Radical Self-Love & Tattoos

[TW: discussion of self-harm]

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” —Audre Lorde

The past couple weeks have been emotional in so many ways. May 8th was both the sixth year anniversary of my mom’s death and my doctoral hooding ceremony. May 10th was both Mother’s Day and my commencement. Six years ago, my life seemed so uncertain, and I felt like I was drowning in the depression and anxiety that had been part of me for so long. It’s still part of me, but I know myself better than I did then, have had time to process more things, have developed strategies and a commitment to self-care that initially seemed self-indulgent but is truly a necessity.

The more I think about and write about and commit myself to self-care, the more I think about what it means to radically love yourself—to embrace the parts of you that society tells you are unlovable, shameful, ugly. Lorde draws attention to the way that self-care—particularly the self-care of bodies who are consistently stripped of and denied value—is not merely something you do that’s nice. It’s self-preservation. It’s political and radical.

When I felt threatened a couple months ago in my home because a particular conversation was triggering, I disclosed that I was struggling with suicidal ideation as a means of self-preservation. I needed the conversation to end, and disclosure was the only way I could think to do that. When I shared the same story (and thus, the same disclosure) during my doctoral dissertation defense a couple weeks later, it was not self-preservation as much as a radical choice to push on what it means to disclose something undesirable and to be comfortable with that mode of being.

Being depressed is undesirable. Having anxiety build up and bubble out so extremely that you pass out on an NYC subway train and have to be carried off by your friend and a stranger is undesirable. Pressing your fingernails into your palms until you’re left with dark red crescent moons is undesirable. Or, at least, we’re told that it is. And it’s very easy to convince yourself that it is. But what does it mean to accept those things? To love them as part of yourself?

For my entire adult life, I have been depressed and anxious, and for years I have only considered this a negative part of myself. And in some ways, it was. When a friend my first semester of college told everyone that I was crazy, I was hurt and angry—not because I didn’t understand how she could think I was crazy—but because I was (am) and didn’t want anyone else to know. That same friend had watched me burn a cigarette into my forearm the weekend before and then told everyone about it. Not long after that, I turned 18 and got my first tattoo, the word “paz” nestled between two scars on my right wrist. It was the last time I self-harmed.

my hand hovers above a mustard yellow rug with a white diamond pattern, the focus on my right wrist and a small black tattoo

“paz” // 2005

The tattoo is blurry now, and people tell me all the time that it looks bad because it’s faded, pointed the wrong direction (facing me, not them), written in a bad font (my own cursive lettering). People make jokes that it looks like “pez.” But for the last 10 years, it has served as a reminder to be good to myself.

For me, tattoos are an expression of radical self-love. For that tattoo in particular, it’s also a tool for resisting self-harm. In “Harm Reduction as a Tool for Radical Self-Love” (TW: physical, sexual, emotional abuse), Toni Bell writes about how prioritizing self-care as part of her daily routine has helped her work through urges to self-harm. When I first got that tattoo, it was hard for me to answer the questions that people (friends, strangers, family members) threw at me about what it meant, why it was placed where it was. As years pass, it’s easier for me to articulate, less shameful. This tattoo has become a part of me and has shaped the way I understand and interact with my own body.

Of course, I didn’t think I was doing anything particularly radical or subversive when I got that tattoo. I just knew I wanted to be better. And there are lots of other strategies I’ve developed for that: cooking myself dinner, walking the dog, allowing myself to take nights off from work and being unapologetic about it, vocalizing what I need to friends and colleagues and family members.

In another post from The Body Is Not an Apology (seriously, the love I feel for this initiative), West Anderson writes about disability and the process of going back to school and being explicit about their needs—not only with themselves but also with others (therapists, teachers). The post, “Yes, I Deserve Help: Disability and Asking for What We Need,” reminded me of conversations we hear about graduate school and mental health: about the fear of not being able to perform a “normal” school experience, about the guilt and stigma of asking for help, about the concern of not being perceived as disabled enough (“oh, you’re just stressed”).

I’ve never received accommodations, but when my mom was sick, I had an agreement with the dean at my university that I could miss class or take extra time with assignments if I needed it. I don’t recall making use of this agreement (although it did relieve a lot of stress when, for example, my mom had surgery or fell into a coma my senior year), but I had to inform my professors of this arrangement at the beginning of each semester for four years. And throughout graduate school, as I struggled in the spring (as I do every year), I found myself reaching out to my professors. It’s hard to ask for help and make yourself vulnerable, but it’s also the only way for work to get done, for me to be okay.

Maybe vulnerability is an integral part of self-care and of radical self-love. Black women make themselves vulnerable when they love their bodies despite centuries worth of physical and emotional oppression. Fat women make themselves vulnerable when they love and display their bodies despite being told them that fatness is unhealthy or something to cover (which fellow rhet-comp superwoman Katie Manthey has written about beautifully). Disabled women make themselves vulnerable when they love bodies that have been sterilized, institutionalized, deemed unfit (to work, to be intimate, to love, to be).

(Those are all examples of women because it’s my common denominator—not because I’m a man hater…necessarily.)

For the last six years, I have struggled and succeeded in developing strategies for how to craft reciprocal relationships with others (partners, friends, instructors, family members, students) where I can make myself vulnerable in ways that don’t allow me to shoulder the burdens that I try to let myself carry. Although depression has been part of me for much longer than six years, it was only until my mom’s death that I was forced to confront what I had been ignoring for so long—to confront what I would normally compartmentalize and repress.

And for the last six years, I have been plotting a tattoo for my mom, which I recently trekked to Brooklyn to get (a 4.5 hour affair under the needle). It took me a while to settle on the right design because I’m a perfectionist, because I didn’t want it to be cheesy, and because a tattoo for someone who never liked tattoos isn’t quite right.

In vibrant shades of yellow, turquoise, green, red, and brown, a tattoo featuring roses and a sprinkled-and-cherry-topped cupcake adorn my left arm with banner text from Mary Oliver's poem

“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.” // 2015, image from @beccagennebacon

 

I used to keep a small drawing of a yellow rose and cupcake taped to my apartment wall in Morgantown where I did my M.A. Yellow roses (well, daffodils) were my mom’s favorite, and she was a hell of a baker—a legacy I’m trying to uphold. In some ways (the yellow roses, the cupcake), the tattoo is for her. But it’s also for how I’ve changed since she died—about how my depression and anxiety worsened, about how so many people stepped up to support me, how I’ve tried to come to terms with what feels like very different fractured parts of myself both in my personal and academic lives, about how I decided to pursue a Ph.D. when I read all the emails from her students telling her what an impact she’d made on them.

The quote, “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine” is from the Mary Oliver poem “Wild Geese.” When I went to college, my therapist gifted me a copy of Dream Work and circled “Wild Geese” for me to read. It’s the only poem I’ve ever memorized. I was so depressed throughout college, and I would read that poem over and over. And I would write. And write.

And write.

Depression has been such a large part of life—mainly bad. But for the last few years, I’ve been trying to see the good in it. I think it makes me more attentive, more thoughtful, more careful in how I approach people and situations. I think it makes me more forgiving because I know others struggle just as much as I do (and worse). Those lines of poetry resonate with how I understand self-care, a reminder to reach out to people but also to give back, a reminder of the reciprocity in relationships and making yourself vulnerable in order to share the parts of yourself that are difficult to share. A reminder that I am all of these different things in one person, and that they may conflict but also that they co-exist. When I was in the tattoo shop, Becca said, “You couldn’t have chosen a cuter image for that text.” I laughed, but I’ve always enjoyed that juxtaposition, the uncomfortable acknowledgment of things that we think of as radically different (pretty flowers, a cupcake, despair, vulnerability).

This tattoo is now a part of me—just as depression is, as my mom was. It’s a reminder that there is beauty in darkness, that I am worthy of love not in spite of my flaws but because of them. It’s a reminder to be thoughtful in the personal and professional relationships that we build. It’s a reminder not to expect the folks who we work with to just open up to us without giving something back and being honest and vulnerable about our own positions and ideas.

It’s a reminder that despair need not always be negative and that it’s radical to embrace it as something beautiful, something that bears opportunities.

I have long been uncomfortable with my bodymind—my physical body, mental disability, the way each influences the other through self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety that keeps me very thin (read Margaret Price’s great discussion of bodyminds here). Radical self-care helps me love my bodymind. Tattoos do that, too. Tattoos are an embodied reminder that I am in control of my body and have the agency to make choices that will help me love it. They clearly and visually argue that I am comfortable with this body. In a culture where depression, feminism, and body modification are so often positioned as undesirable (shameful, unfeminine), what could be more radical?

Acknowledgments

I stand with hands on hips in graduation regalia: a mix of black, royal blue crushed velvet, and orange. I smile widely & wildly in front of the beautiful gray stone of the Hall of Languages, white & purple tulips lining the sidewalk.

May 8, 2015 // doctoral hooding ceremony

A few weeks ago, I sat in a room of fabulous mentors, colleagues, and friends and defended my dissertation with distinction. I laughed and celebrated with my friends. I came home from a long day on campus to find a copy of The Oxford Guide for Writing Tutors: Practice and Research (which I have a chapter in!) on my porch. I submitted my dissertation. This past Friday, I blinked back tears as my dear dissertation co-directors hooded me with my family seated in the front row. In just a few hours, I will graduate. There is a lot of light in my life right now, and I want to honor that.

Below is a copy of the acknowledgments to my dissertation, and each of these people mean more to me than this brief statement suggests. There are also so many people who have supported me who don’t appear in my acknowledgments: all the friends from college and high school who have been nonstop congratulating me, my professors from Hollins who challenged and encouraged me, the Harpers, my adoring (& adored) gramma.

I whole-heartedly believe in recognizing and treasuring the people who get you to where you are. This is some version of that.

***

This dissertation is a combination of many types of knowing and meaning-making—both an intellectual exploration of how our field has shaped and been shaped by disability discourses and a political call for bringing the body into our teaching and research practices. I have so many people who have encouraged this blending of spheres and have supported me as I awkwardly come to terms with what sometimes feels like fractured parts of who I am as a person, scholar, and instructor. I would not be at this stage without the support of my co-directors Patrick Berry and Lois Agnew. I never imagined that writing a dissertation could be anything but agonizing, but I was continuously surprised with how much I enjoyed the process of developing and complicating my ideas, which is surely a testament to your mentorship. From coursework to comprehensive exams to this dissertation, you two have been an incredible mentoring duo. I have likely spent more time in each of your offices than I have in my own. I have emailed you both hundreds of times. I have received pages and pages of careful, conscientious, and critical feedback on the chapters of this dissertation and on the earlier work that informed these ideas. I am so grateful for your constant and consistent support and your guidance as I developed courses, job market materials, articles and webtexts for publication. You two are the best.

I would also like to recognize the incredible support from the other members of my committee. I am forever impressed by the calm brilliance of Collin Brooke. You give the most sage advice and offered great strategies for narrowing my ideas and writing this dissertation. To Jay Dolmage who I first met him at West Virginia University, you are truly inspiring. Your teaching style, constructive feedback, powerful scholarship, and delicious peanut butter-filled cupcakes have been so vital to me as I work to construct my own academic identity. And to Margaret Price, thank you for your thoughtful comments on the blog posts that fed into this project and for your scholarship. Reading Mad at School, I felt vindicated that I don’t have to fracture myself into discrete parts and keep my madness a secret.

Taking courses in the Disability Studies Program allowed me to understand how disability is deeply intellectual and grounded in the very roots of social justice that I have loved so much about rhetoric and composition. Thank you to Beth Ferri who allowed me to pursue projects in both of her classes that linked disability studies to writing pedagogy. To say that your courses were life changing may err on dramatic, but they certainly transformed my understanding of what matters to me as an academic.

I am grateful to everyone who has shaped my graduate experience. Brian Ballentine, Nathalie Singh-Corcoran, and Scott Wible introduced me to the discipline through the Professional Writing and Editing program at WVU. To Nathalie, thank you for introducing me to writing center work and for sharing the best brownies I have ever eaten. To Brian, thank you for encouraging me to apply to Ph.D. programs and supporting me at my first academic conference. To Scott, thank you for introducing me to the field and for assigning the book A Rhetoric of Risk, which was the first moment that I saw how my background (growing up in coal country and watching young men recruited out of high school to work in the mines) connected with my interests in professional writing. To Steve Parks, Kristen Krause, Rebecca Moore Howard, Iswari Pandey, Chris Palmer, Tony Scott, LouAnn Payne, Kristi Johnson, and George Rhinehart, thank you for supporting me throughout my time at Syracuse.

The Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program is home to an amazing group of people who are driven by social justice. I’ll never forget the conversation that I had with Tim Dougherty at Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge when I visited Syracuse and realized that this place could—and would—be my intellectual home for the next four years. To Missy Watson, Nicole Gonzales Howell, Kate Navickas, Rachael Shapiro, Melissa Kizina Motsch, and Carolyn Ostrander: I am forever grateful to y’all for bringing me into the Circle and encouraging me to actively shape this community. To Jana Rosinski and Lindsey Banister, you ladies are my best friends and sounding boards. Thank you for every piece of advice, long conversation, and vegan milkshake. To Jason Markins, Jason Luther, and Seth Davis, thank you for being such sassy and supportive friends. To Ben Kuebrich, Karrieann Soto, and Tamara Issak, I have loved working on This Rhetorical Life with you all and collaborating to produce ethical and accessible digital scholarship.

I am forever grateful for my family members who have embraced and accommodated difference. Thank you to my older brother, Matt, who taught me a lot growing up about how people perceive and respond to disability and how to suspend judgment of others. I love you. To my dad, Rick, who supported me many years ago when I was diagnosed with depression and who has always supported my academic choices, I love you, too. To my mom, Susie, you have influenced everything I do. You told me to apply to graduate school, and you encouraged me to sign up for a teaching assistantship. Your advocacy for Matt and your love of teaching have influenced me more than I could ever express. When I found the box of letters from your former students, I knew I wanted to be the type of academic who makes a difference and who advocates for and with folks whose voices frequently go unheard. I wish you could read this.

Finally, thank you to Jack and Queenie. Jack, I am so thankful to have met you at C&W in the little mountain town of Frostburg, MD. I’ve never met someone who is so genuinely interested in every part of my life—even the terrible parts. We met before I started working on this dissertation, and I wouldn’t have been able to write and finish it without your support. And to Queenie, my rescued pit mix who flew to Syracuse from North Carolina, you—more than any person—have been here for me with your tail wagging, ready to cuddle. Y’all rescued me.

Diss Defense

Yesterday, I sat in a room with six of the best mentors I could ever hope to have and listened as they thoughtfully and critically engaged my dissertation (please expect an upcoming post solely dedicated to my deep gratitude for the wonderful network of people who have supported and pushed me as I developed this project). It was strange and surreal to be in a room for two hours with colleagues and friends who have shaped me in so many ways: as a person, as a thinker, as a researcher, as an instructor.

It’s important for me to be transparent about the work that I do and to make that work accessible to others, and I’m extending this to my final presentation as a Ph.D. student: my dissertation defense statement.

(Note: the only thing omitted from this statement are my plans for revision moving forward.)

***

I’d like to start by thanking the people who have encouraged and supported me throughout this process. I wouldn’t be at this stage without the support of my fantastic co-directors Patrick Berry and Lois Agnew. I never imagined that writing a dissertation could be anything but agonizing, but I was continuously surprised with how much I enjoyed the process of developing and complicating my ideas, which is surely a testament to your mentorship. Thank you to the calm brilliance of Collin Brooke who offered strategies for narrowing my ideas and actually writing the dissertation. Thank you to the constructive feedback and powerful scholarship of Jay Dolmage and Margaret Price who constantly inspire me to want to be more thoughtful. And finally thank you to Beth Ferri whose courses in the Disability Studies Program shaped my research and teaching in ways I never anticipated.

I’m going to offer a broad overview of my dissertation, focus on some key things that I’ve learned and struggled with, and close with ideas and questions moving forward. But first, I offer a series of disclosures.

// disclosures in three parts

One. On the first day of every new class I teach, I disclose some version of the following to my students: My mom was diagnosed with advanced stage ovarian cancer two weeks before my brother and I graduated from high school. I had an agreement with the dean at my university that I could miss class or take extra time if I needed it. At the beginning of each semester for four years, I had to inform my professors of this arrangement. I know that you all have complicated lives beyond this class, and I don’t require that you share them with me, but I do ask that you be mindful of our time together and let me know when you will miss class or are unable to meet a deadline. I can work with you, but only if you let me know you need help.

Two. In October 2012, I traveled to the west coast for a writing center conference. I sat in a crowded room and listened to a presentation about the telltale characteristics of autism spectrum disorders (“Autistic people have bad handwriting”) and how tutors should respond to them (“so you should offer them the opportunity to use the computer”). At the end of the presentation, the speaker said that AS “is an obstacle that can be overcome if the student wants.” The Q&A turned into a mix of agreement and discussion of how to identify suspicious and potentially violent students. I choked back tears as I asked a question and then awkwardly left the room.

Three. Last month, I disclosed to a colleague that I am suicidal. I was informed that that information was inappropriate to share in that space (my home, a social function).

// introduction & overview

What do these disclosures mean—individually and together? How do they create a picture of the complexities of disclosure in the writing classroom, in the writing center, in our professional and interpersonal spaces? How do they shape my identity and other people’s understandings of my ethos as a scholar and instructor with clinical depression and anxiety? What role do they have in this space, in this context, in this room of people?

In some ways, I wanted to use my dissertation as a space to understand why we both demand student disclosures but also remove the agency of students by questioning or dismissing those disclosures unless they’re accompanied by institutional accommodations.

In my dissertation, “From Accommodations to Accessibility: How Rhetorics of Overcoming Manifest in Writing Pedagogies,” I interrogate the tendency in our field to try to diagnose disabled students (or encourage students to self-disclose) and default to accommodations rather than trying to craft more accessible practices. Specifically, I explore how rhetorics of overcoming—the idea that disabled bodies must overcome their disabilities in order to be successful or to meet a particular standard—manifests in composition and writing center pedagogies. Part of the dissertation is focused on identifying and analyzing these rhetorics of overcoming, and part of it is brainstorming more theoretically-grounded accessible practices.

Chapter One breaks down how our disciplinary scholarship has addressed disability through two main models: medical models that focus on remediating student deficits and social models that focus on the changing environmental influences that create disability. I argue that our field is currently more resonant with an accommodation approach. We have this model of accommodations in higher education that is very much interested in meeting students’ needs but is also contingent upon diagnosing and accommodating students. So in Chapter Two, I apply this accommodation approach to writing center contexts. Whereas rhetoric and composition scholarship began incorporating disability studies theory in the late 1990s to the point that Margaret Price declared it a hot field of study (“Accessing Disability”), writing center studies has not. Writing center discourses mix social model intentions with an emphasis on diagnosis, identifying deficits, and crafting particular practices for particular disabled groups. And I argue that writing center scholarship about disability needs to incorporate more disability studies theory and that, when crafting writing center practices and training tutors, we should be mindful of theories of multiliteracies, multimodality, and UD as frameworks for better understanding how disabled students learn and compose.

One thing I’ve tried to be mindful of throughout this process is making sure that I’m not making assumptions about or speaking for instructors and students, so there’s a qualitative shift in Chapter Three. I incorporate qualitative surveys and interviews with instructors, students, and writing center consultants in order to more fully understand how students identify their needs and how different classroom and writing center practices address or ignore those needs. Chapter Four follows up these discussions with a framework that foregrounds accessibility as an integral part of literate practice, and I offer theoretically-grounded assignments and activities that instructors can incorporate or adapt in their own classes.

// learning & struggling

I’m happy to talk in more depth about any these chapters, but I’d like to temporarily resist a chapter breakdown of findings and instead offer a number of small conclusions. These are claims, struggles, and questions that have pushed me out of my academic and personal comfort zones and that I’m processing even now that the dissertation is “done.”

>> Rhetorics of overcoming are culturally pervasive. I discuss the connections between cultural and academic manifestations of rhetorics of overcoming in the opening chapter of my dissertation, but a quick example is autism discourse. April is Autism Awareness month, and logics of overcoming, diagnosis, and cure are rampant on social media. These cultural logics are powerful, and they manifest in conversations about how to identify “dangerous” autistic students (like the disclosure I shared a few minutes ago) and in scholarship that offers a checklist of autistic traits and how to accommodate them. By paying attention to these cultural narratives, we can better understand how we reinforce these discourses in our scholarship and interactions with students and students’ writing.

>> Engage with students and instructors. In order to prevent spreading generalizations, studying disability as different, or advocating for prescribed practices for disabled students based on categorical difference, we need more qualitative research that engages students about how they learn and compose and how their disabilities may impact those processes. Although qualitative research is new to me, I knew I needed to do more than simply analyze rhetorics of overcoming or I’d be perpetuating assumptions about what students need or what instructors and consultants are doing. I wanted to talk with students about how they learn and compose and what practices are in/accessible to them. I also wanted instructors and writing center consultants to be able to “speak back” to rhetorics of overcoming and share how their understandings of disability manifest within their pedagogical practices.

>> A study of accessibility involves both disabled and nondisabled students. Only soliciting responses from disabled students would reinforce the idea that accessible practices only benefit disabled students. Indeed, one of the more compelling findings from the student survey is that though the needs of disabled student writers are often positioned as radically different from their nondisabled peers, the learning needs articulated by students who identified as disabled and/or received institutional accommodations very much aligned with nondisabled students. There’s been a tendency to rely on disclosure and accommodations as the way we can support students who we perceive as different, but not all disabled students will disclose or receive accommodations. We need to create spaces to listen to the needs that all students articulate.

>> Accessibility is often defined by disability. When I was developing the survey, I struggled with how to make the term “accessibility” accessible to undergraduate students—particularly those who may not think about it on a daily basis. I framed it as something that’s shaped by physical spaces, pedagogical practices, and cultural attitudes to try to move away from the conflation of accessibility with physical access. But nondisabled students really didn’t have a firm grasp of accessibility unless something was explicitly inaccessible to them. I received a lot of comments to the question, “How often do you think about disability and accessibility?” with references to seeing students in wheelchairs or on crutches try to navigate campus. Tanya Titchkosky notes that disability and accessibility are often imagined within the context of wheelchair use (55), and these narrow understandings are reinforced when we don’t have explicit conversations with students about accessibility beyond accommodations for disabled students. So although this is a somewhat minor point within the larger study, it’s something that I tried to address throughout the dissertation in brainstorming practices that explicitly position accessibility as a collaborative effort.

>> Disclosures matter but not on their own. In “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing in Academic Writing,” Stephanie Kerschbaum argues that disability disclosures are never static: they are contextual to situations and to audiences. We need to critically consider the complexities of disability disclosures—how they operate and affect students’ understandings of themselves as writers—in order to rethink how we offer support to students with a wide range of learning needs. For the survey, I asked students whether or not they identified as disabled but chose not to require them to disclose. Because my goal was to learn more about how students understand their needs and how those needs are met within writing contexts, asking about disability in the context of learning was more appropriate than simply asking students to disclose specific disabilities.

As Corbett O’Toole argues, the question “Are you disabled?” or even “Do you identify as disabled?” is much different than asking someone “What is your position to disability?” I wanted a simple yes/no response that I could easily quantify, but would I have received different results if I had framed the question more openly? For example, Tina (whose interview is featured in Chapter 3) didn’t identify as disabled in her survey but disclosed struggles with multiple stimuli and a history of depression and anxiety. Three students surveyed didn’t identify as disabled but received institutional accommodations, which requires a disability diagnosis. And two students with ADD disclosed the same categorical disability but disagreed on whether or not it affected their writing. These examples highlight the limitations of understanding disability and literacy solely based on diagnoses. Disability disclosures on their own don’t give us adequate or accurate information about individuals, their lived experiences, or their needs moving forward. Rather, the combination of how students make meaning based on identity categories and how identities shift in different contexts offers a more accurate understanding of how disability impacts students and their composing processes.

And this takes me back to the series of disclosures that I opened with. Being transparent about our relationships to disability can inform how we engage with disabled students and act as a critical method for more deeply engaging research. My experiences with rhetorics of overcoming and clinical depression and anxiety greatly influenced my decision to talk with students and shaped my interactions with Tina. Because I shared my positioning with Tina, for example, she was more willing to share her positioning with me. When we learn with students rather than about them—drawing on our past experiences, listening carefully to what students say and do not say, and adapting our questions and methods—we co-construct deeper, richer knowledge about disabled experiences.

// take-away

Perhaps one of the greatest take-aways for me from this project is the importance of making space to talk with students: to feature their voices in our research and to make space for them to disclose their accessibility needs—whether they identify as disabled or not—in our classroom and writing center spaces.

Moving forward, I want to continue to think about rhetorics of overcoming and how we can craft empirical studies of disability and accessibility that don’t target disability, that refuse neoliberal arguments about how everyone learns differently, and that can directly influence everyday and curricular practices. .

I’ll stop here because I’d love to hear questions about the project and thoughts about how to further develop it. Thank you all so much.

Sharing Grief

It’s difficult to explain depression to folks who have no frame of reference for it. My dad was the one who came home first when I locked myself in the bathroom when I was 14, and I still remember the way his legs and fingers twitched as he sat down and tried to talk to me about what was wrong. (His body twitched the same way three years later when he sat me down to tell my mom had cancer.) Over a decade later, it’s still difficult for me to explain depression to my dad—not because he doesn’t want to understand but because he doesn’t know how.

I feel similar despair when I try to explain depression to partners, to friends, to colleagues. Depression seems more difficult to explain as an academic because there’s an unspoken sense that you shouldn’t talk about it, but it’s there. It’s difficult to make yourself vulnerable in a culture of higher education that preys on (or at least seems to prey on) vulnerability—particularly vulnerability of the mind.

I was recently invited to make myself vulnerable (or not) by a kind colleague, and it was nice to know that I could talk about it (or not). It was nice to switch from academic conversations about rhetoric to how completely consuming anxiety and depression can be—how one day you’re teaching and grading and writing and researching, and the next day you can’t convince yourself to get out of bed.

It’s difficult to explain depression because it never operates the same from day to day. Sometimes, it’s just there. And sometimes, something specific triggers it. My last post was courtesy of a range of triggers that all culminated within one week. Today, I’m thinking about depression (but perhaps am not drowning in it thanks to that act of kindness) because it’s Easter Sunday.

I feel displaced at Easter every year because my family didn’t really celebrate it. When everyone else went home to visit their families, I stayed on campus. 2009 is the last time I drove home to visit my family, winding through snow-capped mountains to spend time with my mom in our house for the last time. The week after Easter, she was re-admitted to the hospice (where she stayed for the next month).

I spent that weekend taking awkward black-and-white photos of my mom lying in bed in her faded black sweatshirt and flannel pajama pants. I took photos of the clothes in her closet, which my dad bagged up and donated shortly after she died. I took photos of the plastic, heart-print water glass that she kept on her bedside table. I took photos of the handwritten notes for the memorial service that she planned herself, sprawling cursive letters indicating that “My Home among the Hills” would be the last song played.

It’s difficult to know whether or not I feel isolated at Easter because it’s a religious holiday or because of the depression or because it’s always time of year when academic expectations to perform are at an all-time high. It’s much easier to manage that isolation, though, when someone reaches out to you to let you know you’re not alone and to assure you that how you’re feeling isn’t shameful. Particularly in academic environments where all things depression, anxiety, mental health are kept under wraps, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re alone and to allow yourself to self-consume.

I used to end these reflective blog posts (see tags: grad life, PhD student) with bullet lists of reminders or action items for self care. Things like “Ask for help when you need it” and “Celebrate every step along the way—no matter how small it may seem.” These are simple reminders, but when you’re really and truly struggling, even the most simple things seem so difficult to do. So in the spirit of reciprocity (because sharing grief is deeply reciprocal) and in gratitude to a colleague who reached out to me in a time of despair, a reminder:

Time spent grieving and building support networks is always worth it. Grabbing lunch or coffee with a colleague is more valuable than an extra hour spent grading (or writing a few more pages, reading another article, tweaking that presentation, or staring at the wall trying to convince yourself to work).

Adventures in Depression

About this time last year, I wrote a blog post about passing my oral exam defense, how it feels to want to share good news with someone who has been dead for five years, how it feels to be a Ph.D. student with depression so bad you can’t leave your bed.

And in some ways, this post is and is not like that one.

Every year I’ve been in my Ph.D. program, things feel radically different. My first year, I worked to adjust to four rigorous courses a semester in a new departmental and university culture. My second year, I scrambled to adjust to teaching a new curriculum,  finishing coursework, and studying for comprehensive exams. My third year, I passed my comprehensive exams, developed a prospectus, and began dissertating. My fourth year, I dissertated, applied for jobs, and starting prepping my dissertation defense. Each year, things are very different.

Things are different this year than they were last year. This past year, I applied to dozens of assistant professor positions, did interviews, and recently accepted a TT position. I also wrote a dissertation, revised chapters as I applied for jobs, and submitted a full dissertation to my committee. I co-edited a special issue of a journal and got an article accepted for publication.

Things are different, but depression is constant. It ebbs and flows, building up like the piles of snow that towered outside of my house for months. It accompanied me as I wrote, applied for jobs, interviewed, waited to hear about chapters, revised chapters, waited to hear about jobs.

As always, I am thankful for so many things. I’m thankful that I have a great dissertation committee who have been wholly supportive. I’m thankful that I didn’t have the terrible job market experience that you hear horror stories about. I’m thankful to have been offered a position that really interests me in a department full of people who were nothing but kind when I visited.

Ebbs and flows.

Now March is almost over and the snow is almost gone and the days are getting brighter. But it’s almost April, and then it will be May. And it’s that time of year when I can’t catch my breath because all I can think about is my mom who, 6 years ago, was in a hospice as I finished up my senior year of college. I think of my graduation ceremony, receiving the handwritten note from her as I crossed the stage even though she died 9 days before that. My doctoral hooding ceremony will take place the day she died. My commencement ceremony will take place on Mother’s Day.

As I’ve delved further into my work on disability and accessibility and advocating for students, I’ve had to come to terms with my own mental disability. I started by mentioning it quietly on this blog, and I made my first formal academic disclosure within the pages of the special editors’ introduction to Reflections.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes disability as “the most human of experiences, touching every family and—if we live long enough—touching us all” (5).  For Allison, disability has always been a lens through which I’ve viewed and understood people and environments, my family, and myself: growing up with an autistic older brother who my mom tirelessly advocated for, helping my mom when she was sick with cancer and couldn’t get out of bed or drive to the store, negotiating my own depression and anxiety. Disability shaped my family and was 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. As a Ph.D. student at Syracuse, I took classes in the Disability Studies Program that made me start thinking about what rhetoric and composition can learn from disability studies, what we as instructors can learn from non-normative literacies and disabled composing processes, what we as scholars can learn about rhetoric and writing from cultural, historical, and disciplinary representations of disability.

academic disclosure

As I wrote my dissertation and tried to make sense of students’ survey responses about disability and accessibility, of interviews with students who have internalized rhetorics of overcoming, I had to come to terms with my own internationalization of overcoming. I had to come to terms with my positionally as an instructor and researcher of disability as someone with a mental disability. It was hard, and the days were short and cold, and it felt impossible to get out of bed. But it was also really good because I channeled what energy I had into ensuring that I was representing students fairly and accurately, into nuancing my arguments about disability disclosures in the composition classroom.

A few days ago, after a particularly difficult week, I was accused of “playing the card” of depression. It was difficult to process then and even more difficult to process now. When you self-harm, you get accused often of playing a card (often, the attention card). It’s been a very long time since I have been accused of playing that card. Every time I write and publish one of these blog posts, I wait for someone to call me out for being unfit for academic life or for an accusation that I am not disabled enough to claim a disability identity. Across the board, I have received nothing but support and kind words.

Ebbs and flows.

Disclosures can be so incredibly dangerous (personally, professionally). Within the past year, I have decided to be more vocal about these disclosures because it is healthier for me to be clear about my needs than it is to hide them. And I know I can’t advocate for others if I can’t advocate for myself. I know this accusation will be the first of many.

Indeed, I was also recently asked to disclose this information for someone’s academic gain, and I realized that folks who don’t have depression don’t understand depression. It’s sensationalized and becomes a warped image of inspiration and overcoming, of “how good” it is that you’ve moved past that. But you haven’t moved past it. You’ve grown with it. Depression is always with me, and sometimes it’s the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and sometimes it allows me to be more thoughtful and reflective than I could be without it. It allows me to listen more carefully when colleagues or friends or students articulate what they need from me in a particular moment and to acknowledge that what they need the next day may be completely different.

Whenever I think about how to explain this, I think about Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and Half. I teach “Adventures in Depression” and “Depression Part Two” in my composition courses because they capture depression in such clear, tangible ways—particularly for folks who are unfamiliar with depression. In the first comic, she delves into what it’s like but then tries to end the comic by tying a nice bow on it. Brosh didn’t post again for nearly a year and a half. When she finally posted “Depression Part Two,” I was so happy and so sad. I both laughed and cried because she’s such a funny writer and also because her words are so, so true. It’s hard to explain depression to someone who doesn’t get it but really wants to help. She writes, “So they try harder to make you feel hopeful and positive about the situation. You explain it again, hoping they’ll try a less hope-centric approach, but re-explaining your total inability to experience joy inevitably sounds kind of negative; like maybe you WANT to be depressed.” Every time I get caught in that situation, I think about the fish:

It would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared.

It’s been a long time since I got caught in a dead fish conversation.

One of the simplest arguments from my dissertation is that we need to listen to the needs that students articulate—both students who disclose diagnosed, documented disabilities and those who do not. There are lots of reasons students may choose not to disclose, and a student’s request to access course notes or to receive content in multiple formats or to listen to music while freewriting should not be any more or less valid if that student discloses a disability or presents an accommodations notice with that request. Disclosure should not be demanded (& then called into question) in order for someone’s needs to be acknowledged and respected.

Storify: Collecting vs. Curating Content

When Storify (tagline: “Make the web tell a story”) launched in 2011, I thought it was really cool. Actually, I still think it’s kind of cool. Storify allows you to access public content from social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr—really, anything with a URL—and curate that content into a story. It seemed like an excellent tool to curate conference tweets, which is how I’ve predominantly used it (for example, to curate disability panels at CCCC for the past 3 years: #4c13, #4c14, and #4c15). But I also think it has a lot of potential in the classroom—particularly for assignments that require students to analyze digital media.

pedagogical application: revisiting the analysis “essay”

I’m not likely the only instructor who has received an essay where a student analyzes a song, video, or series of images and has thought, This medium really isn’t working.

Storify allows students to drag and drop media into their analysis, but to be successful (i.e., usable) texts, students need to do more than collect media. They need to curate it.

In WRT 301: Civic Writing, which was heavily focused on how folks engage with civic issues through digital platforms, I decided to use Storify as the platform for students’ Access Analyses. Here’s a little context from the assignment prompt:

After gaining some theoretical bearing in Unit 1—defining and redefining our understandings of civic engagement, participation, and action—we will begin in Unit 2 to think about the rhetorical, social, and political forces at work in civic issues. Specifically, we will turn our attention to civic spaces and how particular groups of people have historically accessed (or been denied access to) civic spaces and how writing influenced that inclusion/exclusion. That is, if writing worked to further exclude, whether writing mediated that access in any way, or even if writing became a way for unauthorized groups to empower themselves and join in civic discussions.

You will choose a current issue and explore how it has been addressed using different media outlets (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, CNN, Fox News, political blogs, local and national newspapers, public art). Using Storify, you will curate the different ways this issue has been represented, whose voices were included and excluded, and analyze the situation in order to highlight the tensions with civic participation across different sites.

Because I wanted students to analyze how a specific issue was represented across different media, I thought Storify would be a great way for students to integrate that media directly into their analyses. Of course, this also required that we schedule a few class periods in the computer lab so that we could talk about Storify and get familiar with the interface. Even though it’s a drag-and-drop interface, this lab time was key because students needed that functional literacy (shoutout to Selber) before they could think critically and rhetorically about the affordances of Storify.

Note: I also think it’s important to scaffold new media into a course. Before asking students to dive into Storify, I used it to curate their tweets to our course readings so that they would have a basic example of how the platform works.

As a drag-and-drop interface, Storify is pretty simple. But I think that ease of use also means that people take it up in simplistic ways. This isn’t a critique of Storify users or of Storify itself so much as an observation of most interfaces that are designed to be as easy to use as possible. For example, the easier WordPress becomes, the less you see people manipulating the interface in new and interesting ways.

scholarly application: curating conference tweets

When you search for a keyword or hashtag, Storify presents 20 results at a time and gives you a choice: “Drag and drop the best ones or add them all.” Particularly if you’re trying to curate a large quantity of media, the “add them all” function is attractive. When you click “add them all,” it imports all the tweets in reverse chronological order, which might make sense for some events. To return to the conference context, tweets from session panels (theoretically) follow a logical progression that a reverse chronological order disrupts. Plus, adding all the tweets and then publishing the story is difficult to navigate. If you’re curating a high quantity of tweets, Storify quickly creates a long, unwieldy product. This is why I like to make use of headers & subheaders to organize information and include a “how to read this text” statement at the top of each of the stories I create—to make an otherwise unruly document a bit more accessible.

An example of how I try to structure my stories: 1) story title, 2) a brief description of how I collected the content (which we might think of as the methodology), 3) a slightly longer description that introduces how the content is organized and how to navigate the text, and 4) the content itself.

When you use Storify to archive public conversations, you make decisions about what information to include (all of it?), how to structure that content (by session? by theme? in chronological order?), and what to exclude (do you include sessions on embodiment for a story about disability panels?).

And that takes me back to collecting vs. curating. Collecting digital media is not the same as curating digital media—that is, thinking carefully and critically about selection, organization, and presentation. When teaching with Storify (or, alternatively, using it for academic purposes), it’s important to think critically about arrangement: organization, structure, how to use text and headers to break up the media we incorporate. I still think Storify is a great way to curate conference tweets and is a good option for students composing analyses (particularly when those analyses involve digital media).

Just as we teach students to situate and provide context for their outside sources, we need to do similar work for the digital media that we include in our stories—to create stories that are readable & accessible.

#4c15

How is Universal Design invoked on college websites, in composition programs and classrooms, and in conversations with students?

This year at CCCC, Jay Dolmage, Dale Katherine Ireland, and I are presenting on the panel E.16 “Risks and Rhetorics of Universal Design.” Full-text copies of our talks can be accessed here, which I have listed in order of how we will present them during the session:

  • To download a Word document of Dale’s talk, “What We Teach Students When We Don’t Teach Universal Design as Composition,” please click here.
  • To download a Word document of Allison’s talk, “What Would a UD Classroom Look Like? Talking with Students about Accessibility,” please click here.
  • To download a Word document of Jay’s talk, “We Need to Talk,” please click here. Jay has also provided an mp3 of his talk on the CCCC Connected Community resource page, which you can access here.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions below before/during/after our presentation to participate in this discussion!