drops of water rest delicately on bright red leaves with serrated edges

Making the Invisible Visible

Reviewed by Katheryn Wright and Rebecca Halpern
Droplets of Fire” by Denali National Park and Preserve; CC BY 2.0

Politicizing Critical Digital Pedagogy

This article is part of a series addressing the unavoidable politicization of education. The goal is to investigate how our work as educators is irrevocably linked with civic awareness and to understand how our responsibility to our students and our democracy intertwine. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

Simplifying people to stereotypes rarely has a noble purpose. In narrowing and propagating unnuanced definitions for human experiences or identities, the already marginalized can be dehumanized, the othered can be villified, and diversity can be politicized for the purpose of promoting a homogenous fantasy. As instructors, we have the responsibility to challenge this simplification and the blind acceptance of categories — or boxes — that either inherently limit human potential or are intended to prevent full participation and representation. In particular, whatever our disciplines, it is imperative we design pedagogical methods that will help our students make the invisible — those threatened with erasure, those who lack representation, those who defy the definitions imposed upon them, those struggling against the political machine — visible and expose the power structures that work to maintain the invisibility of marginalized individuals.

To provide some context for the following comments, we are faculty in the English Studies department at Fitchburg State University (FSU) in central Massachusetts. FSU is a small, public, state institution with approximately 7000 undergraduate and graduate students. Many are from the regional New England area with a significant population of first-generation, working-class, and non-traditional students. Kisha’s courses typically center on literature, especially of the medieval period, and Katharine’s courses generally focus on pedagogy and the training of future educators.

We offer two different (yet interrelated) approaches we have adopted to help make the invisible, visible.  In our classrooms, diversity is valued rather than vilified. Through encounters with a broad range of readings, activities, discussions, and assessments, our students engage not only with traditional content, but also grapple with less concrete topics, such as inclusivity and empathy. While we would argue that such pedagogy has always been important, we suggest that within today’s political moment it has become more crucial than ever before. The work of teachers today is to resist.

Teaching Diversit(ies) through a Lens of Resistance  (Katharine Covino)

As an English professor with a focus on secondary education, diversity is a topic that I include in my Children’s Literature classes every semester. By diversity, I mean diversity in all its forms — diversity as richness, as difference, and as divergence within and across a number of sociocultural constructions. Every semester I ask my students to think about what diversity means, what diversity looks like, and who we are talking about when we refer to “diverse” populations. Inevitably, our conversation begins with visible diversity. That is, diversity that you can see — often related, at least in my students’ minds — to race and gender. These conversations are engaging and important. Given the increasing heterogeneity of today’s K-12 classrooms, it is critical for future teachers to consider topics openly and frankly within a supportive educational environment.  Our work with Mildred Taylor’s middle-grade novel Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976) tackles such issues head on.

In an activity that models ways younger children can interact with the novel, I ask my college students to find quotations that deal with issues of bias, inequity, or injustice. Two key quotes often come up in discussion: 1) “Maybe one day whites and blacks can be real friends, but right now the country ain’t built that way” and 2) “and punishment of a white man for a wrong done to a black man would denote equality.” With such quotes in hand, I ask my students to find a current news article, video clip, or online resource that intersects with Taylor’s text. In past semesters, we discussed issues of racial profiling, police brutality, as well as the death of Freddie Gray. This semester, my students shared an article they discovered about nooses hanging from trees at Duke University. Also this semester, my students found a local news story about swastikas spray-painted in public spaces.  I shared with them that that incident took place in the town close to campus where I live.  This particular example hit close to home for me and for my students.  It prompted us to think and talk about the ways in which Taylor’s words are still relevant today; how bias and injustice are not ideologies confined to the past.  We shared our fears and concerns for ourselves and for our students. We collaboratively discussed steps we can (and should) be taking to create classrooms where all students feel valued and included.  In sum, we used the text as a springboard to address the plight of ‘othered’ populations, and to think about the ways that different types of segregation still exist in schools today. As future teachers, we think and talk about how we can use this book with students. We discuss ways to support children as they grapple with the racial and ethnic bias in the text, as well as that present in their own lives. Thinking critically about race/ethnicity has always been an important part of teaching, but today, when African American students take school-based classes on ways to engage with police and not get shot, it is truly more critical than ever.

Race plays an important part in our conversations about diversity. So too does gender. Because gender is central to my research, it is a theme that weaves in and through all my teaching. It has a special place in the critical work my students do in reading and evaluating texts for children and young adults. Early each semester, I share with my future teachers my conceptual understanding of gender as a fluid and dynamic social construct — an interactive performance shaped by cultural norms, expectations, and ideals. With that understanding in mind, we use gender as a lens to talk about books and to think about how we would use them with children. In our discussions, we ask thoughtful questions.  Questions I encourage them to take into their own classrooms and to share with their own students in the future.  We think about how characters are depicted in illustrations — “Why do you think all the women and girls in this book are wearing skirts?”  We think about how characters are positioned within the stories — “Who is the hero of this story? Who has the power?”  We think about who or what is missing or left out — “Why are there no male figures in this story?”  After we read E. B. White’s classic chapter book Charlotte’s Web (1952), I ask the students to reconsider the story through a feminist lens. They are often surprised by what they find. Their close look at the story leads to vigorous discussions of the underlying gendered assumptions — both those at work in the text AND those the text challenges. For example, students often comment about the central role female characters play in the story; particularly the influence and power accorded to Fern and Charlotte as Wilbur’s ‘saviors.’  These same students, however, often gloss the early pages of the book, in which illustrations offer hyper-traditional ways of ‘doing girl’ and ‘doing boy.’  Prompted to look again with a more critical eye, the students discover that these pages depict Fern as a sweet, nurturing caregiver, cradling Wilbur in her arms, and her brother Avery as an active (almost predatory) hunter carrying both a rifle and a hatchet.  Many students, even those who have read the story before, are somewhat startled by the images they have come to take for granted.  This is the point of our work: to question what we’ve taken for granted as readers.  Our conversations are designed to provide teachers with a more expansive understanding of gender, so when they get into their own classrooms they view gender as a progressive spectrum. Gender has long been an important topic for teachers. Working in a time when the rights of transgender people are being revoked, however, only heightens the imperative to embrace and value all children — all performances of gender.

While our conversations often begin with race and gender there are of course other facets to consider. Just as powerful and potent as visible diversity, is invisible diversity. It is our job (in this political climate — our solemn duty) as teachers to value all intersections of identity — especially those reflective of social constructs such as family life, religion, sexual orientation, and (dis)ability. To help my students understand this broader, more inclusive understanding of diversity, I ask them to think about the classrooms where they are volunteering, observing, or student-teaching. I then ask them to tell me, just from the class roster or the class photo, which student was adopted, which student’s mother is currently deployed on active duty, which students are gay, which students are Muslim, and which students are on the Autism spectrum. These aspects of diversity, though often invisible, are incredibly important elements of students’ identities both as learners and as individuals. An integral part of our job as teachers is to choose and use texts and discourse that explore and validate a diverse range of identities. Take family life, for example. Every semester, I share the story And Tango Makes Three (2015) with my Children’s Literature students. After reading the story, we talk about how it depicts an alternative family and indirectly addresses issues related to sexual orientation. We consider and discuss the implications of sharing such a book with our students. We also read about how it was banned in many schools.  Often, students share that their decision about whether or not to include the text would depend on a number of factors, including the views of the administration, the parents, and their fellow teachers.  I think that is fair.  The point is not to indoctrinate them, but rather to get them thinking.

Another text that offers an engaging portrayal of a rich intersection of diverse identities is Salaam: A Muslim American Boy’s Story (2006). Through an engaging first-person perspective, this text depicts faith as a component of identity. Through the young protagonist’s eyes, we learn about faith and we experience rejection. A similar struggle to belong can be seen in Out of My Mind (2012). This story follows Melody’s experiences as a student living with cerebral palsy. As a group of future teachers, we focus on her experiences in school; specifically the way she is ‘othered’ by her condition. While her perspective makes clear that her disease is only a part of who she is, it is equally clear that all her classmates see when they look at her is a wheelchair. The primary goal of engaging with these texts is to support and to give voice to a broad range of intersecting identities — both visible and invisible. But there is clearly a political component as well. By emphasizing the rich divergences that exist within and between people, by celebrating all intersections of identity, by challenging future teachers to see and to value the differences in their students over the similarities, I am engaging in my work as a teacher of teachers by consciously promoting diversit(ies) through a lens of resistance.

A Discipline’s Political Context Challenged through Disability Studies in the Classroom (Kisha Tracy)

In a guest post on the blog In the Middle from November 2016 titled “The Unbearable Whiteness for Medieval Studies,” Dorothy Kim makes a strong argument both for the marginalized in Medieval Studies and the need to act on their behalf:

Medieval Studies will be seen as the nexus of white nationalism and be a space in which any student of color, queer student, disabled student, and women would feel that your classroom is a hostile space of white masculinity and white nationalism…. What are you going to do to make sure these bodies [those not normal in the field] don’t disappear from the scholarship, the conferences, the classrooms now and in the future? Be assured, we are going to disappear without intense fighting from our white colleagues to keep us here. The pressures of virulent and implicit white supremacy have already begun to make us disappearing acts.

As a higher education instructor of medieval literature, I am distressed by Kim’s image of the lack of — as well as the potential disappearance of — heterogeneity in our classrooms. The Medievalists of Color organization made the profound statement: “When our scholarly spaces are not welcoming to all who would practice in the field, the field loses the capacity for intellectual risk and no longer serves its primary objective: to seek a comprehensive understanding of the past in order to analyze the present and help shape the future.” Both Kim and the Medievalists of Color organization are unfortunately correct in their assessment of Medieval Studies as a field that is inaccurately appropriated by white nationalists and others in order to defend indefensible beliefs. To support that assertion, Kim references the story of Derek Black, a former prominent and public white nationalist and son of the founder of Stormfront, who eventually left the movement. What I want to emphasize in Black’s story is that he rejected white nationalism after studying at a liberal arts college and discovering the real Middle Ages. “[Black] studied the 8th century to the 12th century, trying to trace back the modern concepts of race and whiteness, but he couldn’t find them anywhere,” a Washington Post article comments, “‘We basically just invented it,’ he concluded.”

In the same article, Black, prior to attending college, is quoted as declaring, “The way ahead is through politics….We can infiltrate. We can take the country back.” Since leaving the white nationalist movement, he still argues the significance of the political environment. In Black’s own words: “The wave of violence and vile language that has risen since the election is only one immediate piece of evidence that this campaign’s reckless assertion of white identity comes at a huge cost. More and more people are being forced to recognize now what I learned early: Our country is susceptible to some of our worst instincts when the message is packaged correctly.” When Kim asks, “what are you going to do?” Black says that the current political situation “must make all Americans acknowledge that the choice of embracing or rejecting multiculturalism is not abstract.” I feel a responsibility as a college instructor to address these issues in deliberate and visible ways. I certainly can play a similar role to Black’s instructors who provided him with the opportunities to study the Middle Ages from a position of expertise and facts, but, more so, I strive to provide a place for those who are threatened with erasure by too many factions. It is in the classroom (those same classrooms Katherine’s students will be entering), not in cloistered discussions with like-minded academics and even with those for that matter who are not like-minded, that we can remedy the discipline’s deficiencies and maximize its potential and social contributions.

How Can We Make the Invisible Visible?

I have chosen in particular to ensure a space in my teaching for the disabled. In his article in Disability, Hate Crime and Violence (2013), Jack Levin states: “[W]e must change the thinking of ordinary people who consider only race, religion, or sexual orientation as grounds for bigotry…. Regarding violence committed against people with disabilities, they might want to focus on hatemongers at the margins of society who wear sheets, armbands, steel-toed boots, or Nazi tattoos.” In the same collection, Mark Sherry states, “Undoubtedly, there are stereotypes about disability (and about particular impairments) which devalue disabled lives. Attitudinal changes are undoubtedly needed, stigma must be challenged, and longstanding prejudices against disabled people must be dismantled.” How should we challenge those attitudes? To begin, I attempt to make visible that disability was indeed understood in the Middle Ages. Too often, the assumption is that medieval people “would not care” about the disabled or would only find them “possessed” or “sinful.” This is far from true. As John Sexton remarks, “Whether present in the distressed, distrained, corrupted, altered, senescent, or injured body or mind, or simply omnipresent in the destabilized and fallen mortal coil, impairment was never far from the medieval experience.”

I try to enact as a teacher the strategies Katharine’s students are developing. For instance, while pointing out disabled characters in medieval text to students is an effective pedagogical first step, more detailed discussion and study is essential in order to, as Katharine states earlier, engage students in a “broader, more inclusive understanding of diversity.” To that purpose, I focus in particular on the most invisible of disabilities: mental illnesses. For instance, for my sophomore-level, general education survey literature class covering the beginning of British literature to Milton, I include the fourteenth-century Middle English text Sir Orfeo in which one of the main characters exhibits characteristics of mental illness, self-mutilation among them. Students, however, rarely pick up on this theme in the text until asked to read through the lens of disability studies. Once they do so, students are drawn to the possibilities and often begin making personal connections to these characters distanced from them by time and geography. They begin to ask questions about the treatment for the mentally ill and their positions in society. Inevitably, these discussions lead to the modern representations and perceptions of the disabled. We can address issues that Adeline Koh claims “make academia deeply ableist.”

In other courses, particularly more upper-level ones, both general education and English Studies major-specific, I ask even deeper work from my students. The Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages — an organization “seeking to decolonize and diversify the field of medieval studies” — has started to develop an online, open access Medieval Disability Glossary, and I invited students to participate. We focused on the concept of “madness” and for a month studied historical definitions of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, the Middle English Dictionary, and its uses in four versions of the Bible. Students were surprised to find the complicated definition of a word that they thought they understood, with many connotations — positive, negative, and neutral — in the texts. They were even more surprised to trace how the concept was (mis)translated in different versions and, thus, (mis)understood. They created an entry for the Glossary that was published, and scholars responded to it, indicating to students the significance of this work and its implications for modern perceptions. By their own admission, they no longer overlook the use of the word “madness” or other disability terms, acutely aware now that terms are as fluid as the concepts to which they refer. It is an exercise I intend to continue with future courses, both undergraduate and graduate.

To return to Kim’s statement with which I began, the inclusion of disability studies in my courses is a method by which I signal to, as she lists, “any student of color, queer student, disabled student, and women” that my classrooms are indeed spaces in which they are not simply welcomed, but integral. Katharine calls this a teacher’s job to “choose and use texts and discourse that explore and validate a diverse range of identities.” I would add that it demonstrates compassion for students that will do more to increase their learning than any amount of rules-smithing or policy-crafting.

Embracing diversity, in all its forms, promotes critical thinking and empathy. In English, in education, indeed in every area of study, when we ask students to look beyond themselves and their experiences, they are challenged and enriched in equal parts. This has always been true. But now, in the current climate of populist nationalism where countries are closing their borders to those they view as others, diversity is not just important — it is critical. In such a place and time, forefronting diversity takes on an overtly political mien, becomes an overtly political act. Promoting diversity in a time when diversity is viewed negatively offers educators an avenue of resistance. It is imperative that we not shrink from this duty, but rather that we embrace it. We must model through our pedagogy that we see, know, and value each and every student sitting in front of us not in spite of their differences, but because of them.

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