[the absence of] good news

One of the hardest things for me about being a Ph.D. student is not knowing who to share good (academic) news with. Lots of folks share stories about the struggle to explain (& sometimes justify) their academic interests to family. My mom was a professor of business & marketing, but I know she would have understood my work and the more general experiences of what it’s like to navigate academia. A couple weeks ago, I thought to myself, I need to call her.

She died nearly five years ago.

As I prepped for my exam defense last week, I was trying to think through the narrative of my exam process (the written comps, the annotated bib, the article). In many ways, it was the most grueling academic process I’ve experienced. And in many other ways, it was a series of “aha!” moments that allowed me to understand what I value as an academic, as someone invested in disability/studies and teaching.

Within this narrative about my exam experiences my focus on disability and accessibility, I thought it was appropriate to pay tribute to my mom and brother.

A black & white image shows two people sitting on the floor. On the left, my brother sits, staring down at a card, laughing. To the right, my mother faces him, smiling widely. Her head is bald from chemo.

brother & mother

I included one of my favorite photos of my brother & mom together with this statement:

Disability has always been a lens through which I’ve viewed and understood people and environments, my family, and myself. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes disability as “the most human of experiences, touching every family and—if we live long enough—touching us all” (5). Similarly, Simi Linton describes disability as a central tenet of the humanities, something we must all critically address. Yet despite the scholarship that constructs disability as a pervasive cultural category, many people come to it for personal reasons: they or someone close to them has a disability. Michael Bérubé addresses this in his foreword to Claiming Disability:

“Part of the reason I changed my mind so dramatically [about disability’s role in the liberal arts] has nothing to do with anything I’ve read; when I became the father of a child with Down syndrome, I realized immediately and viscerally that disability can happen to anyone—including someone very close to you, and including you, too” (x).

I’ve always been aware of my personal connections to disability—growing up with an autistic older brother, negotiating my own depression and anxiety, taking care of my mom when she couldn’t get out of bed or drive to the store. Disability has always been a central component of our family and thus very personal. It wasn’t until I was in my Master’s program, and had Jay Dolmage as a teaching mentor, that I realized disability could be something more. And once I came to Syracuse, I was able to take classes in the Disability Studies Program.

I wondered if it would be strange to include this in an opening statement to my oral exam defense, and my voice wavered as I read it. But as so many have argued—feminist and disability studies scholars, scholars of color—the personal (is political!) is academic. My personal narrative is so interconnected with my academic narrative, my personal interests with my academic interests.

I wondered, too, if it might seem strange to write about this on my blog, which—generally—has served as an academic space. But it’s also been a space to reflect on my feelings about things like Mother’s Day and the overcoming rhetoric of breast cancer.

Spring semester always seems harder. There’s less of a break to re-energize you. There’s more work to do somehow than there was in the fall. The winter, if you live somewhere like Syracuse, can test your will to get out of bed. Your dog is depressed. You’re depressed.

Even the smallest things in April trigger memories for me that don’t happen any other time of the year. Visiting Days taking place these past couple days reminded me of visiting Syracuse three years ago. I’ll never forget the long conversation about my mom at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge with Tim. It was so strange to me that this person I didn’t know wanted to talk to me about something that I didn’t realize was still so incredibly painful two years later. I still point to that conversation as the deciding factor that made me realize Syracuse could—and would—be my home for the next four years.

With the end of the semester creeping closer, I know all of these things will get worse. I’ll get busier once my IRB research is approved, as I write my dissertation prospectus, when my students turn in final feasibility projects. These things will happen simultaneously with events reminding me of my mom, like driving back to West Virginia my senior year for the last Easter I celebrated.

It happens every spring semester.

An hour ago, I started making a mental list of things I needed to remember to get through the semester:

  • Be kind to yourself.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Let others help you when you need it.
  • Celebrate every step along the way—no matter how small it may seem.

#4c14

This is the presentation I’m giving at C’s this year (today! B.30), part of a larger panel titled “Critical Disability Pedagogies: Hacking the Curriculum, Rewriting Spaces.”

***

“Dis/Ability as Inquiry: Hacking the Fixed Curriculum”

Although there are benefits to a shared, fixed curriculum, it can sometimes butt heads with the values and needs of the instructors and students who exist within it. I’m sure we’ve all felt limited by a writing curriculum that dictates particular assignments or that crams 15 learning outcomes into a single semester. Adding anything on top of these constraints can seem impossible.

As Jody Shipka notes, “The often-repeated claim is that there is not enough time in the semester to cover what instructors traditionally have been expected to cover and that adding on additional lessons or tasks to teach other communicative modes and/or to teach students reflective skills (metacommunicative awareness) would make doing everything or doing anything, virtually impossible” (136).[1] It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that accessibility—which is typically included as an additional task in the classroom if acknowledged at all—is not typically valued or foregrounded in our pedagogical considerations. We may not even think about accessibility until we receive an accommodations letter from a student, at which point disability and issues of access are made visible in the classroom.

The composition classroom has long been a space that desires a particular form of writing and, as Robert McRuer has criticized, a particular type of student body. In Crip Theory, McRuer argues that composition requires standard writing produced by standard bodies within a system that upholds able-bodiedness as the norm.[2] The result is a final “perfect” product that is so fetishized that messy, embodied processes cannot be acknowledged at all. In response, McRuer asks us to crip composition: to imagine what exists beyond standard academic writing, to make space for non-normative bodies, and to value different embodied ways of learning and composing.

In “Writing Against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn,” Jay Dolmage begins to do some of this reimagining. Echoing McRuer, Dolmage argues that composition has historically been disembodied—ignoring embodied composing processes in favor of texts and words. We must pay closer attention to the divergent, diverse bodies that exist in our writing classes by developing pedagogies that “not only affirm the body, but that affirm all bodies” (110).[3] This means examining and valuing messy composing processes rather than focusing on products that mirror ideal, normative bodies (125).

For this presentation, I want to offer strategies that reimagine curricular standards in order to create more accessible classroom spaces that reaffirm students’ bodies and embodied ways of learning and composing. First, I’ll offer some reflections on teaching a dis/ability-themed composition course within a fixed curriculum. Then, I’ll address some practices that can be useful in any composition course.

Disability as Inquiry.

In their introduction to Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggemann highlight the benefits of incorporating disability in our writing classrooms. Disability raises a number of important questions about critical literacy skills and how we can understand writing as embodied and value bodily difference, resonating with McRuer and Dolmage’s desires to value messy, embodied writing processes.

Perhaps the most important question is this: “How can inclusion of disability improve the teaching of writing?” (3).[4] Lewiecki-Wilson and Brueggemann argue that disability as inquiry “makes sense, not just because students with disabilities are already present in our classes, but also because close attention to disability discourses sharpens critical thinking and improves literacy for everyone” (4). Students gain awareness of their rhetorical choices and how those choices affect people and practices.

I chose a disability theme—Everyday Representations of Dis/ability—for my sophomore-level, research-based composition course because I knew it was something students didn’t have much exposure to as a critical research inquiry, it intersects well with other critical areas, and I’m passionate about it.

Still, I anticipated a lot of pushback from students.

Some of the criticism about disability research is that it’s not relatable. Simi Linton argues that disability and disabled people specifically have frequently been studied “in their particularity, which is not considered generalizable or relevant to nondisabled people, or they are studied as deviation from the norm in order to increase the knowledge about and stature of the norm” (73).[5] I didn’t want to create a space where we were studying disability in a way that would distance students from disability or that would reaffirm particular bodies—assuring my students that they are, indeed, the norm.

I felt particularly constrained because the first unit only allowed for four shared readings. Recognizing the importance of the first unit as an introduction to the inquiry, I felt pressure to choose readings that were foundational, that covered a wide range of topics, and that students could relate to—something we consider for any class.

I settled on texts that would cover a range of themes: from an introduction to disability studies (Simi Linton’s “Reassigning Meaning”) to reflections on advocacy and themes of pity and charity (Laura Hershey’s “From Poster Child to Protestor”) to a more popular exploration of stigma, self-advocacy, and technology (“Escape” from This American Life) to texts that represent popular media representations of mental illness (Liza Long’s “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” and Ari Ne’eman’s “In Grief, Stereotyping Mental Illness”).

Although I could talk at length about all of these, I want to highlight “Escape” because it’s one of my absolute favorite texts to use. In the TV show “Escape,” host Ira Glass explores the life and daily struggles of Mike Phillips, a 27-year-old man with spinal muscular atrophy. This brief snippet into Mike’s life disrupts many assumptions about what someone with a severe physical disability can accomplish—that he can go out to coffee shops, that he can get piercings and tattoos, that he can have a sexual relationship. In this way, “Escape” is shocking because it puts pressure on popular representations of disability—of the disabled as bedridden or sad or deserving of our pity. It’s one of the texts that I’ve found most effective in getting students to think critically about the representations of disability they’ve encountered and how those have shaped their own assumptions, and it always leads to a really interesting, awkward, productive conversation.

Throughout this unit, I was surprised by how receptive everyone was, and I asked students to reflect on the course mid-semester. Students responded to the following prompt: Comment on the expectations you had coming into this class. What is your previous experience with research and/or writing classes? How did you feel about the course after reviewing the syllabus and learning about our inquiry: Everyday Representations of Dis/Ability. What concerns/reservations did you have about our course inquiry?

The majority of the responses focused on students’ unfamiliarity with the topic, which, for many, caused initial concern.

  • I was skeptical of the course topic at first but became more comfortable as we started to examine it.
  • It’s not the most interesting topic, but so far I find it more interesting than I thought I would.
  • I do not know that much about disabilities but I found a way to connect it to a topic that I find interesting.
  • When I read the syllabus and found out the topic is disability, I was a bit disappointed because my friends had more interesting topics. […] Now I am really interested in the topic of disability.
  • I never really thought about disability extensively, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write about it. I was relieved when I realized it was a lot more “broad” of a topic than I thought.
  • At first, I was a little hesitant about our inquiry just because I did not know how the course would be approached. So far, I have enjoyed coming to this class and learning about the representations of dis/ability. I feel comfortable with taking part in our class discussions.
  • I was surprised by how much I was able to learn about the class inquiry. It was a pleasantly flexible topic.
  • I gravitated more to this topic b/c I didn’t know too much about it. The topic was at first confusing but once we started discussing things in class I started to fully grasp it more.
  • I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to connect to the class topic until your support for my writing allowed me to make one. […] The first unit was key in helping me understand what a disability can be, which also led me to rediscover my own disability.

There’s a re-occurring admission of being skeptical or hesitant, confused, even blatantly disinterested. I was surprised to see in all of these responses, though, that students significantly warmed to the topic. At my university, students can’t view the course topic prior to enrolling, and this a common complaint. I was pleased that students saw their own interests intersecting with disability but wasn’t expecting students to make any sort of 180’s in terms of their feelings about disability. I was surprised, then, to read responses that did highlight that kind of adjustment in critical awareness:

  • Outside this class, I think the understanding of how disabled people feel about being isolated/treated differently will help.
  • I’ve been trying to stop saying “retarded” which is something that I learned from this class.
  • This class has been the most impactful English class I have ever taken.  It has definitely made my view of disabilities shift from a very passive (not really caring) view to a proactive and more open view. I now don’t view them in a oh-I-feel-really-bad-for-you-now-because-of-your-disabilities. I am WAY more comfortable talking with people with disabilities now because of this class.

For me, these responses highlight the potential of exposing students to topics that they haven’t encountered. I’ve received some of the most interesting research topics, papers, and projects in the disability-themed courses I’ve taught in part because students don’t have pre-determined opinions and arguments. For example, I don’t receive generic papers about sports. Instead, I’ve read interesting analyses about the representation (or the lack thereof) of paralympic athletes, disabled athletes in movies, and disabled student athletes in heartwarming news segments. This isn’t true for all of my students, but most were critically examining their own assumptions about a new topic, which made their research fresh and interesting.

Disability as an inquiry encourages critical thinking, improves literacy, and allowed me to foreground accessibility in very direct ways: providing a context for why I require collaborative note taking, try different multimodal invention strategies in the classroom, and ask students to make accessible digital projects.

This isn’t the only way to foreground accessibility, though. When I first started talking, I mentioned that many of us feel constrained by a fixed curriculum, and what I’ve said so far may sound well and good, but maybe you’re really into your social media inquiry or critical race inquiry. Or maybe incorporating disability as a topic sounds like one more thing in an already jam-packed curriculum. So now I’d like to offer some strategies for hacking a fixed curriculum to increase accessibility that can be applied more broadly.

Hacking the syllabus. 

An easy way to signal to students that you’re interested in accessibility is by writing it in stone, so to speak, in the course syllabus. Lots of disability composition folks have written about this—most recently, Tara Wood and Shannon Madden published a piece in Kairos titled “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements.”[6] Because we all adhere to institutional policies, we often can’t manipulate an accommodation statement. We can, however, create a supplementary statement. As Wood and Madden note, considering the location of such a statement and the header are important. If an accommodation notice is at the very end of the syllabus and is labeled “Special Needs,” for example, the outdated language and placement may signal to students that accommodations aren’t really valued. If it’s true that only half of college students report their disabilities, and many forego accommodations for fear that their instructors and peers will treat them differently (427),[7] it’s important to think carefully about how we address disability and accommodations.

For the disability-themed course I taught, I had an accessibility statement listed first under “Course and SU Policies” that read:

Accessibility. This is a course about disability, welcoming different learning and composing styles, and questioning the “normal.” If we can do something to make the classroom more accessible, please let me know immediately. You are also welcome to contact me privately to discuss your academic needs.

This was immediately followed by an “accommodations” header. This kind of strategy would be useful in any classroom, and I’ve adapted it slightly for other courses:

Accessibility.  This is a course designed to welcome different learning and composing styles as well as create an inclusive space. Let me know if I can make the classroom more accessible.

Because it’s in the syllabus and we address it on the first day, it signals to students that it’s something I take seriously, and I’ve found that more students without formal accommodations are willing to talk to me about their needs.

Hacking Participation Requirements.

In our curriculum, participation is 10% of the student’s overall grade, and I’ve always felt weird about grading students for their in-class participation. I’ve never been a talk-in-class kind of student. I was always engaged, but my instructors usually didn’t see it that way and my participation grade frequently suffered.

After teaching a disability-themed course the first time around and not accounting for alternative forms of participation, I created a participation statement for my syllabus in the next disability course I taught and have incorporated it in other classes, too.

Participation. Not everyone is a talk-in-class-every-day person, and participation isn’t limited just to talking in class. Participation also means coming to class prepared, engaging with the material, being a thoughtful peer reviewer, [tweeting regularly,] and posting class notes.

In my civic writing course, for example, we used Twitter to post artifacts relevant to our readings and class discussions. That’s the first time I incorporated tweeting on a class-wide scale, and I was surprised by its success. Half of the students probably tweeted less than 10 times the whole semester, but I had two students in particular who rarely spoke in class and would go home and tweet about our class discussion, post relevant readings, and also pose questions about the homework. I found Twitter particularly relevant for a civic writing class so my students could follow interesting accounts and real-time conversations about civic issues, but I don’t use Twitter in all my classes.

I do, however, use collaborative note taking in all my classes.

At the beginning of each semester, I circulate a sign-up sheet and ask two people to sign up to take notes for each class period and create a space on our course site where they can upload their notes. This is an example of the description I give them:

Everyone takes in and processes information differently. I may say one thing, and you all may hear something different based on your own understandings, interpretations, and beliefs/assumptions. For that reason, multiple people will sign up to take notes on each day of class. If it is your day to take notes, you will receive participation points for the day.

I’ve had students submit notes that ranged simply from bullet points of what I write on the chalkboard to rich narrative accounts of everything that occurred during class. Usually they type them, but sometimes they handwrite them—doodles included. The rhetorical benefits of this assignments are awesome yet initially unintended. When I first required it, I was really trying to imagine assignments and activities that were more accessible and universally designed. Note taking is a pretty common accommodation, and collaborative note taking addresses that specific need while also making it a shared responsibility (rather than focusing on the one student who requires it). It asks students to be responsible to each other by contributing to a shared resource. And ultimately, it reinforces the notion that accessible practices benefit all students.

Hacking In-Class Activities.  

The last strategy I want to address is hacking fixed curricula through multimodal activities. In many ways, multimodality supports accessible practices with its attention to multiplicity in various modes and media and its focus on flexible processes and products. Multimodality also has significant overlap with Universal Design for Learning (UDL).[8] Adapted from Universal Design (UD), the idea that all spaces must be physically accessible to all people, UDL focuses on creating equitable and flexible pedagogies for all learners.

UDL’s principles—multiple means of representation, actions and expression, and engagement—emphasize flexible and adaptable practice. Collaborative note taking offers multiple means of representation because it provides the same information (what was communicated in class) in a different form (as notes online). It also creates a space for students who may not be active talkers to process what’s happening and to actively engage in a different way. Multiple means of action and expression, which emphasizes knowledge making through composing, can be addressed through our in-class activities. There are many ways to do this, but I’ll offer two that I really like: a research question gallery and multimodal workshop.

Inspired in part by Jay Dolmage’s revision gallery, I like to set up a gallery once students have narrowed their research questions. This activity gets students to push on their ideas and interact with their peers’ ideas in a way that let’s them “see” their work in a different way. For this, I bring in large paper, tape, and different colored markers. Students write their research questions at the top of the paper and tape it to the wall. Then, they write why they chose the topic, note what they already know about it, and list questions they’d like to answer through research. Once they’ve written for a solid 15-20 minutes, they move around the room, reviewing topics and questions other students have generated. I ask them to do two things: 1) add a question they think would be interesting that isn’t listed and 2) check one question they find most interesting.

Everyone leaves feedback directly on the page, so students get a visual sense of what aspects of their research topics other find interesting and useful. While some students get 15 checks on one research question and none on others, other students get a mix of 3-4 checks per question, and I tell them to think about how particular questions appeal to people differently. Because I’m not asking them to give too much in-depth feedback, too, this is an opportunity for students to get a lot of responses.

Another activity I like to use is a Jody Shipka-inspired multimodal workshop. This activity asks students to reimagine their written arguments, which is useful if you have a unit that asks students to translate an argument to a new medium or to compose a multimodal project. I bring crafting supplies and ask students to bring at least 5 objects that they can use to compose an argument. I ask students to do some pre-writing, but the majority of the time is spent composing, and I ask them to consider what arguments their objects can communicate that an essay couldn’t and what the potentials and limits of their objects are.

I had a student tell me once in conferences that she was more of a “hands on” learner, and during this workshop I watched her very carefully create a text representing the different learning styles we should embrace in the classroom to be more inclusive to autistic students. This activity always fascinates me because on multiple occasions I’ve watched students who don’t actively “participate” (ie. talk) in class take the entire class period to carefully complete their composition. It critically engages students in their topics in a way that is more physical, tactile, and can be useful for kinesthetic learners or students who struggle to invent on paper.

Conclusion.

In closing, I want to emphasize the importance of foregrounding accessibility in our classrooms. In this presentation, I offered practical strategies for engaging students in critical thinking about disability, integrating multimodality into the classroom, and centralizing accessibility within a fixed curriculum. Although accommodations are important, they shouldn’t be the default for making our classes accessible. We should consider the small, everyday practices that we can to make our classrooms more accessible. Even in fixed curricula that can be constraining at times, there are ways to hack our practices to make our classes more accessible to students, and I’m interested to hear if y’all have other suggestions for how to do this.


[1] Shipka, Jody. Toward a Composition Made Whole. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2011. Print.

[2] McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. NY: New York UP, 2006. Print.

[3] Dolmage, Jay. “Writing Against Normal: Navigating a Corporeal Turn.” Composing (Media) = Composing (Embodiment): bodies, technologies, writing, the teaching of writing. Ed. Kristin L. Arola and Anne Frances Wysocki. Logan: Utah State UP, 2012. 110-26 Print.

[4] Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia, and Brenda Jo Brueggemann, ed. Disability and the Teaching of Writing. Boston: Bedford-St. Martin’s, 2008. 40-55. Print.

[5] Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability. New York: New York UP, 1998. Print.

[6] Wood, Tara, and Shannon Madden. “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements.” Kairos 18.1 (Fall 2013). Web.

[7] Walters, Shannon. “Toward an Accessible Pedagogy: Dis/ability, Multimodality, and UD in the Technical Communication Classroom.” Technical Communication Quarterly 19.4 (2010): 427-54. Print.

[8] CAST. The National Center of Universal Design for Learning. Center for Applied Special Technology. 2011. Web.

 

Chemical Spills & Professional Communication

I’ve been working on the syllabus for my WRT 307: Professional Writing course. I finally finished it and started piecing together our course website yesterday—work that was interrupted around 5:30pm when I saw a FB post from a childhood friend warning folks in our hometown not to drink the water.

Yesterday morning, a tank of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol—a foaming agent used in coal prep—began spilling into the Elk River and is currently affecting 9 counties and approximately 300,000 people. Although people in the Charleston area started complaining about the licorice smell around 7am and the smell was identified as coming from Freedom Industries around 9:30am, I didn’t see a single report until after 5:00pm. Though the story was constantly updated via The Daily Mail, crucial information was missing from the initial reports, such as the 5 (now 9) counties affected by contaminated water provided by West Virginia American Water.

When I saw my friend’s post, I immediately checked Twitter for verification. I assumed that my family knew about this and texted my dad that I had read about the spill. He texted back, “What?” He had been boiling water for spaghetti when I texted him and hadn’t heard a word about the spill.

Governor Tomblin issued an order not to use the water to do anything but flush toilets or put out fires: “Do not drink, bathe, cook or wash clothes with tap water.” Local restaurants, schools, daycares, nursing homes, and even some hospitals are affected and have been advised to close.  The president of WV American Water apparently  emphasized that “the company is not positive the water is dangerous, but they determined there’s the possibility.” Side effects include mild burns and “non-stop vomiting.”

I couldn’t stop reading news articles yesterday, and it has consumed most of my day today, too. Although I realize it’s not the water company’s fault that this happened, they are absolutely at fault for not issuing a warning until ten hours after the spill occurred. They are also at fault for jumping the gun and issuing a statement that they could treat the water, which was later revoked.

Kanawha River, June 2009

Sunset over the Kanawha River, June 2009

I adore West Virginia. I got a tattoo of the state outline on my 20th birthday with a heart where Charleston is. I defend it aggressively when I hear people make jokes about it. My WV twang comes out whenever I cross the Mason-Dixon line. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to read stories like this—to see how companies treat their people, how recklessly chemicals are stored that have unknown impact to people, water, land, or animals.

It has, however, been amazing  to witness all of this from NY—to see friends posting on Facebook which hotels are open for people to take showers, where the water distribution centers are, who has an extra case of bottled water that they’re willing to share with a friend who uses powdered baby formula. When communication breaks down on a macro-level, it’s interesting to see how communication and community grow stronger through social media.

A picture of Bart Simpson holding a three-eyed fish. Text reads, "It's an Elk River Thing."

People always joke about the 3-eyed catfish in the Kanawha River. (photo via Instagram)

It’s the communication that really has me outraged. Am I surprised that there was a chemical leak in Kanawha County, which we called “Chemical Valley” when I was growing up? No.

My mom used to say that Kanawha County killed people, and sometimes—particularly when I read things like this and think of the  number of power plants around when I was growing up (and that are still there, although fewer in number)—I believe that. But that seems like all the more reason to be prepared for things like this to happen. The lack of appropriate response is absurd.

In my professional writing theory course at WVU, we read Beverly Sauer’s The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments. Influenced by the legal, technical, and ethical responses of companies to large-scale technological disasters, the book is essentially a workplace study on mine safety.

I remember being fascinated by this book  because even if you know very little about WV, you know it’s coal territory. Boys are recruited out of high school to work in the coalmines, and communication (particularly written communication) is so crucial in those high-risk environments—filling out appropriate documentation, writing reports, proceeding appropriately if and when there is a disaster.

Though what happened yesterday isn’t necessarily a writing issue, it is most certainly a communication issue—How is it legally or ethically possible that several hours passed before a warning was issued? Why does no one know how this chemical impacts people? Why is there no plan in place for what to do in this situation?

I think this would be useful to bring up in WRT 307 next week. It’s interesting to think about how information has been communicated through professional channels (newspapers, press releases) versus more informal channels like Facebook and Twitter. It’s also useful for thinking about how to communicate clearly under pressure.

I think I’ll call the lesson, “what not to do in a high-risk communication situation.”

2013 in Review (WordPress Edition)

Like last year, I thought this WordPress report would be fun to share, even though I definitely neglected blogging after passing my written comprehensive exams this summer. Hoping to start this year with a fresh outlook on life in general and work (finishing the exam process! writing a prospectus!) specifically.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 3 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

#UDdiscon 2013

This is a full-text copy of my paper for the Disability Disclosure in/and Higher Education Conference, taking place at the University of Delaware. My presentation is titled, “‘I Know It’s Touchy, But Should It Be?’: Diagnosing Students in the Writing Center.” It’s an extension of my talk at C’s last March, which I’m continuing to process.

***

 

This time last year, I was at a writing center conference, choking back tears as I walked out of a crowded presentation about the increasing number of students with Asperger Syndrome who frequent university writing centers. I had been listening to a presentation about some of the telltale characteristics of autism spectrum disorders and how tutors should respond to these traits. These were things like, “Don’t encourage outlining because autistic writers struggle to connect their ideas” and, “Autistic people have bad handwriting, so you should offer them the opportunity to use the computer.”

At the end, the speaker said that AS “is an obstacle that can be overcome if the student wants,” adding that tutors can aid in this process. Much to my dismay, the Q&A quickly became a mix of whole-hearted agreement and discussion of how to identify students who seem suspicious and may become violent.

Cue my eyes welling up as I asked a question and then awkwardly walked out.

This anecdote is just one of many that emphasizes the need to diagnose students. It contributes to a larger narrative that positions disability as dangerous if left undisclosed, that encourages tutors to do the diagnosing (or to at least encourage students to self-disclose), and that contributes to the idea that the writing center is a space where students can be fixed by identifying traits of particular disabilities that contribute to “bad” writing.

The premise of my talk is that disability gets constructed as something that must be disclosed in order for consultants to feel comfortable and safe working with disabled students. This emphasis on diagnosis, however, often leads to fixed practices and reinforces the remediation model that writing centers have historically worked to position themselves against.

The questions, then, that are driving this talk, that I certainly can’t answer here but am curious if folks have thoughts on, are these: Why do we feel the need to diagnose students—or coax them into self-disclosing—before we can tutor them? Why has the writing center—as a space for one-on-one, individualized instruction that has historically fought the remediation label—become a space of remediation for disabled students?

***

From their inception as writing clinics—spaces to remediate struggling or deficient writers—writing centers have fought a remedial label. Nancy Maloney Grimm describes WCs as vulnerable and thus eager to check in and adapt to student and institutional needs in order to bolster the way they’re perceived. Grimm notes that when adaptive responses develop from a defensive place or a place of anxiety, “we repeat patterns rather than change orientation” (534).

And there is certainly a lot of anxiety about disability.

Writing center scholarship about disability—and attitudes about it, as well—are still deeply entrenched in medical model notions of disability. As we know, medical models insist that students must be “fixed” or “cured” of their individual deficits. In the WC, this coincides with a “remediation” model of tutoring practices that target disabled students as remedial. Although disability isn’t a hot topic, when it is mentioned, it has frequently centered on learning disabilities (LD) and how tutors can cope with LD students.

An interest in LD—at least in The Writing Lab Newsletter—began in 1984 when George Gleason’s article, “How Do Others Deal with Such Special People?” prompted a spirited discussion about identifying LD (See Gills, Lauby, and Scanlon) that was picked up again a decade later (See Brainard, Mullin, Baker) by folks still wanting to identify, target, and treat the characteristics of students’ disabilities.

This focus on identifying characteristics has significant medical undertones that have been reified through the articles that are reprinted in guides for writing center directors and tutors.

For example, in her anthologized essay that was originally published in 1994, Julie Neff suggests practices that could help LD students but nevertheless positions such students as Other. She writes, “Although learning-disabled students come to the writing center with a variety of special needs, they have one thing in common: they need more specific help than other students” (382). This cues tutors that they need to treat LD students differently—an idea that is emphasized in the essay through a medical discussion of the causes of LD. Though Neff is convinced that writing centers can serve the needs of disabled students, she relies on medical discourse to support that point, reinforcing the need to diagnose.

Another example is Steve Sherwood’s 1996 article, “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning from the Students We Can’t Help.” In a reflection of a failed session, Sherwood writes, “I had no training in helping students cope with learning disabilities, much less with the effects of a severe brain injury” (49), concluding that we’ll continue to encounter LD students who “despite our best efforts, we can’t help” (56). Sherwood ultimately argues that tutors aren’t trained for working with LD students and that writing centers aren’t spaces that can help them. Tanya Titchkosky identifies this as a “You can’t accommodate everybody” attitude, one that sees particular bodies as “‘naturally’ a problem for some spaces” (35).

Now, it’s important to acknowledge two things here. First, both of these articles are from the mid-1990s, and writing center scholarship has certainly progressed since then, so at the outset, it may seem unfair to point at them as representative texts about disability. Second, positioning disability as individual deficit is common in a lot of early disability scholarship in any discipline. Comparatively, it’s rare to find texts that position disabled students as completely beyond the help of tutors. This is possibly because of writing centers’ historical attention to alternative modes of knowing, composing, and learning. It’s also possible that a resistance to pathologizing students is reflective of the larger resistance to the “remediation” label that writing centers fight.

That said, I wanted to highlight these two articles because they’re from well-respected writing center scholars who’ve made a significant impact on the discourse and values that circulate in the discipline. Neff’s article has been reprinted and anthologized. These articles both reflect outdated notions of LD students, yet they’re consistently given as examples of disability scholarship and taught in tutor training classes, extending the influence of such attitudes to contemporary times.

***

Shortly after my trip to the writing center conference last year, I participated in on an online discussion about working with students with disabilities through PeerCentered, which is an online space for folks interested in writing centers to talk about issues they find important.

The conversation ranged from topics like how writing centers work with campus disability services and how to make spaces and resources more accessible to whether or not it’s the role of tutors to diagnose students.

Forum participants expressed anxiety about being able to successfully work with a student (and to meet that student’s needs) if they didn’t know what disability the student had. This concern comes from a good place: the desire to meet the needs of students. However, it’s tricky (or “touchy”) for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the idea that we’re not qualified to work with disabled students, so there’s a desire to refer them to disability services. Then, there’s the idea that if we are qualified to work with disabled students, we can only do so if we know or can determine their diagnosis. This assumes not only that a diagnosis is vital to working with the student but also that particular disabilities benefit from particular practices. There are instances, of course, where this is true and some scholars have picked up this idea in responsible ways—for example, Rebecca Day Babcock’s scholarship on working with deaf students. The issue emerges when we assume that all students with a particular disability are a homogenous group who benefit from the same practices.

Although some in this online discussion did argue that the writing center isn’t responsible for diagnosing students and that students should self-disclose only if they choose, the insistence on diagnosing and disclosing was overwhelming.

***

Now at this point, it may just seem like I’m saying writing center practices are completely out of hand or that disabled students are always targeted and treated poorly. This isn’t the case. I’m not trying to vilify writing centers, directors, or consultants. As I mentioned before, writing centers have a rich history of fighting against the label that they are sites for remediation, focusing instead on individualized instruction, alternative pedagogies, and creating inclusive spaces.

There is tension, though, because current conversations about disability don’t often mirror the push against remediation for which writing centers have historically advocated. There’s tension with giving all students who frequent centers one-on-one attention but not feeling qualified to do that with particular student bodies. There’s tension with feeling like we need to diagnose students or make them disclose to us before we can help them learn.

I think about this every time a colleague tells me they have a disabled student, lists the characteristics of that student, and then asks me what I would do to address those issues. I think about it when colleagues ask if they can refer their disabled students to me in the writing center—as if I’m the only one who can assist them. I think about it when I sit in on conference presentations, participate in online discussions, and read scholarly articles.

And I certainly don’t have easy answers to this because—again—I know these come from places of good intention. My colleagues want to help their students succeed; writing center consultants want to help students with their writing.

As Laura Hershey reminds us, though, good intentions aren’t always quite good enough. She writes, “It is an uncomfortable truth … that actions which are intended to help a certain group of people may actually harm them. By harm, I mean—among other things—that these actions may reinforce the already devalued status of people with disabilities in this society” (230)

No one wants to hear that their good intentions are harmful, particularly not in a highly public situation or context with unfamiliar people like a conference or discussion forum.

So while I don’t think this is the solution, I think one way to address these tensions is on a local level. Motivated by my less-than-pleasant experiences trying to grapple with the desire to diagnose students last fall, I spearheaded an online reading group this past spring for other folks who work in our university’s writing center. It was voluntary, of course, but about 10 people volunteered to participate, which is a good number considering professional development isn’t required.

This group gave us a chance not only to read some of the medicalized discourse that circulates but also check out some of the more progressive texts that address disability. We read three texts over the course of the semester: Neff’s anthologized article that I referenced earlier and two articles about universal design (Kiedaisch & Dinitz, Dunn & Dunn de Mers)—one focused specifically in the writing center and the other expanding to the composition classroom, too.

I didn’t want to dictate our conversations because I wanted to have a genuine dialogue. We started with the Neff article, and I posed a number of discussion questions ranging from what we can gain from thinking about the “causes of LD,” what assumptions are made about the abilities of LD students, and the benefits and dangers of attempting to identify LD characteristics.

The responses to these readings and the ensuing dialogue were both critical and nuanced. My colleagues pointed out the things that obviously date this text and were quick to note that LD students not only are adaptive but that the tutor can help not by diagnosing but by adapting her techniques to deliver information and feedback in different ways, something Shoshona Beth Konstant advocated for as early as 1992 when she wrote, “Use combinations of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic techniques—the multisensory approach. Say it and draw it; read text aloud; use color to illustrate things” (7).

There was also attention in these responses to disclosure, perhaps because I specifically asked about the politics of trying to identify disabled students. What I found really interesting about this conversation is that even though everyone agreed that the article was dated, that Neff didn’t give LD students enough credit, and that the tutor’s role should be to adapt with the student (rather than attempting to diagnose and fix the student), this undertone that disclosure would help the session persisted.

A similar persistence occurred in the online PeerCentered forum. When I asked another participant why we needed to know the diagnosis as long as we knew how best the student learned, they responded that disabled students don’t know how they best learn. Although my experience is limited, I’ve found that the students I work with who self-disclose are also the ones who can consistently communicate what does and doesn’t work best for them. Try as I might, we just danced around this issue with others jumping in to agree/disagree.

In the more local context of my writing center’s online reading discussions, though—perhaps because we know each other and all work in the same place—there was more space to put pressure on these ideas. One person wanted to know how we create environments that are safe for disclosing yet immediately followed up with a question of whether we need to know specifics about particular disabilities or whether our standard student-centered practices are sufficient.

This private, local environment fostered much more critical discussion to the desires for diagnosing and disclosing. Working at this local level might be more useful for addressing attitudes about disability as they manifest within our actual writing center spaces, on the level where students are. Being self-reflexive, reading current scholarship, and offering a safe forum to discuss scholarship and our practices are small yet productive ways to address these desires.

***

I imagine one takeaway from my talk today is that I’m against students disclosing in the writing center. And this is both true and not true. I’ve had many students disclose to me, and it has been useful, but it has been useful specifically because they disclosed in order to direct our time together. I’ve presented about this before, but we often default to practices framed for students with particular abilities. The standard read-aloud model, for example, privileges able-bodied students who hear, speak, and can focus for long periods of time.

Even as someone who does not claim a processing or auditory disability, I hate reading students’ papers aloud during a session because then I have to skim them quietly in order to take in the information. When students disclose to me, it’s often in the context of “I have [insert disability.] It would really help me if we did [this thing]. Can we do that instead?”

Students who don’t respond to our standard practices are frequently positioned as different, dangerous, beyond the help of peer and professional consultants. I feel like desires for students to disclose largely hinges on our desires to know whether or not they will react to our standard practices, which has significant overlaps with accommodation. That is, we agree to change our standards only once a student presents us with formal notice.

When we focus on diagnosing students (or getting them to disclose to us), we assume that we know what is best for them. We also assume that, once they have disclosed, that we will know what to do with that information. Unfortunately, what seems to commonly happen at this step is either a one-size-fits-all approach that assumes all students with “x” disability learn “y” way or a referral to disability services, which positions the student as unable to be helped in this space.

My questions for you all, then, are about how we address these desires for disclosure:

  • Why do we feel responsible—as instructors and as consultants—to diagnose students?
  • How do we take our good intentions and channel them into good practices?
  • And though I’ve mainly focused on the reasons why disclosing may not be in students’ best interests, what are the benefits to creating writing environments that encourage disclosure? How do we do this in ways that don’t alienate students?

Thank you.

Mental Illness Awareness Week #miaw

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about graduate school and mental health—the relationship between high-pressure academic situations, burnout, and depression. Particularly after reading Margaret Price’s Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life and seeing a GradHacker post circulating on my Facebook Newsfeed last week called “Mental Health Issues Among Graduate Students,” it seemed like something useful to try to wrap my head around and put into words. 

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was 14. There were lots of things that I was told as I entered my Ph.D. program—“You’ll lose weight because you’ll be too busy to eat!” and “If you enter the program with a partner, you will break up,” and “It’s really isolating to be a fellow.” Those sound bytes terrified me as a first-year Ph.D. student and some turned out to be true, even though I thought I could fight hard enough to make sure they weren’t.

What I didn’t expect was to become more depressed.

That must be true for many of us. According to that GradHacker post, 44% of 3,000 interviewed international graduate students reported mental health issues. Based on these various studies and personal observations, the author writes, “I think that mental health issues are the biggest barriers to success among graduate students.

Frankly, I tend to agree.

I took (and passed) my comprehensive exams this summer. For a number of reasons—some very personal and completely unrelated to the exams themselves—it was the most stressful, unpleasant academic experience I have ever had. Since then (and even while I was studying for them), I’ve been trying to determine whether I’m experiencing burnout or depression.

For me, the two are very similar, and I imagine they probably build off each other, which is why it’s difficult to determine. And though I’m not sure which one it is, I don’t think what’s important here is determining (diagnosing) the problem.

The truth is this: Most days I don’t want to get out of bed. I make to-do lists and keep them in my phone without accomplishing any of the goals, letting them pile up in my Notes. I eat entire pints of ice cream while thinking about how much work I need to do.

Graduate school is the perfect storm that allows these feelings to manifest and is also the perfect cover to a much larger problem—ie. “I’m just stressed with work and need a little more time” vs. “I need help.”

One thing I loved about my Ph.D. program even before I started was the sense of community I felt during our visiting days. My program offers a lot of support in a lot of different ways, and I have been so lucky to fall into the guidance of some very caring mentors. Along with this, though, there are the general constraints of academic life—the crunch of a 4-year Ph.D. program, the rush of 3-4 conferences every year along with taking 3-4 classes each semester and teaching. And of course, there are the nagging traits of imposter syndrome and perfectionism.

Reading Price’s book, I felt both vindicated and overwhelmed. She begins by asking, “If you are crazy, can you still be of sound mind?” (1). Wrapped up in the politics of disclosure is the inevitable questioning of ethos—doubts of employability, outside concerns for the violent nature of an unwell mind, the questioning and revoking of one’s rhetoricity. Though I’ve become more open about my own mental health as I delve into work at the intersections of disability studies and rhetoric, it still feels like placing my toe into very choppy water. It’s scary to out yourself and to make yourself vulnerable. I fear repercussions, though I don’t know what they would be.

Price writes, “To lack rhetoricity is to lack all basic freedoms and rights, including the freedom to express ourselves and the right to be listened to” (26-27). It’s a dismissal, the waving of a hand as someone tells you (or tells someone else about you) that’s you’re crazy. Much worse, it’s the stripping away of personhood. As Price notes and anyone who has experienced mental health issues knows, there is certainly an association to and conflation of mental health with madness that presumes a lack of rationality that must exist in order for the rhetor to be.

Price also discusses teaching as a profession that deals with emotional labor. I’ll never forget the first time I cried in a class I was teaching—my second semester teaching as a graduate student in my master’s program. The first assignment in the FYC curriculum was a personal narrative, and my student talked through tears about her mother’s battle with cancer. My own mother died the spring before I started my master’s program, and I remember crying as my student spoke, fighting back tears of her own. 

I felt mildly embarrassed during class but after, I felt worse, ashamed. I went to our comp director’s office and remember squirming in my seat as I asked him if it was okay that I had cried in class. He looked at me, concerned, thoughtful, and said, “Of course it is.”

So seemingly simple, it was exactly the response I needed and what I still frequently need. And yet that seemingly simple response rarely feels true. “Of course it is” is usually more like “of course it is as long as it was just that one time.” It’s the distinction Price makes between reasonable emotion and pathological emotion. As she notes, there is a divide between the normal emotions students experience and the emotions that mark them as different, Other, crazy (48).

It’s the difference between burnout (acceptable) and depression (unacceptable). Burnout implies not only a very clear causal relationship but also a problem with a solution, a cure that generally just involves some recovery time. Depression, though, is less linear, more muddy and tied up with larger and more dangerous discourses, less clear how it will affect others—peers, colleagues, the program.

It’s the difference that makes it okay for our disciplinary conversations to openly acknowledge the high-stakes, stressful, and overwhelming nature of our work but to remain hush-hush about what happens when that work becomes too overwhelming.

Melonie Fullick wrote about this quite nicely a couple years ago, and I find myself returning to it—reading through her words and the dozens of comments from people expressing similar anxieties.

I wrote this post last week but couldn’t bring myself to finish it because, frankly, I don’t know how to finish it. It’s silly to think that I could wrap up my thoughts about #miaw with a glossy bow anyway (and like any awareness week/month, I’m a bit peeved by the idea that this deserves a single workweek of our attention). And it also feels a bit strange to post this on my birthday, but perhaps it is also fitting because—since this is the 5th birthday since my mom died—I often feel overwhelmingly sad on this day.

Really, I’m just hoping that the guilt and shame of making it halfway through a semester without accomplishing anything substantial will trigger me back into the voracious work-mode that I’m used to—that somehow I will simply become unstuck.

I’m concerned, though, that all I’m doing is trying to sell myself the same overcoming narrative about sheer willpower and determination that people buy all the time when, really, there are much larger issues at hand.

The Michael J. Fox Show

For all the questionable (and downright awful) representations of disability in movies and TV series, I was hesitant by the recommendation to watch The Michael J. Fox Show, which premiered last night. But since the recommendation came from my ex who knows very well how picky I am about such things, I figured it couldn’t hurt. If nothing else, it would be another show to add to the growing list of very bad (and very teachable) portrayals of disability.

I was immediately surprised. This show is very teachable but not as the typical media artifacts that portray disability as something terrible that ruins lives and tears apart families. Instead, it is a tongue-in-cheek comedy that critiques these popular representations.

Even in the pilot episode, the show draws a number of pointed critiques. Mike Henry (why is it called the Michael J. Fox Show if he isn’t playing himself?) is a celebrity news anchor who quits his job after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. People constantly stop him to ask for autographs, photographs, and to compare his situation with their own. A woman on the street embraces him, saying, “Mike Henry, you’re a brave man. My grandma has Parkinson’s.” Classic.

When the cops show up to the Henry household after a 911-dialing mishap, one of the cops asks Mike to sign something and says, “My uncle’s got Alzheimer’s.” Mike responds, “I actually have Parkinson’s.” The man looks at him, tilts his head slightly: “Either way.”

The humor is not targeted at the disability as much as how people perceive it. The scene with the cops ends not on the fact that this mishap started because Mike’s medicine hadn’t kicked in, causing his hand to jerk and hit the wrong button on the phone; rather, it ends with an oblivious comment from the cop.

A screenshot from the pilot episode of The Michael J. Fox Show. The scene shows co-workers standing and applauding at Michael's return to work after quitting due to his Parkinson's diagnosis.

Mike’s co-workers stand and applaud his “inspirational” return to work.

When trying to decide whether to return to his old job, Mike consistently references the fear that he’s getting a “pity job” and that NBC will play slow motion clips of him accompanied by uplifting music that emphasizes how brave he is, how inspiring. This fear is warranted because we do see a segment like this, and his boss encourages him to talk about “overcoming personal obstacles” on The Today Show. Similarly, when Mike meets his new segment producer, she starts crying and sputters something about him being an inspiration. Again, the humor is on her and how silly she seems rather than on him or his disability.

Another thing I loved about this pilot episode is how it addresses an often taboo subject: sex. There are multiple references to what seems to be a healthy relationship to his wife and an (arguably) active sex life.

Image features Annie, Mike's wife, kissing him before leaving for work.

Mike and his wife Annie: a healthy relationship!

I know I can’t be too excited just from watching the pilot episode, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this show develops. I hope it maintains its critique of disability inspiration and that the humor remains pointed pointed not at disability but the way people so bizarrely (and unfortunately realistically) react to it.

Next up I guess I need to check out this Derek show that everyone keeps talking to me about…

Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947

In the preface to his book, Gold offers some context for his site selection and the arguments he plans to develop. The purpose of his book is to examine rhetorical education at three historically neglected institutions: Wiley College (a private HBCU), Texas Woman’s University (a public all-women’s college), and East Texas Normal school (an independent teacher-training school). His goals are three-fold:

  1. “to recover important histories that would otherwise be lost and give voice to the experiences of students and educators of a diverse past;
  2. “to complicate and challenge the master narratives of rhetoric and composition history and the ideological assumptions that underlie them; and
  3. “to demonstrate persistent connections between the past and the present in order to help develop richer pedagogies for diverse bodies of students.” (x-xi)

His project is at once historical, theoretical, and pedagogical, and his overarching argument is one of challenge. That is, recovering and analyzing the rhetorical education at each of these three institutions, Gold argues that these schools valued intellectual and pedagogical traditions that challenge the dominant Eastern liberal arts model (xi). Importantly, Gold challenges the taxonomies that have structured our understanding of composition history:

These histories also remind us that the history of writing instruction cannot be reduced to simple binary oppositions and epistemological classifications, nor can any given historical period be treated monolithically, nor can any one college—or type of college—serve metaphorically for all. By looking to the margins of rhetorical history, we may find a new center. (xi)

In the introduction, Gold attempts to flesh out this critique of composition historiography. He notes that historical inquiry is frequently driven by attempts to disassociate ourselves from what we see as our pedagogical mistakes (eg. current-traditional rhetoric) and that we too easily draw connections between ideology and pedagogy (1). Specifically, he argues that we often position students as victims of ideology, which leads to a misreading (or worse, a complete dismissal) of pedagogical practices that don’t fit within the pedagogies that we now value: critical, liberatory, student-centered practices (2). The late 19th century saw an increase in industrialization, in a new student population, and the birth of both composition and current-traditional rhetoric. Gold argues that at black colleges, women’s colleges, engineering schools, and normal schools, curricula were developed to meet the local needs of students (4). Through his three chosen institutions, he aims to show both the diversity and complexity of rhetorical education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in sites of “competing and complementary rhetorical traditions” (5).

Gold makes two assumptions about historiography that drive his own history:

  1. “We cannot make broad claims about the development of rhetorical education without examining the diverse range of student bodies and institutions that participated in such education, including those previously underrepresented or neglected by earlier scholarship.
  2. “We must also continue to complement broadly drawn, comprehensive master narratives with finely-grained local and institutional microhistories.” (7)

Essentially, he’s arguing that we need to be careful to ground our arguments within local contexts and to value those local complexities without reducing them to fit within a grand narrative. Related, he rejects the often-immediate idea that we, as composition instructors, need to liberate our students from ideologies that we see as problematic when (as he plans to show with his three chosen sites) these may practices may actually empower students by giving them confidence to write within contemporary rhetorical norms (8).

In describing his method, Gold notes that his archival material comes from catalogues, course descriptions, student and faculty notes and essays, newspaper articles and governmental reports, letters, and oral histories (11). He also looked at relevant classes beyond English (eg. oratory, public writing) and at extracurricular activities. I really enjoy this book and Gold’s work, but one thing that has always struck me as peculiar is how Gold establishes his ethos. He very explicitly states his goals, purposes, and positionality as a historiographer; has a clear statement about research methods and texts; and values letting history speak on its own terms. However, he doesn’t address his process of selecting (vs. collecting) documents, and interestingly he hopes “to extract lessons from the past that will assist in developing more effective pedagogies that aid rhetorical instruction today (12), a practice he simultaneously criticizes. He includes a statement about his biases, but it’s kind of unclear, reading much more like an explanation of his study’s exigence and a list of research questions:

I am interested in the institutions in this study because I am convinced they have something to teach us, something that broad, general curricular histories have missed. Now, as in the progressive era, access to and diversity in education remain important questions. Can we recover the sense of community and community building that black, women’s, and normal colleges fostered without reverting to institutional segregation and separatism? Can we join the study of the liberal arts with professional training? Can we foster civic values and participation in social discourse through rhetorical education? Can we instruct students in dominant discourse norms while still respecting the voices and experiences they bring to our classrooms? (12)

Three Institutions. 

Cover of Rhetoric at the MarginsChapter 1, “Integrating Traditions at a Private Black College,” looks first at Wiley College, a small African American liberal arts school in Marshall, Texas. Offering some context for HBCUs as institutions, Gold describes them as hierarchical and authoritarian, grounded in Christian ethics, intended to serve the civic purposes of promoting citizenship and building community, and often relied on prescriptive (current-traditional) instruction (15-16). In this chapter, Gold focuses on Melvin Tolson—a professor who embodied an epistemic, activist rhetoric and also relied on very prescriptive and disciplinary practices—thus serving as an ideal example of the limitations of traditional taxonomies. Simply put, “He combined elements of classical, current-traditional, liberal, social-epistemic, and African American rhetoric as he saw fit” (17).

Part of Gold’s focus  is to show how African American rhetorical practices highly influenced the pedagogies that Tolson combined and performed. For example, he notes that HBCUs privileged oratory long after white institutions had dismissed it and moved to written instruction because oratory was important to religious leaders in the community (20). Tolson’s rhetorical instruction (which was an embodiment of Wiley’s mission statement itself) was grounded in both the classical liberal arts tradition and also African American religious oratory (32). I think this continued emphasis of Tolson’s embodied pedagogy is important because, as we know, embodied pedagogies value complexities, and Gold describes Tolson’s classroom as a performance (34). Tolson viewed the classroom as both empowering and liberatory (social-epistemic) and as prescriptive. Importantly, though, prescription was always “in the service of a higher good” (36).

We get a glimpse here of Gold’s focus on rhetorical education beyond the classroom, focusing on Tolson’s practices as a debate coach, where “he blurred the line between classroom, extracurricular, and recreational activity as he encouraged his students to apply their rhetorical training in a public sphere” (43). Debate is a practical example of the importance of oratory but also became a space where Tolson could impart the value of kairos and audience awareness (48). Though we can perhaps trouble Tolson’s insistence on teaching correct English (forcing students to assimilate into a standard instead of challenging it), it’s silly to do so because he was trying to prepare his students for success in a world where “correct English” was the norm, giving students the tools they needed in order “to engage the world, not retreat from it” (59). Gold gives us two major takeaways from Tolson: one is the acknowledgment that he taught his students dominant discourse norms and taught them to believe that these were part of their cultural heritage (something it seems students of color are frequently denied), and the other is the acknowledgment that we can be both nurturing and rigorous in the classroom (61).

Chapter 2, “Balancing Tensions at a Public Women’s University,” focuses on Texas Women’s University, a vocational college established in the early 20th century that encouraged its students to create political ties with local women’s organizations. Gold views this site as a particularly useful contribution to scholarship because though others have focused on women’s schools, the focus has frequently been on elite, Eastern, and private institutions (65). In this chapter, Gold contrasts the history and educational philosophy of TWU with the then-current context of women’s education in that region (67), focusing specifically on how student-run literary societies and publications (e.g. the Daedalian) influenced rhetorical education. Because there was little in-class archival material, Gold focuses predominantly on official publications, faculty scholarship, and student publications and responses (68).

TWU was the only opportunity for higher education and economic mobility for many first-generation young women (73). Members of women’s organizations both helped to fund TWU and also encouraged students to engage in public issues, combining conservative and progressive politics (and illustrating Gold’s point to pay attention to local institutional contexts) (76). He points out that women’s clubs in Texas (eg. Texas Federation of Women’s Clubs) were strongly political—organizing educational and feminist campaigns. Gold draws attention to Nancy F. Cott’s distinction between “female consciousness” (awareness of gender differences that can be conservative or radical) and “feminist consciousness” (a radical challenge of male hegemony) (80) in order to argue that—because of the conservative, traditional nature of many women’s organizations—we might not initially view them as feminist. Importantly, thought, he argues that they saw themselves as feminists, “part of a complex web of female, Southern, white, and Texan identity” (81). And TWU women went to school in a time (and region influenced by antebellum propriety) where they were expected to be homemakers, even after graduating, although they attended TWU in order to learn practical skills and improve their class standing (83). These expectations show the complexities of femininity/feminism at the time and the danger of reading these women as occupying either/or positions, reflected in TWU’s institutional goals, as well:

The school’s goal, as stated in the 1913-14 board of regents’ report, was “to send out well-rounded young women. And it will never send them out until it sends out a girl who can write as well as she can cook, who can interpret great minds as well as she can sew, and who can talk and assimilate the ideals of others as well as she can furnish a house” (TWU 11). (88)

Literary societies also played a large role in women’s rhetorical education, and women had many opportunities to publish their own writing in yearbooks, literary magazines, and campus newspapers (96). Gold argues that the number of publications indicates a supportive campus culture, and the confidence and competence of the writing demonstrated rhetorical skill (103). Something about this part of the chapter rings true to me as a graduate of a women’s college. In part, Gold contributes the optimism and confidence of the student writers to the spirit of the college itself, a “grand experiment” to which both students and founders “remained fiercely loyal” (109). Importantly, Gold notes here that these women did not view themselves as marginal or powerless and did not view themselves as writing against dominant modes of expression (110), which also makes a lot of sense to me when your critical thinking and writing is cultivated in an empowering environment (sometimes even despite what’s occurring in the world around you). From this, Gold argues that TWU is an example of how competing pedagogies exist and how binary oppositions (conservative/progressive, feminine/feminist) limit the complexities of both institutional ideologies and the multidimensional lives of students themselves (112).

Chapter 4, “Challenging Orthodoxies at a Rural Normal College,” focuses on East Texas Normal College and specifically President Mayo—who founded the school and “combined elements of rugged individualism, populist politics, progressive educational ideals, Methodist discipline, and a late-Victorian faith in self-improvement” (114). Similar to Tolson, Mayo brought a civic focus to his classroom, giving students the tools they needed to succeed in mainstream academic culture while simultaneously trying to change that landscape (116). In this chapter, Gold examines the rhetorical education at ETNC against the context of Mayo, early 20th century Texas, and the normal school movement. He identifies four key features of Mayo’s teaching: 1) attention to the needs of the local community, 2) an emphasis on oral production in teacher training, 3) “learning by doing,” and 4) his obsession with prescriptive grammar (116).

Normal schools were founded with the intentions of fostering democracy through widespread education, engaging student interest, and developing interactive approaches to learning (120)—pedagogical practices that are perhaps not surprising for institutions intended to train teachers. Mayo himself viewed textbooks as peripheral materials and privileged culturally and politically relevant orations, which constrasts with the widely held belief that textbooks have been foundational to composition pedagogy  (138). This is one example of the normal school’s focus on moving away from traditional forms of learning, stressing invention over correctness (141).

Mayo did focus on correctness, though, and demanded that students take responsibility for their own learning—even in the realm of grammar. Gold notes, though, that even if these rural students believed their language to be lacking (or even if they were told they were “ungrammatical,”) “they did not get the message that they were lacking themselves” (147). That is, they were not deemed unteachable. Interestingly, Gold describes the history of normal schools as a neglected one because of its success:

The radical changes they initiated in American education—linking democratic action with education, developing student-centered classrooms and curricula, responding to community needs, opening educational and professional opportunities to students without regard for sex or class—have become such a basic part of the vocabulary of professional educators that we have lost sight of their historical origins. (148)

And of particular interest revisiting this book immediately after Shor, Gold argues that the legacy of the normal school movement can be found in community colleges, which picked up the commitment to educating working class and poor students (150).

Concluding Thoughts.

Gold concludes with a reminder that we can’t understand educational histories without situating them within the local communities and issues from which they emerged. He also pushes for greater attention to cross-disciplinary opportunities, working toward the more comprehensive instruction discussed in his analysis of these three institutions. Though I think these are both important points, his most useful conclusion (I think) is a call for more nuanced views of history and methods of historiography and a better understanding of the origins of the field, a call not only to remember our past but also, sometimes, to repeat it (156).

 

 

Gold, David. Rhetoric at the Margins: Revising the History of Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1873-1947. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.

 

Critical Teaching & Everyday Life

Cover image of Critical Teaching & Everyday LifeIn his preface to Critical Teaching & Everyday Life, Shor reflects on the relevance of his book as an introduction to critical pedagogy and how it impacted his future scholarship. In particular, he claims the book helped him communicate a dialogic pedagogy, which extended into Pedagogy for Liberation with the idea that classrooms can’t be defended from the inside and that teaching cannot be controlled from outside. I think this preface is particularly useful because Shor qualifies some of the  statements he makes in the book that tend to get criticism for being idealistic. For example, he defines the classroom “as a place where knowledge, perception, ideology, and socialization are challenged, not where the social structure of society itself is changed” (xi, emphasis added). He also notes that his discussion of decentering teacher authority isn’t an argument for the dissolution of the teacher but of students’ dependence on teacher authority (and the subsequent ideology of corporate society that tells us to value these authoritarian voices). Teachers, he argues, must do more than simply be great critical teachers; they must also be the very best citizens in spaces outside the classroom that affect social policy (xiii).

Part One. 

Part One, Problematic Schooling, explores the historical and social contexts of community colleges and working class students.

In Chapter 1, “The Working Class Goes to College,” Shor immediately strikes down the idea of American education as democratic and equalizing, arguing instead that schools reinforce class-based order. In the 1950s and 60s, workers began enrolling in community colleges, which has economic motivations and consequences. Shor describes school as a business activity that trains people to participate in the world of business but also functions as a market with money, labor, and goods (4). He writes, “Large parts of surplus commodities and surplus labor have been absorbed by taking workers out of the labor pool and into higher education” (5). Workers were needed to build community colleges and are still needed to maintain them, and workers are turned into students within the colleges, illustrating Shor’s point that mass higher education “develops the economy which developed it” (5). 

There are many such paradoxes to mass higher education. For example, community colleges demand time that keeps worker-students from holding full-time jobs, but students see this as a choice they’ve made rather than something the economy demands (8). And the demands of community colleges (using worker-students as cheap labor and monitoring that work) are paradoxical to the goal of two-year colleges to prepare students for future labor that many are already prepared for (9). This leads to a much larger, and more troubling paradox: community colleges prepare workers that the economy can’t accommodate, so mass higher education promises both success (a degree) and denial (of a job). In response to this problem, Shor argues that college’s employ “cooling-out”—a process of lowering expectations—to convince students that their dreams are both tangible and inaccessible, that they can’t expect college to do for them what it does for the elite (17). Running throughout all of these tensions is that between liberal arts and vocationalism and the continued stratification of the small elite being trained in critical and creative learning environments, while “the vocationalized mass is prepared to take orders, follow rules, obey the decisions of superiors and look to the knowledge of experts” (25). 

Although this may sound all bad, Shor argues that people of course people do  learn in community colleges, and the increasing demand for access to higher education is positive (18). And though teachers who have been trained to teach elite students often clash with these worker-students, Shor notes that this disruption can be productive when we employ an empowering worker pedagogy that encourages critical thought (19). Likewise, community colleges have been successful at equalizing female and people of color with their white peers, offering students safe spaces to discuss critical and divisive issues about race and gender (21-22). Because students have been trained—through their daily experiences—to be mistrustful, we should expect the liberated classroom to seem unfamiliar and threatening for students, at least at first (36). 

Chapter 2, “Interferences to Critical Thought: Consciousness in School and Daily Life,” focuses on the many aspects of mass culture that have contributed to a stifling of and disinterest in critical thinking (drawing on Freire’s notions of “critical consciousness” and “conscientization” as the product and process of liberatory learning). Shor argues that critical thinking and learning are discouraged because they are risks to hierarchy and exploitation, helping people uncover the institutions that suppress them, and encouraging them to envision—and then work toward—a social order that would support their humanity (48). There are a number of anti-critical forces at work here. School vocationalism is the first step in the process as it strives toward producing an uncritical, divided workforce whose labor is meant to be as mechanical (ie., unhuman, uncritical) as possible (50). The second factor here is false consciousness, “manipulated action and reflection which lead people to support their own oppression” (55). That is, false consciousness conditions people to police themselves through the process of internalizing dominant societal ideals. Within false consciousness, there’s reification (“the process of popular thought, feeling, and action” [56] that freezes reflection and causes people to act against their own interests), acceleration (a process of that “speeds up mental processes beyond a pace suitable for critical analysis” [65]), and mystification (a process that offers an “illusory whole” in order to “distort remaining intellect and to answer the longing for explanations” [66]), and

The classroom becomes an important space, then, because students have opportunities to participate in democratic processes that mass culture regularly denies them. This is not to idealize the classroom, though. Shor notes that many worker-students are resistant to the mutual dialogue key to the critical learning process and that many students need help developing the cognitive faculties necessary for critical inquiry and literacy. Though these strategies are developed further in the next session, Shor points to a few different ways that teachers can engage students in critical thought. First, he notes that the critical classroom must develop opportunities that counter acceleration, allowing students to slow down their perceptions, to make careful observations, and to engage deeply in focused inquiry (82). He also notes that teachers should recognize and value the resources that student’s bring to class with them (rather than the instructor viewing herself as the one with all the knowledge), which students will more openly share once they are treated with respect and equality (86).

Part Two.

Part Two, “Reconstructed Learning,” focuses more on the theoretical and practical aspects of pedagogy that instructors should consider and incorporate in the liberatory classroom. 

In Chapter 3, “Extraordinarily Re-Experiencing the Ordinary: Theory of Critical Thinking,” Shor offers a flexible agenda of pedagogical resources—tools and methods—that teachers can use, such as dialogue and self-regulation. A few key resources here that are useful to highlight are the withering away of the teacher, contextual skill-development, self-creation of media and texts, and comedy. The withering away of the teacher is the idea that the teacher is expendable. The teacher is indispensable throughout the learning process, but the teacher must fade as students emerge as self-regulating subjects (98). [As graduate students, we had a hard time with this one when we read it for class last year, and when we spoke with Shor, he clarified that you can’t do this if you don’t have the authority in the first place.] Contextual skill development advocates for the development of cognitive skills through a critical examination of real contexts that are drawn from students’ lives (104), which seems imperative for opening up students whose experiences have been devalued or who struggle to pair theory with their material lives. The self-creation of media and texts also empowers students to become active agents whose voices stand out within an overly-saturated mass culture of uncritical media (108). And finally, I think Shor’s attention to comedy is interesting as a tool to relax students and to further demystify (and thus wither away) the teacher. Specifically, he focuses on play here, arguing that critical education must challenge the monopoly of fun and that assimilating the energy of play can help attack the binary between play/work that polarizes our daily experiences (117). 

Chapter 4, “Monday Morning: Critical Literacy and the Theme of ‘Work,’” begins with the acknowledgement that critical pedagogy is context-specific and must be grounded in the limits and possibilities of each course, academic department, college/university, and region (125). Whereas the previous chapter focuses on some of the methods that can be used to structure the classroom, this chapter offers some very practical in-class exercises to raise consciousness, such as free writing (to reverse the freezing effects of students’ prior experiences with writing), pre-writing (to help students organize their thoughts), dictation (to help students get out their ideas and to collaborate with each other), and voicing (to help students self edit through “hearing” written mistakes).

Chapter 5, “Learning How to Learn: Conceptual Thought in a Utopia Course,” focuses on utopia as an inquiry that allows students to problematize daily experiences and to become more politically aware of what is possible. There are three key frameworks that he presents here to help students understand and situate a thing (object, event) within its larger social, cultural, and historical contexts and reimagine how that thing would exist within a utopian environment, giving students practice in transcendent thinking. One is a problem solving method that asks students to observe (describing the object), investigate (diagnosing the issues with and limitations of the object), and resolve (reconstructing alternative possibilities for the object). The second is a concept method that asks students to name the object, define it, and list life examples in order to draw general understandings from specific experience. The third framework is a set of cocentric circles, which Shor offers to represent “the dialectical flow between tradition and Utopia” (172). At the center is the society we’re born into, and each ring beyond that are phases of development that lead to the final ring of Utopia, meant to represent the process of critical consciousness that pushes us away from our uncritical beginnings (172). 

Chapter 6, “Social Inquiry: Daily Inquiry and Language Projects,” focuses on language study and language projects—a classroom model that allows students to make meaning about daily reality and language in a critical, dialogic, and self-regulating manner (196). Such a focus is experiential and conceptual and allows students to engage in a long event, which, when it works, gives students confidence about their experiences with reading and writing (204). Chapter 7, “Questioning Sexism: Poetry and Marriage Contracts,” details a classroom that focuses sexism as its inquiry—emphasizing a social problem in order to develop consciousness. Chapter 8, “Culture Against Itself: Reflection through drama,” focuses on courses in dramatic arts and video production as opportunities to use media to challenge the uncritical domination of mass culture (which supports the earlier pedagogical approach of self-creation of media and texts).

Concluding Thoughts.

Because the transcendent process itself is unpredictable, Shor concludes by noting that liberatory learning is also highly unpredictable, which makes it surprising, frustrating, and ultimately very rewarding (268). He writes, “For certain, the liberatory enterprise demands a tolerance for anxiety and a disposition to experiment” (268). This unpredictability and demand for experimentation raises questions for employing critical/liberatory pedagogy (to this extent) within a curriculum or department that has strict curricular goals and demands of its teachers. In particular, I think such a pedagogy can raise a lot of issues for graduate students who want to engage in these practices but are even more highly monitored (surveilled) than the faculty in their departments who may have more lee-way to do this work.

 

 

Shor, Ira. Critical Teaching & Everyday Life. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1987. Print.

Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans

Black or African American Language (BL or AAL) is a style of speaking English words with Black flava—with Africanized semantic, grammatical, pronunciation, and rhetorical patterns. AAL comes out of the experience of U.S. slave descendants. This shared experience has resulted in common speaking styles, systematic patterns of grammar, and common language practices in the Black community. Language is a tie that binds. It provides solidarity with your community and gives you a sense of personal identity. AAL served to bind the enslaved together, melding diverse African ethnic groups into one community. (3)

I’ve been loving the exam reading the past couple weeks. I purposefully saved the comp history/theory/pedagogy texts for the end because they’re more aligned with my research interests, and I knew they’d be more enjoyable to read when it got down to crunch time. Although I’ve read this book before, it was great to re-read Smitherman, particularly with language diversity fresh in my head from the discussions in Shaughnessy and Bartholomae. And—more than anyone else on the list—Dr. G spits the truth.

Chapter Breakdown.

Cover of Word from the Mother (profile image of an African woman with head scarf, elaborate earrings, and necklace)In Chapter 1, “African American Language: So good it’s bad,” Smitherman breaks down both the historical and social context of AAL, introducing it as a “counter language, the resistance discourse, that was created as a communication system unintelligible to speakers of the dominant master class” (3). A linguist, Smitherman notes that race does not determine language; rather, children acquire language from their communities (5). In the U.S., our communities are frequently divided across racial lines, so children acquire the language that exists within those raced/ethnic communities. AAL, it seems, is somewhat of a paradox, evidenced by its linguistic push-pull. Influenced by DuBois’s conception of double consciousness (the idea that we look at and understand ourselves through the eyes of others), Smitherman defines linguistic push-pull as a love/hate relationship toward Black Talk: “Black folk loving, embracing, using Black Talk, while simultaneously rejecting and hatin on it—the linguistic contradiction is manifest in both Black and White America” (6).

AAL has  had a tenuous socio-political history in the US. Research on AAL boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, and it became a concern for educational policy in the 1970s, notably in two cases: Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children, et. al., v. Ann Arbor School District Board (or “The Black English Case”) from 1977-1979 and the 1996 Oakland School Board’s Ebonics Resolution. Both of these cases focused on the (lack of) academic progress of African American students in our public school system, drawing attention of the importance of valuing AAL and dialect for the learning process. And though it wasn’t the direct focus of either case, Smitherman notes that these were both symbolic of a larger controversy: whether AAL constitutes a distinct language or is merely a dialect of English (15). Though linguists accept the legitimacy of dialects, Smitherman argues, “In the minds of everyday people (and, unfortunately, even among some of my non-linguist academic colleagues—hello!), languages have high status, but dialects do not” (15). That is, dialect is often seen as a bastardized derivation of language. Smitherman establishes a case for AAL as a language worthy of respect because “languages evolve from peoplehood and nationhood” (17), and she argues that AAL crosses boundaries of gender/age/religion/class/nation and is historically and consistently influenced by culture, history, and experience. Black Language, she argues, is “bound up with and symbolic of identity, camaraderie, culture, and home” (19).

Chapter 2, “Words and Expressions, Proverbs, and Familiar Sayings,” outlines a linguistic core that Smitherman defines as “Black Semantics”—words and familiar expressions that cross the boundaries of age, gender, and social class in African America but have also become incorporated into the “linguistic property of all Americans” (20). This chapter reads like a glossary of this core, ranging from historical phrases (“African Holocaust”) to proverbs (“can’t kill nothing, and won’t nothing die”) material artifacts (“do-rag”), practices (“signification/signifyin” and “testifyin”), and general slang (“trippin” and “wack”).

Chapter 3, “The N-words,” teases out the linguistic differences (and the socio-political and racial implications of) the different derivations of the N-word. Essentially, Smitherman flips the meaning of The Nigga as someone who is “[n]on-conformist, daring, breaking social conventions, going against the established (read: White) norms for Black folk” (49). He becomes threatening, though, because the Brotha has been historically feared for these tendencies. This part made me think of the Nirmala Erevelles’s introduction to Disability and Difference, where she describes the fear shared with her husband, who suffered from grand mal seizures:

The black male body, already a source of terror in white patriarchy (Davis, 1983; hooks, 1985), when transformed during a grand mal seizure—with rolled-back eyes, harsh grunting sounds, mouth drooling bloody foam, and the occasional loss of control of bodily function with its associated putrid smell—could become an even more terrifying spectacle as a result of the now-lethal triple combination of race, gender, and disability, the very embodiment of abjection (Kristeva, 1982). Our terror, I knew, was shared by other black men who, because their disabilities included involuntary physical movements (e.g., cerebral palsy) and/or real/apparent cognitive differences (e.g., mental retardation or autism), were often thought to be drug addicts or drunks, and therefore dangerous. To be perceived as a dangerous black man in the wrong place at the wrong time by a frightened person armed with a gun could result in death. (4)

Like Smitherman, Erevelles shows how historical fears and representations of the Black male body have manifested within our contemporary contexts, although Erevelles’s focus is more material than Smitherman’s linguistic attention. Indeed, Smitherman describes nigga as part of the counter-discourse that African Americans have developed over the centuries, assigning a positive connotation to the word and emphasizing language’s evolving nature. She notes, “The impact of words depends on who is saying what to whom, under what conditions, and with what intentions. Meanings reside in the speakers of language” (51). This is important for considering nigga as a word of address or a greeting rather than something someone is called and is also useful for considering the current controversies around the word, which are highly influenced on the widespread use of the word and a misunderstanding of its historical and cultural context (see, for example, the controversy of Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the Trayvon trial, which was ridiculed and sparked a debate about the n-word). Since it seems like (at least in the media) the controversy of the n-word is when White people get involved, Smitherman acknowledges that it is a linguistic double standard, a “symbolic challenge to White hegemony, one of the previous few to which Brothas and Sistas can lay claim in this society” (60). Perhaps, then, this is the controversy with Paula Deen—someone with no social, cultural, or historical connections to AAL who has significant white privilege and capital—saying the n-word.

In Chapter 4, “Honeyz and Playaz Talkin That Talk,” Smitherman extends this discussion of the importance of AAL in Black culture, arguing that “AAL gives shape, c

oherence, and explanation to the condition of U.S. slave descendants and functions as a mechanism for teaching and learning about life and the world” (64).

This gets to the root of how AAL functions as a language rather than a corrupt dialect, and throughout this chapter, Smitherman illustrates how AAL is improvised and manipulated. In particular, she emphasizes the importance of play in the AAL tradition, noting that in all games, there are clear rules that must be followed. Thinking of AAL as a game, then, allows us to think of it as a framework that provides structure and control in an uncontrollable world (65). Some of this verbal play includes signification/signifyin (“a stye of verbal play that focuses humorous statements of double meaning on an individual, an event, a situation, or even a government” [69]), the Dozens (“a style of highly exaggerated, hyperbolic talk that takes place among social intimates” intended to showcase verbal skills “until you shut everybody else down” [76]), and trash-talking/selling woof tickets (“manipulating language to get in another person’s head, to mess wit them, to intimidate them, to force them to make mistakes or take a course of action that will be detrimental to them” [79]).

 

Chapter 5, “‘I Used to love H.E.R.’: Hip Hop, in its Essence and Real,” shifts focus from AAL in daily contexts to how it has manifested within music, specifically in the development and rise of rap and hip hop. Rap, which Smitherman describes as a “rich, postmodern Black art form” (84), presented the “promise of a beacon of hope that could help revive the Black Liberation Movement” (82). This was seen in the political stylings of Public Enemy, Ice Cube, KRS-One, Tupac, etc. At its core, this chapter grapples with the complexities of hip hop as “an unmatched vehicle for influence and change” to its criticism as a channel for “commercialism and misogyny” (85). Smitherman notes that 70% of hip hop sales are in the suburbs and that many artists and fans are entrapped in consumption, commodification, capitalism (89).

Smitherman looks to the historical roots of hip hop in order to counter some of the attacks made about its hypersexualization, misogyny, and appropriation. Smitherman argues that hip hop linguistics—in keeping with generational continuity—remixes older verbal forms in new, dynamic ways (95). She deconstructs the hip hop binary (either conscious/political OR gangsta), arguing that it’s both about the music and the lyrics, affecting both the head and the heart (98). Importantly, she also notes that as a subversive art form, hip hop represents an “outlaw cultural form” (101) which originates with Black working and unworking class youth who play with and master the Word. And, in line with her linguistic arguments, Smitherman (citing Alim, 2004) notes that hip hop artists code switch between AAL and LWC, varying their grammatical patterns in order to form identity and strengthen the bonds of community (103).

Chapter 6, “All around the World, Same Song,” picks up on the crossover discussed in the previous chapter; that is, White America’s absorption of Black language and culture (108). This is what Cornel West has termed the “AfroAmericanization of youth,” manifested in mannerisms, speech, and gestures (109). I find this chapter really interesting because even though she doesn’t say this (and I’m not sure if she would agree with this), there’s an underlying argument here that even though White society simultaneously criticizes and denies overt AAL and Black culture, the attempts at “understanding” or even “valuing” translate closer to exotification.

For example, she describes that in the 20th century, there was a fascination with Black culture’s marginalized, rebellious nature (110), which is ironic because this nature would have been rebelling against the society who found it so intriguing. In the 1960s and 1970s in particular, the Black Movement “became the poster child for the social rebellion of disaffected groups, its language and rhetorical style the venue for expressing protest by marginalized groups seeking entrée into the center of American life” (114). This poster child reference is fascinating because, as discussed in disability discourse, this is aligned with a charity model that upholds contempt and pity (harkening back to DuBois’s notion of double consciousness). Today, this crossover is ever-present thanks to the fast-paced dispersion by digital media, which sustains the generational continuity of Black culture and enriches American culture while simultaneously erasing the material and social conditions that influenced this language and culture (119). Ultimately, Smitherman presents this appropriation as a consequence of capitalism that negatively affects Blacks:

Despite a trickle of African Americans into the upper echelons of bling-bling, despite a larger middle class than at any point in Black American history, despite increased Black educational levels in this “post-Black” era, the bottom line fact is that the masses of Black people ain gittin paid. They remain socially, educationally, and economically marginalized outsiders while their language and culture is absorbed into the corporate mainstream and used for marketing everything from fast food and soft drinks to cereals and shampoo for White folks’ hair. (120)

Concluding Thoughts.

In the final chapter, “Negro Dialect, the Last Barrier to Integration?,” Smitherman questions whether linguistic acceptance and appreciation is actually the last step toward a different (more accepting) world view. To do this, she offers some stark facts and numbers about the deteriorating material conditions of the Black working and unworking class post-Civil Rights. For example, she cites micro-aggression, racialized assault, “linguistic profiling,” and the economic realities of many living below the poverty line (123). She also discusses the number of African Americans implicated within the prison system, noting that “in every state of the U.S., the proportion of Blacks in the prison population exceeds the proportion of Blacks among state residents” (125, emphasis added). She also examines the current state of our education system, nothing that schools are no longer segregated by law but instead are segregated by region and housing patterns (126). And, though she doesn’t mention this, many have argued that racial segregation still manifests in schools through the over-representation of students of color in special education programs. Many place this educational issue within the context of the linguistic push-pull, arguing on one hand that Black education is dependent on the eradication of AAL and on the other that AAL is integral to Black identity and culture (129).

Smitherman notes that AAL speakers are as diverse as AAL itself: “They come in all colors and sizes, they are young, they are old, they are male, they are female, they comprise both Cosby’s ‘lower’ and ‘upper economic,’ they are preachers and sinners, they are pimps and Ph.D.s, they are Reverends and Revolutionaries” (136). And together, they comprise and reflect the complexities and richness of AAL. I think she emphasizes this in order to buck the assumption that those who engage with AAL are lower class or uneducated, an attitude that must be changed. She argues that this attitude shift must occur in the schools, where these negative attitudes are reinscribed and reaffirmed (138).

One way to do this is to incorporate Black culture and language into our curricula—bringing in hip hop culture as a subject of study. Another way this can happen is by passing a national policy of bi/multilingualism that makes it mandatory for all U.S. K-12 students to study “foreign” languages and their cultures. African American Language-Culture would be a subject that students could study in order to better prepare them to enter the world “as bi/multinguals and with a global perspective on and acceptance of linguistic-cultural diversity” (141-42). Smitherman notes that this isn’t unreasonable because other countries uphold multilingualism as both policy and as standard practice (144). She concludes with the acknowledgment that U.S. citizens must come to understanding if we ever want to move beyond mere appropriation of Black culture and language.

 

 

Smitherman, Geneva. Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.