Accessing digital rhetoric: Sh*t academics say


I thought that things would change once I received my PhD. Not large things, mind you, but meaningful things, nonetheless. Things like panel moderators introducing me as Dr. Yergeau rather than an inspiring young adult with a special story. Things like psychologists talking to me at a rate higher (yes, HIGH- ER-) than seven words per minute. Things like social workers restraining themselves from drawing, on their business cards, cartoon emoticons and XOXO. Things, you know, like that.

(In case you’re wondering, digital rhetoric friends, 🙁 represents sad feelings. FYI.)

I’m a disabled person who researches disability studies, and the past several years have been a sometimes surreal lesson in the politics of studying what you are. Interdisciplinarity, while it enriches my work, also complicates it. When I talk to disability service professionals, I’m not only speaking as an academic or a rhetorician, but as an autistic person — which, often, gets lost in translation as arhetorical autistic patient with very special college degree. What’s more, woven into the heart of disability studies scholarship are complex layers of community, activism, and protest. This means that I enjoy communal gatherings and disability cultural events; it also means that I endure parents chastising me, or informing me that I have a medical condition that precludes capacity for both empathy and narrative. (This blog entry isn’t a narrative. It’s a symptom. Also FYI.)

The issues I’m discussing here aren’t particularly new. And that’s just the thing: these issues are not new. They extend within, beyond, and across many marginalized communities. Patronization, dismissal, and discrimination are incredibly, incredibly, incredibly far-reaching. And sometimes, frankly, it’s just not enough for me to scream into my pillow, or feign politeness, or don the persona of the ever-patient advocate who must always swallow her righteous furor and educate, educate, educate.

I pathologically love repetition, so it sometimes surprises me that I get so upset over the repetitiveness of oppression. (This is sarcasm. Which I am also incapable of, along with narrative and empathy and maybe cartwheel-turning. Just, you know, FYI.) I think, though, that my anger often comes as a surprise to some of my colleagues, especially given my own position as an educator, not to mention my generally soft-spoken demeanor in f2f space. I should be patient. I should breathe. I should teach people, gently and kindly. And I do, lots of the time. But sometimes… just… sometimes… there is a time and a place and a need for not playing nice.

In many respects, this is where the digital enters in for me. When I muse about what digital rhetoric means to me, I muse about inclusion and non-normative forms of communication. I think of patterns and autistic networks, conjure images of flat affect and retaliatory emoticon festivals, recall my once-prolific participation in disability web fora and blog carnivals (hi!). My friends and frenemies are interfaced; my relationships are computerized; my activism is online and cranky. The affordances of Web 2.0 for the disability community are many, as are the limitations. And so, whether the discussion involves affordances, barriers, or the vast grey area somewhere in between, access remains a common refrain. My keyboard is an assistive device, a community center, and a doorway. It’s also a piece of shit, the reason for my therapy bills, and a physical representation of non-compliance, discrimination, and exclusion. Access. Digital rhetoric. They’re inseparable.

All of this positioning brings me to the actual content of my post — one example, I think, of digital activism, not to mention collective resistance to the repetition that is exclusion. While preparing for CCCC this past March, a few colleagues and I exchanged brainstorming emails about our upcoming “Access Happening” panel. I had been obsessed, for several weeks, with “shit people say” videos. A collaborative of friends and colleagues had created a Shit Ignorant People Say to Autistics video; Julie Platt had created a Shit Rhetoricians Say video; and my digital rhetoric students had been compiling links to various shit memes for weeks.

And so, I wondered what a Shit Academics Say About Access video might look like. From its inception, this process was a collaborative one. What began as me venting about autism conferences transformed into an unwieldy, collaborative Google Doc filled with lines — everything ranging from You’re so inspiring! to We’re gay-friendly; we welcome all couples to department events to Have you thought about entering another profession?

Over the course of three months, I collected lines from friends and colleagues. Soon, however, came the question of what to do with all of this material — how to purpose it, how to execute it. For my first draft, I set up my camcorder and captured about 90 minutes of myself repeating these lines, with varying delivery, and then whittled everything down to a 5-minute video. However, I didn’t want to end with this, if only because the power in these videos often resides within a larger collective. This isn’t to say that one-actor shit videos aren’t powerful, or transgressive, or change-effecting; rather, I felt that this instantiation of Shit People Say extended across many communities, communities that deserved, where possible, representation from among their own constituencies (and not just me and my flipcam).

What follows, then, is where Shit Academics Say About Access currently stands. It features 26 actors, most of whom were filmed at Ohio State’s Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC). I also estimate that approximately two dozen individuals contributed lines, direction, and other creative material toward this project. And this is, perhaps, what I like best about the video: It is not mine. It represents a larger, shared struggle. There’s something immensely comforting (and cathartic) about working with colleagues who recognize that, sometimes, sarcasm and abruptness are effective — and necessary — rhetorical strategies. I won’t pretend that this video is perfect, or that it will in and of itself make academe a more accessible, inclusive place, or, irony of ironies, that it will be accessible to every person who wishes to view it. There’s a lot that it just plain won’t do.

**Note: This video is captioned. To toggle captions on or off, click the CC button on the YouTube controller.

Finally, this video isn’t “nice.” And, after leafing through a recent thread on WPA on this very topic, I’m hesitant about how to respond to assessments vis-a-vis niceness and its role in educating the (usually) well-meaning. I’ve said and done my share of well-meaning-but-ignorant things; we all have. Nonetheless, in my experience, good intentions is often code for the feelings of the offender matter more than the realities of the marginalized. Is it better to spare feelings than it is to call attention to the weird, hurtful shit that bears material consequences for the shat upon? I ask this with the full realization that diplomacy and decisive action aren’t of necessity mutually exclusive entities. But sometimes, niceness just doesn’t cut it — it becomes the bane, the repetitive bane, of cultural studies research. When I continually have to assert my own humanity, or advocate for my own rhetoricity, or patiently implore certain academics to regard my degrees as real, non-special ones — when I continually have to operate in long, rambling prologue mode, at what point can I and my fellow disabled colleagues get to the actual work we set out to do? At what point can we get to the change-effecting stuff, a.k.a the stuff that really matters?

Cheers to you, digital rhetoric.



  1. Andrew Raymond on

    I can’t access the video here from work. But WRT being ‘nice’, we need to remember that the African-American civil rights struggle needed both Dr. King and Malcolm X. Similarly, the autistic civil rights struggles is going to need nice and non-nice representatives.

    If you’re able to talk both sides, the more power to you. As for me, I’m pretty much convinced that I’ve got much more Malcolm X in me.

  2. Pingback: Academics talk about access… « Feminist Philosophers

  3. I have a question: do you consider asking people with disabilities how they want to be referred to and/or saying “differently abled” to be ableist? Or are you critiquing the manner and/or context in which those things are said? Thanks for your time.

  4. James Jackson on

    Shit I have heard:

    “Why would you get a writing degree if you have a writing disability?”

    “At some point there just isn’t any reason to put yourself through it. Maybe you should teach high school.”

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