Thursday, September 24, 2009

Disability as Diversity: A Thematic Approach

Introductory Bio

Margaret Price is an assistant professor of writing at Spelman College in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in journals including CCC, Across the Disciplines, the Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies, and Creative Nonfiction. In 2011, the University of Michigan Press will publish her book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life.

Blog Entry

In 2006, I joined with the Committee on Disability Issues in College Composition (CDICC) to co-write “A Policy on Disability in CCCC.” I remember that many of our emailed conversations focused on the question of disability as “a diversity issue,” and the final version of the policy states: “CCCC affirms that people with disabilities bring a valuable source of diversity to college composition classrooms, university communities, and to our professional organization” ( The concept of “disability as diversity” has received considerable attention from writing teachers and scholars. A 2001 article in CCC, “Becoming Visible: Lessons in Disability” (by Brenda Brueggemann, Linda Feldmeier White, Patricia Dunn, Barbara Heifferon, and Johnson Cheu) noted that, in 1997, a motion at the CCCC Business Meeting asked that disability be included within the various “diversity” issues considered by the organization; and the sourcebook Disability and the Teaching of Writing (Bedford/St. Martin’s 2008) includes an article by Ray Pence, “Enforcing Diversity and Living with Disability,” that remarks, “That American studies would include class, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexuality seemed natural to me. [But] when I thought of disability as a subject of scholarly interest I confined it to applied fields such as occupational therapy and special education.” Other works, including Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture (Southern Illinois UP, 2001) and Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities (MLA, 2002), offer further exploration of disability as “a diversity issue” in the classroom, in pop culture, in historical and institutional documents.

I firmly believe that disability is—in the common phrase—“a diversity issue.” I’ve invoked diversity myself in various articles and essays about disability-studies (DS) in rhetoric, research, and pedagogy. And yet, as I continue to work to incorporate critical awareness of disability into my writing classes, I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with references to disability qua disability. Pence’s point about the commonsense association of disability with medicalized fields such as occupational therapy or special education remains true, despite decades of work by DS scholars to demonstrate the ways that disability is a cultural and rhetorical issue—in short, is a “diversity issue.” This post is in fact a story—a story about trying to teach disability as diversity, about trying to teach disability as an issue of rhetoric and body rather than medicine and diagnosis.

Since 2004, I have taught at Spelman College, a historically Black college (HBCU) for women in Atlanta. I am white, queer, disabled, and from the northern U.S. Although I thought a lot about my race and sexuality when I first arrived at Spelman—some of my thoughts are recorded in the Creative Nonfiction article “Then You’ll Be Straight” (2006)—for the last few years, I’ve been thinking more about disability, and the ways that it intersects with the local contexts of my Spelman classrooms.

Incorporating disability studies (DS) into classes at Spelman has been an illuminating journey. My aim in incorporating DS is to engage the concept of disability as diversity—that is, getting beyond dominant narratives of pity, tragedy, and/or redemption and addressing disability and “normality” as critical constructs. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and James C. Wilson have suggested that English studies and writing classrooms may be sites especially well-suited to such exploration, as it involves “the reading, articulating, and reinterpretation of meaning in language and culture” (“Constructing a Third Space,” in the MLA anthology Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities, 2002). It is often assumed that exploration of disability in the humanities classroom encroaches on medical discourses better-suited to biology or pharmacology; however, DS asserts that the questioning of medical discourse and its operation in the culture of power is a project that must be taken up in humanistic thought.

Probably because of our specific location at an HBCU, I have found repeatedly that students at Spelman are eager to compare the experiences of disability and racial oppression. Here are a couple of statements from first-year composition students (reprinted with permission) who took part in a collaborative project with an upper-level literature course, taught by Dr. Pushpa Parekh. In these two paired courses, we read and viewed disability texts/films and discussed them in an online asynchronous environment. Students from my first-year writing section wrote:

"I think that the disability movement parallels the Civil Rights movement in many ways. The idea is freedom and justice for all. Just as the Civil Rights Movement was a movement protesting unequal treatment and limited access (Jim Crow laws), the disability movement is one demanding recognition of human equality and value."

"I don’t think [disabled people are] saying to portray them as normal people with no problems but that they ARE capable of doing some things on their own. It’s kind of like when I hear that all black women are teenage mothers or that we’re not expected to go to college or to be that doctor or lawyer."

I have struggled to figure out how to respond to such comments. Comparing two different social movements, as the first student does, is one thing; comparing two different sets of human experience, as the second student does, is another; and in both cases, I find myself wondering—to what degree are such comparisons helpful and generative, and to what degree do they participate in a collapsing of difference? How can we get beyond classroom conversations on diversity that adhere to simplistic bumper-sticker nostrums (“Celebrate Diversity!”) and into the more complicated, localized, and sometimes painful conversations that lead to true coalition?

As I continue to revise my courses at Spelman, I find myself moving away from readily labeled identity categories (“disability,” “race,” “gender”) and toward themes that invoke these categories but—I hope—invite a more complex consideration of the categories’ intersectionality. For instance, last semester I taught an Investigation (qualitative research methods) class focused on the theme of “Investigating Wellness.” I chose this theme knowing that wellness has a particular meaning in Spelman’s local context: our health services center, which incorporates both a medical clinic and Counseling Services, is called the Wellness Center. I elaborated my hopes on the syllabus with this statement: “We will define ‘wellness’ broadly, so that it can refer to emotional, mental, community, spiritual, or physical wellness. Our investigations will include consideration of medical discourse, disability, Black women’s wellness, and challenges to conventional definitions of ‘wellness.’ Your own understanding of what ‘wellness’ means, and the ways your stance changes and deepens throughout the course, will be of central importance.” In the course, we read works ranging from Atul Gawande’s Better, a popular/statistical analysis of medical discourse (Metropolitan Press, 2007) to G. Winton James and Lisa C. Moore’s Spirited, a collection of writings that explore “the soul and Black gay/lesbian identity” (Redbone Press, 2006). Using the theme of “wellness,” I was trying to get away from the commonsense associations of disability: the wheelchair, “special” education, deficit.

Students rose to the theme with great energy and extraordinary resourcefulness, and pushed my own understanding of wellness—not to mention of disability, race, and a number of other identity markers—into new territory. Their research projects engaged questions on topics including food allergies, Black women’s emotional responses to Michelle Obama, depression and suicide, and HIV/AIDS. In most cases, the studies focused on discursive questions such as attitudes toward particular issues, or ways of defining them. One student chose to conduct a case study of a person she was very close to who has degenerative arthritis; the student’s major finding was that this person’s spiritual life was the key factor in her ability to live day-to-day with pain and impairment.

However, “Investigating Wellness” was not simply a success story. Familiar and problematic discourses continued to circulate in our discussions: for instance, the assumption that individuals should “overcome” obstacles, in reference to both race and disability, was heavily valued throughout the semester. Yet it was also one of the most fulfilling classes I have taught at Spelman. I had omitted my usual requirement for a “final presentation” from the syllabus, thinking that I wanted to spare students—and myself—from the usual round of dull PowerPoints and forced question-and-answer sessions. But to my surprise, students asked for an opportunity to share their findings, and together created a list of requirements for the kind of final presentations they wanted to see. (Among the collaboratively-determined requirements were “Make it interactive and fun,” “Don’t rely too heavily on a Power Point,” “What assumptions did you bring to the project that were challenged?” and “What other research questions did you find along the way?”) I discarded the readings and exercises I’d planned for our final two course meetings, and instead we ate pizza and talked about our research in terms of race, disability, gender, age, class, and many other factors.

That, to me, is a successful “diversity” experience. I had terrific students—I don’t want to underplay that aspect of it—but I think part of its success may have occurred because I consciously turned away from conventional markers of diversity (“race,” “gender,” “disability,” etc.) and asked students to foreground their own interests, their own curiosity about human experience. I have noticed that teachers in various sites seem to be moving away from what has called the “laundry list” of identity categories and toward notions such as “vulnerability” or “minority studies” (see the Vulnerability Project at Emory’s Race and Difference Initiative,, and the Future of Minority Studies Project, I believe that such themes invoke our diversity, our shared and different oppressions and privileges, our humanity.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Ecology of Diversity

Introductory Bio

Jill Swiencicki, formerly associate professor of English at the California State University, Chico, is now Visiting Assistant Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. She is at work on a project on women’s dissent rhetoric after 9/11, which analyzes feminist responses to the U.S. government’s actions after 9/11. She is also at work, with Thia Wolf and Chris Fosen, on an analysis of The Town Hall Meeting, their large-scale, public sphere experiment with first-year student writers ( Her third project explores the application of environmental sustainability methods to first-year writing pedagogy. Her writing has appeared in College English, Teaching English in the Two-Year College, Rhetorical Education in America, Multiple Literacies for the 21st Century, Rhetoric and the Global Village, and The WPA as Advocate for Engagement.

Blog Entry

I approach the problem of diversity mindful of the first law of ecology: everything is interconnected. Having taught for a decade in northern California at a university internationally recognized for its approach to sustainability, and in a state suffering through a long-term drought, I have been steeped in the rhetoric and reality of climate change. It is through these experiences that I offer ideas to shape our thinking about diversity. . . . (editor’s note: for a longer version of this essay with an extended discussion on interconnected thinking, diversity, and ecology, please see the url at:

We face dissonance and reconcile versions of competing realities by inquiring into the social systems we take for granted (Who handed you your morning coffee? Where were your shoes made? What happened to your water bottle when you threw it away? Why is it so hard to focus on our peers’ ideas in their writing, instead of their errors?). Some of the most interesting work in our field strives to help students to see their life as ecological—to make visible the structures and power relations embedded in their social system, to negotiate and experiment with what kinds of roles they want to more consciously play in the system and to use as many modes of communication as possible to do so.

A diverse ecology needs a sense of deep time—of how the past lives on in the present and has adapted to fit the changing aspects of the environment. Since the inauguration of President Obama, I have been asking my students at California State University at Chico the following series of questions: “What do you remember about the decisions of the U.S. government after 9/11? What have you heard from family, friends, and the media about the war on terror? How are you making sense of political events for yourself?” By-and-large, when faced with my questions, students don’t remember or know any specific details. Chico State is a liberal college campus in California, so there is a prevailing critical appraisal of the last administration, but when I pushed them to elaborate on their distaste or appreciation, they couldn’t offer many details. This situation is an easy reminder of the importance of replenishing our historical and intellectual habitat in times of transition, especially in times of political, economic, and environmental upheaval.

Karl Rove, former Senior Advisor and Deputy Chief of Staff to President Bush, is fully aware of the exigency of the situation. According to the news media and his own promotional website, Rove is busy on college campuses these days, creating the history of that period that many of my current students were too young to have engaged with critically. Pollsters, conducting exit interviews of the students who attend Rove’s lectures, have found that students leave the lecture hall, largely arguing that former President Bush protected our civil liberties in wartime, detained suspected terrorists appropriately, etc. In the battle for the signifier, history is written and rewritten. At this historical moment, which features the degradation of public education, infrastructure, the environment, social programs, and the arts, there exists what Annette Harris Powell’s terms the “noticeable gap between [diversity] discourse and students’ commitment, ability, and readiness to fully participate in this discourse.” The “gap” Powell sees is the problem and the possibility of the “and” that Condon registers in her blog.

The moment is ripe to restore to the record the rhetorical depth and breadth of recent political history. Asking students to become critical historians of the recent past, as Nancy Welch does in her compelling book Living Room, is less a battle for the signifier than what Gordon Wells calls “dialogic inquiry.” An interconnective approach hails writing students as inquirers that form questions they have a real stake in answering, researching and write that history with invested collaborators, each bringing a different set of experiences to the endeavor. Helping students become questioners is the fundamental restorative act for the learning system. This semester, while researching the phrase “corporate globalization,” Kelly, a student in my capstone course, argued in her end-of-the-semester reflection that it was important to form questions that “prod,” that are not “concrete,” and that engage her “conscience.” A great paradigm for structuring inquiry.

Because student inquiry requires an authentic purpose and audience, some of us in the field are sponsoring forums where students convene campus and community members to weigh in on the inquiries into power and difference that they are writing about. From 2004 until last semester, the writing program at Chico State collaborated with our First Year Experience program on a Town Hall Meeting, a place where first year writers—especially first-generation college students in EOP—lead conversations about their research on climate change, the Iraq war, and other issues of the day, with other writers from other composition classes, as well as campus and community members. We asked a simple question: what if we recommitted to restoring our campus habitat by starting with practices of respect for the youngest members of our campus community, those who are considered the least valuable to our ecological niche? This Town Hall Meeting contained significant elements of complete chaos every semester—dialogue turned pat, students spoke from their prejudices instead of their research, and adult experts sometimes forgot themselves and took over. But more often than those moments were ones that illustrated what civic interconnection feels like—moments where first year students say, “this helps me see what college is for,” “this makes me see how my writing matters,” “this makes me see what place I could have in the bigger picture.”

Last April I was asked to lead a workshop on white privilege for our campus’s on-going brown-bag lunch series, “Conversations on Diversity.” The room contained well over a hundred undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, and administrators. Knowing how differences in status, age, and racial identification can influence such settings, I was excited at the prospect of engaged dialogue among these registers. An interesting trend emerged in our conversation that revealed who felt compelled to enter the dialogue and who felt exempt from the shared endeavor—a dynamic that was an unanticipated outcome of the way I designed the workshop. A premise of interconnective thinking is that our realities are prisms of meaning; no one exists in isolation, and even our experiences, while different, have connections that make it impossible for us to exempt ourselves from the facets of reality that make up the whole.

I opened the workshop by defining white privilege, discussed the history of the term, and then moved to two rhetorics of revealing white privilege: the indexing or listing of privileges and the “awareness narrative.” I presented a short excerpt from Tim Wise’s viral essay “This is Your Nation on White Privilege” (, his controversial list of instances that help make visible the invisible, unearned social privileges that whiteness affords. Although index/lists are useful for discussions of diversity and identity because they keep things depersonalized, away from examinations of personal choices and experiences, the discussion we had also showed that they are limited in just that way: one can stand at a distance, remarking on these unfair privileges, while creating exemption/distancing narratives for themselves and others.

It was when we talked about another rhetoric of white privilege, the “awareness narrative,” that a split in participants emerged along racial lines. I asked participants to describe a time when they became aware of having a racial identity. A fascinating discussion emerged, as mostly undergraduates who were able to pass as white or Latino talked about being able to negotiate multiple communities, returning to their home community for safety, or questioning where that home community is anymore, especially on the campus. Students and faculty members talked in deeply specific, engaged ways about this kind of identity shifting. After a while, the director of Multicultural and Gender Studies observed aloud that no white people had spoken up in relation to the question. White privilege is often an exemption from the hard conversations about racial interconnection and power relations. These exemptions—“I didn’t cause climate change,” “My family are working-class whites, not privileged whites,” “I didn’t vote for him,”—are the very ones we need to construct pedagogies of interconnection around, ones that make a space (make a better space than I did in this workshop) for the emotional work/vulnerability such endeavors require. In this blog Morris Young argues that “there is a risk in reducing an understanding of diversity to fixed categories that mask more complex experiences.” His blog post, and the majority of posts, calls for us to “destabilize discourse” about identity, literacy, and diversity; starting with our multiple calls to examine our shifting, related identities—just as those students did in the workshop—rather than the supposedly fixed ones, has potential to capture the dynamic context of the ecosystem.

CCCC Annual Convention

2009 Convention logo

March 11-14, 2009
San Francisco, CA