27
Mar 17

Anti-Ableist Pedagogies and You

Cross-posted from the Teach @ CUNY project Visible Pedagogy, here.

This blog post is coming later than it should be. My BPD (borderline personality dis/order), my depression, my anxiety, hit peak levels during the time I was supposed to be writing this: a perfect storm of mental health cacophony.

When I emailed to say, simply, that I was having a rough week mentally (in the same way that I might to say I have the flu), the response was simple: I’m so sorry you’re having a rough time. Please take care of yourself, and when you’re ready, it would be great if we could get the post up next week. The response was simple, and the response was meta: the response demonstrated the kind of pedagogy I’d like to dedicate this blog series to fleshing out.

Anti-ableist pedagogy: what might that feel like? How does anti-ableist practice in your classroom extend beyond providing alt-text, transcripts, and captions, and leaving space when configuring desks for people with various mobility needs and body types to navigate optimally? How can anti-ableist pedagogies transform your syllabus and seep into your assignments and shape your assessment strategies? How can anti-ableist praxis interact with and bolster your goals to actively practice anti-racist pedagogies? (Because surely—in this country in which white people who shoot people are labeled “mentally ill” and brown people who shoot people are labeled “terrorists”; in this country in which the school-to-prison pipeline and special education systems actively seek out Black and brown children and label them as irreparably less than—racism and ableism cannot be unlinked.)

This post is the first in a series that will explore these questions, both theoretically and very, very practically, by identifying approaches to everything from lesson planning to assignment design and assessment that challenge the dually ableist and racist assumptions that too often shape our classrooms, and that certainly shape our institutions. (If you want to contribute to this conversation, please comment and click the link here for more!)

Before we begin, though, a bit of background.

When I write about dis/ability, I put a slash between “dis” and “ability.” I do this to unsettle the deficit model that defines much of dis/ability discourse (and our classroom pedagogies). The slash reminds us, literally interrupts us, before we assume that people with dis/abilites are defined by what we cannot do; what we struggle with; what we must do differently. But the slash doesn’t completely interrupt the word, because our struggles are, in fact, deeply real. Deeply embodied.

But here’s the thing—and no matter whether we’ve been teaching for twelve years or none, a little Dis/ability 101 is never a bad thing—dis/ability isn’t only in the body. It isn’t a deficit, a problem, something to be uncritically cured (erased, exterminated) or that exists only within individual people. All dis/abilities exist—indeed, are created and defined and therefore given shape and meaning—within broader environmental contexts.

I often ask my students to think about a society in which everyone who needs them has equitable access to glasses. Is short-sightedness, for example, in an imagined society like this considered a dis/ability? Why not? How does access to glasses shape what we define as a dis/ability? More broadly, how do the structural components of the access (the environment of power and oppression and privilege) shape how we define dis/ability? What about a society in which break rooms with minimal noise and soft lights and plenty of space to lay down were commonly available and accepted as a requirement for people simple going about their days? How differently might we interpret social anxiety, or depression, or autism, in such a society?

Environment shapes dis/ability.

And our classrooms are environments. Surely, they exist within broader environmental constraints, but the act of dedication to constructing dually anti-ableist, anti-racist pedagogies (again, can’t build one without the other) can re-constitute dis/ability so that we are not continuing to define our quiet students as problems; not continuing to pathologize students who do not conform to white supremacist norms of classroom communication; not banning depressed, anxious, bipolar (etc.) students from our classrooms when we uncritically demand the same kinds of attendance, the same kinds of participation, the same kinds of presence, from everyone in our classroom.

This blog series will explore how to design our classes for all kinds of learners, not just for able-bodyminded white learners. The thing to keep in mind here is this: once we make the needed perspective changes—once we commit ourselves to becoming aware of our bodymindedness and that of our students in the classroom—anti-ableist pedagogies do not necessarily “create more work” for already exploited laborers.

Instead, fundamentally reshaping our classrooms to be as universally designed and power-aware as possible involves a perspective shift, a literal redesign of our pedagogies. But as committed educators, aren’t we supposed to always be redesigning our pedagogies, anyway?  Just as the response to my late blog post—I’m sorry you’re not doing well. Take care of yourself, and it would be great if we can get the post up by next week—embodied an empathetic, anti-ableist pedagogy that still held all involved to a high standard, it didn’t increase anyone’s workload.

But it sure did increase the health and affirmativeness of the work space.

Committing to doing this with the goal of creating anti-ableist, anti-racist learning spaces seems worth it to me. I’m excited to join you on the next few months of exchanging ideas about how to do exactly that.


19
Oct 16

Affective Whiteness and the Rhetorics of Linguistic Mobility in Writing Classrooms

Thomas R. Watson Conference, 2016 

Mobility Work in Composition: Translation, Migration, Transformation

“Affective Whiteness and the Rhetorics of Linguistic Mobility in Writing Classrooms”

by Jennifer Polish

Presented on October 20th, 2016

Please feel free to interact with the digital version of this presentation on my website and feel free to Tweet at me @jenniferpolish before, during, or after the Q&A so that I can respond to your comments or questions. Additionally, please feel free to get in touch with me if any of this information proves inaccessible for you so that I can correct my error.

I was at a workshop at the CUNY Graduate Center last year, and to end her presentation on students who are acquiring English as a new language, a brilliant CUNY professor, Carmina Makar, asked for ten volunteers from the audience. She wouldn’t say what we were volunteering for, but ten people went up anyway, of course, and she gave us each a piece of paper to hold. Each page had a large number written on it.

The setup: two teams of five people. Each person holding a number. She would read a five-digit number out loud, and without speaking to each other, we were to arrange ourselves into showing the audience that number with our pieces of paper.

After confirming that we understood — we had to rearrange ourselves to match the number she called faster than the other team — the professor announced the five-digit number.

In Spanish.

This being a conference at CUNY — despite the unfortunate and overwhelming whiteness of the graduate student population — one or two participants-turned-contestants on each team were able to efficiently direct the rest of us into the proper places. By the time we were done (I think my team won), I (super whitegirlprofessor) was still translating the second or third number in my head.

I tell this story by way of framing my talk today, which will focus on thinking through what we mean when we talk about mono/multilingualism.

To get to this question, I will examine the intersections of anxiety and affective whiteness — the intersections of dis/ability and race — in college writing classrooms. Pulling these threads — the dominance of white middle class American English together with anxiety and affective whiteness — will help me talk about the ways that suppressing affective expression in the classroom reinforces monolingualism for white students and compulsory multilingualism for many students of color.

To start, I want to disclaim this all by saying that I am no authority on the experiences of people of color: far, far from it. Anything I do happen to know, or to be able to somewhat coherently speak on, is because I am indebted to the affective, intellectual, and life labors of people of color, particularly queer women and men of color. My position as a white professor is unethical at best if I do not — especially teaching at CUNY, where the undergraduate population, at least, consists largely of students of color — actively interrogate the violence of (my) whiteness, and attendant white supremacy, in the classroom so that I can facilitate the abilities of my students to safely and effectively dismantle it.

Diving in, then, I want to explain what I mean when I say “affective whiteness.”

According to José Esteban Muñoz in his work on Latina Affect, whiteness is “a cultural logic that prescribes and regulates national feelings and comportment. White is… an affective gauge that helps us understand some modes of emotional countenance and comportment as good or bad” (680).

In other words: whiteness is an affective pressure valve. Regulate your levels of expressivity incorrectly, and your emotional countenance can be, will be, rendered bad, rendered nonwhite. Rendered less than, rendered, even, dangerous.

Affective whiteness, Muñoz explains, is a relative dearth of emotional expressivity.

In a classroom, affective whiteness is what governs the realm of classroom etiquette: divorce your body from your mind, because being “too” emotional is unprofessional. It’s anti-intellectual and it makes (white) people uncomfortable.

The hegemony of affective whiteness pervades rhetorical constructions so deeply that it transforms white feelings into facts.

The reign of affective whiteness elevates white feelings to the level of fact so that white rage no longer looks like rage, it just looks like the heat of an intellectual discussion.

The dominance of affective whiteness devalues the intellect of people of color such that an analysis of Claudia Rankin’s poetry that includes a statement like “white people do this to me all the time” must, for the sake of this student of color’s safety in a white-dominated institution like higher education, with probably a white teacher like myself in the front of the room, be prefaced by the statement, “I’m not mad but,” “not all white people but,” “not to be racist but.”

Affective whiteness racializes depression as white — dearth of emotional expressivity, again — while ignoring POC mental health because it may fall outside the register of what mental health is expected to be like.

Affective whiteness renders students who have non-normate bodily experiences — mental health issues, say — as less than, as themselves problems, even as threats. The dominance of affective whiteness renders them unable to carry themselves with “proper” comportment, unable to meet “reasonable” classroom expectations. Affective whiteness riddled these students with anxiety to begin with, because it manifests in the pressure to check your feelings at the door, to be rendered dis/abled, to be rendered less than, to be rendered excessive, to be rendered inappropriate, if you enter with your intellect firmly connected to your emotional experiences.

These all, of course, have disproportionate impacts on students of color, who too often only see themselves as footnotes, token figures, white torture porn narratives, or all of the above, in school.

So what, in short, does affective whiteness do?

It racializes dis/ability by casting non-normate emotional/affective expressions/forms of composition/modes of comportment/dimensions of rhetorical expression as problems, as “crazy”, as dis/abled. As threatening.

We can see this most clearly, most poignantly, at work in the schools-to-prisons pipeline, which has a lasting impact on the students of color that we see — and don’t see — on our college campuses.

The expectations of affective whiteness normalize white feelings — especially white rage — as facts, literally written into the way that “rational” “argumentation” is taught and enforced. It links “rationality” with able-mindedness, and it links “rationality” with whiteness.

In doing so, it ties whiteness to able-bodiedness such that POC bodies are rendered dis/abled.

And yet the irony — one of many — here is that affective whiteness burdens students of color to somehow be “present enough” but not actually present in their bodies.

In this way, the false binary between intellect and emotion is fundamentally racialized.

And what does all this have to do with Carmina Makar’s exercise, where the numbers she read off were in Spanish?

The exercise flips the dominant script about who gets to be the expert, who gets to lead, who gets to get it right, what assets are valued, and what forms of language are problematic. Monolingualism, here, is a problem. Rather than framing multilingualism as an “issue” in teaching.

This has profoundly affective — profoundly emotional — implications.

Especially in writing classrooms.

It calls attention to the affective implications of the demands of translation: the anxiety of getting it “wrong,” the frustration of the demands of speed, the exhilaration of figuring it out, the joy of being able to explain it to others, the excitement of learning by teaching and by experiencing, the disorientation of not knowing, the shame of others knowing it better, faster, than you.

Performing affective whiteness in writing classrooms involves actively suppressing non-normate speech (multiple Englishes, for example) and bodily movements that are often dismissed and racialized as dis/abled, as “excessive”, emotional, and thereby counterproductive to “intellectual” space. Like the default white subject, then, the default able-bodied subject shapes what it means for multilingual students to have true access to purportedly monolingual writing classrooms.

Because otherwise, you’re just constantly getting it “wrong.” And experiencing all of the emotions to go along with that. But you can’t show that. You just need to keep playing the game, destructive as it is.

Because affective whiteness demands that students do not — and we surely see this in graduate classrooms all the time — stop the class to ask the meaning of a term. Affective whiteness, with its bootstraps implications, demands that students look it up themselves, because it assumes that they are alone in needing clarification of the dominant modes of knowledge-production and sharing.

Affective whiteness demands that students attempt to blend, and when the dominant course content and lesson plan design are bleached white, the anxiety starts to kick in. The anxiety of knowing that, in a classroom where the teachers usually look like me, you cannot generally blend in. You cannot contort your body into the language of affective whiteness without fundamentally surrendering something. And the anxiety kicks in, kicks down, kicks up. Kicks the underside of the desk that was designed to keep your body composed in a way that renders all bodies the same, to check all bodies at the door so that nothing can challenge hegemonic knowledge formations.

Affective whiteness in writing classrooms, then, demands anxiety management, concealment, alongside the performance of blending in.

So when we talk about monolingualism, we’re talking, really, about white students, about white American students. Because we demand multilingualism from everyone else.

And it’s about time that our pedagogical methods focus on students whose body-minds themselves challenge the status quo.

Because we’ve been teaching to students who look, talk, and compose their bodies like me for far too long.


07
Sep 16

Compulsory Affective Labor in Comp Classrooms

I often chortle way too hard, and way too long, at my own jokes. Especially at my own puns. So when in the title, I write of Compulsory Affective Labor in Comp Classrooms, I do intend the pun: comp meaning composition, but comp also meaning compulsory.

Because our comp/osition comp/ulsory classes are usually gatekeeping classes: and these gates, as Carmen Kynard writes brilliantly in her Vernacular Insurrections, are designed specifically to keep students of color out.

It is through this mechanism, among too many others, that white institutions like higher education conflate dis/abled bodies with bodies racialized as non-white. If composition (composing oneself in a particular way) is “basic” and necessary to go on to take other courses (compulsory), then those for whom comp poses a barrier are written off as less than capable.

I have written about this a lot, and I think about it each time a colleague or friend shows me a syllabus. I have come to flinch at the tiny yet insurmountable fences within the larger gates: fences like “participation” defined in only one way, like “presence” defined as only one mode of attendance, one mode of interaction.

Margaret Price has written extensively — and powerfully — in Mad at School about the tremendous hostility of the very nature of the (current) academy toward mental dis/abilities (actual or perceived). Because hers is such a powerful text for me, I will trust it to pop up in many other places, and will not dwell on it primarily here.

I want to, now, focus on the affective aspects of all of this: the compulsion to compose oneself in a particular kind of way. In a white, able-bodied kind of way.

Price discusses the immense and often insurmountable amounts of affective labor involved in navigating the academy’s many hypervalued kairotic spaces; here, I want to pull back from the implications of that affective labor to pull out what, even, affect is.

According to Gregg and Seigworth,

“Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of force or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves” (1).

Affect, here, reminds me of quantumstuff that is neither waves nor particles: affect cannot be pinned down, cannot be defined. It is always present, but only when acknowledged does it seem to take on a tangible form, a definition of sorts. Indeed, as they go on to state, “the real powers of affect, affect as potential: a body’s capacity to affect and be affected” (2).

I focus on capacity here because this is often understood as a trigger word to mean dis/ability. How does bodily capacity impact one’s ability to affect and be affected in a classroom? If a student — or professor, for that matter — simply does not have the energy to engage in traditional ways, but rather must keep their head down and avoid more than the barest of smiles when the rest of the class laughs, how does the affective capacity of the body that is the course content and the classroom atmosphere change around this student? Likewise, how does an unpermissive classroom atmosphere which looks down upon students who are not currently able to look up, to “seem like” they’re paying attention, impact the rest of the class? How might a classroom that encourages students to engage their own bodies in ways that make them comfortable and best able to learn during class differently form an affective mold around said student or professor?

All of this, of course, has centralized on presentation, on performance, on bodies navigating what kinds of bodily composure are considered acceptable, and which kinds of bodily composure compulsory.

When pressed, I’ve found that largely, the affective impact of a student slumping down, for example, rather than putting their eyes front and sitting up straight — especially if the reason for this is unreported and unexplained — will be reported as an aesthetic issue. ‘It just feels like they’re not paying attention. It’s distracting because… because it brings the mood down.’

This burden of affective impact being placed on a person navigating the constraints of hegemonic expectations links very deeply to Sara Ahmed’s thoughts on ‘melancholic migrants’, ‘feminist killjoys,’ and ‘unhappy queers’: the feminist who calls attention to casual sexism, for example, is deemed responsible for bringing the mood down, rather than the responsibility being placed with the sexist act/patriarchal structure itself.

Seigworth discusses this non-tangible nature of these affective stances — of how bodies impact each other in classroom spaces — when he writes about affect in a narrative way, as a concept; his form mirroring and reinforcing his content. He describes reading a piece by Lawrence Grossberg, recalling that it

“was written in a vibrant but rather unwiedly theoretical language that detailed this passionate thing called “affect” in ways that I could not always quite follow, although fortunately the musical references were immediately recognizable and that helped me to roughly intuit the theory” (19)

This is a powerful statement about “vernacular” theories and knowledges existing outside of dominant academic discourse: here, Seigworth validates the knowledge involved in felt senses of things based on felt and familiar cultural references.

Gregg, for her part, finds these kinds of felt senses and cultural references in the constraining nature of “scholarly affect.” She writes that “the corporate university culture consecrates a kind of compulsory convivality in the workplace… from the smiley faces of office email to the team-building exercises of after work drinks — which defines the landscape of affective labor in the information economy” (24).

I’m particularly interested in this notion of compulsory affective labor — what Price writes about in terms of compulsory collegiality — because I am curious about how the burdens of this affective labor is differentially distributed across the academy. When a new professor has a 5-4 course load, for example, how does the incredibly large amount of affective labor involved in this teaching get discounted? How do our syllabi, our course designs, our classroom setups and activities, place differential amounts of affective labor on certain students?

Gregg proceeds to highlight the ways that workplaces limit affective range by dictating what forms of affect are acceptable and which are not:

“For if it is clear that this networked world without enemies cannot really ease the loneliness of the office cubicle or writer’s garret, affect theory may help us fight the limited range of subjective states available in the contemporary workplace, and in doing so, help us identify and denounce the distribution of winners and losers in contemporary society” (24)

In our classrooms, how does the fine line between ‘proper behavior’/’acceptable participation’ and ‘apathetic’ operate differently for different groups of students or, indeed, for different professors? If affective expression is limited to the realm of affective whiteness — which, in short, is a dearth of affective expression, unintentionally alluded to above, that José Esteban Muñoz wrote about — yet mandates that students appear to be active, but not too active, with participating in lessons, what affective labor do different students endure to walk the tight rope between these requirements?

What happens, in other words, when students cannot or will not compose their bodies in the ways they need to in order to perform this tight rope act?

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press, 2010.

Gregg, Melissa, and Gregory J. Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader. Duke University Press, 2010.

Kynard, Carmen. Vernacular Insurrections: Race, Black Protest, and the New Century in Composition-Literacies Studies. SUNY Press, 2013.

Muñoz, José Esteban. “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position.” Signs 40.1 (2014).

Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life. University of Michigan Press, 2011.


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