D.03 Embodiment, Disability, and the Idea of Normativity
Embodiment, Disability, and the Idea of Normativity
Chair: Pamela Saunders, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Unfortunately, one of the panelists (Nicole Quackenbush) was not able to make the presentation, but Catherine DeLazzero brought one of her wonderful undergraduate students (Amanda Blankenship) with her to present, so, we were treated to a full panel regardless. And while the presentations were quite different, all speakers discussed the way that a focus on the body impacts writing.
In “Navigating Normativity: Two Case Studies of Writers on the Spectrum,” Pamela Saunders presented her findings from two case studies of student writers who have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Given that diagnoses of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are typically marked by social and emotional impairments, coupled with an inability to communicate (and here, Saunders noted that an ASD diagnosis measures only verbal communication, not written, so her study attempts to begin to speak back to that gap), Saunders sought to determine how these two students “experience the normative gaze when they write,” especially how they experience and negotiate the social expectations of audience in their writing. What she found is fascinating and her talk has stuck with me for the last few weeks. I was particularly struck by her discussion of Sam, who, as she argued, clearly has a rhetorical sense of audience. Sam tries to imagine what “people” want in his writing, but he also realizes that he has no idea who these people are. Sam compares writing in college to computer programming, but notes that when he’s programming, he knows his audience: he’s writing code for the computer, and that audience doesn’t change and it doesn’t judge you. But when he writes for classes in college, the audience could be anybody. He laments, “People are wildly different. Who knows who could read [your writing], and so you have to think about all the different people who could possibly read it and write for each of them all at once.” Other people, said Saunders, are a big part of Sam’s writing process.
Toby, too, has a strong sense of audience. Toby explains that he now gravitates toward creative writing, specifically poetry, because there’s not a strong sense of right and wrong on which other people might judge him. And yet Toby knows that there are classroom expectations that he’s not always meeting. For example, when he submitted a little over a page of writing for a seven-page travel narrative assignment, Toby’s instructor, in an attempt to help him further develop his work, notes that he should think of a broader audience who might read his essay, not simply the instructor and his peers in the class. As Saunders noted, this connection to a larger, yet undefined, audience might be particularly problematic for students diagnosed with ASD.
Saunders concluded by asking for more research in this area. Until then, she asked that we, as instructors, “consider how our practices—though grounded in theory and well-intentioned—are centered on a concept of the student that is ultimately normative.” She reminded all of us that “at the very least, this approach does not meet the needs of some students, and at the worst it does intellectual harm to them as learners. There is thus a need for more research that might get at the inherent social dimensions of writing, and the ways in which writing as a social practice might be made more accessible and rewarding for students with a social impairment.”
Catherine DeLazzero shifted the discussion toward more concrete pedagogical practices, describing a class she taught on embodied writing. DeLazzero designed this FYC to foreground issues of the body, asking students to challenge dichotomies between body and mind, self and other, inside and outside, human and nonhuman, the body and text. While DeLazzero was excited about the course, she noted four things she would do differently if she were to teach it again: 1) Avoid asking students to define embodiment and embodied writing. Because DeLazzero sees embodied writing as amorphous, she saw students’ attempts to define it as limiting. Additionally, having students define the concepts early in the semester left little room for growth and change in terms of those definitions. 2) She would have focused students more on atypical embodiments, challenging students to see beyond the more normative conception of bodies and embodiment. 3) She would have given students more support on the form and structure of digital composing in order to better help them design effective e-portfolios, and 4) She would have more fully integrated bodily movement and activity into the course activities and assignments, perhaps asking students to move while they write, or move and then write.
What was perhaps most refreshing about DeLazzero’s presentation was what actually happened after her presentation. So many teacher-scholars talk about students and student work at CCCC, but DeLazzero actually invited one of her undergraduate students from this particular course to share her own e-portfolio and to speak about her experience of taking the class. To make space for the actual student—not just student voices, but actual embodied students—is a wonderful example of enacting the pedagogical theories of embodiment on which DeLazzero based her class.
Amanda Blankenship spent the rest of the time walking us through the (quite beautiful) e-portfolio that she designed for DeLazzero’s class. Blankenship explained that she focused her projects on violent acts related to the body. Reading excerpts from her essays, Blankenship showed how she came to see the body is always involved in writing and thinking, and how working through these concepts in DeLazzero’s class made the idea of the body as a tool for writing much more concrete.
Moving beyond operationalizing the theories to which DeLazzero drew our attention, Blankenship also talked briefly about how she believes we should shift our language away from the notion of “innocent bystanders” in relation to bodily trauma and, instead, talk about these people as “empathetic participants.” While Blankenship did not have time to expand on this idea, I see here real potential for important work in the field. Throughout Blankenship’s presentation, I was struck by how brave this second year college student is to speak to a room full of what she must see as university authorities. I don’t think I had that much courage at her age.