Monthly Archives: April 2020

Our Existence is Resistance: Autistic Academics in an Anti-Autistic Academy

By Helen Rottier

This post was originally presented at the 2020 Society for Disability Studies (SDS@OSU@Zoom) virtual conference.

Autistic academics face endless ableism and scrutiny within the academy, even within disability studies. This post will present anti-autistic ableism across the academy, highlighting the impact of ableism on autistic academics, and gesture towards resistance efforts led by autistic academics and allies.

Anti-autistic ableism is manifest in autism research, rhetoric, and pedagogy within the academy. Research aims, ranging from cure and prevention to normalization and intervention, signal to autistic academics that we are not wanted or welcome in the academy and in society. Model organism research disappears the autistic human subject from autism research entirely, and even “good” research that seeks to support autistic children and adults can be co-opted for ableist purposes (see Luterman, 2020). Though seemingly antithetical to disability studies and principles of disability pride and neurodiversity, researchers in disability studies continue to promote ABA as an evidence-based, best practice regarding autism treatment, despite pleas from autistic activists to end this normalizing and sometimes traumatizing treatment (Kupferstein, 2018; Lynch, 2019).

Ableist research in our labs, departments, and institutions is often the first sign to autistic academics that we are regarded as inferior, damaged, and in need of cure. At the same time, autistic researchers’ projects are met with resistance and skepticism. One acquaintance, an autistic graduate student, was told by a professor that disability research “isn’t sexy” after being accepted to a graduate program to perform disability research. Autistic academics studying autism are also accused of being too subjective, too close, or too invested in the topic. Our supposed agenda is said to interfere with our ability to conduct valid research.

            Rhetoric around the war on autism (see McGuire, 2016) again signals to autistic academics that we are not wanted or welcomed in academia and in society. In disability studies and advocacy specifically, bygone rhetoric around neurotypicality and intelligence despite physical disability sends the same message.  Autistics are also excluded from academia by perceptions of our diminished capacity for rhetoric. Melanie Yergeau explores this issue at length in Authoring Autism (2018), explaining how autistics are understood as arhetorical and therefore incapable of knowledge production.

Rhetoricity is even more contested for autistic academics whose work includes autism and disability; Yergeau defines demirhetoricity as existing, simultaneously, as too autistic and yet not autistic enough to be a credible source on one’s experiences of autism. Autistic neuroscientist, Alyssa Hillary (2019) asks, “Am I the curriculum, or a student? Am I both? Could I be a teacher?” Being an autistic studying autism means blurring the line between student and subject, knower and known. Becoming the subject means constantly having our difference (re)emphasized, as is the case of one professor who unconsciously gestured to me every time she mentioned autism. While this action was unintentional and innocuous enough, it was a constant reminder that I was different than my neurotypical peers.

            Pedagogy is also centered on neurotypical learning experiences, to the exclusion of autistic students and teachers. Fear of being misunderstood adds pressure for autistic and neurodivergent scholars to be hyper-intelligible and coherent, even while still learning, processing, and formulating ideas. Anti-Ableist Composition has released guidelines for reading and assessing autistic students’ writing in anti-ableist ways that celebrate autistic communication practices.

            Coping with academic ableism in our classrooms, labs, departments, and institutions takes an emotional toll on autistic academics. We are bombarded with messages that we are unwelcome, unwanted, and inferior. We may struggle to keep up in classes designed for neurotypical learners. We weigh our responses to daily encounters with academic ableism. Sometimes we speak up, but often we bear the burden of ableism quietly. Autistic academics and former academics relay our stories to one another, seeking solidarity and advice, and I know far too many autistics who have left the academy when they could no longer tolerate the environment. Academia will continue to lose autistic academics and their contributions so long as ableism is the norm.

            How are autistic academics resisting academic ableism? By our existence and persistence in the academy. Those of us who remain and strive to be ourselves and to change, little by little or drastically, our academies push against academic ableism by our very being. More organized forms of resistance occur through collectives like Anti-Ableist Composition, the Chicago Coalition for Autistic and Neurodivergent Students, and the Autistic Graduate Student Network, through emancipatory research networks like AASPIRE and PARC, and through story sharing on social media using #AcademicAbleism and #AutisticsInAcademia.

            During this Autism Acceptance Month, I challenge you all to resist anti-autistic ableism in your own departments and institutions. Show concrete, material support to autistic scholars, especially students and contingent faculty. Center autistic speakers and scholars as the experts of our experiences. Bring us in to your classrooms and events as guest lecturers/speakers. Meet us halfway. If you teach autistic students, and I guarantee you do, read Anti-Ableist Composition’s (2020) strategies for teaching neurodivergent students. Be explicit and structured in your supervision of autistic students and junior faculty. Make space for us, welcome us, and listen to us, without defensiveness, when we relay our experiences of ableism and hurt. Disability studies and the academy are made better, richer, and fuller by the presence of all kinds of minds.

4/20/2020: Jesse A. Goldberg’s “James Baldwin and the Anti-Black Force of Law”

Today’s #AntiAbleistComposition feature is Jesse A. Goldberg’s Public Culture article titled “James Baldwin and the Anti-Black Force of Law: On Excessive Violence and Exceeding Violence.”

About Dr. Goldberg:

Jesse A. Goldberg works in the interdisciplinary fields of Black studies and American studies with a grounding in African American literature and performance from the nineteenth century to the present. He recently defended his dissertation, The Excessive Present of Abolition: The Afterlife of Slavery in Law, Literature, and Performance, and will be Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Longwood University for the 2018-2019 academic year.

He is currently revising his dissertation into his first book, Abolition Time: Slavery’s Afterlife and the Excessive Present in Law, Literature, and Performance. The project argues that a temporality of an “excessive present” which collapses past, present, and future into the moment of the now enacts possibilities for thinking and practicing a politics of abolition that reaches towards both abstract concepts of freedom and concrete visions such as the end of prisons. The political and cultural aim of the dissertation is grounded in literary texts that span historical periods – including plays by William Wells Brown, Pauline Hopkins, Angelina Weld Grimke, and Suzan-Lori Parks; poetry by M. NourbeSe Philip and David Dabydeen; and novels by Toni Morrison, Sutton Griggs, Shirley Anne Williams, and Fred D’Aguiar. Ultimately these texts which cross temporal, national, and generic boundaries act against the reasoned temporality of law to open up interpretive spaces where the long history and multitudinous meanings of abolition unfold and linger after the moment of reading.

He has published essays in MELUS and CLA Journal as well as the volume Toni Morrison on Mothers and Motherhood (Demeter Press, July 2017), and has work forthcoming in Callaloo (summer/fall 2018), Infrastructures of African American Print (University of Wisconsin Press, spring 2019), and Public Culture (spring 2019). His book reviews can be found in Callaloo and The Journal of Black Studies. As a teacher, he has offered courses in the English department and the American Studies Program at Cornell including “Race, Law, and the Black Lives Matter Movement,” “The Legal Life of American Racism,” “Black Plays & Performance,” and “Great New Books.” Through the Cornell Prison Education Program he has taught “Freshman English I: Writing with/against Other Voices,” “World Literature I: Drama, Theater, & Performance,” “American Drama & Theater,” and academic writing workshops in prisons surrounding the Ithaca and Tompkins County area.

4/14/2020: Sylvia Wynter

Today’s #AntiAbleistComposition feature isn’t a text or a work or a piece of scholarship. Today’s feature is dedicated to Sylvia Wynter, whose labor, love, and writing has shaped the course of Black feminist thought and Black feminist praxis for generations. Today’s feature will be a curation of Wynter’s work, which I find to be relevant now and always–particularly right now.

From Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis

The Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter is best known for her diverse writings that pull together insights from theories in history, literature, science, and black studies, to explore race, the legacy of colonialism, and representations of humanness. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis is a critical genealogy of Wynter’s work, highlighting her insights on how race, location, and time together inform what it means to be human.

Biographical Information from

Sylvia Wynter was born in Cuba but grew up and was educated in Kingston, Jamaica. A series of scholarships took her to King’s College, London University, as well as to the University of Madrid. Her studies culminated in a B.A. (with honors) in Spanish literature (with a minor in English) and an M.A. with a thesis on Golden Age Spanish drama.

Wynter spent the next decade in London as a writer. She wrote screenplays for the BBC’s Third Program, as well as a novel, The Hills of Hebron, published in 1962. In 1963 Wynter returned to the then newly independent Jamaica and joined the faculty of the University of the West Indies (UWI). While teaching at UWI in Mona, she helped to establish Jamaica Journal, one of the premier Anglo-phone journals of Caribbean intellectual thought. During this time she also wrote several plays, including Maskarade and 1865: Ballad of a Rebellion, which were directed by Lloyd Reckord. In the context of the island’s postcolonial intellectual ferment, Wynter wrote “We Must Learn to Sit Down Together and Talk about a Little Culture: Reflections on West Indian Literature and Criticism,” an essay that set the stage for her rethinking of the belief system of race.

Coincidentally, at the time that she began to explore the theoretical question posed by Elsa Goveia in “The Social Framework” (1970) as to the why of the premise of black inferiority and of white superiority, a parallel order of intellectual questioning had begun to emerge in the United States to accompany the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. In the context of the call for black studies, Wynter was invited to teach at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). At UCSD Wynter was appointed to teach and to further develop a new interdisciplinary program, Literature and Society in the Third World. Three years later, at Stanford University, Wynter was appointed chair of the Program in African and Afro-American Studies (AAAS) as well as professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. She served as chair of the AAAS program until 1982 and continued to teach at Stanford until her retirement as professor emerita in June 1994.

After coming to the United States in the 1970s, Wynter authored a series of major essays in which she put forward a unified theory of culture able to explain both the fifteenth-century rise of the West and the price that the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the enslaved black population would pay for the West’s global expansion and techno-scientific breakthroughs. By calling into question what she defined as our biocentric (as a reformulation of the feudal theocentric ) conception of being human, Wynter opened up a path for the elaboration of a new science of the human, one able to explain, she asserts, the “puzzle of conscious experience” (Chalmers, 1995).

Wynter argued that the issue of race, which had become a global status-organizing principle, could be understood only within the terms of the originally Judeo-Christian religio-cultural ground out of which it emerged. In the wake of the voyages of the Portuguese into newly discovered lands in Africa and of Christopher Columbus into the Americas, together with the rise of the natural sciences in the sixteenth century, the West would become the first culture to secularize (that is, “degod,” desupernaturalize) its order of knowledge. In the place of the earlier supernaturally ordained identity of the Christian, an increasingly (and by the nineteenth-century Darwinian revolution, purely) biological conception of the human, “man,” was instituted. In other words, the laity/clergy issue that structured the feudal order had been transformed into that of the black/white (as well as man/native) issue. At the same time, the belief system of spiritual caste, to which the former issue had given expression, was transformed into the modern belief system of race, in effect, of biological caste.

Wynter hypothesized that all humans must necessarily know their social reality in adaptively advantageous terms, able to ensure the realization of their specific mode or genre of being human, or of sociogeny (Fanon, 1967), as well as of the reproduction of the specific societal order, which is each such genre’s indispensable condition of existence. On the basis of Fanon’s redefinition of the human as hybridly phylogeny (the evolution or development of a kind or type of animal or plant) and ontogeny (the development of an individual organism) on the one hand, and sociogeny on the other (in Western terms, a nature/culture mode of being), Wynter put forward the idea of the sociogenic principle or code as the explanatory key, both to “the puzzle of conscious experience” (Chalmers, 1995) and to the laws that govern human behaviors. She does so in the context of Aimé Césaire’s 1946 proposal for a “science of the Word” (Césaire, 1982, pp. 24–25), as a science of the human able to complete what Césaire defines as the “half-starved” nature of the natural sciences, which for all their technological achievements have yet to come up with a scientific description of the reality of what it is to be human, that is, hybridly organic/meta-organic, gene and word.

Wynter’s Labor and Love

4/13/2020: “Contextualizing Black Disability and the Culture of Dissemblance” by Sami Schalk

Today’s #AntiAbleistComposition feature is “Contextualizing Black Disability and the Culture of Dissemblance” by Sami Schalk. The article pays homage to Darlene Clark Hine and Hine’s 1989 essay titled “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance.” Both texts are published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.

Excerpt from Schalk’s article:

“In the past decade, increasing numbers of disability studies scholars have begun to explore racialized experiences of disability, but the field generally still lacks substantive engagement with critical race theory and black feminist theory…By culturally contextualizing black women’s experiences of depression and other mental health concerns within Hine’s concept of the culture of dissemblance, we have a stronger foundation for understanding, challenging, and changing the intersecting systems of oppression that shape the lives of black women today.”

Click here to visit Dr. Schalk’s professional website.