2019 Winner: Marion Quirici

Neurodiversity, Narrative, Activism

Is there any such thing as a “normal” brain? Isn’t the intense individuality of each brain what makes it such a fascinating organ? The concept of neurodiversity celebrates the elegant complexity of human minds in all their differences, rejecting the pathologizing notion that there are “right” and “wrong” ways of thinking and perceiving. By studying neurodiversity in this course, we examine the social structures that create psychological struggle, and the cultural conditions that make mental differences challenging.

Our goal in “Neurodiversity, Narrative, Activism” is to use our skills of writing and storytelling to enact social change. First, by recognizing that no brain—and no being—exists in a vacuum, somehow cordoned off from the social world, we study the institutions and infrastructures that contribute to who we are. Our readings demonstrate fluidity across boundaries of mind and body, body and environment. This helps us to critique cultural narratives of individualism and personal responsibility, and to think through ways we can work together to create a more healthful world.

Engaging with modernist literature as well as contemporary essays and personal narratives about mental disability, we learn the power of story. How does literature train us to empathize, and identify with the perspectives of others? Who has voice in our society, and which voices get listened to? Students learn strategies for cultivating impactful stories themselves, designed to be shared on public platforms. When we develop our skills of writing to have an impact on diverse audiences, we can amplify the stories of marginalized people and groups, and use story to influence change.

The first major assignment is a multimodal, flexible-format Activism Project, with no restrictions on students’ creativity. Students design an original project that fights stigma by educating the public about the social contexts of mental illness and disability. In the spring of 2018, students canvassed the student body, and gathered perspectives from the online disability activism community. They designed artwork, research pamphlets, children’s books, and graphic novels. One hosted a teach-in on trauma-informed care; another published an essay on mental disability and mass incarceration in The Standard. Others published blogs and online poetry. Six teams partnered up with students in a Moving Image Practice course to create a series of short, professional videos explaining why “Accessibility Matters” at Duke. Four students worked with a local nonprofit, the Alliance of Disability Advocates, to research accessible transportation for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. All students consulted with Duke Disability Alliance to learn how to make their projects accessible to the disability community. We launched our projects online for Disability Pride Week, and at a well-attended student exposition in the Smith Warehouse!

Our Activism Projects and student exposition were featured in The Chronicle and the Duke University Libraries blog.

Students in “Neurodiversity, Narrative, Activism” also get a lot of practice with more traditional forms of academic writing. In the Textual Analysis, they offer an original interpretation of one of our literary texts, and sustain their claim using close readings of textual evidence. In the Critical Essay, students have the option of revising and expanding upon work they started in the Activism Project or the Textual Analysis by incorporating a body of critical research. Because the final paper is scaffolded onto previous work, students get the benefit of learning how to make their ideas meaningful to different audiences, and to see what shape their ideas take in different genres of writing.

By writing a Research Proposal, students learn to outline the critical conversation they discovered in their research, and to situate their own claims alongside the work of others. Taking their writing through four rounds of peer review and instructor feedback, they learn skills of pre-writing and planning, structure and paragraphing, and reverse outlining. Once they have had the opportunity to test out the validity of their claims, and think through the overall flow of their essay, our final writing intervention is the paramedic method, which helps students pinpoint grammatical issues at the level of the sentence, and improve the clarity of their expression. 

“Neurodiversity, Narrative, Activism” teaches us how definitions of sanity and insanity relate to forms of injustice and social control, and gives us an opportunity to speak out. It takes inspiration from the history of civil rights activism, and the coalition between consumers, survivors, and ex-patients of psychiatric health systems. By recognizing the shared vulnerabilities of all human minds, we have a new basis for connecting with our community and reimagining what it means to be well.