Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Tricia Zebrowski and Douglas Baynton pulled off a wonderful finale this spring. The two retiring professors—Zebrowski is in her first year as an Emeritus in Communication Sciences & Disorders, while Baynton retired in May 2019 from History—co-directed “Misfitting: Disability Broadly Considered,” the 2019 Obermann Humanities Symposium. During three days in April, the pair helped to host eminent speakers in the area of disability studies at an event that also featured a performances by a local disabilities choir and several comedians, a panel about teaching disabilities, and another panel about design and disability.

Bridging Generations of Scholars

Disability studies is one of the fastest growing interdisciplinary fields in the humanities, social sciences, and health sciences. Two internationally recognized scholars provided keynote lectures: Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (Emory University), whose New York Times essay “Misfitting” provided the name for the conference, and Joseph Straus (City University of New York). Both scholars' visits were supported by the Ida Beam Visiting Professorships Program and included attending classes and working meals with students and faculty. [View Garland-Thomson's talk.]

Other emerging leaders in the field, including Margaret Price (The Ohio State University - pictured left), Sami Schalk (University of Wisconsin–Madison), and Michele Friedner (University of Chicago), presented at the symposium, while Bay Area stuttering comedian and activist Nina G gave a performance at the IMU that attracted both undergraduate and graduate students. Two University of Iowa students, Andrew Tubbs (Music) and Alex Lange (Higher Education & Student Affairs), opened for her.

Sharing Lived Experience

The scholars, some of whom spoke openly about their lived experience with disability, including within the academy, inspired student attendees beyond their research. One student wrote of how Price “improvis[ed] a footrest from a bench. This simple act of environmental alteration requires a boldness I need to practice.… I am not convinced that a universally accommodating space exists, but I will take a page from activists like Garland-Thomson [and Price] and use what imperfect tools we have to create progress.”

A number of connections that will likely prove fruitful were made during the three days. John Manak (pictured below), a professor in Biology and Pediatrics, presented at a session devoted to teaching and disability. He discussed his course “Good Genes Gone Bad: Genetic Disorders of Notable Celebrities,” which covers basic genetics, human disease genetics, and genetic disorders.

Manak’s lab was responsible for the discovery of a genetic condition that leads children to be born with one kidney. His research into family trees of people with this condition helped him to better appreciate the personal stories, grief, and trauma behind each child who died. During the symposium, he spoke with Garland-Thomson -- first about about terminology (she took umbrage at his use of the term “birth defects”) and then about the possibilities of directly connecting lab scientists and people affected by disabilities.

“Even though I'm the P.I. of studies,” Manak says, “lab scientists like me hardly ever reach out to families. Families might meet with a genetic counselor, who are the go-betweens, but they don’t meet researchers. As the person who discovered the gene, I have the most knowledge of the vast range of anomalies, while [the families] have the lived experience.”

He and Garland-Thomson are now discussing the idea of a project that puts the two groups into direct contact with each other, a gap that both scholars believe needs to be bridged.  

Planting Seeds for Future Connections

This kind of connection ran throughout the symposium. Two graduate students assisted Baynton and Zebrowski in organizing the symposium: Corey Hickner-Johnson (English) and Hope Gerlach (Communication Sciences & Disorders - pictured left in conversation with Doug Baynton and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson). Gerlach said, “The connections I made with other scholars went beyond my expectations, including with people who were willing to continue to talk beyond the conference.”

Gerlach, who will assume a new faculty position at Western Michigan University in the fall, has already spoken with Margaret Price, one of the symposium presenters and Director of Disability Studies at The Ohio State University, about planning a collaboration.  

“On paper, we don’t have obvious overlap,” notes Gerlach, “but after seeing each other’s presentations, we started imagining ways to work together.” Gerlach’s research is around workplace discrimination for people who stutter, while Price focuses on people with disabilities in higher education.

Price herself said of the symposium that it comprised “lots of listening, lots of sitting together, genuine efforts to build a more just space together (in academia, and in the world).”

Graduate Course Prepares Students for Symposium

In conjunction with the symposium, Baynton and Zebrowski taught a one-hour graduate course in which students read articles and book excerpts by the visiting speakers. The dozen students included some with specific scholarly and personal experience with disability, and others who were drawn to the topic out of curiosity.

One of these students, John Jepsen, a PhD student in History who studies environmental, energy, and labor history, wrote that he appreciated that the course provided space to share ideas, even among participants who had little familiarity with the topic. “That Dr. Baynton was so immediately open and unafraid to share his own state of being—and in so doing, make manifest the topic we were all there to think about, both humanizing it and diffusing some of the tension inherent in the initial stages of learning about thorny, uncomfortable, or discomfiting subjects—was a powerful way to begin the seminar.”

Zebrowski, who studies stuttering and does not consider herself a disabilities studies scholar, was excited by how much she learned from reading the presenters’ work, including ideas she was able to apply in her work with her own graduate students.

In particular, she was struck by the writing and presentation of Sami Schalk, Assistant Professor of Gender, Women’s, & Sexuality Studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison, about the intersection of the disabilities movement in Berkeley, California, and the Black Panthers and how essential the latter was to the former. For instance, in 1976, disability activists occupied a building at the University of California, Berkeley, and the police had cordoned it off, hoping to “starve” them out. The Black Panthers found a way to get food to the activists, allowing the occupation to continue and eventually compelling the university’s president to enforce legislation. [View Schalk's talk.]

Need for Disability Studies Scholar the UI

Many of the symposium presenters hale from institutions with disability studies programs; however, Baynton is the only humanities faculty member at the University of Iowa who is a disability studies scholar. This spring, he served on six dissertation committees, each of which had a disabilities component. Baynton, who retired in May, says that he hopes the breadth of the symposium speakers' work and the enthusiasm from symposium participants will convince UI leaders of the need to hire another humanities scholar in disability studies, noting, “We have people in applied fields but not in the humanities.”

Support and Gratitude

The purpose of the annual Obermann Humanities Symposium is to explore an important humanities topic that highlights UI scholars and scholarship and includes both UI and visiting participants.  Misfitting: Disability Considered Broadly was supported by the UI School of Social Work, the Campus Activities Board, the Ida Beam Visiting Professors Program, and UI Students for Disability Advocacy and Awareness. In addition, the Iowa City Public Library assisted in providing space and documentation of the event, and MERGE provided space and support.