Disability and Sexuality

Syllabus: Disability and Sexuality

Are you interested in pursuing the intersections between medicine, the social and behavioral sciences, and literature? Would you like to read literature and watch films that address taboo topics like sexuality, disability, and sickness while challenging their censorship? Are you interested in discussing sexual rights? Then this General Education Literature elective, subtitled “Disability & Sexuality,” is for you. Together, we will read fiction and nonfiction from a wide variety of genres and time periods and will watch videos—from performance pieces like Sins Invalid to film adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame—in order to explore the following topics: what writers with disabilities have to say about sexuality and disability, the roles given to disabled characters in romance plots, the gendering of people with disabilities, different expressions of sexuality, and ways to bridge literary analysis and social activism. Coursework will encourage students to challenge the silence surrounding disability and sexuality and to open a dialogue about alternate sexualities.


Course Wiki

In this course, students use the wiki, a platform provided by the university and made accessible through the students’ ICON site, for three major purposes: (1) to sign up and post materials used for leading class discussion, (2) as a space to collaborate on their group projects, and (3) to post their finalized digital projects. The wiki’s diverse features (to-do lists, file lists, blog posts, meeting notes, blank pages, etc.) enable students to develop their group projects on an accessible university platform and to develop resources about integrating disability studies and literary studies that are helpful when writing their final paper.


Class Facilitation

To encourage students to engage with the course material on their own terms and to decenter authority in the classroom, I created a discussion leading assignment that counted for 15% of students’ total participation grade. Students signed up to present on a text or text pairing and to manage class discussion for at least twenty minutes on the “Class Facilitation” wiki page. They were allowed to collaborate with their peers on a group presentation or could choose to tackle the material individually. Students were asked to produce some physical material to accompany the verbal presentation such as handouts, PowerPoint slides, a Prezi presentation, or something else. It was mandatory that each presentation include (1) some brief introductory material about the text and/or author being discussed, (2) close reading of at least one passage in the text, and (3) at least 5 open-ended, thoughtful discussion questions that were not solely plot-focused. Optional components to consider included the following: (1) some brief historical information about the period in which the text was written, (2) introduction of a scholar’s take on the text, (3) a digital or creative element to the presentation, and (4) a brief in-class activity to emphasize the theme of your presentation.


Reading Worksheet: Nancy Mairs’s “Carnal Acts” and Eli Clare’s “How to Talk to a New Lover about Cerebral Palsy”

To aid in students’ engagement with assigned reading materials, I regularly assign reading worksheets. These worksheets are assigned as homework and are meant to function as building blocks to help students develop their critical thinking and close reading skills in preparation for their reading responses and longer paper. I attempt to organize the questions in a way that requires students to build on previous ideas, even previous readings, and to use different levels of critical thinking. In this course, I pair Nancy Mairs’s “Carnal Acts” with Eli Clare’s poem (published under Elizabeth Clare) “How to Talk to a New Lover about Cerebral Palsy.” These texts pair well together because in her essay, Mairs explores the relationship between the voice and the body and what it means “to speak as a crippled woman” (96), and Clare is known for exploring poetry’s embodied nature in his writing. Our discussion in this course period revolves around the reading worksheet and the students’ answers and questions—and Mairs’s essay generated a wonderful dialogue about Cartesian dualism and the problem of divorcing mind from body, and also the relationship between the female body and shame. When we discuss Clare’s poem (specifically questions two and three on the worksheet), I annotate an unmarked copy of it on the projector as students talk to me about the relationships they’ve located between form and content. Finally, I supplement the guided questions on the reading worksheet with questions and issues raised in an interview with Clare, found on this PowerPoint that I use.

Sample Student Worksheets

Student 1’s Response

Student 2’s Response

Student 3’s Response


Reading Responses

To help students develop their writing strategies while also strengthening their critical thinking skills (which, in my opinion, often go hand in hand, for students learn to work through complex ideas through writing and revision) I assigned reading responses throughout the semester as part of their homework grade. Specifically, these responses, only a paragraph in length, were meant to hone their abilities to develop a focused argument and were intended to improve their paragraph-writing skills. These responses also help students build toward their two formal papers, both of which can emerge out of a student’s response paper. For each reading response, students were given a prompt with options for different questions to answer and submitted two drafts, a rough draft and a final draft. After students submitted their rough draft, I gave a mini-lecture on a revision or general writing technique (examples include introducing/integrating quotations, crafting focused topic and concluding sentences, eliminating wordiness, and avoiding passive voice) that students were then supposed to apply to their revisions. Students workshopped their responses in class after these mini-lectures and revised their paragraphs based on peer and instructor feedback.


Formal Papers

For this course, students write two formal papers about the course readings. A rough draft and a final draft are assigned for each paper. The paper prompts are written in such a way as to enable—and indeed, encourage—students to develop their reading responses into a longer project.

  • Paper 2 Assignment Sheet
  • Sample Student Paper 2: Rough Draft and Final Draft
    I selected this student’s drafts for inclusion in my teaching portfolio because she excelled at using close reading strategies to critically read The Mill on the Floss. Although she does not engage disability studies theory in her paper (which was not a requirement of the assignment), it is clear that she has developed an appreciation for the way that difference, physical and otherwise, can be seized upon by a majority group as justification for oppressing a minority group—in this paper, women in the nineteenth century. She also dedicated much time to improving the focus of her paper, which is evidenced by revisions such as added sentences that connect her points to her overarching argument.

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