The Specter of Disability

A horror movie is on in the other room. I’m not quite sure what it’s about, but from the audio, I think it has something to do with infanticide and the remorse the parents in that horror-movie like way  of audio-induced jump scares and eerie figures at the periphery of slowly panning cameras.

In some ways, I’ve encountered eugenics in a similar way: as the ghostly hauntings of a “never again, but let’s not talk about it.” Likewise for the lobotomy craze of Walter Freeman. Or Rivera’s exposé of Willowbrook. Or the other patchy histories that lurk in the haunted confines of our American psyche.

Talking to my dad, a psychologist, about this haunting memory, he too related some difficult stories of when he was a student. Like the time when he fainted after holding down a patient for electroshock therapy, or the time when a particularly difficult patient received a lobotomy, or when a deaf patient, failing IQ evaluations, got wrongfully shuffled off to Willowbrook. Or, most hauntingly, when he recalled how one of his friends went to Germany to study psychiatric disabilities, only to realize that generations had been wiped out by Nazi genocides.

Buildings, too, evoke a similarly haunting presence. In parts of New Jersey and Long Island, the urban myth of “Cropsy” arose around the ruins of abandoned asylums. Like a Boogie Man used to scare kids into good behavior, Cropsy represented the former patients who huddle back around the desolate ruins. “Stay away from those ruins,” warned some parents, “or Cropsy might get you.”

While not necessarily remaining loyal to Derrida’s original meaning of “hauntology,” I think that that disability, for some time, and even today, retains a certain ambiguity of being. A certain haunting presence that lurks in the periphery in the ableist normality of many of our discourses, something ugly that the normative does not want to discuss or address openly.

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Harris, Dartmouth, and Composition

One of the more helpful elements in Harris’ Teaching Subject and his introduction to “updating Dartmouth” is his insistence on the perennial nature of issues he outlines and the fact that either side has much to other.

For example, he outlines the tension from the 1966 Dartmouth Summit between English as a discipline and content area (like Albert Kitzhaber’s approach) and the more lived out, experience-driven role of language that James Britton, James Moffett, and others argued for. As Harris writes in the introduction to “updating Dartmouth, “there is something to both sides of the argument. There are real things to teach students about literary genres, figures, and traditions. . . But those things become valuable only when students put them to use in their own work” (xxii).

In writing studies and composition, I think a further tension presents itself. Composition models, terms, theories, heuristics, histories, and paradigms—in short, a field of content knowledge—now comprise the field. But as Harris right points out in A Teaching Subject, many people in the field—including himself—see “teaching as an integral part of (and not just a kind of report on)” their scholarship (xv-xvi). Thus, this scholarship is always tested in light of the student and the classroom, with pedagogy acting as a desired end, not a byproduct.

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