New course cluster explores interdisciplinary field of disability studies

October 18, 2015

Faculty from Georgetown’s English Department and Disability Studies Working Group have joined forces to pilot the university’s first Disability Studies Course Cluster. English Professors Libbie Rifkin and Jennifer Natalya Fink and Theology Professor Julia Watts Belser have worked to put together a fall and spring semester cluster schedule that includes lectures, workshops, and performances addressing the themes of disability studies.

According to Rifkin, the cluster is made up of three classes from varying departments, allowing students to choose the class that is best suited to their area of study. It is designed to draw on common themes among the individual courses, and foster a sense of community among the students in the classes. The classes are to meet throughout the semester to share papers and ideas, attend performances and lectures together, and participate in workshops with the speakers.

“This cluster is happening at a moment when there’s a lot of agitation and activity around disability, as a social justice issue, as a student issue, and as a way of thinking about our teaching,” Rifkin said.

Belser, currently leading the fall semester cluster, teaches Religion and Disability Studies, a class that discusses how disability is viewed in the context of religion. She, Professor Sara Schotland of the Introduction to Disability Studies class and Professor Rebecca Kukla of the Bioethics and the Abnormal Body class are working to highlight the breadth of disability studies.

With the help of the the Designing the Future(s) of the University Initiative, the LGBTQ Resource Center, GUSA, and the Academic Resource Center, Rifkin and Belser have lined up speakers to deliver public lectures this semester. In September, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a professor in the fields of Disability Studies, American Literature, Feminist Theory, and Bioethics at Emory University, delivered a lecture titled “Disability, Dignity and Ablution: Rituals of Care.”

In Fink’s Disability and the Arts course, Fink and her students look to challenge the traditional view of normality in our society. “Instead of viewing disability as something art overcomes or therapizes, we use a disability studies approach, and look at how artists deploy disability as a lens, an identity, and a form of discourse to interrogate notions of power, representation, and ability.”

Rifkin describes the cluster as a first step that she hopes will lead to campus-wide dialogues on the topic of disability and possibly create more resources for students with disabilities on campus.

Lydia Brown (COL ‘15), a former disability rights activist at Georgetown, commented on how this cluster is a step in the right direction, but there are other ways Georgetown could expand awareness. “Outside the academic curriculum, Georgetown could commit to a concrete plan for opening a Disability Cultural Center to provide a university-wide central hub for disability-related programming, curricula, and community building,” she said.

The faculty members of the Disability Studies Working Group represent various departments across the board, and are currently in the process of outlining plan for a Disability Studies minor.

“People often take disability for granted, figuring we know disability when we see it. But disability studies asks us to look again–to ask hard questions about how and why our cultures see certain bodies and minds as ‘normal,’ while stigmatizing others as deviant or defective,” Belser said, adding that she hopes the course cluster will be a first step to dispel those common stigmas surrounding disability.

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