PSYCHOLOGICAL DISABILITY AND THE DIRECTOR'S CHAIR: INTERROGATING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN POSITIONALITY AND PEDAGOGY
M. Melissa Elston
Northwest Missouri State University
The act of writing this essay involves some professional risk, because it also involves a disclosure: I am a writing center director and tenure-track assistant professor at a regional public university in the Midwest. I also live with an anxiety disorder – the most prevalent class of psychological disorder among U.S. residents in a 2005 study (28.8%). I know I am far from alone. Roughly half of Americans will meet the DSM-IV criteria for a mental disorder at least once during their lifespans (Kessler et al. 595).¹ Within academia, however, you would not recognize mental illness’s prevalence – at least, outside anecdotes shared between close friends, or the occasional Facebook post from a colleague in which he or she discloses a diagnosis in response to a mental-health awareness campaign or high-profile celebrity suicide.
Perhaps this should not be surprising. Jay Dolmage has articulated the historic link between the American university and the eugenics movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a broader cultural project which emphasized the able body and the able mind, and attempted to eradicate perceived inferiority – culturally, socioeconomically, and at times, violently (via institutionalization, forced sterilization, infanticide and genocide). As a result, as Margaret Price writes, “[t]hose of us [with psychological disabilities] who do function successfully in academe tend to pass much of the time. Sadly, the necessity of passing for survival perpetuates the conventional view of academe as an ‘ivory tower’ – an immaculate location humming with mental agility and energy, only occasionally threatened” by mental illness (7). Viewed against this broader history, self-identification, then, is a fraught gesture for center directors. It is easy to talk about mental or psychological disability and writing centers when the conversation focuses on how to accommodate students with cognitive or mood disorders. It is much more uncomfortable to speak as a director, whose ethos is bound to that of the center, and for whom colleagues’ unacknowledged ableism and microaggressions could have profound and lasting consequences. Regardless of a faculty member’s credentials, scholarship, and achievements, the act of disclosure can prompt some audiences to leap to unfounded assumptions about job performance. “The reality,” notes Stephanie Kerschbaum,“is that disability to many still signals disqualification,” a widespread cultural bias which is also noted in a 2012 American Association of University Professors (AAUP) report on faculty members and disability accommodations (Kerschbaum 69, Franke et al. 1).
Rebecca Babcock pointed out in a recent conference-panel discussion that while roughly 20 percent of the U.S. workforce is disabled, only 3.2 percent of writing center directors publicly self-identify that way (Babcock et al.). I was standing in the back of the room during Babcock’s talk at the 2014 meeting of the International Writing Centers Association and National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing meeting as she mentioned this statistic – and it occurred to me that disabled directors need to be explicitly included in this conversation. As she spoke, I thought about the panic attack I’d had while booking my airplane ticket to fly between Missouri and Florida. (My anxiety disorder is ever-present as dull background noise; however, conference travel often sends it catapulting into the foreground.) Later, when I offered some brief comments during the question-and-answer time allotted at the end of the session – choosing to defy the silence Babcock described, and identify myself as a center director with a psychological disability – my voice shook and the room spun a bit. My chest began its familiar tightening, the one that precedes shortness of breath, dizziness, racing thoughts. Oh, great, my internal monologue wisecracked. A panic attack during Q&A. This is a first. The full attack did not materialize, however. I concluded my remarks, and the conversation returned to what I recognized as a typical conference-exchange format, much to my relief.
I do not include this story in order to contribute to “super-crip” mythology, which builds upon anecdotal tales of disabled individuals rising “above” their disability and overcoming it in order to pass as normative, thus contributing to and reinforcing ableism in the dominant culture’s imaginary. Nor do I include it to inject this article with an additional layer of the pathos commonly directed toward disabled people, or encourage a moment of Burkean identification among closeted anxiety-sufferers, although I acknowledge those phenomena may certainly occur with certain audiences as a result of my disclosure.² Rather, I include it to illustrate psychologically disabled ways of being in the academy: Speaking with – not in spite of – crushing chest pains in a meeting room full of colleagues. Sending off an article about psychological disability and disclosure to Praxis and wondering whether its potential publication will affect your tenure case positively as evidence of scholarly productivity – or whether its content may inadvertently fuel negative assumptions about your ability to perform the administrative functions of your job.
Experiencing and navigating these tensions is part of my daily existence as an academic, and their persistent presence in my routine defies “the assumption that mental disability exists in a separate realm from school-as-usual” (Price 51). However, as a writing center director who lives with a psychological disability, one of the underreported demographic among faculty who are, in Price’s quippish phrase, “mad at school,” my public disclosure is a radical act of rebellion against numerous ableist narratives, both within and surrounding the academy. What’s more, it is a necessary part of my pedagogy, both as a center director and writing instructor. Price writes that scholars with disabilities succeed not through valiant “super-crip” moments of overcoming, but rather, through “microrebellions, new forms of access and cooperation, a gradual reshaping of what academe is and might be” (7, emphasis mine). If I am to model our center, teach my classes, and mentor our tutors upon principles of radical inclusivity, upon forging these new forms of access, then the first step is to acknowledge my own positionality along the culturally constructed “able”/disabled spectrum – and to assert my place within the academy with my entire being, not merely the parts which allow me to pass as cognitively and emotionally normative.
Finding the Other in the Center
Allison Hitt observes that much writing center scholarship to date casts writers with disabilities as the Other. “Often,” she writes, “disability is positioned as something that tutors must cope with and that sometimes cannot be helped at all” (n. pag.). As with most writing about disability and the academy as a whole, the focus in many articles is on how the (presumably able-bodied/-minded) tutor can serve disabled students, whom, “as teachers and writing consultants, we are challenged by,” rather than exploring the possibility that tutors – as well as other writing center professionals, such as administrators and reception staff – can themselves be writers with disabilities (Hewett 1).
This is a problematic omission in our current dialogue as a discipline, one which Molly McHarg attempted to address several years ago in a Tutor’s Column essay for the Writing Lab Newsletter. In her piece, McHarg identifies herself as a tutor with an unnamed disability, then acknowledges the “societal conventions of leaving disability as an unspeakable topic,” noting how these have shaped her own disclosures in professional settings (14). She concludes by sharing an anecdote about a colleague who did not share his Tourette’s syndrome diagnosis until after he left writing-center work, writing that the episode had reinforced her suspicion that “many tutors may position themselves as I do—with an invisible dual citizenship” in both the tutoring profession and the disabled community (15).
McHarg does not criticize her colleague’s decision to keep his diagnosis private, nor does she share the precise nature of her own disability, due to her concerns over the stigma and common misunderstandings which surround it (15). Indeed, these are deeply personal decisions – at this moment in drafting, I am still carefully reconsidering my decision to explicitly share my own diagnosis in the introduction to this article! – yet they illustrate the circular nature of the problems we perpetuate when we do not adopt a publicly disabled identity or call for social action surrounding issues of accessibility and inclusion within the academy. In McHarg’s essay, she mentions how well her colleague with Tourette’s hid his condition at work, suggesting that this evidenced the student-centeredness of his pedagogy: “He had undoubtedly focused his energy on providing writing instruction to students rather than drawing attention to his own challenges” (14).
The compliment seems well-meaning; of course, most of us who work in writing centers strive to keep our sessions focused on student needs. However, as Price’s work demonstrates, “passing” in such a manner also problematically reinforces the ableist fantasy that disability and expertise are mutually exclusive categories when it comes to academic performance(s) such as writing and teaching. The view, she writes, “which imagines disablement as a personal deficit that must be ‘heroically’ and ‘secretly’ borne, strikes at all persons with disabilities,” a category which includes a number of tutors and directors, as well as some of the clients with whom we work (Price 104, emphasis mine).
I would argue, then, that while the decision to disclose (or not to disclose) is an individual’s prerogative, it is a well-intentioned mistake to confuse maintaining silence about our own disabilities with maintaining student-centeredness. (And to be fair, McHarg ends on a more nuanced note, suggesting that writing center professionals seek out “a more meaningful, thoughtful approach to accommodating and situating ourselves within writing center instruction” than simply passing, unnoticed .) Many students who come to the writing center have bought into the notions that they must successfully project “able-mindedness” (or able-bodiedness), that they must overcome aspects of their own neuro- and physical diversity in order to write, to learn, and to be accepted in academic settings. We are not fully serving these students if we allow these perceptions to stand unchallenged.
There is not a one-size-fits-all solution to this situation. In my own case, I have determined that if my passing as neurotypical contributes to the academy’s enduring ableism, I am inadvertently adopting a professional persona that works against student-centeredness in the case of clients with disabilities (even as it potentially protects me from diminished estimations of my ethos as a center director due to the academy’s enduring ableism). Eliding my own status as a psychologically disabled writer only serves to maintain the present discursive strictures around academic writing, the ones which suggest that disabled students need to measure up to an “able” norm in order to merit inclusion in the conversation, rather than engage with – and potentially reshape – such writing on their own terms. Therefore, I have chosen a degree of openness in order to connect with other mentally disabled writers, as well as confront both colleagues’ and students’ assumptions about disabled presence within the academy. My own acts of public and semi-public self-identification do not mean I believe that all disabled directors must necessarily disclose their psychiatric and/or medical histories in order to be effective advocates for (or tutors to) students with special needs. Identifying as psychologically disabled is simply yet another tool that writing center professionals have at our disposal in academic settings, especially since, as Dolmage points out, “disability is a political and cultural identity, not simply a medical condition” (19-20). Nevertheless – for reasons ranging from stigma and self-preservation to concerns about observing appropriate boundaries in sessions – “coming out” to colleagues and students as disabled is a strategy that remains underused.
Claiming Positionality, Rethinking Pedagogy
When is disclosure appropriate? Certainly, writing center professionals should not take over large chunks of session time to regale clients with longwinded stories about their own experiences instead of addressing the clients’ papers. Nor should we interject anecdotes about disability into conversations when the topic feels forced or irrelevant. Rather – if and when we do choose to disclose – our disclosures should demonstrate kairotic awareness, paying careful attention to audience, setting, and purpose.
I do not owe the details of my diagnosis to anyone. However, when I am tutoring, I have chosen to share it at times with students who self-identify as depressed, anxious or suffering from trauma. (I also frequently share it with my first-year composition classes when we reach our unit on writing and the body – which deals with disability, technology as corporeal extension, access to writing, and other issues.) As Kerschbaum writes, one useful function for disclosure in academic settings is to build coalition with other disabled individuals, to foster community by identifying “shared forms of experience” (60). This is, notably, in keeping with Kenneth Burke’s observations about identification: it joins multiple parties’ interests (20). Indeed, in these moments, I often find that my own disclosure opens a space for a shift in conversation. In the presence of an openly psychologically disabled mentor, talk rapidly turns to how writing with a mental disability can actually best happen, rather than whether it is even possible. What accommodations are needed? What strategies might serve as tools for navigating a given discourse, assignment, or class? How might invention, drafting, or revision differ meaningfully in this particular student’s circumstance? While much (excellent!) writing center scholarship discusses how to answer these questions from the perspective of a normatively able-minded tutor offering help to the “Other,” it is a very different thing to address them as a fellow community member – one for whom some approaches to writing with a mental disability have worked, and other approaches haven’t.
Certainly, individual students can benefit from this kind of disclosure-as-coalition-building gesture in sessions. Yet disclosures have the potential to help in a bigger, broader way. Those of us who run writing centers – and I include myself in this statement – tend to view ourselves as highly invested in improving access to literacy, to academic discourse. We are frequently housed in “student success centers,” “academic support services,” and other similarly monikered units. Many of us imagine ourselves as allies to marginalized students, particularly those struggling to function in environments inhospitable to neurodiversity or learning differences. Our literature is riddled with egalitarian ideals; much contemporary writing center pedagogy springs from social constructivist, reader response, and feminist theories of education (McAndrew and Reigstad 1-7). Within these interlocking frameworks, tutoring is often constructed as something less hierarchal than the traditional instructor-student relationship. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors reminds peer tutors that they wear “many hats,” including the roles of ally, coach, commentator, collaborator, fellow learner, and counselor (Ryan and Zimmerelli 28-31). While the authors also briefly mention the role of writing “expert” (“[y]ou may not be a writing teacher or a writing expert; nonetheless, students usually come to you assuming thatyou know more about writing than they do”), they simultaneously emphasize that tutors should not adopt an authoritarian stance, nor should they be expected to have all the answers about writing or subject matter: “Knowing little or nothing about a topic often makes you a perfect audience for a paper, so writers actually gain from your lack of expertise” and the resulting questions (18, 30-31).
These assertions of nonexpertise are, at face value, intended to act as an equalizer of sorts – one which places tutor and client on supposedly more similar footing within sessions. Nevertheless, our frequent resistance to acknowledging the presence of mentally disabled scholars and tutors among our own ranks (rather uncomfortably) suggests that we in writing centers may often be more unconsciously invested in our own authority and expertise – as well as the problematic ways in which “authority” and “expertise” align with notions of able-mindedness – than our written tutoring philosophies and training materials acknowledge. The challenge, then, for the conscientious director is how to engage the potential discomfort of this realization, and use it to productively interrogate writing center hiring, training, and tutoring practices.
This calls for some honest, hard reflection. Questions I find myself pondering in the aftermath of this year’s IWCA meeting include:
- How do the deficiency and remediation models which undergird the institutional history of many writing centers persist on our campus (Rose 343)? Furthermore, how do their remnants in our discourse – in the way we talk about our work at the writing center with administrators, community members, and students – contribute to the persistence of ableism within sessions?
- Do my tutors, regardless of ability status, receive training in ways to collaborate with students who identify as psychologically disabled, or do we unintentionally “other” them at times – or, perhaps even more problematically, shift into more authoritative modes of interaction upon disclosure of a mental disability?
- Does my center acknowledge and welcome neurodiversity among staff members, or do tutors feel pressure to emulate “able-mindedness” at work?
- How might insights and concepts from disability studies (i.e., neurodiversity, crip time/crip space, the notion that we are all only temporarily abled, etc.) shift our understandings of ourselves as tutors?
- How might a disability-studies lens shift our approach(es) to the tutoring relationship, both pragmatically and pedagogically?
Writing Center Space as “Crip” Space
The good news is writing centers –– despite our frequently recognized status as “the most accessible and visible place of remediation within the university” – are well-positioned to take up questions such as these and reimagine ourselves as crip space for those with psychological disabilities, by virtue of our existence outside traditional classroom environments and conventions (Bawarshi and Pelkowski 42). Internally rethinking the way we create policy, conduct sessions, and train tutors is as important as taking external measures (such as a director’s voluntary public disclosure):
Center Policies and Mission Statements
“Contemporary composition is a highly monitored practice,” writes Robert McRuer, “and those doing the monitoring […] are intent on producing order and efficiency where there was none and, ultimately, on forgetting the messy composing process and the composing bodies that experience it” (152). One might also add “composing minds” to McRuer’s description – although the brain, properly understood, is simply yet another bodily organ.
Similarly, writing centers are frequently charged -- by administrators, by faculty -- with producing orderly writing and writers. Doubtlessly well-intended mission statements often refer to helping students at “any stage of the writing process,” as if 1.) there were a single process, 2.) it could be charted linearly in ordered, successive stages, and 3.) tutorial intervention enables struggling writers to reach the “next” stage in that process. Writing centers interested in fostering more disability-friendly space might revisit such statements and pluralizing them, as the steps and processes used by a writer with ADD/ADHD, schizophrenia, or mood episodes – to name a few examples – might look quite different than those employed by other clients.
Session guidelines and ground rules which attempt to tightly regulate the time and space parameters of tutoring sessions may similarly need to be rewritten. For instance, our own center’s no-call/no-show policy (three “strikes” and a client was barred from using the center for a semester) was amended in 2015 (three “strikes” and a client was barred from making appointments only – but could still be seen on a walk-in basis), in an attempt to accommodate students whose depression, ADD/ADHD or other mental/psychological disability was affecting their ability to arrive at appointments in a timely manner.
Additionally, some interrogation of – and at times, rejection of – tutoring models which attempt to manage the affective spectrum of clients may be warranted. When writing-center scholarship has addressed emotion within consultations, it has frequently focused on how to 1.) create distance from the client’s emotions and/or 2.) control emotive sessions by setting goals and re-steering the writer toward these goals (Agostinelli, Poch, and Santoro 36). Gayla Mills has rightfully observed the fallacy within these types of approaches (i.e., they assume “a writer can’t be both emotional and rational about his work” simultaneously .) And while these methods may facilitate the recounting of an emotional experience when writers are attempting to process and articulate a highly personal narrative, they also reflect a larger-scale discomfort with affect within the center – an attitude which marginalizes a number of neurodiverse clients for whom attempts at intellectualization and repeated redirection may not be appropriate. (In addition to the implied authorization to manage/trespass upon clients’ emotional lives, imagine the message that this sends an anxious or bipolar writer whose emotions are not always easy to regulate within the confines of a 30- or 45-minute session!)
Finally, writing center staff members should be explicitly introduced to disability studies – a field which privileges disabled perspectives and subjectivities – rather than simply being charged with “helping” students with mental or psychological disabilities. Medical models that pathologize and thus marginalize neurodiversity are prevalent in educational settings. Even our metaphors carry problematic messages. For example, the notion of “triage” implies that some writing is sick or injured– and positions the tutor as one who is authorized to treat or heal it. Similarly, references to “weak” vs. “strong” writing abound in our literature, as well as our training modules.
Yet it is frequently not enough to question word choice itself. We might do well to ask ourselves where our center’s preferred terminology comes from: Does it arise from within the disability community itself, or from a professional community charged with managing or remediating non-normative bodies and minds? This fall, a tutor in my own center who majored in special education was giving a presentation on language and disability during a staff meeting, and admonished her peers to never use terms such as “crippled.” I quickly interjected that this would preclude the use of a phrase like “crip time/space,” which comes from the disability-studies community – and a lively discussion ensued.
Peter Carino notes that while the history of writing centers is certainly tangled up with the institutional management of neurologically deficient and/or “weaker” [sic] students, this history has not been a “neat” or linear march, but rather, a“much more variegated and complex phenomenon” (104). As a result, the answers to questions such as “Who works in the writing center?” and “What should their qualifications be?” have been in flux over time (Carino 111), and will likely continue to be. As directors’ insights about tutoring and psychological disability evolve, we can certainly ask ourselves, along with former UW-Madison tutor Sarah Groeneveld, “What assumptions am I making [about disabled writers]? … What are the expectations that I make without even realizing that I’m making them?” (n. pag.). More importantly, however, we should be asking what assumptions we are making about our staffs and ourselves – about able-mindedness as a prerequisite for writing expertise or professional competency – and how those assumptions might be keeping us from meaningfully connecting and collaborating with clients.
The author would like to thank Rebecca Babcock for generously sharing the text of her remarks via email following the IWCA/NCPTW conference. Thanks are also due to colleagues who offered feedback during the drafting and revision process: Theresa Rodriguez at Texas A&M University, as well as peer tutor Alyssa Striplin at Northwest Missouri State University’s writing center, and students in the author’s Fall 2014 composition classes. Your candor, insights, and time are all deeply appreciated.
1. At the time the study was conducted and written, the DSM-IV was the most current iteration of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. A fifth updated edition, the DSM-V, has since been published in 2013.
2. Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives discusses identification in terms of consubsantiality, shared characteristics or principles which create a collective identity between/among distinct parties: “In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself,” a phenomenon which links – or at least appears to link -- their interests (20-21).
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Bawarshi, Anis and Stephanie Pelkowski. “Postcolonialism and the Idea of a Writing Center.” The Writing Center Journal 19.2 (1999): 41-58.
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Rose, Mike. “The Language of Exclusion: Writing Instruction at the University.” College English 47.4 (April 1985): 341-359.
Ryan, Leigh and Lisa Zimmerelli. The Bedford Guide for Writing Tutors. 5th ed. Boston, New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010.