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.


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!

Critical Twitter Pedagogy

As a new semester starts, I watch as my Twitter list fills up with retweets using writing-related class hashtags. For the most part, I enjoy it. I like to see how other instructors use Twitter in/beyond the classroom, and I particularly like to see students getting excited about engaging with course content. Plus, I am also guilty of shamelessly retweeting my students’ tweets because I’m just so dang glad they’re interested.

I don’t use Twitter in every class. The only one where I’ve justified requiring it was in a civic writing course. I wanted students’ to use Twitter because it’s a space where civic discourse is produced and circulated in real-time, and I asked them to follow accounts that were relevant to their (civic) interests:

We will use Twitter as a medium to post artifacts relevant to our readings and class discussions and for you to follow interesting accounts that discuss civic issues. You will need a public Twitter account.

I also really like Twitter as an alternative medium for participation. I’m always interested in thinking about how to frame (& assess) participation in ways other than in-class, real-time, verbal discussion. Note taking is one of my favorite alternatives. For the semester I used Twitter, I was super interested in seeing how most of the students tweeted every once in a while, but for two students in particular it became a way to raise really interesting ideas/questions, to process ideas, and to make connections to other things (articles, stories, events) they encountered outside of class.

There’s a trickiness to Twitter, though. In some ways, it’s a similar dilemma to using blogs in class. We want students to blog about course material so that they engage in public writing and write for an audience, but without a ton of support for that, blogging in class really usually just means blogging for others in the class (particularly when students are required to respond to each other’s posts). Particularly once you start grappling with the concerns of whether or not to force students to write publicly, sometimes blogging merely means asking students to write responses through the university-supported learning management system.

So part of the struggle is getting students’ to engage with a genre/medium in the way it was intended (vs. creating a simulacrum). That is, how do you incorporate blogging in a way that is meaningful and that teaches students how to produce and sustain a blog that has reach to audiences beyond the class? How do you get students to use Twitter to engage with new audiences and ideas (rather than just recycling class discussion)?

For me, the solution involves positioning these activities as valuable writing assignments (with outcomes, specific learning goals, evaluative criteria) rather than as add-ons that students do in addition to everything else. That way, there’s room to develop this writing, be critical of it, and reflect on it. The other tricky issue (which I mentioned re:blogging) is facilitating and engaging in critical, reflective discourse in these very public spaces. As I admitted, I am the proud teacher who likes to RT things, and I’ve noticed that others do that, too. Sometimes, I think the things we RT are really interesting, but I think we also do it to encourage engagement and participation regardless of whether or not the content is critical. That is, sometimes I get the feeling that we encourage statements that we wouldn’t ordinarily encourage in class.

Why? Maybe we’re excited that students are participating and want to encourage them to continue. (But then, it’s worth having a conversation about the difference between participation and engagement).

Or maybe we give folks the benefit of the doubt because it’s incredibly difficult to be both critically reflective and succinct in the 140-word space that Twitter grants you. (But then, it’s necessary to discuss the genre constraints and affordances of a new writing medium).

Or maybe we’re not familiar or are uncomfortable navigating the public space of Twitter. If a student says something in class that’s questionable, often other students will chime in, ask questions. Or maybe I’ll step in and ask questions or ask the student to reflect on that perspective. But I see less of that in the public space of Twitter. I see more caution and less of the critical, reflective discourse that we encourage in the f2f classroom. That must be the public dimension at play to some degree, right? Perhaps a fear of public shaming, an uncertainty of how to redirect conversations that usually have at least the safety net of the classroom walls. If someone misspeaks (or says something questionable, offensive, or just plain inaccurate) in class, the four walls of the classroom (and the way we have structured that space) often create a “safe space” for students to work through these ideas. How do you create a safe space for critical, self-reflexive discourse on Twitter? 

We need to carefully consider not only how to get students excited about Twitter (and engaging with other public genres and media) but also how to encourage critical, reflective discourse in those spaces. I’ve written about this with memes, but we need to think carefully, too, about what messages we send when we RT. There’s a danger of the RT function (similar to Facebook’s “like” function) that enables people to merely consume, endorse, and further circulate content rather than actively engage and contest it.

Like others who use Twitter in the classroom and write/reflect about it (check out Natascha Chtena’s Gradhacker post “7 Things I learned from Teaching with Twitter” or Tiffany Grobelski’s HASTAC post “Teaching with Twitter—Please Check Your Baggage at the Door”), I don’t think there’s one right way we should be using it in the classroom. For this kind of writing activity to be meaningful, though, we need to have the discussions about genre, audience, and constructing/developing/supporting arguments that we have about other types of writing. Like most things, using Twitter should be contextual to particular classes (& outcomes) and to particular students’ needs, and that’s a conversation worth having & revisiting with each new class.

Bad Feminist

I recently picked up Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and really, really loved it. It made me laugh, made me say “YES!” in public spaces, made me cringe, made me sad to me core and soothed me at the same time. I hadn’t read Gay’s work before, but there are a lot of things to love. Her essays are real and timely. She’s honest, vulnerable, funny, and critical. I thought I’d just share some snapshots from various essays here because I’m still processing a lot from this book.

As an academic (who experiences and participates in various iterations of this discussion regularly), I appreciated her opening comments on privilege:

To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered. (17)

As I sat in an uncomfortable airplane seat en route to job interviews, I was oddly reassured by the essay “Typical First Year Professor” (and see myself reading it again and again). I was humbled by the reflections on evaluations and how sometimes bad evaluations—“I assign too much work, they say. I expect too much”—are not really bad at all but are perhaps an indication of how much we care as teachers. I was humbled by the vulnerability of wanting to be a good teacher:

I want to be a good teacher, and most days, I think I am. I give a damn. I want students to like me. I am human. I am so full of want. (26)

I found myself emphatically nodding my head and whispering “YES!” (still on an airplane, no less) with her thoughts on humor:

It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you light up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; tit’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly. (189)

I don’t know how many times I’ve been told to lighten up, that I’m too sensitive when someone is simply “joking” or paying me a “compliment” or God forbid telling me to smile. For years, when people ask me what I want to watch on TV or what kinds of movies I like, I have stated very clearly that I don’t like comedy, that I don’t like funny things. Yet my three favorite shows (Bob’s Burgers, Parks & Recreation, and Community) are all comedies. But I don’t like comedy. Or maybe it’s that I don’t like the majority stand-up comedians, rape jokes, jokes that objectify women, jokes that are casually racist or homophobic or transphobic or ableist or…

It’s not even that I don’t like them. It’s that I don’t tolerate them. Gay writes, “When women respond negatively to misogynistic or rape humor, they are ‘sensitive’ and branded as ‘feminist,’ a word that has, as of late, become a catchall term for ‘woman who does not tolerate bullshit’” (180). I don’t tolerate bullshit, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of Gay’s points.

But I was also disappointed—for example, with the discussion(s) of trigger warnings:

Many feminist communities use trigger warnings, particularly in online forums when discussing rape, sexual abuse, and violence. By using these warnings, these communities are saying, “This is a safe space. We will protect you from unexpected reminders of your history.” Members of these communities are given the illusion they can be protected. (149)

I think of trigger warnings more in terms of “This is a safe space. Lots of us have traumatic experiences and histories, and we will protect you from any startlingly graphic depictions of some of these more common experiences because we don’t want to alienate members of our community.” But then, the usefulness of trigger warnings is subjective, particularly in conversations about rape by people who have been raped. As Gay notes, “I also know trigger warnings cannot save me from myself” (149), and of course that’s fair but arguably not the purpose of trigger warnings. I’m partial to Melanie Yergeau’s discussion of trigger warnings as a cripped kind of metada that anticipate a disabled response, that are intended not for avoidance but for preparation, to give an audience time to prepare to access that content more equitably.

I was most disappointed by Gay’s impeccable ability to call out casual racism and then reinforce casual ableism—to acknowledge that women of color, queer women, and transgender women have been failed by (capital-F) Feminism and who need to be included in these conversations but then to exclude disabled women.

Should I expect everything from her? No, but as she argues so succinctly throughout these essays, we still hold these expectations and make these demands because we need more:

We want, and rightly so, to believe our lives deserve to be new, relatable, and important. We want to see more complex, nuanced depictions of what it really means to be whoever we are or were or hope to be. We just want so much. We just need so much. (60)

I wanted that discussion so badly because she identified so clearly the ways we’ve failed many other women.

I don’t know if I have ever seen the R-word in print and, in her defense, it was a quotation (from Caitlin Moran), but it still hurt to read and not be addressed, particularly when on the next page Gay writes, “I am fascinated by the silence surrounding [the N-word], how people will turn a blind eye to casual racism for the sake of funny feminism” (104).

I am also fascinated and dismayed by the reinscribing of casual ableism.

In her opening essay, Gay grapples with defining feminism(s) and writes, “For whatever reason, we hold feminism to an unreasonable standard where the movement must be everything we want and must always make the best choices” (x). And I agree, but at the same time the constant insistence that we must do better made it particularly disappointing that there was no accountability to disabled women. I thought about the Daily Beast article I read last semester about how #YesAllWomen—and the feminist movement more broadly—excludes disabled women. I thought about domestic violence statistics and of the critiques of underreported cases of rape and sexual violence against disabled women. And Gay talks very beautifully, in multiple spaces, about these topics, but disabled women are excluded from this critical attention.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t love the book. Gay’s analyses and critiques are so great in part because she’s so reflective about her own beliefs and practices. And quite frankly, it’s great to read someone writing about race and gender and politics and embodied experiences in ways that are thoughtful. And it goes without saying that I want to be best friends with me so we can play Scrabble together and get tattoos and brainstorm ways to topple the patriarchy.

But at the same time, I wanted a little bit more from a book that was careful in so many other ways.

I want so much more from feminism because we need so much more because there’s being a bad feminist (& having a complicated relationship to/with feminism) and then there’s being a bad feminist (& excluding whole communities from the conversation).

The Cancer Journals

This post (maybe like all my posts) is a mix of things: personal history, reading summary, analytical musings of cancer and a society that perpetuates assumptions about women’s bodies. Yesterday, I picked up Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals for the first time, and I couldn’t put it down until I was finished. I was surprised when I finished it that no one had ever recommended it to me. Instead, I was recommended readings that were rife with metaphor, that were overly nostalgic for times that could never be regained or recreated.

It’s like Audre Lorde reached into my heart and gently but firmly picked apart all the pain and fears I have for and of my body, my mom’s body, the cancer that was hers and that I know one day will be mine.


I do not wish my anger and pain and fear about cancer to fossilize into yet another silence, nor to rob me of whatever strength can lie at the core of this experience, openly acknowledged and examined. For other women of all ages, colors, and sexual identities who recognize that imposed silence about any area of our lives is a tool for separation and powerlessness, and for myself, I have tried to voice some of my feelings and thoughts about the travesty of prosthesis, the pain of amputation, the function of cancer in a profit economy, my confrontation with mortality, the strength of women loving, and the power and rewards of self-conscious living. (Lorde 7-8)

While my mom was sick and even after she died, I couldn’t stop writing about cancer. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I put together a chapbook of poems. I read two of them at my senior poetry reading. I wrote poems about my mom for every submission in my graduate poetry workshop—to the point that one of my classmates told me I needed to write about something else. It was hard for me to stop, though, because I felt guilty. In many ways, I had silenced her when she was alive. I was afraid of her anger and pain and fear. I had internalized the narratives that strength and willpower can overcome cancer, and I was terrified because I still saw cancer eating away at my mom—the strongest person I had ever met.

So I write about her and cancer often because her life mattered, because cancer is something that needs to be confronted rather than silenced or internalized, because my mom’s fight with cancer (once with breast cancer and again with ovarian) instilled in me a sense of the importance of support networks and of the love of strong women.


When I found out my mom died, I don’t remember what I did. I remember my dad saying “shit” because my Pap had called us that morning to tell us that she was dying, and she passed on our 20-minute drive to the hospice. She died, maybe as we were driving past the capitol building with the early spring sun glinting off the gold dome, or maybe as we circled up the winding mountain upon which the hospice sits. My dad must have called my brother’s day hab worker because she showed up with Matt, and I walked into my mom’s room with him. I remember watching his face to see if he’d cry because I wasn’t sure if I had ever seen him cry.

And then we went to Kroger, and I remember wondering if people could tell from my face or the way that I carried my body that my mom had just died.

When we got home, my new Macbook was waiting on the porch—a graduation gift from my parents. I asked my dad if I could set it up, and we took photos together in PhotoBooth.

I remember—days later—begrudgingly returning to campus for senior week. We went to an event in the middle of the afternoon, and I took a water bottle. I was told I couldn’t bring in outside drinks, and I started screaming that my mom had died. The girl wouldn’t let me in, so I dumped the water at her feet and cried. Nine days after my mom’s death, I curled my hair and sat in a folding chair in the rain for my graduation ceremony. When I walked up on the stage, I was handed flowers and a note my mom had written. I remember the tears mixing with rain on my face and the wailing of my favorite English professor when she walked up to me afterwards and asked how my mom was.

The summer after she died, I found her journals. I carried them to the back porch and read them as I rocked back and forth on the cream-colored glider that my mom would sit in.


I want to write rage but all that comes is sadness. We have been sad long enough to make this earth either weep or grow fertile. I am an anachronism, a sport, like the bee that was never meant to fly. Science said so. I am not supposed to exist. I carry death around in my body like a condemnation. But I do live. The bee flies. There must be some way to integrate death into living, neither ignoring it nor giving in to it. (11)

My mom’s journals were full of rage and sadness—rage at her own body, sadness at a family who had already said goodbye. When my mom was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, she wasn’t supposed to live as long as she did. Yet she lived for 55 more chemotherapy treatments and four more years. She wasn’t supposed to exist and yet she did. She lived long enough for her hair to grow back—this time wiry and gray. She lived long enough to see me through college, to share all the family secrets with me, and to meticulously plan out her own memorial service.

Four years is a long time to be told that someone is dying, and when I said this once in the cafeteria on campus, a girl—not quite a friend—remarked, “Aren’t we all just slowly dying?” At the time, I wanted to slap her, but maybe it’s true. Some more quickly than others, and how do you integrate death into living?


As I prepped for the job market this fall, I drafted documents that allowed me to step into the future for a moment: things like syllabi and research plans. Academia can feel very all-encompassing, and prepping job market materials allowed me to step back and reflect.

As I wrote my research agenda, I reflected on what brought me here in the first place: my mom. My mom was the one who told me that I needed to go to graduate school. My mom was the one who emphatically said “yes!” when I asked if I should apply for a teaching assistantship. My mom was inadvertently the one who got me interested in teaching. When she died, I read pages and pages of emails that she had printed from students when her contract wasn’t renewed (my mom was a contingent faculty member) about how she had inspired them, about how she had helped them academically and personally.

In some ways, my mom has influenced my research. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I came to the topic of overcoming through cancer discourses, which is a thread that—though I considered it—fell out of my overall dissertation project. But as I wrote a research agenda and thought about the work I want to do, I came back to cancer and the cultural narratives of overcoming. I started thinking about what it would mean to interrogate normality and medical model assumptions about disability, bodies, and the narratives we write about them. Jay Dolmage and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson (2010) note that feminist disability studies methodologies can help us “investigate the history of bodily norms in order to unmask the powers and processes of ‘norming’ and the construction of ‘normality’” (25).

I’m interested in the norming of women’s bodies, particularly through the narratives of femininity and desirability that circulate around breast cancer, prenatal testing, and reproductive rights. There are interesting connections here between disability studies and women & gender studies, tensions between lived experience and the dis/embodied role that technologies play in these different processes.

Reading The Cancer Journals, this work suddenly clicked for me—particularly in Lorde’s discussion of prostheses.

I looked strange and uneven and peculiar to myself, but somehow, ever so much more myself, and therefore so much more acceptable, than I looked with that thing stuck inside my clothes. For not even the most skillful prosthesis in the world could undo that reality, or feel the way my breast had felt, and either I would love my body one-breasted now, or remain forever alien to myself. (44)

When I was younger, I would creep into my mom’s room, reach into her top dresser drawer, and pull out her prosthetic breast. It was odd—pale pink, squishy, with a hint of nipple. I used to slip it into my shirt and stare at the uneven reflection in the mirror. When my great aunt died, we got her prosthetic breast in the mail, and I remember wondering if I would have one some day, too.

There is nothing wrong, per se, with the use of prostheses if they can be chosen freely, for whatever reason, after a woman has had a chance to accept her new body. But usually prostheses serve a real function, to approximate the performance of a missing physical part. In other amputations and with other prosthetic devices, function is the main point of their existence. … Only false breasts are designed for appearance only, as if the only real function of women’s breasts were to appear in a certain shape and size and symmetry to onlookers, or to yield to external pressure. (65)

In many ways, prosthetic breasts act as normalizing technologies designed to police a desirable, feminine form. As Lorde notes, they’re different than other prosthetics because they lack “function,” which is interesting because in what ways do other prosthetics function as normalizing technologies?

To imply to a woman that yes, she can be the ‘same’ as before surgery, with the skillful application of a little puff of lambswool and/or silicone gel, is to place an emphasis upon prosthesis which encourages her not to deal with herself as physically and emotionally real, even though altered and traumatized. (58)

How do prosthetic breasts (or for that matter, reconstructive surgeries) reinscribe rhetorics of overcoming and shape discourses about desirable, feminine bodies? What are the social and political implications (and the real, material health consequences) of choosing or rejecting the prosthesis, of choosing or rejecting the technologies available to detect/treat cancer? What does it say about our society that we value women’s breasts over the health of women themselves?


Every woman has a militant responsibility to involve herself actively with her own health. We owe ourselves the protection of all the information we can acquire about the treatment of cancer and its causes, as well as about the recent findings concerning immunology, nutrition, environment, and stress. And we owe ourselves this information before we may have a reason to use it. (75)

When I was a teenager, I accompanied my mom to a mammogram, and they talked me through the process. When I was 18 or 19, my mom’s doctor asked me if I wanted to have kids and then recommended a total hysterectomy if I didn’t (which perhaps unsurprisingly has shaped the way I understand the production value of my body). Every time I go to the doctor, I am sternly lectured when asked if I’m doing self-exams yet. And then I am told, repeatedly, almost angrily, that if they find anything unusual, they’re immediately referring me elsewhere—as if I am being irresponsible by trusting my general physician.

These moments are worth acknowledging. They’re important for me to analyze for myself, to evaluate the information I receive from doctors and to seek out my own, weighing the information and making choices about my body. But they’re also important more systemically. Breast cancer is an enterprise—1 in 8 U.S. women are diagnosed with it, billions of dollars are raised to research it. It affects women (and men) of all race, class, age, sexual identity, and yet it gets positioned as an individual issue, as something that happens because you weren’t [proactive] or [happy] or [strong] enough. These are narratives that multi-million dollar companies write and circulate and that we write upon our own bodies, and those narratives are worth questioning. Our bodies and the narratives written upon them are worth questioning.

I’m not the resolution type, but maybe 2015 will be the year I accept the militant responsibility to my own body—as a woman, as a teacher, as a maker.


Lorde, Audre. The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1997. Print.

On Rhetorical Agency & Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing

The last dissertation chapter I wrote was a qualitative one, and as I was drawing connections across different student and instructor responses, I kept coming across discussions of disclosure: students choosing not to disclose disabilities, students feeling like they need to disclose in order to get institutional support, instructors hoping students will disclose so they can better meet students’ needs. I’ve been interested in disclosure specifically in writing center settings, but this is the first time that I’ve really tried to untangle the politics of disclosure from both the instructor/consultant side and the student side.

While working on that chapter, I came across this great article by Stephanie Kerschbaum (how did I miss this?) and thought I’d share some brief notes from/on it.


I suggest that disability disclosures manifest within a complex system influenced by myriad factors, including circulating narratives of disability and able-bodiedness, relationships among interlocutors, and institutional and environmental contexts. Over time individuals learn ways of managing disability discourses, motivated by past experiences as well as by their short- and long-term goals for identity construction and social interaction. In this way, disability self-disclosures can be understood as the culmination of recurring processes in which past experiences are brought to bear on a present moment as individuals recognize opportune moments for action. 63

In “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing,” Kerschbaum explores how agency operates through the rhetorical performance of disability disclosures. This isn’t agency in the way that we might immediately assume—as “something that is purposefully or consciously wielded” (57). Instead, Kerschbaum draws on theories of rhetorical agency that position it “as a kind of kinetic energy that is actualized in rhetorical performance (Miller), as a ‘negotiation of subject and effect’ (Lundberg and Gunn 88), or as ‘an emergent property of embodied individuals’ (Cooper 421)” (63). She pays particular attention to Marilyn Cooper’s articulation of agency “in terms of a ‘perturbation and response’ as individuals participate in a never-ending series of feedback loops” (57).

Thinking of agency in this way, disclosures aren’t always purposeful, nor are they inherently empowering—a term I tend to associate with agency and claiming an identity. Disability disclosures are never static. They’re not always one thing, nor can they be reduced to binaries (empowering/disempowering, forced/voluntary, good/bad). They’re used to assert identity claims, to defend, to build community, to gain legitimacy. They’re contested. They’re consequential even if met with undesirable reactions.

Disability disclosures are situated and always negotiated between author and audience.

Kerschbaum argues, “Claiming a particular disability identity requires not only that speakers and writers assert it in interactional space but also that other interlocutors and audiences acknowledge that identity” (62). To claim and disclose a disability identity is a rhetorical act wherein the person disclosing makes an argument about herself that she hopes will be received well by the intended audience. People make sense of the different disability discourses that circulate around them in relation to their own experiences and goals for how they want to identify themselves and be identified by others.

This is true not only in the many everyday real-time interactions we have with students, instructors, colleagues, friends, and strangers, but also in asynchronous forms of communication. Kerschbaum focuses on disclosures in writing, arguing, “Written disclosures function kairotically as individuals face the moment of writing disclosure, and pieces composed at different times and in different places reflect not only the author’s imagining of an audience but also the circumstances surrounding the genesis of that text. Thus, over time, authors may differently address the function of disclosure” (65).

This was important for me both in thinking about the data I collected for my dissertation (Why were students disclosing to me but not to their instructors? Why did students choose not to disclose in an anonymous survey but opt to disclose in follow-up interviews?) and for my own work. I think sometimes these different disclosures are read as inconsistent, competing…why not disclose the same way each time? But, as Kerschbaum points out, there are consequences to disclosing, they are shaped by contexts, and—particularly if disclosure is a way to assert and shape identity claims—identities are dynamic. Sometimes I choose to disclose, and sometimes I don’t.

As I read through hundreds of student responses, I thought that this must be particularly true for students who disclose disabilities but are unsure of their audience’s positioning toward disability, who experience unintended consequences when they disclose, whose needs are potentially only met if they do disclose because institutional accommodations require formal disclosure and often make explicit that instructors themselves can’t make disability-related accommodations.

If we think of accommodations as written disclosures, we should also think of them as rhetorical. Often, accommodations are for fixed practices (e.g., a note taker) and maybe don’t apply to the writing classroom at all (e.g., more time on a test). But if we think of them as rhetorical, accommodating students becomes more of a negotiation of practices, a dynamic process rather than a static product—a conversation that is maintained throughout the semester rather than addressed in the first couple weeks.

For me, understanding disclosures as rhetorical means understanding that students disclose to us for particular reasons and that we should take the time to listen to and actively engage with students to develop classroom practices that are inclusive and accessible.



Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing.” Rhetoric Review 33.1 (2014): 55-71.