Teaching Spaces: From Awareness to Action

This presentation is the basis for "What Does It Mean to Move?: Race, Disability, and Critical Embodiment Pedagogy," published in Composition Forum 39 (2018).

For the last 2,000 years, traditional Eurowestern rhetorics have taken their most basic triadic purpose to be to teach, to delight, and to move. We have read Augustine’s take on Cicero’s take on Aristotle to distill what we typically take to be true even now: while teaching is most important, we must rely on delight to secure our audiences’ attention to move them toward action (Kennedy, 1999). Here I want to dissect this foundational axiom, and by extension, how we approach rhetorical pedagogy, through a personal lens as someone whose roles as writer, researcher, and teacher are fundamentally informed by my identity as a woman of color living with several invisible, mental disabilities. These disabilities mean I have a very particular relationship with movement, one overlooked in traditional articulations of what it means to move, meaning persuasion, and therefore attain access and mobility.

My own embodiment is why I focus on relationships between rhetoric and bodies, on those ways that rhetorics of embodiment compel us into corporeal configurations deemed socially acceptable and how we either comply or contest these constraints. In my case, I cannot help but pose a challenge to order. ADHD means my thoughts jump to make connections that appear as inscrutable enthymemes to others; I move too much and often quite artlessly. Anxiety spirals often drive me into absolute stasis, besieging my mind with conflicting questions and concerns. And depression means that sometimes I cannot move at all mentally or physically because my bodymindspirit, as Irene Lara deems it (2005), just aches too much. These concerns are not just a long list of my medical conditions but rhetorical topics in the flesh.

Consistent with our discipline’s attempts to erase the centrality of bodies to rhetoric except when discussed as perhaps another technology, we often learn to compose as though writing and reception do not occur through our bodies. As Jay Dolmage has argued, “we have accepted an historical narrative in which [like philosophy] rhetoric…denounces the body, overlooks its phenomenological and persuasive importance, and lifts discourse from its corporeal hinges” (2009, p.1). From writing rules that say we should stay away from the embodied I in favor of a disembodied objectivity, to the frequent denigration of pathos as illegitimate appeal, the teaching of rhetoric still tends to ignore the bodies that communicate and inscribe as though critical thinking and conveyance occur in a utopian, logocentric vacuum. We’re to spill our thoughts and feelings, find our voices, use imagery to help readers envision vivid scenes, and yet we are asked to basically ignore the color of our hands, the desires and fears they have known, and the emotions they render visible in favor of what passes for academic rigor. So I sit here before you now, contemplating what it means to be artful, what it means to use stasis as a heuristic for change, when your body and mind don’t fit the normate standards of what it means to move. Asking how we might go about developing pedagogies based in critical embodiment that recognize the diverse ways that non-normative bodies navigate spaces. I believe that critical embodiment pedagogies can help in the creation of access that reverberates beyond the page and into the real world because the two spaces are not discrete.

All too often, discussions about accessibility are reduced to issues of style and clarity without taking into account the importance of embodiment in deciding whether those standards have been met. For example, proponents of critical pedagogy urge us to recognize the difference between access to information—that is, access to texts and resources—and access to knowledge—meaning the ability to decode and utilize information (Sleeter, 2012).  Both kinds of access occur corporeally, but our bodies and the lives they engender are what typically gets ignored in the process of determining accessibility. The most fundamental way to make texts accessible is by ensuring that they are readable in terms of style and clarity. Yet readability is treated as all about quantifiable data and lexical indexes, and hence deficiency, rather than equitable communication and invitational exchange. Whose experiences are the basis for deciding what is clear and stylistically adroit in any given context? Are they typically those of, say, someone with a learning disability or whose first language is not English, or do we still target those we perceive to be in the mainstream, the whitestream as Sandy Grande (2003) would say, the dominant group, and simply aim for a retrofit with a few strategic devices to ensure the Others feel included? What real people do we imagine as our “always a fiction”? If we consider readability based on normate assumptions rather than the embodied experiences of people most in need of access to voice and space, notions like style and clarity themselves can and do become part of an ableist apparatus that promotes other -isms as well. Margaret Price reminds us that discursive norms are often tools of social hygiene (2011), affirming dominant ideologies, enacting erasure, and backgrounding those of us who do not think and move according to the mean. They render people and their needs visible or invisible, privileging some people by pushing Others out of categories of the human.

Foregrounding the material and embodied needs of audiences requires that we be upfront about why we do the things we do, that we get away from ideal generalities in favor of stating bluntly, “Yes, I want to be more conscientious of my intended audience’s dis/ability, race, queerness” and so on in how I write and teach others to write. But in many circles that still gets you pegged as “that political teacher” rather than “that meticulous rhetor.” And, even when we do try to be critical pedagogues, that doesn’t mean we are actually listening to those we think we’re championing. In an essay I assign every semester, Ibby Grace (2013) points to an inconsistency that academia as a whole is responsible for but that every single person in our field (even/especially me) needs to be held accountable for since we rhetoric and composition folks are all about effective communication. Basically, we use overly technical and dense language to identify as members of particular discourse communities while excluding a large part of the world. Those of us who are neurodivergent need cognitively accessible language to avoid fatigue when reading or writing about ourselves, but that’s not what gets you published even when the journals we’re submitting to say they’re interested in our experiences. That’s not to say we shouldn’t appeal to disciplinary conventions, but when addressing the needs of particular demographics, we have to choose whether we’re speaking with them or whether we are speaking for them, over them, and therefore, against them. Competing for or denying space instead of using any privilege we may have to create and hold space so people can speak for themselves.

That’s what critical embodiment pedagogy calls for: it recognizes that writing is political. I know my existence is political—as a woman, as a person of color, as a disabled person living where I live. Some of us have no other choice than to be political because our lives have been politicized. My ability to find room to move and be moved reveals that words are never just words; they are spaces that are accessible or else they are hostile. As Stephanie Kerschbaum (2013) stresses, multimodal inhospitality affects how disabled people engage within different kairotic spaces, precluding our ability to establish presence because we cannot enter these spaces, whether face-to-face or online. Also, in print and in paper and ink because ultimately, communication is always multimodal since all modalities rely on embodiment for reception. There is no multimodality without corporeal grounding, and as a result, we must understand modalities as body-spatial. Sara Ahmed writes that as bodies traverse spaces, bodies and spaces are both transformed, taking on one another’s contours (2006). Because spaces shape bodies and bodies shape space, that body-space is intrinsically rhetorical though in ways that often go unnoticed because of our intimate living relationships to it—but only if you’ve got privilege.

When we are disabled or raced or queer, inhospitable conditions frequently render us hypervisible to those with privilege. That should not be confused with having presence within the whitestream. Melanie Yergeau, writing about autism and rhetoric with Paul Heilker (2011), provides a salient, all too familiar example of this difference when she explains how neurotypicals describe autistics as ineffective rhetors because they’re “empathetically challenged” even as they write about autistic writers as though their own empathy is consummate (491). This begs the question: why are these critics writing about autistics at all then? To diagnose their writing? To figure out how to rectify some hypothetical deficit rather than welcome how difference destabilizes inured norms? Our writing reflects our embodied movement through different geographies, and such imposed assumptions render the page or screen an already antagonistic space before we even sit down to compose. Little wonder, then, that students find writing painful. It is when your experience, your background, your life is constantly being overwritten.

Consequently, because I know all too well what it means, no, what that feels like, I can’t help but want to think about the embodied I/me as a strategic site of invention that moves in and about the world, sending multimodal messages that some people may not expect but also (re)creating space in my wake. Rhetoric is ever aimed at futurity and the movements people are to make in order to achieve some semblance of progress, and so, notions of kairotic space-time are typically ableist, racist, heteronormative. Since I’m rendered hyperaware of my body within my own entered-into spatial environments, I think of others’ body-spaces and deliberately aim to create and hold space for them, to let them know that they are recognized. This intention requires a whole new orientation, as Alison Kafer (2013) explains in her work on crip time. Reorientation that foregrounds rather than ignores the everyday realities and physical needs of the disabled body, the raced body, the queer body. How does that work? Othered people get tired. There’s pressure to write for ablebodied audiences, non-raced audiences, cis-hetero audiences, even when we’re talking about ourselves to people like us, but how often does the reverse hold true? Maybe this one time I don’t want to concentrate on moving you; maybe this one time you who don’t have the burden of hypervisible identities wearing you out all the time can move over and make some room for those of us who do. Earlier this semester, we analyzed Janine Butler’s recent article in Kairos (2016) about captions in ASL music videos, including some videos that featured only ASL song lyrics without alphabetic text. Discussing what those rhetorical choices revealed about the videos’ respective intended audiences, a student with a self-disclosed disability remarked, “You know, I think it’s okay if people who aren’t disabled feel left out just this one time. They already get addressed all the time. Every other time everything is for them.”

So yes, all rhetoric is political. And in terms of movement, I argue we need to move beyond being aware of bodily diversity to becoming active makers of spaces that accommodate diverse experiences whether in print, online, or in person. We need to develop greater critical attunement to space as more than a mere background for verbal rhetorics. As Londie Martin (2013) argues, space isn’t empty and representations and conceptions of space are never neutral. Spaces and bodies adopt and engender assumptions about belonging and exclusion reified by the writing, dispositions, and actions of others, by whose experiences are foregrounded or backgrounded. Ultimately, I cannot move you if I myself cannot move, circumscribed by the assumptions of normality and normativity. And so, in closing, I challenge you to consider moving yourself just a bit, to make room for me and Others like me, and I will attempt to do the same as I live and compose.


  • Ahmed, S. (2006). Queer phenomenology: Orientations, objects, others. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Butler, J. (2016). Where access meets multimodality: The case of ASL music videos. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy21(1). Retrieved from
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  • Grace, E. (Nov. 22, 2013). Cognitively accessible language. The Feminist Wire. Retrieved from
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  • Kennedy, G. A. (1999). Classical rhetoric & its Christian & secular tradition from ancient to modern times. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  • Lara, I. (2005). Bruja positionalities: Toward a Chicana/Latina spiritual activism. Chicana/Latina Studies4(2), 10-45.
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  • Price, M. (2011). Mad at school. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Sleeter, C. E. (2005). Un-standardizing curriculum: Multicultural teaching in the standards-based classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

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