English Department’s Dis/ability and Literature Course Reaches Out to Local Community
Monday, February 24, 2020
Monday, February 24, 2020
In the fall semester of 2019, Janis Greve, a faculty member in the English Department, led a unique course in which students had the opportunity to work with a medium often ignored in the academic world, the graphic novel, and with voices often ignored in society, those of individuals with cognitive differences. In this course, English 317: Dis/ability and Literature, UMass students used the lenses of literature and art to better understand the physical and developmental differences that can often act as barriers in our society, and partnered with members of local community organizations to create their own brief graphic memoirs about anything they wanted.
Greve stated that she has always wanted to change people's perception of dis/ability. It's a desire that helps explain her choice to write “disability” with a slash (as do others in her field) so as to “draw attention to ‘dis’ as meaning ‘less than’ (and therefore question its use in the word) while foregrounding the possibility of ability within ‘disability.’” With this more open language in mind, she has led a course of the same title twice before, but, no matter how inclusive the words they used were, something was still off: “Prior to teaching this course as a service-learning course, I've always thought that it only went so far in changing anyone's attitudes about dis/ability—in other words, not very far. Reading books by and about people with disabilities was good, but it didn't really change anyone's life or send us out into the world thinking or behaving much differently. So I thought that having a service-learning component would involve personal risk and investment for everyone in the class, which it has.” She connected with two community organizations—Milestones in Hadley and Riverside Industries in Easthampton—and together they created an opportunity wherein individuals in these organizations could meet in Berkshire Dining Commons every week to work with UMass students on a project.
Not only do students in this course get the chance to interact with people they might not have otherwise, but they also get to study and engage with a medium that is not widely studied in the English department: the graphic novel. They spent a unit studying “Graphic Medicine,” a relatively new development in the field of Medical Humanities that, as Greve explained, refers to “comics about illness or disability written by patients—mostly for therapeutic purposes.” Moreover, the form of the graphic novel is “liberating and fun,” a unique way to express one’s thoughts through art and words.
After reading My Degeneration by Peter Dunlap-Shohl, a graphic memoir about Parkinson’s Disease, the students wrote their own graphic memoirs on themes of health so they can “both study the genre and try it first-hand to get a feel for it and learn basic features of the form.” The students also were paired with members of the local organizations and helped them create their own graphic novels about absolutely anything. “In working with our community partners,” emphasized Greve, “our goal was NOT to get our students to write about disability or illness, but to learn comics as a form of autobiographical storytelling.” This allowed for a great variety of stories to emerge from the class, from a dramatic and true story about rolling out of moving cars to hilarious, pun-filled fiction about the Beatles winning March Madness.
Greve plans to run this course again in the fall of 2020 and then as often as she can. Her hopes for the future of the course include helping more students from more diverse backgrounds discover the rewards of service-learning. Most of the UMass students enrolled in this class in the past have been from the sciences, having discovered the course through Spire keyword searches or departmental advisors, but Greve would love to see more English majors take the class.
Particularly for students interested in education/special education, medical professions, and social justice, this class provides singular experience. In fact, it can be a great resume-builder; “Two of my students were actually offered jobs when their skills of interacting with someone with cognitive difference were observed by the organizations. I'm not sure everyone realize[s] this—hands-on experiences with community organizations can have real-world gains in a range of ways.”
Reporting and photos by Victoria Bourque, Digital Communications Intern