Self-care and Students

This week, Jay Dolmage–a prominent disability and disability rhetoric scholar–has been to Syracuse for our department’s Spring Conference, giving a talk and leading a workshop (both were wonderful, and here are the materials and more on accessibility and disability studies). It, along with some other things, have made me think about self care and students.

I’ve always found that writing instructors have a unique connection with students, compared with other disciplines. We often have smaller classes, we tend to get a huge portion of the university, and we get a lot of frosh students. In addition, writing tends to involve many more skills than “grammar”: critical thinking, reading strategies, synthesizing ideas, formulating arguments, researching topics, analyzing primary and secondary sources, evaluating sources, cultivating and managing productive work and workflow strategies, etc.

And, perhaps in a more Romantic sense, writing, even academic writing, is a personal task. Though the image of the lone writer in some castellated tower is not accurate, writing and authorship–crafting a cohesive document that carries our mark and oftentimes our name–is something powerful, even in our information-saturated age. Issues of voice and privilege play a role, along with identity. And, one of my favorite adages from the field remains: “Writing is thinking.” Often, as we think through an issue by writing, we learn something new.

I am not saying that this is true for all writers nor with all writing, but it happens. And we often give a space for students to reflect on issues like identity and experience because literacies, in all their forms, are fundamental to how we exist in and experience the world. As the humanities get stripped and softened in many universities, “writing” provides a space to reflect on fundamental questions and experiences–should students and administrators allow it.

All this is to say that increasingly, though we already have too much to teach in a semester, I’ve been trying to address, or think about addressing, issues that are not immediately tied to writing. And this post, I want to stress self-care (or self care, with no hyphen?). Inspired by my colleague Allison Hitt, and others, I’ve increasingly made some space to address self-care with students, particularly strategies and experiences.

This deserves its own post or article, and the input of others with more experience, but for now, I often start with this article on perfectionism and procrastination. It disarms the usual narratives we and our students tell ourselves–and are told–about productivity and laziness.

But in a more general sense, I think “addressing self care” involves getting into the embodied, day-to-day experiences of being students and writers, of being friends and partners, of being sons and daughters (or something else, articulated or not)–in short, we get at being human.

And, it does not always work. And it can been exploitative and risky for you and students, with plenty of pitfalls–and is impossible with increasingly destructive teaching loads for adjuncts and others–but I feel like it is important to consider and strive for when possible, not only for our unique connection with students in higher ed, but also for the fact that questions of productivity, writing, and development involve care.

You cannot succeed, or even survive, if you’re always treading water.

And, as part of my own focus on technology, I also increasingly think it’s important to talk about privacy, cyber security, and technology habits as part of our profession. Media literacy, password security, the mental effects of social media, screen time, etc., are both questions of literacy and questions of self-care. As our digital lives and “flesh” lives infuse–as well as the literacies and skills we rely on to negotiate these lives–the importance of these topics increase.

I know I am not new at this, from Stuart Selber to Estee Beck–and Selfe and Hawisher and a bunch of other brilliant young and cornerstone scholars–writing instructors have long recognized the role of technology in composing. But, I think we also recognize the intersection of self, technology, and literacy in ways that are profound and unique. And increasingly important.

CCR 633: Closed Captions and Rhetoric

I’ve been finding Sean Zdenek’s Reading Sounds interesting on a few fronts. For one, I love pieces that dig into something that I often taken for granted–like captions.

But extending this, I confess that my “taking for granted” largely came down to a glib acceptance of caption as a subtitle equivalent, what Zdenek calls “undercaptioning.” I didn’t really take stock in the nonspeech sounds, like birdsong and grunts, or the nonspeech information (NSI), like character names and emotion.  But even more deeply, I completely missed the deeper, more rhetorical understanding that Zdenek brings to captioning. As he writes in his preface:

“Definitions of closed captioning too often stress the technology of ‘displaying’ text on the screen over the complex practice of selecting sounds and rhetorically inventing words for them. In most definitions, the practice itself is simplified, reduced to a mechanical process of unreflective transcription. No one has really treated captioning as a significant variable in multimodal analysis, on par with image, sound, and video. No one has considered the possibility that captions might be as potent and meaningful as other kinds of texts we study in the humanities. In short, we don’t yet have a good understanding of the rhetorical work captions do to construct meaning and negotiate the constraints of space and time.”

While this is a lengthy block quote, I think it does a great job capturing the gist of his argument, or what I’ve read so far. Zdenek wants to replace a conception of transcription as “unreflective” and “mechanical”–as simply putting a script on a screen–with the rhetorical impact of picking and choosing the words that communicate the context, narrative, feeling, etc.

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CCR 633: Handwriting and Withdrawal

One of the tensions in the reading, particular in Thorton, was the role that handwriting has between self, discipline, and social role. Early on, Thorton writes, “Faithful imitation of penmanship models-what teachers would call good handwriting-thereby signals  conformity and ordinariness, while breaking all the penmanship rules, even to the point of illegibility, is a mark of individuality” (x). This immediately connects with some of the disciplining that Trithemius discusses in relation to scribe work. In both, a certain rigor and repetition, a discipline of the body and the “hand” takes place.

I think, then of writing’s broader potential to discipline, like what McCruer discusses in composition’s ability to “compose bodies” in “De-Composition” (2008) or even in formal rubrics, genre conventions, curricula, the Harvard rhetoric requirement, and pre-set forms, like the five paragraph theme. This capacity that rhetoric and writing has to conform and prescribe has along history, as Thorton points out.

But, in slightly different sense, writing also created or highlighted larger social identity, and in this way it also polices or defines. For example, as Thorton points out, business, itself a core catalyst to writing instruction (p. 6), prescribed more clerk-like ways of writing, rejecting the flourishes of more gentlemanly backgrounds. Writing was also gendered, with many “feminine” scripts designed to take longer and exhibit “fair” qualities. As Thorton writes, “mercantile advice books urged men of commerce to shun penmanship refinements appropriate for gentlemen in favor of a straightforward ‘Clerk-like Manner of Writing.’ And where men might be urged to cultivate a ‘good’ or ‘fine’ hand, Women were urged to cultivate ‘fair’ one” (37).

And through this quality, handwriting, seemed to exhibit a sort of self-expressive quality, growing from social identities. As Thorton writes,  “As each human being performs a socially differentiated part, so is each given a different ‘script.’ Conversely, by reading that script for its social information one could learn all there was to know about the writer. Here at last was a sincere medium of selfhood” (37). Hand writing analysis and associations with different scripts connected the self (albeit a socialized self) to the script, presenting a certain window of expression.

But once again, the movement to “automatic handwriting” and related systems of standardization, like the Palmer method, disciplines expression, but through a certain systematized erasure. By making writing more standardized and less idiosyncratic–whether justified through “science” or a sort of “lore”–one is essentially erasing the body, or trying to. This erasure or withdrawing is particularly bad for embodied backgrounds that do not fit the standard, like lefties, people with disabilities, or those with less training and resources. It is a sort of gate-keeping, but one that erects its gates by assuming writing a certain way is a type of present-for-hand skill and not a complicated, socialized, embodied action.

With this, I often think of a quote by Nirma Erevelles about special education that has been following–or rather haunting–since last semester: “Haunting these policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. . . In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable.” (Disability and Difference). In other words, as the body withdraws from systematization, quantification, and abstraction–as it often does–what bodies and what people get left behind?

And though handwriting is still “a thing” as they say, something that we discuss and learn and use, I am curious about the same disciplining, social-signifying, and withdrawal (in a Heideggarian sense) that takes place in today’s context through digital print or new media.

CCR 711: Narrative and Rhetoricity

What struck me most from the readings in Disability and the Teaching of Writing by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggeman is the role of narrative.

For some, like Mark Mossman and John Hockenberry, stories are sites of vocalization. Indeed, Mossman stresses the political impact of stories, arguing, “telling stories. . . is doing something, making something happen, for telling stories, in the social context of disability, articulates the rhetoric of social change” (165). The “rhetoric of social change” arises from vocalizing a subjective experience that  normally lies hidden or marginalized.

And while Hockenberry evokes a less deliberate position, the power of his narrative traversing the subway, especially the way the white passengers consistently ignore him, in itself is a rhetorical assertion of being. Coming back to past readings, like Pendergast or Yergeau, this rhetoricity allows an existence of sorts that may otherwise get unacknowledged or ignored by those in power, much like Hockenberry himself.

Michael Berubé points out a similar need for recognition in the context of the possibility afforded by disability legislation for his son Jamie with Down Syndrome. He critiques the idea of “intrinsic human rights and human dignity” by pointing to a blunt reality: “what would it mean for Jamie to ‘possess’ rights that no one on earth recognized” (241)? Framed more in the context of narrative, what would one do if no one listened to the stories of Hockenberry, Yergeau, or Mossmann?

A similar silencing takes place in Audre Lorde’s reflections on prosthetic breasts. Rather than reflect on (and help make sense of) “the feeling and fact” (254) of her lost breast, Lorde gets encouraged to simply get a prosthetic one. In this case, Lorde’s attempt is not only ignored but encouraged into silence,  “glossed over” as “not looking on ‘the bright side of things'” (252). Instead, other narratives of womanhood, focused on outward normality, get reinforced. As a woman, one should look good (and normal) regardless of inward understanding.

Dominant narratives also get examined by David Mitchell, who describes how many texts use “narrative prosthesis,” grounding narrative in “a desire to compensate for a limitation or to reign in excessiveness” (187). In this way, disability has a ubiquitous presence, yet remains invisible and filtered out, explained away or dealt with in the story.

Tobin Siebers futher highlights the political importance of these aesthetic dimensions. Though less grounded on narrative, Siebers focuses on the larger symbolic web that informs attitudes toward bodies. Here, description is central: “Human communities come into being and maintain their coherence by imagining their ideal forms on the basis of other bodies. It is no accident, then, that descriptions in disarray summon images of the disabled body” (264). Bodily associations and significations  infuse practices and spaces, like architecture, excluding abnormal or undesirable bodies in aesthetic–we don’t wanna see it–and pragmatic–we don’t serve it–ways.

Thus, as Ben Okri writes, “It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of your mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. . . . subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” Evoking change or promoting silence, stories, especially in a disability context, have power. Often, just being heard–or being heard in discord to demeaning ideologies–does feel like an important step. A method and methodology for change.

But at the same time, I’m curious about the broader politics of listening. Like Bakhtin–and many others–have pointed out, the listener is also part of the communicative act. They are also part of rhetoric and sense-making. So is the broader ambience, to use Rickert’s approach, of “matter and meaning” that inform a latent affectability in the rhetorical ecology.

I think my guiding question this semester has been: what if that “listener” or the ambience of a situation is not open to the voice of people with disabilities. Silence occurs, subjectivities erased behind a static of terministic screens and world-weaving narratives, but this is not simply vocal silence. It is ontological. It’s the erasure from public life, politics, educational paradigms, paradigms of mind, rhetoricity. But at the same time, embodied subjectivity–bodies in and for themselves–“are,” like a palimpsest trying to get read.  But the etchings and rubrics of another are already trying to speak for them, be they laws, procedure, or ideologies, burying the deeper rhetoric that is already there.

Thus, the question is not simply speaking or listening, but getting others to listen, and getting those who need to be heard into positions above the “chatter,” to use Heidegger’s term, where their own rhetoricity resonates. It’s about creating a system where kairos takes place and things change.

CCR 711: Early Thinking on the Final Paper

think my larger question/interest is based around seeing the “institution” as a rhetorical agent. I’m still moving to more fully define what I mean by institution, but at this stage, I see it as an organization or custom that persists through time and helps care for, manage, or direct a particular issue–here, disability. I guess what drew me to this particular question is the sort of “banality of evil” that we discussed, the way that fairly good or neutral people end up perpetuating oppressive actions.

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CCR 711: Bodies, Subjectivities, and Being

As Nirmala Erevelles writes in her article, “it is the ‘ideology of disability’ which has been used to justify the sexual division of labor that constructed gender as a political and economic concept, the production of class/caste differences. . . the production of racial categories. . . and the upholding of compulsory heterosexuality” (104).

In other words, at different historical times and spaces, different bodies have been disabled. During colonialism, slavery disabled African bodies, for example And more broadly, disability connects to the surplus of labor inherent to the system, as such subjects lack the ability to “produce” or labor in the capitalist economy. This excludes them from the role of producer and consumer, erased into surplus and further marked as disabled.

This sort of historical materialist grounding helped guide more post-structuralist and post-human theories in Erevelles’ account, I thought, the section on cyborgs being particularly clear. Initially, the promises of hybrid and human, technological and flesh, and the different assemblage-based bodies afforded in this paradigm seems ideal for people with disability. But such a paradigm still has divisions among social classes, with many of these bodies out of reach for most. Moreover, the production and technology needed for these cyborg bodies often arises from capitalist labor and the hierarchies that follow with that, a material reality often missed by theorists.

Thus. as Erevelles writes, “By locating their emancipatory practices within the space of the social imaginary, as opposed to the actual materiality of of economic conditions, poststructuralists continue to uphold a utopic vision of emancipation” (98-99).

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CCR 711: Hauntology/Ontology and the Structures of Exclusion

“Haunting these [education] policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. A cornucopia of lifeless data. In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable. Bodies are not always compliant”

–Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts

“124 was spiteful.”
Tony Morrison, Beloved

The notion that Erevelles draws from Patricia Williams of an “absent presence” that “haunts” these systems of bureaucratic procedure struck me in particular, connecting to some previous thinking on “The Specter of Disability” and the exclusionary practices that the withdrawing nature of “normal” bodies can create.

As she notes, these systems can create imperializing ghettos that create outcasts in a given system, like an internal colony. Those excluded from the norm get walled away, often literally, in a material segregation that exists, despite the legal restrictions against segregation.  In the case of disability, this can often have more paternal forms, like “special education.” But as Erevelles points out, the paternalistic framing and “good” intentions cannot suppress the sense of punishment that such interventions have.

Reflecting this, Erevelles writes, “Educational institutions  present themselves as agents of benevolence for the billions of students it purports to serve on a daily basis. However, these institutions. . . fail to educate ‘different’ students . . . because they have transformed themselves into institutions of social control  intent on following bureaucratic procedures” (118). Far from neutral, these procedures perpetuate the normal and exclude the ‘different’ through various logics. For example, as Erevelles notes in her later chapters, the logic of humanistic citizenship implicitly excludes those with severe disability, even in its more liberal, inclusive variants. Locked into these logics, educational policy becomes colonial and ableist.

I think Erevelles’ grounded historical-materialist approach to these issues presents a powerful bedrock. But reading, I also was considering the way these “hauntings” might fit into a more ontological outlook on world.

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CCR 711: Bodies and Webbed Worlds

Reading Kristen Lindgren’s “Bodies in Trouble,” I kept coming back to Heidegger’s distinction between “present-at-hand” and “ready-for-hand.” In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that people tend to encounter objects as ready-for-hand, meaning that we encounter them based on what they do or how we use them. He uses the example of the hammer. We encounter and look at hammers as a tool to “hammer,” not as an abstract object in itself.

Moreover, he argues, this object-defining function is grounded in a “world” of interrelations and definitions that help constitute “being-in-the-world.” For example, one couldn’t hammer without nails and boards, and one couldn’t build a house without the concept of “house,” and one may not need to make a house without nature’s capacity to storm. A world of relation webs out from this hammer, contextualizing its being.

But when ready-to-hand, the world of these interrelations and the hammer as an object recedes into the background and one sets to work.

This all changes once the hammer breaks. Suddenly it can no longer “hammer,” and it becomes an alien object in our hands, forcing us to reflect on what it “is.” This approaches Heidegger’s present-at-hand, when we look at an object in a more abstract, property-oriented way, like a scientist or theorist. In particular, Heidegger wants to critique the Cartesian tradition of looking at objects in abstract ways, outside of their more fundamental being as objects in the world, closely involved with our being.

But I’ve always been stuck on the breaking of the hammer.

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Dolmage’s recognition of the hidden body in rhetoric (and philosophy) proves a powerful starting point of critique, particularly considering his point that many ancient texts were quite obsessed with the body. For example, Socrates and Plato actively attacked the lustful qualities of the body. Continuing this, Augustine marked the potent marriage between the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus with Judeo-Christian dogma, giving a particularly powerful foundation to embodiment in the Western tradition.

Here, I think Nietzsche is particularly helpful, as he is incessantly asking one to return to the body. He also critiques the potential disembodied “view from nowhere” (as Nagel calls it) that this distance from body and experience may create. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for example, Nietzsche critiques objectivism’s quest for “immaculate perception,” mocking science’s goal of passively lying before objects “as a mirror with a hundred facets.”

In pursuit of this immaculate perception and its rhetorical extension of immaculate communication, any unusual, distracting, or problematic body would be unwanted. So starting from the opposite end, as Dolmage does, in grounding rhetoric in the body, one must look at rhetoric in a more embodied, complex enterprise.

Continue reading “Metis”

Disability and Curriculum

“in the air     the slant snow

the bird rising away

from the wild and bare tree”  -Larry Eigner

Born with cerebral palsy in 1927, Larry Eigner spent most of his life using a wheel chair. He also wrote more than 40 collections of poetry, according to The Poetry Foundation. Often grouped with the Black Mountain Poets–and more broadly, the poets of the groundbreaking New American Poetry anthology–Eigner’s poetry has always struck me. Something about his wandering line breaks and latched-together images gives his poetry the spontaneous clarity of a Zen haiku. But it feels freer, spilling out of its forms. He composed most of them from his front porch.

About 100 years earlier, another poet named John Clair penned “I Am” from within the walls of an asylum:

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live. . .
Allegedly broken by the weight of poverty and grief, Clare was institutionalized for suffering delusions the final 20 years of his life. Some biographers trace his breakdown with the rise of industrialization and the death of the commons.
To me, both poets represent powerful writing. They also represent work from people with disabilities–Eigner’s cerebral palsy, and Clare’s psychosis. When approaching Linton’s Claiming Disability, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Maybe the clarion calls it makes throughout for a more integrated, critical outlook on disability. Or the way it deconstructs the traditional curriculum. The stances it makes on language.
But, I think the point that likely struck the most from Linton, and what drew me back to this poetry, is her point about the dominantly medical mode of disability and the role of this sense of the term has. As she writes at one point, “What is absent from the curriculum is the voice of the disabled subject and the study of disability as an idea, as an abstract concept, and it is in the humanities that these gaps are most apparent.”

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