Exposure – Day 3 of #digped #VisualDialogues

I’ve been thinking about my identity as part of the Visual Dialogues course that I am taking in the Digital Pedagogy Lab. I couldn’t seem to find anything that represented a “selfie” and some participants began posting “fragments” in photo and hand drawn images. I scrolled through photos on my phone, tried to draw, but couldn’t find nor create anything that I felt represented my “self”. I am also thankful for this day without a Zoom meeting, without a keynote to reflect and gather up the fragments of my identity.

What I didn’t realize is what I would be uncovering or discovering and it has me feeling somewhat off balance or out of focus. Maybe even over-exposed, like some photograph that does not reflect the construction of the mind’s eye, and seeking out fragments to collect into some focused imagining of myself.

But, I need to back up and explain. Several weeks ago, I met, not formally, a young person who (I could see from visual cues) is disabled and who was out walking down my street with a support worker. It was a sunny afternoon and I said hello and offered for them to pet my dog, but the worker dissuaded them, moved them away, so I carried on walking home and said goodbye and maybe next time. The next day, the same young person walked by again, but this time with one who appeared to be a parent , a mother, and when I said hello and waved, they enthusiastically waved back and said hello in a way that said “I remember you!”. But, I could also see the parent’s response – the tell-tale signs in the body language, the half-smile, the retreat, the deflection away, the emotional cloak of invisibility to move the disabled child from the voyeur, the sympathetic stranger. I thought, “she doesn’t know.” Today, the young person walked by again with their support worker, but this time, my own disabled child wearing her seizure helmet was with me on the front porch and the visual cues of her significant disability were clear. The worker smiled this time and joined the young person in an enthusiastic wave and now we were all seeing with greater focus and attention to the background, the history, the knowledge. A few weeks of momentary passing visual discourse brought us to a place of understanding; we were now seeing through a similar lense of experience.

I know that parental response in myself. It made me rethink the visual fragments of my own identity, and while I’ve already written about having a disabled child, it always feels self-indulgent  – I worry that my audience will think that I’m inviting some pity party which I am not. I often avoid the topic because it’s unique and messy and people often think you  are insensitive or hardened. I have also (for me and my other children) tried to write and speak about her disability in a way that validates the many blessings which have come with her life.

But I don’t think I have ever considered enough, or maybe even acknowledged, the intersection of her disability with my own identity until today. I guess the deflection, the cloak of invisibility where one can safely hide the disability at home has been happening all along. I can venture outside of my home into the world of White, able-bodied, cisgendered privilege never truly having to acknowledge this “defective” part of my life. This is now astounding, even to myself, that I could not see this, until I was asked to put a visual lens on my identity.

This is hard and full of exposure. But the hard truth is that my movements through the world are often predicated on her abilities so it makes sense that she forms part of my identity. Much of what I do and my decisions are predicated on sustaining and providing for her. I run and weight train to be strong enough to lift her. I don’t vacation because we cannot get care and her needs are too complex for travel – or maybe that’s what I tell myself because I don’t want the gaze of strangers.

4F8E8B23-3F7B-43C8-9327-FC71D98B405FThese are not restrictions that I lament, but they are with me and part of me and for me to deny this is to deny part of my identity, like the parent who wants to disappear from the watchful gaze of a world that does not understand.

So here are my fragments of self as they intersect with my identity as the parent of a disabled adult child.

I am turning the watchful gaze back on myself and I’m feeling exposed.

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Flash

I love when I witness someone. in the midst of deep inner reflection, suddenly and  unselfconsciously bursts out some pithy statement of deep critical thinking and I gasp wide-eyed. I usually ask them to repeat this flash of brilliance, but sometimes, like lightning, it’s gone and the echoes of it fade like some remote untouchable memory.

My son has these flashes every so often while we are having casual conversations. And, he recently lit up my thoughts one evening during our usual post-workday discussion. We were talking about society and people, about social media, and Instagram and the ways it differs from Twitter (I’m still not acclimatized to that platform, but I’m persisting to see if I can find some genuine utility other than reading and reposting). He was explaining how he moves through life differently than his peer group and especially around the use of social media. He often does not have his phone out at social events, because he said that he wants to “be there”. He is a self-proclaimed introvert, and he feels that paying attention to others is important, it’s a sign that you value them. He continued saying,

“I don’t understand it. They must look at their pictures and say, “That was such a good time. I wish I was there.”

I stopped what I was doing and thought about the complexity of this future observation about the absent presence created when technology interfaces with humanity. I wondered if the drive to chronicle one’s in pictures is a reluctance to let life change and to hang on to moments in time as if keeping them saves the pleasure too. I have felt this impulse when my children were young, the dog was a puppy, but I have never felt it in terms of the documentation of self. I am missing from my own photographs, another absent presence behind the lens.

So, here I am, a week after this flash, taking a course in Critical Visual Dialogues through the Digital Pedagogy Lab creating images and discussing the many implications of a visual culture. I read the email posted by Francesca Sobande and Daniel Lynds feeling many years of study and passion coalesce. They wrote that in the course we could consider,

  • Creative approaches to designing assessments and incorporating critical visual dialogues
  • How to encourage and help students to develop critical media and digital literacy skills with a focus on visual culture
  • Addressing issues related to racism and intersecting oppressions, including by critically considering how the visuals in learning and teaching environments can perpetuate harmful power dynamics
  • Critically reflecting on issues related to power and privilege in relation to marketing representations and graphic design
  • Exploring and experimenting with video/visual essays

English, Media Studies, equity, antiracism: these once separate concerns merged in a flash and the weight of learning lessened, lifted by some invisible force of connection and interconnectedness.

Briefly Deep and Meaningful

I read some short pieces of writing by Ross Gay, Chris Cluff, and Elizabeth Acevedo; their voices are still with me now and while what I have read by each author is but a brief glimpse into the human experience, the words are so deep that I need space and time to hold and understand their meaningfulness.

In many ways, this has been the case with lines from Shakespeare which cling to me like summer’s sweat, or poems whose rhymes continue to shift in depth and breadth under my skin. I’ve been thinking about some of the deep and meaningful lessons of identity and what we willingly select as “core texts” in the classroom, and I’m looking for ones which convey a range of emotions and ones that represent rich identities, ones other than my own. These three were appetizers to a massive feast of thought and reflection this week.

Chris Cluff posted this image of visual-verbal prose-poetry. I love how his posts defy classification in form and content. He leaves you with thoughts unconfirmed, in a state of wonder. Yet, it seems to me that the brevity of Twitter may obscure these potential morsels of richness. I thought deeply about the meaning of “white noise”, how sometimes these poetic pauses encapsulate such an enigmatic range of ideas. I cannot say for sure what he intended here, but I thought about this brief post for a long time reading it through the lens of my own experience.

And then a post by Vicky Mochama led me to an episode of the podcast, Code Switch, called “Hold Up! Time for an Explanatory Comma”. The hosts of the episode discuss the dilemma of pausing to explain something that a White audience might not understand that a BIPOC audience typically does understand. They debated the need to provide the brief explanatory pause as it “speaks to who is valued or centred in the conversation”. The problem is that White supremacy is at play here and Black culture or Brown culture or othered cultures which have all sorts of references known internally need to provide explanations for White people to understand. They make is clear that they don’t really mean “all White people” but that “White people is slang” for what we are all being force fed by the overarching whiteness where “everything is filtered through a white lens” from history to English to Science. They want to reach an audience, a wide audience, but the “double-consciousness” is revealed in the pause.

This got me thinking about the often stated rationale for teaching Shakespeare as students will “need to understand” the many cultural references to the Bard, there would be no need for the explanatory comma, or that his plays contain “universal themes” which defy cultural classification. I had once felt this, but now I wonder what “everybody should know” and what double-consciousness for a White person might feel like. I’m not sure that I know enough about this, yet.

I am having a hard time with sustained reading and writing these days, and it appears from Twitter, that I’m not alone. Maybe the unsustained reading is really just sustained thinking. Maybe what is brief requires time and space and sustained thought to develop into something meaningful. I hope so.

 

Of Lexical Doubt

Destreaming conversations hover in my social media feed, on the lips of friends, and in the emails from colleagues. I’m pleased to see these conversations about equity, yet like many complex problems in education, it creates a summer tension in me.

This stalking presence of educating myself, of preparing for what may come propels me to continual thought, extensive reading, and intensive planning which can be a wonderful way to spend time, as well as an infinitely infuriating self imposed overload which then results in the recognition of overgrowth and the need to cull. My garden becomes the living metaphor of my summer education. But the ground is rich and so I till it every summer full of doubt about the end products.

Moments of the day are interspersed with reading and I experienced one of unusual joy this morning while reading Ross Gay’s essay, “But Maybe…” from The Book of Delights. I was between family tasks, taking every waking moment to attempt to fulfil my curated list of required reading for next year. Standing with the book cracked open, glancing down and slowly breathing in the words, I smiled truly embracing this window into the complexity of communication.

And then I read his essay “The Joy of Caring for Others” and my knees buckled in a moment of awe.

..she told me she was on her way to drop off some masks she’d made for her nephew, who’s about my age, at the jail.

“Here’s an extra,” she said, holding a mask out the window, where it dangled from her finger. It was pretty, kind of floral and quilt-y, and homemade as hell. I reached toward the mask, toward my friend, trying to keep away from her at the same time — both of us a little bit nervous, a little bit scared (I’ve never before noticed that “scared” and “sacred” are so close), making that by-now-familiar I-hope-we-are-not-infecting-each-other face.

Just that parenthetical aside had me reeling with such depth contained in this lexical observation. Sometimes these obtuse observations challenge the status quo and remind us that words are just inert symbolic representations of lived experiences. They don’t replace it. In fact, I thought about the language of “destreaming” which is metaphorical and the complexities of those conversations filled me with doubt. Not about the inherent benefits of destreaming, but about the meaning of it, of “expectations” and “equity” and of the necessary disruption that will ensue.

Glancing back over this, I notice the titles: “But, Maybe…The Joy of Caring for Others” and think that as I traverse these rocky waters of destreaming, maybe I can remember that the lexicon doesn’t matter as much as my joy in caring for others.

 

The Work and Auditing a Yearbook

Her lengthy email opened with a few sentences outlining some observations she and her friends had made about the school yearbook and the location of some important photos. She was in my grade 11 Indigenous Voices English class, has been on my podcast, and is a leader among the members of our Diverse Student Union. Her observations then transitioned to pointed, direct, and well reasoned accusations about the representation of Black History Month under the pages of “School Spirit”. She said that this decision demonstrates “disrespect” and is “insensitive, and ignorant”. I know her to be stoic in her demeanour, thoughtful in her expression, and this felt like a call to action.

I reached out to the teacher of the yearbook course, and looked at the sea of mostly White students enrolled, the selected editors who were guided by the White supervising teacher. At this point, I should also make it clear that the yearbook falls under my White headship, so I include myself as one among a sea of Whiteness responsible for this misrepresentation. And, as Amanda and I have discovered through our podcast and many conversations, taking on anti racist work means that you are going to make mistakes. The only way to actually address racism is to own the mistakes, admit them early, and act with the direction of the community affected. We’ve also discovered that once you see the systemic racism, you see it a lot more than you ever have previously. This is part of the work.

I decided to get a copy of the yearbook to perform an audit of sorts – a look at the representations of the student body at the school, what is valued by dedicated pages, and what appears most often. In this first audit, I wanted to focus on events that are similar to the Black History assembly. Full double truck pages were dedicated to several one time events: Relay for Life, Coffee House, United Way Breakfast, the school dance, and the Spaghetti Dinner. Other double truck pages were dedicated to ongoing aspects of school life: School Spirit, Outdoor Education, a Barcelona trip, Friends and Buddies, and Siblings.

I looked closely at the pages called “School Spirit”, and noted that two of fifteen photos were from the Black History Month assembly, unlabelled in anyway and only recognizable because I had been there, along with other photos of what appeared to be Halloween, a holiday play, and students holding ice cream cones.

Returning to her email, she said,

Our Black History Month assembly is not an act of school spirit. It’s the only month in the year where we get some recognition on the history, culture and current events of Black people. We are well aware of the student’s AND staff’s lack of interest in Black History Month but putting our image in “School Spirit” is utterly disrespectful for us and the thousands that were and are in the fight for racial equity…

I thought for some time about her concerns and reached the conclusion that there are potentially TWO omissions in the yearbook, and one significant misrepresentation; one omission is the month itself with the many aspects that should be woven into the fabric of academic learning and the other is the Black History Month assembly, the culminating one time event. Black History month is nowhere to be seen in the yearbook. But, I do know that it was celebrated in classes, in the hallways, and on the announcements. I remember teaching lessons. I remember hearing announcements. The culminating assembly is misrepresented with two uncaptioned images.

To be fair, this decision was not committed by an individual and there were students of colour who participated in the Black History Month assembly on the editing committee of the yearbook. Additionally, the context for producing a yearbook this year was ridiculously difficult and these students did a remarkable job in the middle of a pandemic. Their White teacher was an encouraging force of support for these students, her English classes, and her own young children learning at home. They all deserve recognition for their efforts to maintain engagement in their courses and for making a yearbook during what is arguably one of the most difficult times in recent academic memory. They were doing what they could do in the situation and in their understanding of representing the school.

I wanted to be sure that the unusual nature of this school year was the most significant factor in the omission, so I got copies of the yearbook from the previous two years at the same school. The structure of the yearbook was much the same as this year, and I could not locate a page dedicated to Black History Month or the assembly – in either year.

I have come to the conclusion that the problem with the yearbook is systemic Whiteness; the students and their teacher didn’t even realize they were upholding a White culture that erases Black students and Black events at the school. I thought about Paul Gorski’s article, “Avoiding Racial Equity Detours” and how we cannot “pace for privilege”, we cannot wait for students and teachers to understand this before we act to support racialized students. I knew this required my interruption in a process that has been allowed to exist for at least the past three years, and I decided to do more research online to find out how to create a yearbook which addresses representation, equity, and inclusion. I came across this from Lifetouch:

Inclusivity impacts students

An inclusive yearbook does more than just properly represent the school, it makes students feel good about themselves. They feel they are a part of the community and are connected to their class. It also boosts school spirit. Furthermore, years from now when each student flips through the yearbook to reminisce, they’ll be reminded of all the good times they had and the experiences that helped mold them into adults.

The biting irony in this made me feel queasy. There is no question; we have to do better and I am now more prepared with evidence to take action by making the structural changes for next year’s yearbook – a two page spread for Black History Month and a one page spread for the assembly, student lessons in visual representation and the inclusion of all students in the yearbook. This is part of the work.