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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inauspicious Beginnings: Five Ws and an H

I hate first blog posts. I always feel pressure to get things started in just the right way: first posts should frame my project or my goals with foresight and ambition, should introduce myself in a voice that makes me sound fun and intelligent enough to keep your interest. First posts should be auspicious. This pile of shoulds freaks me out, and I usually end up procrastinating, fretting, over-thinking, and ultimately not writing. Shoulds are the adversaries of writing.

So, an inauspicious beginning is in order. Let’s see how prosaic I can be: just the facts.

Who (am I)?

My name’s Andrew Lucchesi. I am a PhD student at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where I’m working on a degree in English. I spend most of my time thinking about writing, teaching, and learning, and how these three complex processes are related. Over the last four years teaching college writing classes and studying composition and rhetoric, I have learned to think about writing in complicated ways: writing–both alphabetic and digital–is at once tool for making things for others (finished texts) and also a tool I can use for myself, companion to help me become better learner, thinker, and worker. I try to teach my students to think about writing this way, and I try my best to believe it myself, to practice what I preach. I know that I am never done learning to write, and that writing about my own learning process is the best way to speed this learning along. Which leads me to question two:

What (is this blog about)?

I’m calling this a learning/doing blog. I am picturing it as a mix of an informal publication venue and a process journal for my writing and research work. To keep me working on my various article and dissertation projects, I will post drafts and chunks of writing that are parts of larger works-in-progress. Feedback and suggestions are welcome. I will also post reflective writing in which I take a step back and talk about my process as a developing academic writer–what’s working, what’s not, what’s next. At some point, I will more fully flesh out the theoretical underpinnings of this blog project–what exactly I mean by learning/doing. In lieu of a thorough explanation, I’ll give you an idea of the ground I mean to cover.

Where (will this blog go?)

You can expect posts on this blog to include things like this:

  • Drafts and chunks of writing for conference talks, dissertation chapters, webtexts, videos, and other formal products
  • Musings and speculations on ideas emerging from my research
  • Report-backs from workshops or other public events (done by me or by others)
  • Reflections on my experiments with various digital tools or writing techniques
    • Coming soon: my experiments with the digital mapping/composing tool Mural.ly
  • Rants and diatribes about life as a graduate student, my learning process, and Beyonce-themed podcasts

When (will I post?)

I’m planning to post at least once a week, probably by Fridays. While I would like every post to be interesting and important, the truth of the matter is that this blog is more about process than product. The important thing for me is that I post something every week: it’s about routine, not revelation. It’s about committing to a process that will help me develop healthy writing habits and keep my demons of self-doubt in check. So you can expect some variety from week to week in terms of format (and probably quality too). But I promise to update every week.

Why (should you read?)

I can imagine some reasons why you might read my blog. Perhaps you are a graduate student yourself, and you’re also struggling to develop your professional identity, your writerly voice, your teaching style, all that. Maybe you too are thinking about writing a dissertation and want to stay sane (whatever that is) while doing it. Or perhaps you share similar research interests with me, and you’ll be interested in my ideas and scholarship on disability or pedagogy or literacy. If this is the case, you might check out my annotated bibliography archive, where I review and respond to the books and articles I’m reading. Perhaps–and this feels unlikely–you simply like the way I write, or you know me personally or want to get to know me better. Maybe you simply enjoy reading what I write and it has no particular utility to you at all.

How (should you interact?)

Whatever your reasons for reading my blog, I want to encourage you to interact by commenting, contacting me, or spreading the word through social media. Whether I’m posting polished drafts or loose musings, I would love feedback: disagreements, questions, corrections, encouragements, anything. I want to start discussions. So, please, don’t be shy.

Those are the facts. Stay tuned for more soon. And thanks for reading.

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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 a.j.lucchesi@gmail.com

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Here we go!

I’m looking forward to spending the next nine months writing on this blog as I prepare for my second doctoral exam. I have been a frequent blogger throughout my adult life, but only recently have I begun trying to blog about my academic and professional interests.

My plan is to write posts about each of the pieces on my oral exam reading lists, a total of about 90 books, articles, and chapters. (The full lists are available here, for anyone interested.) I don’t have a particular format for these response posts yet, though I imagine I’ll try a few different methods over time. When the occasion strikes, I will also write about other non-orals scholarly projects that seem related.

I imagine much of what I write here won’t be of interest of a general audience. Those who study disability or composition or pedagogy might find individual posts useful, and if so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Because it’s a functional blog for me, I imagine my primary audience as myself, months and years from now, trying to write more formal pieces based on the initial ideas I preview here. More concretely, I imagine my audience as Mark McBeth, Joe Straus, and Jason Tougaw–the three professors who are advising me and examining me in this process. The tone may, as a result, veer toward the functional as well.

I have a few goals in this labor. On a basic level, I believe writing about the texts I read will help me better internalize their content, and that by rehearsing my responses in writing I will develop more sophisticated understandings of my lists as a whole. In other words, I hope writing here will help me perform better on the exam itself. More than that, I believe writing frequently and informally about my ideas will help me produce material that I can later revise for more formal purposes, including conference talks, articles, and my dissertation. I often have a great deal of difficulty producing formal pieces (and I have the incompletes to prove it). I hope this blog will help me learn to produce more writing and to feel better about sharing it with the world.

I welcome feedback on anything I write here, whether it’s encouragement, suggestions, or questions. If you’re not the type to leave public comments, feel free to message me directly at a.j.lucchesi@gmail.com.

 

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