Our first-year writing program requires me to teach four basic genres of writing commonly encountered in college classrooms. But it has almost no requirements in addition to these, which gives me a lot of flexibility in how I teach the four projects and how I approach the materials.
In past semesters, I’ve usually structured lessons loosely around a central question of rhetoric, like audience or code-switching in language. This semester, I’m asking a broader question: “What is ‘normal’?”
How do we know what “normal” is? How do we decide what falls outside the “normal”? And when we encounter something that is not “normal” for us, what tools can we use to reach out and understand it?
I’m hoping to spend large parts of the semester focusing on one or two longer texts, plus a few shorter texts and activities thrown in. One of the two will be fiction – Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The other will probably be a non-fiction essay of some kind; I’m considering Duffy & Dorner’s “The Pathos of Mindblindness,” although I’m open to suggestions.
Other materials I’m considering:
- Jamaica Kincaid, “Girl“
- Luna Lindsey, “Meltdown in Freezer Three“
- DJ Savarese, “Communicate With Me“
- Horace Miner, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema“
- Kennedy Krieger Institute, “Bringing the Early Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder Into Focus” (the “normal toddler! not-normal toddler!” structure of this is ideal for discussing how we discourse or “tag” normal)
- Mel Baggs, “In My Language“
- John Cage, 4’33”
- Jimi Hendrix, “The Star-Spangled Banner“
(If these seem to have a pretty hefty disability studies focus, well, welcome to my blog.) ;)
I’d also like to have them try a few activities that challenge “normal” perceptions or behaviors, although I want to avoid activities that ask them to pretend to be disabled or that try to mimic a disability. My goal is to help them understand that “normal for them” is their personal position of power, and at the same time is not an expectation they can or should project onto others. My problem with “pretend to be disabled” activities is that they can easily give the pretender a false sense that they know what it is for this impairment/disability to be “normal,” when they don’t.
Instead, I’m considering having them try, and then write about, things like:
- For one week, note all the flashing/strobing lights you see and the situation. Write about what you wouldn’t be able to do if you couldn’t be in the presence of that light – say if you were epileptic or had photosensitive migraines. Find out who is in charge of changing/fixing/stopping the light and get them to change/fix/stop it. (This one I borrowed from Kassianne of Radical Neurodivergence Speaking.)
- For one week, ride all elevators facing the back instead of the front. You must take at least one round-trip elevator ride per day during this week. You must get on the elevator when it arrives – you may not wait for an empty elevator. (This one I found in the 1986 Girl Scout Cadette and Senior Interest Projects handbook.)
- For 24 hours, do not use stairs, steps, curbs, or anything that requires you to lift either foot more than three inches from the ground. You may use ramps, elevators, escalators, and curb cuts. You may not be late to any class, job, or other scheduled activity.
- For 24 hours, do not talk. You may type, write, draw, text, sign, or use any text to speech adaptive app or device. You may not make mouthnoises of any kind.
I’m always open to ideas. My goal is to make it clear to them that (a) their personal “normal” has value and interest, and also (b) so does everyone else’s personal “normal.” That we, as humans, are not balkanized groups of “normal” and “other,” but a multiplicity of “normals,” each of whom can draw power from within our “normal” to share beneficial things with other people and to stand up against being mowed over by other people’s demands for us to conform to their “normal.”