College Composition Weekly: Summaries of research for college writing professionals

Read, Comment On, and Share News of the Latest from the Rhetoric and Composition Journals


Leave a comment

Obermark, Lauren E. “Misfitting” and Disability in English Graduate Studies. Nov. 2019 CE. Posted 01/28/2019.

Obermark, Lauren E. “Making Space for the Misfit: Disability and Access in Graduate Education in English.” College English 82.2 (2019): 173-203. Print.

Lauren E. Obermark examines the English graduate school experience through the lens of disability studies, incorporating the concept of the “misfit” to analyze responses to a survey she conducted at the “midsize regional public university” (179) where she is an assistant professor.

She reports that her own graduate education, where she regularly felt she “did not fit the graduate school mold” (173), aroused her interest in issues of access in English graduate programs like the one she attended and the one in place at her institution. To key concepts of access and disability, Obermark adds “wonder,” which she draws on Tanya Titchkosky to define as “a multipronged and exploratory orientation” (177) that can be “uncomfortable” because it is “outward-facing and change-focused” (178). She describes her survey as an act of wonder; her grounded-theory approach to the responses leads her to conclude that many assumptions underlying common models of graduate education create unacknowledged “pedagogical misfits” and diminish access in these programs (176).

Disability scholarship leads Obermark to argue for understanding disability studies as a form of inquiry into concerns that affect everyone as these studies consider how the “collaboration and interdependence” that improve conditions for people with disabilities can enhance everyone’s lives (176). Such an approach, she contends, makes questions about access “generative” rather than casting access as a way of correcting a specific problem through “accommodations” that can create more obstacles than they remove (174, 193-94).

Noting that institutions implement procedures that attempt to resolve access problems, Obermark describes many such efforts as part of a “disability bypass,” which renders people needing different forms of access invisible as their needs have supposedly been met. In graduate schools, she argues, this bypass takes the form of insistence that no student succeeding in academia meets the definition of disabled (182). Obermark’s survey examines the ways she believes the university and the students alike bypass or deny the existence of students for whom extant forms of access mean struggle (181).

For the concept of “misfitting,” Obermark turns to the scholarship of Elisabeth L. Miller and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Quoting Garland-Thomson, Obermark writes that “a misfit is a result of incongruence or ‘awkward’ juxtaposition” and therefore “does not imply a problem with the environment or with an individual” (177). A premise that emerges from the survey data is that misfits occur when established norms are wrongly assumed to work well for everyone. In Obermark’s view, such misfitting can affect access, especially as it often goes unnoticed (177).

Obermark’s institution offers an MA and an MFA, which feature many overlapping classes for students working toward a number of goals, such as credentialing for their secondary teaching jobs or preparing for PhD work. Of the ninety-five students offered the survey, thirty-two participated(179). Opening questions asked about the “most common in-class approach and the most common assignment” in the students’ experiences (183). By wide margins, students reported that whole-class discussion was the most common approach and an academic essay the most common assignment (183).

From open-ended comments, Obermark concludes that many students question whether the class discussions really serve either the learners or the course goals as effectively as they might (184). Student comments note the tendency for a few students with strong oral skills to control discussion, in one case describing this environment as “repetitive and even a bit intimidating for those not ‘in the loop’” (184). Another called such discussions “unstructured and random” and not clearly aligned with assigned materials (185). A student who found the reading challenging wrote that the discussion did not provide the access to the material that she needed (185).

Student comments about the essay assignments, in Obermark’s view, constitute “a deeply enculturated essay allegiance,” with students contending that only the traditional essay correctly showcases graduate-level skills (188). Obermark counters that much recent scholarship in digital and multimodal communication suggests that a wider range of options might be fruitful (188).

For Obermark, students’ sense that they are expected to succeed in these situations even if they are not comfortable with them suggests that students have internalized a message that those for whom the accepted process is not the best fit are not actually “fit” for graduate school (185). She characterizes “reverse accommodation” as a common assumption on students’ parts that it is “their job to figure out and work through” any issues they encounter with the teaching methods considered the norm (190; emphasis original). Rather than questioning how the norms could change, Obermark argues that students see adaptation as their only recourse. The ability, in the words of one respondent, to “just muddle through and figure it out on our own” is seen as the duty of a graduate student in English by students and professor alike (191). Misfitting, in this view, is the misfit’s fault.

Maintaining with other disability scholars that “accommodation” is not “access,” Obermark argues that accommodation as generally provided “requires a great deal of emotional labor from students,” making it their responsibility to inform and educate their instructors individually about their needs, thus “reliev[ing] the professor (or the institution) from making a wider change” (192-93).

For Obermark, the students’ struggles to accommodate the traditional academic assumptions raise the question of what the field of English studies really wants. She responds to “water cooler” assertions that graduate school should be rigorous and the material difficult with the contention, quoting Anne-Marie Womack, that “The way to teach difficult material well is always to make it more accessible” (194). The failure to provide this access leads Obermark to wonder whether the field “really want[s] [graduate education] to be accessible or inclusive in meaningful ways” (195).

Acknowledging that colleagues may see student struggles as “an ongoing reality” (195), Obermark asks questions about her respondents’ attitudes toward disability. She reports that for students currently teaching, learning about disability issues makes them more aware, not just of specific disabilities, but also of difference and diversity generally in their own classrooms (196). Such awareness, she contends, suggests that the teachers acknowledge their responsibility to change rather than requiring their students to adjust when their fit to norms is not perfect (196).

Obermark writes that examining how graduate students manage their fit in current graduate-school culture might encourage an open-ended and ongoing conversation, perhaps triggering small changes in the pedagogical practices that are often taken for granted (195). She offers examples of alternative practices that can welcome other ways of learning rather than promulgating what she considers a “take it or leave it” message (177), which she believes drives students out of graduate programs when they perceive that their abilities are not those the field requires. Thus, in her view, awareness of misfitting is a step toward creative thinking: improving access generates new approaches that she believes enhance access for everyone.


Leave a comment

Bollig, Chase. Students as Citizen-Workers. CCC, Dec. 2015. Posted 01/11/2016.

Bollig, Chase. “‘Is College Worth It?’ Arguing for Composition’s Value with the Citizen-Worker.” College Composition and Communication 67.2 (2015): 150-72. Print.

Chase Bollig urges compositionists to address the ongoing debate about the value of college by adopting a view of students as “citizen-workers.” Bollig argues that the field must “[resist] the compartmentalization of higher education’s cultural, civic, and economic functions” (163). Such resistance can challenge what Bollig sees as reductionist views of the relationship between education and economics that proliferate in the public debate.

Bollig reviews the conversation within the “commentariat” (151) as to whether college is “worth it,” finding widespread agreement that people’s desire to attend college is related to the existence of “precarious job markets” (152) that both spur enrollment and raise questions about the trade-offs involved, especially when applicants are deemed underprepared.

According to one school of thought, a college degree is more important than ever in times of tight job markets (154), while another approach, which Bollig characterizes partly through the claims of economics professor Richard Vedder, laments an overproduction of college graduates as problematic in view of the economy’s need for people to do low-tech work (154-55). Supporters of the importance of a college degree reply that higher education provides “social capital” that is more important than specific skills learned; indeed, some contend that college admissions serve as markers for employers looking for workers capable of being inculcated into middle-class roles and values (156).

A thread in such discussions, Bollig reports, is the increasing cost of college attendance, which is blamed on such factors as “administrative costs” (157), but which Bollig ties to the question of whether higher education in general should be seen as a public good. He cites Jeffrey J. Williams, who associates the rising costs that students must bear with “the rollback of the welfare state” (qtd. in Bollig 157). This rollback transforms “the primary function of a university from being a social good to an individual investment,” a shift that Vedder supports because, in Vedder’s view, there is little or no “spillover effect” for society as a whole from an increase in college-educated citizens (157). Bollig sees the privatization called for by Vedder as an impediment to access that “naturalizes” the need for large amounts of student-loan debt (157), a burden that then disempowers employees who must hold onto jobs to pay back their loans (158).

Bollig explores prior efforts by composition scholars to valorize composition’s place in an institution that “is not a space but a market” (Williams, qtd. in Bollig 158). A number of defenses focus on college’s redistributive role, centering on issues of access like those related to the work of Mina P. Shaughnessy in showing that supposedly “ineducable” students can succeed if seen as “beginners” (159). Tom Fox similarly assumes that “redistributing wealth and privilege” and enhancing democracy are primary responsibilities of higher education (161). Bollig responds that discourses in support of access and redistribution “do not directly engage the market-oriented terms of the ‘worth it’ debate” (160). Such terms, for example, include claims by Vedder and others that remediation is not cost-effective and that inviting all to aspire to advanced literacy will “dilute quality” (Vedder, qtd. in Lauren Weber and Bollig 160). Moreover, Bollig writes, current trends that distinguish elite institutions from those attended by most students guarantee that stratification will persist regardless of educators’ beliefs in the equalizing potential of a college degree (161).

A second category of responses offered by compositionists in defending the value of college involves the role of higher education in fostering civic engagement. Bollig references work on service-learning to illustrate support for this view, but counters with cites from Catherine Chaput that efforts to produce effective “citizens” accept rather than challenge “the classed positionality into which we are hailed” (qtd. in Bollig 162).

Bollig presents Christopher Newfield as a scholar who does address economic factors in defending the value of college and particularly of humanities and social-science majors (162-63). Newfield believes that it is possible to “manage markets” by establishing the economic value of graduates in these fields (qtd. in Bollig 162; emphasis original). Chaput further states that the development of land-grant institutions specifically answered an economic exigency (163). These claims lead Bollig to suggest that

we in composition should reflect on how aspects of vocationalism can be appropriated to advance a reflexive, flexible vision of the relationship between higher education, composition, and the economy. (163)

Bollig develops the concept of the citizen-worker as it has been expressed in the work of a number of composition scholars. He draws on Joshua S. Hanan to explore the claim that classical rhetoric encourages separation of daily lived experience, including its economic aspects, from political involvement (164). Chaput and Tony Scott both advocate expanding the definition of “professionalism” to counteract a mindset that “distances college students and instructors from working-class Others” (164). Bollig cites scholarship by James Berlin, John Trimbur, and Russel K. Durst that argues for incorporating into the classroom a view of work that highlights its location in a larger, collective, democratic venue (165): Rather than banishing vocational concerns from the classroom, compositionists can encourage students to critically “examine their positionality as workers and consumers within the system of global capitalism” (165).

Extending this concept, Bollig urges making an examination of work “a mode of inquiry” that moves from a discussion casting “postgraduation employment as an individual problem” to one that “becomes an engagement with both the potential privileges of a degree and its limits” (166). In taking such steps, Bollig writes, the field can embrace the concerns and needs of the many students who must work while attending college, concerns and needs that he sees as absent from the extant debate (167).

Thus, in this view, making the “citizen-worker” the “subject of composition” (151) melds civic, economic, and political dimensions, a set of connections that are occluded both by the commentariat and by much scholarship in composition (168). This approach, Bollig believes, will allow composition not only to undercut the “literacy myth[s]” that tie education unproblematically to social mobility but also to advocate more effectively for the value of the work done in composition classrooms (168). One result, he believes, can be a renewed sense that the “mass literacy” (160) enabled by college is a “social good” (168).