29
May 17

“We Aren’t Therapists”: Mental Health in Our Classrooms

(Cross-posted from the Teach@Cuny Project’s Visible Pedagogy site, here)

Too often, we encounter the refrain that “professors are not therapists.” This is generally true, and a reminder of the importance of healthy boundaries and self-care. At the same time, this refrain is also too frequently  used as an (unintentionally) ableist excuse for not making our classrooms more welcoming for students with dis/abilities, particularly mental health issues.

Because the implication of phrases like “we’re not therapists” and “I don’t know how to have that conversation” is that students’ emotions—especially the ones that keep them (and us) awake at night, the ones that prevent them from coming to class, or inspire them to cry in class or in our offices—are inappropriate, burdensome, “too much.”

In other words, when instructors say “we’re not therapists,” it implies that both students and professors—especially those of us who are mentally dis/abled—must check our emotions, our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, at the door. That we must suppress our self-harm scars and our sleep-deprived pain and our traumas and our rapidly drowning hearts for the sake of academic intellectualism, civility, collegiality, and dispassionate, disembodied “analysis.”

Of course, no analysis—no intellect—is ever truly disembodied. But it portrays itself as such when the emotions and bodies behind it are socially accepted as “normal”, as “reasonable”, as “rational.”

So where does this leave us in our classrooms? Because, truth: we cannot be what we are not for our students. How, then, do we navigate classroom dynamics and student interactions that get emotionally sticky?

It starts with the understanding—discussed in the first post of this series—that environment shapes what we define as dis/ability, and which emotional and bodily expressions are considered non-normative and therefore “bad.” For instance, the American premium on “productivity” often translates into policies that penalize students who might appear to an outsider to not be “contributing” anything to  class.

If this is the case—if structural constraints shape how dis/ability is defined and therefore, how it feels and is responded to—then our first response to mental health issues in our classroom should not be “we’re not therapists”, but rather “we can design our classrooms to accommodate and affirm a wider variety of student needs, thereby alleviating the uneven pressure on students with mental health issues from day one.”

How do we go about this? The rest of this series will be dedicated to sharing practical strategies for improving the accessibility of your classroom, with posts on topics like constructing anti-ableist assignments  and practicing anti-ableist assessment. But for now, let’s think about day one—and especially, the syllabus. If the word “Accessibility” is even on our syllabi, it’s usually stuck somewhere deep in the back: a one-line entry, perhaps, that includes the room number and email address of the Office of Students with Dis/abilities at our campus, or some boilerplate provided by our department.

What would happen if we structured our syllabus to foreground accessibility, rather than tuck it away? If discussions about accessibility, broadly defined, occurred on day one, and therefore framed the way that students experienced our classrooms? Instead of proclaiming that “we are not therapists,” and therefore that we can’t touch dis/ability with a ten-foot pole, what would happen if instructors normalized dis/ability, because—whether we know it or not—dis/abilities are everywhere in our classrooms, anyway?

I would never claim to have a perfect model — there is no such thing!— but by means of take-away, I offer the current Accessibility section of my English 102 course at LaGuardia Community College. It’s the second section in my syllabus, and it has its own page on our course website.

This language will change, guaranteed. In fact, it’s designed to;  language highlighting accessibility as a fundamental structural component of our work space is integrated throughout the syllabus, on which students are encouraged to comment, ask questions, and offer suggestions. Because we don’t need to be therapists to welcome all of our students, mental dis/abilities and all, into our course design and classroom space.

Jennifer Polish is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a Humanities Alliance Teaching Fellow. This is the second in a series of posts they are contributing to Visible Pedagogy on “Anti-Ableist Pedagogies.”


21
Apr 17

Acting in a Composition Class

(cross-posted on the CUNY Humanities Alliance site, here.)

At LaGuardia, English 102 — the second composition course — is called Writing through Literature. We need to teach three genres throughout the course of the term: poetry, drama, and a genre of our choice (no surprise that I’m doing comic books for Prof’s Choice — Ms. Marvel, specifically).

Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of acting.

We’ve been doing a lot of reading aloud of the script of Intersections, a play written collaboratively by LaGuardia student actors and their directors. I’m actually delighted that my students haven’t had the opportunity to see the play yet (though we will later, in May — when I told them about the opportunity, they cheered almost as loudly as they did when I told them I proposed to my girlfriend over spring break. They’re a good bunch, to say the least.).

I’m delighted they haven’t seen it yet because the acting — the intonations, the gestures, the interpretations of tone, of movement, of emotion — that my students are bringing to this brilliant script is all their own.

When they read from their seats or — even more fun — when they get up in front of the class and perform from the script, my students are able to lift what’s on the page into their movements, their voices, their stumbling over words and their confident deliveries of sharp one-liners.

And this acting, this risk-taking?

It’s already making them — making us, as a whole — better writers.

We were talking in class about what happens in our heads when we read something. It’s like we’re all actors, we concluded, even (and sometimes especially) the shyest and most introverted and most anxiety-stricken among us: when we read, we’re simultaneously actors and directors and stage managers, all in our heads, as we translate what’s on the page, on the screen, into the screen, the stage, in our minds.

We take what we read and we give back to it with our own thoughts, our own experiences, our own imaginations, our own emotions.

And isn’t that what the basis of writing is?

I chose their required research assignment to come in the middle of the term, not at the end (as it typically is). I did this because I wanted my students to shake up the notion that the endgame, the goal, of writing classes is the fetishized research paper (which is inevitably what we’re arguing when we place it at the end of a backwards-designed course). I did this, also, because we are paying special attention to what we think the students (and professors) who collaboratively wrote this script had to research, had to tap into, during their own writing processes. We’ve been discussing the Intersections script explicitly as a draft, a work-in-progress, because that’s exactly what it is.

And that’s exactly what all of our writing is.

And, as they act it out, as they think through research vis a vis the performance of words on a page (pun intended), I’m already witnessing my students’ analyses get deeper, get richer. Their writing get more involved, simultaneously more clear and more convoluted.

So, acting in a composition class?

The Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who, wearing 3D glasses, in his pinstripe suit, pointing and gesturing wildly as he shouts,

The Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who, wearing 3D glasses, in his pinstripe suit, pointing and gesturing wildly as he shouts, “Oh, yes!” gif from http://gifsec.com/wp-content/uploads/GIF/2014/05/oh-yes-reaction-gif.gif

Absolutely.


14
Mar 16

Digital Griots and the Scratch of the Slash

Presenting a plethora of beautiful (and beautifully written – the two, it seems, go together fluidly here) images and analyses of Black rhetorical excellence, Adam Banks uses Digital Griots to craft and perform several exigent and fleshy calls for a re-vision of both African American literacy studies and digital humanities. An intimate piece of all of these calls is Banks’ prioritization of spaces that refuse to suffocate Blackness (the call itself is performed as a survival technology of sorts in all the texts we’ve read for this term thus far. No coincidence that these calls to Stop Shooting Us aren’t generally presented – quite the opposite – in composition classrooms dominated by whiteness).

In attempt at homage to both Banks’ rhythmic and fluid writing and to my colleague Seth Grave’s technologically poetic introduction to Banks’ text by remixing his notes of the text, the rest of this post will attempt to (perhaps poetically, or perhaps simply badly) remix Banks’ concerns and arguments with attention to constructions and affective experiences of dis/ability in composition classrooms. Queerness and womanness will, too, inflect this remix, because though all of these identities wove themselves in and out of Digital Griots, their more explicit, more persistent, presence can perhaps thicken the already bodily readings Banks graces us with.

(My whiteness, of course, will inflect all of these readings, so they must, by nature, be read as incomplete, as even, perhaps, appropriative with the hope that they will be themselves remixed, re-visioned, through frameworks of color that I do not inhabit.)

Dis/ability

Dis

/

ability

Dis/ability

Dis(s)

ertation,

dis(s)

respect

My students ooohing and exclaiming (pro-claiming) when someone throws shade

glancing at me furtively to see if my whitegirlprofessorness will be mad that they dared raise their voices in something other than

A voice that sounds like mine

Dis(s)

Is bad, diss your friend when they’re not around, without saying it, suck your teeth and

roll your eyes when that white kid be talkin some shit about people need to stop playing the race card,

microsoft word dissin me when it insists on adding ‘g’s to the end of words, when I type out a quote from Banks, some of his most beautiful writing, his rhythmic end to his fabulous book, Word automatically adding ‘g’s to the Words, Banks tellin us we need to be

“building assignments that invite students not only to work across modalities but also to link those multiple modalities, individual assignments, and assignment cycles and in critical examination of the power relations and material conditions inscribed in technological tools, networks, and discourses. Practically, it means working to increase meaningful, transformative access to digital technologies for people on their own terms. It means mix, remix, mixtape. Access and transformation. Healing, celebration, self-examination, and critique. Community. Flow, layering, rupture. Innovation, vision, quality, tradition. Afrodigitzed. Word.”

WORD doesn’t lose its techno-mind until the end, until transformative (UNDERLINE IN RED SQUIGGLES), mixtape (THAT’S NOT A REAL THING, PUT A BLOODY ZIGZAG UNDER IT), and then that sea of green,

all that green because when Banks starts writin rather than

Writing

Word won’t have it. Word shuts that shit down.

or tries to,

with its squiggly underlines,

with its digital policing that “NEUTRALLY” tell my students they’re wrong even when their whitegirlteacher, surprise surprise, tells them it’s cool, write how you wanna write, write how you wanna sound, write how you want to communicate.

Except how you want to communicate is determined by…

Allthethings.

sometimes I have students who can’t speak above a whisper,

Because if they do, they’ll have to shout.

oftentimes, though I am not dis/abled in the same way as these students may be, my bipolarness makes me feel that way, makes me

Perform

That way.

my students, I think, just think I’m energetic, enthusiastic.

I am allowed my energy, my enthusiasm.

I am a youngwhitegirlteacher.

I can speakwritetalkbouncearoundbesilentbelowkeybeLOUDbeactivebeinjuredcommunicate

However I want, need, need to want.

I have the authority.

most of my CUNY students, in one way or another, or others,

do not.

because anyway,

Word says no. Word

disses

people.

Wrong to write “fragments.” Add your ‘g’s to everything.

Oooooooh! DISS!

so it’s hard to say yes.

dis/respect, dis/tasteful, dis/tant (sometimes the words don’t split

E

v

e

n

l

y

)

/

I can’t think of a slash without thinking of slash fanfiction, without thinking of femslash, without thinking of the late-night hours as a teenager, logging onto DIAL-UP (that scratch, scratchscreetchscratch sound like salvation’s on its way, as long as no one else in the apartment hears it), furtively copy-pasting all the lesbian shit I could find (on Star Trek: Voyager, mostly; this was before I knew about The L Word, before I knew… anything), throwing it on a Word Perfect doc so it would look like homework, deleting the words that gave me life – that gave me orgasms – as I read.

Slash.

slash between dis and ability because it scratches the word

it is the scratch(ing) (v. and n.) of the knowledge that the word

is supposed to hold

Slash between dis and ability because Banks wants us to call attention to the simultaneous independent and dependent integrations of DJing as writing, of writing as DJing, of

Knowing tradition, wrapping it around you like a

shawl

(I can’t not think of Meredith Grey’s widow shawl)

immersed in tradition and knowing, because of history, because of affirmations of culture, because

“the learners’ identities are not under constant threat or outright attack; instead, the space [of DJing] is one where their humanity and ability are taken for granted, even while the expectations of rhetorical excellence and agility are always high. Furthermore, there is room for a balance between individual identity and participation in broader communities”

Unlike in classrooms.

unlike in classrooms.

Unlike in classrooms, where you learn a tradition that is not

yours, that, in fact,

seeks constantly to destroy yours,

so how can you switch it up, how can you remix, how can you scratchwithoutwoundingyourself

With the edges of the

slash

/

that allows us to connect

Dis

and

ability

without claiming

one or the other, but

both.

Ability

skill, unskill, one of my students said “they think we’re uneducated”, “they think it means we’re not intelligent”

“They” being me, people with bodies like mine, white supremacy, which is the

shawl I can’t get rid of, but will never suffocate me

Unintelligent for speaking different tongues, for laying down different rhymes

(different from the dominant)

Unintelligent, slow, disabled without the

/

“retarded” without the

“”

independence and dependence,

so strongly a part of DJing, community and individual contribution melding, melding,

Shaping each other.

like my best friend on the couch who needs me to get up and

adjust his pillows

and empty his blood-bile drains

because his body’s been cut open, he is

temporarily

dis/abled,

independence and dependence in a loop, another

/

In/dependence, inside dependence, what might digital griots be like

when people can’t physically hear, when people can’t be in clubs because of

flashing lights or toomanypeopleImightstarthyperventilating

What then of in/dependence

when dis/ability is equated with POC students

because whiteness determines smartness and smartness

determines tracking, determines ability, determines

What is acceptable to put on your

résumé.

Resume.

when affective whiteness makes the rules

I am allowed my outbursts, I am allowed to be extra

but my students of color are not

(they know, of course)

because for them to be extra is for them to be excess(ed),

to be inappropriate, to be

Threatening, and therefore to be segregated,

to be

They be

Marked.

as disabled (no /)

and what of students who do identify

with dis/abilities, how might

dis/abled digitization work with POC digitization to

Disrupt

white digitization?

a key seems to lie in how affective whiteness

dictates

ability, dictates

Access.

what if access is a process, is socialized, is understood as

continual navigations

Negotiations (I keep thinking of Clexa on The 100 and those damn fanfictions

about

lesbian sex with THAT THRONE)

Access is not to be achieved

not to be acquired

because access to tech, to digitization,

Is more than having classrooms equipped with

computers

(Dial-Up tone, google, wipe sweat.

copy, open Word Perfect, paste,

Repeat.

Delete as I read.

Cum.

Repeat as needed.

Repeat as permitted [though none of it is

Permitted.]

Fanfiction as survival technology. Because they dis/able

trauma – AND WITH QUEER SEX – so much better than

white straight cis able-passing men ever do.

Dial-Up tone, google, wipe sweat.

copy, open Word Perfect, paste,

Repeat.

Delete as I read.

Cum.

Repeat as needed.

Repeat as

)


29
Feb 16

Anchoring into Richardon’s African American Literacies

Kai Davis says it, as per always, so much better than I ever could.

Kai Davis, here again taking three minutes and one second to drop word bombs that pack just about the same punch to white supremacy as all those pages of academic theory on navigating Blackness in classrooms that most white professors swear doesn’t exist (Elaine Richardson’s African American Literacies, for one, talks and testifies against that for sure [yep, a pun to honor Geneva Smitherman, because it’s necessary]).

Kai Davis, without my words to mince hers, because she doesn’t need an introduction from some white girl professor (and yet I guess I just wrote one. *sigh*).

That says it all. I am almost tempted to write nothing more. It was all just said.

“Yo: why these books never be about my peoples?”

Jamila Lyiscott says it all, too (thank you, Carmen, for the gift of linking this video on our class blog!).

And yet I’ll write anyway, because today Carmen wants us to find an anchor in Elaine Richardson’s brilliant African American Literacies; an anchor to “ground [our] thinking, reading, and research”; to haul the thick piece of iron in our pockets with us, bring it to class so we can process how to use it not as an add in, not as a tack on (at the end of term, “if there’s time”), but rather, to use an anchor from Dr. E’s work to fundamentally reshape our own pedagogies so that we, too, can make sure we’re centering Black literacies instead of shredding them with red pens and white books.

“Any approach that does not seek to facilitate liberatory literacy is detrimental as it is subtractive,” Dr. E tells us.

Among the most radically important one-liners in this entire text, Dr. E here answers writing instructors who understand Black literacies as “extra”, as something they “don’t have time or space to add into” the curriculum. Flipping the script completely — as Heather A. Williams did in Self-Taught, discussed here last week — Dr. E suggests instead that liberatory literacy engagement should in fact be the very fabric of all writing courses, rather than “add-ons” or extra. It’s not extra — I mean this colloquially as well — quite the opposite. Any course that does not engage literacy in these ways is actively harmful to students. This reframing of the norm as destructive rather than simply a “netural” engagement with what students “need to know” is extremely powerful, especially in the face of the abundance of white (women) teachers of college composition (and K-12 ), who all too often object,

“But I don’t know how to do this,” and “there’s just no room in my curriculum.”

Yoda from Star Wars shaking his head as he says,

Yoda from Star Wars shaking his head as he says, “Do or not there, there is no try.” Gif from http://www.sharegif.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/7-star-wars-quotes.gif

Dr. E reframes this refusal to centralize minoritized discourses and literacies as actively harming students (which, of course, it is). It is this reframing that needs to be taught in every intro to the English PhD class and every teaching practicum.

To address the “but how?”, Dr. E espouses learning, learning, and learning. She writes,

“To make literacy education relevant to the lives of Black students, an effort must be made to confront unethical educational practices, such as cutting Black students off from investigation and appreciation of their classical culture.  When we cannot facilitate students’ participation in investigating and exploring their literacy traditions, we’re actually teaching them that the world cannot be changed and rhetoric ain’t nuthin’ but rhetoric.”

So we must learn how to facilitate such participation, which — for white teachers like me, whose bodies and classroom presence inherently represent an active threat to the mental health and learning goals of students of color because my body and classroom presence inherently represents white supremacy — involves the surrender of expertise, the surrender of positioning ourselves as knowing more, knowing better, than our students.

Because, of course, we don’t.

A gif from the TV show Friends, featuring a wide-eyed, open-mouthed Joey staring in shock as Phoebe spews out,

A gif from the TV show Friends, featuring a wide-eyed, open-mouthed Joey staring in shock as Phoebe spews out, “That is brand new information!” Gif from https://s3.amazonaws.com/fanning-cloud-front/brandnewinfo.gif

So I suppose that sums up my proverbial anchor from this text: as a white teacher of college writing, I already make it my goal to weave my students’ various identities and forms of knowledges into the fabric of the course, rather than simply tacking some “supplemental” or “extra” readings here and there into a mostly white syllabus.

However, I have found myself stuck on how to move forward not only with affirming, but with developing the various modes of knowledges and literacy practices of my students of color (I’m not only thinking of my Black students, here). Dr. E lays out excellent practices and model works in African American Literacies, and I guess the takeaway from my anchor is the same thing we tell our students when they are stuck in a writing clusterf*ck:

Read more.

Learn more.

Practice more.

Because Black literacies are only some of the literacies in my classroom: my students represent and embody a plethora of literacies (worldviews, worldviews, as Dr. E reminds us) from all across Asia, from all across South America, from all across… everywhere. It’s Queen College, man.

Recognition and affirmation of these literacies is something I already try to give: that’s alright, but it’s not enough. I need to learn more (of everything) so I can be of even better service to my students in supporting them as they hone their own literacy practices.

Principal Wartz from Hey Arnold leaning toward a discouraged-looking Phoebe in a classroom otherwise empty of students, telling her that

Principal Wartz from Hey Arnold leaning toward a discouraged-looking Phoebe in a classroom otherwise empty of students, telling her that “We’re proud of our multicultural students here at P.S. 118.” Image from https://media3.giphy.com/media/uQ07tr7x6vaGA/200_s.gif

This intimately involves a reframing of how we discuss “multicultural” classrooms. Dedefining “multicultural” so it doesn’t mean a commitment to tokenizing people of color in, for example, college brochures, Dr. E’s work resituates multiculturalism as a radical, rather than white liberal, means of doing curricular and activist work: in her hands, multicultural classrooms become classrooms which prioritize “instituting Black, Latino/a, Native American, and Asian peoples, studies, and pedagogies into the center of the educational curriculum and traditional institutions, in a way that expands upon and critiques received knowledge.”

As she points out, the need to reshape the classroom spaces we make for our students is quite literally an issue of life or death.

Final thoughts? Steven Willis should really take this one home (or, as he says, dismiss class).


19
Feb 16

Self-Taught to Challenge Exceptionalist Narratives

I started reading Heather Williams’s Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom on day two of my bronchitis-ridden body’s stubborn attempt to trudge out into the snow and do things, after resting (eg not going to the gym) for a highly irritating four whole days. Day two witnessed the same thing as day one of trying to emerge from sickville too soon: intense dizziness, fits of violent coughing, and the urgent, urgent need to crawl back under the covers after begrudgingly admitting to my concerned girlfriend that she’d been right in the first place: I’m still too sick to be out and about.

So, naturally, I decided to get ahead in course readings. Which brings me to Williams’s Self-Taught. After getting through a page or so — quickly excited by her presentation of a methodology that necessarily runs a blade through the mandate of periodization — I realized something else with glee: I was reading through this text without a problem. My dragging eyes and utterly exhausted mind were having no problem processing Williams’s introduction. Which is when it hit me how beautifully this book is written, and how it performs the kind of access that the history that infuses its pages emphasizes.

In her own introduction of this book to us (by way of the syllabus), Carmen reminds us not to “try to sound like Grad-Student-Turned-Derrida-Extraordinaire” (which I appreciate more than I can possibly describe. No syllabus has ever made me snort with laughter before. Life seems… complete now.). This reminder is particularly apt for this text, because — while it is supremely researched and is by leaps and bounds the most powerful monograph contribution to U.S. educational history that I can think of — the text itself defies expectations of what scholars are “supposed” to write like. It does not make itself incomprehensible in the name of “sounding academic.” Instead, its poetics are of a different kind: its incisiveness is made all the more powerful by the crystal clarity and accessibility of its language.

Perhaps as important as the history it provides is the rhetoric with which Self-Taught provides it. Williams brilliantly rewrites the typical codes with which dominant historical narratives refer to freed people and enslaved people: almost always identified alongside the note that x person was a slave, freed person, or former slave, dominant histories (like the rest of society) rhetorically establish whiteness as the identity that need not be spoken. Williams, however, only ever identifies white historical actors as such, making Blackness the default identity, decentering default whiteness from her history.

With each new personal literacy journey that she portrays, Williams rhetorically forces her readers to assume the Blackness of that the historical figures she discusses (who most often go nameless in white accountings). This centralization of Blackness in her narrative style reflects the centralization of Blackness in the history she tells, which powerfully situates Black Americans as the force behind the creation of a public education system in this country.

This issue of centralization comes up for me all the time while I’m teaching. With each syllabus I design, lesson plan I write, and lesson plan I change on the balls of my feet, I am constantly considering the immense impact of my white privilege in a CUNY freshmen writing classroom. We are taught — through everything we are exposed to — that teaching generally, and teaching writing specifically, is for white people (because everything is for white people). We are taught it so deeply that I hear colleagues say too proudly, too often, that they teach Octavia Butler’s work… amidst an otherwise overly bleached literary backdrop. Always the exception, like Frederick Douglass, for example, is always figured as the exception in narratives of Black literacy history. (Except, of course, in Williams’s telling.)

So, in the interest of refusing to only tack “other” things onto whiteness — in the interest, rather, of completely decentering whiteness, as much as my white body permits in the classroom — the question I ask myself during the design of my courses is always “what will this do for my students of color?” How can I centralize the various narratives of my students of color in my courses, such that I am not teaching an imaginary white classroom? (This imaginary white classroom is what white liberals inadvertently picture when they go simply for ‘awareness of oppression’ and tokenizing teaching agendas whose backbone is in fact, always, the re-centralization of whiteness.)

Williams’s Self-Taught is an excellent enactment of narrative construction that refuses to put whiteness at the center, recreating Blackness as the default. It is therefore, now, an aspirational text for me, both in terms of sharing the history it provides with my students, but also in learning from its models of accessibility, refusal, and reclaiming.


03
Feb 16

White Teachings and Black Literacies

Welcome to my mini-blog devoted to my weekly reflections on the course readings for Carmen Kynard’s African American Literacies and Education spring 2016 class at the CUNY Graduate Center! (For more on the class, check out the awesome course website here!)

In this blog, I will respond to the weekly writing prompt questions that Carmen provides, while grappling with how my body — ensconced in white privilege — interacts with Black and other POC literacies in my writing classrooms.


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