Thursday, October 27, 2011

Becoming A Subject

One of the things about the Internet is its ability to turn your life perspective on its head.  If you read my blog (and, well, you are probably doing that right now), you will know me as, I hope, a powerful independent woman -- hopefully, I come across as mouthy, not afraid to speak the truth, smart, sassy ... you get the picture.

Like many site owners, I make available an email address for you to contact me and, like many site owners, I often trace back referring sites for traffic.  But finding out who is reading your site is something of a mixed blessing.  Particularly when the contact is coming from academia.

Sometimes, I get emails from people who ask if it is OK to use my work.  It is.  As long as you give credit.  Sometimes, it's a note from someone saying that a particular post was helpful to them in a given assignment.  These kinds of notes lift my spirit.  Two things sink my heart: requests for interviews and traffic from course sites.

I no longer agree to do interviews for students who wish to make me and my life part of their term papers.   I don't answer questions any more, either.  You can use my material -- I can't even track whether or not you cite me appropriately, but I will follow up if I find that you haven't -- but you are not getting more than anything that is here.  No, not even if you are a PhD student and my life and work are somehow "critical" to your thesis.   I'm done.  And, yes, I'm slightly angry and resentful about how few of you do your homework, your preparation: reading about disability, disability arts and culture, the disability rights movement, dance, and disabled performers.  I know these academic fields; I know what's out there; I know many of the people who've written it.  Your lack of preparation does not make me feel inclined to trust myself to you -- no matter how ardent your appeal.  NB: that's true for those of you who want to make documentaries, too.

Then, there's course sites.  Every time I see a referral from Blackboard or some other educational course site, I go back and reread the post that has become part of someone else's lesson plan.  I wonder what they are doing with it.  What are people saying?  How does the discussion go?  Would I be horrified?  Yes, probably.  I think about how I would teach the post -- what I would combine it with, what points I would see as critical, how I would facilitate discussion.  Risks I would take.  Language and ideas that I would consider acceptable/offensive.  What I would do about stuff that came up.  I mull it over; hope for the best; close my eyes and try to forget.

Showing up in academia is different from finding that someone has linked to a post or two because the internet links only to your material.  You can find out what someone thinks of your site; you can read the comments.  Sometimes, too, you find personalized stuff about you (or your internet persona).  But that is different.  The internet is a sprawling mess of actions and reactions.  Even when the post is locked, I am happy to find that my work has left my site and become part of a conversation somewhere.

By contrast, academia turns you (or your persona) into a project for study.  It's a difference of purpose.  A difference of focus.  It's not quite a medicalization of a disabled body -- not all academic gazes are medical.  But it does include that same kind of power dynamic.  There's no way to know who is staring.  And how.  There's no way to know what meaning or what kind of value is being read into your life.  You become something someone teaches and other people learn.  You are nothing more than a topic, a passing reference in someone else's education.

And because the world of disability rights is still so new to academia, I fear that I and my blog often land in a hostile environment.  Strange: what the Internet giveth, it also taketh away.


  1. Kick arse blog! What an interesting way to look at the internet "a sprawling mess of actions and reactions". You have given me food for thought!

    Is it any different to you if someone finds your blog in a private capacity and includes your discussions in their evaluations than if a tutor/lecturer points their students in your direction?

    I am neither, but I am a regular reader and you always make me think!

  2. Anonymous6:31 AM

    Makes me think too both as a writer whose books are used in academia and as a disability studies teacher who uses the Web and blogs, particularly in my on-line teaching work. Is assigning my book (especially one or two chapters in PDF form) in class different than assigning a blog? As a writer, blogs always strike me as an odd hybrid form that has characteristics both of private journals and public magazines/books. It's one of the many reasons that I'm a reluctant and infrequent blogger.


  3. Great post, leaves me thinking as always. What if someone wanted to do academic work on your figuration as dancer?

  4. This is a really great reflection - and one that bites a bit since I a) cite one of your posts in my dissertation (though I wouldn't say "you" are a subject) and b) would theoretically link to your blog if I were teaching about certain things, though frankly I don't teach those things and probably never will. I'd like to think I would use specific posts, not the blog overall, though I don't know if that distinction makes a difference to you.

    In a general sense, though, blogging provides this massive trove of personal reflections on the world that then seem so easy to link in course readings... but I agree that chances are, they are not used as thoughtfully as they should in most cases. All of that said, I am wondering the difference between citing your blog or adding you to Blackboard/etc vs. if you had written in some printed form (like I'm thinking of Simi Linton or Nancy Mairs' reflections on the daily/personal experience of disability, which are core readings in disability studies). Would it seem more expected to become a "subject" in those formats?

    as for grad students who approach you and don't know their stuff, that's just plain embarrassing (though not hugely surprising). Sadly, blogging probably welcomes more surface-level contact whereas conventional publishing might still keep an aura of scholarly remove. Or I could be too optimistic about today's grad students...

  5. Thank you all of you.

    I am proud to think that the material of a post can go towards a project. It's the transfer of ideas. What I hate -- and thank you for helping me get a better grip on this -- is the wholesale dumping of my persona and personhood. Look! A disabled woman. Or attempts to write about me as a dancer rather than dance.

    Yeah, that's it.


  6. I have had this experience too, as a transgender person. I too finally made the decision that I would no longer agree to be interviewed for academic projects. It's just not clear to me that my agreeing to do this is actually helpful to transgender activism in any way; the information that people want to get about transgender people and our experiences in the world is already out there, and if people are really serious about using their schooling experience to bring about change for transgender people or people with disabilities (or any underprivileged group, really) they need to do more action-taking and less insulated academic pontification which only serves to repeat the inquiry that has already been done about our needs!

  7. Anonymous10:20 AM

    I just read your post, and am intrigued and challenged as always. I am a college professor, and do assign blogs, link to them, cite them in lecture, discuss them in class. (Not yours yet, although it would be relevant at times.) I'll also invite guest speakers to share their perspectives, or invite students who have had particular experiences share them with the class. I've gotten really good feedback from students when I do that.

    So as a teacher, I'm stuck. I recognize how demeaning it is (and pedagogically unsound0) to treat one person--or worse, one blog post--as representing a broad spectrum of views and/or experiences. But at the same time, if we expect students to go beyond memorizing abstract definitions for the test, they need to connect these abstract ideas with real people and real-life situations. And blogs are great for that.

    I'm really trying to think of how to do that without demeaning people as individuals, treating them as only only one aspect of themselves, or treating their experience as representative of a broad group.

    (If it makes a difference, I don't teach on disability, at least not specifically. So insights from blogs I use are generally about race, gender, or sexuality.)

    I'll be keeping this in mind, but I'm not sure I'll stop linking to relevant blog posts in my classes. Hmmm.....????

  8. Anonymous11:11 PM

    Just stumbled across your blog and have really enjoyed it; it's given me a lot to think about it, and I think it's amazing that you've chosen to share your experiences. And I agree that it can be very dehumanizing/robbing of personhood to have someone cite you or your experience as an example in academia or as a link for a class. However, isn't the whole premise of a blog to share experience with the masses (as opposed to a private journal or limited/directed publication)? Once a blog post is published, it becomes, in my view, fair game for public consumption. It's obviously very disappointing and insulting to have grad students who haven't done their homework. For general interviewers, less well-versed in the academic development in these fields, this could be an instance of ignorance, not intent to deny personhood. Granted, ignorance is never an acceptable excuse. I've encountered similar attitudes with queer/trans issues. I attend a small liberal arts school supposedly renowned for its acceptance of all genders and sexualities, yet the general student body remains woefully ignorant of appropriate and sensitive (and pretty basic) terminology, theory, and diversity of experience. However, I have found most students are willing to listen and learn, and were not acting with intent to offend.

    Also, the grad students conducting research form a part of the community that formulates the constantly evolving scholarship on disability, disability arts and culture, the disability rights movement, etc. As mentioned before, it's disheartening when these supposedly informed students act in insensitive and disempowering ways; still, they are important.