Teaching disability studies

Yay, a post! I miss writing in this blog. Hello, blog.

I figure that a good post-hiatus post might involve what I’ve been up to lately that is non-dissertation — that is, teaching. This past quarter, I taught an undergraduate section of Intro to Disability Studies, the second time I’ve taught this course. And in the fall I’m teaching a special topics in literature course called Authoring Autism. I kind of figure that folks who read my blog will have a lot to say about the autism class in particular.

My course poster for Authoring Autism. The top portion reads, "What do these authors have in common?" Beneath the text are photos of Emily Dickinson, George Orwell, and William Butler Yeats. The text beneath the images reads, "Retrodiagnosis. Some PhD thinks they might have been autistic."

Above is an image of my course flyer — I’ve been posting these across campus. I decided on going the “famous people who might have been autistic” route not because I like to retrodiagnose dead people (I loathe doing that, actually), but because 1) retrodiagnosis is one among many topics I’d like my students to critically engage this fall, and 2) I was hoping to attract students, especially from the humanities, to my class. Class enrollment is up to 18 people, which is pretty good for a special topics course. < /explanation>

I’ve drafted a syllabus for the course, which you can find here in PDF format. I’d like to emphasize that it’s a rough draft, and I’m already making changes in the assignments, schedule, and readings (i.e., I’m adding in materials from the neurodiversity special issue of DSQ, giving students more memoirs to choose from, figuring out potential guest speakers, etc.). I’ve also included my course description behind the cut — at root, this is a course that considers how autism and autistic people are represented across media.

I am, however, open to suggestions. Ohio State terms run 10 weeks in length, so we’re limited with our time. But I’d very much like to find out what others in the blogosphere would like to see in a class like this.

Course description: Public discourse on autism has reached critical mass. It’s hard to open a newspaper, change a TV channel, or browse a Facebook profile without catching something about autism—the epidemic, the puzzles, the children, the charities, the discrimination. The CDC currently touts a 1 in 110 autism incidence rate; former Playboy bunnies claim that our government is poisoning children with heavy metals and dairy products; popular TV shows feature unemotional autistic characters with savant-like super powers; and college programs are molding the most autism-centric cohort of disability service professionals our country has seen to date. If we’re to believe anything we encounter in the media or popular literature, we can certainly believe that autism is everywhere and has the potential to touch anyone at any time.

With this supposed increase in autism has come an increase in texts about autism (across media, across genre), much of it volatile and emotionally charged. Our main objective in this class, then, is to consider the rhetorical import of these texts, to develop an understanding of autism as a complex and crucial part of the human experience, to examine the ways in which able-bodiedness (or neurotypicality) has become an invisible default. We’ll work together in exploring how the authors of these various texts aim to persuade an audience that their view is the most emotionally, ethically, or logically sound view. To that end, we’ll also investigate the many important issues—legal, social, cultural, medical, political—currently at stake in the autism world. Throughout the term, we’ll continually engage popular, literary, and scholarly representations of autism in print, film, and the blogosphere in light of the following questions: What does it mean to be an autistic person? What does it mean to be an autism parent, professional, or advocate? What does it mean to author autism?

11 thoughts on “Teaching disability studies”

  1. Personally I’m interested in how you go about getting a course you’d like to teach approved. That seems like a story in itself. I assumed from the dissertation discussion that you are primarily a student. If this assumption is correct, how do you go about offering your expertise as part of the faculty?

    (one of my aspirations is to eventually go back to the school where I got my bachelor’s and offer a more appropriate writing class)

    As per your question, I think one of the most important aspects in discussing authoring autism is the issue of credibility. Which is not to say I’m suggesting that the course should involve telling people not to write about it–but that I think there needs to be more honesty in published works concerning the limits of the author’s credibility. In the media, there seem to be a lot of people touted as experts who express expert opinions in areas outside of their expertise. There’s value in memoirs, there’s value in medical experts’ opinions, and there’s value in exposes. However, it’s important to recognize a work for what it is and admit that it’s not something else.

  2. Stephanie: Basically, this class is the result of a “contest” to teach a section of English 275, which is the department’s special topics in literature course. This past year, they offered two sections to graduate students, and anyone interested in teaching their “dream course” needed to propose a class topic with a mock syllabus. I won the fall 2010 slot with my autism proposal; another grad student won the spring 2010 course with vampires as a topic. I’m not sure how many grad students applied for the slots — but generally speaking, the special topics course isn’t something that we all get to teach a lot of.

    I will say, though, that there are other ways to teach towards one’s interests in my department. Our first-year writing courses are themed courses, and I’ve always taught it with disability as a topic. (It’s much different teaching a writing course themed in disability than it is teaching a straight-up disability studies course, though — with the former, you get students who are required to take your course and who may or may not have any interest in the course theme; with the latter, you get students who are doing a DS minor or who have a defined interest in DS. This isn’t to say that one group is better than the other — just that they involve very different approaches).

    What you say about credibility (ethos) is really important, I think. Because I’m a rhetoric person, I always seem to involve rhetorical appeals (ethos, pathos, logos) into discussion when I’m teaching, no matter the course. What I always marvel over is how many (not all) of my students interpret credibility when it comes to autobiography and cognitive/mental disabilities — as if these “sorts” of disabilities lessen an individual’s credibility. It also brings up issues of how we understand what credibility *means*, what rhetoric *means*.

    I think you’ve convinced me to put credibility as a course topic heading for a class period or two!

  3. Just some further musing on what I’m also now considering: I’m thinking of giving students a choice between reading Curious Incident and Speed of Dark. (Mostly because it’s very possible that students have read Curious in another disability studies course at OSU.)

    Also, I’m thinking of having them read Burke’s Terministic Screens; and I’d also like to have them read/view something that details why functioning labels = epic fail.

    Finally: I’m creating a longer memoir list and will ask students to choose one. So far I’ve got Isaacson’s The Horse Boy, Savarese’s Reasonable People, Prince-Hughes’ Songs of the Gorilla Nation, Williams’ Nobody Nowhere, Wilson’s Weather Reports from the Autism Front, Grandin’s Emergence. Other suggestions?

  4. Your course sounds fabulous, and I’m sorry I’m not able to take it myself. And I’m quite chuffed to be included in your syllabus. 🙂

    Some memoirs you don’t have on your list that I like include Valerie Paradiz (Elijah’s Cup), Tim Page (Parallel Play), and to a lesser extent, Liane Holliday-Wiley (Pretending to Be Normal). I think Tim Page’s work is especially interesting and rare in the realm of autie-biography. It’s typical for autistic memoirists to constantly explain their lives in terms of the DSM criteria and common scientific ideas/stereotypes about autism. Page just tells his story, and when doing so runs the risk of people accusing him of not being really autistic (as many Amazon reviewers do). It’s really quite interesting and raises some interesting questions about authority and credibility that you’ve been talking about in the comments. Page was also very nice when I met him at an event several months ago.

  5. Sarah: Thanks! I’ve done a blog carnival assignment twice now in the Intro to Disability Studies course that I’ve taught, and your blog is one that consistently appears (positively, of course) in student essays.

    Also: thank you thank you thank you for the book suggestions. I’ve been debating about Holliday-Willey’s book… because it struck me, like you say about autie-biography trends, as a book that often matches up major life events to bullet points in diagnostic manuals. I might be acting too harsh, though; what I might do is see if there are one or two chapters that I can assign by themselves.

    I’d forgotten about Paradiz’s book, and will definitely add that one. And for some reason, I wasn’t aware that Tim Page wrote a book! I remember his essay by the same name appearing in the New Yorker some years back. I’ll have to check out the book.

  6. Oh, wow. That feels pretty great.

    I agree with you about Holliday-Willey. One reason I suggested it is that it seems to be one of the most frequently-mentioned memoirs, certainly in regards to the Asperger’s label in particular. Unfortunately, most of the most popular books tend to be of that mold. Another popular one, though I really, really dislike this one for reasons which aren’t entirely rational, is John Elder Robison’s “Look Me in the Eye.” Again, it’s quite medical model.

  7. The course sounds lovely! It also makes me even more interested on pushing for an elect course that does Lives with Disabilities in Literature. (Currently I’m taking Women’s Lives in Literature as part of my graduate studies, but I can also design my own courses for me to take–not sure how yet, but I think it’s worth investigating.)

    I’m glad you were able to use my suggestion–and, of course, you brought up so much more than I’d considered!

    Good luck!

  8. I know I come to this discussion late but I am in the process of finishing the development of a six session course introducing disability studies to occupational therapists so this blog post interested me. I may ask you more about course development at a later time.

    I just wanted to comment on Sarah’s critique of “Look Me in the Eye”. I also disliked the book and didn’t even finish it. It felt like a boys’ book. Like when rock guitarists or drummers go on and on and on for a solo. The book gave me that same feeling.

    Your blog is like a gold mine to me. No a treasure chest or the tickle trunk. Canadians will know what I mean by the tickle trunk – from an old children’s show called Mr. Dress-up.

    Enough blabbing. Thanks to both of you.

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