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Portraits Syllabus

Kristin's picture



Writing Seminar 118a                                                                          Prof. Kristin Lindgren

Fall 2016                                                                                             Stokes 118IA             

T-Th 2:30-4                                                                              

Gest 103                                                                                             610-220-3670



Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes: “staring is an interrogative gesture that asks what’s going on and demands the story. The eyes hang on, working to recognize what seems illegible, order what seems unruly, know what seems strange.” In this seminar we will explore visual and literary portraits and self-portraits of bodies marked by difference, bodies that often elicit stares. We will ask: What kinds of stories are told about these bodies? How do memoirs and self-portraits by people with disabilities draw on and challenge traditions of life writing and portraiture? How does this work enlarge cultural and aesthetic views of embodiment, disability, and difference? How do portraits of disability engage differences of gender, race, and class? Through close readings of essays, memoirs, paintings, and photographs, students will hone their descriptive and interpretive skills and develop their ability to craft clear and persuasive arguments.



Nancy Mairs, Waist-High in the World: A Life Among the Nondisabled

Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World

Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings, Bad Kings

Harriet McBryde Johnson, Too Late to Die Young (optional purchase)

Essays by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Georgina Kleege, John Hockenberry, Harriet McBryde Johnson, Peter Singer, H-Dirksen Bauman, Michael Bérubé, and others. Many of the readings for the course will be in the form of articles, websites, and images that I will make available as we proceed.



Attend every class and tutorial session and let me know ahead of time if for any reason you need to miss class or tutorial.

Writing assignments for this course include informal writing, 1-2 page close readings, and three formal essays, each one submitted as a first draft and revision. After the first draft of each longer essay is due, we will meet in writing tutorials, groups of four students who read and comment on one another’s essays. Preparation for tutorial is an important part of the course; you will learn by reading one another’s drafts as well as by listening to your fellow students comment on yours. You must turn in your essay on time; four people are depending on you to do so.

Portraits of Disability is a discussion-based seminar, and it is crucial that you prepare for and contribute to class discussion. As you read, please mark passages that you find interesting, important, maddening, or confusing; take notes; and formulate questions and ideas that you would like to discuss in class. As you view images, take notes and formulate questions related to the images. I will sometimes ask you to post ideas and questions on Serendip before class meets.

The course will be graded holistically based on your full semester’s work, including your first drafts and revised essays and your contributions as a speaker, listener, and respondent in class discussion and tutorials and on Serendip. All of your written work will be gathered in an e-portfolio submitted at the end of the course.



I invite you to talk with me early in the semester about how you learn best and how we can make our classroom and class projects as accessible and generative for you and others as possible. As a class, we will try to enact some principles of universal design. Let’s try to create a more inclusive and accessible world!

If you think you may need accommodations because of a disability, please contact Sherrie Borowsky, Coordinator of Accommodations, Office of Access and Disability Services, at If you have alreadybeen approved to receive academic accommodationsand would like to request accommodations in this course because of a disability, please meet with me at the beginning of the semesterwith your verification letter.



I encourage you to use all of the campus resources available to support your development as a writer, speaker, learner, and human, including the Writing Center, the Office of Academic Resources, the Office of Access and Disability Services, and Counseling and Psychological Services.



T August 30                Introducing the course and ourselves

Th September 1         Reading: Andrew Solomon, pages 1-6 from Far From the Tree (pdf)

                                   Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Becoming Disabled”


                                   Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “Picturing People with

                                   Disabilities: Classical Portraiture as Reconstructive Narrative” (pdf)

                                   Bring to class: Identity Map


T September 6           Reading: Shearer West, Introduction, Portraiture (pdf)

                                   Viewing: National Portrait Gallery,


                                   Writing: Close Reading of a Portrait I

                                   In class: Informal class presentations of close readings


Th September 8          Viewing: Riva Lehrer, Tedx talk,  “Valuable Bodies”


                                    Riva Lehrer’s portraits and self-portraits:

                                    Laura Swanson’s Anti-Self-Portraits:

                                    Beverly McIver’s portraits of her sister Renee and others:


                                    Doug Auld’s State of Grace series:

                                    Nina Berman’s Purple Hearts:

                                    Post on Serendip some thoughts or questions for class 



T September 13          Writing: Close Reading of a Portrait II

                                   Reading: Riva Lehrer, “Beauty in Exile” (pdf)


Th  September 15       Viewing: Documentary film Self-Preservation: The Art of Riva Lehrer

                                   (available on youtube in two parts: be sure to watch both Part I and Part II)



                                    Reading: Peter Singer, "Life and Death Decisions for Disabled Infants" (pdf)

                                    Recommended Talk: Peter Singer, “The Most Good You Can Do”

                                    7:30 PM, Founders Great Hall  


Fri September 16        Recommended Panel Discussion: “Ethics and the Ethicist: Perspectives on

                                   Peter Singer” 4:30 PM, Stokes Auditorium     


T September 20           Reading: Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, “The Politics of Staring:

                                    Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography” (pdf)

                                    In class: Informal presentation of a disability image from popular culture


Th September 22         Writing: First Draft of Essay #1

                                   Viewing: Stella Young, "I'm Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much"



T September 27          Tutorials meet this week

                                   Reading:  Georgina Kleege,  “Introduction” and “The Mind’s Eye”

                                   from Sight Unseen (pdf)

                                   Carmen Papalia, "A New Model for Access in the Museum" (link below) 



Th September 29        Reading: Georgina Kleege, “A Portrait of the Artist by his Blind Daughter”


T October 4                Class will meet in the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery.

Check out some examples of verbal/audio description on the websites of museums and other organizations. You needn't approach them as exact models of how to "do" verbal description, but rather as examples of some possible approaches. If you have a favorite museum, or if there's a museum in your hometown, check their website to see whether they have audio descriptions and to find out more generally what they say about accessibility. 
National Portrait Gallery
Museum of Modern Art
Art Beyond Sight
Then read the first part (online, so it's not paginated, but it's equivalent to about 3-4 pages) of the article "Audio Description as a Pedagogical Tool" by Georgina Kleege and Scott Wallin. You can skip the "Sample Exercises" section if you wish, or read it. We'll be doing something similar to the second exercise they describe. I've been doing some version of audio description with my students for several years, and unsurprisingly my approach is very similar to theirs. 
"Blind Imagination: Pictures Into Words," also by Kleege (12 pages):

Th October 6              Reading: Nancy Mairs, Waist-High in the World, chapters 1-4

                                  John Hockenberry, “Fear of Bees” 

F October 7                Final draft of Essay #1 Due                  




M October 17             Post a reflection on Serendip, by Monday at 10 PM,

                                  about some aspect of Nancy Mairs's book

                                  that you'd like to discuss in class


T October 18              Reading: Mairs, Waist-High in the World, Chapters 5 & 6, 9 & 10 

                                  Post a reflection on the reading on Serendip (by Monday at 10 PM)                         


Th October 20            Reading: 

                                  Harriet McBryde Johnson, Too Late to Die Young,

                                  Chapters 1, 9, and 10

                                  Chris Gabbard, “A Life Beyond Reason”



F Oct 21                     If you can, go see the exhibition Common Touch: the Art of the Senses

                                  in the History of the Blind, at the Library Company of Philadelphia


                                  This is the last day of the exhibition!


T October 25              Writing: Close Reading of a Passage

                                  Reading: Train Go Sorry, chapters 1-6


Th October 27            Reading: Train Go Sorry, chapters 7-13

Friday October 28      Required Event: Opening Reception: “Consent to Be Seen,” Riva Lehrer

                                  4:30-5:30, Conversation with Riva Lehrer and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

                                  Followed by reception, Sharpless Gallery, Magill Library                        


T November 1             NO CLASS

                                   Reading: Train Go Sorry, chapters 14-18


Th November 3           Writing: First Draft of Essay #2

                                   Viewing, in class: Documentary Film Deaf Jam       


T November 8             Tutorials meet this week

                                   David M. Perry, "Disability Heads to the Polls"
                                   H-Dirksen Bauman, "Designing Deaf Babies and the Question of Disability"
                                    Post on Serendip a reflection on something you want to discuss in class:
                                    Can be something about Riva & Rosemarie's conversation,
                                    Train Go SorryDeaf Jam, or the reading for Tuesday.
                                    We won't get to everything, but we'll try to do some catching up! 

Th November 10         Meet in Magill Library for a conversation with Riva Lehrer about her work


M November 14         Required: Talk by Riva Lehrer

                                  “Presence and Absence: The Paradox of Disability in Portraiture"

                                  4:30-6, Phillips Wing, Magill Library              


T November 15           Writing: Final Draft of Essay #2 due one week after tutorial

                                   Reading: Susan Nussbaum, Good Kings, Bad Kings, pages 1-99


Th November 17           Good Kings, Bad Kings, pages 100-197        


T November 22           Good Kings, Bad Kings, pages 198-298 

                                   Final draft of essay due                   




T November 29           Writing: bring a brief proposal for Essay #3 to class

                                  Post on Serendip a short article or film clip (to be shown in class)

                                  that will contribute to a conversation about how disability

                                  is represented in popular film & TV, and who is writing, acting in,

                                  and otherwise involved in creating disabled characters


Th December 1           Writing: first draft of Essay #3 (to be turned in by Sunday at 9 PM)

                                  Post on Serendip an instance of disability arts and culture in performance:

                                  a clip of 5 minutes or less of a performance by an actor, dancer, comedian,

                                   or other performer. Be prepared to talk about how and why this performance

                                   reflects disability culture, and more broadly how we might define 

                                   "disability arts and culture" 



T December 6              Tutorials meet this week

                                    Reading: TBD                        


Th December 8            Last class: Evaluations! Cake!


F December 16            Writing: Final Draft of Essay #3 and Course Portfolio due by noon


Portfolio Instructions 

Below are instructions for submitting your final essay, your portfolio, and your course reflection. This process invites you to look back on the work you've done over the semester and reflect on what you’ve learned.

1. Please submit a hard copy of your final essay, with all copies of your first draft (with comments) attached, as usual. You can put these in the mailbox outside my office by 12 PM Friday, Dec. 16.

2. Send me an email with each of your written course assignments attached: three close readings and three essays (if you have a separate copy of first draft and final draft, send me both).       

3. Log onto our course homepage. Under “Quick Links” on the left side of the page, you will see “My E-Portfolio.” Clicking on that will call up all of your Serendip postings and comments. This is part of your portfolio, too.

4. Review your portfolio and reflect on your learning this semester (not just what appears in concrete form in your portfolio). Then, please write an informal essay (about 2 pages) reflecting on this learning, on where you were at the beginning of the semester and where you are now. Do you see any particular questions or themes that occupied you throughout the semester? Think about your writing and your other contributions inside and outside the classroom, in tutorials, and on Serendip. You can consider some of the questions below, but you do not need to answer all of them. 

How has your understanding of disability been expanded or challenged? In what contexts did learning happen for you, and how did you contribute to others’ learning? How did you develop as a reader, a writer, a speaker, and a listener, and how do you hope to develop further? What will you take from this course into your future coursework and into your future as a human?

You can hand this in with your final essay or post it on Serendip. If you post on Serendip, tag your piece by checking the box “Self-Evaluation and Reflection." I look forward to spending some time with your portfolios and your reflections. If you have any questions whatsoever about the process, please feel free to email me.