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“Imaginary College Students,” is a chapter excerpt from a book called Academic Ableism. It is a challenging read, aimed primarily at academics. However, the figure of the imaginary college student is not unique to academic rhetoric; we see similar iterations of other imaginary college students in mainstream articles about free speech on campuses, and on discussions to do with trigger warnings, safe spaces, and diversity, among other instances. Why is Dolmage invoking the imaginary college student in a book on ableism? How does disability relate to the imaginary student? What does Dolmage argue the figures of “Super Samantha” and “Slow Samantha” are doing? Select a passage to analyze. You may need to reread your selected passage a number of times.PDF 1 is a book, please quote one sentence from the book in first sentence
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University of Michigan Press
Chapter Title: Imaginary College Students
Book Title: Academic Ableism
Book Subtitle: Disability and Higher Education
Book Author(s): JAY TIMOTHY DOLMAGE
Published by: University of Michigan Press. (2017)
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.9708722.7
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C h a pter Th ree
Imaginary College Students
•••
Malcolm Harris, writing about the true forces for educational
change, in 2016:
“Capitalists will constantly seek to reshape schooling because
their labor supply can always be more efficient.” (n.p.)
Multimodality. Multiliteracies. These concepts have been championed in
recent scholarship in my own discipline of composition, but also across
the humanities, with extraordinary volume and enthusiasm. In this chapter, I will examine this push as one specific trend signaling progress in
higher education, yet reproducing old exclusions. This exploration is
first of all about how universities argue for change through the invention
of specific types of student mind and body. This exploration is also a sort
of test case: Is it possible to ever argue for educational change without
reinforcing the stigma of disability?
To keep things simple, in this chapter I will define multimodality as
the engagement with many modes of meaning-­making. Multimodality is
communication and composition across textual, linguistic, spatial, aural,
and visual resources. Multiliteracies, on the other hand, is a term coined
specifically by one group (the New London Group) to talk about the skill
developed by communicating across these modes and the skill needed in
order to communicate across these modes. Multimodality should be an
agnostic, descriptive term; multiliteracy is the term that is supposed to
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work as an assessment, a measure. But in a way, the distinction between
the terms is irrelevant because, as you will read, the terms are rarely
invoked to simply describe what a student or a classroom is doing. Much
more often, the terms are used interchangeably to count or diagnose or
prescribe modes or literacies.1
So, while the arguments that support these concepts of multiplicity are ambitious, democratic, often incisively careful and critical,
and hopeful, this energy does not always lead to inclusive classroom
practice. Many students who think and express themselves in nonnormative ways are actually further excluded by pedagogies of multiplicity. In this way, it is imperative to understand the context of a push
toward these multiples.
To begin with, disability and literacy have generally been severed
by science and by law. As disability and education researchers Christopher Kliewer, Douglas Biklen, and Christi Kasa-­Hendrickson show,
“restricted literacy among people with disabilities has become institutionalized as a presumably natural manifestation of organic defects
thought to objectively exist well beyond the reach of social, cultural,
or historical consideration” (164). Authorities from doctors to immigration agents used literacy tests to establish baselines of deviancy.
Kate Vieira writes that literacy is a “navigational technology that
opens up some paths and closes off others, that orients and disorients, that routes and often reroutes. . . . it is also an infrastructure that
regulates movement” (30, italics mine). This metaphor of literacy as
mobility (and orientation) is of utmost importance to the intersections between literacy and ability, illiteracy and disability. Literacy
has been used to tightly control the movement and rights of disabled
people for centuries; this deeply affects what literacy is and what it
can do for anyone.
As notions of literacy developed from the idea of illiteracy, so too
has ability been developed only as disability has been (often arbitrarily)
marked out. I allude here to the fact that the concept of “literacy” in its
contemporary sense came into use only in the late nineteenth century.
Previously, to be literate meant to be familiar with literature. Original
definitions of literacy were based on one’s ability to read the Bible or
sign one’s name. In this way, literacy only came about as a result of the
judgment of illiteracy (access Kendall). As Karl Marx and Foucault can
be seen to argue, and as disability geographer Brendan Gleeson also
reminds us, the factory “produced physical disability on an industrial
scale” (109). Before industrialization, though there were ideas of ability
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and disability, society did not comprehensively sort its citizens using disability as a criteria. Concurrently, and consequently, illiteracy has been
a way to sort society, determining who can immigrate, deciding who can
vote, determining the divisions of the labor force, and so on. This sorting has always been clearly biased—­for instance, at Ellis Island, Russian
Jews were not allowed to take literacy tests in Hebrew. Why? Because
U.S. immigration restrictionists wanted to be sure that many of them
would fail, and thus forced them to take the tests in Russian (access Dolmage, “Disabled upon Arrival”). In the South, literacy tests to determine
who could vote were almost comedically difficult (Onion). They were
designed to disenfranchise African Americans.
Like literacy, ability is defined by its inverse. It gains shape only when
a negative prefix is appended, and without this prefix it has little to no
social power. The concepts of disability and illiteracy might be seen to
have developed in similar ways, at similar times, in the Western world,
the prefixes being used with particular, and similar (perhaps connected), ends in mind. In this chapter, I will explore how, through the push
for new and multiple forms of literacy, we also come to tell stories and
create maps of disability.
Somnolent Samantha
Against this backdrop of illiteracy and disability, there is also a push for
new forms of literacy and ability. This can be understood as a hallmark
of neoliberalism: the redefinition of intellectual values that highlight the
need of the individual student (or worker) to become a more flexible
(and thus fungible or disposable) producer and consumer.
The rhetorical push for multimodality and multiliteracies, such as
that provided by the New London Group (Cope and Kalantzis) is now
more than 15 years old, but still building momentum. Behind much of
the New London Group’s work is the implicit argument that, in each
individual learner, the more modes engaged, the better. Of course we
do not all have the same proclivity, desire, or ability to develop all of
our modal or literate engagements. It seems useful and pragmatic to
encourage the multiple engagement of senses and learning pathways,
across multiple modes, but not to map them and add them up toward
a multimodal IQ. This said, Gunther Kress of the New London Group
also argues that, because a culture selects and privileges certain forms
of embodied engagement, some will be “affectively and cognitively at
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an advantage over those whose preferred sensory modes are not valued
or are suppressed in their culture” (187). So it is important to remain
critical not just of which literacies and modes a culture privileges but
also which combinations of literacies and modes, and which interactions between literacies and modes, come to enable or disable learners
in pedagogical design, in the classroom. So this chapter will help us to
further attend to how disability and illiteracy come together and create
one another.
Earlier, I discussed the notion that 2015 was the “year of the imaginary college student” (Hsu). I am going to extend this to suggest that
there are two specific imaginary characters created by discourse about
multimodality and multiliteracy, and I am going to suggest that these
two characters—­both of them students—­link to two dominant discourses about disability in education. I’ll note that these two students should
bear some ironic relationship to Somnolent Samantha, the character
that Jon Westling, president of Boston University, invented in 1995.
(Thanks to Zosha Stuckey and Lois Agnew, who examine this case more
closely in an essay in the journal Open Words). Westling’s story was about
a student named Samantha, who had a documented learning disability.
In Westling’s story, Samantha is a caricature who greedily demands extra
time on assignments and exams, copies of notes from lectures, a seat at
the front of the class, and a separate room in which to take tests; most
memorably, she also warns him that she will fall asleep in his class, and
thus will need someone to take notes while she is asleep—­thus he calls
her “somnolent” Samantha. Later, Westling admitted that the story was
a lie. But he argued that Somnolent Samantha characterized the unreasonable expectations universities were being held to by opportunistic
students and the unfair challenges administrators and teachers faced in
responding to their mandate to accommodate disability. His argument
was, basically, that these students were milking the system and probably
didn’t belong in university at all if they couldn’t play by the “normal”
rules. Somnolent Samantha and other fictional students like her are key
characters invented through discourse about disability in higher education. These students are the “real” problem, Westling argued, despite the
fact that he had just invented one.
Samantha is much like the “Johnny” of Myra Linden and Arthur
Whimbey’s 1990 Why Johnny Can’t Write, an unfortunate classic in writing
scholarship, a book that begins with the warning that “Johnny’s Country Is Losing Business,” and goes on to strongly advocate for a series of
sentence-­combining and text-­reconstruction exercises to fix Johnny and
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the economy. But imaginary college and university students are more
common than you’d think. They pop up everywhere.
This book would be incomplete without both a deeper investigation
of the students who get invented through the backlash to accommodations in higher education, and a deeper investigation of the invention of
the ideal students who stand in their inverse image. So I’ll introduce two
more characters, each reinvented and reshaped in unique ways by recent
attention to multimodality and multiliteracies. To keep things simple, I’ll
make everyone a Samantha of some sort.
Super Samantha
The first character might be named Super Samantha. This student
appears in some form in almost all of the literature about multimodality, and quite a bit of the scholarship about the use of technology in the
classroom. Super Samantha is much better at nonprint literacies than all
of her peers and most of her teachers. She is technologically savvy, crafty,
and has mastered modes that her elders haven’t even heard of (yet). She
is Mark Zuckerberg and Doogie Howser and Dora the Explorer with a
brand-­new backpack.
Samantha, very notably, is a spectacle. As Rachel Riedner writes of
such spectacular stories, “like melodramas, spectacles are written to
obscure more complex and nuanced stories. The shock they elicit displaces complex situations, shaping our response through astonishment
and surprise rather than through sustained attention. . . . no effort is
called for to shift how we respond” (105). Somnolent and Super Samantha are spectacles of neoliberalism, in Riedner’s scheme: they are in fact
the only two types of student neoliberalism needs. One is totally flexible
to a wide range of uses and values within capitalism. One is a total drain
on the system and thus disposable.
Bronwyn Williams writes obliquely about this super student in his
introduction to Cindy Selfe’s edited collection Multimodal Composition,
suggesting that he sometimes finds this student’s “energy and creativity unnerving” (xi). In short, this student is Super, because they already
have multimodal literacies that far outstrip those of their teachers; thus,
they are also Scary because these teachers aren’t sure how to teach them.
In either case, they hide more nuanced stories and more realistic roles
for students.
Selfe has looked extensively at how technological literacy has been
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characterized in the media, government, and in our scholarship. She
would likely say that Super Samantha belongs in the overdone discourse
or “story” of what she might call multimodality as a literacy boon: “in the
hands of [Super Samantha, multimodality] can help us make the world a
better place.” In this way, Super Samantha is not scary in the horror-­film
way—­she is scary in a way that should be celebrated. Selfe would likely say that Super Samantha is linked to “science, economic prosperity,
education, capitalism, and democracy,” and thus her story “has a potent
cumulative power” (Technology and Literacy, 27). But, again, she is an
idealized character, and she is invoked most often to show that universities do not have the educational resources, infrastructure, or pedagogical skill to accommodate her in the classroom.
Regardless, Super Samantha is in the driver’s seat when it comes to
designing multimodal pedagogy. As Gunther Kress writes, multimodality is born of the idea that “we do not yet have a theory which allows
us to understand and account for the world of communication as it is
now” (Multimodality, 7). This world will belong to Super Samantha.
The ideal that she presents propels us to create learning opportunities
that live up to her potential: build it because she is already here. For
instance, Stuart Selber, in Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, uses “a portrait
of the ideal multiliterate student” to lay out his argument for educational change (22).2
In some stories, she is all of our students already. Selfe, in an article
coauthored with Gail Hawisher and others, profiles a student named
Brittney who “authored web sites as a child,” and saw computers being
as essential as air (Hawisher et. al. 656). Brittney’s story shows “how little
teachers of English, composition and communication know about the
many literacies students bring to the classroom” (Hawisher et. al.676).
This student, then, is not molded by education, but rather bursts through
the doors of the classroom and demands its reshaping.3 The literature
is full of further case studies, and example work, from multimodally
advanced students (students with advanced multiliteracy).
Super Samantha’s multimodality, however, is strikingly visual. Perhaps
we shouldn’t be surprised. We do live in an “ocularcentric” culture—­that
is, one in which visual images dominate (Jay, 344). But there is a distinct
lack of exploration of, for instance, tactile modes of creation in the classroom. This omission might tie into what Evan Watkins suggests is the
dominance of visual culture in an “attention economy” in which teachers
become resource managers who need to train students to create a “product” that gains value only if people will pay attention to it (94). Creating
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a truly diverse range of modes, or creating a redundant array of modes,
doesn’t have the same value.
Especially in a time of economic crisis, in the panic of postindustrialism, as manufacturing jobs disappear and new “knowledge jobs” (or
“attention jobs”) need to be created, Super Samantha is a powerful
character. She is never invoked uncritically—­but she seems to be always
invoked. Super Samantha can be considered a product or even a flag-­
bearer of fast capitalism, a logic stressing the need for constant change,
flexibility, and adaptation, particularly in modes of expression. Fast capitalism is also a logic that uses this rhetoric to encourage compliance and
to sort workers.4 Simply, when capitalism demands speed and flexibility,
it is mostly in service of more efficiently exploiting workers. So while a
postindustrial society (and a post-­Fordist one, where the rigidity and uniformity of manufacturing is less prevalent) might or maybe should help
us to de-­emphasize things like the strict time regimes of academia, there
are always other demands to be made.
In other stories, Super Samantha lives in India or China, where a new
generation of savvy students is mastering all of the skills that North American students are not, and leaving these domestic students behind. She is
then marked also as being governed by different political, religious, or
social rules, each of which somehow frees her to develop her superiority
in ways that North American students cannot. As Kress warns, “a new theory of text is essential to meet the demands of culturally plural societies in
a globalizing world” (“Genres,” 186). Meanwhile, in North America, the
question of whether multiliteracies would accommodate multilingualism
continues to hinge on economic and cultural values that recognize foreign language usage as either only a skill, or as a threat to national sovereignty: “skill versus sedition” (Lo Bianco, n.p.). Multiliteracy gets framed
as something North American students need to acquire in the name of
nationalism and economic competition. North America needs to globalize and become more culturally plural—­again only, somewhat ironically,
in the name of nationalism and economic competition. So we witness
a sort of literacy protectionism—­the shielding of domestic assets from
foreign competition by taxing imports; the shielding of domestic student
abilities from foreign competition by taxing the import of multiliteracy,
especially when language difference is part of the equation.
Super Samantha is also a character that many in the disability rights
community know well, even if at first we don’t recognize her. It is the
specter of just such a student that leads to a backlash against accessible
education and things like the ADA: if you accommodate all students and
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treat the classroom with a democratic and egalitarian ethic, then you
could be holding back our Super students. That’s un-­American!
It’s un-­Canadian too, it seems. An administrator at my own university
visited a department meeting recently to give a “state of the university
address” to myself and my colleagues. The thought that …
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