Tabitha Robinson’s final project write-up and video

Major project write-up

Revealing the Son: Disability as Narrative Prosthesis in the Gospel of John

For my major project, I chose to research disability in the Bible. After reading a great chapter by Anna Rebecca Solevag in her book Negotiating the Disabled Body, called “John and the Symbolic Significance of Disability,” I narrowed my focus down to the gospel of John. I chose John because there were only three instances of disability found in the book, but they all demonstrated the same point—that the purpose of disability is to be healed, showing Jesus’ power as God’s son. I did some research into the ancient world for context, which actually tied into another class I’m taking, Greek and Roman Religion. I applied the things I learned in that class about ancient views on disability and healing. I found that the ancient view of disability was rather complex. On one hand, babies born with some kind of disability might be seen as a bad omen; on the other hand, soldiers who were disabled in battle might be treated with glory. As I researched, I realized that the stories in John don’t strictly reflect either of those views, although there are aspects of the first. Instead, disability is something to be used by Jesus to prove his divinity.

I was originally going to write a research paper, but as I started to compile information, I thought visual aids would be helpful. I decided to create a PowerPoint and write a script for my presentation. I’ve made presentations this way in online classes and found it to be a flexible format—it feels like a traditional in-class presentation, but it’s a recording. (There’s less pressure on me as the presenter, and the audience can watch it anytime or however they want.) The PowerPoint turned out to be a good idea. When talking about the ancient world, it’s hard to visualize sometimes what is happening. I found examples of ancient art, statues, pictures of archaeological sites, and artistic renderings in my presentation. I also like using PowerPoint to emphasize important points and allow the audience to read important quotes for themselves.

I tied my project into our class material in a few different ways. First, I reached beyond the material of the class and used other works by authors we’ve read. Using Mitchell and Snyder’s Narrative Prosthesis, I defined the concept of “narrative prosthesis” and connected it to what’s happening in John. I used examples from our readings to help define narrative prosthesis, connecting it to “Cathedral” by Carver, Garland-Thompson’s writings on Freakery, and Weise’s “Nondisabled Demands.” I used Braddock and Parish’s “An Institutional History of Disability” to explain views of disability in the ancient world. That piece proved extremely helpful in my research, and I used it in my project quite a bit, expanding on their ideas to fit my topic. The topic I chose also fits into several of the larger themes we’ve explored in this class, such as the history of disability, how religious views affect disability, the representation of disabled characters in literature, and how to know if representation in a text is progressive or not.

I hereby pledge upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.        Tabitha Robinson

Word count: 511

Major Project video

Kelly Brown’s Class Summary for October 14th, 2021

Even before the class period began, many students were anticipating a quiz while sitting outside Room 322. Their prediction proved true, because in the words of Dr. Foss, “What better way [is there] to welcome us back from Fall Break?” He followed up the quiz with some announcements: the first was to remind us of the upcoming events for Disability Awareness Month, including a presentation from Kenny Fries, one of the authors we read for the day. The other announcement was that Dr. Foss had updated our grades for both class participation and reading quizzes, and we could now view them on Canvas. Since we had reached the midpoint of the semester, it was helpful to know where we stood academically, in case we wanted to step up our game.

Our first large group discussion was on “Disabled Lilacs,” a poem by Petra Kuppers, as well as the experimental video that accompanied it. Dr. Foss, who had never been corrected until his previous section, pronounced lilac as “lIE-lAHk”, while the rest of us pronounced it as “lIE-lAK”. Although the meaning of the poem was not initially obvious, it is arguably looking at disability from a broader and more general perspective. The speaker leaves their disability ambiguous so that the text is more inclusive and can relate to anyone, regardless of if you know someone disabled or are disabled yourself. The descriptive imagery suggests that this poem takes place within a dream world, perhaps one where ableism does not exist. If that were the case, though, the main symbolic motif would have been lavenders instead of lilacs. After all, some parents use lavender to calm down their kids. What is the significance of lilacs, if any? Could it possibly have more to do with their juxtaposition to simplicity, nature, and beauty? We were left with even more questions after watching the experimental video, and I joked that “experimental” was a fitting word to describe it. Whereas I was expecting to hear the poem articulately read out loud, the video instead alternated between Neil Marcus seemingly reciting the words as they appeared on screen, and Lakshmi Fjord describing black and white photos of a nude couple. Another one of my classmates argued that due to its presentation, someone who is unable to see would entirely miss the text. Additionally, the meaning behind the photographs shown is unclear. How do they relate to the poem? It was tougher to draw substantial conclusions from the video, so we decided not to dwell on it further.

We transitioned to the second poem of the day: “Excavation” by Kenny Fries. Seeing as Fries would be our keynote speaker for Disability Awareness Month, it felt reasonable to analyze some of his writing. The title alone is very impressionistic, and on its own, it could be interpreted in a number of ways. For the speaker, the excavation represents a foot surgery, which resulted in “the bones at birth [they weren’t] given” that they now appear to be stuck with. By examining their new foot shape, the speaker also peels back all of the hurtful nicknames they internalized, such as ‘freak’ and ‘midget’. The poem’s lament, therefore, is a struggle to find a proper home in a body that has been greatly altered, similar to Shelia Black’s “What You Mourn.”

We moved into small groups to talk about “Cathedral,” a short story by Raymond Carver. My group in particular talked about the hostility, and perhaps jealousy, of the narrator throughout the text. None of us were sympathetic towards the narrator, and one of my group mates even said he felt insecure. He has no interest in connecting with anyone, including his wife, and never calls Robert by his name, instead referring to him as “the blind man”. Another one of my group mates compared the tension between the two men to male turkeys puffing up their feathers to intimidate one another. In the end, when the narrator finally attempts to both figuratively and literally see things from Robert’s perspective, it does not feel like a gesture of good will. In fact, it feels more like a form of saviorism, since drawing with your eyes closed is nowhere near equivalent to actually being blind. Still, is it a step in the right direction for the narrator? Maybe from that point, he can continue growing and improving as a person.

We ended the class discussing Jay Dolmage’s “Academic Ableism” in small groups. Dr. Foss prompted us to also consider UMW’s campus, and whether or not it is accessible. My group pointed out the image of a stairway on page 3 of the online text, and how it relates to the ongoing conflict of accessibility versus aesthetics in colleges across the country. Is there a way to achieve balance between the two? Many schools, UMW included, seem to care more about improving their image than accommodating for people with disabilities. My small group agreed that how a campus looks does not matter if it is not accessible. Another instance of academic ableism that the piece hints at, but does not cover in great detail, is academic papers. Students are often taught to prioritize formatting and big words, in order to sound smart and get better grades from teachers. Consequently, the process of writing essays becomes less fun and more time consuming, as we are forced to overlook any real substance. To make academic papers more accessible and easier to finish, teachers would need to be less critical of simplistic language and contractions in favor of getting the point across.

Word Count: 927

“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.” – Kelly Brown

Rachel Grace’s Class Summary for 10/14/2021

To begin class, Dr. Foss started with his favorite surprise for his students: a quiz. Our professor then announced the exciting news that the person who wrote the poem present on each computer screen in our small room in Combs was going to deliver an address specifically to Mary Washington students. We then moved into the content. This class period focused on the dangers of our unrecognized standard biases and how unrecognizable normalized ableism can be, whether in how we read out loud, how we designate sexualized bodies, how we tokenize blindness, or how we interact with our physical college campus.

Following the miniature quiz, the discussion progressed to poetry, specifically Petra Kuppers’ “Lilacs” (pronounced “Lie-lacks”). The class observed the text in two different contexts. First, a student read it out loud, and then Dr. Foss showed an artistic video interpretation of the text that featured a disabled body reading the poem and audio descriptions of pictures of naked disabled/inter-abled couples that appear on the screen during the video. The two formats created a discussion around how the format of a poem can change the meaning of the content. The conclusion is that the artistic interpretation of the poem revealed standard biases present in our expectations of standard speech and how our implicant expectations affect the way we consume art and poetry. Dr. Foss noted that the poem while exposing our standard biases, is ultimately deconstructing the natural and unnatural binary that exists in disability and the human experience, which then leads to textual examples such as “aching gears”.

The discussion shifts into Kenny Fries’ “Excavation”, which we concluded serves less as real and more as a utopic version of the imagination. With images suggesting illusionary escapism, our discussion focuses more so on what it is the speaker wants to excavate about himself and how the violent images suggest their desire to uncover what they are looking for. We end the discussion on a question from Dr. Foss, who wonders if this poem comes at the feet of an ableist world or if it is reassigning meaning. We come to no unanimous conclusion but instead are left to ponder the ideas.

Carver’s “Cathedral” sparks a conversation in a small group about whether Carver is asking us to critique the piece or if they are simply rehabilitating the narrator. In the end, we see the piece as a way to critique how society treats disability because it is only once the husband gets to know Robert that he can change his perspective on disability, specifically blindness. The husband thinks of Robert’s wife as leading “a pitiful life” because she could never “see herself in the eyes of her loved one” (213), which is unbearable for the husband to imagine. Our group also spoke greatly about the ending serving as a sort of tokenization of the disabled character. It is up to the man who is blind to show people a new perspective and he has to have a great and exciting attitude when doing it. The overall consensus draws upon the story serving as a critique.

The conclusion the small group comes to concerning Dolmage’s theory piece is that Mary Washington is no exception to ableism plaguing campuses of higher education in the United States. Jacob uses the examples of eugenics and the histories of profiting off the testing of disabled subjects, as written in the text, to illustrate our conclusion. We discuss exclusion based on accommodations, which serve to offload the responsibility of the institution. In the end, we agree that the piece describes perfectly well how we put able bodies ahead of disabled bodies every day and in every context.