Pedagogies for a Particular Time

Photo from pure julia on Unsplash. Uploaded 25 October 2020.

As a teaching assistant and a resident advisor (RA) in an undergraduate dorm, many of my conversations on campus have focused on how students and educators are both feeling and responding to different kinds of ruptures and changes since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the specifics of these conversations differ across campuses, the contours of each remain similar, ending with concern about how educators might respond to these global and local changes in ways that are both timely and useful to students. Everything often feels like too much, for everyone, a lot of the time: a hard-to-pinpoint, but not unnoticed, reference across many conversations to how we think about the wide range of things that have happened in the world in the last four or so years. And as a disabled educator, in and beyond the classroom, it also often feels untenable to think of disability—as experience and identity—as separate from some of the many recent moments of state-sponsored violence[1] and mass disabling events, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

My pedagogies—like all of ours—are not separate from my bodymind[2], so I bring both to bear in this reflection on sustaining pedagogies of presence (Mbembe 2015) for this seemingly particular time. In this piece, I draw on a range of conversations with other educators at universities in North America to think with shared concerns about how the classroom (and more broadly the university) might be a space from which to make sense of and respond to events that shape our days, sometimes from a distance, and often by their proximity. To respond to these concerns, I think with disability to offer three pedagogical questions for shaping engagement in and beyond the classroom[3].

I do so, as this piece demonstrates shortly, in line with numerous other disability studies scholars and activists who have written about disability as generative in making sense of the world more capaciously, rather than as a term applicable only to specific experiences of the body moving through the world. Although I draw on a rich body of work from disability anthropology and my own experiences of being disabled, through this piece I hope to demonstrate how disability anthropology allows for an opening in and beyond the classroom[4] and for responsive pedagogical engagements to current events. I do so not just to affirm that thinking with disability allows us to attend closely to disability and to the worlds we inhabit, but also to sit for a little longer with some of what disability anthropology makes room for (Wolf-Meyer and Friedner 2022): a careful consideration of the worlds we build. In presenting the three questions below, it is also my hope that they open up avenues to think with, rather than serving as prescriptive (or rhetorical) pedagogical entry points during this already difficult time.

Attending to worlds as they are built and inhabited in this moment, I turn to thinking with Arseli Dokumaci’s concept of shrinkages (i.e., a narrowing down of the possibilities for action that one sees in the environment(s) around them), as outlined in her recent book, Activist Affordances (2023). Critically, Dokumaci’s work also demonstrates that shrinkages can be—and are being—experienced at multiple scales, such as: 1) for an individual who is sick, but also 2) at the level of the population experiencing a COVID-19 lockdown or another large-scale event that has ruptured our ways of making sense of the world. In Activist Affordances, Dokumaci details the ways that the environments around us are shrinking, showing how disabled people respond to these shrinkages to build more habitable worlds. Through this piece, I extend attention to shrinkages that are happening at multiple scales during this particular time to make meaning of when and how educators think with learners about current events. I do so through an understanding of these questions as pedagogical considerations that emerge from, and are attuned to, thinking with disability as a way to make sense of the world.

I. When and how can we think with disability in the classroom, in addition to (but also, importantly, outside of) the language of accommodations?

Often, disability appears on the syllabus through language around accommodations[5]—specifically, in many cases, through a note that urges students to work with an office that handles disability services, and of course to also inform their instructor should they need further support with the course. The long history and varied present of the language of accommodations has come to be central to how disability as a category is understood and responded to in the classroom and certainly allows (when things work well) for instructors and students to have in place a system that allows for a range of needs to be responded to as smoothly as possible.

However, in thinking about how disability might show up in the classroom, I turn back to the framing of the bodymind, and the idea that the two are not distinct—our bodyminds are certainly impacted by how environments continue to shrink, even if these are not environments that we are physically situated in. I do so as a starting point to think about how educators might approach the question of access needs—as a negotiation, in addition to that of accommodation. This framing of access needs as a negotiation emerges from disability studies scholarship that attends carefully to the question of when—and how—something comes to be considered (and produced as) a need, and what it might mean to do access collectively.

To understand disability as present in the classroom—even if not named categorically or formally diagnosed as such—is central to the work of doing access collectively. This is the work of assuming that disability is always in the room, even when it may not be in the form that one first thinks of when they think of this identity category. A commitment to doing access collectively is also one where naming disability is not a prerequisite; rather, it makes room for the ways that access needs can—and do—emerge differently at different points and allows us to think about a collective investment in making the classroom (and other spaces within the university) ones where educators and students are able to show up more fully.

II. What might it mean to bear witness to individual and collective experiences of shrinkage?

In our collective experiencing of various kinds of environmental shrinkages, even as these experiences of shrinkages differ, the question of response, too, arises. Shrinkages of all kinds happen in proximal spheres around us at rates much faster than the rest of our lives are able to keep up with, and bearing witness to them as they happen—holding on, remembering, making space for, and naming—are all significant ways to acknowledge the kinds of shrinkages that are happening. I flag here the need for acknowledgement not so much to say that shrinkages are less pertinent when unacknowledged, but more to emphasize that collective presence is a method for being in community with others who are experiencing similar events, even if in different ways.

To bear witness to these experiences in the classroom and across the university is sometimes as simple as to name that they have happened, and to hold room for that naming to unfurl into other directions. Often, this kind of naming can feel incompatible with the pressure of a syllabus and the demands of a semester, a radical act all on its own. In addition to—or instead of—public naming, too, other ways to bear witness allow us to experience alongside each other and to hold these experiences in our scholarship and our teaching, working toward what Trinh Minh-Ha calls “speaking nearby” (Chen 1992).

III. How can we make—and hold on to—evidence of worlds that have been ruptured and worlds that are being built?

To imagine different worlds is to acknowledge that we are already building them. To long for familiar worlds, built as they were from the ways we had come to know the environments around us, is also to name that they may have been ruptured. Here, I think with Dokumaci’s concept of activist affordances, and the way that this concept attends to the smallest acts of survival as world-building (2023). Dokumaci names in her book the need to think about activism differently than physical participation, drawing upon conversations that have emerged among disabled communities. Instead, she notes, for disabled people, the work of making our lives more livable is also the work of making other peoples’ lives more livable, a form of activism that shapes the worlds we have into the ones we want them to be (Dokumaci 2023).

Inheriting this charge—to document our worlds, to lay claim to the stakes within which they are created—is also in acknowledgement of the heaviness of many recent and now-somewhat-distant world events, including the ongoing pandemic. To name and take seriously the charge of adapting our pedagogies to this particular time is also to remember those whose voices have otherwise systematically been written out from conversations about their own histories and futures.

I offer these three questions as ways for educators to sit with, and to continue to think from, slowly, about how our pedagogies are always, already responding, or how they can be[6]. I also do so with the intent to outline three open-ended directions to think with, rather than to provide a list of what might work for everyone across different kinds of classrooms. And in doing the former, I hope that in the spirit of microactivist affordances, the smallest work—of slowing down in this piece through questions that take us to no single direction—seeps through to other parts of our pedagogies, or other places where we might encounter the heaviness of staying alive to the world.


[1] Jasbir Puar outlines the links between violence and debility in The Right to Maim.

[2] I use this term—emerging from a lineage in disability studies scholarship (see for example Price 2015, Schalk 2018)—to collapse distinctions between the body and the mind that are often imposed in discourses about health and illness.

[3] I use the phrase “in and beyond the classroom” first to note, as numerous other educators have, that a significant amount of student learning happens outside of the classroom. I also do so because a lot of my thinking about trajectories of learning and the role of the university in shaping these trajectories has been informed by several years of work as an RA in an undergraduate dorm.

[4] In a recent piece for American Ethnologist, “Becoming Malleable” (2023), Michele Friedner and Matthew Wolf-Meyer note similarly why anthropology can be oriented to disability more closely and make the case for how it should be.

[5] As one example, Wool (2018) attends to the access statement, providing examples for how to frame it in generative ways that go beyond what is typically required by the ADA.

[6] Two examples of resources that are incisive starting points for thinking about how to approach current events in the classroom are Pandya’s Crip COVID19 syllabus (2021) and Shaw and Crane’s Medical Anthropology for Palestine (2024).


Chen, Nancy N. 1992. “Speaking Nearby”: A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-Ha.” Visual Anthropology Review 8, no. 1: 82–91.

Crane, Emma Shaw, and Emily Lim Rogers. 2024. “Anthropology for Palestine.

Dokumaci, Arseli. 2023. Activist Affordances: How Disabled People Improvise More Habitable Worlds. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Friedner, Michele, and Matthew Wolf-Meyer. 2023. “Becoming Malleable: How Orienting to Disability, Communication and the Senses Further Commits Anthropology to its Moral Project.” American Ethnologist 51, no. 1: 78–83.

Mbembe, Achille. 2015. “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.” Public Lectures.

Pandya, Jiya. 2021. “#CripCOVID19Syllabus.”

Price, Margaret. 2015. “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” Hypatia 30, no. 1: 268–84.

Puar, Jasbir K. 2017. The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Schalk, Sami. 2018. Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Wolf-Meyer, Matthew, and Michele Ilana Friedner. 2022. “Introduction: Disability as Rupture.” Fieldsights, September 6.

Wool, Zoë. 2018. “Check Your Syllabus 101: Disability Access Statements.” anthro{dendum}, 13 August.