27
Mar 17

Anti-Ableist Pedagogies and You

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

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

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

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

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

Before we begin, though, a bit of background.

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

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

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

Environment shapes dis/ability.

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

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

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

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

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


02
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).

Citations:

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.


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.


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