Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Comment from the Field: John Milton and Disability Studies in Literature Courses

Academic journal article Journal of Literary and Cultural Disability Studies

Comment from the Field: John Milton and Disability Studies in Literature Courses

Article excerpt

Georgina Kleege opens her introduction to Blindness and Literature, a special issue of the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, stating that "I have often contemplated teaching a Disability Studies class on literary depictions of blindness," conjecturing that she might begin the class with the classical figures of "Oedipus and Tiresias," and include the works discussed in that edition (113). She (at UC Berkeley), like I (at Purdue University), works at a major public university, the funding for which makes teaching such a boutique course, as it is called, unlikely. One of the glories-or challenges-of the limitations of public universities is that they compel instructors to be especially resourceful, an activity that allies them with the more pervasive activities in which disabled individuals are compelled to engage.

There are indeed many opportunities for including disability studies in a variety of the "bread-and-butter" literature courses that I teach. For example, a stalwart assignment I require in nearly all my undergraduate courses is the oral delivery of about 14 to 20 lines of memorized poetry, either in the classroom or in a campus venue. In my frosh-/sophomore-level Bible courses and junior-/ senior-level Shakespeare courses, I have given extra credit to students who have delivered their memorized recitation in sign language. Instructors like me, who are unfamiliar with sign language, can recruit a colleague in speech, language, and hearing sciences to co-grade the delivery, just as they might recruit someone in Chinese, French, Spanish, or another department to co-grade recitations in those languages.

There is one especially ripe opportunity in literature courses for including disability studies: when teaching the works of John Milton (1607-74), an author who includes blind narrators in a number of his works and who became completely blind when he was 43 years old. Because he is such a mainstay in major-author, world literature, and early British survey literature courses, I am especially keen on sharing some of the ways I integrate the important (inter-) disciplines of disability studies and Milton Studies in my undergraduate and graduate courses. Because those courses usually fulfill either area requirements for English majors and minors, and graduate students in English and comparative literature, this combination exposes a good number of future leaders in literary studies to this vibrant research area. Fortuitously, these same courses often fulfill general breadth requirements, like the "Western heritage" category, for non-English majors, so the combination will also reach students with other specializations.

Integrating literary depictions of blindness into these courses positions disability studies as one of many valuable theoretical perspectives that I also bring into the conversation about how to approach literary texts: I do not Other the field of disability studies, just as in my example I position sign language as only one among many language options for recitations. I recognize my integration of disability studies in relation to a canonical author as part of the current trend of the field toward less pointedly activist practices. As Christopher Gabbard notes, the field emerged from the "disability rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s" with many "of its theorists, scholars, and researchers identify[ing] themselves as disabled" (80). Now, the field attracts scholars who identify as disabled, disabled-affected, non-disabled, and purposefully un-identifying, which has enabled the field to grow quickly and powerfully in many disciplines, although literary studies still lags; hence my current interest in addressing as many students in literature courses as possible.

Undergraduate Courses

Careful selection of texts that highlight the desired teaching objectives is key for introducing students to any specific field or method, including disability studies. …

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