Disability Rhetoric

disabling writing, in a good way

Monthly Archives: October 2015

Disabling Writing Program Administration

This latest post comes from Crystal Benedicks (benedicc@wabash.edu), an assistant professor of English at Wabash College. It starts with Amy Vidali’s recent article in WPA, as a response to her call that we “disable” writing program administration.

I look forward to posting more, and as always, contact me at dev.k.bose@gmail.com if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for the site, or would like to joint the DS-Rhet listserv. —Dev

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“ . . . I suggest that we disable writing program work, which means knowingly and innovatively thinking through and with disability, particularly in the stories we tell about ourselves.”

—Amy Vidali, “Disabling Writing Program Administration” in Writing Program Administration, Spring 2015

In a season marked by prominent publications in disability theory and rhetoric, Amy Vidali’s call for WPAs to “disable” their stories is particularly cogent. She argues that many traditional and abelist narratives of WPA work include “depression and anxiety” as “primarily metaphors for the job, rather than something real.” Job-related anxiety routinely figures as a “badge of honor for being dedicated to your work,” an accolade that “heroic” and otherwise presumably able WPAs garner as they fight the good fight against the potentially draining and disabling forces of university administration. Vidali points out that this typical narrative restricts disability (in this case depression and anxiety) to a nauseous side-effect of WPA work and forecloses the possibilities of a more “productive” inclusion of disability in the very fabric of this work and the identities of those who do it.

Vidali’s essay crystalizes for me the disability themes in my own history of becoming a WPA. In the spirit of her call to disable writing program work, I offer the following vignette:

I’m a WPA and writing teacher at a small liberal arts college. But several decades before that, I was a child in the backseat of my parents’ minivan as we pulled into a local strip-mall. I forget the purpose of this family trip, but it was something about which we were all excited. “We are pregnant,” My father announced playfully, “with anticipation.” My mother turned some essentialist feminist scorn his way: “You can’t be pregnant with anticipation. You can only be pregnant with a baby.”

As the paraplegic mother of three children she was told she would never have, my mother took physical metaphors very seriously (and she mostly didn’t take them at all). I don’t think she had the luxury of thinking of the body as a metaphor: As a child with polio, my mother was a March of Dimes poster girl and, later, a clothing model, noted for the double-bind of her obvious beauty and her obvious disfigurement. I know she didn’t have the schooling to do fancy things with words: like many physically disabled children of her time, she was placed into “schools” for mentally and intellectually disabled children—and not much was taught in those institutions. Her spelling and pronunciation are still not standard. Meanwhile, as a first-generation college graduate and then-doctoral candidate, my father prided himself on his newly-found powers of metaphor and word play. As a child and incipient academic, I was impressed with my father and vaguely annoyed by my mother.

When I think back on how I got to be a WPA, someone who pays attention to questions of access and communication, this story looms large for me, although I’m not sure I fully understand all the implications. The landspace of my sympathy has shifted: I hear my mother now in a way I didn’t then. I’ve grappled with and continue to come to terms with my own infertility, unexpectedly replaying my mother’s anxieties about the maternal body. I’ve been humiliated and surprised. I’ve seen the toll that the medicalization and pathologizing of the body takes on a career and on a relationship, and the ways in which the foregrounding of the suddenly “deficient” physical self smashes neat academic perceptions of mind and body, work and life.

Like the depression and anxiety Vidali discusses, infertility is often an invisible disability. Another invisible vector of disability is the ways in which one is shaped by having a disabled family member. Unless I disclose that the fact that I grew up with a disabled mother, no one will know. Similarly, unless I disclose my infertility and the co-attendant anxiety and depression, I pass as a perfectly “normal” “woman,” especially because I now have children and create a regular, low-grade maternal spectacle in my very small town, lugging a crammed double-stroller through the farmer’s market. In fact, these vectors and echoes of disability are so invisible that I almost didn’t notice them myself: it was only several years after finishing a dissertation on Victorian poetry and nineteenth-century medical discourse that I realized I’d written a piece on disability. And it wasn’t until I found myself teaching in a composition program designed to provide access to higher education for precisely the students who least often graduate (economically underprivileged male minorities) that I realized I was trying to also intervene in my familial past, to hold open the doors, to grapple head-on with the awful sense of shame that can haunt those who feel themselves to be outsiders to higher education.

It strikes me that the dangerous thing about not recognizing this trajectory is that it would allow me to naïvely cast myself as an heroic teacher/savior, swooping in to rescue the disadvantaged students. Not acknowledging, even to myself, the role that disability plays in my life enables me to inoculate myself from it and locate it in my students, which only perpetuates the systems of shame and barred access that I hope to ameliorate.

The fact that it takes hard work for me to notice how disability has shaped my life and career is both testament to the ways in which disability is disavowed from productive narratives of self and suggestive of the fact that there is more uncovering to do, both for individuals trying to tell useful stories about themselves and for the field of composition and rhetoric in general. Compositionists often talk about “access” without noticing the ways that term is central to disability theory: it is after all a metaphor for the movement of bodies through space.

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