles of specialized institutional sites within larger traditional learning institutions–sites like libraries, DH labs, and specialized institutes that serve to promote new digital methods within the larger, more conservative university system. They refer to these as “supporting sites of mobilization.”

They argue that Institutional sites like libraries, Digital Humanities labs, and digital literacy institutes function “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy” for the university, providing access to and training in new technologies for scholarship and pedagogy while at the same time sharing information and facilitating collaboration with communities outside the institution’s physical walls. Institutional spaces like these, the author argue, serve as hubs of mobilizing energy for the university.

A quick example I’ll likely explore in a later post: I work as a communication fellow at The Bernard L. Schwartz Communication Institute at Baruch College. The institute provides training for faculty and students in a range of new media practices including course blogging, digital composing, digital assessment. It also provides an institutional link between the university and the corporate world through the annual symposium that brings faculty across a range of disciplines together with business professionals to forge important connections that support the interests of both Baruch and the industries the college’s students wish to enter. The institute also supports open practices in the products it develops, including the blogs@baruch platform and VOCAT, an open source application for giving instructor feedback on video projects. They draw resources from open participants and mobilize their resources throughout the broader global community.

My question: I wonder whether there’s a way to conceive of disability services offices as supporting sites of mobilization.

They certainly can be “catalysts for innovative uses of technology for pedagogy”: throughout my education, I have used these sites to access all kinds of assistive technologies: computer programs designed specifically to help students with learning disabilities (literacy support programs like Kurzweil 3000); books on tape (sometimes in conjunction with national foundations for the Blind and Dyslexic); and many technologies I’ve used somewhat off label for dyslexics, like speech-to-text composing software (Dragon Dictation). These resources tend to be prohibitively expensive for students, and mostly unknown to faculty and staff (outside of libraries). They mobilize digital literacy resources. I’ll address the problems with this idea in a moment.

DSOs might serve important mobilizing function within institutions of higher education in other ways, too. Clearly, in their charge to remove environmental and curricular impediments for students with disabilities, they foster mobility at colleges in literal ways: more people are able to move around campuses, access buildings, access course materials, and (ideally) access college degrees.

I wonder, though, about the important differences between DSOs and other digital literacy and access sponsors like libraries and DH institutes. Within DSOs, resources are distributed through a hierarchical process of administrative bureaucracy. Because their work with students raises all sorts of legal concerns about confidentiality and anti-discrimination legislation, DSOs must be exceptionally controlled in the way they facilitate mobilization of information, resources, and access. Some of their resources are open access (say, information about disability aimed at educating the local community, which is often hosted on DSO websites): these are for everyone, inside or outside of the university, and they often draw reference to disability culture and activism outside academic walls.

However, the majority of the resources available at DSOs are administered through confidential channels and provided only to a select few who have documented diagnoses of disabilities. Access to resources is almost invariably a top-down affair, where the administration sets the plan for accommodation according to legal prescription, and the faculty and student must both comply. DSOs don’t seem in a position to facilitate the kind of peer-to-peer collaborative learning networks Davidson and Goldberg advocate.

I want to close this post by speculating on a model from within the disabled community of mobilizing networks that may provide useful models for innovating the work of DSOs. Here I’m wandering into unclear terrain, where I will need to argue that one important function of these sites of mobilization Davidson and Goldberg describe to push cultural change and community building across social barriers of race, class, nation, and disability. I think here of the way she describes how community organizations like Sustainable South Bronx use participatory learning practices to promote social change and bring together a community.

I think also of the important role that online communities have played in bringing disabled people into active, collaborative community building. I can imagine particularly salient examples from the autistic or Asperger’s communities–the kinds of online sites of emerging “disability culture” Joseph Straus describes in his essay “Autism as Culture” (in Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed).  What productive analogies can be drawn between institutions of participatory learning in higher education contexts and these peer-to-peer digital networks that foster community building and group identity formation? How could similar peer-to-peer disability networking be productive in universities to sponsor new more empowering understandings of disabled identity? What part might DSOs play in facilitating this development?

I will take these questions with me as I continue my research. My next stop is Davidson’s Now You See It, which more directly addresses disability issues. Perhaps I will be able to think through these questions more there. Mark also suggested I track down any blog posts or articles she’s done on disability topics–which I’ll aim to do before she arrives for her job visit to CUNY this Friday. I look forward to talking with her in person about these and other ideas I have emerging for my experiences with her work.

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Reflections and Plans: 3 week check-in


I’ve been working on my lists for three weeks now, and I thought it felt about time for a checkin and self evaluation. I’ve written seven reading response posts and tried a few different formats, with differing results. I have also dealt with a range of text styles which have challenged me, including multimodal webtexts, philosophical lectures, and an enormously wide-ranging subject reader. There have also been new developments, like getting my proposal accepted for CCCC, which are making me think about where my next moves will be on my lists after I get done with my current pile.

In this post, I want to evaluate my progress so far and lay out my strategy for the next month or so of work. I mean this to be helpful to my advisors–Mark McBeth, Joe Straus, and Jason Tougaw–as a way to get a sense of what I’m working on and what I’m thinking without our having to find time to meet too frequently. I know how time is for all of us.

First I reflect on the texts I’ve read and the challenges I ran into (probably most relevant to Joe). Then I talk about my ideas for my essay project on LD identity and dyslexia memoirs, which is relevant to my next reading steps for Joe and Jason’s lists. Finally, I talk about my disability service provider research project that just got picked up for CCCC, and how I can use Mark’s list to get me there. I welcome feedback of any kind, on any part, from any audience.

1) Reflections:

I have been relatively happy with my pace. Since starting my reading/writing schedule three weeks ago, I have gotten through one book (Austin’s How to Do Things With Words), nine new chapters of the Disability Studies Reader, and an eight-author webtext that was about equivalent to an entire journal article worth of articles, Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces. I also wrote a new draft of my complete orals lists, including a draft of the list rationale statement that must accompany the lists when I submit them to the department. You can see the lists, which are broken down into sub-topics, here.

All this, and I lost an entire week, nearly, conferencing with my students for their start-of-term writing consultation. (40ish in a week–draining but effective). Now that that’s over, I should be able to concentrate more on my reading.

I faced a few research challenges in this first push. First, I had to figure out how to reflect on something so large and abstract as Austin’s speech act theory in a single post. I ended up providing my own practical testing ground by imagining the pedagogical applications of Austin’s theories about performatives. This helped me extract what I really needed from Austin, I think.

My next problem was one of medium, figuring out how to consume, interpret, and reflect on a multi-part webtext about “access studies,” an emerging discourse in composition disability studies that employs some language and concerns from outside wheelhouse. While I’m interested in technology and access, it’s really not my primary interest in thinking about disability issues in higher education. So discussions about screen reader technology or image captioning were informative, but not alluring.  It is, however, an important strand of the new composition/disability discourse I’m exploring on Jason’s list. In the end, I did a scattershot approach here, summarizing all the pieces of the webtext rather than synthesizing them together. I led a talk on this webtext for our GC Comp Rhet area group meeting shortly after writing my post. I think I was able to do some of that synthesis there.

Finally I had my first anthology battle. I’d read about half of the Disability Studies Reader (4th edition) for Joe’s class last Spring, but I knew there were quite a few articles in it I wanted to get to. Many introduce key disability studies terms of discourses that I simply don’t know much about. And while they’re not central to my dissertation project, I would like to be able to teach disability studies classes someday, and this will require me to be somewhat conversant in issues like prenatal testing or the history of the ADA. So, I wanted to use the text to give me a general overview in the field before I dive in to specific discourses. However, I also didn’t want to get bogged down in the scope of the reader, which at over 500 pages could easily keep me still for the whole month if I let it. In the end I decided to try these things: (1) skip chapters that are by authors whose books I’m reading later (i.e. Davis’s chapters which are also in his books, Siebers’s, Garland-Thomson, McRuer); (2) write mostly about the ones with relevance to my dissertation work, but take good notes on all of them; (3) leave some to come back to later if I have time. I have three more chapters to go, and I’m looking forward to digging in to a single author for a while.

2) New (revised) DS seminar paper idea

I feel like the project I’ve been working on for my incomplete Disability Studies seminar paper has finally died for good. I went through many, many drafts of that thing and still couldn’t find my way to an argument. I feel I had so many disparite topics I wanted to weave together, I couldn’t actually find something definite to say. I think it’s time for me to set that project down and consider other options. Looking backward worn’t help me move forward on these lists.

One option I’m pursuing is using this blog to generate an essay, rather than planning the argument in advance based on texts I’ve already read. By directing my reading choices based on the themes and ideas that emerge from one text to another, I can gather multiple responses on a general topic, perhaps allowing an argument to emerge and develop over a number of posts. This will help me take some of the pressure off of needing to have every move of my essays planned from the get go. Also, because I’m following leads as I go, the writing will likely have an exploratory quality and energy to it I often lost when fiddling with the old drafts.

But that’s all about method, what about topic? I think the best thing I wrote for Joe’s class was my essay about LD identity and Tobin Sieber’s notion of disability as masquerade. I was able to take his model for disability performance and use it to establish an argument for learning disability as performance, and literacy as the controlling ideological force governing the performance. I also got to draw examples from my own experience, Mooney and Schultz’s dyslexia memoirs, and some pop culture representations of dyslexia I’m interested in, especially The Cosby Show. You can see the original essay here: Learning Disability as Masquerade

I think it would make sense for me to direct my immediate reading efforts on my disability studies list toward the goal of fleshing out and developing this paper. My next stop will be, I think, Siebers’ Disability Theory, which should give me a more contextualized version of the theory I was responding to in that draft. That will be my only theoretical apparatus for this project (I hope!), and the rest of my efforts will be spent on drawing examples from a small archive of the LD texts with which to test the fit of Seiber’s theories for LD. In addition to the memoirs and the Cosby episodes about Theo’s dyslexia, I’ve also discovered a fabulous after-school special about dyslexia starring Jaquin and River Phoenix called Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984), which will match with the other texts very well I think. I will also, as before, draw from my own anecdotal experience to fill in whatever research gaps remain between me and a finished seminar paper. Once I get through these initial texts, I can ask Joe where else I could look on my lists to develop my thinking on the topic, and use his suggestions to guide my next steps in the reading and writing process. And so, in little steps forward, I might actually write a seminar paper.

3) Disability research in CUNY for CCCC talk

The second hopeful development is that I got a proposal accepted at this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in Indianapolis. I missed the message for several days as it sat in my spam box, and I’d assumed I hadn’t gotten in. I was bummed: I had proposed to discuss the initial results from a series of interviews with disability service providers around CUNY and a preliminary analysis of CUNY institutional documents about disability, including DSO websites and public resources. Getting in was to be my motivation to actually conduct those interviews and start my analysis in a timely fashion, forcing me to have something to show by March. I used the CWPA talk in July for the same purpose, as a motivation to revise the research project I began in Mark’s class and sketch out the scope of the next step in my research.

Well, since I have gotten in after all, it looks like the research plan’s back on. I’d love to start by trying to get a meeting with Chris Rosa, the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at CUNY central. I met him when I was putting on the English program graduate conference two years ago with Emily Stanback and Marrisa Brostoff. (Check out the conference website here.) Dr. Rosa has been a driving force in disability policy and discourse within CUNY since he himself graduated from the GC–not to mention his influence and contributions as executive officer of the Society of Disability Studies.

He would be in a unique position to help me access whatever documents or data or stories exist that would help me construct an institutional history of disability in CUNY. He would also be in a position to help me understand the logistic and legal terrain I’m getting into by asking questions about disability services at CUNY. Perhaps he could point me toward particular people at campuses who would have further leads, or be good interview subjects. This assumes, of course, he’s not too busy to see me and actually sees merit in my research. I’ll do as much research on these questions as I can alone first, of course.

I’m essentially planning to steer my reading work for Mark and Jason over the next one or two month push toward supporting these two projects. I’ve already talked through my plan for linking Joe’s list to the dyslexia masquerade essay. Jason’s list contains a number of the foundational dyslexia and LD works I’ll need to be able to draw upon to write that piece as well, and these should give me some ways to crack open that list on academic disability in a real way. I can do Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled, which gives an excellent overview of the various strands of LD scholarship (including neuroscience, literacy studies, and composition discourses around the topic); my work will be responding to Dunn’s pretty directly, I think, and my lists draw heavily from her own bibliography (with my spin, of course). She will remind me of the lay of the land and help me plan my next moves. Those next moves might take me to the LD memoirs, but I’m not committed to that yet. I may also want to spend some time with the early cognitive comp folks (Rose, Flower, Elbow).

For the moment, I’m working to finish up Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (2010), the second monograph I’m tacking on Mark’s list. I bumped it to the top of the pile because Dr. Davidson is coming to the GC in two weeks to give a job talk, and I’ll get the chance to meet her. Obviously, I’m eager to get a good understanding of her work before she gets here. I should be done with Future of Thinking by Monday so I can go on to Now You See It, which I understand more directly addresses issues of ADHD and new literacy.

Once I get through Davidson’s work, I want to direct my reading on Mark’s list toward supporting my CCCC research project. Since my main concern in this draft of the project will be sketching out an institutional history of disability administration at CUNY, I will want to get some models for other institutional histories. I’ll look at George Otte and Rebecca Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010) as well as some texts I poached from Mark’s archive class about basic writing and Open Admissions history. If I can narrow down any texts that will model interview-based research methods, that would be nice too. Suggestions are very welcome. Perhaps the texts on institutional criticism methods will be a nice place to go next.

To anyone who made it this far: thanks for reading. I welcome your feedback or encouragement either in comments or in an email to me at

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