Dear Dona, Readers for composition courses pose all kinds of problems and
the ones you describe below are not surprising. I usually avoid
composition readers all together and use my own course packet of readings
that I xerox and put on reserve in the library for my students to use.
However, I've responded to each of your queries below by placing an * (vs.
the >) in front of my comments.
At 01:06 AM 6/20/99 -0700, you wrote:
>Okay, all; new dilemma to ponder. I just got the textbooks I am to use for
>1st-year Composition (freshman English, for the un-PC), and I was alternately
>appalled and excited by one chapter in particular.
>In this anthology (Janet Marting's *The Voice of Reflection: A Writer's
>Reader), Chapter 5 is called "Self-Portraits," and includes essays by Gloria
>Steinem (her adolescent chagrin at being fat and too-tall), Elizabeth
>MacDonald (on anorexia and the tyranny of slenderness), Joseph Epstein (on
>being a short male), Linda Ellerbee (on alcoholism), and Scott Russell Sanders
>(male heroes of the upper class, vs. broken bodies of the laborers). So far,
>so good: makes for lively discussions of performativity,
>media-and-beauty-ideals, self-improvement vs. self-satisfaction.
*The one thing I'd be wary of in many of these essays is the way that they
have a tendency *to use physical differences as a platform for everything
but corporeal difference. Because *disability studies has not yet become a
widespread paradigm of analysis most of these *writers will tend to
overlook this more germain analysis in exchange for the more
tried-and-*true such as gender, race, class, etc. In fact, in some ways
I'd be just as alarmed at these *essays because they will have a tendency
to inadvertently stigmatize physical differences *in the process of
critiquing the ideologies that govern our perceptions of the other *categories.
>Now comes three essays IN A ROW, which, by their presence here with the
>others, and by the rhetoric they employ, make me verrrry uncomfortable--not
>only as to whether I should assign them or censor them (or both, which I will
>probably do), but as to HOW they will be dealt with by our corps of teaching
>assistants who--like many people--may be unaware of the harm these essays may
>enact, if taught without sensitivity to the social model of disability.
>LEONARD KRIEGEL uses phrases and images such as "surrender myself"
>(to polio), "absence," the monster of Dr. Frankenstein, "the contempt I felt
>for my own weakness," "badge of normality," and "shame."
*I've just written a critique of Kriegel's new book that argues about the
perversity of his *attachment to a bygone model of masculine
self-sufficiency and disabled singularity (I'll
*send this to you if you're interested in the development of this
*the encounter with one's own internalization of the culture's disgust for
disability is an
*important issue to take up and examine in a classroom. In some ways
Kriegel is very
*useful because his writing is symptomatic of all kinds of cultural
prejudices that allow *students to interrogate his own psychologization.
It can also be a great lesson in *helping students critique another
writer's affectations for embracing a perverse vocabulary of *self denigration.
>MATTHEW SOYSTER's essay is introduced with the editor's comment: ". . .the
>passion that once 'defined' him are gone and...confined to a wheelchair, he
>must search for other passions." The author himself writes, "What disturbs me
>most [about MS] is not how others see me, but how I've lost my vision of
*I like the writer's own description here but would use his more complex
version of himself
*to critique the editor's more conventional comment. There is no antidote
in literature to
*the kind of political empowerment you may be looking for -- one wrestles
in writing with *one's own demons (usually of cultural making) and any
classroom discussion must aim to
*understand personal narrative as an expose of the ravages of the encounter
between *society and self. All good writers are wedded to explaining this
dynamic -- and those who *don't address it directly can still be taught so
that students recognize what seems beyond *the ken of the narrator (I would
venture to say this example is most common and most *useful in teaching).
>JOHN UPDIKE's title is "At War with My Skin." He writes about how psoriasis
>tends to "singl[e] you out from the happy herds of healthy, normal mankind. .
>. ." And this: "self-examination is endless. You are forced to the mirror,
>again and again; psoriasis compels narcissism, if we can suppose a Narcissus
>who did not like what he saw." He uses "monstrosity," and "handicap [his
>abilities]," and refers to himself as "leper," and admits to wanting to "cure
>myself." He says he "counted myself out of any. . .jobs. . .that demand being
>presentable." But he found someone who could love him: "a comely female who
>forgave me my skin.
*Since Updike is first and foremost a satirist of middle class values it's
tricky to pin him *down on his own attitudes. He tends to send up his own
fears and obsessions in order to
*get his readers to assess their own class-bound or gender-bound manias.
*I paired Updike's piece on the male body with Atwood's essay on the female
body in order
*to demonstrate the gendered myths that they both attempt to expose without
having to say
*what they personally think about the situation. They both parody widely
*about gendered bodies while telling stories from the point of view of
characters who don't
*understand the assumptions themselves. This is a good way of involving
*critical thinking because they have to provide the authorial commentary on
the meaning of
*the action events in their essays.
>Even the 'Questions for Discussion' bother me. After Ellerbee's essay, we are
>to discuss her tone: "Is she angry? bitter? hateful? conciliatory? confused? .
>. .Do you think Ellerbee will stay sober?" For Epstein's essay, we are asked:
>"Do you feel sympathy for Epstein['s being short]? Do you feel scorn and
>embarrassment for him? Or is your reaction one of amusement?. . .Explain in
>what ways Epstein's dealing with his height is similar to or different from
>John Updike's reconciliation to having psoriasis or Leonard Kriegel's to
>having polio." And for Soyster's writing, students are asked, "Do you think
>Soyster wants his readers' pity? sympathy? compassion?. . .Do you think
>Soyster's thinking is representative of most people when they become
*Yes, I never rely on the editor to provide questions that my students and
I are better at
*developing. They are almost always a deterent to good discussions
>The editor claims that these essays "provide unusual and powerful examinations
>of what it means to be physically challenged in a world designed primarily for
>people without restrictions." Fine.
*Yeech! I would ban students from reading the editor's insipid comments
and have them
*read the literature itself!
But then: "you will see something much
>different from self-absorbed or egocentric descriptions. . .You will be
>invited to witness epiphany: how the writers' understandings have taken shape.
>. . ." Sorry, but I feel these writers have understood nothing but the
>medical, the individual loss, the tragic perspective on their "transformed
>vision" of themselves.
*Well, writing is not so much a solution but a platform for engaging in a
dialogue with your *students. The point is to use writers to help students
recognize the complexity and myriad
*ways their own personal experiences provide materials for assessing larger
>So I put to you my position: Is there something I can do to ensure that some
>40 English MA students (generally) and a handful of seasoned English
>profs treat this section with care? I've thought of arranging an 'awareness
>session,' or an in-service training period--with someone like fellow-Arizonan
>Nancy Mairs as guest speaker. Provided our department chair agrees that this
>section of the text is loaded with issues that need guided discussion.
> At the very least, is there something I can do while teaching 22 students
>in my classes--short of spending ALL semester on this one power-pack of 8
*Sounds like a great idea if you can get your department to go along with
it. Or, the next
*best thing might be to discuss the problems in a GA meeting before or
during the *semester. Finally, you might send some of the more interesting
comments from this forum
*around on e-mail to your fellow teachers to raise awareness of the problems.
*Good luck, David Mitchell.
> Is there something I'm overlooking...do you all agree that this selection
>of essays seems warped? I'm *thrilled* to see disability make an appearance
>in an English text... but perhaps THIS representation does more harm than
> Apologies for the length of *this* essay; I get rattled, therefore I