Making It out Alive: The First Semester as an Assistant Professor

I had every intention of writing a blog post at the end of last semester, but I thought the post would be more victorious than how it kept writing itself in my head.

After I called a suicide hotline for the first time in my life, after my students called me crazy, after I cried in a department meeting, after I got yelled at for bringing an aggressive dog to the dog park, after I got asked repeatedly whether or not I’m married or have kids, after teaching four classes a semester for the first time ever, after admitting that I need anxiety and depression medication…after all of that, this blog post seems so much less glamorous than I thought it would be. Where was the champagne?

The first semester as a new assistant professor is hard. It’s really hard.

It’s hard to move halfway across the country with only your canine best friend (who has not yet been named an aggressive dog) and a philodendron that you’ve been trying not to kill for seven years now.

It’s hard adjusting to a new region of the country (and learning what cockroaches are). I have never lived anywhere in the Bible Belt, and there is nothing about me that suggests that I belong here. I get weird looks in Target. People stop me when I’m walking, when I’m teaching, when I’m shopping to ask me where I’m from and if I like “wearing all that black?”

It’s hard adjusting to a new school with a new student population. I thought teaching four classes a semester would be comparable to teaching two and taking two as a Ph.D. student. I was wrong. Teaching new students and multiple new classes is hard. Even teaching a familiar course with a new student population feels like trying to make sense of a new language that you kind of understand but can’t quite figure out.

It’s hard leaving behind a support structure. Syracuse is where I became myself. It’s where I started dealing and working with my issues rather than shoving them in the corner. It’s where I built a support system of friends with whom I could make myself vulnerable. It’s where I learned about my passions. I knew leaving would be hard, but I didn’t know how hard.

I’m making it sound bleak. I mean, it was…but it’s not all bleak.

We’re five weeks into the spring semester here, and I am still full of nervous excitement. I am still halfway across the country alone in a weird town that I can’t quite figure out at a new school that is in the midst of a lot of institutional restructuring teaching four classes.

But I know more about this place now. And I’m not sure what I think about Arkansas, but there are things to love here. I have a favorite Chinese take-out place that offers mean vegan dishes and a diner that I like to go to for people-watching. I’ve hiked at some state parks and have dragged the dog up (and carried her back down) giant rocks just to look out at the bright blue Arkansas River. I found someone who houses the dog and sends me texts and video updates of her playing when I have to go out of town. I have an overpriced coffee shop where I like to buy my beans. When the farmer’s market was open in the fall, I had good rapport with an old man who believes that computers have ruined young people’s ability to write in cursive.

I have taught some of these classes before. I have interacted with some of these students. My students ask me where I buy my lipstick and talk to me about things that matter in their lives. I know who to go to in my department when I have random questions. I have colleagues who ask me to go to lunch with them and friends who get me to stay out too long on a weeknight drinking whiskey.

I have a therapist and antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.

Vague advice based on personal experiences will only ever be vague advice based on personal experiences, but there are two things that I wish past Allison knew:

One: It’s going to be really hard.

Actually, I did know that. I had been told that. But I didn’t believe it. Starting an M.A. program a few months after my mom died was hard. Taking four classes my first semester as a Ph.D. student was hard. The job market was hard. This is a different kind of hard. One way I regulate my anxiety is carefully preparing (perhaps over-preparing) in all other aspects of my life. But you’re not prepared for the first semester at a new job. And I don’t mean that you’re not qualified—you just don’t know quite what to expect even if you think you know what to expect. It’s like being a newborn bird in a grandpa cardigan and corduroy pants.

Two: Find a support system ASAP.

Before I even moved here or had my breakdown in September, I knew I needed to find a therapist. At first, I was concerned what it would look like that a faculty member brand new to the school was seeking out therapy, but that’s my reality. Change is hard. Depression is hard. Finding a support system and practicing self-care are not simply nice things that I do for myself: they are necessity.

The first year is far from over, but the first semester is behind me. And there’s champagne in my refrigerator because I published a review essay and received an award for my dissertation. And my comp students are submitting their first essays tomorrow, and I’m honestly pumped to read them. And it’s only February, but the flowers are already starting to bloom.

Whose Lives Matter on Social Media?

It’s difficult not to think about social media all the time, but it’s been one of the few things on my mind for the past week with what’s happening at Mizzou and now the slew of global tragedies.


Mizzou: The Power & Threat of Social Media

On Monday, I was shocked (truly and pleasantly shocked) to hear that Tim Wolfe, President of the University of Missouri, had resigned. I was reading wave after wave of Facebook posts about Mizzou, about the power of students’ voices, about the necessity of finding allies and forming partnerships with other people in power who can forward your cause, about the symbolic victory of this resignation and how it might be a model for students at other universities who are calling for change.

I always talk—with my friends and with my students—about how the loudest voices (rather than the most careful voices) are often the ones that we hear most clearly. Of course, there’s been a lot of loud backlash, and social media is the perfect platform for sharing it: “Conservatives Lash Out at University of Missouri Students: ‘Mob,’ ‘Thugs,’ ‘Douchebags’” and “Mizzou Students Evacuating Campus Tonight Due to Death Threats” and “‘Grow up,’ Tweets Former Mizzou Star to Students Who Slammed ‘Hero’ Professor.”

First things first: if there’s a social media award for most vile platform, I’m sure Yik Yak will win for 2015. On my campus, we had our own run-in with an “anonymous” threat to the student population only a few days after the Umpqua shooting in early October. Different conservative media outlets began weighing in about how white privilege actually means being forced to give up your job. Donald Trump said something (tbh, I didn’t click the link). Instructors resigned after telling their black students not to give in to “bullies.” And whereas most of the actual organizing at Mizzou took place face-to-face (of course, there was the #ConcernedStudent1950 tag on Twitter, and that’s how many of us learned about Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike and student protests), the backlash mainly took place on social media. The Washington Post article linked above, if you can bear to read the whole thing, poses an interesting critique of social media. In discussing the instructors who have faced critique at Mizzou, the author writes,

Combined, their experiences reflect a harsh new reality for American professors: a combination of politics and technology has made it easier than ever for professors to become targets. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, trigger warnings and microaggressions, college professors can go from being educators to the accused in the blink of an eye.

Now, there’s enough in these two sentences for a dissertation (don’t even get me started on belittling trigger warnings and microaggressions or complaints about how smartphones are the demise of society as we know it). The author is positioning this as a negative thing, as did many of my students, but I would argue it’s positive.

Each time a “beloved” celebrity or athlete commits suicide or murders someone or makes a series of racist/transphobic/misogynist comments in an interview, we feel scandalized. How is that related? The author writes that “college professors can go from being educators to the accused in the blink of an eye,” but the problem here is not that they’re accused. The problem is that we position them as above being accused.

Professors are flawed humans—just like anyone else. And yet, we should hold them to a higher standard because they (intentionally or not) impart those values onto the students they educate.

It’s important to utilize the tools that we have to make visible inexcusable actions that have been invisible for so long. And there’s the balance. Against critiques of students being rude and belligerent, against the backdrop of (white) students arrested for making death threats against (black) students, there’s the show of solidarity. This past week, #BlackonCampus became an important hashtag on Twitter to share microaggressions and overt racism that students across campuses have experienced. Photos of students across the nation holding signs that read, “I stand in solidarity with Mizzou.” This Blavity article, “22 Campuses Who Protested and Spoke in Solidarity with Mizzou and Yale This Week #BlackonCampus,” says it best when describing the power of social media:

Our goal is to share the information relevant to our community, as they stand up and fight for what we have always deserved, but systemically been denied. Connect with each other. Build with each other.


Beirut & Paris: Hashtags, Safety Features, Underlying Values 

Last night while lying on my couch with the dog (my typical Friday night routine), I checked Twitter. Usually my list is a mix of news articles and commentary about disability and mental health. But all I saw were posts about Paris. When I went to the search tool to see what was happening, I was hit with a slew of #prayfor hashtags: #PrayforJapan, #PrayforBaghdad, #PrayforBeirut, #PrayforParis. (It may be a little early to read analyses of these hashtags, but this large-scale study from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and corresponding #prayforBoston tag is a fascinating discussion of how we react emotionally to terrorist acts.) Twitter is interesting this way because it’s easy to quickly disseminate information and you get a pretty unbiased look at what’s happening around the world (vs. what’s happening in your friend group). Yet when I switched to Facebook, I saw lots of posts about Paris and nothing else. Indeed, Facebook was doing quite a few things to direct people’s attentions (rightfully so) the bombings in Paris last night.

Most notably, we saw the safety check—a feature that allowed Parisians to verify their safety. I received a notification that someone I went to college with had checked in as “safe.” For all the stupid features of different social media, this one is truly impressive. And yet, something about it bothered me. Why was this the first time I had heard of such a feature? With the bombings in Beirut the night before, why were we seeing and hearing about this for the first time with Paris? I woke up this morning still feeling uneasy and unsure about what was bothering me and started scrolling through Twitter—reading post after post about Paris and fewer and fewer references to anything else.

Twitter reflections (from @ahhitt) on the Facebook safety feature: What does it mean that it rolled out for Paris & not for Beirut? Will the safety feature be available moving forward for the many attacks on civilians in non-European countries? It's a smart tool, but it isn't neutral. It communicates a message about whose lives matter.

Twitter reflections on the Facebook safety feature: What does it mean that it rolled out for Paris & not for Beirut? Will the safety feature be available moving forward for the many attacks on civilians in non-European countries? It’s a smart but non-neutral tool that communicates a message about whose lives matter.

Attacks on civilians occur so frequently, but where’s the outrage?

It’s not that we shouldn’t be outraged about what happened in Paris, but particularly with the bombing in Beirut happening not even 24 hours beforehand (and both areas targeted by the same group), it raises a lot of questions about what stories we receive and whose tragedies we deem more worthy of our attention.

It boils down to whose lives matter.

I was desperate to find articles on this this morning and have found a couple (and will be on the hunt for more as days pass and people put together their thoughts). This New Matilda article “Paris Attacks Highlight Western Vulnerability and Our Selective Grief and Outrage” succinctly articulates both my enthusiasm and reserve about the safety check. In the article, Chris Graham summarizes the cries of outrage by world leaders, then writes:

Meanwhile, in a brown part of the world, as the attacks began in Paris, Lebanon was just emerging from a National Day of Mourning, after 43 people were killed and 200 more were injured during a series of coordinated suicide bombings in Beirut.

Graham notes that both attacks are believed to be in response to the same common factor: Hezbollah’s decision to send troops to northern Syria. And yet, there are no check-ins for Beirut, no tweets from Obama, no suggestions to turn your Facebook profile into to the Lebanese flag.

Certainly, it must take a lot of time to develop a safety check feature, and yet, according to the TIME Magazine article “This Facebook Feature Kept People Connected During the Paris Attacks” the safety feature was rolled out in 2014, and my hopes for Facebook were dashed.

The feature was inspired by the 2011 Japanese tsunami that killed 16,000 people. And apparently, it’s been used for natural disasters in Afghanistan and in Nepal. The case of Paris, however, is the first use of the safety check to mark a terrorist attack, which again is interesting considering the number of terrorist attacks that happen throughout the world. Although it seems like a technical acknowledgement at the end of the article, this last paragraph is worth considering:

How Facebook makes the decision that a situation is serious enough to activate Safety Check remains unclear.

What message are we communicating when we draw attention to particular tragedies and not others? What we circulate on social media—whether it’s through the hashtags we use or even just the particular articles that we share and retweet—inevitably communicates messages about what we value.

And when the stories we share are about human lives—whether they are about students’ protesting, lives in danger, or lives lost—we inevitably communicate message about whose lives matter.

“At Least I’m Not Insane”: Ongoing Reflections of a First-Semester Professor

Being a new tenure-track faculty member at a new school in a new town in a new state in a new geographical region is hard. It’s hard for all the reasons you’d expect it to be (what are the students like? who can you trust as a mentor? what’s the university climate? what do people in town do for fun?) and lots of reasons you don’t expect (strangers glaring and asking you, “do you have kids at home?” and “you wear a lot of black…do you like wearing a lot of black?”). 

Being a new tenure-track faculty member is particularly hard when you have a mental disability—maybe always, but particularly as discourses of mental illness and violence circulate due to the (literal) onslaught of recent school shootings.

What does it mean to claim madness in an academic environment where the mentally ill are increasingly blamed and stigmatized by a culture of mass shootings? (A question that doesn’t even begin to address the general stigma of being seen as crazy while in an academic position that so highly privileges intellectuals of “whole,” “rationale,” “sound” mind.) 


I’ve had a host of diagnoses for the past 14 years. And while I’ve always been pretty honest with myself about what those mean for me and have (for the most part) been proactive in addressing them, I had never reflected critically on them or thought of them as advantages until I entered my Ph.D. program and found myself completely exhilarated by disability studies. 

I read powerful work by incredible scholars and teachers and activists who I admired. I started teaching my writing classes with a disability inquiry. The first time I taught that course, I had a student critically reflecting on his own mental disability. He said, “I’d never thought about it as a disability before, and you’ve shown me that disability can be good.” 

It made me realize that I hadn’t considered my own disability as good. 

Generally speaking, we don’t talk about mental illness as good. That’s why it’s called an illness.

Or, as Jenny Lawson discusses in her new book Furiously Happy (that’s right, I’m reading a book for fun mid-semester), we doubt whether or not we can claim that identity at all and whether we deserve the help that we seek:

We listen to the small voice in the back of our head that says, “This medication is taking money away from your family. This medication messes with your sex drive or your weight. This medication is for people with real problems. Not just people who feel sad. No one ever died from being sad.” Except that they do. (58)

Even when I was actively suicidal, I doubted the validity of my own mental illness. We are told that mental illness is not the same thing as physical illness (and that mental disability is not the same thing as physical disability), and that’s true. They’re not the same. But they’re both valid.  

So I started owning it. As a student, I tried to be realistic about what I can and can’t do. As a teacher, I encouraged students to think critically about disability (and particularly mental disability) discourses. As a researcher, I tried to be upfront about my positionality and the ideologies (and biases) that stem from and align with my own sense of personhood. 

And as someone who was researching rhetorics of overcoming (which are so frequently found in discourses of mental disability), this was really useful both for connecting with my research and with my research participants and for applying to jobs. 

I knew that the job market would be hard for me because I have a slew of neuroses—one of which involves micro-managing every single thing that I do so that I can feel in control of a situation. For those of you who have ever experienced the academic job market, this is your cue to start laughing at me. The academic job market is rough for so many reasons, and worrying about whether you come off as a sane human being (for me at least) is perhaps the greatest stress. Last year, I decided to invest myself fully in building a strong support system and engaging in radical self-care. I picked up a stimming stone for the first time at the Cultural Rhetorics conference, and then a lovely friend gifted me a smooth glass stone to take with me to interviews. And I didn’t make eye contact with a single person for a single one of my interviews, and I rubbed the stone between my forefinger and thumb the duration of every interview, and I saw people look at it, but I was comfortable. And I said what I needed to say. And I felt good about myself. 

I knew, before I even moved away to my new job, that I’d need to find a therapist once I got there. I’m not a consistent therapist kind of person (I’m more of a “my mom just died and I’m dying inside” therapist person). That is, I go in concentrated bursts. But five weeks into the semester, I found myself on the phone with an automated voice telling me “your life matters, but we can’t take your call right now,” and I knew I needed to do something. And I did, which sounds really simple. But it’s not. 

It’s difficult to admit your own limitations. It’s even more difficult when you realize that these are things that society would deem limitations but that you consider normal. It’s damn near impossibly difficult when you find yourself in the role of a first-year tenure-track professor who has no idea of the implications of your disclosures but who discloses those things regardless because you literally can’t function if you don’t tell someone.

I take comfort in my students who (for the most part) have carved their own space within our disability inquiry and who have disclosed and grappled with and thought critically about their own mental illnesses. I take comfort in the fact that I have created a space where my students feel comfortable disclosing to me that no, they can’t come to class today because they’re going to the counseling center to address their own suicidal thoughts. I take comfort in the fact that I have colleagues who—when I cry in a department meeting with the dean—tell me it was meaningful to share my perspective. I take comfort in the fact that addressing mental illness helps to normalize it, rather than stigmatize it. 

Although, truly, there’s always that worry. 

The title of this post (“at least I’m not insane”) is something a student spat at me in class two weeks ago.

Last Monday, a UCA student was arrested out of a first-year writing classroom, handcuffed in front of his class, for making threats on Yik Yak. Lucky for us, he was an idiot kid who thought it would be funny to make an “anonymous” joke. But the shootings at Umpqua Community college, Northern Arizona University, and Texas Southern University have been very real reminders of the assumptions we make about the mentally ill as violent, although the profiles of the shooters as quiet, withdrawn, mentally disabled are quickly followed up with counter-arguments that depressed =/= dangerous and that those diagnosed with mental illnesses are highly unlikely to be responsible for mass shootings

As a writing professor who asks her students daily to be critical both of the arguments they make and of the arguments they consume from the media, this an important opportunity to be critical, to assess arguments and evidence, to avoid sweeping generalizations. It’s also an important moment to acknowledge that there are not simple answers (create a better mental health system! ban all guns! blame the parents!) for complex issues. 

At the very least, it’s an opportunity to question and be critical about our own assumptions of what it does and doesn’t mean to be crazy—not as a metaphor, but as a legitimate way to exist in and experience the world, to interact with ourselves and others.

First Year Assistant Professor

Today was my first day teaching as Assistant Professor of Professional Writing at UCA. As a new academic year starts and I make the transition from Ph.D. student to junior faculty, I thought I’d share a few links that I’ve collected recently that are useful/affirming/reassuring.

  • “The 7-Year Experiment: Tenure-Track without Losing My Soul” // Conditionally Accepted: There’s so much good stuff here about institutional value vs. personal value, being a whole (or I might say “real”) person, and having fun with both academic and non-academic friends. Eric writes, “Beginning today, I have decided to work toward obtaining tenure without compromising my health, happiness, authenticity, or politics.”
  • “Start the Semester off Right: Make a Weekly Template” // Get a Life, PhD: Lists are very much a form of self-care for me. They help me feel (and be) organized, and they help me visualize the larger picture. When I started my Ph.D. program, I had an intense weekly calendar to organize the four classes that I was taking as a fellow. This year, I have finally decided to try out Google Calendar, and my color-coded dreams are coming to life.
  • “Self-Care #withaPhD)” // Storify: I participated in this Twitter chat last December, and I think it’s a good one to reflect on the multiple ways that folks across disciplines try to incorporate self-care into their academic (and personal) lives.
  • “30 Vegan Dinners You Can Make in 30 Minutes” // Buzzfeed: I am such a strong advocate of self-care, but actually practicing self-care is hard. My main personal goal for this year is to eat well. It sounds like such a basic thing, but sometimes those basic things are the ones that we forget to prioritize.

If anyone wants to throw other useful articles (or first-hand experience/advice) my way, please do!

ode to syracuse

Yesterday, movers came and packed up all my belongings in a mere three hours, and I’m sitting on an air mattress looking out at my empty flat. My heart hurts as I think about leaving the place that has been my home for four years. Lots of people have been asking me if I’m excited for my move to Arkansas, and the answer is without a doubt yes. I’m excited to start my new job, to get to know my new colleagues, to explore a different part of the country. But right now, I’m sad to leave Syracuse.

It goes without saying that the university—more specifically, the Writing Program and the Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program—has been so important to me as I pursue my Ph.D. But it’s not just that. Syracuse itself has been important to me. I’ve lived in different cities and states each time I go to a different school, but it’s not the same. In college, I was sick and depressed that my mom was dying, and in my Master’s program, I was sick and depressed that my mom had died. It wasn’t until I moved here that I started healing, coming to terms with myself, thriving.

So this is my ode to Syracuse–not to Cuse Nation but to the Salt City.

Because Syracuse helped me get through four years of a Ph.D. program.

Because even though people at the university crap on the city, the people here are genuine, the living is cheap, the access to fresh food and gorgeous parks is excellent, and the seasons are unbelievable.

Snow is heavy on the trees, on the sidewalk, and piled up beside the sidewalk. My dog wears a brown coat in the bottom of the photo.

Queenie in the snow // March 13, 2014

When I was accepted to the program here (in January 2011), my family members took turns calling me to bug me about the horrible winters. I’ve learned the value of good, waterproof snow boots (both for me and my dog). And I’ve learned the beauty of walking outside at midnight right after a good snow and just listening to the stillness in the air and watching the millions of glittering snowflakes sparkling under the streetlights. The still beauty of a fresh snow is difficult to capture in words.

And although this past winter was too much (-30 and 4 feet of snow?), the springs and summers are perfect. Syracuse is the first place I’ve lived where the people in my neighborhood have flowering trees. The first spring I walked through the Westcott neighborhood, I felt like Snow White as I tried to tip toe across petals lining the sidewalks from trees that had become too heavy with blossoms.

Despite complaints from friends from larger cities, Syracuse has given me so much delicious food: Indian (Dosa Grill), hipster faux-Mexican food (Alto Cinco), tapas (Laci’s Tapas), donuts (Serres Donut Shop), lemon custard and sea salt ice cream (Gannon’s), vegan milkshakes (Strong Hearts), and the absolute best coffee (Recess). Syracuse taught me the joys of getting fresh vegetables delivered once a week through a CSA and consequently ruined grocery store produce for me. And the most delicious peaches I’ve ever eaten can be found at the CNY Regional Market.

Syracuse has shown me beautiful lakes, parks, and outdoor festivals. Every time I go to Green Lakes, I find myself taking the same photo from the same spots along the leisurely walking trails because it always seems more beautiful than the time before. Even just the rose garden in Thornden Park by campus is worth going to again and again. I have looked forward to going to the Lafayette Apple Festival every October, which is nestled into a valley and is home to the most delicious apple fritters you could ever hope to eat. And I’m thankful to be within driving distance of so many great state parks (Chimney Bluffs, Letchworth, and Robert H. Treman are definitely worth checking out).

a panoramic view of the rose garden at dusk--trellises are framed by pink and red and white and yellow roses against a dark blue sky

E.M. Mills Memorial Rose Garden // July 18, 2015

Syracuse showed me a community of nurturing activists who proudly display “Don’t Frack NY” signs in their yard, who stand up for what they believe in regardless of whether that means getting arrested, and who work to educate community members during events like the Westcott Cultural Fair.

Syracuse showed me a community of incredible crafters and artists, and I’ve loved following the works of these folks at the Salt Market, Pepper Market, the Westcott Art Trail, and the Syracuse Arts and Crafts fair.

Syracuse showed me a community of the most dedicated pit bull and dog advocates I’ve ever seen. The people who dedicate their time at Helping Hounds, Cuse Pit Crew, and the CNY ASPCA are angels without wings. I am forever thankful to Helping Hounds for rescuing Queenie who I was then able to adopt three years ago.

I am thankful to Camille at the Bed N Bowl in Chittenango for opening her home to board dogs. I took Q to The Bed N Bowl for the first time two years ago when I flew to Minnesota. I was intimidated by all the dogs barking from inside the house, the cluttered yard, the barn with a screwdriver holding the door in place. But Camille was immediately a calming presence, and I was so grateful for all the text updates about all the friends (and boyfriends) Q was making. When I couldn’t take Q home with me this past Christmas, it hurt, and I knew Camille was the only person who would understand that I wanted Q to have a nice Christmas, too.

I am thankful to Renee and Sarah at Best Paw Forward for taking Q into their daycare and helping her feel safe around other dogs again after she was attacked by a dog on a trip to Michigan last year.

I am thankful for the folks at Mother Nature Pet Supply for often knowing better than my vet and for one time spending an hour trying to fit Q for a new harness.

I am thankful for the evenings I have spent sitting on my porch watching dogs play in the field across the street, sipping a cold drink, and feeling the breeze blow. I am thankful for my neighbors who stop and talk to me when I walk to and from campus. I am thankful to have been part of such a weird and interesting community of students and teachers and activists.

I am thankful to have lived in a place that allowed me to become comfortable with myself as a teacher, scholar, dog-owner, neighbor, and parallel parker. A place where I felt safe coming to terms with myself and my anxieties and my depression and my needs, to advocate for myself and to others.

Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory By Taking Account of Disability

The past few days I’ve been lazy/leisurely in my summer reading and identified a few articles to read from the 2013 special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly: “Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory By Taking Account of Disability.”

In the introduction to the special issue, Shelly Tremain notes that this issue—and the articles that comprise it—is an effort to show the connections between “the marginalization of philosophy of disability within feminist and mainstream philosophy, the underrepresentation of disabled philosophers (however gendered or racialized) within the profession of philosophy, and the subordinated status of disabled people in society at large.”

I decided to read four: Melanie Yergeau’s “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind,” Heather Rakes’s “Toward a Theoretico-practical Accountability to Difference and Relationality,” Sami Schalk’s “Metaphorically Speaking: Ableist Metaphors in Feminist Writing,” and Aimi Hamraie’s “Designing Collective Access: A Feminist Disability Theory of Universal Design.”


In “Clinically Significant Disturbance: On Theorists Who Theorize Theory of Mind,” Yergeau offers an autie-ethnographic (auto + autistic) narrative that both beautifully incorporates her own autistic experiences and pointedly critiques Theory of Mind (and the folks who subscribe to ToM). ToM has been used by philosophers, narrative theorists, even rhetoricians as a way to understand the autistic brain—more specifically, to understand how the autistic brain lacks empathy, an understanding of audience, the ability to connect to oneself and to others. ToM has been used as a measure of humanity, which creates the following dichotomy: “Humans are human because they possess a theory of mind, and autistics are inhuman because they do not.”

Yergeau turns to the body—the site where (folks commonly argue that) theory is actualized—to explore the violence that theory of mind enacts on autistic bodies. She considers what it means not in theory but in practice to “deny the autistic’s capacity for empathy, for perspective-taking, for self-reflection.” For rhetorical agency. In the vicious cycle of ToM that posits the existence of an autistic mind but not an autistic human, the autistic body is erased. Thus, the violence done to the autistic body is erased:

My argument here is that theories about ToM impact the autistic bodymind in material and violent ways. My argument here is that denying autistic selfhood and denying autistic corporeality and denying autistic rhetoricity reifies systemic abuse and ableism.

In line with the larger theme of the special issue, Yergeau identifies feminist rhetorical studies a space where we can identify and work to dismantle the oppression of ToM, and as she weaves this narrative of ToM, Yergeau also weaves a narrative of rhetoric.

So to circle back, Yergeau begins the essay by stating, “I am getting used to not existing, rhetorically speaking. I study rhetoric for a living. I teach it. I have a PhD in it. I breathe it. Rhetoric is everything and everywhere, many of my colleagues say. The exception to rhetoric’s everythingness and everywhereness is, of course, autism.” The autistic voice, she notes, is the “ultimate oxymoron” because autism has consistently been equated and conflated with the inability to communicate. Following this “logic,” autism denies folks rhetorical agency, the ability to understand and narrate others’ and their own experiences (“As a rhetorician, I am supposed to understand that autism prevents me from being a rhetorician).

Part of the beauty of this essay is the wonderful way it’s structured: circling and non-linear, refusing traditional structures, performative and hyper-aware of the way that the disjointed and self-focused nature of the essay mirrors the critiques of autistic narrative as “idiosyncratic, self-focused, ephemeral.” Thus, I see no reason to summarize the article from beginning to end, or to end with the conclusion. Instead, I’d like to end with this quotation (that falls somewhere in the middle of her article) about the collapsing of the rhetorical triangles because I think it forces those of us in rhet/comp to think critically about how we define the rhetor as a particular type of bodymind:

I interpret philosophical essays on autism as the collapsing of rhetorical triangles. In this reading, I am bombarded by representations of autistic people as non-rhetors—as non-rhetors who cannot emote (goodbye pathos), as non-rhetors who cannot recognize the mental states nor visualize the needs of the people around them (goodbye ethos), as non-rhetors whose logics are so mechanistic and rigid that their only comparable non-rhetor analogues are robots and chimpanzees (goodbye, logos).


The next article I read is “Toward a Theoretico-practical Accountability to Difference and Relationality.” Rakes argues that feminist philosophy and theory needs to pay attention and be accountable to disability (and power, normativity, and oppression). Importantly, she notes that disability has routinely been ignored in feminist theoretical practices and not included in the gender/race/class (or gender/race/sexuality) trio that is most commonly addressed. Feminist theoretical practices aren’t purposely exclusive to disability but are, instead, a product of how we relate our experiences to others.

In order to make this argument about accountability to difference, disability, and privilege, Rakes points to Eli Clare as a model of deeply accountable theory and self-reflection:

“Gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race…everything finally piling into a single human body. To write about any aspect of the body, means writing about this entire maze” (Clare 123).

Clare avoids a universal subject and privileging one type of oppression over another, instead showing how different oppressions relate and belong to each other. Rakes concludes by arguing, “Every thought and affect about who is here, in a given space, must be accompanied by acknowledgment and understanding of who is not, and why—of how gender, sexuality, disability, race, class, national origin, and age matter bodily and relationally.”

This is important in the context of Rakes’s argument, and it’s also important more broadly in the context of the work we do in higher ed—for example, who we invite and exclude into the university (both students and professors) and who we draw from and work with in the research that we conduct (who we cite and who/how we engage in our research).


In “Metaphorically Speaking: Ableist Metaphors in Feminist Writing,” Sami Schalk addresses the multiple ways in which disability is used as a metaphor in feminist texts. Schalk argues “that when feminists use metaphors of disability to represent the negative effects of patriarchy, they conceptually and theoretically position feminism and disability in opposition to each other and thereby imply that the goals of feminism are two-fold: to end patriarchy and to erase disability.”

The problem with metaphors, she notes, is that they assume a shared (universal) understanding of embodied experiences. And as is the problem with any presumption of universality, that presumption is almost always a nondisabled experience. Drawing on Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, Schalk notes that the problem with cognitive metaphor theory is that it assumes we have universal experiences of embodiment that inform our understandings and uses of metaphor. We evoke universal understandings of the body instead of actual, lived experiences of the body. An example is blindness (e.g., turn a blind eye, blind review). It’s a popular metaphor but not one that many people have experience with, so when it’s used as a metaphor, the metaphor is “based on the presumption of what the experience of blindness must be like, rather than the lived experience of blindness itself.”

Even metaphors that once had medical connotations that are now part of mainstream metaphors (e.g., retarded, lame, crazy) are still connected to “more widespread negative conceptions of disability.” No one says, “This party is lame” in a good way. No one describes “crippling pain” as a positive experience. Even though these words may be detached from their original meanings, they’re still imbued with (negative) values about disability.

Schalk ultimately advocates for an approach to metaphor that is critical of these mainstream assumptions and that rejects a universal experience:

An approach to metaphor that counters dominant assumptions and misunderstandings about disability, while simultaneously advancing the social and political values of disability studies and disability rights communities through new and innovative writing and reading of disability metaphors, must be informed by the lived experiences of disabled people.

A feminist philosophy of language, then, rejects figurative language about disability just as feminist theorists have rejected figurative and universal notions of woman.


The last article I read (more truthfully, revisited) was “Designing Collective Access: A Feminist Disability Theory of Universal Design.” In this article, Hamraie addresses the ways in which UD gets positioned as the most inclusive form of disability access but is often co-opted as a marketing strategy. Her goal is to articulate a theory of accessible design that takes a social justice activism approach rather than consumer-oriented approach to accessibility.

To do so, she identifies three core ideas that undergird UD: accessibility by design (“design that prioritizes accessibility”), broad accessibility (“accessibility for the greatest number of people possible”), and added value (“design that benefits disabled people also has benefits for nondisabled people).

So, there are a few terms that emerge from these core ideas that are important to define. First is the claim that built environments are material-discursive:

Barad uses the term material-discursive to refer to practices that both produce physical phenomena (such as buildings) and communicate meaning about what kinds of material and social relations should be possible (148).

This is similar to Henri Lefebvre’s claim that the physical spaces we inhabit affect our actions within those spaces (and, in turn, our actions and social practices impact those spaces). Built environments impact who is included or excluded from the space, control what kind of actions the space affords or prevents, etc.

The other concept, parti, comes from architecture:

Parti is the “grammar” of architecture, or the material-discursive expression of layout, style, and theme as evident in the design of a building.

Parti refers to how buildings make and convey meaning. Taken together, the two terms illustrate how “buildings actually produce lived and embodied experiences for spatial inhabitants and, at times, for physical boundaries that produce and reinforce structural inequalities.”

Then there’s value-explicit design:

Value-explicit design theories render overt and apparent the values, ideologies, and partis of physical structures, assuming that design is never ideologically neutral. Whether explicitly or implicitly, built environments always reference and imagine bodies and spatial inhabitants.

Okay, so UD is a value-explicit design theory that “critiques the false value-neutrality of inaccessible environments.” Design is never value-neutral, although some design is value-implicit (in that folks don’t purposely create inaccessible buildings, but it still happens, and this communicates particular messages about disability as not valued). For example, what does a sign that reads, “Accessible entrance in back” communicate about how disability is de/valued?

Hamraie argues, then, “The task of a feminist disability theory of UD is to make parti explicit, hold designers accountable for what appears to be disability-neutral design, and show how this neutrality is a constructed form of ignorance.”

In its current articulations, UD tends to get critiqued for ignoring the differences between individuals and instead relying on “universal” needs that tend to get articulated either as broad accessibility or as added value.

Broad accessibility acknowledges that every person who inhabits an accessible built space has a stake in that space. This is the argument of curb cuts, which were created for folks who use wheelchairs but that are also accessible to strollers, rolling suitcases, bicycles, etc. The problem with broad accessibility, as Hamraie notes, is that its vagueness move away from disability accessibility: “Because design is a value-based activity, however, not all human variations straightforwardly count as part of the universal. When the content of the universal is unspecified, UD can slip into vague notions of ‘all’ or ‘everyone’ that assume normate users and de-center disability.”

Added value is similar to broad accessibility in that it also makes the argument that accessible spaces are also of benefit to nondisabled users. Hamraie notes an important distinction between them, though:

What distinguishes broad accessibility from added value is that although the former (broad accessibility) focuses on the social justice implications of segregation and exclusion from the built environment, the latter (added value) emphasizes (often to nondisabled consumers) the market value of accessible designs.

So to move away from consumer-oriented approaches to accessibility that focus on neoliberal notions of flexibility and the marketability of universal yet individualized design, Hamraie advocates for thinking about (and enacting) interdependence and collective access: “UD practitioners and theorists, building upon the theory outlined here, could continue to develop strategies for participatory design, shifting from value-explicit design for disability to design with and by misfitting bodies more generally.”


Although these articles are all very different in focus, I love the threads woven between them: the critical attention to language and the material (and bodily) consequences of abstract theories and words, the critique of “universal” design and embodied experiences, the importance of being accountable to difference and disability and including disabled voices in our theories, research, metaphors, and design processes.


Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory By Taking Account of Disability. Spec. issue of Disability Studies Quarterly. 33.4 (2013). Web.

The Bodymind Problem

After I read Wendell’s The Rejected Body and blogged about it yesterday, I knew that the next up in my summer reading list queue had to be Margaret Price’s “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” In The Rejected Body, Wendell discusses both an ethic of care and theorizing disability more inclusively to account for folks with pain—two key takeaways from Price’s piece.

In her conclusion to the book, Wendell spends time thinking about what it might mean to transcend the body—an unpopular concept in feminist theory, she notes, because transcendence seems to devalue women’s bodies and women’s bodily experiences and create an unproductive dichotomy between mind and body (165). But as she argues, we need a feminist theory of bodily suffering (of pain):

We need to recognize that much of the appeal of philosophies of life that recommend some form of transcendence of the body lies, not in elevation of the mind and derogation of the body, but in the rational (as opposed to pathological) desire to make one’s happiness, or at least one’s sense of self, independent of illness, pain, weakness, exhaustion, and accident. (166)

And this, I think, is a nice prelude to Price’s article about pain—although they talk about different kinds of pain (one the physical pain of chronic illness, one the bodymind pain of mental illness). Price is following a call (made by folks like Andrea Nicki, Anna Mollow, and Elizabeth Donaldson) for more attention to mental disability in feminist disability studies (FDS) by theorizing bodyminds and what a crip politics of bodyminds might be.

So first, some definitions for clarity:

Price’s use of bodyminds is from Babette’s Rothschild’s work on trauma:

According to this approach, because mental and physical processes not only affect each other but also give rise to each otherthat is, because they tend to act as one, even though they are conventionally understood as twoit makes more sense to refer to them together, in a single term. (269)

And then there’s crip politics (which I wrote about here with McRuer’s Crip Theory):

By crip politics, I mean a way of getting things donemoving minds, mountains, or maybe just moving in place (dancing)by infusing the disruptive potential of disability into normative spaces and interactions. (269)

More specifically, Price aligns with both Alison Kafer’s imagining of crip politics as “an attempt to signal a belief in potentiality and flexibility, an effort to occupy a more ‘contestatory’ space that merges activist and academic work, as well as hope for coalition across disability categories” (15-16, qtd. in 270) and Nirmala Erevelles’s notion of the body as “a sociopolitically constituted and material entity that emerges through both structural (power- and violence-laden) contexts and also individual (specific) experience” (271). That is, a crip politics of bodyminds necessarily merges academic/intellectual/activist/political/personal while recognizing both how they emerge and are experienced structurally and individually.

Price turns to Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and her articulation of the misfit and misfitting as a way to think through a theory of the bodymind. Misfit “directions attention to ‘the co-constituting relationship between flesh and environment’” (594 qtd. in 271) and has both material (physically not fitting in a space) and metaphorical potential. The concept of misfit is useful in discussions of mental disability to “emphasize the way that such disabilities are not exactly ‘visible’ or ‘invisible,’ but intermittently apparent” (272).

Okay, so what does that mean? Price offers two examples. The first is stimming, which can be read differently to different people (i.e., as pathological, rude, soothing, or an expression of identity) but whether viewed positively or negatively (or ambiguously) does not fit into normative expectations. These different interpretations highlight “the shape-shifting nature of the misfit” because stimming is contingent upon “the affective response of those who observe and interpret it” (272).

So then a more complex, abstract example is two people in a room: one who wants to inflict pain on herself and one who wants to stop that person from pain. Price writes, “Both subjects are fully immersed in their own realities. And each one is occupying a reality that is real, important, and complete. Who is the misfit here?” (273). It’s easy to determine the misfit when the affective value is bad, but what happens when it is less clear? What is “good” or “bad” in the situation of the person who wants to self-harm and the person who stops her?

What is the desirable action or outcome?

This is a difficult question because then we have to assess the behavior, which means asking: “Are some disabilities worse than others?” and then that leads to “Is disability sometimes bad?” (273). And as Price (and Wendell, and FDS and DS scholars argue), those aren’t productive questions because disability is not inherently bad (but oppression based on it is) nor is it a competition. But then, how do we come to terms (as a field, as individuals) with impairment as something that involves pain—that’s sometimes just really and truly bad (274)?

And this circles back to Wendell and how we develop theories of disability that more inclusively account for pain and chronic illness. Or, as Price asks, “What shall we do with pain?” (274). The issue here is similar to the issue that Wendell outlined with feminist theory’s rejection of the derogation of women’s bodies and bodily experiences. That is, disability studies has historically rejected the idea that disability is undesirable, which raises the question(s): “To what degree does the turn toward desire in DS move too quickly past the question of undesirability? Of pain? Of, well, badness?” (275). Because even though we (as a field, as individuals) want to celebrate difference, positioning difference in terms of desirability necessarily creates understandings of undesirability.

And as I struggled to think through these questions and what it means not just to describe but to evaluate difference, Price returned to the example of the two people in the room. And everything clicked. Instead of thinking about who is the misfit or what action is desirable, Price asks us to think about pain through the lens of an FDS ethics of care:

[C]are means moving together and being limited together. It means giving more when one has the ability to do so, and accepting help when that is needed. It does not mean knowing exactly what another’s pain feels like, but it does mean respecting each person’s pain as real and important. Finally, care must emerge between subjects considered to be equally valuable (which does not necessarily mean that both are operating from similar places of rationality), and it must be participatory in nature, that is, developed through the desires and needs of all participants. (279)

I quote this at length for a few reasons: I’m not particularly theoretically minded, and, as I became frustrated trying to think through a crip politics of bodymind and what it means to evaluate the desirability of difference, this passage suddenly concretized all the theoretical ideas floating around in my head. They clicked at the theoretical level.

But as Price argues, bodymind is both structural and individual, and this passage nearly brought me to tears as it hit me at the affective level. It hit me after a particular painful interaction I had earlier today. It hit me a week after thinking deeply and carefully and not very carefully and manically about why for the first time in my life people were marking my non-normative behaviors as mean. It hit me months after sharing that I’m suicidal and being told that was either 1) not true or 2) not appropriate to share if true. It hit me years after burning a cigarette into my forearm the first time someone in college called me crazy. (The list goes on and on.)

It hit me hard as I’ve been trying to think through the possibilities (desirability?) of depression and what it does for me as a person. I like to think it makes me more careful, more thoughtful, more aware. But then I butt heads with the pain of it when I’m crying during Q&A at a conference or screaming at 3am in my bathroom with the sink and shower running at the same time. Those actions don’t make sense to me together, but this—this concept of care and an understanding that these experiences are harmful but that they have and communicate meaning—made sense to me. When my knuckles are swollen and purple and my face is red and splotchy, those actions are harmful but they matter because they communicate something that I can’t.

Price concludes by writing, “Being witnessed and cared for, even in the midst of unbearable pain, makes me think there may be some hope for all of my bodymind” (280).

This article was exactly what I needed today (as an individual) and—more broadly—what we need (as academics) for more inclusive theories of disability and (as humans) more reciprocal understandings of how we experience and share pain.


Price, Margaret. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia 30.1 (2015): 268-84.