Teaching Relationally

“Inseparable from grief and rage is a profound, wrenching, far-from-sentimental affirmation of the beauty and wonder of nature, of human life”

Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk 

In the oldest Italian Tarot deck, the Wheel of Fortune shows four figures, each in a quadrant of the cosmic wheel around a blindfolded figure at the center. Moving clockwise, the text translates from the Latin: “I do reign,” “I have reigned,” “I am without reign,” “I will reign”; or, more loosely, “I act,” “I have acted,” “I am acted upon,” “I will act.” This cyclical view of time resonates for me both ecologically and experientially: in a dialectic of living and learning I see myself and my co-travelers in these cards, as we enact, let go, are acted upon, move to enact. Each stage is haunted by the others, as Gordon suggests, altering “the experience of being in linear time,” “the way we normally separate and sequence the past, the present and the future.”1 Acknowledging the porosity of time, the fluidity of temporality, cues the recurrence of trauma, where narratives of extreme vulnerability are inadvertently tripped, or invited in as part of a reparative process.

In moving toward a pedagogy that is responsive and responsible to the complexly recursive and interrelated strata of our lives, I am helped by one of Anne’s students, whose study of trauma led him to an “invitation to consider the (im)possibilities of radical vulnerability,” to create “dangerously under such conditions, wherein the personal narrative is a political act of resistance.”


invitation to consider the (im)possibilities of radical vulnerability,” to create “dangerously under such conditions, wherein the personal narrative is a political act of resistance.”2

Leakage into our dwellings, spectral presences, scars puckering our skin are all powerful reminders that none of us is separate, nothing we do finished, that radical vulnerability can be a source of connection, learning, consequence.

Butler writes of coming into being as interbeing, and of relationality as responsibility:

I am wounded, and I find that the wound itself testifies to the fact that I am impressionable, given over to the Other in ways that I cannot fully predict or control. I cannot think the question of responsibility alone, in isolation from the Other; if I do, I have taken myself out of the relational bind that frames the problem of responsibility from the start.3

In this vein, “leak” shares antecedents with “lack,” a term Jacques Lacan uses to signify a shared human hunger for full existence that impels us toward each other.4 Articulation of this lack, and of the desire that fuels it, can be frightening, and also can cast skeins of connection, drawing us together. In our work together, this may emerge as a quickening when students realize that the “personal” and the “academic” are not ultimately separate: in the wordless connection of the Confederate flag group; in meerajay’s struggle to respond to Liana’s pain; in the flash of the students’ exhibit.

Leakage, though seldom welcome, is always a possibility. It will seep through, softening edges, sometimes eradicating boundaries; this can induce withdrawal to a drier, safer space; can also catalyze insights, connections. My co-teachers and I share and draw on the lack that is also desire, as we look for ways to accompany our students, release the reins of separation and control, attend closely to and respect the gaps between enacting and re-enacting. As represented in the Wheel of Fortune, acting is haunted by absence, desire by lack, strength by leakage. Authority leaks, becomes a lack that may be experienced as a wound and also gives rise to desire.

To be responsible, pedagogy must know itself as happening in the midst of vulnerability, relationality, and unpredictability; it would be irresponsible to assume otherwise. Responsible pedagogy must include multiple points of entry, access, exit, and interconnection: no guarantees, but a commitment to bringing a discerning, loving presence that supports others in work that can be scary, messy, overwhelming, and also compelling and deeply connective. This work is specific and real, grounded in desire and in daily efforts at recognition. Touched always by what is leaking and haunting, past and still present, recognition and response-ability can move us toward each other, prompt us to reach, and take up what we don’t yet know.


  1. Gordon, “Thoughts,” 2.
  2. samuel.terry, “Matter,” May 11, 2014 (3:08 a.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.
  3. Butler, Precarious Life, 46.
  4. Jacques Lacan, “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principle of Its Power.” In Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002: 215-270.

Bearing Witness

This cluster of classes takes me to some of the hardest, most unanswerable and vulnerable places I know; pushes hard against my capacity to understand others and   self; leaks into my pedagogy, leaving me with a rawness, a deep uncertainty about what it means to teach and learn in such circumstances. My co-teachers and many of our students articulate such feelings. When we enter the prison, we encounter an extreme edge: the vulnerability, sometimes trauma of the people inside; a visceral encounter with the social, political trauma of mass incarceration. As I hear from students, this triggers a reencounter with self: How/can I stay, listen? What can I understand, or not, how can I respond? Some look not only to us but also to each other with these questions. Authority seeps, circulates.

While the jail “triggers,” brings our shared vulnerability to the fore, rendering it intensive, defining, we also bring our own hauntings, relationality, mortality. So it is that in the midst of the semester I undergo a psychic and physical wounding as I am diagnosed with a small but fast-moving breast cancer. Within weeks I undergo a minor surgery that heals and also wounds, leaving me with a scar and disturbing questions. Exiting the clinic, I walk 11th Street strung up with awareness of the ultimate vulnerability “that emerges with life itself,” “precedes the formation of ‘I’”1–and attends our exit from living. This precarity strangely anchors me in a remembrance of all we don’t know of one another as we pass on the street. Heightening the visibility of circumstances of radical vulnerability can carry peril, elation, potentiality.

When Anne reads the trauma novel Eva’s Man with our students, one arranges an alternative assignment, trashes the book in their dorm room, then removes it utterly from their space; others say they struggle with being a “traumatized scholar” in the classroom; a third is “so glad I read this book, it changed my life.”

We are in our 60s, some of our students not yet 20. It is astounding to be working together, figuring our way through precarity.

Roger Simon and Claudia Eppert share a framework they’ve developed working with students who bear witness to trauma: witnesses must listen, remember what they hear, recognize its importance; acknowledge that although they are outsiders to this experience, these “memories of violence and injustice press down on [their] sense of humanity.” And they must take action: carry the stories they’ve heard into other contexts, retelling narratives as a way to exert agency and provoke protest to injustice.2 In this framework, witnesses are not just repositories but also actors, with an invitation–-or an obligation-–to bring what they have learned to bear on others, to make impact. For our students, and for us, this is oddly inclusive, offers us a position of strength, of some efficacy.

In line with this call, my co-teachers and I are now asking our students to find ways of communicating publicly what they are learning from our prison work. Initially, our students resist: like us, they are often unsure about what they are doing in the prison. Early on, we invite in a creative consultant who has long made art that render the Prison Industrial Complex visible to those outside it. She proposes that our students use the writings of women inside as the central texts for their public project, but they push back hard on what seems to them a self-interested, even dishonest agenda: soliciting and exhibiting others’ lives for still others to view feels antithetical to what they are trying to do: build trust and mutuality, as they lead a reading and writing group. And so begins a variegated dance of fits and starts as the students resist and engage in research and expression. Right up to the day of the exhibit, in the most central and public space on campus, many of us vocalize uncertainty about whether this will come off, what it will look like.

As several of the students explain, they are struggling to recognize the trauma of mass incarceration in the “forced vulnerability” of those who are incarcerated, in the dehumanization of enforcers, and in their own involvement:

abby rose

Witnessing the day-to-day interactions of a high-ranking prison official and inmates…while the PIC has its detrimental effects on incarcerated peoples, it also has effects on those in positions of power in that system.3


I tried to think of something, anything substantial to say….We do not have the threat of constant surveillance on us …4

As Simon and Eppert gloss this experience: absorbing “something absolutely foreign… may call into question what and how one knows” and so bring oneself to the edge.5

Leaving their sense of themselves as knowers behind as they immerse themselves in a shared humanity with those who are incarcerated may be particularly jarring in light of the charge to know, to achieve, even to make a difference. And yet it is from these questions and this edge that our students act: move hesitantly, resistingly to share their learning.

Their exhibit is astonishing. “Freedom Forgotten: Works of Silence and Resistance” sets forth words, images and actions of incarceration earlier and now, of Asians, American Indians, Black, Latinx, White people. And draws others on campus into consideration of how identities and locations create one another: an empty hoodie floats over pastoral calm; a carved book insinuates words by incarcerated transgendered people between the lines of the DSM-V, where “gender dysphoria” is newly offered as a diagnosis; a sculptured torso is pierced with wire and etched in words and prisoner ID number; text magnified from the minutes of the Student Governance Association exposes racial issues on campus, in counterpoint to images and words that have excluded American Indians, via both education and criminalization.6

In the hours of mounting the exhibit, and in the days of its visibility, skeins stretch between college and prison: invite into consciousness the hauntings of these apparently separate institutions; and in this way gesture–-in what students later describe as a “flash mob exhibit,” “less exhibit than invasion in people’s lives,” “a labor of love”-–welcoming ghosts.7 Later too, students say, Now I have to open up this conversation in my [Chinese/Indian American/conservative] community. The work we do at home has deep emotional ties, I don’t know yet how to do this. We glimpse our own and others’ frightening tenderness, throw up protective gear, pierce the skin and etch ink over and through our scars. Students leave, show up again, for now: Stakes are high.

In our final meetings with our students and their last written reflections about classes, both in jail and on campus, they speak of their own processes, where they will go with this work. Four will return to work in the jail next semester, the decision of one especially surprising, given her report of trauma and even paralysis. Several say they will not return–-this work is too painful and without clear enough benefit. No one says it was easy. And some of it is very hard to listen to: it can be painful, discordant to hear students’ vulnerabilities inside the larger networks of our shared precarity. A few struggle with whether this experience was too difficult, hindered their learning. My co-teachers and I talk with each other about our own struggles: the receptivity and investment, the releasing and reengaging of authority that this kind of teaching has asked of us.

Still, one of our students writes of the day things fell apart inside:

Joie Rose

This was the experience that stood out to me, this was the experience that I will take with me in anything I do after this 360, not just in abolition and prison work, but in my life as an individual, made up of all of the experiences and people and words and lessons and moments I have ever been part of.8

  1. Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso., 2006), 310.
  2. Roger I. Simon and Claudia Eppert, “Remembering Obligation: Pedagogy and the Witnessing of Testimony of Historical Trauma,” Canadian Journal of Education / Revue canadienne de l’éducation 22, 2 (Spring 1997): 178.
  3. abby rose, “Prison Reflection,” December 17, 2015 (6:14 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.
  4. meerajay, “Sunday Post.”
  5. Simon and Eppert, “Remembering Obligation,” 180.
  6. Freedom Forgotten: Works of Silence and Resistance (Some Photos and Commentary),” December 13, 2015 (7:51 a.m.), accessed June 1, 2016. 
  7. Tuck and Rhee, “Glossary,” 654.
  8. Joie Rose, “The Last One (Prison Reflection),” December 15, 2015 (7:45 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.

Resisting, Re-enacting

“We are vulnerable to claims for which there is no adequate preparation”

–Anne’s notes from Judith Butler’s talk

The ghost demands your attention. The present wavers.…a traumatized person or society is stuck in a past that repeats as a present that can never end. I tried to theorize haunting…[as] a demand for a livable future

–Avery Gordon, “Some Thoughts on Haunting and Futurity”

The enactments in the last section ask participants to exercise porosity as they move into and out of personas. The ritual designed by the Alternatives to Violence Project for entering and exiting roles suggests that consciously choosing to set aside the selves we believe we are can create a semblance of safety. But this process can still engender surprises, call up unexpected responses, invite what been unconscious to leak into consciousness. Anna Deveare Smith, who creates performances evoking multiple participants in a complex situation, describes “the obvious gap between the real person and my attempt to seem like them. I try to close the gap between us but I applaud the gap between us.” In this space, she works with the “uneasiness we have about seeing difference displayed,”1 as a gap of vexation, provocation, learning.

Part of what makes enactments powerful is their unsafety: the dialectical tension between intentionality and the triggering of the unconscious can evoke other times and places, move into re-enactment and out of control. When wounds open and leak into consciousness, the brain can call up traumatic memories, display these as if real. It is critical–and difficult–to create a pause, hold the space between conscious and unconscious, recognize the wounding as not current and open up room for learning in the present moment.

Such questions take on a particularly strong valence when college students and faculty enter a prison to facilitate and participate in a book group with women who are incarcerated. In crossing the boundary between outside and inside, between “students,” “faculty,” and “inmates,” we enact roles other than those of our accustomed selves. In the course of this enactment—less formal, and not signaled as such—a session fragments, falls apart. The experience leaks into re-enactment for various of us in various ways. We try to learn from the cracks that open within and among us.

Fifteen students take linked courses with three professors in a 360° cluster called “Arts of Resistance,”2 which also involves a praxis placement at a women’s correctional facility. At least two of the students describe themselves as having dis/abilities, three as having variant gender identities. At least a quarter use trauma-related language and stories to describe their experiences as members of their racial/ethnic/cultural groups; at least a third identify themselves as having experienced personal trauma.

How much of what happens is about how the intimate structure and intense engagements of the 360° invite more disclosure, more leakage, than is usually “allowed” in classrooms? How might revealing such intimate aspects of our lives inspire us to patch up, crack open, allow our experiences to bleed into each other’s?

To “create fearlessly, boldly embracing the public and private terrors that would silence us, then bravely moving forward even when it feels as though we are being chased by ghosts”?3 In Danticat’s call to find courage in vulnerability is an intimation of a pedagogy of “moving forward” when we might want to turn and run, guiding us to pause, listen, turn and begin to “imagine…what ghosts might want from us.”4

This is a way of being, learning and teaching that values aliveness and presence, and also risks absence and overwhelmingness; teaching here is not about treading lightly but about bringing radical attention and care.

There are two levels of pat-down as we enter the jail. The first, usually by a woman guard, often one who knows us, often relatively light; the second performed after we’ve gone through the two heavy metal doors that have to be electronically opened, passed the backs of our hands under ultraviolet light to verify that we have been stamped, handed over our papers and books. This second pat-down is less predictable, more often performed by a male guard, more insistent, more disruptive for our students.

He felt my boobs, he asked if I was wearing a bra and told me to put one on.

Because it was a guy and it brought everything back. I was upset the whole time we were there and after, I didn’t want to go back.

My breath was coming too fast, and I couldn’t breathe.

The pedagogical decision to take young people into jail is fraught. Places are pedagogy, and this is a place of horror, of assault. Students choose this placement as part of their college experience; and yet, do they know what they’re choosing, really? When the passage itself is so troubling? As Alice Goffman reminds us, in this country the passage into adulthood is burdened, differentially precarious: college for some, prison for others.5

When we make the decision to offer jail as an option for young people in college, we confirm and confound those forked paths.

Students’ earlier experiences of trauma leak into the jail classroom. One recalls: “It was to relinquish bodily autonomy to the hands of someone who I didn’t know, so they could pat me down and deem me and my peers and professors ‘non-threatening.’ It was watching my peers being frisked and feeling helpless to stop it, and knowing that I was next. …getting in was harrowing almost every time.”6 Weeks in, the appearance of a particular male officer in the entry area reminds them of their abuser. Sometimes during class they go numb, disconnect; later, when we are talking in our college classroom about what has gone on there, they realize that they don’t remember. My friend with expertise in trauma talks to me about disassociation. I discuss options with the student: the possibility that they not go in, that they try tracking the class by writing. They try this, and begin to remember.

From our first passage inside, our group confronts the ambiguity of who we are in relation to mass incarceration, and to the women inside. While none of us has been imprisoned, we are also different from each other in our relationship to incarceration. One of us is haunted by a psychic assault from a correctional officer, who tells her not to forget that as a Black woman she too could find herself inside “wearing the blue.” Others struggle with their privilege, including seeing officers as protectors. Some students describe feeling “relaxed,” “freer” during jail sessions than on campus. There’s less expected of them there, away from college demands, and too they may expect less of those inside–a monstrosity we name. “When you are not the ‘monster’ in prison, you can forget that you’re the monster surviving life by stepping over those other lives to get your morning coffee.”7

More than halfway through the semester, one of the professors and many of our students are given a tour of the correctional facility. This makes freshly palpable the atrocity of imprisonment, the separation of “us” from “them”:

The Unknown

Whenever a person wearing an orange jumpsuit, or blue- hospital-looking clothing walked by, the warden stopped, instructed a guard to escort that person around us, seemingly trying to cut-off all natural and desperate communication between the people wearing the jumpsuits and those who had the privilege to study them.8

One afternoon we are up in the Education section of the jail, waiting for the people in the class to be sent from their units. I’ve gone down the hall to check with the CO on duty, and a student follows me out, they’re breathing hard and fast, in the midst of a panic attack, I ask, should we leave the jail? But outside our area, beyond one of four sets of electronically locked doors, they see the male officer who evokes their abuser. A tiny room, the library, empty and open, and we go in. We sit. Talk about him a minute, then about making things with clay and paint, about feeling materials with our hands. Their breathing slows, and we re-enter the classroom, where on this day women arrive in a kind of tumble of chaos, upset, resistant to the representation of prison life in our text. It is the hardest session we’ve had. We open, some of us, like a wound–raw, leaking–while others shut down, pull back. (And yet on this day too, a bond happens between a college student and an incarcerated student, who for the first time stays in the room for the whole session.)

We are discussing Brothers and Keepers, John Wideman’s memoir about the life and imprisonment of his younger brother, Robby. The college student who opens the class uses the word “escape” three times, in as many sentences, to describe the pressure put on both Robby and John to leave Homewood, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where they grew up. My shoulders tighten with associations about which neighborhoods are presumed “bad,” needing “escape.” Although John writes about Robby and about their relationship, and includes Robby’s own words, several object that it’s John’s story. Robby’s gone missing.

We miss too. We can’t get going on a conversation, a single speaker revving up. When the student facilitators break us into two groups, one to talk and one to write, the first is dominated by a woman haunted by her drug usage, telling her story–perhaps in relation to Robby’s—over and over, on a loop. The writing group also splinters, with a woman, usually engaged, first withdrawn today, then talking, weeping to the huddle around her.

Later one of our students describes this woman haunted by the act of “protection” that now separates her from her children; describes too her own effort to connect, her feeling of helplessness, and the intervention of “Christal,” an incarcerated student:


“Liana” came in…and seemed visibly distressed. She took a seat next to me and…said that she was “depressed today” and preferred not to write, instead sitting quietly. I asked her if she wanted to go outside and talk…Her eyes filled with tears as she began describing her children to me…She showed me a photograph of two of them, all milk-teeth innocent smiles and wondering eyes making funny faces for the camera. She whispered so softly that I could barely hear her, about how painful it was to be away from them, to be unable to mother them. “Horrible things happen in the world. Rape happens, people hurt other people… I was only protecting what was mine. I feel like I repented enough. I’m trying to leave everything to Him”–she pointed at the Bible in in her arms–“but it’s so hard.” I tried to think of something, anything substantial to say…but what could possibly alleviate the pain? I settled for just squeezing her hand as tightly as I could. I told her that her feelings mattered, and she was important, that she would always be a mother to her children…

And then Christal joined us…her first reaction was the polar opposite of mine. “I get where you’re coming from, but crying isn’t helping you. Indulging isn’t helping you. When we’re here, we lose a little bit of ourselves every day. We can’t be whole. But giving into that is not the way to go. You have to do what you can to live while you’re here. You can’t give up. Crying won’t do anything for you right now.”

Class ended at that moment. Liana, still brimming with tears, had to get up. I let go of her hand, gave her a long hug.

In this world, on the outside, sometimes we can allow ourselves to fall apart. We do not have the threat of constant surveillance on us, the shame that comes from it.…If the women in prison allowed themselves to succumb to the intensity of their feelings, they would fall apart, and it would happen in shame, without privacy. The most that they can do is pull themselves together, even repress their emotions, carry on. They risk losing even the small pinch of humanity that prison allows them, the last bit of honor that they have left. “Let go,” Christal kept saying, “crying doesn’t help. Nothing helps except moving forward.”9

Our student’s acceptance of Christal’s response as more attuned to Liana’s current experience highlights her sense of not-knowing, of control leaking away. The session ends feeling so chaotic and unhappy that we can’t even debrief as we leave, taking the class into our evenings and weekends.

On Sunday another of our students articulates the experience of “losing control…indulging [our] humanness” and, through this, opening up the space for a “defeat” that is also a “delayed triumph”:

Joie Rose

I’m sitting here in Hot House, as I do every Sunday, attempting, as I do every Sunday, to put into eloquence an incredibly complex experience fraught with intense emotion, unwanted analysis that so often feels nothing less than disingenuous, and so many human lives that have no place in this coffee shop. I’m miles away from the prison, days removed from one of the hardest book groups we’ve had yet, and stratospheres away from the lives and experiences we try to fit into that classroom every week. And here I am, sitting in a coffee shop, as college students do, carrying out an assignment, as college students must, and enjoying a slightly overpriced Hot House breakfast that my multiple jobs allow me to indulge in. This analysis, or reflection, has no place in here. It doesn’t fit into this suddenly impossibly small little shop, filled with people pressing hands, mumbling and murmuring light conversations, sharing laughter and anecdotes and histories and human moments that simply don’t exist in the same way at the prison.

But then, isn’t that what was shared in the prison on Friday? An incredibly human experience, of failure and breakdown of structure, of raw, vibrant human emotion that we (or at least I) have been so wary of in that space? All of a sudden, the humanity that we have been trying to grapple with in class, attempting to impose and perhaps imagine into that classroom space, came crashing through that room in a way it hasn’t before. Clattering against chairs and tables were personal triumphs and failures, stories that needed to be shared and held, and tears shed, and hands grasped and tissues exchanged, and a chaos that was not at all chaos but unfettered human need at the crux of it all.

I too indulged my humanness this past week. Long held back emotions and fears and histories and harms came barreling at me so violently this Friday that there was nothing else for me to do but let it momentarily wash me away. Perhaps in defeat, perhaps in delayed triumph. For whatever reason, this was the week that I lost the control I had held so tightly to for so long. My front lines were obliterated and my defenses shattered and in the chaos and confusion of that moment I was allowed to be held. And the color returned to my whitened knuckles, and the fists I had clenched for so long relaxed and released in utter exhaustion and acceptance at the loss of the control I had clung to like a rope, dangling me over the abyss, hoping beyond hope that rope would hold and keep me from falling. But I did fall, or maybe I just let go. Maybe it was what I had needed all along.

Maybe the perceived chaos of this last class was what we needed to fully acknowledge what it is that we are doing. Not our purpose necessarily but the physical and practical aspects of the fact that we are going into a medium security prison and engaging in conversation on difficult topics with individuals that we would most likely never interact with in our daily lives. And in acknowledging our privilege, and in talking and talking and musing and analyzing and reflecting about the imbalances and injustices and structures and theorists and theories, we constructed a sense of control that we never really had or deserved. I think that illusion was broken this past week. And I think that’s okay.10

I talk with my husband, a therapist, who reads the session similarly: for awhile people struggle to bring their least neurotic, most highly functioning selves into a group, trying to be the self they want to appear as, to be, but in the approach to intimacy, in the search for acceptance of our whole selves: the reveal. I begin to see the session less as a disaster, more as leakage between the conscious and the unconscious, a testament to the intimacy of the group. Especially in such a tightly controlled space where we released some controls. What now? I say, wanting to believe. And glimpsing too how what happens in jail clarifies the pulsing of vulnerability and resistance in our college classrooms.

Even as things “fall apart,” a student’s post reminds our group of connections:


Book group yesterday felt discombobulating, frustrating, and important.…I got into a conversation with one of the women about Brothers and Keepers. It was hard for her to focus on the book, she explained, because it hit so close to home. The narrative and description of the prison in the story led her mind to wander to her own impending release next February, and how she was committing to change her actions so she wouldn’t be returning to the prison for the fourth time. This turned into a conversation about her crime, which transformed surprisingly naturally into a conversation about my life. “Do you have a boyfriend?” she asked. I hadn’t been asked this question in years–and when I explained why, she laughed, insisting that she didn’t want to assume anything but it was “pretty obvious.” Suddenly excited, she hurried out of the room and returned with pictures of her girlfriend–“See, doesn’t she look like a boy, like you??”…Now, outside of class for a day, I’m still grappling with my gut feeling that that conversation was all that really mattered. I know that we came into the prison with educational purposes to some extent, intending to focus on reading and writing. But I can’t help but feel like those are only useful in our case in the gateways they provide into personal and honest conversation and moments of connection.11

Tuesday I open class with excerpts from these posts. As we begin to process all this emotionality and uncertainty, a number of us admit to anxiety about going back inside; we consider leaving Brothers and Keepers behind.

But the next Friday in jail we return to a short, rich discussion of this text, shaped by a woman inside: she focuses our attention on a passage in which the author describes the men inside in terms of their predatory gaze at his adolescent children; she argues that his language reveals that it is he who is the sexual predator. We are none of us all or only what we seem. We write and share poems about “Where I’m From,” putting forth selected aspects of our selves. Anne points out that we are focusing on positive, even nostalgic memories, rather than fuller, harsher versions of our stories. There’s uncomfortable laughter. Are we still performing “best selves”? Several of us begin again.

In the theater of the prison we enact the unlikely possibility of connection: As college professors and students seek to become more than ourselves, to reach for selves that are braver, more expansive in a place that may feel frightening and foreign (even if also, sometimes, paradoxically relaxed and freer); to connect with human beings there. Women who are incarcerated, for the first or many times, headed home or upstate, with more or less support for surviving on the “outside,” and more or less experience with college, also seek to become more than themselves, to reach for selves that are braver, more expansive, to connect with professors and students who enter and stage this space as a college classroom. Although not named in these terms, this too is an enactment, in which we are susceptible to re-enactments arising from our own lives and our readings, writings, talk, and physical presence together. And in the space between enacting and reenacting, between known and unknown selves and others, leakage can startle and unbalance us, spark fear and also deep inquiry in its unforeseen textures and bleed-throughs.


  1. Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror (New York: Anchor, 1993): xxxvii-xxxviii.
  2. Arts of Resistance.” 360° Cluster, Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2015, accessed June 1, 2016.
  3. Edwidge Danticat, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (New York: Vintage, 2010), 148.
  4. Les Back, “Haunted Futures: A Response to Avery Gordon,” Borderlands 10,2 (2011): 3.
  5. Alice Goffman, “How We’re Priming Some Kids for College—and Others for Prison,” TED Talk, March 2015, accessed June 1, 2016.
  6. Joie Waxler, email message to the author, April 16, 2016.
  7. The Pipeline Project, a Work-In-Progress, by Anna Deveare Smith, directed by Anna Deveare Smith, Penn Museum, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, May 5, 2015.
  8. The Unknown, “Locks Don’t Cure; They Strangle–Prison Tour Reflection,” November 14, 2015 (5:39 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016. 
  9. meerajay, “Sunday Post,” November 15, 2015 (5:14 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.
  10. Joie Rose, “Sunday Post,” November 15, 2015 (11:58 a.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.
  11. smalina, “Sunday Post, 11/5 (A little early),” November 14, 2015 (1:49 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.

Tattooing Scar Tissue

Prison teacher Anna Plemons warns educators against a “progress narrative” of teaching and learning, proposing instead that teaching be more like “tattooing scar tissue”: teaching writing especially involves “taking it slow, making design choices that work with the material reality of the landscape, and understanding that some tattoos are meant to hide older skin stories.”1

Plemons uses the human body as a site to talk about writing, where layers of the past bleed through to texture versions of the present; her approach highlights the complicated ways people “make sense of many nuanced, complicated, relational contexts… acknowledge the furrows, folds, and taut patches which co-author meaning.”2 As with the palimpsest, the action and image of “tattooing scar tissue” suggests a teaching process guided by scrutiny and deliberation–some measure of control punctured by elements of inquiry and volatility.

Teaching and learning through enactments similarly involves participants in working with and across our mind and bodyscapes; layering over events, places, people; acknowledging gaps, leakage, hidden stories; inquiring into this messy relationality: tracings and hauntings of the past, silent elisions and splittings of the present, new possibilities.

My colleague’s question about ir/responsible pedagogy shifts, for me, into a query about whether and how pedagogy recognizes and impacts relationships: with living people, also ghosts, places, things. Reorienting this question redirects my attention to powerful bonds within the enacting group, to the relationship between current students and institutional leakage, to hovering, unspoken questions that both preserve and eclipse the distance between international and domestic students, to our connections with airport security, flags, unknown correspondents.

These questions provoke new ones: How might the concerns–of the (white) student about who perceives themselves as part of U.S. racism, of the (Asian) student who reveals her distance from this, and of the (Black) student who exposes her fear in this enactment–bleed into one another, perhaps opening up new ties? In conversation with a friend, I realize too how many of these enactment stories involve Asian students, who are outside the dominant U.S. black-white paradigm; perhaps this also represents a leakage, one that I need to work more deliberately with.

As groups design their performances, enactments allow glimpses of what’s beneath, what gives rise. Teaching toward this vulnerability requires working for students to feel seen and heard, not “safe,” perhaps, but accompanied in shared unpredictability – by me and by each other.

To acknowledge: my questions about how to stay with this work in times of unease and division; my authority that may propel and also inhibit what students choose to risk. And to desire: from tenderness, and from our learning, new connections.


  1. Anna Plemons, “Tattooing Scar Tissue: Making Meaning in the Prison Classroom,” Talk at Washington State University, March 27, 2015, accessed June 1, 2016.
  2. Plemons, “Tattooing.”

Controversy, Raw and Uncivil

The school year began with two seniors from the south blue-taping a Mason-Dixon line across their hallway, then mounting a Confederate flag there, later making it visible outside their dorm room. Their actions catalyzed a storm of campus reactions, media coverage, and in-and-beyond-classroom conversation, and overlap with the non-indictments of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. It was a charged fall.

As Anne tells this story in “Slipping,”1 it ends in December. But now it’s February, and many are not “over it.” In our enactments, one group uses their diverse positions to dramatize the “Confederate flag incident.”

Several of their pre-enactment posts set the stage:


It was the night of parade night when it first occurred, the night when I released that racism and oppression truly exist on my campus.…on the night that we, freshmen, were celebrating the beginning of our college careers; two signs that symbolized African American oppression and degradation existed on this so called “liberal” college.…This event… made me realize that our colleges are a representation of this country that we live in. That “the land of the free and every man is equal”…in reality is just an ideology that helps certain groups feel good about them while keep the minority tranquilized and tolerate what is happening in this county and also in our colleges. 2


[In] a facebook group [about the Confederate flag incident]…thousands of comments from alums (and a few comments from current students) poured in over a number of weeks….Overall, issues of POC safety and historic racism were routinely ignored in favour of…personal attacks or counter-attacks; primarily white voices drowned out the POC voices, and alums spoke over students.3


During the Confederate Flag incident, I was told by a lot of American friends that I should join the protest because I should feel offended. Their saying is not new to me, because it was not the first time since I came to America that people kept telling me I should have been angry and should have taken actions against discrimination. People told me I should not be quiet after I was told a joke about my race, although I found the joke very entertaining myself. I was told to join the protest before I knew what was really going on because I should be offended as a person of color.…It’s not that I will never be offended by racism. I will. But when I’m offended, I think I’m able to tell. And the most hurtful racism is not being joked about my race but being told again and again that I should be easily wounded because of my race.4

Shades are down, a Confederate flag fills a large screen at the front, a blue-taped Mason-Dixon line cuts our classroom in two.

Timeline/Draft of “script”:

  1. Pull up the image of the flag on the projector screen, Damon [Motz-Storey] will lay down tape on the floor as though it’s a Mason-Dixon Line. Damon will stand on one side, and Sarah [Daguio], Farida [Ilboudo], Tong [Tong], and Mina [Reinckens] stand on the other.
  2. Farida will speak about her feelings about seeing the flag
  3. Mina will speak about the alumni’s reactions to the flag
  4. Tong will speak about what it is like to feel obligated to feel offended
  5. Sarah will speak about what it is like to watch everything happening from Haverford’s campus
  6. Damon will speak as though he is a “generic white male,” and read segments from the Clerk articles authored by white Haverford male students about the issue.
  7. Everyone will move toward the center of the room and take up a piece of the tape. Someone will turn off the projector screen.
  8. We will all sit in a circle, as though in a silent vigil.
  9. Damon will stand and read from the senator’s email [hate mail threatening student protesters and valorizing the students who displayed the flag] [SHOULD WE DO TRIGGER WARNING????]
  10. The female students will hold hands then proceed to lie down, like the “die-in”s of Black Lives Matter. Damon will walk away and avert his gaze.
  11. SCENE

Afterwards, unscripted, players converge for a group hug, before taking their seats. The room is hushed. We do not run this twice: We are witnesses to testimony that feels singular. I begin post-enactment comments by asking group members if they want to speak.

Farida Iboudo: It was scary to reenact this Confederate flag incident. I don’t feel safe on this campus–it’s dark and quiet at night, I come from New York City where it’s light and there’s people all the time. Walking alone at night after the email [threatening students on campus] was scary….Reenacting this took me back to all that.

Damon Motz-Storey: I had such a feeling of separation and vulnerability across the Mason-Dixon line while we were up there. Really needed to hug my group when it was over.

Tong Tong: It was hard for me to share this, I’ve had trouble with this since I came here, people telling me how to feel about who I am.

Others add their perspectives, speak immediately not as theorists, but themselves:

But shouldn’t she have gone to the demonstration even if she didn’t connect with the issues? People should learn about the flag and its relationship with racism, with lynching. Innocent people died because of that flag. Learn about it, march, and have that response now.

I agree…but if it’s not bringing up constructive emotions, you shouldn’t feel forced to go! We can’t go to an extreme, excluding experiences from the conversation.

 You always have to consider what your place is in a movement.

Tong is now quiet, perhaps surprised to have taken this risk and then be called out just as she’d feared. The other student continues: there are really no excuses not to participate in this protest; perhaps she is not surprised to find herself once again taking a hardline position that seems to push away students of color.

A mental, emotional adrenaline freezes us, in various states of intimacy, alliance, wariness, disaffection, as my next class drifts in, backs out again. Wanting to intervene in many ways at once, I do not remember what–if anything–I said. In writing about moving classrooms “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces,” Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens recommend “controversy with civility,”5 but this very interconnected space feels raw, uncivil. This enactment has leaked through the boundaries that structure the exercise. I am moved and shaken; deeply uncertain about how we move on through the very dangers we have been studying.

After break and through the semester, this enactment remains, seeping into the woodwork and discomfiting us with a stain that is yet elusive, an edge of threat discernible in sudden raised voices, silences. My experience of this classroom, haunted by the absence of black servants and students of color, now further twisted as I host classes that also create traces that haunt…

  1. Chapter 8, Slipping
  2. WhoAmI, “Parade Night,” February 1, 2015 (5:37 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.
  3. Mina, “Bryn Mawr Bigotry,” February 1, 2015 (1:52 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.
  4. ttong, “Trust Me, I Can Tell,” February 1, 2015 (3:16 p.m.), accessed June 1, 2016.
  5. Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens, “From Safe Spaces to Brave Spaces: A New Way to Frame Dialogue Around Diversity and Social Justice,” The Art of Effective Faciliation: Reflections from Social Justice Educators, ed. Lisa M. Landreman (Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, 2013), 144, accessed June 1, 2016.


Long post ahead. Short version: if you’re not a person of color (this applies to all of you, not some imaginary person off in the distance), you should rethink engaging with the trauma of people of color, especially in academia and the arts, if you are not ready to hold space for them to engage with or and work through it on their terms. Your terms don’t matter if you are not from that population.

Whitney López, Bryn Mawr ’15

Built like a fortress, Bryn Mawr is maintained through a complex history dependent on the labor of others. A classroom where I often teach is on the second floor of a building named for Joseph Taylor, whose will established a Quaker college for women.1 Constructed of local stone to look like a castle, Taylor Hall is steeped in the mustiness of creased spines and more than a century’s worth of young women exercising their minds. This space is a palimpsest where “traces of the past…bleed through.” I love teaching in this classroom, with its material history tracked in deep splintery wood and tall thin-paned windows, chair rails identified by a student who recognizes what she’s seeing and decodes for others, including me; its old-fashioned closets abetting our connection with worlds beyond: once stacked with blue exam books, now housing various technical aides. But leakage tints these walls, “prior writing ghosted through to the surface.”2

Places are themselves a form of pedagogy: ones that hold and challenge us, although we may not recognize them as such. Elizabeth Ellsworth explains how we experience a place of learning not only in terms of knowledge but also physically, as we rest, pace, laugh, discover: “Our experiences…arise not only out of our cognitive interpretations of the building’s allusions to historical or aesthetic meanings but also out of the corporeality of the body’s time/space as it exists in relation to the building.”3

The call to “unghost” is a methodology for reinscribing stories erased from history. This work nudges me to ask: what to do pedagogically with such ghosted pasts and contemporary manifestations?

In my Taylor Hall classroom, I’ve been experimenting with such allusions and relations by using a strategy of “enactments” with my Multicultural Education students. These dramatic scenarios are complexly layered, moving through textual, bodily and architectural surfaces. Emerging from and across our readings and students’ writings about themselves and others, about the college and other life contexts, this strategy excavates, intervenes in, films over other, older scripts that nonetheless bleed through.

The first day of class I ask the 25 or so students to gather themselves into “diverse” groups of 4-5; we brainstorm dimensions of diversity in the room, and I ask that they include some people they don’t know; groups form through a kind of speed dating. For the next three weeks they write, read, and discuss weekly blog entries in response to this sequence of prompts:

  1. Write and post by Sun. at 5: something that happened in your past (in school, neighborhood, family…) – you were part of it or witnessed or in some way had direct contact with – that troubled/s you, raises questions for you about culture/multiculturalisms/diversity/in relation to equity/in relation to power, even if you’re not exactly sure how. Tell the story in terms of your perspective when it happened; then feel free to add any comments/questions from your perspective now.
  2. Write and post by Sun. at 5: something that happened this year in/around the Bi-Co – you were part of it or witnessed or heard about it (in the air) – that troubled/s you, raises questions for you about culture/multiculturalisms/diversity/in relation to equity/in relation to power. Tell the story in terms of your perspective when it happened; then feel free to add any comments/questions from your perspective now.
  3. Write and post by Wed. at 5: something that happened this week in/around your life, including (but not limited to) the Bi-Co – you were part of it or witnessed or heard about it – that troubled/s you, raises questions for you about culture/multiculturalisms/diversity/in relation to equity/in relation to power. Tell the story in terms of your perspective when it happened; then feel free to add any comments/questions from your perspective now.

After reading and responding online to each other’s entries, the groups use our texts and discussions as lenses for talking further about their stories, evolving issues and crossovers. A few weeks in, I alert them that they’ll be using their entries as source material to develop an “enactment” –a dramatic evocation of a story or composite of stories from their blogs, which will invite the full class to engage in key issues or dilemmas the group has been processing. Groups develop “scripts” and perform for the class for 5-8 minutes: I usually ask them to do this twice. The first time the rest of us watch; the second time we are invited to enter or intervene: as a “thought bubble” by standing behind a character and speaking what we think that character is thinking; as a character, tapping out a player and deliberately shifting the action; or, in the midst of the scenario, calling out “freeze frame” to raise a point of discussion.

As we’re stirring these experientially-based investigations, we’re also reading theorists and educators: Stuart Hall, Ann Berlak, Sekani Moyenda, Paul Gorski, Kevin Kumashiro, Elizabeth Ellsworth.4

After each enactment, I ask the “audience” to speak first from the position of one of the theorists, before speaking as themselves. “Speaking as” another is a way to step away from the person we believe ourselves to be; speaking “as oneself” may then stretch, perhaps even surprise. Prising open a fissure between what we know and who we are can become a site of leakage, of disquiet, of learning, for “enactors” and “audience.”

Enactments involve demanding intellectual and creative work: the performing group has to think hard about the issues they take on and the kinds of questions they want their audience to engage; as audience, class members need to deepen their understandings of theorists to embody them in dialogue with one another; participants prepare, and also deal with the unexpected.

This exercise tends to be highly engaging, to signal and at the same time puncture coherence, to engender troubling moments that unfurl in dining halls and living rooms. Students find themselves writing and sometimes “playing” characters from their lives with whom they don’t share aspects of their identities that feel important to them, or whose perspectives or values might disturb or even horrify them. A white student’s story of her friend group spurs her group’s enactment, and she takes up the role of a character mocking Asian students. Afterwards, she talks about how bad it felt to do this, how she hasn’t been able to shake off “speaking as.”   In enactments, the world leaks into the classroom, the classroom back out into the world, opening up new relationships but also creating raggedy edges with friends or family. In an enactment cutting between quick sketches of a Chinese student’s experiences in college and a series of phone calls with her mother, we witness what she doesn’t share with her mom: a cacophonous cultural remix at the college, then a humiliating body search at the international airport. Soon thereafter, this student stops attending classes. Worried, I reach out, but don’t hear back, and weeks later learn that she’s withdrawn from the college. Not saying this was because of the enactment. But like the dropped ceiling leakage into “a site that is simultaneously a ruin and a remake,”5 enactments hover, bubble, dissolve. Sometimes they call out phantoms that do not easily settle or “appease.” And they call me and my students to bear witness to each other and ourselves in our shared precarity.

Over the years I try out various versions of this activity, learning also that each class and group takes up the project differently. One group addresses the issue of dislocation into another persona by using a strategy from the Alternatives to Violence Project in which characters visibly step into and out of their roles at beginning and end of the enactment.   In one class the “audience” hesitates to jump in and intervene during enactments, preferring instead to locate their probing analytical discussions afterwards; in our debrief at the end of the project, we discuss this as a gesture of maintaining respect for the struggles being represented “on stage”–in doing so, were the students resisting “leakage”? Rather than presuming a “right” way to take up enactments, we acknowledge that this is delicate territory in which we are each and collectively threading our ways; hesitation might constitute a crack in the flow of the plan, a crevice of curiosity.

This year’s class jumps in from the get-go, intervening in planned and unplanned ways and sometimes questioning premises. Their risks rivet and seduce us into moments of disconcerting exposure.

  1. A Brief History of Bryn Mawr College,“ 2016, accessed June 1, 2016.
  2. This Is a Palimpsest (calicult),” analepsis, accessed June 1, 2016.
  3. Elizabeth Ellsworth, Places of Learning: Media, Architecture, Pedagogy (New York: Routledge, 2005), 4.
  4. Stuart Hall, The Multicultural Question(Milton Keynes, United Kingdom : Pavis Centre for Social and Cultural Research, The Open University, 2001.); Ann Berlak and Sekani Moyenda, Taking It Personally: Racism in the Classroom from Kindergarten to College (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001); Paul Gorski, “Working Definition,” Critical Multicultural Pavilion, edited and updated April 14, 2010, accessed June 9, 2016; Kevin Kumashiro, Against Common Sense: Teaching and Learning Toward Social Justice (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2004); Elizabeth Ellsworth, Teaching Positions: Difference, Pedagogy, and the Power of Address (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997).
  5. Tuck and Rhee, “Glossary,” 646.


Vulnerability is intrinsic to our humanity: the human person is contingent and inter-dependent: we are born in a state of total dependency and will die in a state of radical vulnerability –Timothy Kearney, “The Transforming Power of Vulnerability”

Judith Butler begins her work on the possibility of solidarity founded in shared loss and grief with the recognition that to be human is to be vulnerable; to be in relationship and thus susceptible always to “breakage,” to being “undone” by one another. This shared vulnerability–from the Latin “vulnerare,” “to wound, hurt, injure, maim”–cannot be evaded or “willed away”; it emerges from our state of inherent relationality with the world. Even so, Butler acknowledges, “the condition of precarity is differentially distributed”;1 even in our wounding, we are not equal.

How to develop a pedagogy that recognizes and works with these precarious conditions as sites of learning?

Classrooms are spaces where people may choose to take risks with our thinking and feeling; where immersion in words, images, interactions may call up difficult experiences or memories; where trauma of an individual or collective kind might be revisited, perhaps occluding choice. These are spaces haunted by ephemera clinging to walls, texts and exchanges, where “triggers” might touch off re-visitings or new visitations of histories that continue to reverberate in the present.

Linguistically, wounding links vulnerability with trauma. Originally from the Greek, trauma came to signify a “surgical wound,” and then psychic wounding,2 experienced individually or collectively as a response to occurrences so intense and overwhelming that they return often unexpectedly in horrific memories and dreams.

Teachers and learners bring our wounds to the classroom, which is far from hermetically sealed. Recent debates have swirled around “trigger warnings,” the practice of alerting students to material that might re-ignite their experiences of extreme vulnerability or trauma. In Inside Higher Ed, a group of seven humanities professors, including a colleague at Bryn Mawr and another at nearby Swarthmore College, argue that “Trigger Warnings are Flawed”: because teachers cannot know what material will trigger students, content warnings are necessarily incomplete, even misleading, “making promises about the management of trauma’s afterlife that a syllabus…should not be expected to keep.”3 Strikingly, and ironically, this essay shifts the locus of vulnerability from learners to teachers, with the caution that faculty who teach about social injustice are the most likely to be marginalized.

Feminist disability scholar Angela Carter points out that, for those whose lives are impacted by trauma, considering its impact on pedagogy is not a choice. Rather than short-circuiting academic freedom and critical thinking, Carter argues that acknowledging trauma is “an imperative social justice issue” in our classrooms.4 As Alison Kafer notes, “It’s hard to imagine a trauma that is not in some fundamental way attached to relations of power.”5

Recognizing trauma as extreme woundedness that can act to open up or shut down new learning, I acknowledge radical differences among students’ experiences that pose differential challenges to individuals and sometimes to us as a group. I probe this node of systemic oppression, vulnerability, and trauma as un/bounded categories that split and elide, as singular and shared experiences of “radical vulnerability” and interdependence.6

A friend and colleague with expertise in the treatment of trauma asks what happens when my prison classroom triggers difficult, sometimes traumatic responses for incarcerated women, then I leave and they return to their cells. Another friend and colleague notes that this question of “what kind of responsibility one has if one takes up these kinds of radical pedagogies” applies also to our college students: “Are there irresponsible practices that emanate from the pedagogy you embrace?” I’m reaching here to address such real, hard questions, with a pedagogy that both recognizes our radical, shared vulnerability and relationality as inevitable, and draws on these as a source of learning.

  1. Judith Butler, Notes Towards a Performative Theory of Assembly (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2015), accessed June 1, 2016.
  2. Ruth Leys, qted. in Rachel Spear, “’Let Me Tell You a Story’: On Teaching Trauma Narratives, Writing, and Healing,” Pedagogy 4 (Winter 2014), 60.
  3. Elizabeth Freeman, et al., “Trigger Warnings Are Flawed,” Inside Higher Ed, May 29, 2014, accessed June 1, 2016.
  4. Angela Carter, “Teaching with Trauma: Trigger Warnings, Feminism, and Disability Pedagogy,” DSQ: Disability Studies Quarterly 35, 2 (2015), accessed June 1, 2016.
  5. Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2013), 18.
  6. Timothy Kearney,The Transforming Power of Vulnerability,” Irish Theological Quarterly78, 3 (August 2013): 245, accessed June 1, 2016, doi: 10.1177/0021140013484429

Wading into Dark Waters

Moscow, Idaho in June: it is very hot, even at night, not air-conditioned in the dorm where I’m staying for an environmental humanities conference. I’m thinking: fans. On a bright Saturday afternoon, I get a call from my husband in Philadelphia: it’s pouring here, he says, watching a leak track across the second floor ceiling. As he arranges pots underneath, we hit a panic note as homeowners: what if the ceiling collapses in our new home?

A leak in the roof brings on a special kind of attendance and anxiety: a reminder that the outdoors is always potentially indoors, the elements never truly at bay. If you don’t do something and soon, the ceiling softens and the leak spreads; water always finds a way through.

This everyday worry permeates the installation series Dark Waters, C. Rhee’s response to Hideo Nakata’s Japanese horror film of that title:

My art installation…began as a carefully placed drip from my studio ceiling, at the time located in a trailer (the sort used in overcrowded public schools) on a university campus. The moment water seeped through the ceiling, the leak marked the school site as an everyday space of possible horror and dysfunction. Constructed yet also really seeping water, the leak caused visitors to question whether the space was an artwork or a living, breathing problem. It was this disturbance of certainty into openings for horror and anxiety that became the heart of the Dark Water works.1

The persistence of this leakage, the deliberately evoked unease about whether it is “artwork or a…problem” play on a disquiet we work hard to keep at bay: the impossibility of fully knowing, containing, controlling our worlds, our immediate surrounds, ourselves.

The concept of leaking evokes these differentially situated vulnerabilities, an image of environmental threat and a historical repository for remnants that do not disappear, even as we hurry to plug or patch them over, trying to protect boundaries, to cordon off a separate, coherent self.   As evoked in this book, learning demands a different scenario: happens not in containers but in gaps, cracks, places of leakage, in the spaces between our actions and our conscious understandings, where who we think we are and what we think we know recedes, maybe even dissolves—and so opens unexpected portals in our psyches and our relationships: enticing, and dangerous. Rhee’s installation helps me think about academic institutions as spaces where borders do not hold: the outside cannot be kept out, the visitor too involved with the leakage; where, as a Black man puts it to white teachers, “if I am not what I’ve been told I am, then it means that you’re not what you thought you were either!”2

Half a century later, in a letter to his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates again highlights the false, dangerous belief in boundaried selves by repeating the phrase, “people who believe they are white”3 Leakage beads through the cracks in classrooms, in colleges visibly riven at this moment when young people here and across the country are calling out the hauntings of these spaces, buildings named for those identified as racists, colonizers: how is it possible to teach in, of, about these ambiguous and haunted spaces–for all students and for social justice?

In their “Glossary of Haunting,” Tuck and Rhee probe the nature of haunting, warn us to resist “righting wrongs.” As an educator, I take this personally:

Haunting lies precisely in its refusal to stop. Alien (to settlers) and generative for (ghosts), this refusal to stop is its own form of resolving. For ghosts, the haunting is the resolving, it is not what needs to be resolved. Haunting aims to wrong the wrongs, a confrontation that settler horror hopes to evade.4

I am struggling with how to teach to and for students in varying positions in relation to settling and colonialism, vulnerability and trauma. Without the seduction of trying to “right wrongs,” what might it mean to teach for social justice? Tuck and Rhee unsettle even this question: “Social justice is a term that gets thrown around like some destination, a resolution, a fixing.…The promise of social justice sometimes rings false, smells consumptive, like another manifest destiny.”5

In this chapter, I reflect on how the concept of leaking might help me and others, pedagogically, to work from and with students’ and our own vulnerabilities; to use the often unwelcome seeping through of what we don’t know and may well fear as a font for learning; and, in light of this, to reconsider what we teach for.

Metaphorically, political leaks show us how leakage can exacerbate fragmentation within communities, even as new possibilities emerge. Geologically, boulders split by ice allow water to seep in and freeze, shattering the core. Not often [ever?] desired, leaks are inevitable; dangerous, disruptive, potentially transformative.

I look at these processes in teaching and learning, first through “enactments” in a Multicultural Education class, then through a session in a prison and its aftermath back on the college campus. In each of these spaces boundaries are asserted, riven, realigned, sometimes opening the way for deeper engagements, sometimes demanding a fortitude that some among us – students and teachers – may not have, at least individually. Leakage into pedagogy is also in play here, as I and my co-teachers look to diffuse authority while also finding ourselves taking it up in unexpected ways.

Throughout, I explore what kinds of learning can happen in “a site that is simultaneously a ruin and a remake, is haunted and haunting, is horrific and very plain…”6 Where a “ruin” might become a “remake.”

  1. Eve Tuck and C. Rhee, “Exemplar Chapter 33: A Glossary of Haunting,” in Handbook of Autoethnography, ed. Stacey Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams and Carolyn Ellis, 639–658 (Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press, 2013), June 1, 2016.
  2. James Baldwin, “A Talk to Teachers,” 1963, rpt. The Price of the Ticket, Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985 (New York: Saint Martins Press, 1985), accessed June 1, 2016. 
  3. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).
  4. Tuck and Rhee, “Glossary,” 642.
  5. Tuck and Rhee, “Glossary,” 647.
  6. Tuck and Rhee, “Glossary,” 646.

Unbinding Time

“Life + art is a boisterous communion/communication with the dead. It is a boxing match with time”

Jeanette Winterson,Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

[image] caption: A tire, looped and twisted in a shape resembling a three-dimensional figure-eight, sits on a concrete surface. Each loop intersects with the other, forming a three-pointed structure.

Matt Johnson, “The Shape of Time,” 2009.

What does time look like? I think of two hammocks, one an individual human can feel on the body, and one vast….Universe as hammock? The holding and the mesh and mold ability seem key.

Alice Lesnick, E-mail

Consider, for a moment (what is a moment?), these three images—one visual, two verbal—each replacing the inexorable “train track” of linear time, and its anxious measurement in school settings, with the possibility of communicating with the past (and future?). Visualize, for a moment (what is a moment?), the enabling vision of a “loopy” universe. Or of one molded to us and holding us up. Or—even better—moldable by us to (better) sustain us all. Re-visualize, for a moment (what is a moment?), the time in which we are teaching and learning, not only as sequential but also as iterative, not only as measured but also as experienced, not only as outer but also as inner. Imagine, for a moment (what is that moment?), a form of education that is less driven by the clock, less bound by the conventional rituals of school time.1

“Timing clearly enters into the measurement of educational achievement…through the numerous forms of timed testing in which performance is evaluated in relation to material grasped in a specific segment of time….the quality of reflection is conditioned by its temporal organization, and so, too, is the quality of imagination”

Hope Jensen Leichter, “A Note on Time and Education”

A review of the past several decades of publications in Teachers’ College Record turns up very few articles that acknowledge, as Hope Leichter did in 1980, the way in which “all educational experience…is organized in time.” Leichter’s observations, that the “assumptions about time and timing” that “pervade educational theory and practice” “often remain unexamined,” and “alternative modes of temporal organization ignored,”2 remain as true now as they were when she conducted her study over thirty years ago.

The adoption of business values and practices in educational administration has been extensively documented in Raymond Callahan’s classic study of Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which denounces the latter as an “inadequate and inappropriate basis for establishing sound educational policy,”3 and accordingly recommends changing the nature of graduate work in educational administration. Our own very compatible intervention involves re-thinking the role of standard “time” in education writ large.

U.S. educators long ago turned to factories as a model for designing schools;4 the newly technologized, standardized, and purportedly “objective” testing regime has more recently given rise to subject-specific chunks of time, administered to students in age- and ability-specific groupings.5 In now bringing this particular—and profoundly disabling—dimension of educational practice into focus, we challenge the belief that the purpose of education is to turn out children at a standard pace, with a measurable set of skills. Current education policies such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top demonstrate the persistence and intensification of narrowly quantifiable learning and measurable results. These days, the only learning that counts is countable. The drumbeat of “time on task” and measurable achievement locks students into a system in which one very particular kind of productivity is maximized.6 These procedures are of course not limited to K-12 institutions. Ellen Samuels explains, for instance, that graduate student education at the University of California at Berkeley “is structured by an administrative construct called, with no hint of irony, ‘normative time,’ referring ‘to the amount of time it takes ideally for a student in a particular discipline to complete a doctoral degree.’”7 Alison Kafer has also more recently challenged the normative and normalizing expectations of pace and schedule by evoking a “resistant orientation” to “productivity, accomplishment, efficiency.”8

We join Samuels and Kafer in our argument that the heavy drivers of time and a narrowly productive status quo fail to match the complex world we learn and live in.

In 1931

–eighty-one years ago–

Salvador Dali etched his final strokes on La persistència de la memòria…

And so we recommend some alterations in educational practice—as well as in discursive form (you’ll begin to notice now a few of our poetic experiments, interspersed in this text, in slightly smaller font, in hopes of interrupting the “flow” of things….)

“What would academia look like if we built in more interstices, more time when ‘nothing’ happened?”

—Margaret Price, “Ways to Move”

“…the aim is to slow down…truly theoretical reflection is possible only if thinking decelerates…finding anomalies, paradoxes, and conundrums in an otherwise smooth-looking stream of ideas”

—Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature

“Slowing down,” learning to teach and learn in what Thomas Berry calls more “comprehensive dimensions of space and time,” (Thomas Berry, “A New Story.“ The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 123-137.[/ref]

…the three withering clocks were thought

are thought

to be a symbol of the unconscious,

its violent collapse between




we here interrogate the “time-bound”: our academic attachment to conventional understandings and measurements of time, and of its concomitant anxieties. In educational practice, suspending modern temporality

…the arrows begin to waver;

7:55 grows


means questioning our attachment to the clearly demarcated limits of conventional, linear time, which moves only—and quickly!—in one direction, in order to be measured, and to enable us to measure ourselves against one another.

no longer fixed and pointed,

but adaptable,


Our work with Bryn Mawr’s Active Minds has made it clear to us that such time-based measures of achievement are problematic, as is our attachment to an understanding of time that undergirds such measurements.

…saturated within this liquifying temporality

the Coast of Catalgonia


We need a more relaxed, hammock-like way of thinking about what happens in educational practice, one in which the shared time we occupy in classrooms gives “space” to a more capacious sense of phenomenological time, one in which past, present and future are intertwined.

Joseph Cambone, one of the few educational researchers who has written about the effect of time in school reform, observes that “time is largely a collective subjectivity—an agreed-upon convention that allows us to structure our lives temporally.” We need to place ourselves in the same place at the same time; we need to be “on time” so we can be together “in time.” Given the extent of such arrangements, “to restructure people’s time,” as Cambone acknowledges, “is actually to restructure their thinking and being.”9

Re-structuring our shared subjectivity in this way would involve “re-doing” our conception of time in ways that acknowledge what we all know, but continually forget: that the most profound experiences of our educational lives happen “outside” measured time, moving freely across the dimensions we conventionally distinguish as “past” and “future.”the most profound experiences of our educational lives happen “outside” measured time, moving freely across the dimensions we conventionally distinguish as “past” and “future.”

…the horizon caves in and our sense of futurity softens to a miry

evanesce & v a p o r …

Reading texts written hundreds of years ago, or speculating about future possibilities, we continually cross the borders of the conventional rituals of school time, those “strong boundaries” of the socio-temporal that demarcate “the beginning and endings of periods, school days, and school years.”10

…time, like the melting Camembert cheese that inspired Dali’s art, becomes s p o i l e d …

Cambone asserts that such boundaries “cannot be transgressed without incident.”11 It is our counter-assertion that the most profound academic work is actually constituted by such transgressions, emerging through temporal leaps, beyond standards, beyond measured expectations.

“The point is to go against the grain of dominant, normative ideas….the only ethical option…is critical and self-critical….the guiding slogan is: ‘not afraid of nonidentity’”

—Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature 

“So I read on. And I read on, past my own geography and history, past the founding stories….The great writers were not remote….Time is not constant and one minute is not the same length as another”

—Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? 

Many disability studies scholars include time in their systematic “cripping” of normative assumptions about human experience. “Crip time” has several different meanings: the term has been used to describe “pre-programmed” time, the sort of scheduling that seems entirely overwritten “with other people’s voices.”12 It has also been used, contrariwise, and much more extensively, to signal interventions into such programming: accommodations, “a flexible standard for punctuality,” the need for “extra time”13—although negotiating such accommodations is always “tricky against the normative ebbs and flows of legitimated knowledge production.”14

The concept of “crip time” could also conceivably be used in a third sense, to identify the possibility—the profound need—for some time that (as an anonymous reviewer of this essay observed) is “just plain wasted…sometime we are just ‘doing time’—in depression, in illness, in times when there is nothing really beyond surviving to do.” Although the field of disability studies has evoked, and advocated for, the variability of “crip time,” it has not wrestled directly (so far as we know) with this notion of wasting time. Like the women’s movement, and the women’s colleges like Bryn Mawr that emerged from it, the disability movement seems particularly, and somewhat paradoxically, invested in a narrative of “overcoming” particular impairments, in order to be taken seriously in the academy. The field hasn’t yet offered us, we think, the tools we need to interrupt the narrative of academic achievement, to find a space where nothing happens, to discover gaps in which normative time is ruptured, suspended.we need to interrupt the narrative of academic achievement, to find a space where nothing happens, to discover gaps in which normative time is ruptured, suspended.

And so we gesture, here, toward some of those possibilities that lie in empty and “unproductive” time.

…do the gossamer clocks meld or resist?


or conform?…

”Does the demonstration of coherence indicate a stronger mind?”

—Margaret Price, Mad at School

Does getting your work in on time indicate a stronger mind? (Or: why is punctuality so important?)

Margaret Price has conducted an extensive analysis of the ways in which the academy’s structuring of itself around schedules—placing importance on appointments, deadlines, the completion of timed tasks—excludes and discriminates against those with mental disabilities; she shows how the demands of academia can exacerbate symptoms which may be manageable in a less stressful environment. It is relatively easy for a college to imagine accommodating physical disabilities, Price argues, but much harder for a place that prides itself on mental accomplishment to envision accommodating mental diversity and difference—to adjust, in particular, to the altered pacing that differently minded minds might require.15

As an alternative to current time-based arrangements, Halberstam advocates other temporal models. Her concept of “queer time”—the outcome of “imaginative life schedules, and eccentric economic practices,” of “non-normative logics and organizations” of activity—invites us to imagine “other logics of location, movement, and identification,” to mark out “willfully eccentric modes of being.”16

In 1873, Edward Clarke was concerned that the education of young women would inhibit and threaten the health of generations to come.

…is what is lost in time gained in

an intransigent


In this decade, Halberstam is inviting another generation of young women to break away from “repro-time,” to embrace alternative logics that don’t simply reproduce what has been done before. She thus addresses the two-fold fears of Edward Clarke, that educated women might fail to bear both biological and intellectual fruit. In imagining an education system that does not reproduce old-fashioned understandings of time, and thereby reproduce old divisions among various kinds of “mindedness,” we also attempt to correct both of Clarke’s “mis-conceptions.”

…angular rocks give way to curved conditionings…

We imagine a form of schooled time marked less by tests needing to be passed “in time” and “on time” than by an understanding that we are all “held up by” a hammock-like, loopy, iterative structure.

Can we imagine a college semester that isn’t organized according to conventional temporal logics?

Can we imagine academic time that isn’t organized by semesters?

Schooling restructured in such time might involve a “spiral curriculum,” fostering re-examination of a subject “in different forms at different stages”17 Or perhaps, following GrayandGrey, it will evoke “some other shapes”:18


caption: A pair of images: the left one features two clusters of strings, one labeled “possible pasts,” the other “possible futures”; these are bound together by a single thread labeled “this moment.” The right image shows a field containing small differently-shaped flowers, some looking like bows, others like pinwheels.

In sharp contrast to Edward Clarke’s characterization of the “closed bodily systems” of nineteenth-century women, which contained “only finite amounts of energy,” we’ve been experimenting here with very different representations: of the fluid “self” of the contemporary woman, of her relationship to others in an academic environment, and of the various forms her prose—our prose—might take. We have been trying out what might emerge if we break through the barriers crucial to keeping a system “closed.”

…drip drop,

tick tock…

We have played here with the possibilities opened up by “maddening,” or “montaging,” academic writing, interrupting the conventional, sequential form of argumentation with images, snips of poetry, and quotations, not woven seamlessly into the whole, but rather creating “holes” within it.

Being “transminded,” to our minds, not only refuses the binary of mental health and illness, acknowledging the mutability of a spectrum of identities, the shifting “self,”

…a dissolving persistency

a phase ensconced in v a r i a n c e and


but also invites different forms of “composition” than the conventional representations of “coherence.”19

“I live life in slow motion. The world I live in is one where my thoughts are as quick as anyone’s, my movements are weak and erratic, and my talk is slower than a snail in quicksand…. I communicate at the rate of 450 words an hour compared to your 150 words in a minute—twenty times as slow. A slow world would be my heaven. I am forced to live in your world, a fast hard one…. I need to speed up, or you need to slow down.”

Anne McDonald, “Crip Time”

We have moved from a fictional story about a young woman, maddened over 100 years ago by her efforts to complete her studies at Bryn Mawr, to an alternative tale that re-positions our apprehensions about productivity and achievement within larger temporal arrangements. Edward Clarke was concerned both that women’s intellectual work would be insufficient, and that it would interrupt their ability to reproduce. In the founding of Bryn Mawr, M. Carey Thomas and her cohorts countered that anxious narrative. Now, in a time when it is still a challenge for women to have children and academic careers, we again attempt to re-write that story, querying the disabling effect of temporal demands, in search of a quirkier temporality in which we might all flourish.attempt to re-write that story, querying the disabling effect of temporal demands, in search of a quirkier temporality in which we might all flourish. This more pliant time might include a range of unexpectedly “stretchy” forms: surely more lenient deadlines, but perhaps also more defined structures, for flexible minds that need tighter bounds. For some of us, more open, exploratory configurations would provide finer spaces for flourishing; for others, clearer access to what is needed, and more transparency about expectations, might provide the necessary “mesh,” a much-needed “hammock.”

Setting “madness” in motion has meant our moving words and images around on the page, in demonstration of an open, and “open-minded,” system. Beyond this essay,

…dream in undefinable moments,

inclusive instants,

slivered seconds…

time as a hammock, inherently stretch-y like the “transmind,” offers us dilation, heterogeneity, resistance to rhetoric. “Achievement,” in a world so conceived, needn’t imply completion; it might instead gesture, as we do here, towards what is incomplete, even uncomplete-able….

  1. Cf. Joseph Cambone, “Time for Teachers in School Restructuring,” Teachers College Record 96, 3 (Spring 1995): 517.
  2. Hope Jensen Leichter, “A Note on Time and Education,” Teachers College Record 81, 3 (Spring 1980): 360
  3. Raymond Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency: A Study of the Social Forces that Have Shaped the Administration of the Public Schools (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), viii
  4. Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton, “Schooling: Wrestling with History and Tradition,” Teaching to Change the World, second edition (New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2006), 6, 22.
  5. Oakes and Lipton, “Schooling”; Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education (New York: Basic Books, 2010.
  6. Jean Anyon, “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work,” Journal of Education 162, 1 (Fall 1980).
  7. Ellen Samuels, “Cripping Anti-Futurity, or, If You Love Queer Theory So Much, Why Don’t You Marry It?” (paper presented at the Society for Disability Studies Conference, San Jose, California, 2011.
  8. Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 40.
  9. Cambone, “Time for Teachers,” 513-514.
  10. Cambone, “Time for Teachers,” 517.
  11. Cambone, “Time for Teachers,” 517.
  12. Anne McDonald, “Crip Time,” Anne McDonald Centre, accessed August 28, 2012. 
  13. Crip Time,” Dictionary of American Slang, accessed August 28, 2012.
  14. Borderdwelling, “The Ph.D. and Normative Time,” Brooke’s Blog, July 4, 2012, accessed August 28, 2012.
  15. Price, Mad at School, 25-57.
  16. Halberstam, Queer Time, 1, 6; cf. Samuels, “Cripping.”))

    …do we construe, from this canvas, a disorientation or a consoled contentment?

    …is it a mercurial shifting that whittles this indefinite journey?…

    Our own interrogating—querying, queering, cripping, maddening—of educational time accepts Halberstam’s bid to re-conceptualize what time looks-and-feels like. Of particular use in our attempts to make the academy more welcoming of difference, and more able to acknowledge multiple modes of failure and achievement, is Halberstam’s proposition that we step out of “the logic of capital accumulation,” to live and work “on the edges of logics of…production.”20Halberstam,Queer Time, 7, 10.

  17. Leichter 368).
  18. GrayandGrey, “Some Other Shapes,” March 27, 2009, accessed August 28, 2012.
  19. Cf. McRuer, Crip Theory; Price, Mad at School.

Exploring Alternative Feminisms

“We are all nonstandard”

Lennard Davis, “The End of Identity Politics”

We have nurtured several “transminded” initiatives on our campus over the course of the past few years, each one shifting our understanding of “madness” from an anchored category to a more open, mutable one. Anne first began to engage this dance of disabling achievement in a small Faculty Working Group on Assessment, where a year-long conversation about varieties of academic appraisal and evaluation led to an appreciation of the wide diversity of our students, and multiple discussions about how better to recognize and evaluate their work. Slowly this conversation shifted to imagining educational structures that might allow more space not only for the various modes of student achievement, but also for life’s interruptions and challenges.

Because a recent study of the “campus climate” had made it clear that the portfolio of the ideal Bryn Mawr woman—an ambitious, capable and high-achieving student—emphatically excluded mental illness (and with it multiple, valuable forms of human and academic expression), we began to explore the possibility of bringing a discussion of student mental health to the faculty floor. The Advisory Council to the Faculty Chair thought the topic important—but also dangerous enough that it need to be handled with extreme care.

The prospect of a faculty-wide discussion evoked a range of fears: of naming the problem, of being called to be responsive to and responsible for it, and of making some serious mistakes in trying to respond. In the initial stages of our conversation, the Advisory Council conceptualized “mental illness” as a distinctly medicalized category, encompassing a small number of students whose conditions threaten our shared academic work. Concerned that faculty “don’t like uncertainty,” and did not feel competent to deal with the range of student needs and challenges, the Council proposed that a panel of mental health professionals might advise faculty how to “deal with this kind of diversity,” and so guide our thinking about strategies of inclusion.

It was challenging even to label this topic: saying that we wanted to “address the mental health needs” of our students already framed the conversation as being about a medical problem. Over the course of our planning discussions, however, the Advisory Council became eager to facilitate a process that might help the campus move beyond the paradigm of trying to “fix” those students who are challenged by our classrooms. The productive large-group conversation that eventually ensued in late March 2012 was not framed by the topics of “illness” and “disability,” but presented rather as one in a sequence of discussions about “meeting the needs of our diverse student body.”

Those who teach in classrooms were joined in this conversation by athletics faculty, deans, and staff members from the Health Center and Office of Public Safety. A member of the Graduate School of Social Work prepared us for the conversation by sharing some statistics and offering three frameworks to help us begin thinking specifically about mental illness: we could understand it as a medical issue, the result of biological malfunctioning; as a social construction that serves to maintain the status quo (Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne argue that the culture of schooling creates particular syndromes that then need accommodation1 ); or as “desire-based,” a formulation that replaces the language of “damage” and deficit” with the complexity, contradiction, and self-determination of lived lives.2

We began with writing and then speaking in small groups, before gathering together for a wide-ranging discussion reflecting on what the institution rewards, and at what cost: how to begin talking about ways in which the culture at Bryn Mawr contributes to mental health problems for everyone on campus, including staff and faculty? The distinct identities of the “mentally ill” and the “healthy” began to blur as we considered structures that might better enable us all.

Margaret Price explains that discussions like these often fall into two clearly divided camps, with those personally affected by issues of mental disability set against those concerned with “falling standards” and maintenance of the academy’s drive for “able-mindedness.”3 Our intervention in that distinction meant naming the dialectic in which each “camp” undergirds, and so defines, the other. ”Protecting standards” predicates achievement on the existence of a population who cannot meet those goals; advocating for the “disabled” sets that distinct identity against those who are “enabled.” Both acts of “exclusion” are caught within what Lennard Davis identifies as the “larger system of regulation and signification” which disables us all4—a system that Bryn Mawr faculty and staff will continue to interrogate in the months and years ahead.

Multiple student activities are also aimed at ending the culture of silence and shame surrounding mental illness on campus. This is a particular focus of Active Minds, a national organization, founded in 2000, which now has chapters on over three hundred college campuses.5 In the spring of 2010, when Clare first began serving as one of the co-presidents of Bryn Mawr’s chapter, we could not seem to build up our membership, and our events were poorly attended. We imagined a dynamic and interactive community that could replace the normative public discourse about strength and autonomy with discussions about shared vulnerability, but we were finding it very difficult to talk openly about feeling weak, frustrated, vulnerable, tired, irrational. It seemed to us difficult, if not impossible, to create “mad spaces” amidst the Bryn Mawr culture of achievement.

Bryn Mawr is mostly welcoming to those who are gender variant: a range of identities are explored and celebrated, among friends, in courses and student groups; organizations pertaining to bodily variety, gender identity and sexuality have a large presence on campus. Active Minds had been trying for several years to promote a similarly inclusive environment for all types of minds, but mental illness carries a particular stigma at Bryn Mawr, serving as the shadow side of the strong, independent, and productive women the students are striving to be. Although gender variance may destabilize the traditional notion of a “women’s college,” it does not threaten the image of the “intellectual sister” that is so essential to Bryn Mawr’s vision of itself and others’ vision of it. Raising questions about the mental health costs of this intellectual work complicates this vision tremendously—although we are arguing here that doing so can offer a richer, more creative version of what an “intellectual sister” might mean.

In keeping with the character of Bryn Mawr, where intellectual work is so highly valued, we began connecting activist objectives with more theoretical ones. With Anne as our faculty advisor, we formed a network linking the “top-down” organization of “Active Minds” with the “bottom-up” structure of “The Slippery Brain Sodality,” a group composed of individuals with “brains that change states frequently/rapidly,” who were rethinking existing approaches to stigmatization, cultural dependence, and the very basic contrast of “health” with “illness.”6 We also created a documentary entitled “Stomping Out Stigma,” featuring students and faculty talking about their experiences with mental illness on Bryn Mawr’s campus. Modeling our video after the “Pink Glove Dance,” a YouTube sensation created to raise awareness of breast cancer, we asked each of our participants to wear a silver crown, as they danced in their dorm rooms and shimmied in their offices, physical education classes, and gymnastic practices.

We followed the campus premiere of the documentary with a panel discussion that explicitly aimed to break down the conventional distinctions separating the personal from the theoretical, and mental health from mental illness. The panelists included Anne; another professor who specializes in film studies, and has lived with depression; and two psychologists from our on-campus Child Study Institute. Our conversation centered around the unhealthy demands for performance to which Bryn Mawr holds its students, and the high standards to which these student “Mawrtyrs” hold themselves. We discussed the widespread student culture of “passing” as abled and achieving. One student described the professors as “another species” of “accomplishment and achievement,” who were unable to understand her struggles. We challenged the divisions separating those who achieve from those who fail, the capable from the incapable, the mentally fit from the mentally ill, acknowledging that all of us operate on a spectrum of difficulty and possibility.

Our most successful venture in this regard was an event, suggested by our national organization, called “Post Secret.” Placing a blank index card in each student’s mailbox, asking her to write, draw, or “craft” a secret, we collected over two hundred responses for display in the student center. We were heartened to learn, from a survey we conducted later, that many students felt grateful to have suppressed, often shameful, experiences pulled to the surface, to see what they knew reflected in the words of someone else. In contrast to the closed system of Edward Clarke, our Post Secret project figured an open structure that highlighted multiple forms of mental variety. Each postcard was detached from the person who wrote it, intermingled on the display board with secrets of very different types. The link between behavior and identity was thus disrupted, as was the hierarchy of importance governing the relationship of different secrets to one another. Stories of severe mental illness appeared next to sillier tales; the network of secrets was utterly horizontal in its distribution.


A black poster board, featuring an arrangement of post secrets, in many different shapes and colors, on display in Bryn Mawr’s campus center.

The aesthetic form we created, with postcards separate yet connected, was that of a collage. Halberstam terms this mode “self shattering,” because it models the depth of interdependence and “interbeing” in individual trajectories, and so challenges the “deeply disabling” mode of the self-sufficient individual.7 By connecting all parts, we featured a collective representation, which may have made individual authors of the postcards feel less vulnerable: they could see that these were perturbations they did not have to absorb on their own. The scattered world we put on display illustrated, too, what we mean by the act of “maddening”: unsettling the distinctiveness of dis/ability.

Our understanding of what we accomplished in this project is still incomplete, as are the possibilities that might be opened up by its further iterations. For instance, a student in Anne’s Non-Fictional Prose class, who posed some questions on-line about the viability of the Post Secret initiative, queried the degree to which “anonymity allows the truth, or facts, to become clear.” She troubled in particular the “truth claims” of the display: “I wonder how many of these are true, how many are exaggerated truths for the sake of public recognition/publication”?8 Transforming a “closed system” of shameful secrets into an open form of posting is a means of advocating extension and claiming lateral space. But what other dangers—and possibilities—lie in open networks?

We have learned a lot from our several years working with Active Minds, both about the strong fears that animate any conversations around questions of mental difference and dis/ability on campus, and about our own preferences for activism with a clear theoretical base, which both understands why it is acting, and is savvy about the limitations of that action. We have also recognized our particular investment in forms of activism that refuse to privilege the needs of one group over those of another, and signal as well the instability of any category that we might use to separate ourselves from others. We acknowledge, too, the fluidity of the categories we have used to separate parts of ourselves from other parts: the “capable” from the “mad,” the “achieving” from the “failing,” the enabling from that which disables.

the project of disability studies… has become much more than a mere call for accessibility: not a one-way request, but rather a multiply-positioned, “transminded” exchange. Our largely practical discussions with faculty, as well as our advocacy activities on campus, have certainly complicated the project of disability studies at Bryn Mawr, where it has become much more than a mere call for accessibility: not a one-way request, but rather a multiply-positioned, “transminded” exchange. We are now dreaming together about a more capacious vision of what it might mean for us to create a shared community out of these multiple interacting parts. The cross-disciplinary approach we see emerging is that of community intent on expanding itself, combining creative, literary, educational, political, psychological, sociological, and scientific perspectives.

Some of the actions we envision have a pragmatic dimension: establishing chapters of Active Minds on each of the five “sister” campuses (Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Wellesley, Smith, and Mount Holyoke), with representatives convening each year to discuss past events and plan future ones; reaching out to the first-semester students who are facing the challenge of leaving home; creating a website for this population that not only lists the symptoms of various disorders, and valuable resources for treatment, but also information about the fluidity of identity, as described by disability studies, crip studies, and mad pride activists. We imagine more on-campus events like “The Female Orgasm Project” co-sponsored by Active Minds and Rainbow Alliance (an LGBTQ advocacy group), which showcased the usefulness of conceptualizing our identities as multiple and positively intersecting (“orgasms are good for mental health!”).

Other projects might focus on larger, perhaps-surprising questions, such as the disabling quality of our current conceptions of time. In accord with such possibilities, we turn now to speculate on the degree to which all preoccupation with achievement—itself dependent on futurity—is inherently disabling.

  1. Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne, “Culture as Disability,”Anthropology and Education Quarterly 26 (1995): 323-348.
  2. Eve Tuck, “Suspending Damage: A Letter to Communities,” Harvard Educational Review 79, 3 (Fall 2009): 413.
  3. Margaret Price, “Killer Dichotomies: Ir/rational, Crazy/Sane, Dangerous/Not,” University of Michigan Press Blog, February 14, 2012, accessed August 28, 2012.
  4. Davis, “End of Identity Politics,” 240
  5. Active Minds: Changing the Conversation about Mental Health,” accessed August 28, 2012.
  6. The Slippery Brain Sodality,” June 25, 2009-November 8, 2011, accessed August 28, 2012.
  7. Halberstam, Queer Time, 136, 139.
  8. FatCatRex, “Anonymity, Authenticity and Healing: Secrets of Truth-Telling Revealed,” October 29, 2010, accessed August 28, 2012.