Monthly Archives: May 2013

I am an invisible man.

Today, one of my colleagues informed me that Chris Layo, a Communication and Creative Writing double major at SUNY Potsdam, passed away on Friday.  I cannot adequately express just how terrible such news is, so I won’t even try.  Instead, I will write a post where I try to do justice to my experiences with him.

I first met Chris Layo in the spring semester of 2012, when he enrolled in a section of Literary Analysis and Research.  This was my very first time teaching this class, and I was rather nervous. Like many classes in our curriculum, this class has rather vague parameters, and I used it to introduce students to literary theory (no easy task, as those who regularly teach theory will understand).  I had my syllabus set, my assignments mapped out, and a fairly rigorous schedule set.  I did all this because this was my first time teaching this class,* and I was worried about something injecting change into my plans.  And while the following is not at all flattering and I am not at all proud, I’ll include it because it is honest: many of my plans changed when Chris Layo entered my classroom.  And my first thought, “damn, this is going to make my job harder.”

Chris relied on an electronic wheelchair and full-time medical attendants**, one of whom always attended class with him.  I was familiar with the university’s accommodations for such students, and I knew that my carefully-planned class would need to change, and that worried me.  Of course, I feel like shit admitting that, but it was true.  And sadly, I know I was not alone; one of the first things Chris told me after class that first day was that he knows that his presence in a classroom forces changes on how that class operates, and he was sorry for the disruptions he knew his presence would cause.

Take a minute to reflect on that: he was sorry for how his disability would affect my class.  One of the many lessons his life taught him was the necessity of apologizing for simply being present in the room.  Please take another minute to reflect on that before reading further.

What I learned very quickly after that was that Chris was, without question, one of the most thoughtful readers I have had the pleasure of working with.  Part of this was out of necessity; he simply didn’t have the ability to pick up a book and re-read passages on a whim.  So when he read a book, he read with care and deliberation.  Part of this was out of respect for language; as an accomplished public speaker and advocate for people with disabilities, Chris knew how important language was as a tool for changing the lives of others.  As a Creative Writing student, he was conscious of how his own language would be scrutinized by others.  It is for this reason that he was also a very careful writer, taking the time to make sure that what he put to paper was exactly what he intended.  As a result, he was also one of the most thoughtful writers I have ever worked with.  This is not to say that he was one of the most successful writers, if we judge success based on grades.  Again, in the interest of honesty, some of his work was less successful than the rest.  However, where he stumbled in his work was due entirely to a desire to take risks, to do what had not been done before.  Chris used his writing to challenge, to explore, and some explorations are more fruitful than others.***

Chris was also a very engaged participant in classroom discussion, particularly in challenging our understandings of the literary texts, and pointing out the limitations of various literary theories.  Rather than address them all, I’ll take one significant example:

I have read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein many times, and have taught it more than once.  I use it for this class (and have continued to use it) as a text that allows students to work with various literary theories.  (In particular, students often find it a fabulous vehicle for exploring various aspects of Feminism and Queer Theory.)  In all the times that I have read it, never once have I considered it a statement about how medical interventions change the nature of the human condition.  And as Chris pointed out to me, that’s because I never had to.  As an able-bodied person, I have never seriously considered the ways that advances in medical technology have forced people to rethink what it means to be human.  Certainly, I have benefitted from medical advancements.  As a child, I spent much time in the hospital as a result of asthma attacks.  But asthma was something I had, not something I was.  (Nor am I in any way trying to equate our situations.  Rather, I’m highlighting that I had – and still have – only a passing, circumstantial relationship to the medical profession.)  In his discussion of Frankenstein, Chris highlighted the difference to me, and to the rest of the class.  The monster, Chris argued, was struggling with what it means to be human as a result of being altered by advances in modern medicine (keeping in mind that the monster was built out of parts of corpses, and animated by a scientist looking to discover how to bring back the dead).  In his terrifying size, altered coloring, and dependence on a doctor who, immediately after “treatment” abandons him in fear, the monster represented to Chris the very condition of those whose lives depend on a medical establishment that both treats and dehumanizes people with disabilities.  Having done nothing wrong, the monster is first abandoned, then despised, then driven to exile.  Certainly, the monster kills, and that is wrong; however, the monster does so only after it is made clear to him that he has no place in the world of able-bodied people.  Once seen, he is feared and despised.  Once seen, he is made to feel inhuman despite, as I and the students in my class came to see, all the evidence to the contrary: the monster is made of human flesh, possesses powerful human emotions and a sharp human intellect, and his only desire is acceptance in a human society that never tries to understand him.

Scroll back up, and again take a minute to reflect on Chris’s apology for any possible future disruptions.  Disruptions that, I’m glad to say, never came to pass.  At no point during the semester did I notice any disruptions.  I’d like to think that the students at SUNY Potsdam are a wonderful group of people; I also know that many of them knew Chris personally or at least knew of him.  (As I mentioned above, he was pursuing two majors in my department, and in that time had made a positive impression on countless students and faculty in the department, and at the university.)  And over the course of the semester, I came to rely more heavily on Chris’s contributions to discussion, because he would always highlight something I had never considered.  When did Feminists begin to address notions of disability in their work toward social and political equality?  Why does nobody seem to pick up on the ways that authors use the language of physical disability to convey ideas of the monstrous and inhuman?  Why does SUNY Potsdam do such a poor job of accommodating people with disabilities?^

That last question goes to Chris’s efforts to help raise awareness on campus and in the local community more generally, regarding issues for people with disabilities.  As his biographical statement below notes, Chris is no stranger to advocacy and litigation.  Nor was he ever one to keep quiet, whether he was facing a legal battle or discussing a 19th century novel.  He brought his critical acumen, as well as his passion for making a positive impact on the world, to all his endeavors.

The last time I spoke with Chris, he told me of his desire to raise awareness for disability issues on campus.  He planned to speak, to invite outside speakers,^^ and to work on behalf of students with disabilities.  I’m sorry to say that he was not able to realize all of his plans.  However, I hope that his efforts will be continued by those who knew him, by those who realize the importance of such efforts.  In my own small way, I have become more interested in and engaged in such efforts on campus (and in academia more broadly), thanks in large part to Chris, and various other people involved in such efforts.^^^

In the spirit of this blog, I could end by noting that Chris forced me to be more creative in my ourse designs for the future.  But that’s not the point of this post; that’s a secondary concern.  The point of this post is that I met a young man who worked very hard to improve the conditions of others, in large part because his own condition had forced him to recognize some very ugly truths about the world in which we live.  He also brought to the discussion of literature (and, I assume, all cultural products he engaged with in his classes and his larger life) a viewpoint I had not before conceived of, with profound effects on how I and the rest of my class read, thought about, and wrote about canonical texts.

But most importantly, he brought to class a compassion, critical insight, and intellectual rigor that others should be envious of.  He was a good man, and he will be missed.

*As I become more experienced with certain classes, I allow for much more freedom and possible exploration.  In such cases, the syllabus becomes a guide rather than a set of guidelines.  But I digress.

**The following is a short autobiographical statement written by Chris himself in 2010 (with thanks to Valeria Souza for allowing me to use it here):

“My name is Chris Layo. I’m a disabled 25-year-old college student with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which is a muscle wasting condition that left me wheelchair bound and totally dependent on 24 hour care. I have been living in my own apartment with 24-hour care since theage of 19, through the Consumer Directed Personal Assistant Program (CDPAP). This vital program allows me to manage my care, by hiring, training, and supervising my own personal care aides. This program is essential because it gives me a lot of independence, and allows me to live a fairly normal life in my community. As of now I go to college at SUNY Potsdam where I’m a junior working toward a double major in communications and creative writing. I want to become a public speaker and a writer that deals with disability issues. My life experiences have made me into a strong disability advocate for myself and others. I try not to let my disability keep me down, and I try to live my life to the fullest. Here are some of my accomplishments:

-In August 2004 I became the first disabled person ever to live on SUNY Potsdam campus that required 24-hour care, after a lengthy battle, with housing, and other campus agencies.

-In 2008 I successfully fought and won a case with the help of Legal Aid Society of Northeastern N.Y. against the Department of Health. This happened when they said that personal care aides could no longer transport consumers places with the consumers own vehicles, leaving those inrural areas stranded in their homes. Winning this case resulted in me getting an award for mywork from the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance Association of New York State.

-I serve on the Consumer Directed Personal Assistant Program board.

-I routinely do public speaking for organizations, churches, classes, and on advocacy.

-This year I wrote a paper that allowed me to win the Eva Straight-Dean scholarship, which was a real honor because it recognized all my hard work.”

***In this regard, Chris was the opposite of the students I lamented in my previous post.  I could use many words to describe his work, but “safe” would never be one of them.

^The building I teach in has such narrow hallways that students in motorized wheelchairs – and Chris was certainly not the only student who employed a motorized wheelchair in our department, or on campus – cannot navigate them without difficulty.  Maneuvering into and out of offices can be a time-consuming ordeal.  There are plans to renovate this building, but we are not a priority; as I understand it, a new student center and other renovations – not to mention a new performing arts center – are much more important to the campus.

^^In the spring of 2012, my good friend Valeria Souza came to campus to speak about representations of Multiple Sclerosis in 21st-century discourse.  Chris attended that event, and had a lively and thought-provoking conversation with Valeria afterwards (a discussion I learned a great deal from).  He later told me that he admired her for her work, and hoped to help bring attention to the various ways by which people with disabilities are made invisible on campus and in our society: from ignoring them, to speaking on their behalf (and I do apologize if it seems that I am doing just that with my post), to working against their interests, to encouraging physical separation from able-bodied society.

^^^These people include Valeria Souza, Jane Dryden, Jay Pecora, John Youngblood, Joshua Eyler, and countless students who in their various ways have helped me to see what I had previously been blind to.

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Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.

Classes ended Friday, and finals week begins Monday, so now is the perfect time to post some reflections on final papers.  I spent the better part of the past three weeks grading final papers (one section of The Modern American Novel and two sections of Literary Analysis and Research), and have spent a fair amount of that time rethinking what I do for final papers, and why I do it.  Like my earlier posts, this one is an extended question, peppered by bits of ranting.

 

Every semester, I teach a mix of upper-division and lower-division classes.  In the lower-division classes, final assignments (usually some mix of final essays and a final exam) are skill-oriented, meaning that I provide specific prompts to engage students in such a way that my students demonstrate knowledge of certain skills the class is designed to develop: writing, researching, employing literary theory, providing comparative readings, etc.  One reason why I do this is because in my department, the “core” is skill-based (as opposed to using period/geographical surveys as the core).  I have a love-hate relationship with this curriculum, but that’s a post for another time.  Another reason why I teach these skills – and use final exams/papers to assess these skills, is because I will be working with many of these students again in my upper-division classes; I need those students to be prepared for the work will I expect from them.  I very much enjoy teaching some of these courses, particularly Introduction to Literature and Literary Analysis and Research.  In both courses, I am introducing concepts, methods, and skills to students who, more often than not, have not been exposed to these issues before (or have only been exposed to in the most cursory way).  Truth be told, I enjoy building foundations.  And the longer I teach here at Potsdam, the more important this work is to me.*

 

In my upper-division classes, however, I do not provide prompts for final essays.  (I do for the final exam: I give students a list of four questions, and they are to select one, prepare ahead of time, and come to class with their books to write the exam.  I find that by giving them the questions ahead of time, I get more thoughtful and better-supported responses.)  The final essays in upper-division classes, in my opinion, should be opportunities for students to explore the texts, ideas, methodologies, theories, etc. that most engage them.  These papers, I tell my students, are places where they can really explore something.  I encourage them to draw from class, from their earlier work (in this or other classes), to follow some line of inquiry that they somehow can’t shake.  What questions are they leaving unanswered, and how can they go about finding the answers they need?  The final papers, in my opinion, are places where students can take control of their education; this is where they determine what they want to learn, and how they want to learn it.

 

And this scares some students shitless.

 

Admittedly, not all students are inclined to follow up on their own interests.  Some students are only taking the class for a gen-ed, and don’t care about the material.  Others may have other reasons for not wanting to take control at this stage.  However, there is a growing (in my experience) number of students who are simply unprepared to do this kind of work; it’s not that they don’t want to do this kind of work, but rather that they have never been asked to take the wheel.  For a growing number of students – thanks in large part to the way K-12 education is (mis)handled – “education” has meant being told what to do and how to do it.

 

In other words, I fear that a growing number of students are dependent on the kinds of assessment models that are stifling creativity.

 

Allow me to explain.  As I’m using the term here, “assessment” is measuring a student’s ability to perform certain tasks.  Students then receive grades based on how well they perform those tasks.  This almost sounds like grading.  Almost.  And I say “almost” because when I grade final papers for my upper-division classes, I am doing more than assessing their ability to perform certain tasks.  Yes, grading a paper means assessing things like: editing prose, constructing an argument, properly citing source texts, etc.  But there’s something else, something that goes beyond simple assessment.  Have the students worked with the most relevant parts of a novel?  Have they exhausted the available research (as opposed to, say, demonstrated that they can use the library and work with both print and online sources)?  How compelling is the argument being made?  There are subjective parts to grading that I can’t neatly make fit into rubrics.  In my lower-division classes, I’m more concerned with assessment; these courses are designed to build a foundation for independent study.  I’m not at all concerned with originality, for instance, in lower-division courses.

 

What I am finding, increasingly, in my upper-division classes, is that many students don’t want to do independent work.  Some are very much opposed to it.  And many of these students are not, as one might mistakenly suspect, non-majors, or people generally uninterested in the arts or education.  In fact, I find that an ever-growing number of students studying to be teachers are incapable of, to use another metaphor, working without a net.  And while it’s easy in the immediate situation to blame the students for lacking imagination, that’s simply not the case.  People today are not inherently less imaginative, less curious, less creative, less willing to take risks.  Rather, they are trained to be that way.  They are trained by the assessment-driven K-12 education they received.  And for many Education students (in my experience**), the goal of education is assessment; many of them are learning – in their Education classes – how to “teach to the test” (to borrow a now common phrase).  For an increasing number of future educators, there is no room for creativity and risk in education.

 

This past semester, one of my Education majors – a very bright and hard-working student, one who is passionate about children and genuinely interested in literature – became frustrated when talking to me about her final paper.  She came to my office and wanted to know what she should do.  We spoke about the books she was most interested in, the ideas that she found most compelling; I tried to get her to talk through what was happening in her head, to show her that she was not as unprepared to begin work as she feared she was.  She explained that I was asking for something she had not done before; this was her first class where she was told to write a 10-page paper and given no specific prompt.  This was the first time, in other words, that she had to generate the idea from scratch.  As we spoke, she explained to me the kind of work she does in her Education classes.  Yes, she told me, she has to write research papers for her major.  However, she explained, her professors give them their research topics, have walked them through how and where to research those topics, and the students know ahead of time what they will find, and what conclusions they will come to.  The more she spoke, the more it sounded like – for those classes – “research” was an exercise is leaving trails of breadcrumbs for the students to follow; students are then assessed on how well they follow those breadcrumb trails.***

 

This model of research is slowly coming to define other aspects of my university.  For instance, I have spoken with multiple librarians at my university about buying books that could be used by students in my classes for their research.  Because of our limited funding and space – which no doubt is a serious concern for any academic librarian, particularly those at smaller schools – the library is primarily interested in buying materials that students will use in their research.  For those faculty who give assignments along the “breadcrumb trail” model, it’s easy to identify the materials that the library should purchase.  For those of us who define research as independent exploration, however, it’s much more difficult to identify useful materials.  Which biography of Jack Kerouac, for instance, should my library own?  Each biography is useful, but they are not interchangeable.  I have directed students to different biographies, depending on their research interests.  Which recent works in narrative theory, Native American studies, Modernism, African American literature (all courses that I teach), should I ask my library to purchase?  We can’t buy them all.  But I also have no idea where my students will want to pursue their own research projects.  (And the growing availability of online resources certainly is a boon; however, online access is still painfully limited, given the small number of academic books available full-text online.^)  The last time I talked to one of my university’s librarians, I was told that the best way to make sure that the library would purchase books is to make sure that the students used them; I was told that if I included the “research prompt” in my request, the library was more likely to buy those materials.  Unfortunately, I told her, I can’t do that.  I don’t assign “research prompts” in my upper-division classes.  I don’t know what the students will want to investigate.  I don’t know what the scope of their projects will be.

 

In other words, I have no idea ahead of time what my students in any given semester will ant to explore when I hand them the reins.

 

And, in my opinion, not knowing is one of the best parts of my syllabus.

 

I could assign research topics.  It might even make my life easier.  Last semester, a student approached me with a research topic.  She wanted to know if her idea was any good.  It was very compelling.  It was, I dare say, original.  The student was, for personal reasons, interested in a very particular line of inquiry that I had never come across in my own research on the Beats.  This is not to say it hadn’t been done before, of course; the first stage of research would be determining what has been done and where the student might take the conversation.  I was very happy that she had identified a line of inquiry, she explained why it was important (both to her and to our understanding of the writers she was working with), and she was excited to do the work.  This kind of engagement is exactly what I want from my students in these courses.

 

Then she asked me if she would be able to find enough materials to work with.  I don’t know, I told her; step one is finding what’s out there.  She suddenly seemed confused; didn’t I know what was out there?  Not in this case, no.  But I was just as curious as she was to find out.  I knew there had been work done on those authors, and there had been work done on the idea in other contexts; I just didn’t know if anyone had considered these writers in this way before.  And this, student dropped her head, thought for a minute, and then asked if she could change her research topic.  Why? I asked her; this is fascinating.  Because, she replied, she didn’t want to waste her time if it turned out that nobody had done this work before.  I tried explaining that even if she’s the first, that’s a good thing; she could start a new conversation, and bring together research on those authors and research on that idea.  This, I told her, is how we advance our understand of the field.  But she was unconvinced; she wanted the certainty of the well-trodden path.  She wanted assurances that she could find exactly what she needed, and that the materials would be available in our library.  She wanted, in other words, a breadcrumb trail.

 

In the end, she wrote a very safe paper.  Well-written, well-researched, and on the whole a perfectly fine example of the kind of work she needed to do in order to secure a good grade.  It was an idea that several of her classmates worked with, one that they knew the could find materials for because we had specifically discussed them in class.  Because I have used them in my own research.  

 

I have many problems with assessment-based thinking when it comes to education.  But my biggest problem is that assessment-based thinking doesn’t reward risk.  In fact, it actively discourages risk.  In other words, it stifles creativity.  

 

I very much want my upper-division classes to be chances for students to define their own set of interests, identify their own research questions, and explore their contributions to the larger conversation around these works, authors, movements, periods, etc.  I want my students to feel empowered to take risks, and to know that even when they hit a dead end, they have still learned something valuable.  (I tell my students all the time about my own research dead ends; I also tell them what I have learned in the process and how my own work has evolved.  Risk, I tell them, is the only way to reward.)

 

Unfortunately, it seems that the “Education industry” is less and less interested in risk.  It’s less and less interested in creativity.  It’s less and less interested in allowing students to discover what their education can be.  

 

For those of you reading this, how do you encourage your students to take risks in their research?

 

*I repeatedly tell people that Introduction to Literature is my favorite class to teach.  I think some of my colleagues are finally starting to believe me.  I generally teach between four and six sections of this class every year.

**Which, at this point, is pretty significant.  In any given semester, most of the 100+ students I teach are likely to be Education majors.  SUNY Potsdam’s mission is the education of future educators, particularly arts educators.

***I am certainly not trying to characterize the entire field of Education.  However, from where I sit, it does appear to me that more and more people in the field are preparing their students for the “teaching to the test” situation our next generation of teachers will be walking into.  The root of the problem – and I cannot stress this enough – is the institutionalization of assessment-based education, and not the many people trying to do their best in a system that has been designed to satisfy politicians, not students.

^At this point, I’d like to give a shout-out to my library’s ILL department; they do wonderful work, and have provided valuable help to my and my students over the years.

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