Leaving Normal

Syllabus: “Leaving Normal”

This course takes as its theme “Leaving Normal.” Together, we explore representations of difference in various genres, including autobiographical writings, novels, plays, short stories, poetry, and film. Readings and assignments will challenge students to appreciate different ways of perceiving the world, to probe the construction of difference as inferior and/or deviant, to question the idea of “normalcy,” to resist stereotypes of and biases against people with illnesses or disabilities, and to better understand the barriers—linguistic, intellectual, etc.—that prevent universal access to different landscapes, physical and otherwise.

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 contribute quotations (one from each assigned text) to the class commonplace book, (2) to help create questions for the midterm exam, and (3) to sign up and post materials used for leading class discussion. The wiki enables students to collaboratively engage with the readings and to help each other develop reference materials for the midterm exam.

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 facilitate class discussion on the “Discussion Leading Signup and Materials” 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.

Sample Student Presentations

A PowerPoint on selected poems from Kenny Fries’s Anesthesia

A PowerPoint on Georgina Kleege’s “Disabled Students Come Out: Questions Without Answers” and the University’s SDS Website

A Prezi on John Hockenberry’s “Public Transit” and Universal Design

Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych

I teach this novella during the first themed unit of the course, “The Medicalization of the Disabled Body/ The Disabled Body as Object.” In this unit, students read selections from disability studies scholars like Lennard J. Davis and Tobin Siebers who critique the medical model of disability. The readings move from pieces that scrutinize the disabled body to texts that objectify the sick body. While I pair fictional disability and illness narratives in this section, we are careful to discuss the differences between disability and illness (in line with Susan Wendell’s “Unhealthy Disabled: Treating Chronic Illnesses as Disabilities”) and to problematize the tendency to medicalize disability.

I find that this text pairs especially well with Margaret Edson’s Wit (especially because both allude to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets), W. E. Henley’s In Hospital, and selected poems from Kenny Fries’s Anesthesia. These texts also encourage students to consider the complex relationships between disability and gender and disability and class. I usually give a mini-lecture on feudalism and capitalism after beginning with the small-group activity below and before opening the floor to large-group discussion, and I distribute this NEA handout on the Code of 1864 for some additional historical background.

Small-Group Activity: Depending on class size, I place students into groups of two to four and then assign each group a character or set of characters on which to focus:

  • Praskovya Fedorovna Mikhel (Ivan’s wife)
  • Lisa (Ivan’s daughter) and her fiancé
  • The doctors
  • His friends (especially those with whom he plays cards)
  • His work associates
  • Gerasim

Part 1 | As a group, students determine the attitude toward Ivan’s illness that their assigned character or group of characters take(s). They are then asked to locate and write on a sheet of paper quotes to support their claim about this attitude in response to Ivan’s poor health.

Part 2 | As a class, we then discuss how the narrator presents each attitude toward illness, considering in particular the following questions: Does the narrator seem to think one attitude is correct, or at least preferable to another? Is the narrator particularly critical toward one character’s or group’s treatment of Ivan?

Discussion Questions:

  • What are Ivan’s expectations for and assumptions about his life? Does he feel like anything is owed to him or that he deserves anything in particular? If so, what? What do you think about these assumptions and expectations—are they problematic? Explain.
  • Take a moment to note instances of statistical or mathematical language in the text, like references to norms, correctness, deviations, etc. Why do you think Tolstoy uses this language?
  • What is significant about the illness being referred to as an “it” starting on page 146 in the anthology?
  • Why does no one want to admit that Ivan is dying? How do Gerasim’s attitudes differ?
  • Discuss Ivan’s attitude toward his illness. Does it evolve?
  • Does Ivan change as a character by the end of the novella? How so?
  • What makes Gerasim an effective or ineffective caretaker?
  • Why do you think there is so much attention to clothing and home decorating in this novella?
  • The ideas of uniformity and unoriginality are repeated ideas, or motifs, in this text. Why do you think Tolstoy emphasizes these concepts in relation to Ivan?
  • Compare the two fictional illnesses you have read so far, Margaret Edson’s Wit and this text. What are the similarities/differences? Why do both texts allude to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets? Do you think that the two texts use the Holy Sonnets for different ends?


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