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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.


24
Mar 16

Digitized Pedagogies and the Affective Whiteness of Ableism

Jennifer Polish

CUNY Graduate Center and CUNY Queens College

March 25, 2016

UConn Annual Conference on the Teaching of Writing, Storrs, CT

Please feel free to interact with the digital version of this presentation on my website and feel free to Tweet at me @jenniferpolish either before or during 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’m going to work through this presentation with meditations on three concepts (arranged into a three part harmony, inspired by Suzi Q. Smith’s spoken word piece, “Black Rage in Four Part Harmony”).

My parts will be: Affecting Access; Composition Slash Composure; and Digitized Pedagogies.

These reflections will help me, I hope, begin to tug at the interactions between race and dis/ability in writing class/rooms.

  1. Affecting Access

Melanie Yergeau, in her extremely important contribution to the webtext “Multimodality in Motion”, writes to us about shame. She cannot, in fact, write about access without the affective component of shame.

Shame.

Shame because in classrooms in which digital interactions mean students need to ask professors (and professors needing to ask our colleagues, and our students) for “reasonable accommodations.” Dis/abled students are expected to ask for what they need rather than expecting that classrooms and curricula will be designed with a diversity of abilities in mind to begin with.

People with dis/abilities need to out ourselves when we ask for any of these things, because many (most?) universities require that we provide documentation, and that the “accommodations” we might receive are “reasonable.”

But who determines what is “reasonable”? Ableist rhetorics do.

So in order to gain access, people with dis/abilities must punch through the shame, even when we cannot clench our fists. The logics of accommodation force us to choose between disclosure/shame/dis/ability-is-assumed-to-be-less-than and exclusion/nonparticipation/I-could-not-do-my-homework-or-get-that-tenure-track-job.

So affect is intimately related to access.

Affect: Affect lives in the borderlands between feeling and judgment. More specifically, affect comprises the borderlands between feeling and judgment, mapping the ways that they inform each other and give each other flesh.

Some of our fleshiness is not allowed in the classroom. When it is, it is rendered absent.

Margaret Price argues that the field of computers and writing lacks diversity because it unintentionally marks certain bodies absent, both materially and ontologically.

Unless we think of access differently.

Multimodal pedagogies have become popular ways of trying to engage students on multiple levels, employing mixed media from videos and audio clips to comics and photographs.

However, having more choices doesn’t always mean having access. To quote Stephanie Kerschbaum, “multimodal inhospitality…occurs when the design and production of multimodal texts and environments persistently ignore access except as a retrofit.” By retrofit, Kerschbaum is referring to ‘after the fact’ band-aid fixes that require students and professors to disclose our dis/abilities in order to fully access material. For example, when multimodal presentations (videos, say) are created/shown without captions and students must ask for them.

Engaging studies of African American literacies is tremendously helpful in reshaping access: Adam Banks has broken down technological access into five separate parts, only one of which (“material”) is the form that is usually engaged through “reasonable accommodations.” Broadening our definition of access to be a continuous, multifaceted, structural concept rather than a discrete, “here-have-a-transcript” model, can push our understanding of the kinds of structural changes true tech access would require.

Addressing this, Banks tells us that access comes in (at least) five pieces:

  • Material access, regarding the material conditions surrounding tech usage;
  • Functional access, regarding tech know-how and skills;
  • Experiential access, regarding how tech is or is not useful in everyday experiences;
  • Critical access, regarding a certain fluency with when and how to use which technologies and what their rhetorical implications are;
  • Transformative access, regarding genuine inclusion (not just for inclusion’s sake) as to who gets to shape tech and its uses.

Surely, there are overlaps in his categories. Redundancies.

This is no mistake, for we need redundancies – the same information presented in multiple forms so that there are multiple avenues for understanding – not just multiple modalities.

Redundancies offer various modes of engagement with the same material – my voice, the paper transcripts I have, this talk on my website so people can engage the text as needed here and elsewhere in cases where telepresence is preferable to physical presence..

Redundancy is necessary, and yet “redundant” has such a negative connotation in our society.

Yet Yergeau reminds us why redundancy is a necessary design component of any digitized curriculum, of any assignment, of any scholarly-social interaction. Crucially, she writes that “[t]o [merely] accommodate is to retrofit; it 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.”

  1. Composition Slash Composure

Bubbling out at the seams.

I stick on this image because it sticks on me.

When deviant bodily and spatial conditions bubble out at the seams, they force themselves to be noticed by a hegemonic logic that only assumes default positions. Like able-body-mindedness. Like whiteness.

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).

Comportment. Behavior or bearing. Put another way: composure.

Performing whiteness is an affective gauge of performing a certain kind of composure, of contorting ourselves into a certain kind of composition.

Composition. We think of composition as something our students are required to take, as something we are required to teach. But what happens when we unpeel composition to its verb form, composing? To compose?

Composure: collect yourself, be calm. Do not express an “excess” of emotion.

Conceal, don’t feel, if you like a good old Disney reference.

Composing affective whiteness, then, becomes the mark of composing ourselves “properly,” of comporting our bodyminds to perform suitable composition, suitable composure.

And by suitable, here, I mean white.

Composing Affective Whiteness: Elsewhere, Muñoz argues that emotional countenances marked by whiteness are characterized by an immense dearth of affective expression such that “the affective performance of normative whiteness is minimalist to the point of emotional impoverishment” (“Ethnicity and Affect” 70).

The rhetorical positioning of white affect is such that white feelings are privileged as fact, as objective. Non-normate rhetorics simply aren’t up to snuff. They are ineffective. They are too opinionated or too emotional or too aggressive. On the flip side, non-normate rhetorics may be dismissed for not being enough, for not being legible, loud, enough. A lose-lose.

Anything that does not compose itself as affectively white is extra. Anything else is “unreasonable.”

Unreasonable. Without reason. Inability to compose oneself.

Dis/abled.

Composition. Composure.

Back to this again.

A plethora of dis/abilities mark people’s (like mine) affective registers as unable or unwilling to perform cognitive and behavioral autonomy in a way that whiteness requires: these dis/abilities are often pushed onto/assumed to be connected with people who are racialized as nonwhite. The ableist suppression of nonwhite performances of behavioral and cognitive processes cannot be unlinked from its fundamentally racist formation, discussed above.

Because the connection between dis slash abled students and students of color extend far beyond the ways that students of color are vastly more likely to be labeled with learning dis/abilities. Students of color, if ever there is violence on campus, are simply students of color. White students, when we frequently shoot up schools, are so unexpected and must have been “mentally ill.” Because white students and professors with dis/abilities are thought to be the exception – I am thought to be the exception. Students of color with dis/abilities are thought to be a tautology: of course students of color are dis/abled. It’s written into the ways that people interpret failure and refusal to compose oneself according to the rules of affective whiteness.

Composing oneself.

Or else.

  1. Digitized Pedagogies

Sushil Oswal alerts us to “technological ableisms”, the vital idea that “technology reflects the needs and interests of the powerful.”

This is surely what Carmen Kynard is signifying on what she writes that her Black students have used Blackboard to re-envision cyberspace to co-participate in the meaning of technology because “their framework is not contingent upon making digitally divided minorities more technologically advanced and better at one type of English, its cultures of power, or its academic discourses. Instead these students experience rhetoric and writing as a way to alter the ways that knowledge is constructed for them and about them…” (330).

“[T]he ways that knowledge is constructed for them and about them.”

In a white supremacist climate in which people of color are much more likely to be considered dis/abled, I cannot help but think of the oft-cited dis/ability activist refrain “nothing about us without us.”

And yet here I am, a white woman with all my white privilege, talking about race. Since I’m coming at it through the framework of exposing the pervasiveness of whiteness, I hope this can remain somewhat effective. Affective.

Adam Banks has written of race and technology in our classrooms that currently “digital theory, rhetoric, and writing [is] white by default because those areas and our American technology sector still appear to be so homogenous.”

When considering the ways that able-bodymindedness is coded into the affects of whiteness –

when considering the ways that students of color across the country are beaten, physically, emotionally, mentally, in their own classrooms for not demonstrating the expected amount of whiteness –

when considering the ways that the ableism of romanticized multimodal pedagogies continues to erase and make absent non-normate bodies from our classrooms –

it is clear that affective whiteness invisibly dominates hegemonic usages of technology in the classroom, and that this affective regime structurally reinforces the technological ableisms that increasingly shape our interactions with our students and our colleagues.

Our intent to promote student-centered methodologies of digitized teaching are admirable and yet must be re-examined to ask the most fundamental but hegemonically un-ask-able question: who is the capital-S “Student” that we imagine when we discuss student-centered, digitized pedagogies?


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