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.

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