The Body in the Academic Writing Genre: Gendering, Colonizing, and Ableism

By Bailey Anderson and coded by Tommy Rhodes

Liminalities 13.3 (2017)

This paper argues that a hegemonic academic writing genre contains invisibilized oppressive structures and is insufficient for illustrating many forms of produced knowledge. These oppressive structures as Brian Fray argues “...leaves its traces not just in people’s minds, but in their muscles and skeletons as well” (McLaren 153). Body knowledge is often suppressed and ignored as a viable source of knowledge. Furthermore, an academic writing genre coupled with writing as a primary way knowledge further reduces the knowledge contained in lived bodily experience. This paper will first explore how the academic writing genre is gendered, colonizing, and ableist, and then argue for a broadening of academic writing genre through noticing oppressive structures, expanding ways of sharing knowledge, and through a recentering of the body within a writing and knowledge making practice.

The writing structure this paper seeks to resist is the academic writing genre which is often promoted for tenure evaluation, and to which most students are pushed to be able to achieve as evidence of their ability to fully assimilate into academia. Although there are many merits to this form of writing which privileges clarity, an authoritative voice, and a standardization of conventions it still upholds what this paper articulates as gendering, colonizing, and ableist notions of normalcy. This paper uses the term “academic writing genre” to point to these specific ways some academic writing is problematic. I do not intend to say that all academic writing upholds these formations and offer ideas to break apart this style of writing to make writing more accessible and recenter the body in the writing process and product.

A note on language: this paper does argue that the body is not involved in writing, but rather that the body as a source of knowledge is repressed and undervalued in the process of academic writing. Furthermore, the term “corporeal” to represent the body in much of academic discipline continues and upholds the root of the word (corpus) that furthers and continues a cartesian dualist body-mind split. This paper utilizes the language ‘body’ to represent the whole body as an entire system of knowing. This is in accord and building off, English writing and composition teacher and theorist, Shari Stenberg’s argument “for pedagogies that take into account the body as a material, lived site of political struggle” (44). Rather than inventing a word, or using a different word to stand in for ‘the body’ this paper attempts to reclames ‘the body’ by using the word intentionally and offering approaches to writing as a practice that is done through and with body/mind. This illusion of separation is theorized by authors McRuer (2006), Shahjahan (2014) through much of their work and I build upon their ideas in this writing through my own lens as a disability and dance scholar.

Embodied Writing: Disillusioning the Body in Writing Practices

Embodied writing takes the body as an epistemic origin so that “embodiment becomes the means of knowing, feeling and making sense of the world not just an physical enactment of social forces” (Wenger 26). This focus on embodiment begins to widen the field of understanding to a multiplicity of embodiments offering access to those whose knowledge might exist outside the traditional academic writing genre. If learning to write, as Patricia Bizzell, a professor of writing composition explains, “can be seen as a process of learning to think about one’s own thinking...” (453) then as Patricia Dunn notes “it suggests that other ways to represent thinking about one’s thinking could also be useful” (59). Although upholding a dualist view of the body/mind, these quotes emphasizes the dominant view of writing’s place as a conveyer and organizer of thought which privileges literacy, linearity, clarity, and most importantly an ability to communicate to the reader. By emphasizing the illusion of a body/mind split within an academic writing genre, the full embodiment and knowledge that comes from lived experience is ignored and suppressed. Underlying the formatting of this paper is a question about remembering the experience of the body in the act of reading and writing and therefore seeks to disillusion the body/mind split.

Gender and Ableism: Talking In Tongues

How does the academic writing genre prioritize a hegemonically masculine way of writing and speaking?

I argue that the traditionally upheld values of a heteronormative patriarchal society are associated with, and interwoven in, the expectations for “good” academic writing. Here I want to integrate author Ursula Le Guin’s metaphor of the tongue and its use in her writing but first, a sidestep to discuss Irigaray’s notions of feminine syntax. The use of a “feminine syntax” could be seen as essentializing by defining “female” language within a small scope. However, I want to pull Diane Fuss’s analysis of Margaret Wittford’s underscoring of female and male as “positions or types of reading rather than biological gender of the reader” (Fuss 64). Although problematic in how it structures a male/female/native gendered language dichotomy, I believe Le Guin’s descriptions of these three tongues offers a way to hear and conceptualize writing within academia and I want to offer Fuss’s ideas about gendering as positions rather than biological. In the subsequent paragraphs I will add the notion of a “spastic” native language to further press the idea of a multiplicity of embodiments and how those can expand notions of gender intersectionally with ability. The use of the term “tongue” integrally reminds us of the body and argues for an integration of spoken and written languages. Writing and language which supposes clarity, power, and knowledge is associated with the ‘Father Tongue’ according to Le Guin (147). It is a language of the public sphere, ego, political and it is “not reasoning but distancing-making a gap, a space, between the subject or self and the object or other” (Le Guin 147-160). The ‘Mother Tongue’ is described as “feeling our way into ideas, using the whole intellect not half of it, talking with one another, which involves listening. It is Not claiming something: offering something” (Le Guin 147-160). Logic and listening work differently in these two descriptions: the first is about the ego, about being seen and having one’s voice heard, the second is focused on listening, it is more rhizomatic and divergent. The ‘Father Tongue’ offers space and distance, directness, allows for the consumer of the communication to believe they understand the writer. It is this belief in directness that is associated with the academic writing genre, where clarity and certainty are paramount.

The last Tongue Le Guin describes is that of the ‘Native Tongue.’ Le Guin uses Sojourner Truth’s words as an example of this Tongue and how you “hear the coming together the marriage of the public discourse and the private experience, making a power, a beautiful thing, the true discourse of reason” (147-180). It is this “unlearned language that is able to be used in speeches and science, any use of language when it is spoken, written, read, heard as art, the way dancing is the body moving as art” (Le Guin 147-180). The concept of a ‘Native Tongue’ offers an notion of balance and specific use of language rather than a hierarchy of communication. I read this as asking for a spectrum, circle, allowing for agency and choice for the author to select and draw from their own embodiment to offer the tongue that represents best what they have to say.

The idea of ‘tongues’ can be taken one step further with Andrew Short’s claiming of the ‘Spastic’ tongue. In a video clip Short states that he speaks three languages: “English, German, and Spastic, which is my native tongue” (Short). Here ‘tongue’ illustrates how language is both moored to the body and to our production of it. A ‘spastic’ tongue has no hegemonic gender narratives, or native implications, but rather suggests the bodily reality as paramount. The ‘Father’, ‘Mother’, ‘Native’, and ‘Spastic’ tongues offer a spectrum of metaphors to think about the gendered tones that situate and delineate knowledge as well as the ongoing relationship of body to language. By uncoupling the ‘father’ tongue from ideas of ‘academic’ and ‘intellect’ more space for diverse embodies of gender and ability are created within the academic writing genre.

Colonizing and Ability: Resistance in the Skin

The academic writing genre has the propensity to be a colonizing language--a form of communication, used politically for control over the body. Here I offer an intersectional approach to language and specifically bilingualism, colonization, and ableism. Gloria Anzaldúa, author of Borderlands/La Frontera, posits an idea of language and colonization that can be applied to a discussion of ableism. By drawing in Anzaldúa’s theory I do not intend to marginalize the specificity of the theory. Rather by applying Anzaldúa’s concepts regarding colonization and language within a disability rhetoric, the body becomes a site of resistance to ableist discourse. By looking intersectionality and at the layering of oppressions; a network structure appears and connects people. Moving into the analysis I quote Anzaldúa saying, “Attacks on one’s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment” (2947). One could argue that anyone’s form of expression should not be censored and should be held at equal weight to other forms of expression, namely writing. Anzaldúa’s work, like Le Guin, also genders language by stating that, “language is a male discourse” (2948). Furthering this point, I want to argue that the academic genre enforces a male, colonizing, and an ableist discourse. It is ableist in how it requires one mode of expression and privileges written and ‘clear’ literacy. If we assume that the body finds expression through a myriad of forms and it should be given primacy, then for some the written word becomes the oppressor’s language. Anzaldúa describes English as functioning in this way saying, “…you’re speaking the oppressor’s language by speaking English, you’re ruining the Spanish language” (2948). For those with alternate modes of expression the body might be their language. Language is an inherent part of identity: Anzaldúa states, “ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity-I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself” (2951). Language impacts how students and academics construct their own identities. By drawing from Anzaldúa, Le Guin, and Short I seek to offer a critique of the underlying privileging of stereotypically gendered language and the conflation of a ‘white’, ‘able’, ‘male’ discourse with intellect. Furthermore, I offer the idea that all written english language might have a colonizing effect and be incapable of expressing some forms of knowledge. By decolonizing language through gender, racial, and ability we allow individuals to redefine and express their identities in a myriad of ways and with languages and ‘tongues’ that are their own.

Ableist: Erasing the Reality of the Body

Academic writing genre exhibits an presumption of ablebodyness and is structured around an imagined norm of ability. Here I argue writing is inherently ableist and that rhetoric around literacy often furthers an ableist agenda. However, it is the way that writing quality often gets conflated with intellect, and reading with intellectual growth, that is most problematic. The social underlying assumption that cognitive reasoning is required for someone to create meaning is an ongoing ableist discourse. For instance, from an temporarily able bodied perspective, someone in a coma cannot “reason” and therefore is often assumed to be less intelligent or “brain dead.” This furthers a mind/body dualism and an assumption of intellect based on able bodied notions of meaning making. Patricia Dunn, a writing composition instructor, says that the privileging of language may lead to a dangerous space. Dunn states, “Even if it is unspoken, there is an implied corollary in this announcement regarding lack of language skills, lack of intelligence-or even lack of humanness” (21). The link between “inhuman” and disability as a tool of oppression has been used throughout history to marginalize and justify inhumanie treatement of people across race, class, sexualty, gender, and religion. The academic writing genre Others individuals who do not have the same language capacity, furthering a binary between the able and disabled and conflation of able-minded and disabled-bodied. The result of this othering is the alienation of individuals who are non-verbal and communities who are non-literate because of an association with intellectual ability. Another such example is the phrase ‘creative genius’ which also implies a relationship between cognitive function and creative capacity. Intellectual functioning and written language expression are not a requirement for knowledge and communication. Within the hegemonic academic writing genre the imagined erasure of the body allows for the writing to not contain the consequences of memory loss, stress, neurodiversity, and a host of other bodily states that those in academia exist through and with throughout their careers and writing processes. These forms of ‘bodily entropy’ lead towards disorganization, decay, and ultimately a constant shifting of the body's relationship to its various unstable embodiments. The academic writing genre contains fears of loosing a specific kind of intellect and intellectual superiority through its denial of bodily entropy and disability.

Hinge Joint Between Spaces: Elbow and Knee

How can educators seek to deconstruct the gendered, colonizing, and ableist underpinnings of “good” academic writing?

Here I posit an unpopular and utopian ideal, perhaps writing should be done away with as the primary mode of evaluating learning. Linda Hecker, a composition instructor, discusses this controversy in the 1995 edition of the English Journal which suggests students should be given “the opportunity to demonstrate what they understand about the content of the lesson-in a way that makes sense to them” with the idea of the students being held “accountable” for knowledge (46). This quotation highlights my question; are we asking students to learn to write or gain the content we are teaching? Perhaps students should be asked to demonstrate understanding using their skills to find ways to be accountable and articulate learning, rather than always testing both writing and the material simultaneously. As a form, I believe writing is fundamentally insufficient for many complex forms of knowledge production. Furthermore, it limits the way knowledge is produced because it must be presented (in academia) in an archaic genre and oppressive structure.

Now, should these statements be affecting your body in elevated stress and resistance, worry not, I understand the implications of these statements and have crafted an alternative reality of suggestions and ending for this paper. If writing continues to be a staple of academia, I suggest we turn our attention to the practice of writing, the way writing is taught, and the form itself to change the academic writing paradigm. The subsequent sections offer more pragmatic ways to grapple with the genderization, colonisation, and ableism embedded within the academic writing genre through looking at the use of metaphor and mixed genres, re-embodying/mindful writing practices, and decomposition and failure as part of the writing practice.

Writing Practice and Pedagogical shift

Minding the Body: Mindfulness and Reincorporating the Body

Mindfulness processes of writing can be used to continually reincorporate an awareness of the body into the practice of writing. Mindfulness can break down the illusion of duality and un-embodiedness which continues to further oppressive writing. These illusions of duality and unembodiedness require a specific kind of writing to maintain its gendered, colonizing, and presumed ablebodiedness. There is a correlation between ‘disembodied’ and intellect as Stenberg notes, “Though the ‘disembodied’ position has long been conflated with one of authority, I would argue that there is more to be gained by examining how our knowledge is shaped by who we are as embodied subjects” (55). One method to deconstruct this oppression is through unapologetically and continually incorporating the body within both the production of knowledge and the writing practice itself. The subsequent paragraphs within this section contain pragmatic tools and exercises to inform the writing process written for both a practitioner and a writing instructor.

Awareness and mindful practices can inform the process of writing. For example, Christy Wenger, author of Writing Yogis, focuses on embodied writing as a form of self reflectivity, asking students to not just being aware of the physical process but also developing an awareness of the “attitudes and approaches towards the process of writing and how these change when they self-consciously embody their writing practices” (27). This process does not remove the bodily discomfort, or mental energy from the writing practice. As one begins to write, Wenger suggests noticing the breath and its impact on the body. Like a dance class, the body is continually investigated, how it is doing and where tension is building. Emotions, such as resistance and frustration, rather than being ignored are important to acknowledge, as they impact the writing. These mindfulness practices work primarily with an awareness of bodily response and an ongoing realization that our body affects our writing.

Yet another approach comes from the Embodied Artful Practice conference in July 2014, where I took a workshop from Carol Anderson and Terrill Maguire called “Moving Memories Body.” In this workshop, Anderson and Maguire lead participants through movement explorations interspersed with writing focused on feeling the body through the entire process. This specific form of embodied writing emphasised intentional focus. The facilitators asked for us to notice the impact of writing with a different hand, after warming up the shoulders, in different chairs, with different utensils and how those affected our writing, thereby interthreading the body. Participants were asked to refine their awareness, the speed of their inner dialogue, the emotions as they shifted their corporeal experience. The writing could be scribing, notating, drawing, words, or edges of lines. This offered another method of bringing a multiplicity of literacy through the body onto a page.

Free writing can be used very specifically to allow for a kinesthetic way finding the center of a writing project. Dunn writes that Peter Elbow has “long argued that free writing, reading the resulting text, finding its ‘center of gravity,’ and then beginning a new cycle of free writing can work as an organizing and structuring tool” (Dunn 59). The idea of a “center of gravity” is abstract and yet a physical reality. It allows for an embodied understanding of writing. By free writing and looking for what feels to be at the center, a similar technique to dance composition, one begins to find a new way of conceptualizing writing.

Editing intentionally with the body draws on writers (especially those with movement backgrounds) kinesthetic feelings towards punctuation, passive/active voice, and structure. One example is “Walking the Structure” an exercise by writing composition instructor Linda Hecker, which is described as:

Starting at one end of the room and beginning moving through it in ways that best represent the direction of their ideas: going forward to represent supportive information, standing still to represent getting stuck, or moving sideways to represent a different line of thought. [students] walk with another person, who jots down or records the walker’s spoken ideas and physical directions. (Hecker 47)

This method of working can help students “recognize in a visceral way if they have gone off on tangents, committed circular reasoning, or failed to advance their arguments sufficiently” (Dunn 48). By finding the movement in their body with a draft of a completed paper the students make self-discoveries with a different way of knowing than through re-reading.

Another embodied methodology is to have students “Sketching-to-Learn” this exercise is an “alternative to traditional ways of organizing a draft is to have writers sketch, draw, or graph the shape of their ideas, using no words or as few words as possible” (Dunn 65). Students could be asked to draw their own draft or analyze a peer’s writing in sketching format. Dunn also suggests that having students draw or sketch their own feedback and revisions might shift how they rework the project.

These are a few of several embodyment writing techniques that might be used to retain an awareness of the body throughout teaching and to specifically draw on kinesthetic ways of knowing. These practices allow room to investigate the relationship between body/self and the written word, and could be applied together to change the academic writing paradigm.

Genre and Pedagogy: Metaphors, Graphic Novels, and Poems

Shifting from ways to reembody writing this section suggests broadening language to include metaphors and bring in writing genres such as graphic novels and poems as form that already question the role of the written word in academia. The idea of metaphor offers a new kind of logic for students, teachers, and writers. As Hering states “the words metaphor, at its root, means to transfer. A good metaphor transfers our understanding of something known and near at hand, often a physical reality, to other concepts harder to grasp” (12). Further “metaphors engage us in what cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson call imaginative rationality, drawing on our dual capacity for imagination and rationality” (12). Metaphor is a word of embodiment, it is a bridge between the explicit and the implicit. Hecker’s student, Kristen Lougheed, specifically looked at the use of movement in academics and concluded that “movement is a strategy to allow students to make a bridge for themselves into the academic world” (47). These metaphorical bridges create a space for movement and association, it breaks apart a way of understanding using language to draw off individual ideas. This movement allows the writing to be more embodied both in how it reads and in the practice of writing.

Metaphors as bridges are not the only way to disrupt the academic writing genre logic. Graphic novels and poems offer visual and kinesthetic ways of knowing into a written form which dismantles the normatively written academic word. Graphic novels and poems are already being legitimized within academia and valued as useful ways of understanding information shared in other forms. For instance, Dr. Ann Fox, an interdisciplinary professor of English at Davidson College, has designed an entire course studying graphic medicine and has brought in authors such as MK Czerwiec and Nick Sousanis to discuss the use of images, comics, and graphic novels as viable means of communicating complex ideas within academia. By demonstrating through both a nuanced study of graphic novels and poems and supporting academics and artists working in these mediums, professors and writing teachers can offer alternative ways of understanding textual information.

Graphic novels/comics/poems/infographics all engage a similar fixative nature of information (rather than being ephemerial) that relate to traditional written work, but broaden how that material can be conveyed. Poems, short stories, and fiction often elicits new kinds of images and imagined realities that uphold new rhetoric's of imagination and question traditional academic writing narratives. The shift to both a study of these forms and asking students to demonstrate learning using these genres continues to upend and broaden the ways knowledge can be demonstrated within academia.

Entropy: Decomposing, Failure, and Evolving Models of Production

How could the genre of academic writing be twisted to allow for a new logic and syntax that questions normalcy and opens to door to various embodiments?

Disability scholar McRuer writes on “De-composition” as an ongoing ”critique of both the corporate models into which we, as students and teachers of composition, are interpellated and the concomitant disciplinary compulsion to produce only disembodied efficient writers” (149). A questioning of the corporate university structure further suggests examining power systems of the university and how they are related with efficiency and identity. Furthermore, McRuer suggests a questioning of composition’s ordering and fixing of the world as a process of upholding heteronormative and able bodied normativity. McRuer reminds us that writing as ongoing identity formation and reformation. Able bodied and, as McRuer highlights, heteronormative; clarity, understanding, and legibility are vital components to unpack in effort to change the academic writing genre. To further a discussion on clarity I cite McCumber who suggests that “Clarity, as a norm for speech and writing, presents a paradox: although the burden of achieving it falls on the speaker, the achievement itself apparently falls to the hearer. I can labor mightily to produce a clear essay, argument, or sentence. But I have not actually produced it until you agree that I have-if only tacitly, by continuing the conversation” (58). By highlighting how relational clarity is, McCumber focuses on the processes by which clarity is constructed and deconstructs its imagined fixity. Through making clarity relational and questionable rather than unidirectional, embodiment is implied. With clarity questioned, comes questionable clarity.

Here I ask how might divergent forms of clarity begin to take shape within academia and argue for their ways of knowing?

Perhaps I am asking for a new form of writing, one that calls into question normative practices of the academic writing genre. I offer Palumbo-Liu’s notion of “deviant” writing:

Here one discovers an affinity between the notion of “bad” writing what one might call ‘deviant’ writing, that is, writing that departs from presumed norms and threatens by its example to lead others to reproduce not only that sort of writing but a bad sort of behavior as well. Such language and behavior challenge the norms, and the grounds for sense making, truth asserting, and rational discussion in the community. (172)

What if academia questions everything on which it stands? Perhaps it is this destabilization or even “de-composition” that questions academic dualistically mind/body authority. It is “moments where our bodies come into play, moments when we feel uncertain, moments when we realize our knowledge is always partial are deemed “excessive” to intellectual behavior” (Stenberg 53). It is these moments that reinsight the body, that question and expand ways of both processing and expressing learning, and perhaps question the separation between the two. But in doing so, the reader and grader must be reimagined. Palumbo-Liu underscores this concept and the determination of “bad writing”:

... one who would be looking to a text for a serious challenge to pre-existing way of thinking, a challenge that might require different and indeed difficult modes of articulation and reading...In such a case, would it not be possible to argue that it is precisely “bad writing” that is ethical? For in refusing to bind itself immediately to “determinacy,” does it not allow the reader a real freedom of association and the power to think different? (Palumbo-Liu 178-179).

In sum, questioning clarity, corporate models of production, and composition are a few modes of challenging the academic writing genre paradigm. But, expectations surrounding the role of the reader and professor also need to also be questioned to change the system.

The Conclusion:

In conclusion, body knowledge is found in advocating for awareness of the body to be equal, and not apart from, the thoughts of the mind. There are three primary issues with a hegemonic academic writing paradigm. First, the issue of the gendering of “intellect” through language with “masculine” ideologies. Here listening for the ‘Mother’, ‘Native’, and ‘Spastic’ Tongues within writing to making space can allow for a subversion of the patriarchal and ableist power structures. Second, the implied link between cognitive function, intellect, and writing hinders the ability of many to fully express what they have learned. Lastly, language use can have a colonizing effect and can continue cycles of marginalization of those who utilize other forms to communicate, whether that be other languages or forms of communication. Multiple forms of expression can assist in reducing the ableist, gendering, and colonial discourses and embedded implications within academic writing. The body can act as a mediator between forms and an ongoing reminder of the precarity in which we live.

There are many ways to teaching writing and include the body within writing, most of which allow students to use other skill sets and the physical body to further their understanding of academic writing. Supporting those who use various forms of written (and non-written) mediums within academia furthers the understanding of how knowledge and form are interrelated and can be expressed. Writing is a form of ideology. Here I offer Greg Myers, an author who discusses marxist ideology and writing, definition of ideology “to describe the whole system of thought and belief that goes with a social and economic system, the thoughts that structure our thinking so deeply that we take them for granted, as the nature of the real world” (156).

Writing is an ideology, one that we can change to be inclusive and varied. Writing in academia is a social ideology that encompasses and impacts race, class, gender, and ability and many other identity categories not listed in this paper. I end with a quote by James Baldwin showing how change might occur and allow for us to shape how people see. By redefining writing, we redefine identity.

You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can't, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world...The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, they way...people look at reality, then you can change it.

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The code used for switching letters written by Victor Widell sourced from Github.

A special thanks to the Innovations Micro Grants at Davidson College for support of the coding for this webpage.

Biographical Statement

Tommy Rhodes is a computer scientist with a BS from Davidson College, and is interested in the intersection of technology and social issues. In addition to his work as a developer for web design companies, he is also a photographer.

Bailey Anderson is a somatically informed teacher, interdisciplinary artist, and scholar. She received her MFA in Dance from CU Boulder where she studied disability at the intersection of dance pedagogy, performance, and feminist theory. Her current process centers around the diverse experiences and knowledge that come from disability and how disability can intersect intersectionally with other ways of knowing. She is currently the Artistic Director of the Halestone Foundation and serves as an associate editor for PARtake: The Journal of Practice as Research.

Citation and Licensing Information

Bailey Anderson (author) and Tommy Rhodes (coder), “The Body in the Academic Writing Genre: Gendering, Colonizing, and Ableism.” Liminalities 13.3 (2017)
Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies (ISSN: 1557-2935)
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