“If we pay attention to our discomfort and if we’re willing to do political, emotional, analytic and spiritual work around that feeling, it will transform into knowledge, strength and alliance.”
—Eli Clare, “Challenging Our Differences”
I believe that discomfort is a very productive feeling, one that reveals complex sociopolitical forces at work. As such, I encourage students to acknowledge and explore discomfort—whether it is caused by a dense passage of text, a taboo subject, a troubling character, or a writing assignment—in order to turn resistance into a mode of critical inquiry. For example, on the first day of the semester in my literary disability studies courses, the students read Nancy Mairs’s “Young and Disabled” in class. Mairs’s essay opens by implicating the reader in a visual exchange with a “flawless” woman. When the reader discovers that the woman uses a wheelchair, s/he immediately moves from praising to pitying her. Experiencing the perspective shift together in real time enables students to confront and collectively work through their own feelings about difference—physical, cultural, or otherwise. This activity opens a semester-long dialogue about the narratives that contribute to our own sense of self as well as the narratives of self that we create and impose upon others.
I view literary analysis not as a private act, but rather as a powerful tool for social justice, which is why I help students practice modes of reading that enable them to appreciate difference. To support this goal, I teach both canonical and non-canonical authors whose work enforces and/or interrogates certain identity constructions. For instance, in a small-group activity in my “Leaving Normal” class, students select a poem from W. E. Henley’s In Hospital and suggest possible connections between his use of poetic devices and the speaker’s statements about his body. A representative from each group then displays and explains their annotations using the classroom projector. In an activity on George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, students analyze the imagery used to describe Maggie Tulliver’s hair to assess how she is physically “othered.” This exercise leads to a discussion of the links between social nonconformity and bodily aberrance in literature—a dialogue that sets the stage for student presentations on the construction of Philip Wakem’s disabled masculinity. By regularly asking students to model literary analysis, I strive to decenter authority in the classroom, helping them overcome the discomfort of sharing their ideas.
While I welcome students’ general reflections on literature, all of my classes are grounded in an ethics of close reading. Students complete biweekly reading responses and participate in small- group activities that involve rigorous quotation analysis, exercises that develop their interpretive skills and prepare them for their formal papers. In my “Media and Modernism” course, students receive a ten-minute lecture on T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, including a brief biography of the poet up to 1922, the poem’s original working title and epigraph, and its media-historical context. Then, after reflecting in large-group discussion on how the poem is a “drama for voices,” as Ted Hughes has called it, students explore the DH tool He Do the Police in Different Voices (hedothepolice.org), working in teams to demarcate the vocal shifts in the poem and assign them speakers. Afterward, we regroup as a class to discuss how the tool made us read the poem differently, what we discovered in the process, and the benefits and/or limitations of the website. In another activity, students select a character in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and locate and analyze quotations that illustrate how the character responds to the protagonist’s illness. Students then exchange ideas about how their findings connect with course readings on attitudes toward disability and chronic illness, a discussion that concludes with students outlining the qualities of a good caretaker. My goal is to provide students with critical frameworks that enable them to make connections between literary analysis and contemporary issues, demonstrating how active engagement with a text, however challenging and uncomfortable it may be, can translate into mindfulness and meaningful action in the world.