Teaching the (Ab)Normal

Image: A tweet from the @ProBirdRights Twitter feed. The text reads “I am feel uncomfortable when we are not about me?”


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:

(If these seem to have a pretty hefty disability studies focus, well, welcome to my blog.)  ;)


My favorite comment about Theory of Mind, ever. OH THE IRONY! Image: A photo of several lines of text from Duffy and Dorner’s article “The Pathos of Mindblindness.” A quote from Simon Baron-Cohen is highlighted. The highlighted text reads “It is probably impossible to imagine what it is like to be mindblind.”


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.”

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No, Really, I Love Teaching

The phrase that comes out of my mouth most often during exam week is “no, really, I love teaching.”


Those Certain Students, during exam week. (Image: Two light-skinned women wearing dresses stand in a hallway. Each woman holds a sign reading “give us money, we are pretty.”)

I never have to justify my love of teaching at any other time of year – only during the week after regular classes have concluded, final exams are being proctored, and I’m grading a pile of final projects, last-minute extra-credit assignments, exams, and papers some hapless student attempted to turn in long after the “late work” option expired in the hopes that I wouldn’t notice that the personal narrative was actually due ten weeks before.

I love teaching.  I hate exam week.

I hate it not because a handful of students panic, but for the same reason they panic: because, after fourteen weeks of slacking off, they suddenly realize that their opportunity has passed.  That they cannot, no matter what they do, earn the C in this class they require to advance to actual work in their major.  I hate it because, despite my weekly reminder emails since Week 10 to check their grade and come talk to me if it is not where they want it to be, despite my desperate hurling of extra-point opportunities in their general direction, the inevitable student or two in (nearly) every section hasn’t done the work.  And now it is too late.

I hate it because I believe in my students.  I believe every single student who enters my classroom has the ability to pass first-year writing with at least a C.  Most of them have the ability to pass it with an A.  No student has ever disappointed me on this front; that is, I have never had a student who was incapable of passing this class satisfactorily.

Every semester, I believe every one of my students can pass my class.  But every semester, I have one or two who don’t believe they can pass my class.  And so they don’t do the work it takes to pass.  And they fail.  They come a-begging at the last minute for more extra-credit opportunities or a grade change, often with the announcement “I need at least a C in this class!”, as if every one of their classmates didn’t as well.

I hate the begging.  Not because I’m curmudgeonly or resentful, but because the only students who need to beg are those who gave up on themselves.

Fellow 1050 instructors who are more cynical than I say that part of our job teaching first-year writing is to “weed out” the ones who, for whatever reason(s), are not prepared to be in college right now.  To identify the students who don’t believe in themselves sufficiently to pass our class.


Curmudgeonly Professor Cat says “I could be reading your final paper right now.” (Image: A white cat, draped across a laptop keyboard, stares grumpily at the camera.)

Maybe there’s some truth to that.  But it still sucks.

I believe in you, students.  You’re the reason I love teaching.  But you need to believe in you, too.

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Thinking Differently and teaching pedagogy

Dani Alexis:

Adding this text as a placeholder – there’s a lot I want to say (mostly THIIIIS), but not typing on my phone….

Originally posted on The Third Glance:

When I started this blog, the idea was to document how my brain worked, to think about how I thought about, interacted with, and perceived the world. I was working through my discovery of what Autism was and the fact that I was autistic. I wanted to share my newfound understanding with others who might benefit from reading about a different perspective of the world.

I’ve always sort of understood that I thought differently from everyone else. I figured, since I obviously didn’t think like everyone else, that no one else did, exactly, either. To me, this was a logical conclusion. If I was different, then everyone else was too. And if that was the case, then they all had interesting thoughts and stories to tell about how they interacted with the world. This is why I read blogs. I think that everyone has something unique and important to offer…

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Whence the Heroic “Other”?

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about Othering and its operation in literature, in various ways.

Currently, “other” as a verb has a universally negative connotation.  “Benevolent Othering” sounds cozy but gets its “sting” from its implication that Othering even with the best intentions is ultimately bad for the person being Othered.  The modern message is clear: Othering is bad, mmkay?

In the various medieval sagas and romances I’ve been reading this semester, though, Othering appears in a third, curiously “good” category.  I’ve been calling it the “heroic Other.”

Heroic Others are marked/othered by the same folklore motifs that carry out “bad-othering”: they’re often youngest or only children, with noteworthy physical features (ranging from “most beautiful” to impressively long hair to physical deformities), unusual circumstances of parentage (orphans, fosterlings, and changelings figure big here), and/or some connection to animals (e.g. raised by wolves), the supernatural (e.g. raised by wizards/giants/fairies), or both.

A character Othered by these characteristics, in medieval saga and romance, might be a villain.  Or s/he might be the hero.  The characteristics themselves don’t tell us which it’s going to be; we’re left to figure that out largely by how the character is treated by others and what life circumstances befall him or her.

Two things stand out to me:

1.  The medieval stories don’t differentiate between Othered hero and Othered villain on the basis of personal choice. That is, the hero is the hero by the circumstances of his/her birth, and we are meant to understand this is a “heroic” birth by the presence of the marks of Otherness.  The villain is the villain, presumably, by the circumstances of birth as well, since the same marks of Otherness are present.  The primary difference, if there is one, is that we are told about the hero’s birth and so we know the marks of Otherness are present from the beginning, whereas we are left to speculate as how the villain got so “marked.”

2.  By contrast, modern “folklore” – movies, novels, etc. – is obsessed with the idea that personal choice is what makes one a hero or a villain.  Here, both the hero and villain may be marked at Other and even marked with the same indicators of Otherness, but we are made to understand in the story that we should side with the hero because s/he chose “good”, and that we should ally against the villain because s/he chose “evil.”

The Harry Potter series fits the mold of point 2 perfectly.  Throughout, we’re reminded of how similar Harry and Voldemort really are – and that their fundamental differences are the result of “good” choices on Harry’s part (choosing Gryffindor over Slytherin, defending his friends, etc.) and “bad” choices on Voldemort’s (murdering people, targeting infant Harry over infant Neville, etc.).

The medieval writers don’t seem to have a problem with heroes who don’t choose heroism.  In fact, the medieval texts don’t even seem to expect heroes to make particularly heroic choices.* These characters are Other-marked from birth so that we know they are heroes; no moment of choice or particular attention to character development, short of describing the circumstances of birth, is needed.  Likewise, villains are villainous primarily because they aren’t the hero, and they appear in the narrative just long enough to oppose the hero before dropping out of sight again.

Today, though, our stories make that need to choose absolutely essential to the plot.  The Othering circumstances of a hero’s birth do not mark him or her as the hero, but as the character who is going to have to make a choice.  The choice is going to be “hero or villain?”.  It might be a series of choices (e.g. Luke Skywalker).  It might be a choice presented more than once (e.g. Loki).  When the “hero’s” choice is utterly predictable, character development becomes more difficult – a problem most often solved by relegating predictable characters to secondary roles (e.g. Melinda May) or by the presence of ironic self-consciousness (e.g., Adventure Time’s multiple references to Finn’s “alignment”).  When highly-predictable heroes are given primary roles, we are never allowed to forget how very like the villain they are and how very important their continued, consistent choice-to-be-the-hero is (e.g. Steve Rogers).

Which leads me to ask, like you do:  How are medieval and modern hero-adventures dealing with cognitive and/or developmental Otherness?

In the medieval tales, this kind of Otherness comes up in heroes far more often than you’d think.  In fact, it’s most often wrapped up in the very markings that signal “hey, this is the hero!”  Youngest sons are often portrayed as “simple,” and their very “simplicity” is what makes them able to solve problems their “normal” siblings cannot.  Changeling children (here I  mean either the fairy replacement or the human abductee), when their characters are developed (not often), are likewise understood to be the heroes because of their fairy-touched births, not in spite of the “oddness” that resulted.  Just as the stories don’t need “choice” to find the hero, they also don’t care whether said hero is mentally different or not.

Modern stories, however, care very much.  When the locus of heroism or villainy is in the capacity to choose, suddenly cognitive or developmental difference becomes the question regarding whether one can be a hero or a villain at all.  Intellectually or mentally “different” people never become true heroes or villains.  If they stumble into heroism, it’s because they’re too “out of it” to choose to be really bad (e.g. Luna Lovegood), and if they become villains, it’s because they’re too “out of it” not to realize they’re being used by “real” criminal mastermind (e.g. the Winter Soldier).

…Which points to an odd irony in modern crime reporting: the vast majority of Most Reproached Criminals (school shooters, child molesters, etc.) are written off by the commenting public as “psychotic,” a term which is used clinically to mean “experiencing a break with reality” but colloquially to mean “making choices no being-we-recognize-as-human would make.”  The colloquial use centers villainy-as-choice while simultaneously Othering the villain right out of the capacity for choice-making.

*EDITED TO ADD: On reread, I realize this isn’t strictly true – the Icelandic sagas, for instance, do deal with questions of right and wrong conduct and seem to realize that many eponymous heroes either could act badly but don’t (e.g Hrolf Gautreksson), or do act badly and need to be rehabilitated (e.g. Viglund and Trausti’s lesser outlawry in Viglund’s Saga).  This, in turn, raises questions for me about whether the degree of emphasis of “choice” in adventure literature corresponds in any way to how legal-happy the culture is (since the Icelandic sagas are also keenly interested in the operation of law in a way that many other medieval romances simply aren’t).  Which is, of course, another blog post.

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For Those Who Stayed In on National Coming Out Day

It’s National Coming Out Day in the U.S.  For many people, today meant admitting publicly to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity for the first time.  But for many, many others, it meant running a cost-benefit analysis – again – and deciding “…maybe next year.”

For everyone who confronted today and stayed inside:

You made the right choice.  You had a tough call to make, and you’re doing what is best for you right now.  Know that you are no less valuable, no less loveable, and no less important than if you had “come out” today.  Know that, no matter what, you matter.  

Maybe next year.

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Tweaking the Rough/Final/Rewrite Draft Process in First-Year Writing

I find it ironic that every measure I have taken this semester to get out of doing work has resulted in better writing from my students.

Daily writing journals I never read = better writing.  Homework I grade solely on whether it was turned in on time = better writing.  Limiting my commenting on their rough drafts to ten minutes per paper = better writing.  Using the rubric to give them a “grade so far” on the rough drafts and to target feedback, so I can limit commenting on their final drafts to five minutes per paper = better writing.

I’ve never before had a job where I got better results by doing less work.  I’m sure this is because I’m doing less work in the “right” ways; if I tried to do less work by assigning less homework, for instance, the writing would certainly not be better.

The rough draft/final draft/rewrite process is my current focus.  This semester, my students write a “rough draft,” to which I respond by “grading” it according to the rubric and targeting my comments to the rubric sections in which the draft loses the most points.  (This “grade” is for reference only; the only points at stake in the rough draft are the ten they get for turning it in on time, just like any other homework assignment.)  Then, they write a “final draft,” in which I encourage them to use my comments and their peers’ review as a guide to revision (most do).  If they are still dissatisfied with their grade at this point, they can write a “rewrite” – at this point, I strongly encourage them to stop by my office hours to talk before they attempt the rewrite.

So far:

  • Quality of the final draft is absolutely correlated to whether or not the rough draft was turned in, with most students making significant gains between the rough and final drafts.  I had one student bump a grade from a 65 on the “rough” draft to a 100 on the “final,” although the average bump is 15 points.
  • Students who turned in both a rough and final draft averaged an A on the paper.  Students who turned in only a final draft averaged a C.
  • I recommended a rewrite to only one student, of 30, who turned in both a rough and final draft.  This student made the 15-point average increase, but it was from a 65 to an 80, and I firmly believe the student can move this draft into “A” territory with one more go-round and some one-on-one coaching.

What I am trying to decide now is whether to keep this three-step structure or to modify it – and if so, how.  Possibilities include:

  • Making the “final” draft optional if the student is satisfied with his or her “rough” draft grade.  Pros: fewer finals for me to grade; more free time for students.  Cons: Even the ones who gave me “A” rough drafts improved in the final draft, so I believe the revision process is good for them as well.
  • Eliminating the rewrite option.  Pros: fewer rewrites for me to grade; more pressure to do both the rough and final drafts.  Cons: students who don’t do rough drafts typically don’t do them under increased pressure either; less flexibility for students with computer issues/family issues/whatever; less scope for that one-on-one time.
  • Mandating a one-on-one paper talk before turning in the rewrite.  Pros: Students who need a rewrite typically do better one-on-one; my office hours actually get used.  Cons: (maybe?) more work for me; occasional student may be unable to schedule.

Thoughts?  Opinions?  What would have worked for you a student – or does work for you as a teacher?

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I’m Giving a Paper at Congress!

Not Congress Congress.*  Unless you are a medievalist.  Then yes, Congress Congress.**

Specifically, I’ll be presenting as part of MEARCSTAPA‘s “Monsters II: De/Coupling Monstrosity and Disability” panel at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, aka “Kalamazoo.”  This is the first paper proposal I’ve submitted in my academic career, and the first accepted (though whether this will be the first conference I present at depends in part on how some other proposals come through in the next few weeks).  It’s a great opportunity; Congress is a big deal, and because it’s in Kalamazoo, I get to sleep in my own bed.

My paper is workingly titled “Whose Kids Are You Calling Monsters?: Capacious Concepts of Childhood Disability in Medieval Literature.”  Here’s how I described it recently to a colleague, via Facebook:

The paper argues that conflating conceptions of disability with portrayals of the monstrous in analyzing medieval literature is actually a mistake of the modern, post-eugencis-era mind’s understanding of disability as “other-than-human”, and that if we look at the texts (particularly Gregory of Tours, who did some remarkable writing about cases of disabled children), we find that in fact disabled medieval people did pretty much all the same things non-disabled medieval people did – and that their communities treated them as members, not Others.”

Among other things, I’ll be exploring Gregory of Tours’s various portrayals of disabled children and adults, as well as stories of disabled and/or “wild children” and/or “changelings” who were absorbed into communities as foundlings and raised there.

The supreme irony is that, today, I am working on a paper on Ortnit and Wolfdietrich arguing that conceptions of changelings, wild children, and “kids born under weirdo circumstances” (in this case, with a cross-dressing father) are precisely what mark Wolfdietrich out as “different” – although I do want to explore the shakiness of the line between “bad-Other” and “good-Other.”

*Contrastive reduplication: my new language toy obsession.

**Sessions of the U.S. Congress would be greatly improved by the addition of medievalists giving papers, though.

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