Research on online education in relation to disability has, importantly, focused on issues of access and usability. This article seeks to complicate this research by examining the ways in which online education participates in an ideology of normalcy. Toward this end, we first describe online education as a site that promotes normalcy through its material practices of marginalization. We then extend this reading by analyzing how cultural narratives about online education function as discursive sites of normalcy by marking both online education and its users as less-than substitutes for the "real" versions. By constructing online education as a prosthetic technology, these narratives persuade marginalized bodies to recognize themselves as problems in need of solution, yet this reading itself becomes open to revision when we consider how the complexities of embodiment challenge an understanding of normalcy as a determinate discursive force.
In the last decade, compelling research on the relationship between disability and online education has examined the complexities of issues such as usability and universal design (Abell, Bauder, and Simmons; Keeler and Horney); best practices (Cook and Gladhart; Griffin and Minter; Kim-Rupnow, Dowrick and Burke; Tobin); and access (Burgstahler, Anderson, and Litzcow; Burgstahler, Corrigan, and McCarter; Kinash and Crichton; Griffin and Minter; Lazar and Jaegar; Sachs and Schreuer). Importantly, this research has introduced a disability-studies perspective to conversations about online education for purposes of benefiting both individual participants and educational systems.
In this article, we seek to contribute to these conversations by more explicitly attending to the ways in which the dynamics of online education—broadly defined here as discourses about online education as well as the material effects associated with it—reinscribe an ideology of normalcy. That is, rather than propose revised pedagogies and practices that can better serve disabled populations, which remains an important goal, we instead shift our attention to consider how dominant beliefs about and engagements with online education problematically sponsor the very attitudes that make such revisions difficult. Specifically, we argue that while online education can provide educational opportunities to people who might otherwise be denied access to them, the dynamics of online education mark both online education and its users as less-than substitutes for the "real" versions. To make this argument, we draw on disability studies scholarship to examine how cultural narratives about online education reproduce an ideology of normalcy that marks difference as deficiency. In so doing, our goal is to understand how online education problematically functions as a prosthetic technology, an inadequate substitute for traditional place-based education through which bodies are both marginalized and expected to accommodate themselves in an educational system that views them as disruptive problems needing to be solved.
We employ the term prosthetic to describe the social function of online education consciously and carefully, understanding the term as both an embodied reality for those who negotiate material prosthetics, as well as an intellectually rich trope for those who theorize human-machine relations. In recognition of these dual uses, our description of online education as a prosthetic technology is intended to examine precisely this relationship between the material and the metaphorical. We argue that such an enmeshed conceptualization of prosthetic can not only help identify how online education normalizes (and thus does violence to) material bodies, but also suggest how material engagements with online education can be viewed as revisionary disruptions to normalcy as usual. Toward this end, we first describe online education as a site that promotes normalcy through its capacity to marginalize non-normative bodies. We then extend this reading by analyzing how cultural narratives about online education function as discursive sites of normalcy in which disparaging attitudes toward online education become attached to the bodies of its users. This attachment, we continue, persuades marginalized bodies to recognize themselves as problems in need of solution, yet this reading itself becomes open to revision when we consider how the complexities of embodiment challenge an understanding of normalcy as a determinate discursive force.
Normalcy and/in Online Education
Normalcy is an ideology that persuades bodies to accommodate to dominant social systems in ways that allow such systems to sustain themselves efficiently—that is, without having to expend energy to resolve disruptions to the status quo. Juxtaposing the concepts normality and normalcy, Lennard J. Davis explains that the former refers to the "alleged physical state of being normal," whereas the latter signifies "the political-juridical-institutional state that relies on the control and normalization of bodies" (107). Normalcy, then, points to the ways in which ableist assumptions form a network of belief that can function as an apparatus for controlling bodies (107). In this way, normalcy as a conceptual apparatus couples corporeal states and dominant ideologies such that their entanglement possesses a sense of permanency, which Davis marks through his use of the suffix —cy (106).
To understand normalcy as an ideological construct, Davis explains how, before the early-to-mid nineteenth century, the term normal did not exist. Prior to that, the paradigm in operation was the ideal, a framework that conceptualized "physical imperfections … not as absolute but part of a descending continuum from top to bottom" (101). No one could have an ideal body, and thus no one was expected to. The shift from ideal to norm occurred in the early nineteenth century with the development of statistics, and particularly the bell curve, which was originally named the normal curve (101). Unlike the paradigm of the ideal, the concept of the norm locates most bodies as falling within the umbrella of the curve. And since most bodies fall in the middle, the ones located at the ends are considered extremes or abnormalities. Not surprisingly, Davis continues, such a paradigm places "an imperative … on people to conform, to fit in, under the rubric of normalcy. Instead of being resigned to a less-than-ideal body in the earlier paradigm, people in the past 150 years have been encouraged to strive to be normal, to huddle under the main part of the curve" (101). Yet, as Jay Dolmage explains, the emergence of the modern norm, and the concomitant realization that no one can fully occupy the ideal position, did not jettison the classical concept of the mean, "the basis for comparing ourselves to others as we police ourselves" (29). In comparing ourselves to others, aberrations become abnormalities upon which the status of normal depends (22, 29). Taken together the norm, ideal, and mean construct what Dolmage calls the "normative mandate": the dual demand to "uphold the fiction of perfection and to generate the systematic self- and other-surveillance and bodily discipline of normative processes" (23). The imperative to recognize one's own and others' bodies according to the standards set forth by this mandate can be understood as an ideology of normalcy.
To argue that online education is a site of normalcy, then, is to argue that the dynamics of online education delimit a rhetorical situation in which bodies are compelled to conform to socially accepted norms in ways that sustain the normative mandate. Such an argument posits that online education, and distance education more generally, requires a more nuanced critique, one that contests the view that online education is simply about delivering education to students in new and better ways (see Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt 567). Thus, for example, while the history of online education is firmly located in distance education's push for democratization, especially in terms of creating access for bodies unable to pursue higher education via other means (Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt 568), this altruistic agenda, when considered as a normalizing force, suggests that we consider how online education helps to sustain the status quo by providing the means and rationale for keeping some bodies out of traditional educational spaces. Parents, full-time employees, persons with disabilities, persons living in rural areas—all are populations for whom online education makes higher learning accessible. With respect to these populations, online education is often seen as helping to "alleviate some of the practical challenges of getting to class that often lead 'at-risk' students to drop out of face-to-face classes (e.g., irregular work schedules, unreliable transportation, lack of childcare, other familial obligations)" (Griffin and Minter 146).
Yet by providing such access, online education also allows administrators and faculty at traditional institutions to continue to conform to the norms of educational systems and thus avoid undertaking the important material and ideological revisions necessary to accommodate nontraditional students. James C. Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson explain that especially within university settings, accommodation is widely regarded as a kind of onerous "special" treatment, a commonplace legitimized by an ideology of normalcy:
Concepts of universality and the norm are deeply embedded in academic culture, and inclusion can very quickly trigger cries of reverse discrimination, exclusion, or injury from the seemingly displaced group that identifies itself as the norm. (300)
Both Karen E. Jung and Lennard Davis analyze the ways in which ADA-mandated accommodations are constructed within institutions as posing "unnecessary burdens on scarce resources" (Jung), as making demands that could potentially "'cripple' the national economy" (Davis 132). Within the scene of the increasingly corporatized university, accommodation thus emerges as an economic problem, one that online education can solve.1
Simply put, online education can be said to "help" in more ways than one, for although it can provide nontraditional students with access to higher education, it also "benefits" educational institutions by keeping these same students out of sight and conveniently out of mind. When viewed in these terms, the increasing popularity of online education—in a 2008 study by Sloan-C Institute, online education increased in population by 17%, compared to 1.2% for traditional educational settings (Sloan 2009)—takes on a decidedly different tenor, one that complicates any simple narrative of educational empowerment and success.2
Pedagogical Oddities: Cultural Narratives about Online Education
The above discussion posits that online education is a site of normalcy because it provides the technological means for keeping nontraditional (i.e., non-normative) student bodies out of traditional classroom settings. As such, online education becomes a viable means by which institutions can make higher education accessible to those students whose very presence on campus would place economic and ideological "burdens" on normative culture. In this section, we extend our conceptualization of "site of normalcy" to include cultural narratives about online education. In these narratives, online education itself functions as a kind of marginalized actor in a larger network of traditional education. As such, online education can be understood as a technology that not only enables normalcy, but is itself subjected to its normalizing gaze.
To support this latter claim, in what follows we analyze discourses of normalcy circulating in pop culture and marketing materials to argue that despite the rising popularity of online education, the traditional place-based classroom remains the norm in the national imaginary. Importantly, however, the traditional classroom retains this status in opposition to the abnormalities associated with online education. For example, because it is only accessible via "special" technologies, online education requires something extra in order to work. This "something extra" in turn sustains the fiction of the traditional classroom as a unified and autonomous whole that works just fine as it is. Traditional place-based education thus assumes the status of the original and authentic form of education—it is "real" education—only because online education does not. The analyses that follow below illustrate this "logic of negation" (Dolmage 23) and support Larreamendy-Joerns and Leinhardt's claim that online education is a "pedagogical oddity, often requiring further justification…" because of its "… perceived 'unnaturalness'" (570). Viewed as a pedagogical oddity, online education emerges as the artificial other to a kind of education that, by virtue of being not abnormal, is also authentically "real."
This understanding of online education is enabled in many ways, but here we focus on how pop culture representations of and narratives about online education re/produce the dominant belief that online education is a substandard substitute for traditional place-bound higher education. Consider, for example, the popular television show Glee, in which two main characters, Sue and Will, debate who should exercise control over the Glee Club's practice area:
Sue: I'll have you know I have my Ph.D.
Will: [with sarcasm] Yeah, you got it online… [roaring laughter]
That Sue's rhetorical strategy—to build her ethos and win the debate by referencing her educational credential—is so obviously ineffective is evidenced by the laughter that follows Will's remark. Her rhetorical efficacy is further undermined by her position as series' antagonist, someone who stands in marked contrast to Will's teacher-hero. (Interestingly, pop culture narratives regarding online education almost always attach demeaning portrayals of it to less likeable, even villainous, characters.) Indeed, Will's role in the series evinces the degree to which the audience is supposed to agree with his opinion, since audiences tend to identify with protagonists. Explaining his concept of identification, rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke writes:
A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so. (20, emphasis in original)
In Burkean terms, then, viewers of Glee identify with Will because they desire to recognize themselves as being like him. Importantly, this identificatory desire is, for Burke, a necessary precursor to persuasion (55). In short, in identifying with Will, audience members are persuaded to accept Will's narrative about and disregard for online education: it's a joke. What makes this particular example so ironic (and perhaps insidious) is that Glee is marketed as a television program about the importance of inclusion and celebrating diversity. Yet in narrating online education as a less-than substitute for the norm, Glee's writers exclude those viewers who identify positively with online education.
A similar framing of online education occurs in the 2010 action-comedy film The Other Guys. This spoof of the cop-buddy genre stars Mark Walhberg and Will Ferrell as police officers in New York City. The pair are accorded little respect, both within and outside of the precinct. Wahlberg's character is seen as being ineffectual because of his accidental shooting of Derek Jeter, and Will Ferrell's character, Allen Gamble, is a forensic accountant who is not taken seriously as a real police officer. The disrespect due Gamble is further shored up by one scene in which he prepares to talk a man down off a ledge. "I took an online class at University of Phoenix on negotiating," Gamble yells, "I'm gonna need a priest and a bull horn." Laughter (presumably) ensues. Grossing over 170 million dollars at the box office, The Other Guys helps popularize and normalize beliefs about online education similar to those reproduced in the Glee episode discussed above. In response to both scenes, viewers are hailed to recognize that the humor comes from a shared understanding that no one would trust online educational training, especially in a life-and-death situation.
The belief that online education is a joke, or, perhaps in more explanatory terms, an abnormal and deficient form of education made spectacle in our culture, also circulates in marketing materials for online education. While the purpose of these materials is to laud alternate educational venues and thereby attract targeted consumers, their rhetoric nevertheless generates unintended effects that reproduce an ideology of normalcy. An advertisement for the University of Phoenix, for example, describes itself as providing "real degrees designed for the real world" taught by "faculty with real-word experience." Here, the repetition of the term real suggests an anxious attempt to compensate, to combat audience assumptions that online education is deficient because it is not normal. The ad's rhetoric thus reproduces the very belief it seeks to contest. In its attempt to preemptively squelch readers' doubts about the authenticity and validity of online education, to inoculate target readers against its assumed weaknesses, the ad also paradoxically reproduces the belief that it is not.
Cultural narratives about online education that construct it as an abnormal and deficient form of higher education extend beyond online education per se to include representations of and narratives about its users as well. Indeed, through these texts assumptions about online education become projected onto users. This linking—wherein beliefs about the abnormality of online education are subsequently mapped onto its users—can be understood as a process of articulation, which Laclau and Mouffee define as "any practise establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified… . The practice of articulation, therefore, consists in the construction of nodal points which partially fix meaning" (qtd. in DeLuca 335). Understood as a nodal point, an ideology of normalcy articulates a relationship between online education and its users such that both emerge as abnormal and deficient: both need supplements their normal counterparts do not.
This articulation is illustrated in advertisements for online education that construct its users as unable, as somehow lacking and, further, this lack as a problem online education can solve. An ad for George Washington University's online program, for example, states that theirs is a program for "working professionals and others unable to attend classes on campus." DePaul University explains that "the life circumstances of [their] diverse body of students sometimes prevent them from being on [their] campuses" but that its online program provides opportunities that will offer "little disruption to [the student's] family or work life." In both ads, it is the life circumstances of individual students, not the inflexibility of the institution, that prevents their presence on college campuses. Consider, too, the appeal made by Montgomery College to its potential students: the College's online program offers a convenient alternative for people
with continually changing work schedules or people who make frequent business trips, parents with small children, students caring for others or whose health prevents them from making it to campus on a regular basis, students whose friends or boyfriend/girlfriend drop in unexpectedly, or for those days when the surf and/or snow is wicked.
Although the above description of online learners begins by addressing legitimate material constraints, its final lines construct online education once again as a joke, a substandard alternative perfect for students who prioritize gnarly waves over serious learning. More broadly, all three ads discussed above establish traditional place-bound education as normal, and the inability to attend as abnormal and thus a problem in need of technological intervention. Importantly, the very need for this intervention is framed in terms of a problem that belongs to the individual.3 Furthermore, the reason someone might seek out online education (e.g., a person whose agoraphobia motivates her to learn online) emerges as a problem normal students don't have and thus for whom online education is not needed. The audience is thus positioned to link the question that motivates these advertising appeals, "Are you able to attend a traditional college campus?" to the unspoken, self-directed question: "Am I normal?" If the targeted reader responds in the negative, her answer firmly marks her as being unable to conform to the status quo and in need of "special" accommodation. Within an ideologic of normalcy, both questions function as accusations: there is something wrong with you. And because audiences who are not hailed by such marketing materials are never required to even consider either question, their status as normates and all the privileges it confers remain unchecked.
To ease the cultural anxiety associated with the idea of "special" accommodation, however, some universities emphasize the similitude between their online and traditional degree programs. Penn State, for example, explains to its potential online students that "Penn State [will be] on your résumé: A Penn State degree means something—that you take your education seriously. Your degree and transcript will be identical to those earned by our on-campus students." The visual emphasis of the bolded and italicized text, which promises an equal substitute for the norm of traditional education, communicates to potential students that the ability to represent themselves as identically serious students (not jokes) is something they should desire. In emphasizing this normative desire, the ad thus reproduces its converse: that no one would want to be recognized as an online student.
Online Education as a Prosthetic Technology
The above analyses suggest that online education circulates in the national imaginary as a less-than substitute for the "real" thing, a negative construction that in turn shores up the normative status of traditional place-based education. It is in this way that online education can be understood as a prosthetic technology, which we define as a culturally recognized inferior substitute for a nonexistent yet normatively desired ideal that both constructs its user as a "problem" (you're not normal) and provides the user with a "solution" (this will make you more normal).
We recognize, of course, that our chosen dyadic term requires some explanation. Disability scholars have carefully considered the affordances of metaphorizing prosthetic (see Mitchell and Snyder; Smith and Morra), yet critics of doing so argue that although as a theoretical framework prosthetic—and its capacity "to describe, decenter, and dream connections among bodies, technologies, and worlds"—has generative value, its use as a "theoretical gadget" risks removing from real, material bodies the "fact" of prosthesis (Jain 49; see also Ott et al. 2-5; King). Nevertheless, in much in the same way that Marquard Smith and Joanne Morra recognize the "voices of caution" in employing the term prosthetic while simultaneously not dismissing "out of hand [its] metaphorical potential," our analyses above demonstrate the insights that can be gleaned by "negotiat[ing] and critically interrogat[ing] both the material and the metaphorical possibilities of prosthesis" (3). Specifically, we argue that the metaphorical reach of prosthetic can sponsor a recognition of how technologies not usually conceptualized as prosthetics, such as online education, nevertheless function as prosthetics in the national imaginary. It is through this metaphorical reach that we can access new ways of understanding how an ideology of normalcy does violence to material bodies (a point we will return to and expound upon in "Schooling Emotion," below).
Our use of prosthetic-as-metaphor is also intended to acknowledge yet recognize the limits of posthumanist claims that we are all cyborgs, all of us functioning via accommodations made available by various technologies (see Ott et al. 3). Consider, for example, Diana Price Herndl's posthumanist take on Audre Lorde's construction of prosthesis-as-silence. Briefly, Lorde argues "against women obtaining prosthetic breasts after a mastectomy," for, as Kelly Fristch explains, Lorde "maintains that the prosthesis silences and renders invisible the difference that she wishes to affirm: that breast cancer is not a private, nor a secret personal problem, but is rather a political issue" (62-63). Posing the choice of prosthesis as a political one, Lorde questions whether prosthetic breasts would serve herself, as a way to deny the trauma of what happened to her, or benefit others, as a way to help them avoid a confrontation with normalcy. In her response to Lorde, Herndl argues that in a posthuman world the body is always already manipulated, and, further, that Herndl's choice to undergo plastic surgery to reconstruct her body ensures that she will never forget how bodies are always undergoing production and re/construction. While Herndl's important point speaks to Lorde's first concern—how the reconstructed body recognizes itself—it fails to address the second, namely, how a dominant understanding of prosthetic thwarts a confrontation with normalcy and its concomitant recognition of difference as deficiency.
In other words, posthumanist claims that all bodies are always already being manipulated and under construction cannot recognize and thus cannot contest an ideology of normalcy that views some entities as inadequate substitutes for the "real" thing. It is for this reason that we offer prosthetic technology as a conceptual apparatus that performs this ideological work. In so doing, we acknowledge and affirm the functional and emotional benefits of material prosthetics. We also celebrate scholarship that theorizes the generative potential of disability and foregrounds the inherent interdependencies—technological, intercorporeal, intellectual—constitutive of human existence (see, for example, Dolmage; Price; Siebers). Unfortunately, however, normalizing beliefs about and attitudes toward prosthetics aren't just going to go away, so we need to remain vigilant about how technologies constructed as deficient substitutes sustain an ideology of normalcy. We thus appropriate the metaphor, examining how technologies like online education function prosthetically so that we can begin to disrupt their normalizing power.
Our use of the term technology is meant to draw attention to the body's historical, cultural, and socially tenuous relationship(s) with technology. Various technological inventions now allow bodies to function in ways they previously could not: bodies can survive disasters, diseases, and traumas through surgical interventions that were previously nonexistent. Technologies help us connect and maintain relationships with others. They sponsor reconceptualizations of the work and space of various institutions, including education. They allow us to work late into the night, at coffee shops, on various kinds of transport. They offer a flexibility and usability not known before this historical moment.
Yet technology can also be understood in a broader Foucauldian sense: as an "intervention on the body to promote discipline" (Booher, "Defining"). Such a meaning draws attention to how a dominant understanding of technology as a neutral and objective method of intervention on bodies strengthens its normalizing power. In her study of how science, and the medical industry in particular, uses technology to "fix" intersexed babies, for example, Sumi Colligan argues that scientists see themselves as "creating technology, not culture" and thus have no qualms about creating technology that may be able to genetically test for intersexuality (and many other disabilities and differences) in the womb and eradicate them, or eradicate the bodies to whom these differences belong (55). Of course, this technology is framed as a solution to the problem of birth "defects," thereby supposedly serving the best interests of mothers and children. When viewed through the frame of normalcy, however, we can understand "corrective" surgery as sustaining dominant culture's belief that fitting into one of only two sex categories is both natural and preferable. In this way, technological interventions on non-normative bodies serve the status quo by easing normates' anxiety about bodily difference while simultaneously allowing them to avoid confronting the very ideology that frames such anxiety as both natural and acceptable. Such a framing, paired with a cultural habit of lacking critical engagement with medical discourse, can make bodies more docile, more servile, much less likely to question technologies and medicine, and more likely to trust technology and medicine as agents acting on their behalf.
Unlike technological interventions that enable some bodies to "pass" as "normal," however, prosthetic technologies fail to adequately "solve" the "problem" of non-normative bodies, for they themselves are culturally constructed as being not quite up to par (Jain 32; McLuhan 7; Smith and Morra). Thus, while online education promises students the equivalent of a traditional education, it's not recognized as being normal, and thus neither are its students. It is in this way that one's use of a less-than substitute for the norm extends beyond the technological apparatus to mark the user herself the same way. Prosthetic technologies like online education can thus be understood as retrofits. To retrofit, Jay Dolmage explains, is to "add a component or accessory to something that has already been manufactured or built… . [The retrofit] acts as a sort of correction" (20). Although well intentioned, for it "speaks to our desire for equality" (20), the retrofit also indicates that those who use them are afterthoughts, clearly supplemental and always nonoriginary (21-23). Retrofit accommodations like online education are thus perceived as functional, but lesser-than, versions of the original. By attaching such negative value to these accommodations, and then projecting that negative value onto individual bodies, cultural narratives about online education persuade targeted bodies to feel shame for their alleged inability to conform to standards of normalcy.
Schooling Emotion: Shame and/in Online Education
A third and related site of normalcy that is entangled with online education as both a functional technology and a discursive construct is constituted by the emotions that circulate with beliefs about online education and its users. Scholars in disability studies have, of course, carefully examined the ways in which the perception of disability-as-deficiency generates emotional responses that sustain an ideology of normalcy. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson argues, for example, that a charity model of disability produces pity, wherein the person with a disability is viewed as a "sympathetic victim or helpless sufferer needing protection or succor" ("Politics" 63). Read through what she terms a "rhetoric of sentiment (63), such an emotional response provides comfort because it both "assuages a shared societal sense of guilt and insensitivity" as it reminds the perceiver "of his or her comparative good fortunes" (Mitchell and Snyder 10). A "rhetoric of wonder" (Garland-Thomson, "Politics" 59), on the other hand, produces a feeling of admiration, wherein the person with a disability is constructed as a hero who has triumphed over tragedy (Mitchell and Snyder 10). Both rhetorics allow the nondisabled to respond to disability in ways that reproduce dominant cultural attitudes toward it: the disabled person is either a dependent child in need of help through prayers, charitable donations, or medical intervention; or else s/he is an independent super crip capable of pulling herself up by her bootstraps.4
Focused more specifically on emotional responses to prosthetics, Siobhan Senier's study of rehabilitation practices following World War I connects "national anxieties about … damaged male bodies" to concerns about postwar economic prosperity. In this way, prosthetics become associated with narratives of normative masculinity and capitalist production to produce the comforting promise of a return to business as usual. Similarly, Kelly Fritsch situates the uptake of prosthetics historically, explaining how "fixing … bodies through prosthetic devices such as crutches and wooden legs was designed to facilitate a forgetting of the First-World War in France." Specifically, the prosthetic "repai[r] of disabled bodies" provided collective comfort: it "redeem[ed] society and eras[ed] the memory of the violence that brought disability into being." Taken together, Senier's and Fritsch's arguments suggest that in the aftermath of war, prosthetics serve national interests by enabling a return to normal—on physical, ideological, and economic fronts, a return that in turn provides reassurance and comfort.
Identifying less favorable emotional responses to the perception of prosthetics, Amanda Booher examines debates regarding South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius' participation in the 2008 Olympics. Toward this end, Booher deconstructs arguments both for and against his inclusion, the latter of which posited that Pistorius' prosthetic legs would grant him an "unfair advantage" over other sprinters. Pondering the logic of this conclusion, Booher observes: "Perhaps it was Pistorius' appearance that raised anxieties: did seeing a man run with prosthetic legs that looked hyper-technological and futuristic (as opposed to looking 'natural') lead to the belief that such technology must give an unnatural advantage? Because he doesn't look fully (or only) human, must he be super-human?" ("Defining"). Booher's analysis suggests that unlike post-War eras, during which prosthetics are perceived as enabling a return to normal, the presence of prosthetics in the context of elite athletic competition can signify an "unnaturalness" that creates rather than alleviates anxiety.
The above and admittedly brief review of scholarship on emotion and disability is meant to problematize an understanding of emotion as an individual or private mood or feeling. Each of the studies referenced above instead posits emotion as being intimately connected to ideology and thus, by extension, each theorizes emotion as a complex social and rhetorical force: beliefs about what constitutes a prosthetic or functioning economy, about what it means to be a real man or a real Olympic athlete, sponsor specific kinds of emotional responses to the perception of disability. This, then, is how dominant ideology, in the words of Lynn Worsham, "schools" us to feel in ways that sustain the status quo. Indeed, Worsham continues, ideology's primary purpose is to "organize an emotional world, to inculcate patterns of feeling that support the legitimacy of dominant interests" (223). Bodies that feel in normative and expected ways allow for the smooth and efficient functioning of power through the reproduction rather than contestation of cultural norms.
As our earlier analyses suggest, participants in online education bring with them very specific, and highly problematic, cultural narratives about the legitimacy of online education and, thus, their own legitimacy as students. Indeed, in these narratives participation in online education is offered as an accusation, a judgment that one is somehow wrong because s/he cannot or does not participate "normally." Such narratives thus encourage those who use or desire online education to blame themselves for being "abnormal." Critical emotion theory posits that such acts of self-blaming, which are typically thought to be experienced only personally, function instead as key mechanisms by which normalcy works on the level of emotion to persuade non-normative bodies to experience their bodies as sources of shame. Defining shame, emotion theorist Sandra Bartky explains:
Shame is the distressed apprehension of the self as inadequate or diminished: it requires if not an actual audience before whom my deficiencies are paraded, then an internalized audience with the capacity to judge me, hence internalized standards of judgment. Further, shame requires the recognition that I am, in some important sense, as I am seen to be. (85-87)
Simply put: shame is an emotion that non-normative bodies have been schooled to feel. Whenever a student is hailed by narratives about online education, whenever she recognizes herself as a less-than substitute for "real" students, she is internalizing an ideology of normalcy that tells her she's feeling what she is supposed to be feeling: "as if [she] has done or been wrong and that that wrong has been seen by another" (Ahmed 103). These feelings of inadequacy serve dominant interests by persuading those who feel ashamed to see themselves as being also responsible for fixing what's wrong. Shame thus functions as an emotional catalyst, one that induces non-normative bodies to accept a prosthetic technology, such as online education, as a viable solution to the problem their bodies are believed to cause. Such a dynamic thereby ensures that dominant interests are required to do little or no work to accommodate bodies whose presence would threaten to disrupt the status quo.
Revising Online Education: Material Resistance to Normalcy as Usual
To study how cultural narratives about online education normalize both it and its users is to focus on the power of language to shape and influence human thought and behavior. We take this power seriously, and our work here is offered in hopes that scholars will continue, in both their research and classrooms, to disrupt the rhetorical force and violent effects of normalizing tropes. Ultimately, our goal is to promote this continued work so that dominant attitudes toward online education and seemingly non-normal bodies will shift, and with it the responsibility for accommodating change will also shift, away from the individual and toward institutions and systems that currently enjoy the unchecked privileges of normalcy.
Yet we also recognize that the movement from language to bodies isn't a one-way street. Bodies push back, their very materialities resisting the normative scripts to which they have been assigned. Such a view of material agency aligns with recent scholarship in new materialist theory, which emphasizes "the productivity and resilience of matter" (Coole and Frost 7). New materialism thus "calls for a detailed phenomenology of diverse lives as they are actually lived—often in ways that are at odds with abstract normative theories of official ideology" (Coole and Frost 27).
One exemplary model of such a new materialist approach is Amanda K. Booher's study of the embodied "experience of prosthetization," whereby bodies reconstitute themselves by negotiating with and incorporating prosthetics into their body-worlds ("Docile" 86). Through her study, Booher troubles reductive readings of prosthetics as always only "external interventions used to 'fix' the body to an arbitrary norm determined by a fleshly standard—technological agents of control that act on and discipline flesh" ("Docile" 83). Instead, referencing Merleau-Ponty's example of how a stick "becomes an instrument with which a [blind man] perceives" (qtd. in Booher, "Docile" 82), Booher theorizes prosthetics as "particularly complex intervolvements of the body with the world … [that] actively engage with bodies, operating … as extensions of perceptual fields" ("Docile" 83). Such intervolvements, she continues, disrupt any understanding of prosthetics as distinct from bodies and thus, by extension, any sense of discrete boundary between human and machine. By making this work of distinction her focus—by explaining how "the presumed norm of the 'natural' body is built on false premises of absolute boundaries" ("Docile" 83)—Booher offers a posthumanist reading of prosthetics that does not devolve into technological fetishism. Instead, she models the affordances of a different kind of posthumanist inquiry, one that, as Karen Barad explains, "refuses the idea of a natural (or, for that matter, a purely cultural) division between nature and culture, calling for an accounting of how this boundary is actively configured and reconfigured" (136; emphasis added). By demonstrating how a reading of the prosthetic as always only an apparatus of normalization problematically reconfigures the very categorical distinctions that sustain normalcy, Booher calls for this accounting.
What would it mean to study online education as a prosthetic technology through the framework Booher provides? First, it would mean adopting a framework which recognizes that while technologies do "mirror our societies" (Bijker and Law 3), they "cannot be understood simply in terms of domination" (Ott et al. 5). Thus, it would mean theorizing technologies as both emergent and contingent: existing technologies have been "shaped by a range of heterogeneous factors [professional, technical, economic, and political]," but these same technologies "might have been [shaped] otherwise" (Bijker and Law 3). If we include rhetorical factors in the mix, then technologies are also influenced by contextually specific definitions of technology itself. In this way, then, technologies can be said to emerge in part from dominant beliefs about what technology is and should be. A Barad-inspired study of technology would thus examine how, why, and to what effect certain objects and not others are recognized as technologies and, by extension, the definition of technology circulating in that act of recognition. In the scene of online education, this would mean asking questions such as: how do different conceptualizations of the work of online education recognize online education as a technology? How do these recognitions sponsor certain definitions of technology? How do these definitions make distinctions between online education and the human beings (administrators, teachers and students) involved with it? What do these definitional distinctions do? Who benefits from them?
Pursuing these sorts of questions, a new materialist study of online education as a prosthetic technology would also need to consider, as Booher does, the "active engagement of prosthetics and bodies within continuums of body-world intervolvement and in the context of specific interests and environments" ("Docile" 85). We could thus make no universalizing (i.e., normalizing) claims about how students negotiate with and incorporate online education into their lives as they reconstitute themselves as learners. Instead, we would need specific accounts of how bodies situated in particular times and spaces do this work, and, further, how these bodies come to understand their specific experiences with online education as both normal and real. Among other things, such accounts could tackle the complex issue of what is described in online education research as "student adaptability." In one such project, for example, researchers
studied the correlation between student attributes such as gender, age, previous academic performance, and ethnicity and students' ability to adapt to online classes. They found that students in general have trouble adapting to online classes, but that "[m]ales, younger students, students with lower levels of academic skill, and Black students were likely to perform particularly poorly in online courses relative to their performance in face-to-face courses." (qtd. in Griffin and Minter 147)
While this study was undertaken in part to help teachers and institutions develop better practices to serve students' needs, the rhetoric of "adaptability" renders such research easily susceptible to a normalizing conflation whereby highly generalized and distinct student "attributes" are interpreted as causing students' inability to perform as well as their "normal" peers. Such a conflation could be problematized, however, by specific accounts of actual students' material engagements with online education such that "adaptability" emerges as a kind of body-world intervolvement, one that thwarts any top-down determination that certain kinds of students will necessarily have trouble learning online.
Importantly, however, research that studies actual learners' engagements with online education would also need to examine how they might be marginalized by the technologies and/or pedagogies constitutive of online learning. So, while our discussion here is limited to how traditional place-based education marginalizes non-normative bodies via the existence of and cultural narratives about online education, questions about how an ideology of normalcy is reproduced in specific practices of online learning remain: how do these practices marginalize bodies, and how do they construct learners as problems responsible for solving themselves?
In calling for research that provides contextualized descriptions of actual people negotiating the complexities of online education, we call for research capable of speaking back to dominant understandings of online education as either an inherently democratizing technology or a joke. Such research would thereby continue the project we've begun here. Importantly, however, this research would also call attention to and move beyond the boundaries delimited by our theoretical framework: by virtue of describing specific bodies' refusal to be hailed by disciplining narratives, such research would complicate any understanding of online education as always only an involvement with discursive sites of normalcy.
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- In a more recent 2011 survey, Allen
and Seaman report that over six million students in the US take
postsecondary education courses online.
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- For a thoughtful discussion of the
ways in which teachers need to "shif[t] the location of problem"
away from individual students and toward teachers' perceptions of students'
actions, see Price 91; see also 87-102.
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- That pity is both a "normal" and an
infantilizing emotional reaction to disability is evidenced in Ott et al.'s
claim that "[d]octors and rehabilitation workers present the wearing of a
prosthesis as a strategy for avoiding pity" (10).
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