Lester, Paulus, Gabriel: DP and Construction

Lester, J. & Paulus, T. (2012). Performative acts of autism. Discourse & Society 23(3), 259-273.

One of the two boys a friend of mine from high school has is labeled with autism, so I have an interest in all things ASD. It is quite interesting to see how society builds up stereotypes through discourse, some of which is noted in the article. The quote from Foucault is of particular interest to me: “Foucault (1972) suggested that discourses constitute and even regulate the body in certain ways, ‘exercising upon it a subtle coercion . . . obtaining holds upon it at the level of mechanism itself – movements, gestures, attitudes, rapidity: an infinitesimal power over the active body’ (p. 137).”

I just visited a relative who has a boy child who plays with typical girl things. What pops into my head as a “normative policeman” is that the child must be gay or trans-gender. As a human, what pops into my head is that this child faces a hard row to hoe –note use of idiom :). When other children and adults see him performing acts they find inexplicable, they will, like I first did, search for a label that can help them make sense of the action. I find many parallels between this situation and that described by the parents in the article. The mother of this boy expressed his normality in a way that wouldn’t be required of a kid that was “normal.” Back to the Foucault: at this point, the child, so far as I can tell, is so sweet and kind and loving that I don’t think any of the “subtle coercion” has begun. The parents, siblings, and other family members treat the child with love and respect. The discourse of others who might label the child has yet to enact power over his body. Merleau-Ponty writes something along the lines of an intuitive normal—no one with any disability or abnormal feature deep down sees it as abnormal. It is only through the perspective (and expression) of others that abnormality is internalized.

Lester writes, “It is possible then that Nicole’s deployment of the terms ‘autism’ and ‘disability’ functioned to distance herself and her son from being responsible for the meltdown, with autism or a disability positioned in that role instead” (p.269). This idea of diverting responsibility makes me think of Heidegger (I know, maybe it’s a stretch). If the ultimate responsibility (this according to Heidegger) is to face the inevitability of death, is this discomfort that people feel with abnormality related to fear of death? It is so pathological or persistent, maybe pervasive, to label what we see as “other.” We are confused/scared by difference and find our return to balance (and avoid changing ourselves) by labeling/explaining the strangeness we see. It’s almost enough to make me pick up Heidegger again…but there’s so much to read out there that I can understand first try, I probably won’t.

The thing I find most important is also on p. 269: Lester says that “the participants made real varied versions of autism for particular audiences.”

This variability connects to the kind of instability of meaning labels have in general. Like science in Gilbert and Mulkay (1982), autism means different things at different times with different audiences. The point is not what it is to be autistic, but how to negotiate the moment of present existence. Crisis at the store? Explain it away with the label of autistic. Crisis at school? Work to establish the child’s normative strengths. More and more examples of the variability of language meaning. The mounting evidence makes it hard for me to believe that people like Scalia, who interpret the Constitution literally, aren’t just playing some kind of game with the rest of us.

The other main point of interest for me here is the mention of the therapists helping the child with autism perform differently in order to help others understand the child and themselves better. I’d like to read more about that. I suppose that’s a question for Jessica: what are a few examples of how therapists do that?

I realize a few hours later (and after looking at the focus for class tomorrow) that I’ve kind of glazed over the theoretical section on construction of disability. I found the citations of literature and summary related to construction of normal/abnormal helpful in solidifying my understanding of othering. I feel like I’ve got a pretty solid understanding of most of the philosophy stuff from my cultural studies classes and other previous knowledge.

Gabriel, R. & Lester, J. (Forthcoming). The romance quest of education reform: A discourse analysis of The LA Times’ reports on value-added measurement teacher effectiveness. Teacher’s College Record.

I love the metaphor of the holy grail and knight slaying dragons. I’m doing a little pleasure/sanity reading this summer (Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie) and I’m particularly appreciative of using fictional allegory to help paint a picture of current events and spread knowledge.

This hero complex the LA Times (LAT) took on is all too common in our society, but one place where the metaphor breaks down is that the dragons to be slain are always chosen, fabricated (discursively constructed), sometimes by the crusaders no one asked for. Being from Eastern Kentucky, I often think of the folks who come in to “help” the “poor” mountain people. Like in many parts of this “don’t tread on me” country, some folks in EKY say something like, “When someone comes to help, first I check for my wallet and then reach for my gun.” Gabriel and Lester do a good job showing how the LAT paints itself as the hero. As with having to tell someone you’re honest, having to tell everyone you’re the hero kind of indicates some lack of heroics. Shouting “WE’RE DOING GOOD!” may convince some people (at least it got national attention for LAT), but I think lots of people see through it.

One thing I liked about this article is it takes DP and moves into the political realm and breaks down some widespread nonsense. Question for Rachael and Jessica: where do you see resistance to the focus on testing? (The last line of the article is pretty gloomy!)

I appreciated very much getting the story on the invention of VAM. That’s kind of floating around but I’ve never gotten the whole thing. This article seems like it should be required reading of pre-service teachers in TN. (I’ll be pushing it on my 401 students).

This article did better than the one I’m reading on science education to connect the findings to broader literature. The extracts not only had solid analysis but also connections to the literature. Of interest to me over the past few years in policy is the binary of good/bad teacher. This is another place where the media has aided in making “common sense” of the idea that some teachers are just awful. (And they’re being paid with tax dollars!). In other countries they do things like circulate great teachers around districts to work with other teachers. Sometimes justice-minded people here say that “good teachers” should be sent to bad schools. But good and bad teachers don’t exist in vacuums. They have different levels of support from other teachers, students, parents, etc. LAT coverage totally ignores everything but the test scores, as noted cleverly by G&L: “The utter simplicity of the notion that test scores are the goal of public education, and that teachers directly impact and therefore should be measured by them in the absence of other information or measures, is eclipsed only by the sheer volume of complexity it obscures” (p. 32).

Another question for them: in what states are alternatives to the technocracy of test scores making inroads into policy?

A few standouts:

I particularly liked the way they broke down the use of the term branded on p. 23: “Images of livestock and overtones of ownership aside, the lexical choice of “branding” highlights the link to rating as part of a primary identification that, once made, leaves an indelible mark.” I didn’t know how appropriate the use of the term was until I read their commentary.

“Though no one would argue against a tool that would help differentiate effectiveness, the idea that VAM does this is still controversial” (p. 20). This reminds me of a Chomsky quote: “But you don’t want people to think about [the] issue. That’s the whole point of good propaganda. You want to create a slogan that nobody’s going to be against, and everybody’s going to be for. Nobody knows what it means, because it doesn’t mean anything. Its crucial value is that it diverts your attention from a question that does mean something…”

This quote can define LAT as effective (haha) propagandists. (And the broader story shows how all good propaganda is resisted, in this case by the teacher union). LAT has a few slogans: teacher effectiveness, helping kids, etc., none of which can be argued against without sounding like you’re anti-progress. I think the question that diverts attention from the crucial issue is “How do we figure out which teachers are good?” The crucial issue is, “What and how are children learning?” This LAT series reminds me of the series of New York Times articles in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. Question for G&L: did any of the literature they cite use Iraq War-related media studies?

“In most cases, statisticians use the model to generate projected scores for students based on one to three previous years of achievement data, and then link students to the teacher of record for the subject being tested” (p. 7). Here I noted the use of statistician and thought of how G&L are using one of those tools D&P talked about. The agent here, the statistician, is the one that does this stuff. But the statistician is not the agent! Speaking of agency, “This was based on the belief that teachers should not be blamed for the lower scores of students with less potential” (p. 4). G&L could have dissected this more theoretically, I think, or cited someone who has: I kind of wanted further explanation of that.

And to end, “Further, as Goldstein (2011) has aptly noted, it is critical that those engaged in researching and conversing about school reform, teachers, teacher unions, and student learning “pay serious attention to how the mainstream media frames the debates” in order “to counter and transform the message when necessary, and to hold the media accountable for how it frames the debate in support of one view or another” (p. 569)” (p. 31). This reminds me of what I was saying about how, if the interviewer (Wilson?) didn’t have a line to pursue with M. Thatcher, she would have just walked all over him, presented her version as truth, and gotten many people to believe it. In education, we have to counter the messages of media through both major messages and daily talk. Otherwise Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and the Gates Foundation will continue to determine education policy.

One thought on “Lester, Paulus, Gabriel: DP and Construction

  1. “The thing I find most important is also on p. 269: Lester says that “the participants made real varied versions of autism for particular audiences.”

    This variability connects to the kind of instability of meaning labels have in general. Like science in Gilbert and Mulkay (1982), autism means different things at different times with different audiences. The point is not what it is to be autistic, but how to negotiate the moment of present existence.” Yes – variability has a huge role to play in DP and DA – understanding that instability and how people take up different discursive resources for different ends.

    Right, there really IS no way to do a “literal interpretation” of any text, be it the Bible or the Constitution. Everything has to be situated in its context to make any sense of it at all.

    “This hero complex the LA Times (LAT) took on is all too common in our society, but one place where the metaphor breaks down is that the dragons to be slain are always chosen, fabricated (discursively constructed), sometimes by the crusaders no one asked for.” Yes, and I suspect this whole “crisis in education” has been manufactured by those who have an interest in making it so (standardized test manufacturers, for example?)

    “I particularly liked the way they broke down the use of the term branded on p. 23: “Images of livestock and overtones of ownership aside, the lexical choice of “branding” highlights the link to rating as part of a primary identification that, once made, leaves an indelible mark.” I didn’t know how appropriate the use of the term was until I read their commentary.” Exactly why I love DA work, it makes visible and highlights what is usually left implicit – what the words we choose are really connoting.

    Thanks for the questions & I will pass them on to Jessica and Rachael in case they want to see them in advance.

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