Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Introduction to Disability Studies with David Mitchell

"Disability exists at the fraught intersection 
of environments, bodies, and beliefs."
David Mitchell

The Introduction to Disability Studies
premiered at the George Washington University
in the Fall 2013, led by Prof. David Mitchell
MW 12:45-2:00. Room: 1957 E Street, Room 111

Unsettling Foundations

When our new faculty member Prof. David Mitchell and his trans* graduate assistant (me) rolled into the classroom in September, it is hard to guess what the students' expectations were for an Introduction to Disability Studies and how they might already have begun to be transformed. Upon entering, one of the first things we discussed was the inaccessibility of the many tiered class-room. 

While we went through the syllabus, we opened up each point into a full discussion of what it is we mean when we come together to discuss disability studies. Together we developed goals for the course to analyze disability:

  • as aesthetics (the ways that some bodies make other bodies feel when sharing space), 
  • politics (social forces that threaten to devalue some bodies on behalf of other bodies), 
  • and systemic alternatives (how do disabled lives differ and, therefore, offer glimpses into other ways of being human). 

The project of the first several days was to introduce the students not simply to a new field of thought, as something separate and pre-existing, but to establish a way of thinking that actively involves them in the production of disability studies.

This was accomplished through what I would describe as a take on the Socratic Method. Students found themselves as the primary texts and speakers in the class-room, questioned for their knowledge and position. Once a tentative route was offered by the class, the readings and expertise of the instructors would help them down the path.

This methodology led us to work through the history of disability in the late medieval period with the enclosure of Teresa de Cartagena, a 15th century deaf noble-woman taken from a life at a university and confined to a convent where she wrote the Grove of the Infirm, to the 20th century with the development of eugenic technologies of confinement and the eradication of bodily difference:

  • Statistics: Grading "Health" via a Bell Curve
  • Migrations: Controlling Nodes of Access & Exclusion
  • Urbanization: Exploiting Mass Labor Populations
  • Industrial Revolutions: Standardizing "Valuable" Work and "Productive" Bodies (Human-Cog Theory: Interchangeable Parts = Interchangeable Workers)
  • Institutionalization: Closing-off Environments

In time the students began to say, "oh but doesn't that go too far?" and "well, what about this?" Then the counter-arguments and questions would arise from the students to work against their initial hypotheses.

Once this pattern was developed between the students, the instructors and the theorists (from the Disability Studies Reader), we began to stretch our muscles with two novels: Good Kings, Bad Kings, and the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, as well as a variety of independent films.

"þæt wæs god cyning!"
(That was a good king!)

Good Kings, Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum became our touch-stone for the month of October as we explored topics of madness, representation, sexuality, and environment.

Detailing a privatized assisted living facility in Chicago, the Illinois Leaning and Life-Skills Center (ILLC), Nussbaum's book imagined the lives of people caught in the industry of marking and managing bodily difference. The students came to see that disability is not simply what is being contained, but is what does the management. 

Students asked: Why is it that this person in a wheelchair works the facility while these people in wheelchairs are being confined? Why is this sexuality (and queer gender) ignored, punished, or used to control the patients?

What is the difference between "Jimmie," a butch lesbian worker at the ILLC, going to a queer club (full of butches, femmes, transwomen & drag queens), a space where people come together and struggle with...

  • Mutual Devaluation
  • The Danger of the "We"
  • The Provision of Social Space in Which Differentiation Can Occur

... and "Yessenia's" experience of being brought to the ILLC full of distinct tools for fixing identity positions?

  • Coercive Lock-Ups
  • Restraints
  • Medication
  • Sexual Prohibition

These questions brought us to begin destabilizing the terms of disability that we had been working with throughout the semester: impairment, disability, homosexual, gay, feminist, queer, crip. How might identification (the active association between club attendants) and identity (the administrative labeling of bodies) work as tangential but conflicting processes?

Tracing these intersections not only allowed us to see how disability participates in a host of other identities, but demonstrates how the mechanisms that operate disability in the world are present in spaces seemingly devoid of it. This networking and intersectional management of bodies produces many advantages for corporations such as the ILLC:

  • making it difficult to locate abuse in any particular place, 
  • creating the ability for deniability, 
  • allowing no one person to have the full picture, 
  • making the data itself shifting and inexact
  • causing alienation between potential alliances
  • raising up one group to administrate another

Neo-Liberalism is a very adaptive network of social relations. The very intersections and contingencies which allow for resistance and subversive sub-cultures to form, can be deployed to defend the system from attack. It is not enough then to find sexuality folding into disability and impairment being read into race or gender, our critical acts need a certain radical inclusiveness if they are going to sustain the fight on so many fronts. We need to not simply reject an answer, but learn how to reject the very premise of a host of questions that seek to fix identity and position bodies against one another.

Imagining Alternatives

With our mode of discourse and critical questions in hand, we proceeded to look at the very mechanisms by which we have been engaging in Disability Studies: persons and text.

"What if your primary impairment was a lack of access to other humans?" asked Prof. Mitchell. How does the University and the classroom we work in participate in the confinement of certain bodies from society, not only by who it brings in to work the environment but by all those it excludes? This brought us to explore our next section on Autism led theory.

From late October into November, revving up on questioning the absent presences and operations of disability hidden in plain sight, our seminar was visited by writer and scholar Michael Berube who helped guide our discussion on Autism.

Working on the edge of our critical theory, Berube called on us to not become complacent in our study of disability. If we grasp at the terminology currently on the forefront of medical or social knowledge about Autism (for instance) we will be trying to hit a moving target. No two people on the Autism spectrum are the same and the very tests that determine their disability are suspect, argued Berube. If the project of Autism is to be productive, then we need to turn our investigation back on ourselves, to see what propels the project of trying to distinguish these lives from others. We need to remain ever suspicious of our own participation in the conversation.

This lecture helped us work through the next section of the seminar, focusing on the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon. Written from the perspective of a boy located on the spectrum, the Curious Incident follows him as he explores the death of a local dog, what happened to his mother, and his relationship to his community.

The style of Haddon's writing attempts to translate an experience of Autism for the reader, using short and detail-rich descriptions of events. This allowed students to put their rich theoretical tools into practice with literary criticism; attending not only to questions of "why" but the "how." Living within the world of the text, we developed a sense of what moves Christopher through the story:

  • Avoidance of Emotional Cues
  • Hyper Awareness of Surroundings (Hyper Sensitivity), Flooding the brain with too much information to process.
  • Cross-Species Identification (enjoying other bodies and modes of relation outside the norm)
  • Frustrated human contact (Body Language/Metaphors)
  • Regimented Thinking

As a work of fiction, the Curious incident does more than simply describe a state of affairs, but presents us with an imagined world full of alternative spaces with alternative rules. Understood in the context of Christopher's environment, he possesses a disability. Over the novel, Christopher helps to imagine other contexts where his body's distinct traits would make him super-able:

  • Sub-cultural niches
  • Flying through the galaxy on a space-ship
  • Private areas in the shed or boiler-room
  • Post-Apocalypse, in a world without eye-contact
  • Deep in the darkness of the sea

Christopher's story brought us back from considering disability in critical theory to disability in the body to disability in the environment. Each aspect ties into one another, but does different work at each point. Do we need to keep working at the edge of our how we talk about disability? Do we need to keep attending to the details of individual experience? Do we need to remember and rebuild the environments that structure how and who gets to have these conversations? Yes, yes, and yes. Even as the students' skills began to show, the work continues.

Bringing it Home

Going through the circuit of environments, bodies and beliefs, the final section of the seminar brought the lessons home for the students. From late November into December, the students watched a series of independent films, read personal accounts and worked on their own disability narrative.

Watching films by and about people living under the tent of disability, the students became familiar with a variety of methods of narrating person experiences. Among the many films, What It's Like to be My Mother helped students imagine shifts in perspective, from voyeur to exhibitionism, from manager to managed, from child to parent. I'm In Away from Here offered a variety of non-verbal story-telling methods that told a story as much through the points where connections are refused as where they are made.

Beyond film, we also looked at the personal narratives of Michael Berube's "Life as We Know It" and Eli Clare's "Stones in my Pocket, Stone in my Heart." Students became at ease with uneasiness, learning through the writers that struggling with how to tell a story and make sense of events can be an affective way of narrating personal experience; and may be more true to life than attempting to pin down events with over-determined frames.

Students were then challenged to write their own narratives of disability, drawing on experience and knowledge from outside course texts. Bringing their own voices into the conversation, students wrestled with the pathos, lack of clear reason, and overwhelming social and linguistic demands for putting life into words. How different the conversation with the students became when disability turned from something on the page or on the screen to something in their day to day!

Bringing the semester to a close, students shared their final term paper projects in class before disappearing into the mists and shadows of writing. Touching base with the students and with each other, Prof. Mitchell and I reflected on where we have been over the semester and what it means now that the class has been "introduced to disability studies." How many different trajectories each person has taken! The difference within a community and the diversity of reactions to a shared experience never ceases to amaze. 


On a personal note, my favorite part of being the graduate assistant to this seminar was the roll back from class to Rome Hall where final details of class administration would happen. In between, we would digest the banquet of thoughts that were generated in class each day. What this simple act of taking time and touching base underlined for me was how a seminar caused us to process and re-process things; bringing many things we thought were settled into new life.

Such conversations can also work help develop the dizzying play of professional and personal particularities. How do we listen to our different intelligences and instincts to produce better work and work that produces a better life? In many respects, while I was welcoming Prof. Mitchell to the GWU faculty, he in many ways was helping to welcome me into the world of academic life. It may be a bit sentimental to end simply with appreciation and thanks, but I have long agreed with Maya Angelou when she said "People will forget what you said, People will forget what you did, But people will never forget how you made them feel."

Thanks David!


[David Mitchell welcomes Michael Berube to the seminar]

"Mr. Wells' point was this. That we cannot be certain about the inheritance of health, because health is not a quality...
not the result of fixing one steady thing to a second steady thing; but what will happen when one toppling and dizzy equilibrium crashes into another."

GK Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing your reflection on a wonderful class. Way to go!