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This is my CCCC presentation, which is part of H.05 “More Than Writing Through It: Self-Care, Disability, & Rhetorical Practice.”

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“At Least I’m Not Insane”: Practicing Radical Self-Care in the Writing Classroom

Self-care: the foundation to maintaining a healthy relationship with yourself and others; essential.

In healthcare, self-care refers to an individual’s ability to make decisions about and manage their own health. In intersectional feminism, self-care refers to the ability to take care and celebrate a self that has been socially and politically devalued. In 1988, Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Taking care of bodies that are dehumanized is political because it challenges whose bodies—and lives—matter.[1]

Incorporating self-care into the classroom is political because it challenges normative writing practices and student behaviors and creates an interdependent space for instructors and students to give and take care.

Students are often positioned as in need of care—but if they need a lot of extra care, that falls beyond the scope of the classroom. When we position students as in need of care/cure, we assume that we know what is best for them. But as Stephanie Kerschbaum reminds us in Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference, “teachers should not aim to know their students as much as willingly participate with them in processes of coming-to-know one another in the writing classroom” (59). One way I’m trying to come-to-know myself and encourage my students to come-to-know-themselves is through self-care.

Many have adopted self-care frameworks in the face of material, rhetorical, and political violence. Reflecting on racial violence, April Baker-Bell et. al argue that “it is important for educators to engage in revolutionary praxis by reimagining their classrooms as spaces for triage, self-care, healing, and social transformation” (“The Stories They Tell: Mainstream Media, Pedagogies of Healing, and Critical Media Literacy” 138). Spaces of literacy instruction are ideal for engaging in radical self-care because we have the tools to discuss, critique, and disrupt this violence.

I’m interested in what it means to cultivate self-care within our programmatic cultures, and in this presentation, I’m going to reflect on some of my own experiences with mental disability, disclosure, and self-care in the writing classroom (and the risk of being labeled “insane”). There are two guiding questions here:

  • Why is self-care important in a college writing classroom?
  • How can we practice radical self-care in the writing classroom?

Why is self-care important in a college writing classroom?

In 2015, the Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported that college students seek mental health services at 5x the rate of enrollment. From 2010 to 2015, “institutional enrollment grew by 5.6%, the number of students seeking services increased by 29.6%, and the number of attended appointments increased by 38.4%” (7).

According to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, more than one-third of U.S. college students had difficulty functioning due to depression, and 30% reported serious considerations of suicide—up from 24% in 2010. Researchers are responding to these alarming trends by collaborating with faculty to ensure that students are “physically, emotionally and spiritually well” (36).

Narratives of mental disability in higher education are situated within medical models that position it as something that does not belong in the classroom—a deficit that students and instructors must overcome. Talking with a professor about mental illness stigma, Katie Rose Pryal reports, “Although this stigma is common everywhere, she told me, ‘in academia, one’s brain is supposed to be the most essential asset one has.’” Reflecting on her own psychiatric disability, Pryal describes being fearful that people would view her as mentally and rhetorically unable to be a professor. Margaret Price writes, “To lack rhetoricity is to lack all basic freedoms and rights, including the freedom to express ourselves and the right to be listened to” (26-7). Explicit attention to self-care encourages student and instructors to express their needs. With constant reports of racial, gendered, and disability violence within and beyond the classroom, there is a critical need for self-care, particularly for vulnerable student populations.

Melanie Yergeau argues that to accommodate “is to assume normative bodies as default and to build spaces and infrastructures around those normative default bodies; it is to deal with deviant bodily and spatial conditions as they bubble out at the seams.” The risks of not addressing self-care include students and instructors who disappear in the middle of the semester or whose disclosures bubble out at the seams.

I’ve had a host of diagnoses for the past 15 years, and after years of trying not to address them and watching them bubble out at the seams, I am now trying to own my madness. A key part of this process is practicing radical self-care.

How can we practice radical self-care in the writing classroom?

On the first day of my first-year writing course this semester, I asked my students how many of them felt run down at the end of last semester. Half of them sheepishly raised their hands. I asked how many felt like they were overwhelmed last semester and didn’t take care of themselves as much as they would have liked. More hands. So, I introduced myself and the course, and then we developed self-care plans.

This (self-care-plans) sheet asks students to brainstorm practices to nourish their minds, bodies, and spirits; to map their goals for the semester; and to reflect on what support systems they have in place to help them achieve those goals.

This past week was midterms, so we revisited these plans. I asked my students to review their goals from the beginning of the semester, edit their plans, and then write a reflective letter assessing whether they’re accomplishing those goals and how their self-care goals match with their academic goals, and I’m going to share two of those.

[student reflections omitted from blog post]

Many of my students had written about going to the gym more, attending church or prayer groups, getting organized, and finding more time to relax. Many of them spoke about feeling overwhelmed. Many of them wrote about how their personal goals were helping them stay focused and motivated in their coursework. The second letter features an interesting reflection on the dichotomy of academia and mental health.

I’ve been teaching my first-year composition courses with a disability inquiry for a few years now, so adding explicit attention to self-care meshes well with our conversations about rhetorics of accessibility and disability.

In Crip Theory, Robert McRuer argues that composition is a channel for corporate universities to pass down marketable skills, such as order and efficiency, and he articulates de-composition as a process to critique these neoliberal values. De-composition rejects disembodied writing, instead drawing attention to “disruptive, inappropriate, composing bodies” (155). With its valuing of non-normative bodies and behaviors, an ethics of self-care has the potential to disrupt neoliberal values.

However, self-care—particularly as it has been adopted by mainstream media—can also perpetuate neoliberal values. Robert Kuang maintains a blog called Self-Care with Writers and interviewed queer artist Jo Chiang about the neoliberal trap of self-care:

Neoliberalism wants us to be able to produce as efficiently as possible, to be as well as possible in order to produce sustainable profit. But no one is going to help us be well. We have to do that on our own. Self-care as an idea is important, powerful and healing. However, it’s starting to seem like this idea that we have to be responsible over our own wellbeing can be a trap, in that way. A trap to ensure that we’ll continue to provide labor and be responsible over our ability to do so.

I think it’s useful for students to draw connections across their self-care and course goals. We already ask them to engage in critical metacognitive work by reflecting on their rhetorical goals and choices. Asking them to connect these goals with their larger mind/body/spirit goals encourages students to brainstorm ways to balance their different selves and demands. But, as Aimi Haimraie writes, “Disability access, like racial desegregation, should be understood to have intrinsic merit as a feminist and social justice goal that does not require additional consumer benefits to serve as validation.” The corporatization of self-care as strategies for maintaining productivity and (bonus!) mental health isn’t what I’m advocating.

I’m trying to create an accessible and inclusive environment where my students—many who are first-generation, who come from failing public school systems, who experience hate crimes in our small Southern town—have space to disclose what they need and reflect how to better care for themselves to prevent them from bubbling out at the seams. I’m also trying to create that space for me. There is stigma in disclosure and in asking for help, both as a student and as an instructor. And there can be substantial repercussions to those disclosures. For example, the title “At Least I’m Not Insane” is something a student spat at me in class. However, reciprocal disclosures are necessary for cultivating a culture of interdependence and of give (care) and take (care).

Interdependence calls attention to the range of bodies who give and take care. In “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain,” Margaret Price advocates for a feminist disability studies ethics of care that encourages reciprocity and a valuing of different experiences and needs:

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)

Incorporating self-care in the writing classroom gives students space to articulate and reflect on their needs and to care for themselves and each other on their own terms. Enacted critically, incorporating radical self-care in the writing classroom can create a space to better understand our different ways of learning, writing, and being.

Thank you.

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[1] U.S. police killed 258 black people in 2016—39% of whom were unarmed.

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