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.”

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.

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.

Aug 16

“Cures”, Queer Pedagogy, and Affect in the Writing Classroom

When I read (and write) YA literature, I do so with a constant tendency to think of how we conceive of “cures” culturally. Whether squinting at PrEP ads on the subway (which of course is preventative rather than curative), staying up way past I-need-to-gym-in-the-morning-I-should-be-sleeping bedtime with the Magic or Madness trilogy, or flinching my way through the screamingly queer but insistently heterosexualized Maze Runner series, perceptions of “curative solutions” to power-generated dis/abilities are constantly on my mind.

So, when reviewing my notes for orals that left a scrawl of a note about Amy E. Winans’s queer pedagogical thinking next to Michalinos Zembylas’s thinking on critical pedagogy and emotions in posttraumatic contexts, “cures” streamed heavily back into my mind.

My scrawl from Winans writing was in the form of a quote, annotated just with an excited “Pedagogies and CURES” from me: she wrote, “Crafting a queer pedagogy entails disrupting binary models of sexuality in ways that engage with power, rather than obscuring such models within a language of tolerance with which we might seek to “cure” homophobic students” (107). A staunch believer that queer pedagogies are less about LGBT-ness per se (because simply “integrating” queer content into curricula for the sake of “multiculturalism” does not necessarily impact pedagogy) and more about challenging normative beliefs and practices about the creation of knowledge, Winans here highlights the affective push behind many instructors’ attempts to “queer” our courses.

Sure enough, stories and experiences abound in which professors bemoan students’ queerphobia and try to “expose them” to things that will “change their mind” — the problem with this discourse is often its positioning of (often white and cis/het) professor as enlightened and students (often POC, in CUNY at least) as unenlightened, as simply needing “better” knowledge.

And yet. And yet there’s always that ever present pit in my stomach and the tugging of my eyebrow upwards when a student, trying to be progressive, calls my people homosexuals. Only we can call ourselves homos! part of me screams, while the other part shouts right back that this student could be queer, too, and if not, that wonders which battles, which moments, can be used to critically analyze power and which will simply alienate students from an academic discourse that already strikes violently at so many.

And this is where Zembylas enters (though his analysis focuses on race, to the exclusion of sexuality), with his implications that the same disruption of binary models that Winans discusses with sexuality is a necessary component of what he considers critical pedagogy. However, while Winans pushes for analyses of power as the central analytical goals, Zembylas also uses the emotionally-tugging rhetoric of curing to refer to the “[un]enlightened” folk who don’t engage in his form of critical pedagogy (178). He argues that professors of critical pedagogy need to be aware “of the emotional consequences when they categorize individuals into ‘oppressors’ and ‘oppressed,’” because this will not advance a critique of binary logics (which Winans’s queer pedagogy encourages) (179).

Zembylas goes on to argue that Butler-esque mutual vulnerability is important in classrooms because it can open up needed discussions about which human lives are more grievable than others (184). However, in his contexts, I wonder how this mutual vulnerability can be achieved without producing a sense of false equivalency between the deep structural affective impact of white fragility and the deep structural affective traumas of racism. In trying to discuss posttraumatic contexts, Zembylas does not take into account what happens in classrooms when trauma — such as the perpetual trauma of people of color living in a white supremacist society, of queers living in a queerphobic society, and the combinations thereof — is ongoing, is persistent, is daily. Is reproduced by pedagogies that attempt to be critical by focusing largely on the feelings of privileged students. He writes that “the challenge in traumatized communities is often how to deal with the student who resists or rejects critical perspectives and who openly expresses racist or nationalist views because his or her privilege are being threatened or lost”, and he focuses largely on this imagined (and very real) student throughout his work (177).

Does this encourage a critical pedagogy that encourages a “curative” approach, whereby the affective and intellectual energy of the professor (and other students!) is largely devoted to “correcting” views rather than to teaching to, teaching for, students who are currently being traumatized by bigoted power structures?

In other words, what happens when an emphasis on teaching (in this context, teaching in the Winans-esque sense of “curing”) students who are resisting “critical” perspectives actually reifies dominant perspectives, encouraging professors to teach to white students instead of students of color, straight-cis students instead of queer students (etc.)?

Are there certain inevitable outcomes of this seeming clash between the affective energies behind normative knowledge-challenging and the power analyses that lie therein?

Perhaps these questions — and their nebulous, if not non-existent answers — are precisely what Winans was getting at when she wrote that queer pedagogy is about constantly challenging our perceived knowledge, about constantly calling both ourselves and our students to inquire:

“How do I feel and what do I know about this topic? Where does my knowledge come from? What is unknown to me? What is unthinkable to me and why?” (105).


Winans, Amy E. “Queering Pedagogy in the English Classroom: Engaging with the Places where Thinking Stops.” Pedagogy 6.1 (2006): 103-122.

Zembylas, Michalinos. “Critical Pedagogy and Emotion: Working Through ‘Troubled Knowledge’ in Posttraumatic Contexts.” Critical Studies in Education 54.2 (2013): 176-189.

Mar 16

Smashing Mirrors, Spoken Soul

“A language comes into existence by means of brutal necessity, and the rules of the language are dictated by what the language must convey.

There was a moment, in time, and in this place, when my brother, or my mother, or my father, or my sister, had to convey to me, for example, the danger in which I was standing from the white man standing just behind me, and to convey this with a speed, and in a language, that the white man could not possibly understand, and that, indeed, he cannot understand, until today. He cannot afford to understand it. This understanding would reveal to him too much about himself, and smash that mirror before which he has been frozen for so long.”

James Baldwin, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”

My students, almost instinctively, understand this pull towards needing a language to survive, needing to smash the damn mirror.

Whether we’re studying the writings of Junot Díaz and Laurence Yep or the various spoken word pieces we all bring to the table, my students write and speak beautifully — if tentatively (despite our open discussions of white supremacy and our class’s very POC-oriented playlist/syllabus, they are still in school and I am still their white girl professor) — about  various usages of Spanish, Chinese, and Spoken Soul as more liberating than “standard” English, as fundamentally able to convey depths of thought and emotion that bleached language cannot approach. They know, too, that certain linguistic cues almost inherently change the audience of texts, often signalling shifts from writing for their white professors, to writing for their various communities, to writing — radically – for themselves.

Sure enough:

“…White man tells me — hunh —

Damn to’ soul;

White man tells me — hunh —

Damn yo’ soul;

Got no need, bebby,

To be tole…”

Sterling A. Brown, qtd. in Spoken Soul

Sterling A. Brown’s celebration of catharsis vis a vis a blues-style celebration of melancholy validates my students’ insights: punctuating poetic speech with vocalizations of forced physical labor needs not name its discontent with the violence of whiteness. The affective power of this language need not be put into speech itself: as my students say, ‘it just gets at emotions the way ‘standard’ writing can’t.’

Along these lines, Spoken Soul serves as a sharp overview of much of the historical meanderings around meaning and surviving regarding the false binary between “Standard English” and “Black English” (as a stand-in for “everything else”).

The father-son Rickford team, in the Spoken Soul chapter simply called “Writers”, use these pages to lay out their first history of Spoken Soul (a term for “Black English” not yet tainted by the need for quotes around it to offset the history of ire and judgement of white supremacy surrounding terms like “vernacular”).

Instead of casting the violent history of white mangle-strangling of Black speech as the primary thread through which to write about written Spoken Soul, the Rickfords explicitly accord expertise into the hands of Black writers. Writers’ complex relationships to Spoken (written) Soul is made evident throughout this chapter, which provides historical accountings of white minstrelsy but focuses mostly on Black uses of Black languages.

Their discussion of James Weldon Johnson’s long and roller coaster-esque relationship to Spoken Soul begins following their accounting of the violence of minstrelsy and the ways that white writers and performers destroyed and devalued Spoken Soul in their blackface misrepresentations. This placement of their discussion frames Johnson’s (and others’) oft-resistance to Spoken Soul historically, drawing attention to the ways that audience (intended or otherwise) deeply impacts the performance of the verbal realm.

This resonates deeply for me, thinking about teaching freshmen comp: for whom do our students feel like they’re writing? How can we navigate the plethora of non-“standard” Englishes in many of our CUNY classrooms to encourage students to write “for each other” rather than for constraining, strangling white audiences (like… me)? What might it be like for white women teachers of comp (we seem to be… everywhere) to encourage our students of color to take a leaf out of Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston’s (proverbial and literal) books, since they “refused to shun the speech of the black masses just because outsiders had misrepresented it”? It seems to me that this reeks of white privilege: so what’s the acceptable ground here?

Students, I feel like, can get at this dynamic well through reading chapters like this, which gives them a great spread of literature. And, armed with today’s examples of these dynamics, teaching this text could have a lot of potential. The Rickfords’ discussion of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s frustration that “now they don’t want me to write anything but dialect” because white audiences wouldn’t recognize or widely read his poems written in “standard” English reminds me forcefully of Empire: mainstreamed white consumption of Black language, Black imagery, Black bodies, Black music, needs its Blackness to be suitably in “dialect” so as to not disrupt masturbatory white fantasies of Black (non)people.

“They love the way we talk,” my girlfriend said while we were watching some commercial that had a Black woman voicing over a magnetic refrigerator giraffe last night, “but they don’t want to actually deal with our bodies.”


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).

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.

Feb 16

Writing through Teaching

This mini-blog will enable me to write through teaching as I teach writing at CUNY Queens College. Since we often encourage students to write through their thoughts, I will use this space to write through mine, endeavoring to post about lesson planning, dis/ability in the classroom, and curricular design.

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