My #Kzoo2015: A Recap

I just finished attending (and presenting at) my first-ever academic conference: the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, aka #Kzoo2015.  Here’s a recap:

1.  My presentation, on representations of mental difference and the rhetoric of disability in Gregory of Tours and the “Green Children of Woolpit” tales, went better than I expected – especially since the room had about ten times the number of attendees I expected.  Big thank-yous to MEARCSTAPA for sponsoring and to Tory Pearman for a fantastic response.

2.  Several people contributed to livetweeting the panel and my part in it.  I’ve Storified the tweets here.

3.  I collected not one but TWO shout-outs in the medievalists.net recap of Day 1 of the Congress.  (This is probably a better measure of how few medievalists were tweeting that day than it is of my (non)influence in the field.)

4.  Over dinner on Thursday (medieval cafeteria salmon), Rebecca Straple clarified for me why it is I keep getting dragged back into the Middle Ages, despite my primary interest in rhetoric and disability studies:  We “other” the medieval in many of the same ways we “other” disability, from the point of view of modernism and its anxiety about the production of the self.  As a result, though I was expecting this Congress to be my only Congress, I now know I’ll be back.

5.  RESOLVED:  I must write that “autism and changeling narratives” paper.  I’ve gotten unabashed enthusiasm for the idea from both the autism side and the medieval side, so.  Luckily, Congress really helped me focus my thoughts in this arena – I even worked up an outline while standing in the interminable Fetzer coffee line yesterday – and a colleague in neuroqueerdom recommended I pitch it to Autonomous Press as a book chapter.

6.  RESOLVED II: Leaving the practice of law for an academic disability studies career: A+ life choice.  While the sessions on legal history I attended yesterday were fantastic scholarship and very informative, I couldn’t shake that nagging personal sense that these were not “my people” in the way the monsters/disability people are “my people.”

7.  Not my work but worth mentioning: Natalie Grinnell’s “A Song for the Hills of Kalamazoo,” inspired by all the walking Congress demands.  Since I live on the city’s most famous hill (not on campus, alas), I relate extra-hard.

8.  Unrelated to Congress but still pretty cool: I found myself linked in an online article in Good Housekeeping of all things.

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Does the Subaltern Have a Theory of Mind? Revisited

I finally wrote that paper asking “does the subaltern have a theory of mind?”  The one-page handout is available here [pdf].

The answer, in short, is “This question continues to be incoherent because Theory of Mind is incoherent.  The operative question is “do either theory of mind or subalternity have any use as concepts or metaphorical constructs?”  I do not answer this question in the paper.

As far as Spivak’s subaltern goes, I hypothesize that the concept may still be useful, but only in the context of a materialist analysis.  Put another way, I think there may be some value in tracing who is so far outside the means of production that the very discourse of production is itself impenetrable (and unpenetrated).  I also think, tentatively, that this may be in some ways analogous to the question of how non-autistic material and cultural conditions disable autistic people.  “Mindblindness,” then, would be not an empirical fact of neurology, but a product of social pressure.  And since autism and subalternity are both essentially narrative conditions, I think there is value in recalling us back to the narrative position.

What I find increasingly incoherent, in either context, is the idea of any figure who is genuinely unable to speak, who is forever outside the bounds of rhetoric and thus forever outside the bounds of the human.  To try to site this in anyone we might otherwise think of as a “person” – to posit that people who are really mindblind or really subaltern, in some essential and unchangeable way, actually exist (whether or not we think that fact then compels “us” to do something about “them”) – seems both impossible and dangerous to me.

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Deconstructing “Active Listening”

A few weeks ago, “Whole Body Listening Larry” made the rounds of the autistic community:

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right.  The poster is titled "Whole Body Listening!"  Its subhead reads "Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body."  The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows: Eyes: "Look at the person talking to you." Ears: "Both ears ready to hear." Mouth: "Quiet - no talking, humming, or making sounds" Hands: "Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side." Feet: "Quiet on the floor." Body: "Faces the speaker." Brain: "Thinking about what is being said." Heart: "Caring about what the other person is saying."

Image: A green poster, featuring a cartoon image of a little boy on the left and a series of cartoon images of body parts on the right. The poster is titled “Whole Body Listening!” Its subhead reads “Larry wants to remind you to listen with your whole body.” The cartoon body parts are captioned, respectively, as follows:
Eyes: “Look at the person talking to you.”
Ears: “Both ears ready to hear.”
Mouth: “Quiet – no talking, humming, or making sounds”
Hands: “Quiet in lap, pockets or by your side.”
Feet: “Quiet on the floor.”
Body: “Faces the speaker.”
Brain: “Thinking about what is being said.”
Heart: “Caring about what the other person is saying.”

The discussion at the time centered on how Larry’s approach to listening is a neurotypical-centric one, and that, for many neurodivergent people (including autistic people), behaving in the way Larry describes actually prevents them from listening.  Larry, the argument went, forces autistic and other ND kids to make a tough choice: pretend to be listening but actually get nothing from the conversation, or listen but get reprimanded for not behaving in the prescribed way when they do?

As someone who has to make the choice whether to “listen” Larry’s way or to, you know, actually attend to and comprehend what the speaker is saying, I’m sympathetic to the pushback against this model.  But I’m also struck by how little of what we portray as “active listening” – what Larry demands – isn’t “listening” at all.  It’s speaking.

It’s not verbal speaking – Larry does ask us explicitly not to make mouthnoises.  But it’s communication all the same.  The body postures that Larry’s “whole body listening” demands are all concentrated on communicating to the “speaker” (here, the person making the mouthnoises) that their mouthnoises are the most important thing in the room.  Larry’s intended message isn’t about making himself, or you, a better listener – whatever that means.  It’s about reassuring the “speaker” that they have an audience by telling them that they have an audience.  The form of “listening” we prize most highly, Larry’s “whole body,” “active” form of listening, is at its core a form of speaking in service of reifying speaking.  “Listening,” in the sense of “attending to and comprehending the context, content, and format of someone else’s communications,” really has very little to do with it.

Larry’s instructions for listening might not be wholly useless.  In a world that prized and taught attending-and-comprehending communication on a par with issuing communication, there could easily be any number of people who did their best “listening” while adopting the body postures Larry advocates.  But that world would not seek to impose any particular set of gestures on its population, and speakers in that world would not require the reassurance of this particular set of gestures in response to their speech.  Instead, that world would allow for the fact that there are many ways of effectively “listening,” and not all of them desire or require this particular set of nonverbal signs in order to operate.

That’s not the world we currently live in, and that’s why the autistic community finds Larry problematic.  Larry becomes yet another way autistic children (and adults) are told to speak in a way that is unnatural to them or else.  But Larry also reveals how we subordinate listening to speaking not only by preferring speaking over listening, but by demanding that listening itself behave as a form of speaking.

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Remember That Paper on the Temporal Prime Directive I Was Going to Write?

I wrote it.  But it turned out a bit differently than expected.

I’m not posting the paper in its entirety; it’s a draft, and I harbor secret ambitions of actually presenting a later draft at a conference someday.

But I will post the one-page handout I made to accompany said paper.  The pdf is at the link; the text is after the jump. Continue reading

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#AutisticBlogChallenge!

Are you tired of the old-fashioned “light it up blue” “autism awareness” stuff?  Would you rather spend April doing something clever and productive?  Do you hate Twizzlers?

There’s hope.  Check out the Autistic Blog Challenge (#AutisticBlogChallenge).

The rules (which I just copied and pasted from the link above, since I wrote them) are as follows:

1. Find people to sponsor your autistic-blog-reading at whatever level they can afford. For instance, your sponsors might agree to donate $1.00 for every blog you read according to the rules of the challenge.

2. For the month of April, read blogs by autistic writers. To “count,” the blog must be written primarily by an autistic individual, and you must read at least ten posts (or the entire blog, if it has fewer than ten posts). Keep a list of the blogs and posts you read.

3. At the end of April, give copies of your list to your sponsors. Collect funds. Tell your sponsors which blogs you liked most, so they know where to start reading.

4. Use your newfound knowledge of autistic people’s needs, preferences, and desires to select a charity that actually advocates on behalf of autistic people. Donate.

I guarantee, by the end of April, you will raise far more awareness, acceptance, and respect for autistic human beings than you will EVER raise by eating candy, going for a walk, or screwing in a blue lightbulb.  Let’s make this a thing!

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The Social Model of Disability: A Rather Short and Very Simplified Introduction

I wrote this just now for a person on Facebook who asked for a shorter and simpler introduction to the social model of disability than Google offered.  Since I imagine it will be useful to more than just the person to whom I originally responded, I’m reposting it here.

Think of “disabled” or “disability” as a verb. A body/brain condition you have is a “disability” not because it exists or because it differs from body/brain conditions a lot of other people have, but because the world you live in is not set up, socially or otherwise, to let people with your body/brain condition access it easily.

The condition “itself” – say, like having chronic migraines or not having legs – is typically called an “impairment,” especially if the medical world has criteria for diagnosing it.  Impairments can come with their own non-social hardships.  Migraines, for example, can be very painful, cause difficulty thinking, nausea etc. But any body/mind condition, “impairment” or otherwise, is a “disability” only when the way society is structured is the reason you can’t do the things you want to do when you have it.

A rather simplified example: I have chronic migraines. I see the pain as an “impairment,” because no amount of social change will ever make the pain not suck for me. But whether or not I can hold a full-time job with my chronic migraines is a “disability,” because it depends on things like how work is structured in a particular society, what tools I have to do work in alternate ways during a migraine, etc.

My chronic migraines were a full-blown “disability” when I worked as a line editor, because there my employer refused to structure the job so I could do it during a migraine. In other words, I was “disabled” from doing that job by my employer’s rules about how the job “should” be done. But the migraines were less disabling when I was a lawyer or now, as a professor, because both those jobs are ones I can structure (and have structured) so I can do the work even during a migraine.  I can schedule work so that I’m working at home on migraine days; I can lower the lights in my office/classroom and give my students activities that don’t require the same kind of “on my toes” input from me; I can postpone grading for days when I don’t have a migraine; and I have someone else to double-check my writing to make sure it makes sense. In writing fiction, I find that my migraines are actually the opposite of “disabling”: I write *better* fiction when I have one than when I don’t. The migraines are still painful and nauseating, but now I’m “abled” to do my job because it is structured in a way that lets me access it even with the pain and nausea.

…This doesn’t, of course, address any of my reservations about the disability/impairment binary, regarding autism or otherwise.   But I hope it’s useful.

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Send Dani Alexis to SDS!

Yes, this is a plea for funding.  If you’d like to skip ahead to the funding part, my PayPal address is dani.alexis.ryskamp@gmail.com.

The Gracie wants you to help me do all this work more efficiently.  (Image: a fluffy white cat stretched out on a bed, which is covered in books.)

The Gracie wants you to help me do all this work more efficiently. (Image: a fluffy white cat stretched out on a bed, which is covered in books.)

So here’s the story:

1.)  After two years of MA work and just a few months before actually earning the MA, I finally know what the heck I’m doing in academia: English rhetoric and composition with a focus on disability studies and queer/crip/neuroqueer theory.

2.)  The biggest professional party in all of disability studies is the annual Society for Disability Studies (SDS) conference.  This year, it’s in Atlanta in June.

3.)  Going to SDS would be a Very. Useful. Important. Deal. for my career right now.  It would also make me be social for an entire week, which y’all keep telling me I should practice doing.

4.)  I wasn’t going to go to SDS, however, until a fellow disability studies colleague and wonderful human being offered to solve for me my number-one problem with going: transportation.

5.)  To make SDS happen, however, I still need to cover room and board for the week we’ll be in Atlanta.  I estimate I’ll need $1,500 to pull this off.

tl;dr:  Please help me get to SDS by donating anything you can – even a few dollars.   My PayPal address is dani.alexis.ryskamp@gmail.com.   If you leave me your mailing address in the PayPal comments (optional), I will send you a handwritten thank-you note of love and more love.

You can make it my birthday and Christmas presents!

(I was going to set up a GoFundMe account for this, but they take five percent, and I thought “which would my friends rather pay that five percent for – GoFundMe’s continued existence, or actually making my professional dreams come true?”)

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