College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

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Worthy et al. Teacher Educators’ Perspectives on Dyslexia. RTE, Nov. 2018. Posted 01/05/2019.

Worthy, Jo, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey. “‘What If We Were Committed to Giving Every Individual the Services and Opportunities They Need?’ Teacher Educators’ Understandings, Perspectives, and Practices Surrounding Dyslexia.” Research in the Teaching of English 53.2 (2018): 125-48. Print.

Jo Worthy, Catherine Lammert, Stacia L. Long, Cori Salmerón, and Vickie Godfrey discuss a study on approaches to dyslexia in teacher education. The authors note that while research has not been able to clearly define dyslexia or agree on an ideal intervention, many states are passing legislation that treats dyslexia as a specific condition with specific treatment protocols (125).

Worthy et al. address the discourse surrounding dyslexia through the Bakhtinian categories of “ideological becoming” and “internally persuasive discourse” as opposed to Bakhtin’s understanding of “authoritative discourse” (AD) (126). “AD” consists of dicta handed down by those claiming expertise; it tends to take over conversations and silence those it does not credential to speak (127). In the authors’ view, AD surrounding dyslexia is based on a medical model in which dyslexia is a narrowly defined “deficit,” which is described in medical terms and which can only be treated by those specifically trained to do so (127). This discourse, the authors state, views educators as inadequately informed and unqualified to deal with students diagnosed with the condition (130).

The authors, in contrast, address the issue through the “field of disability studies in education,” which sees “variation among learners as natural,” as well as “socially constructed” and influenced by “context and social interactions, as well as social, political, and historical systems and discourse” (127). “DisCrit” scholars or those practicing “disability critical race studies” further note the degree to which matters of “race, class, privilege, and power” affect how labels are assigned and addressed (126; 127-28).

Surveying research in dyslexia studies, the authors note that none of the “top 10 most published authors, . . . none were educators” (126). According to Worthy et al., research has failed to find any specific causal or measurable factor that separates students believed to be dyslexic from other students in the reading continuum (128). Brain imaging studies have thus far been inconclusive (129).

Worthy et al. report consensus that “there is no best method for teaching reading” (128), yet many state legislatures have mandated specific treatments like the Orton-Gillingham program (O-G), even though its “multisensory” processes have not been shown to be effective (130). Programs that focus primarily on decoding, the authors state, also show little effect in themselves (130) and should be part of, rather than the core of, “comprehensive, meaning-based reading instruction” (129).

Worthy et al. position themselves as experienced public-school teachers and teacher-educators who began to question the current discourse on dyslexia when it failed to jibe with their own experiences. They began to find similar discomfort with the AD surrounding dyslexia among students and colleagues (130-31). For their study, they recruited 21 women and 4 men from a range of universities in Texas; the participants, who had many levels of experience both as teachers and as teacher-educators, engaged in semi-structured interviews (131). The authors explain their coding process, which yielded three “a priori” categories and three “inductive” categories (132).

“A priori” categories were “definitions and understanding about dyslexia”; “compliance with dyslexia policies”; and “confidence about dyslexia” (132). The researchers found that their interview subjects reflected the conflict between the AD of dyslexia and a more questioning stance that recognized that research did not provide the same degree of certainty as the prevalent AD (133). The participants reported increased official attention to the question of dyslexia and increased oversight of curricula (134). They reported complying with mandates but, in some cases, “present[ing] the state’s information about dyslexia with a broader discussion of struggle and literacy, where they could contextualize and complicate it” (134).

Participant response regarding “confidence about dyslexia” varied, with five of the educators “express[ing] unqualified confidence” in their ability to address the condition. The authors characterize the “remaining educators” as questioning their own experience in light of the dominant discourse (135); these teacher-educators “stopped short” of claiming they were prepared to work with students identified with the condition (135).

“Inductive analysis” of the interviews (136) led to three categories: teacher-educators’ expertise in teaching reading; their responses to AD; and their use of “critical perspectives” (132). Participants shared a belief that teaching reading should be an observation- and assessment-based, individualized process (136-37). In this view, decoding was important but only as part of a curriculum that engaged students in the whole process of reading (136). New teachers, the educators agreed, would benefit from a “more nuanced perspective” that would allow them to recognize their own ability to teach reading across many skills levels (137).

Participants challenged “the vague definition and subjective identification procedures” (137) that most felt led to “overidentification” and to early labeling that called for unnecessary interventions (138). Some felt that the dyslexia label could remove a stigma from reading difficulties; others saw being labeled as conveying a judgment of “something wrong” (138). The teacher-educators questioned the efficacy of programs like the O-G method that foreground “skill work” and interventions that remove students from classrooms to receive instruction characterized by “a lack of alignment” with classroom work (140). The authors note that these views accord with DisCrit analysis that favors “inclusion” rather than “segregation,” which AD seems to advocate (140).

Challenges to the exclusion of educator voices informed participants’ critical perspectives, with one respondent calling the medical community’s adherence to medical models “cult-like” (“Patrice,” qtd. in Worthy et al. 141). Participants noted that the problematic claim that dyslexic readers were highly creative and intelligent has actually made the label desirable for more affluent parents, with dyslexia “the socially acceptable learning disability” (141) that can shield children from “probable consequences of low achievement” (142). According to “Marty,” discrimination in labeling results in the view that “White kids are dyslexic. Black kids are stupid” (qtd. in Worthy et al. 142).

The authors argue that despite being positioned by the current AD as unqualified to teach students with identified reading disabilities, the teacher-educators they surveyed “are more than qualified—by virtue of their preparation and experience—to teach reading to all children” (142). They advocate for the role these educators can play in helping their preservice teaching students negotiate the rigid political landscape they will encounter when they take their knowledge about teaching reading into the schools (143).

Worthy et al. also recommend that proponents of critical perspectives adjust their use of jargon to communicate with wide audiences rather than falling back on a “righteous authority” of their own (144). Their hope is that research and practice in teaching reading can align more comprehensively, drawing on the contributions of classroom educators to complicate what they see as an ineffective, limited approach to the wide range of variation in children’s paths toward reading skill.


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Accessibility to print for visually-impaired persons–The Marrakesh Treaty

This information may have been widely circulated among composition professionals; I have not encountered it in any of the journals I’ve been accessing for this blog. At the same time, I’ve summarized some articles dealing with access for students with different disabilities, so I felt it might be useful to supply a link on this issue.

I received this link through a controversy that arose through my creative-writing blog. If you’re interested in the specifics (which involve intellectual-property issues that may resonate for some in composition), you can read the posts here and here.

A respondent to the second post introduced me to the Marrakesh Treaty. This treaty, which the U.S. has joined, allows authorized non-profit sites to post works for “blind and print-disabled” persons regardless of copyright.

As an author with my own books for sale at commercial sites, I was unaware of this new treaty, and from what I’ve seen, few in the creative-writing blogosphere were aware of it. If you have had experience with its provisions, please share. If not, and you would like to know more, you can check out a brief discussion and links to both an overview article and the treaty itself.

You should be able to reblog and share both this notice and the posts regarding the intellectual-property discussion. The reader’s comments on the second post in the series provide useful information about access for print-disabled readers.

I hope this information is helpful to some visitors to this site.

 


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Wood, Tara. Disabilities and Time Management in Writing Classes. Dec. CCC. Posted 01/18/2018.

Wood, Tara. “Cripping Time in the College Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication 69.2 (2017): 260-86. Print.

Tara Wood proposes that the field of writing studies can productively use the concept of “crip time” to rethink the ways in which normative assumptions underlie many routine activities in writing classrooms.

Wood’s qualitative study, conducted at a large Midwestern research university, began with twenty students with “registered disabilities” but expanded to include thirty-five students because of the interest her work generated (266). She notes that her final study population included not only students registered with the university disability office, but also students registered with other official offices who might or might not have registered at school, students who chose not to register, and students in the process of registering. Some registered students did not request accommodation (282n1).

Wood gathered more than “2,000 minutes of audio” and transcribed more than 200,000 words (267). She avoids identifying particular students by their disabilities, but her notes reveal the range of situations covered by her research (282-83n3).

The data allowed Wood to meet a primary goal of letting the students speak for themselves. She cites scholarship on the challenges of “speaking for” others, particularly groups that have traditionally been silenced or unheard; many scholars report a “crisis of representation” as they consider their own positionality in studies of such groups (265-66). Wood indicates that in some cases the wording of her interview questions shaped responses, but notes that the focus of her article, issues of “time,” was not a topic introduced by any of her questions; rather, it arose as a concern from the students’ own discussion (267).

Reviewing scholarship in composition on “the intersection of disability studies (DS) and composition studies” (261), Wood notes that writing theorists have long been concerned about access but, in some cases, may have assumed that the process- and discussion-oriented pedagogies common to most writing classes do not pose the same problems as do lecture-based classes with heavy test-taking components (261). Wood contends that such assumptions elide the myriad ways that time affects students with disabilities in composition classes (261). Wood’s premise is that “time” as structured in writing classrooms reflects largely unexamined ideologies of normativity and ableism.

Quoting Margaret Price, Wood says of “crip time” that it is “a concept in disability culture that ‘refers to a flexible approach to normative time frames’” (264). As an attitude toward time, it “avoid[s] rigidity and lower[s] the stakes of writing” (270). Wood distinguishes such an approach from the kinds of responses to disability most common in academic settings, which focus on individual and sometimes “ad hoc” solutions (263) burdened by connection with “medical and legal models” (262). Wood presents crip time as a more systemic, philosophical response to the complexities presented by disability.

For Wood, the assumption that individual fixes devised by disability-service offices are adequate is one of several flawed approaches. She found a subset of instructors who deferred to the expertise of disability professionals rather than expressing a willingness to negotiate with students (271). Similarly, she reports a “disability myth” that students given extra time for assignments will “take advantage of an accommodation,” creating a situation that isn’t “fair to other students” (263). In contrast, the study explores students’ conflicted responses to the need for accommodation and the “pedagogical fallout” that can result (269). Wood also discusses “the tacit curative imaginaries” that cast disability as a “disease or illness” (270) and its correction as “compulsory,” with “able-bodiedness as the ultimate, ever-desirable end” (264).

Wood’s account focuses specifically on two components of writing classes, timed in-class writing and time requirements for assignments. Her interviewees reported on how their disabilities made producing “spontaneous” writing within set boundaries (267) a source of serious anxiety, which, in the views of some scholars, has itself been defined as an illness that “teachers must ‘treat’” (270). Wood quotes Alison Kafer to argue that teachers must become aware that their normative expectations for “how long things take” are “based on very particular minds and bodies” (268). In Wood’s view, crip time applies a sensitivity to difference to such assumptions (264).

Wood further details how some participants’ situations affected their handling of assignment deadlines. Students with OCD, for example, might resist handing in assignments because they need to “make [them] perfect” (275). Some students reported finding it difficult to ask for extra time (274). Students recounted a range of attitudes among their instructors, with some willing to negotiate time frames and other less willing (274).

Wood cites Patricia Dunn to contend that students with disabilities often display “a sophisticated metacognitive awareness of how to navigate the strictures they face in the classroom” (272). Some students in her study explain their strategies in working with instructors to plan the timing of their assignments (276-77). Others set their own deadlines (279), while one plans for the inevitable delays of illness by trying to “get ahead on writing assignments” (qtd. in Wood 273).

Wood quotes Robert McRuer’s contention that “being able-bodied means being capable of the normal physical exertions required in a particular system of labor” (279). She argues that such links between assumptions of normativity and the power structures arising from capitalist valuations of productivity make it imperative that instructors recognize how such assumptions impede access (280-81). Wood attributes to Paul Heilker the view that subscribing to crip time is a way of promoting “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” (278), since a more flexible classroom structure permits “disabled students to compose in their own ways” (281), thus affirming important components of their personhood (278, 281).

Wood qualifies her recommendations by stating that she is not arguing against deadlines per se but rather asking that teachers be “mindful” about the power dynamic in a writing classroom and the consequences of rigid time boundaries (275). In this view, decisions about time can best be made by listening to students (281) and working collaboratively with them toward strategies that, in the case of one student, are essential to “sustain[ing] her presence in academia” (277).

Ultimately, Wood contends, awareness of the possibilities opened up by concepts like crip time enrich the democratic, inclusive environment that educators can support when they follow Tony Scott’s advice to examine the “ideological assumptions” underlying their responses to pedagogical challenges (qtd. in Wood 281).


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Rule, Hannah J. Embodied Simulation as a Teaching Tool. CS, Spring 2017. Posted 05/30/2017.

Rule, Hannah J. “Sensing the Sentence: An Embodied Simulation Approach to Rhetorical Grammar.” Composition Studies 45.1 (2017): 19-38. Web. 21 May 2017.

In order to help students understand and act on their rhetorical choices in constructing sentences, Hannah J. Rule argues for “embodied simulation,” a methodology that she argues recognizes the role of sensory and kinesthetic experience in the creation of meaning. Acknowledging that teaching writing at the sentence level is “practically verboten in our pedagogies,” in part because of its kinship with the grammar drill of the abandoned current-traditional paradigm, Rule cites “efforts . . . to reanimate the sentence as a central site of writing instruction,” such as those by advocates of rhetorical grammar like Martha Kolln (21).

Rule supports her contention that more rhetorical sophistication with sentences will benefit students with an anecdote about a student who was struggling with the concept of “flow” in a paper. After trying a number of approaches, including discussion of the known-new contract, Rule found that the student lacked the technical vocabulary to arrive at the abstract concepts Rule was hoping to teach. Only when Rule began acting out the scenes and actions depicted in the student’s sentences did the student make connections among the varied meanings the paper was intended to convey (19-20).

Rule believes that this anecdote illustrates the role of embodied simulation as a component of language use. According to researchers in neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, and cognitive psychology, “Meaning is a creative process in which people construct virtual experiences—embodied simulations—in their mind’s eye” (Benjamin K. Bergen, qtd. in Rule 22). Rule writes that “reading or expressing language entails imagistic, bodily, associational, and sensory action” (22; emphasis original). In this view, readers and writers perceive sentences as expressing scenes, feelings, events, and actions, and it is in the process of experiencing these elements that people derive meaning from the language.

Rule notes attention in composition studies to the embodied nature of writing, yet cites Jay Dolmage to contend that “[o]ur everyday classroom practices with texts . . . continue to be implicitly disconnected from embodied experience” (23). Some students’ difficulty in written expression, she suggests, may lie in their failure to connect the abstracted words on a page to their own physical existence in the world (24). Teaching with embodied simulation, in which students are encouraged to see sentences as expressions of sensation and action, may bridge this cognitive disconnect.

She points to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By as a text familiar to compositionists that explores how language relates to bodily experience. She also addresses criticism that such evocation of a universal bodily experience can erase individual difference, especially if the visual is overemphasized (24-25). Rule presents Kristie S. Fleckenstein’s concept of “multimodal imagery” to capture the range of bodily experiences, including, in Fleckenstein’s formulation, “sound, sight, and touch,” that simulation theory posits as the ground of language (26). Such an approach proposes a widely diverse set of sensations that play into language practice.

Similarly, Patricia Dunn’s “multiple channels strategy” incorporates many bodily actions, such as “sketching, three-dimensional modeling, or moving,” into writing instruction, thus, in Rule’s view, freeing students to bring their own favored actions into their learning experience (28). Such openness to different kinds of imaging, Rule states, “enact[s] the inclusivity and access” central to effective, ethical application of the theory (28).

Theoretical work reported by Rule stresses that language and bodily action are not separate categories but rather that language depends on bodily existence: “Amassing simulation research suggests that we do not really choose to link imagery and words; rather, this link is the precise way in which meaning becomes possible at all” (26; emphasis original). Researchers use quantitative measurement to discover ways that “reading about actions is akin to doing them” (27); for example, people who read about turning a key in the ignition “find it easier to turn their hand clockwise than counterclockwise,” as opposed to people who read about screwing something off, who favor moving their hands counterclockwise (Ernest Davis, qtd. in Rule 27).

In order to provide examples of how teachers might incorporate embodied simulation into their own practice, Rule recounts her experience teaching a course in rhetorical grammar to English majors in a large Midwestern university. Course texts were Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar and The Writer’s Options, by Donald A. Daiker, Andrew Kerek, and Max Morenberg (29). Rule applauds the ways in which understanding grammar as rhetorical frees it from a focus on correctness, foregrounding rather the ways that small choices in sentence structure affect readers’ responses. At the same time, Rule contrasts the “traditional strategy of naming and defining” used by the texts with the kind of “intuited” understandings of grammatical function enabled by embodied simulation (30; emphasis original).

Rule’s students worked through to a sense of grammar as the “director” of a mental movie, coining the term “grammera” for “grammar camera” (31). She provides examples to illustrate how thinking of a sentence in terms of the bodily actions it conveys opened students to understanding subjects and objects, including recognizing the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs as in “building a sandcastle” versus “feeling hurt” (30-31). Rule argues that students responded to the physical embodiment of this difference in ways they could not to abstract technical definitions (31). They similarly were able to grasp the effects of absolute phrases and to make sense of the multitude of “sentence-style directives” that handbooks ask them to follow (31-32. 34). For example, “see[ing]” sentences allowed them to discern the difference between active and passive constructions (33-34).

Rule contends that embodied simulation addresses a longstanding issue in writing instruction: the gap between conscious and unconscious knowledge. In her view, the efficacy of embodied simulation as a pedagogical tool suggests that “knowing about grammar,” as opposed to “knowing how to do grammar,” may not be necessary (34-35). In her experience, students exposed to the ways in which subtle grammatical choices impact the ways readers interpret and react to sentences find themselves with a rich, intuitive awareness of the possibilities inherent in grammar without having to memorize and follow rules (35):

[I]nstead of starting with identifying the subject, instead of thinking in terms of noun or participial phrases, instead of perceiving sentences as a set of separate elements we can label—we can simply ask students to dive in and sense the sentence. (33)

Such a formulation of grammar instruction, Rule argues, accords with theoretical awareness that “we make meaning by imagining ‘being there’” (33).


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Vidali, Amy. Disabling Writing Program Administration. WPA, Sept. 2015. Posted 10/28/2015.

Vidali, Amy. “Disabling Writing Program Administration.” Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators 38.2 (2015): 32-55. Print.

Amy Vidali examines the narratives of writing program administrators (WPAs) from the standpoint of disability studies. She argues that the way in which these narratives frame the WPA experience excludes instructive considerations of the intersections between WPA work and disability even though disability functions metaphorically in these texts. Her analysis explores the degree to which “these narratives establish normative expectations of who WPAs are and can be” (33).

Drawing on disability scholars Jay Dolmage and Carrie Sandahl (48n3, 49n4), Vidali proposes “disabling writing program work” (33; emphasis original). Similar to “crip[ping]” an institution or activity, disabling brings to the fore “able-bodied assumptions and exclusionary effects” (Sandahl, qtd. in Vidali 49n4) and tackles the disabling/enabling binary (49). Vidali’s examination of the WPA literature addresses its tendency to privilege ableist notions of success, to exclude access to disabled individuals, and to ignore the insights offered by the lens of disability.

In Vidali’s view, the WPA accounts she extracts from many sources focus on disabilities like depression and anxiety, generally positing that WPA work causes such disabilities and that they are an inevitable part of the WPA landscape that must be managed or “escaped” (37, 39). She uses her own experience with depression to discuss how identifying the mental and physical manifestations of depression solely with the stresses of WPA work impoverishes the field’s understanding of “how anxiety might be produced in the interaction of bodies and environments” (40) which occurs in any complex group configuration; recognition of this interaction removes the responsibility for the disability and its effects from “particular problem bodies” and locates it in the larger set of relationships, including inequities, among people and institutions (42). In other words, for Vidali, acknowledging the existence of disabilities outside of and prior to WPA work and their embodied influence within that work can allow scholars to “reframe WPA narratives in more productive ways” (41).

Vidali writes that the failure to recognize disability as an embodied human state interacting with the WPA environment is exacerbated by the lack of data on the number of WPAs with disabilities and on the kinds of disabilities they bring to the task. Vidali examines surveys in which researchers shied away from asking questions about disability for fear respondents might not feel comfortable answering, especially since revealing disability can lead to discrimination (44, 47).

Particularly damaging, she argues, are narratives often critiqued within the disability-studies community, for example, accounts of “overcoming” the burdens of disability, hero-narratives, and equations between “health” and “success.” Drawing on Paul Longmore and Simi Linton, Vidali writes that narratives of overcoming demand that individuals deal with the difficulties created by their interaction with environments in an effort to accommodate themselves to normal expectations, but these narratives refuse to acknowledge “the power differential” involved and increase the pressure to make do with non-inclusive situations rather than advocate for change (42).

Similarly, in Vidali’s view, hero narratives suggest that only the “hyper-able” are qualified to be WPAs; images of the WPA as miraculous and unflappable problem-solver deny the possibility that people “who may work at different paces and in different manners” can be equally effective (43). Such narratives risk “reifying unreasonable job expectations” that may further exclude disabled individuals as well as reinforcing the assumption that candidates for WPA work “all enter WPA positions with the same abilities, tools, and goals” (43). Vidali argues that such views of the ideal WPA coincide with a model in which health is a necessity for success and ultimately “only the fittest survive as WPAs” (40).

Vidali proposes alternatives to extant WPA narratives that open the door to more “interdependent” interaction that permits individuals to care for themselves and each other (40-41). Changes to the expectations WPAs have for themselves and each other can value such qualities as “productive designation of tasks to support teams” and acceptance of a wider range of communication options (43). Moving away from the WPA as hyper-able hero can also permit reflection on failure and an effective response to its inevitability (42). Vidali notes how her own depression served as a catalyst for increased attention to inclusiveness and access in her program and how its intersection with her WPA work alerted her to the ways that disability as metaphor for something that must be disguised rather than an embodied reality experienced by many limits WPAs’ options. She stresses her view that

disabling writing program administration isn’t only about disabled WPAs telling their stories: It’s about creating inclusive environments for all WPAs, not only at the time they are hired, but in ways that account for the embodied realities that come with time. (47)


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Kopelson, Karen. Workplace Guides for ASD Individuals. CE, July 2015. Posted 07/30/15.

Kopelson, Karen. “‘Know thy work and do it’: The Rhetorical-Pedagogical Work of Employment and Workplace Guides for Adults with ‘High-Functioning’ Autism.” College English 77.6 (2015): 553-76. Print.

Karen Kopelson examines workplace advice guides designed to help adults on the autism spectrum enter the workforce. She argues that, in the process of explaining how such adults can reinvent themselves to meet workplace demands, these guides underscore worker traits that fit a capitalist ideal, presenting ASD workers* as perfect embodiments of this ideal; they diverge from disability-rights agendas in advising ASD adults to downplay or even reject their identity as a disabled person; they participate in the American narrative of individual accomplishment and personal responsibility; and they disseminate an implicit but very visible rhetorical education in ways that shed light on tensions between composition and disability studies.

To illustrate these claims, Kopelson draws on Amazon rankings to select recent and/or prominent examples of these texts. With the exceptions of works by Temple Grandin and Kate Duffy, which she includes because of their prominence, she focuses on guidebooks published since 2010 in order to understand how the most recent research and terminology are presented and employed by these books (555-56).

Kopelson notes the disproportionate attention given to children with autism-spectrum disorders, suggesting that a recent proliferation of workplace guidebooks reflects the fact that once these “children grow up,” their lives will intersect with the larger culture, in particular the job market (553-54). The books, she contends, direct their arguments to multiple audiences: to ASD individuals and their health-care communities but also to employers, who may not recognize that the supposed deficits that accompany an ASD diagnosis are actually the kinds of qualities employers should value (554). Among these traits are the ability to focus, to be absorbed and satisfied by repetitive tasks, to concentrate on work rather than social interaction (558-60), to work long hours and accept “internal motivation” (560) in lieu of high wages, to remain loyal to an employer: in fact, to define themselves, as Grandin does, by the work they do (561).

In Kopelson’s view, the worker thus constructed is the capitalist “fantasy worker in possession of qualities valued most by contemporary workplaces” (571). At the same time, she illustrates through examples from several texts that in order to succeed in workplaces that continue to be structured around neurotypical expectations, ASD individuals must remake themselves, taking it upon themselves to “adapt” and “fit in” (564).

Kopelson includes examples from many of the texts under study that demonstrate the ways in which this adaptation is predicated on attention to the rhetorical principles of “imitation, delivery, invention, and, especially, to audience and context” (564). Foregrounding books by Barbara Bissonnette, Kopelson detects a pedagogic focus on eliminating the “hermeneutic deficiency” that makes autistic individuals struggle to “objective[ly] and accurate[ly] . . . interpret” situations and people (Bissonnette, qtd. in Kopelson 567-68). This exhortation to read workplace audiences accurately and objectively, Kopelson writes, seems at odds with Bissonnette’s insistence that “meaning comes from context” (qtd. in Kopelson 566). Bissonnette’s pedagogy involves providing examples and heuristics that ASD individuals can use to gauge audience and context as they work to overcome the “mindblindness” that dominant depictions ascribe to them and that reportedly prevents them from understanding others’ perspectives (559. 567-69).

In Kopelson’s view, larger issues emerge from her study of how rhetorical principles in line with much implicit composition pedagogy are used in the workplace guides. Among her questions is whether rhetoric is “inherently normative” (566), imposing pressure to match external standards of propriety, in the process engaging in the “the manipulation of subjectivity itself” (566). Kopelson, citing Paul Heilker and Melanie Yergeau, sees in this function a tension with a view more in line with those expressed in disability studies that “autism is its own ‘way of being in the world through language'” (qtd. in Kopelson 571). Kopelson compares this view of autistics’ methods of intersubjective interaction with other examples of difference in language and with efforts within composition studies to both expand students’ linguistic capacity and value their home languages (572). Kopelson further considers competing views as to whether mainstream rhetorical pedagogy like that practiced in the workplace guides can in fact transform ASD individuals in the ways Bissonnette and others envision or whether entirely new methods of rhetorical education must be invented to meet the needs of autistic students (570-71). Ultimately, Kopelson calls for more study and analysis to understand the intersections of ASD individuals with the larger culture, while urging composition scholars to recognize the realities that have fueled the proliferation of guides like Grandin’s and Bissonnette’s:

And so, while our field may be invested in such notions as “rhetorical accommodation” ([Jenell] Johnson 476, [qtd. in Kopelson 572]), or a “revised” and “expanded understanding of rhetoricity” ([Cynthia] Lewiecki-Wilson 157, [qtd. in Kopelson 572]), and while we may be committed to . . . facilitating access to languages of power while valuing languages of culture or nature, we need to be aware that pedagogies far more public and powerful than those of writing studies, or of higher education at large . . , conspire to ensure that neurotypical and other monolithic norms of language and selfhood are sustained. (572)

*Kopelson notes that the preferred choice of major disabilities-rights groups like ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network) is “identity-first” language rather than the “people with” language often used by the guidebooks  (556-57; emphasis original).


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Walters, Shannon. Valuing ASD Students. RTE, May 2015. Posted 06/23/15.

Walters, Shannon. “Toward a Critical ASD Pedagogy of Insight: Teaching, Researching, and Valuing the Social Literacies of Neurodiverse Students.” Research in the Teaching of English 49.4 (2015): 340-60. Print.

Shannon Walters examines the experiences of students with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS students) and students on the Autism Spectrum (ASD students) in college writing classes. (She notes that many autistic people prefer the “identity-first rather than person-first language” [357n4] and uses this nomenclature throughout her article.) Walters argues that many of the difficulties these students face derive from the failure of educators to listen to them and incorporate their insights about themselves into classroom practice. A more productive learning environment for these students, Walters contends, will involve rejecting stereotypes, not least by redefining what is accepted as “social.”

Walters sees current research on the effects of autism on college students’ experiences as sparse, with what does exist seldom including the points of view of the AS and ASD individuals being studied (340-41). Problematic approaches in the education literature include a tendency for teachers who believe they have encountered autistic students to engage in diagnosis and discussion of the students without engaging the students themselves in exploring their needs and perceptions (341):

Discussions about ASD become stories about how teachers heroically accommodate students perceived as on the spectrum, rather than about how self-identified ASD students navigate largely neurotypical writing classrooms in the face of unacknowledged challenges. (341)

To address the lack of research that takes into account the actual voices of these students, Walters conducted a case study of two self-identified AS students enrolled in first-year writing classes in the program in which Walters taught. Walters provides a detailed account of her study design, including semi-structured interviews and coding, and her role as a researcher guided by the tenets of critical disability studies, which recognizes disability as a source of possibility and requires the recognition of people with disabilities as crucial agents in policies and conversations about them (342, 345). Such an approach, Walters argues, can lead teachers to “value writing practices and pedagogies that encourage socially neurodiverse ways of writing” (342). Valuing neurodiversity, in turn, leads to a recognition of disability as a source of “insight” (342). In service of this goal, the case studies asked how the students “characterized themselves as writers inside and outside of the classroom,” how they perceived their first-year courses, and what the decision to foreground their insights could tell educators about pedagogical best practices (343).

Although Walters’s student participants, Jen and Jon, both enjoyed writing extensively outside of the classroom. they “struggled” in their first-year writing courses (347). Jen took her course in a summer session, while Jon, who had been homeschooled since third-grade, took his individually in a modified format with a university teacher (345). Walters records each student’s definitions of “language” and “normal,” as well as their definitions of AS, which they consciously chose in contrast to what Walters describes as the tendency of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to “subsume AS into the broader category of ASD” (346). The definition of neurodiversity as “social acceptance of neurological difference as part of the broad landscape of human diversity,” from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), highlights the view that adhering to rigid definitions of “normal” that define difference as deficit precludes valuing the possibilities inherent in difference (346).

In Walters’s view, the “process or stage writing model” accepted widely by composition teachers did not serve the two students well. Jen found the pace of the summer course troubling and fell behind, although she ultimately passed. Jon resisted writing about issues that did not interest him and “just filling in details” as required by mandated revision (347-49). Walters argues that the process model labels different ways that individual students work as abnormal (349). She posits that her participants’ difficulties “differed not necessarily in kind but in degree” from those most students face (349).

To emphasize the degree to which the process model affects neurodiverse students’ activities as writers, Walters contrasts their struggles in the courses with the writing they enthusiastically pursue outside of the classroom. In each case, Walters explores how the students’ preferred writing activities functioned as the kinds of critical and social literacies composition teachers hope to encourage. Jen hosted both a private and a public blog addressing different audiences, wrote extensive fan fiction, and had made considerable progress on a novel (351, 354). Jon, who planned to major in geography, developed diverse community contacts “on his own terms” in order to create a local history and branch into a piece of historical fiction (352). Walters finds that the kinds of writing in which these students chose to invest their efforts and at which they succeeded did not meet what she views as the limited definitions of “social” and “critical” that governed classroom assignments (353-54). For example, Jen did not feel as if topics like anime, science fiction, and fantasy in which she was interested qualified as suitable for a rhetorical analysis of popular culture (354). Jon’s “lists of dates and maps” inspired his more extensive writing but, in Walters’s view, would not have been accepted as valid activities in a first-year writing class (355).

Both students, she argues, lived in rich social worlds that simply differed from those built into a process-model classroom. Thus, the perception that ASD students are “unconnected and asocial” did not capture these students’ achievements or personas (354). Not only did the students’ activities define them as good writers and demonstrate that they could interact with a range of audiences, recognizing the different uses of writing in different situations, their work also revealed their critical engagement with the power relationships embedded in the public conversation about AS and ASD, the kind of engagement called for by writing pedagogy (354). Walters recommends supporting the diverse ways that neurodiverse students meet the expectations of college writing courses, for example by a range of adjustments to the typical curriculum and scheduling of process pedagogy. Writing communities like Jen’s fan-fiction communities can become topics of discussion and study for students for whom they offer a more receptive writing environment (356). Instead of assuming that ASD students are limited in their abilities to respond socially, teachers can develop their own social responsiveness through activities like “rhetorical listening” (Ratcliffe, cited in Walters 357), which will foster the “social acceptance of neurological difference” (ASAN, qtd. in Walters 351), valuing rather than reshaping the particular forms of interaction and creativity that such students bring to writing classes.