Abstract

Scholars in the field of disability rhetoric (e.g. Dolmage; Price; Vidali) have long called for the denormalization of traditional approaches to the teaching of rhetoric and composition. Such approaches historically characterize rhetoric as disembodied and ask students to compose straight, linear, alphabetic texts which privilege meaning-making through written discourse and remain inaccessible to diverse users and audiences. As a response, this article recounts how I applied the concept of metis—double, divergent, crooked—as a theoretical framework for a special topics course "Disability, Rhetoric, and the Body," and as an alternative pedagogical approach to the teaching of rhetoric and composition. More specifically, this article explores the connection between my own metis-work as a teacher-scholar and my students' performance of metis through multimodal composing and analysis. As a result, the rhetoric and composition classroom becomes a non-normative space where difference is not only valued, but celebrated.


"A metis rhetoric, is also to layer a rich variety of meanings, array the stories that are most contested, and offer double and divergent means of engaging these stories so that readers might find their own rhythm at their own pace."

-Jay Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric

This is one story…

Eight students in a classroom made for thirty were scattered around the rows facing me. Each of them was careful to sit at least two seats apart from one another. This is how we began: separated perhaps by what Jay Dolmage describes as a "fear of imperfection, a fear about the boundaries around our own bodies and a fear of the strange bodies of Others" (Disability Rhetoric 5). In many ways, these eight students were divergent for choosing to take the least populated special topics course in the Rhetoric and Writing Studies Program on a subject never taught before in the English department (or elsewhere in the university), with a professor they knew nothing about, least of all, that she is disabled and how such an embodiment might affect the course.

***

Wait. Let me back up by channeling metis, which Dolmage characterizes as backward and sideways movement, instead of using the linear progression of a normative, straight narrative, and begin again.

***

I was a newly minted doctor halfway through my first year as a faculty member when I designed and taught an upper-level undergraduate course titled "Disability, Rhetoric, and the Body." But, I did not do it alone. My pedagogy was guided by the principles of a metis rhetoric—all rhetoric is embodied, the straight and normal body is a fantasy, and a futuristic disability studies is made possible with new rhetorics (Dolmage 8). By incorporating these principles into my teaching, I set out to develop a metis pedagogy. Such a pedagogy would give my students and I the opportunity to disrupt both normative constructions of disability and of writing. In order to make this pedagogy possible, I had to first think sideways and crooked. I had to find my inner trickster.

***

As their bodyminds became use to each other's bodyminds existing in the same space for two hours and twenty minutes a week, and as they depended on one another to make the class work, students started to sit closer together. By midterm, the seats that had parted one student from the other disappeared, and in its place, a semicircle emerged.

***

Together we made language crooked by troubling normal perceptions of the words "disability," "rhetoric," and the "body." To make "disability" crooked, I assigned readings and artifacts composed by authors with lived experience of disability who challenged pitiful and helpless tropes of disability by demonstrating that the disabled have agency, autonomy, and ability. We read of how Corbett O'Toole fought alongside other disability activists in the independent living movement advocating that disabled people could run their own lives; of how, in Loud Hands, the autistic community composed poetry that challenged the normative desire to "fix" them; and of how the AXIS Dance Company redefined ableist perceptions of strength and beauty.

To make writing crooked, instead of asking students to compose primarily traditional, straight, linear, alphabetic texts that privilege meaning-making through written discourse while remaining inaccessible to diverse users and audiences, they composed with multiple modes and mediums. I wanted them to leave their normative comfort zones, but not through misguided simulations in which students performed deafness by composing visual arguments or blindness by composing sound essays (especially without scripts), but by considering intersectionality and experiencing for themselves how rhetoric is shaped by all of the available means of persuasion. As a result, students experimented with multimodality and considered how using multiple modes of composing both constrained and enabled possibilities of what could be said and known. Consequently, students gained a more robust understanding of "writing" and of the loss of knowledge that occurs when one voice or mode is given dominance over another.

To make rhetoric crooked, I adopted a core principle of Dolmage's metis methodology: all rhetoric is embodied. In order to understand embodied rhetoric, we first had to understand embodiment. After becoming more familiar with each other, we regularly discussed our embodiment and the ways in which our bodyminds shaped our writing as well as our belief systems. We wrote about how it felt to be in our bodies while working on class assignments in the places we called home. When we returned, we described the heaviness and tiredness of shoulders, caffeine-induced typing fingers, distracting voices in the background, and the anxiety of a blank page. Often times we moved around the room and sat in different chair or lay on our backs on the floor with our feet up against the wall (yoga style) while we engaged in writing activities. One student with rheumatoid arthritis mentioned the pain of using her hands to hold a pen to form letters and of how she did not want the accommodation of a note-taker since that person conveyed words and meanings differently than she did. Another student with ADHD remarked that she could only write in a room by herself with no noise and the door closed. Students without documented disabilities had their own struggles with "writing" and were also excited and nervous about looking at "writing" sideways and experimenting with new forms.

Next, we considered embodiment when discussing subjectivity and positionality. I told my students that I could not speak outside my own bodymind—forty-three years old, white, middle-class, cisgender, female, disabled—and of how this positionality shapes how I react to class readings, topics, and class discussions. And then I suggested that for some of them maybe it was their positionalities that made it difficult for them to understand how a flight of stairs and the retrofitted ramp around the corner embody discrimination and rejection.

***

Many of my non-normative assignment ideas came from the wonderful resources on the disabilityrhetoric.com website, in which disability rhetoric scholars generously shared classroom resources such as assignment sheets and syllabi. For the accessibility of a built environment group project modeled after Margaret Price's project for her English 389 Composing Disability, Health, and Wellness syllabus (see disabilityrhetoric.com), students left the classroom and went into middle schools, college bars, campus buildings, and playgrounds discovering for themselves whose bodies were allowed in and whose bodies were left behind. As an effect, they better understood how disability is socio-cultural as well as material. For the audio text response, described in Patricia Dunn's English 585.02 Topics in Cultural Studies course syllabus (see disabilityrhetoric.com), students were surprised how it felt to use the aural mode when relaying thoughts and offering analysis of texts. Some reported feeling restricted, while other students felt freedom.

In the final open-ended project, I asked my students to extend a theoretical conversation or inquiry taken up in the course and to compose in a genre and mode(s) of their choice; this final project captured their reactions to a semester immersed in a metis pedagogy. One student wrote a script and composed a podcast in which she interviewed her peers regarding their reactions to films and television shows that depicted mental illness and how these representations affected stigma. Another student composed a short documentary film in which he critiqued political campaigns and the broken promises that many politicians make when they pledge to protect the rights of disabled citizens. The most fascinating project was from a student who used Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign to make a disability commonplace book with eight slides of photographs. The most striking slide, distorts the black-and-white photograph of an armless man picking up an object with his feet at a freak show; the original photograph is from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's "Politics of Staring." In the student's manipulation, the original picture of the man is multiplied over and over again and then pasted randomly around the rest of the space on the slide, which displaces the man from his position in the original photograph. As an effect, the student complicates what it means to stare at the disabled and who does the staring.

Another student chose the straight and narrow. She wrote a rhetorical analysis paper on problematic rhetorics of autism used in national autism organization websites, preferring what she called "being comfortable" with the essay genre over the other forms and modes presented. But I was not disparaged. By developing a metis pedagogy, I set out to give my students the opportunity to realize their own preferred methods of communication after being exposed to myriad forms of "writing," and the space to honor their bodyminds when composing.

***

Anyone who stands in front of a room facing a group of students knows that teaching is a performance. We just don't talk about it. Disabled faculty members are especially not encouraged to do so. The length of the class was a strain both physically and mentally. For me, two hours and twenty minutes challenged a disability characterized by pain and fatigue. I took turns standing and sitting. The stool I sat on so that I was high enough to see my students behind their computer desks, which I purchased when I was denied a stool from disability services, reminded me of the injustice of reasonable accommodations. I took shoes on and off again. My embodiment became more complex that semester by the fact that I was wearing a boot on my foot; I would find out later I had been wrongly diagnosed with a sprain and learn instead the pain was caused by another chronic pain syndrome called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. Suddenly, though, with that boot, I had a visible (albeit temporary) disability, and I had to negotiate simultaneously feeling relief for the recognition of being disabled and shame for wanting that recognition so badly.

I am reminded though, as I engage now in my own revisionist history, of the image of the feet twisted in opposite directions on the cover on Jay Dolmage's Disability Rhetoric. These feet, Dolmage tells us, belong to Hephaestus, the Greek god of metallurgy, a god with a physical disability. A god that "becomes the figure for new forms of ingenuity and production," and in so doing, embodies metis" (1). Now, I know I am no Greek god, but it has dawned on me that because of the boot I was standing off-kilter, one foot not meeting the other, all the while performing metis.

***

As the semester came to a close, the spaces between us were gone. I no longer sat at the front of the room, and the semicircle turned into a conference-style table with all of us facing each other. This rearrangement of spaces and bodies and the resulting decentralization of power is, I believe, an unintentional yet welcome effect of a metis pedagogy. I also came to realize that enacting a metis pedagogy means remaining receptive to unplanned possibilities and disturbances. Staying with the discomfort without trying to fix it or normalize it was one of the most difficult and rewarding challenges of the course.

The course was not perfect. I was disappointed when a student asked at the end of the term, "Why are you struggling so much? You don't look disabled" (my boot was off at that point). I was reminded of all the work that still needs to be done. Yet, I don't know what the future will hold and how my students will carry and transfer what they learned about disability from this course into their lives. I imagine for some this class, like so many undergraduate courses, will become a faded memory, while other students might seize an opportunity to be actively involved in the disability civil rights movement, and perhaps the student who earlier chose the narrow and normative path will face barriers that demand a metis solution. Whatever the future, may it be sideways, crooked, and full of potential.

Works Cited

  • Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Loud Hands: Autistic People, Speaking. Autistic P, 2012.
  • Bose, Dev. Disability Rhetoric: Disability Writing, In a Good Way. www.disabilityrhetoric.com. Accessed 22 May 2019.
  • Brew, Mark. Axis Dance Company. www.axisdance.org. Accessed 23, May 2019.
  • Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse UP, 2014.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography." In Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. MLA Press, 2002. 56-75.
  • O'Toole, Corbett. Fading Scars: My Queer Disability History. Autonomous P, 2015.
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