Writing from normal: Critical thinking and disability in the classroom
This study investigates the dynamics of critical thinking in an introductory writing class that incorporated disability studies (DS) through a critical-pedagogy approach. Critical thinking, as I define it, is the process by which subjects become more aware of their own positions, others' positions, and the ways those positions are shaped by discourses. The course, themed “Exploring Normalcy,” aimed to teach critical thinking by questioning knowledges and assumptions around gender, class, and race, as well as disability. As a teacher-researcher, I both observed and taught the course during the Fall semester 2002.
Observation, group and individual interviews, and text analysis were used to investigate how students' critical thinking operated in the classroom. Seven students volunteered to participate in the post-classroom phase of the study. After preliminary text analysis and a group interview, I selected three “focal students,” who occupied a range of positions in relation to disability discourses, for individual interviews and further text analysis. Focal students' texts were analyzed using an adaptation of critical discourse analysis as described by Norman Fairclough and Ellen Barton. Interview transcripts were analyzed by identifying and grouping patterns and themes.
Analysis of students' written work and reflections on that work indicate that their critical thinking evolved in a complex pattern affected by factors including students' self-identifications; discourses students inhabited before, during and after the course; and the passage of time between drafts of a project and reflections on that project. While usually viewed as a “skill” that can be discerned and evaluated within a single artifact (e.g., the final draft of a paper), in fact critical thinking is better understood when viewed as a process that emerges through the evolution of a series of texts. Therefore, pedagogical suggestions include assigning a variety of written tasks (e.g., short/long, or low-stakes/high-stakes); working in a variety of modes (e.g., written, oral, graphic); involving discussion with peers and teacher at multiple points during the larger project; and asking students to reflect upon and revise their ideas as they develop.
This study substantiates claims made by disability-studies scholars that DS can prompt critical thinking while emphasizing the need for ongoing study of the ways DS and critical thinking interact in specific contexts. Critical thinking is a viable goal in the writing classroom, but we must remember it is characterized by diffuse effects through a student's ways of knowing, both during a course and after it ends.