Reclamation Definition Example Essays

Reassigning Meaning

by Simi Linton

(From Simi Linton, Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. (New York: New York University Press, 1998), pp. 8-17.)

The present examination of disability has no need for the medical language of symptoms and diagnostic categories. Disability studies looks to different kinds of signifiers and the identification of different kinds of syndromes for its material. The elements of interest here are the linguistic conventions that structure the meanings assigned to disability and the patterns of response to disability that emanate from, or are attendant upon, those meanings.

The medical meaning-making was negotiated among interested parties who packaged their version of disability in ways that increased the ideas' potency and marketability. The disability community has attempted to wrest control of the language from the previous owners, and reassign meaning to the terminology used to describe disability and disabled people. This new language conveys different meanings, and, significantly, the shifts serve as metacommunications about the social, political, intellectual, and ideological transformations that have taken place over the past two decades.

NAMING OPPRESSION

It has been particularly important to bring to light language that reinforces the dominant culture's views of disability. A useful step in that process has been the construction of the terms ableist and ableism, which can be used to organize ideas about the centering and domination of the nondisabled experience and point of view. Ableism has recently landed in the Readers Digest Oxford Wordfinder (Tulloch 1993), where it is defined as "discrimination in favor of the able-bodied." I would add, extrapolating from the definitions of racism and sexism, that ableism also includes the idea that a person's abilities or characteristics are determined by disability or that people with disabilities as a group are inferior to nondisabled people. Although there is probably greater consensus among the general public on what could be labeled racist or sexist language than there is on what might be considered ableist, that may be because the nature of the oppression of disabled people is not yet as widely understood.

NAMING THE GROUP

Across the world and throughout history various terminologies and meanings are ascribed to the types of human variations known in contemporary Westernized countries as disabilities. Over the past century the term disabled and others, such as handicapped and the less inclusive term crippled, have emerged as collective nouns that convey the idea that there is something that links this disparate group of people. The terms have been used to arrange people in ways that are socially and economically convenient to the society.

There are various consequences of the chosen terminology and variation in the degree of control that the named group has over the labeling process. The terms disability and disabled people are the most commonly used by disability rights activists, and recently policy makers and health care professionals have begun to use these terms more consistently. Although there is some agreement on terminology, there are disagreements about what it is that unites disabled people and whether disabled people should have control over the naming of their experience.

The term disability, as it has been used in general parlance, appears to signify something material and concrete, a physical or psychological condition considered to have predominantly medical significance. Yet it is an arbitrary designation, used erratically both by professionals who lay claim to naming such phenomena and by confused citizens. A project of disability studies scholars and the disability rights movement has been to bring into sharp relief the processes by which disability has been imbued with the meaning(s) it has and to reassign a meaning that is consistent with a sociopolitical analysis of disability. Divesting it of its current meaning is no small feat. As typically used, the term disability is a linchpin in a complex web of social ideals, institutional structures, and government policies. As a result, many people have a vested interest in keeping a tenacious hold on the current meaning because it is consistent with the practices and policies that are central to their livelihood or their ideologies. People may not be driven as much by economic imperatives as by a personal investment in their own beliefs and practices, in metaphors they hold dear, or in their own professional roles. Further, underlying this tangled web of needs and beliefs, and central to the arguments presented in this book is an epistemological structure that both generates and reflects current interpretations.[1]

A glance through a few dictionaries will reveal definitions of disability that include incapacity, a disadvantage, deficiency, especially a physical or mental impairment that restricts normal achievement; something that hinders or incapacitates, something that incapacitates or disqualifies. Legal definitions include legal incapacity or disqualification. Stedman's Medical Dictionary (1976) identifies disability as a "medicolegal term signifying loss of function and earning power," whereas disablement is a "medicolegal term signifying loss of function without loss of earning power" (400). These definitions are understood by the general public and by many in the academic community to be useful ones. Disability so defined is a medically derived term that assigns predominantly medical significance and meaning to certain types of human variation.

The decision to assign medical meanings to disability has had many and varied consequences for disabled people. One clear benefit has been the medical treatments that have increased the well-being and vitality of many disabled people, indeed have saved people's lives. Ongoing attention by the medical profession to the health and well-being of people with disabilities and to prevention of disease and impairments is critical. Yet, along with these benefits, there are enormous negative consequences that will take a large part of this book to list and explain. Briefly, the medicalization of disability casts human variation as deviance from the norm, as pathological condition, as deficit, and, significantly, as an individual burden and personal tragedy. Society, in agreeing to assign medical meaning to disability, colludes to keep the issue within the purview of the medical establishment, to keep it a personal matter and "treat" the condition and the person with the condition rather than "treating" the social processes and policies that constrict disabled people's lives. The disability studies' and disability rights movement's position is critical of the domination of the medical definition and views it as a major stumbling block to the reinterpretation of disability as a political category and to the social changes that could follow such a shift.

While retaining the term disability, despite its medical origins, a premise of most of the literature in disability studies is that disability is best understood as a marker of identity. As such, it has been used to build a coalition of people with significant impairments, people with behavioral or anatomical characteristics marked as deviant, and people who have or are suspected of having conditions, such as AIDS or emotional illness, that make them targets of discrimination.[2] As rendered in disability studies scholarship, disability has become a more capacious category, incorporating people with a range of physical, emotional, sensory, and cognitive conditions. Although the category is broad, the term is used to designate a specific minority group. When medical definitions of disability are dominant, it is logical to separate people according to biomedical condition through the use of diagnostic categories and to forefront medical perspectives on human variation. When disability is redefined as a social/political category, people with a variety of conditions are identified as people with disabilities or disabled people, a group bound by common social and political experience. These designations, as reclaimed by the community, are used to identify us as a constituency, to serve our needs for unity and identity, and to function as a basis for political activism.

The question of who "qualifies" as disabled is as answerable or as confounding as questions about any identity status. One simple response might be that you are disabled if you say you are. Although that declaration won't satisfy a worker's compensation board, it has a certain credibility with the disabled community. The degree and significance of an individual's impairment is often less of an issue than the degree to which someone identifies as disabled. Another way to answer the question is to say that disability "is mostly a social distinction. . .a marginalized status" and the status is assigned by "the majority culture tribunal" (Gill 1994, 44). But the problem gets stickier when the distinction between disabled and nondisabled is challenged by people who say, "Actually, we're all disabled in some way, aren't we?" (46). Gill says the answer is no to those whose difference "does not significantly affect daily life and the person does not [with some consistency] present himself/herself to the world at large as a disabled person" (46). I concur with Gill; I am not willing or interested in erasing the line between disabled and nondisabled people, as long as disabled people are devalued and discriminated against, and as long as naming the category serves to call attention to that treatment.

Over the past twenty years, disabled people have gained greater control over these definitional issues. The disabled or the handicapped was replaced in the mid-70s by people with disabilities to maintain disability as a characteristic of the individual, as opposed to the defining variable. At the time, some people would purposefully say women and men with disabilities to provide an extra dimension to the people being described and to deneuter the way the disabled were traditionally described. Beginning in the early 90s disabled people has been increasingly used in disability studies and disability rights circles when referring to the constituency group. Rather than maintaining disability as a secondary characteristic, disabled has become a marker of the identity that the individual and group wish to highlight and call attention to. In this book, the terms disabled and nondisabled are used frequently to designate membership within or outside the community. Disabled is centered, and nondisabled is placed in the peripheral position in order to look at the world from the inside out, to expose the perspective and expertise that is silenced. Occasionally, people with disabilities is used as a variant of disabled people. The use of nondisabled is strategic: to center disability. Its inclusion in this chapter is also to set the stage for postulating about the nondisabled position in society and in scholarship in later chapters. This action is similar to the strategy of marking and articulating "whiteness." The assumed position in scholarship has always been the male, white, nondisabled scholar; it is the default category. As recent scholarship has shown, these positions are not only presumptively hegemonic because they are the assumed universal stance, as well as the presumed neutral or objective stance, but also undertheorized. The nondisabled stance, like the white stance, is veiled. "White cannot be said quite out loud, or it loses its crucial position as a precondition of vision and becomes the object of scrutiny" (Haraway 1989, 152). Therefore, centering the disabled position and labeling its opposite nondisabled focuses attention on both the structure of knowledge and the structure of society.

NICE WORDS

Terms such as physically challenged, the able disabled, handicapable, and special people/children surface at different times and places. They are rarely used by disabled activists and scholars (except with palpable irony). Although they may be considered well-meaning attempts to inflate the value of people with disabilities, they convey the boosterism and do-gooder mentality endemic to the paternalistic agencies that control many disabled people's lives.

Physically challenged is the only term that seems to have caught on. Nondisabled people use it in conversation around disabled people with no hint of anxiety, suggesting that they believe it is a positive term. This phrase does not make much sense to me. To say that I am physically challenged is to state that the obstacles to my participation are physical, not social, and that the barrier is my own disability. Further, it separates those of us with mobility impairments from other disabled people, not a valid or useful partition for those interested in coalition building and social change. Various derivatives of the term challenged have been adopted as a description used in jokes. For instance, "vertically challenged" is considered a humorous way to say short, and "calorically challenged" to say fat. A review of the Broadway musical Big in the New Yorker said that the score is "melodically challenged."

I observed a unique use of challenged in the local Barnes and Nobles superstore. The children's department has a section for books on "Children with Special Needs." There are shelves labeled "Epilepsy" and "Down Syndrome." A separate shelf at the bottom is labeled "Misc. Challenges," indicating that it is now used as an organizing category.

The term able disabled and handicapable have had a fairly short shelf life. They are used, it seems, to refute common stereotypes of incompetence. They are, though, defensive and reactive terms rather than terms that advance a new agenda.

An entire profession, in fact a number of professions, are built around the word special. A huge infrastructure rests on the idea that special children and special education are valid and useful structuring ideas. Although dictionaries insist that special be reserved for things that surpass what is common, are distinct among others of their kind, are peculiar to a specific person, have a limited or specific function, are arranged for a particular purpose, or are arranged for a particular occasion, experience teaches us that special when applied to education or to children means something different.

The naming of disabled children and the education that "is designed for students whose learning needs cannot be met by a standard school curriculum" (American Heritage Dictionary 1992) as special can be understood only as a euphemistic formulation, obscuring the reality that neither the children nor the education are considered desirable and that they are not thought to "surpass what is common."

Labeling the education and its recipients special may have been a deliberate attempt to confer legitimacy on the educational practice and to prop up a discarded group. It is also important to consider the unconscious feelings such a strategy may mask. It is my feeling that the nation in general responds to disabled people with great ambivalence. Whatever antipathy and disdain is felt is in competition with feelings of empathy, guilt, and identification. The term special may be evidence not of a deliberate maneuver but of a collective "reaction formation," Freud's term for the unconscious defense mechanism in which an individual adopts attitudes and behaviors that are opposite to his or her own true feelings, in order to protect the ego from the anxiety felt from experiencing the real feelings.

The ironic character of the word special has been captured in the routine on Saturday Night Live, where the character called the "Church Lady" declares when she encounters something distasteful or morally repugnant, "Isn't that special!"

NASTY WORDS

Some of the less subtle or more idiomatic terms for disabled people such as: cripple, vegetable, dumb, deformed, retard, and gimp have generally been expunged from public conversation but emerge in various types of discourse. Although they are understood to be offensive or hurtful, they are still used in jokes and in informal conversation.

Cripple as a descriptor of disabled people is considered impolite, but the word has retained its metaphoric vitality, as in "the expose in the newspaper crippled the politician's campaign." The term is also used occasionally for its evocative power. A recent example appeared in Lingua Franca in a report on research on the behaviors of German academics. The article states that a professor had " documented the postwar careers of psychiatrists and geneticists involved in gassing thousands of cripples and schizophrenics" {Allen 1996, 37). Cripple is used rather loosely here to describe people with a broad range of disabilities. The victims of Nazi slaughter were people with mental illness, epilepsy, chronic illness, and mental retardation, as well as people with physical disabilities. Yet cripple is defined as "one that is partially disabled or unable to use a limb or limbs" (American Heritage Dictionary 1992) and is usually used only to refer to people with mobility impairments. Because cripple inadequately and in accurately describes the group, the author of the report is likely to have chosen this term for its effect.

Cripple has also been revived by some in the disability community who refer to each other as "crips" or "cripples." A performance group with disabled actors call themselves the "Wry Crips." "In reclaiming 'cripple,' disabled people are taking the thing in their identity that scares the outside world the most and making it a cause to revel in with militant self-pride" (Shapiro 1993, 34).

A recent personal ad in the Village Voice shows how "out" the term is:

TWISTED CRIP: Very sexy, full-figured disabled BiWF artist sks fearless, fun, oral BiWF for hot, no-strings nights. Wheelchair, tattoo, dom. Shaved a+ N/S. No men/sleep-overs.

Cripple, gimp, and freak as used by the disability community have transgressive potential. They are personally and politically useful as a means to comment on oppression because they assert our right to name experience.

REFERENCES

American Heritage Dictionary (3rd ed.). (1992). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gill, C. J. (1994). Questioning continuum. In B. Shaw (Ed.), The ragged edge: The disability experience from the pages of the first fifteen years of "The Disability Rag," (pp. 42-49). Louisville, KY: Advocado Press.

Hahn, H. (1987). Disability and capitalism: Advertising the acceptably employable image. Policy Studies Journal, 15(3), 551-570.

Haraway, D. (1989). Primate visions: Gender, race, and nature in the world of modern science. New York: Routledge.

Longmore, P. (1985, December). The life of Randolph Bourne and the need for a history of disabled people. Reviews in American History, 13(4), 581-587.

Longmore, P. (1987, September). Uncovering the hidden history of people with disabilities. Reviews in American History, 15(3), 355-364.

Shapiro, J. P. (1993). No pity: People with disabilities forging a new civil rights movement. New York: Times Books.

Stedman's Medical Dictionary (23rd ed.). (1976). Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins.

Tulloch, S. (Ed.). (1993). The Reader's Digest Oxford Wordfinder. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.

Wendell, S. (1996). The rejected body: Feminist philosophical reflections on disability. New York: Routledge.

[1] Various authors have discussed issues related to definitions of disability. See Wendell (1996), Longmore (1985,1987), and Hahn (1987), and also the June Issacson Kailes (1995) monograph Language is More Than a Trivial Concern! which is available from the Institute on Disability Culture, 2260 Sunrise Point Road, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88011.

[2] The definition of disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act is consistent with the sociopolitical model employed in disability studies. A person is considered to have a disability if he or she:

· has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of his or her major life activities;

· has a record of such an impairment; or

· is regarded as having such an impairment.

The last two parts of the definition acknowledge that even in the absence of a substantially limiting impairment, people can be discriminated against. For instance, this may occur because someone has a facial disfigurement or has, or is suspected of having, HIV or mental illness. The ADA recognizes that social forces, such as myths and fears regarding disability, function to substantially limit opportunity.

How to cite this essay in a Chicago Manual of Style footnote: Simi Linton, “Reassigning Meaning,” Disability History Museum, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/edu/essay.html?id=21 (accessed date).

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ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
3.1
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Related Works

John Proctor

​Teachin’ BAE
A New Reclamation of Research and Critical Thought

My relationship with the essay as a form is as complicated as my relationship to teaching; I took a circuitous route to my embrace of both. After getting an M.A. in composition in 1999, I moved first to Louisville and then to Brooklyn with the twofold goal of finding myself and avoiding academia. I documented the implementation of a medical records database for a hospital chain, tended bar at a hospital lobby, worked dozens of temp jobs, served as communication manager for a corporate barter agency (don’t ask), sold my soul to public relations for a short time, worked for a record label, taught writing to new immigrants, and wrote verse and prose about all of it as I went that I read aloud at open mic readings. One of my friends from the open mic circuit had a boyfriend who chaired the English Department at a small liberal arts college, and when I broke off a failed long-term relationship and quit my job to make a living as an antiquarian bookseller, he suggested I supplement my income by teaching a couple of classes adjunct at his college. 

After four years of teaching sentence-level grammar to people who struggled to form sentences in English—a kind of teaching whose rewards exist outside the academic enterprise—I found working with standard-issue traditional college students both easier and more difficult. With most (but not all) of the students coming into my business communication and media writing classes exhibiting a basic proficiency with written language, I was able to address their more subject- and profession-driven needs. I was also disheartened to find that the increased proficiency with the written word did not necessarily translate to love.

Two years later, after meeting and marrying another faculty member at the college and becoming a full-time visiting lecturer first in the department of Communication Studies and then in Academic Writing, I was called in to a meeting with the provost. He told me that it was his understanding that I didn’t have a terminal degree, and if I wanted to continue teaching there I had to get one.[1] Thanking my lucky stars that he didn’t just tell me to hit the bricks, I began looking at MFA programs. My provost had said he didn’t much care what genre I studied, so long as I could show him (or, as it turned out, the next provost) a degree at the end of my studies. Having developed a robust distaste for the notion of genre over many years of reading my work aloud, I professed not to care either; the most important thing to me was to use this enforced study time to become a better writer while continuing to teach fulltime. My friend’s boyfriend—the one who’d brought to teach at this college in the first place—had graduated from Warren Wilson, and recommended that I look at low-residency MFA programs.

This is what I did, at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I had decided to pursue a degree in Creative Nonfiction, without completely understanding what the term meant but liking both words that form it. I worked with a succession of faculty advisors who challenged me to conceive my own definition of the term while reading widely in as many examples as I could of work that fit within it. This was when I discovered or decided that most of what I’d written—memoir, poetry, criticism, even fiction and just about everything in the space between them [2]—could fit under the umbrella term “essay,” and also that the life I’d been living, the reading I did both to learn more about the things that interested me but also just for the joy of living in words, was all research for the work I was producing. I started for the first time to call myself an essayist.

Like many of the deluded souls who willingly and knowingly call themselves essayists, I’ve intuited what an essay is (in the non-standardized, anti-five-paragraph sense) by ingesting as much as I could of any things that were called essays. This included many volumes of The Best American Essays.[3] I’ve thought and written some on this relationship I’ve had with the series as a writer,[4] but I’d love to spend some time thinking about how I’ve begun, over the past three years, to integrate it into my practice as a teacher of writing, especially with freshmen, many of whom are ripe for deprogramming from five-paragraph essay format.[5]
The small liberal arts college where I teach, like many small liberal arts colleges, has fairly expensive tuition, but it also has many scholarship and grant programs to offset this economic hardship. Our administration has also made a concerted effort at international outreach, with a longstanding institutional connection to the United Nations (perhaps coincidentally our current campus, before it became our campus, was the alternate site considered for the United Nations before the midtown site was built in the 1950s). What this has meant for the student population, at least in my ten years’ experience teaching here, has been that we get wide range of backgrounds: some ultra-rich with midtown and downtown jobs waiting for them upon graduation, some international students who’d never been to the United States before coming to our campus, quite a few from middle-class Long Island, Hudson Valley, and Jersey families seeking training in teaching and other social service professions, and a growing number of first-generation college students who need guidance (as I once did) on what being a college student entails. I say all this to emphasize that when I stress the importance of developing individual voice in relationship to critical thinking and research, it’s not necessarily out of a conviction to advocate for my students, or even to get them to self-advocate, though I relish the opportunity to do this if I find a student needs me to. At least as importantly, I’m asking them to subject their own perspective to the critical gaze. To do this, of course, they first have to acknowledge that they, as writers, have voices.

My college’s academic writing program requires freshmen to enroll in Freshman Writing for both semesters with the same professor, which means that I have all of my freshmen for a full year. The first semester runs in conjunction with a freshman seminar taught by a faculty member in one of the specific disciplines. The writing professor co-plans with the seminar professor, developing three shortish (3-5pp) essays that fit into boxes that reflect departmental goals—Description, Analysis, Persuasion—and fold in with the thematic material covered in the seminar. I try to work some kinks into the grooves of these fairly staid objectives,[6] but for the most part these assignments are table-setting for the work we do in the second semester, plugging holes each of them come in with as writers and establishing some working terminology. The seminar only runs the first semester, so for the second semester the students are all mine. This is when I get to really have some fun with them.

The second semester has only one graded assignment, in multiple drafts: the Freshman Essay. A 12-15pp, research-based paper cited in MLA style, the Freshman Essay is graded at the end of the semester on a rubric addressing academic imperatives our department has developed that reflect concerns that will probably be familiar to any teacher of academic writing: grammar and style, structure and clarity, development and analysis, format and citation. The Freshman Essay, in simpler terms, should be a representative sample of the student’s best writing by the end of their first year. In writing as in travel, though, many journeys can end at the same point and still be unique and individual, and the straight line is almost always the least interesting. 

My college’s department of Academic Writing has five full-timers,[7] with a wide swath of backgrounds and approaches: a poet, a poet/YA writer, a film studies PhD, a traditional composition/rhetoric PhD, and a CNF person (me). As one might expect, we all have quite different approaches to this final essay (and even the shorter ones that constitute the first-semester curriculum). Liz, our film studies PhD, has her students learn and practice the Rogerian model wherein students, in her words, “keep an even (though not necessarily formal) tone throughout and build in at least one credible counterargument,” while Mary Jo, our comp/rhet person, has her students read one novel in January, then has each of her students find a critical perspective from which to research further and develop an essay.

My own method gestated out of three major directives: 1) making the process of writing as organic as possible, 2) modeling from other essays to find workable methods and structures for developing an essay from conception to product, and 3) bridging the not-oppositional directives of critical thinking as both an academic requirement and a rewarding personal enterprise. Toward these ends, I have students keep a writing journal for both semesters,[8] read some craft-related work,[9] and discuss “big” questions they would like to explore in writing. By “big” I don’t necessarily mean global or general, but rather questions that loom and linger in students’ minds after reading something, or going to a lecture, or having a conversation with a friend or family member, or simply sitting and wondering. This, I believe, is one thing people mean when talking about finding the universal in the particular. Here, though, I’d like to talk in a bit more depth about another tool in my kit.

For the second semester of the past three years, I’ve used each year’s volume of The Best American Essays to address these three objectives. The volumes, edited by Cheryl Strayed, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Ariel Levy, embody a wide range of conceptions of what an essay is, determined in part by the background and temperament of each editor. We always start our reading with the editor’s introduction and Robert Atwan’s annual preface, just to wake everyone up from the winter break and get them in conversation about what a longform essay, and their Freshman Essay in particular, can be. 

We then spend much of the semester reading roughly two essays a week, with one student leading conversation on it after meeting with me. [10]  As a baseline, I ask students to respond in their writing journals after reading each essay. [11] In these responses students can just summarize the essay, they can respond personally or critically to an individual point, they can pick out a passage to read to the class; the key is to get their initial responses in writing before they forget them. I find this also makes the student-led discussions run more smoothly, as the discussion leaders can feel more confident addressing their peers knowing they can alleviate dead silence by just asking a classmate to read his or her response.

In addressing how this process addresses the three directives I’ve stated in teaching the Freshman Essay, I’d like to look at how students responded to and used some of the essays from this year’s volume, edited by Ariel Levy, if only because our semester has just ended and they’re fresh on my mind. Just a few sentences of Levy’s introduction gifted me with a pitch-perfect segue into thinking with students about planting idea-seeds (I use a lot of gardening metaphors in my teaching), and got many of my students excited about catching what could possibly be the beginning of their Freshman Essay in their writing journals: “The problem with ideas is that you can’t decide to have them….Because whatever its narrative shape, an essay must have an idea as its beating heart. And ideas come to you on their own terms. Searching for an idea is like resolving to have a dream.” [12]

Perhaps what I most enjoy about using BAE is the potential for surprise and discovery lurking with each essay, both in my individual conversations with students before they present and in the student-led conversations themselves. In the individual meetings I try to give students the chance to tell me what they got out of their essays, then I perhaps tell them a bit of what I took from the essay, and we work to find some questions for discussion, particularly interesting passages, and most importantly some “moves” the essayist makes—how and why the writer made these choices, and how and in what situations we might emulate or model these choices.

Possibly the most important choices to address in a writing class for college freshmen involve what we mean when we talk about thinking critically. I find that many students come into their freshman year thinking simultaneously that they know everything (in a more general sense) and that they know little to nothing (as applies to academia). I think that’s another challenge of teaching freshmen to think and write critically—somehow bridging those two poles enough that students are comfortable expressing their most composed selves in an academic environment.

This year’s BAE has plenty of conceptions of what it means to think critically, including personal writing. I think of Kelly Sundberg’s “It Will Look Like a Sunset”— intimately, soul-baringly personal, but also thoroughly excavated and arranged. We even got into discussions of the fractured narrative as an organizational method for traumatic material, which two of my students tried out on their Freshman Essays. I try to get students to see that Sundberg holds her lived experience to a similar critical standard that, say, New Yorker writer and frequent BAE selection Malcolm Gladwell holds his almost entirely impersonal essays like this year’s selection, “The Crooked Ladder.”

​Some essays, like Zadie Smith’s “Find Your Beach,” Philip Kennicott’s “Smuggler,” and Ashraf H.A. Rushdy’s “Reflections on Indexing My Lynching Book,” are simultaneously objective and subjective. Smith semiotically analyzes an ubiquitous billboard while questioning her own culpability in gentrifying her neighborhood. Kennicott gives an intensely personal critique of Twentieth Century homosexual literature, how it shaped him as a gay man and promulgated conceptions that hound gay culture even today. And Rushdy examines the cumulative effect on his own psyche of listing and annotating his work,[14] giving many of my students perhaps their first glimpse into the intensely personal rigor of long-term research:
This is also a great way to think about BAE as a teaching tool—the essays serve to defuse many hangups students have about research. None of them are in MLA format and most don't have any footnotes, but a fun thing to do with students is to have them find all the sources the essays use that could be cited in MLA format. Then they see that most essays are critical and research-based, even if they are also personal.

And many are also great examples of narrative nonfiction principles, including John Reed’s “My Grandma the Poisoner,” Anthony Doerr’s “Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul,” Kendra Atleework’s “Charade,” and Tiffany Briere’s “Vision.” My student Katherine wrote her Freshman Essay specifically on the personal narrative after reading “Charade” and “Vision,” telling me [14] at the end of the semester:
This questioning of oneself and one’s motives, allowing oneself to be complex and multidimensional while also retaining a critical eye, is something my students picked up on with a number of essays, including Meghan Daum’s “Difference Maker,” Justin Cronin’s “My Daughter and God,” and Hilton Als’ “Islands.” “Islands,” in fact, prompted at least two students to blow up their planned essays in late March and go in entirely different stylistic directions, something I allow them to do if they can explain and justify the shift. Another student, a sociology major, decided after reading Rebecca Solnit’s walking-essay “Arrival Gates” to write her Freshman Essay while walking through New York City and reading a list of essays we developed together, thinking about her mind at work and the city at work around her, while a partially deaf student decided after reading Kate Lebo’s “The Loudproof Room” to research and write about her affliction candidly for the first time.

​These examples dovetail with another proposition I give that scares the hell out of many students—to be open to changing their minds in the process of writing.[15] Which often leads to a favorite topic of mine to discuss: authority.

I’ve found, as a reader of books and a watcher of movies and a listener of popular song, that much of the authority an audience concedes to a writer, speaker, or narrator is dualistic: on the one hand, we have what might be called expert authority, which comes from accumulating knowledge and experience with the subject one is expounding, and on the other we have what I’ll call human authority, something harder to quantify but which might boil down simply to empathic trust. I find these two types of trust frequently at odds with each other. If we as readers grant that the writer knows more than we do about the topic or focus of a piece, that concession naturally discourages us from feeling a bond of shared experience with the author. But if a reader bonds with the author of a text on a human level to the point where there is an implied shared experience with the author, doesn’t that undermine the status of the author as an expert, as an authority?

And some essays are fun to teach simply for the challenge they present in teaching them. Cheryl Strayed’s selection, “My Uniform,” is brief and decidedly non-academic, and concludes with the you-have-to-be-there image of her husband pressing the cut-out crotch of her old yoga pants to his nose and inhaling deeply. I actually had to talk this one out with my wife before meeting with the poor students tasked with presenting it to the class; she was the one who reminded me that one of the key reasons people, myself and my wife included, read Strayed is precisely because she goes there. So my students and I had some lively (and one acutely uncomfortable) class discussions about ways that they can go there but still write an academic essay, and also choosing a memorable, symbolic image with which to end an essay so your reader will remember the experience of reading it.

The challenge and joy of teaching the wide range of short-form nonfiction in The Best American Essays is that each piece is so different, yet each is called an essay. To me, this is a wonderful prong to my mission of deprogramming my freshmen from the standardized-test essay so many of them think is the only way to think of the form, and toward a conception of the essay simply as a written extension of themselves in conversation with the world.

End Notes

our year-long celebration of Best American Essays

During the past decade and a half of research I have read so many tables and charts and lists of lynchings without thinking in the least about how these items were composed, about what kind of emotional investment they express. Now that I have finally compiled my own such list, I know better, much better than I did during my research, how to look for what went into the composition of those tables and charts and indices.
With both texts I identified their style of narrative and specific examples that made each piece stand out. In Atleework’s it was her ability to alternate between her past and present selves to tell the story. Briere also followed a tradition of familial stories, to expand on her personality; the side that believes that and the other side that is more scientific.

For Andrew Bodenrader, who led Manhattanville College's academic writing department until his death in May. He allowed me the freedom and encouragement to develop and discuss my ideas on writing pedagogy, literature, what it is to live well, and major league baseball. His loss leaves a great hole in my teaching and writing life.

 [1] I somehow got through more than half of my previous two years of grad school unaware that an M.F.A. in Creative Writing is terminal while an M.A. in Composition is not, a mistake that I was finally, in the office of this provost, coming to regret.

[2]  I still include most of that phrasing on my bio.

[3]  Some other great anthologies of contemporary essays that were formative for me (and which will be familiar to many readers of essays) are The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction (ed. Williford & Martone), The Next American Essay (ed. D’Agata), The Contemporary Essay (ed. Hall), In Short and two ensuing volumes of brief nonfiction (all ed. Kitchen), The Art of the Personal Essay (ed. Lopate), and The Best Creative Nonfiction, 3 volumes (all ed. Gutkind).

[4]  See, for example, my Sideways Reviews series with Hunger Mountain and my entry in the BAE Essay Advent with Essay Daily.

[5]  I feel the need to mention here, as I frequently do with my colleagues, that I am not against the five-paragraph as a form in itself; my concern is with its ubiquity. Because it is particularly suited to easy quantification, it’s become the de facto form for standardized tests. I find that at least half my incoming freshmen enter college thinking an essay can only exist in five paragraphs. Barf.

[6]  The past two years, for example, I’ve had them write Descriptive Essays after reading Patrick Madden’s “Michael Martone’s Leftover Water” in which students create an eBay listing for an object pertaining somehow to their seminar subject. I challenge them to use physical description to imply deeper meaning and connotation, with the goal of selling a stranger on the stories, metaphors, and connotations associated with the object enough to ostensibly bid money on it. 

[7]  For whatever reason, I feel the need to say that we are non-tenure track, and just recently were given faculty, as opposed to teaching staff, status by school administration. Go, us!

[8]  I allow students to choose the medium—whether that’s a bound journal/notebook, a physical folder for their notes, or a folder on their hard drive—so long as they devote the space only to developing their thoughts in writing. I ask them to have their writing journals handy to write down thoughts as they come to them, as well as to respond to readings and writing prompts I give them. This is perhaps the most important tool, to my mind at least, in linking research and critical thought with the real-time lives of my students. This all falls into the category of “low-stakes” writing, i.e., I only grade them for having done it.
[9]  Some of my go-to texts are Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers, Patricia Hampl’s “The Dark Art of Description” (BAE2009!), William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Annie LaMott’s Bird by Bird, for what that’s worth.

[10]  A few of my students this year have mentioned that they would have preferred to read all of the essays in the first half of the semester, as they were disappointed to find that they might have integrated a late-semester essay into their own work if they’d seen it earlier. I’m considering doing this next year.

[11]  I do this myself for each Best American Essay as well.

[12]  The Best American Essays 2015, p.xv

[13]  BAE 2015, p.184

[14]  From email correspondence, quoted with Katherine’s permission.

[15] Notably, Zadie Smith’s first essay collection is titled Changing My Mind.
In addition to academic writing, John Proctor also teaches media writing and communication theory at Manhattanville College. An active reader on the New York City open mike scene, he’s written memoir, fiction, poetry, criticism, and just about everything in the space between them. His work has been published most recently in New Madrid Journal of Contemporary Literature, Atlas & Alice, The Weeklings, Essay Daily, The Normal School, and DIAGRAM, and is forthcoming in an international anthology of microfiction. His essay “The Question of Influence” was a recent Notable selection in The Best American Essays 2015, and his essay “The A-Rod of Ballhawking” was nominated for a 2016 Pushcart. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, two daughters, and Chihuahua. You can find him online at NotThatJohnProctor.com/.


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