- Pushing Up against Too MuchReading, Writing, and Witnessing Illness in the First-Year Seminar
Nearly a decade ago, I taught a first-year seminar at Adelphi University that remains simultaneously my most challenging and my most rewarding teaching experience, both personally and professionally. I designed “Illness as Narrative: Bearing Witness to Cancer and aids” around an ambitious reading schedule, fusing trauma theory and concepts from disabilities studies with stories of illness. Although I have considered offering a version of this course at my current university, and I frequently teach many of the texts and theories in smaller doses within a semester, this intensive twice-weekly seminar required a uniquely high level of emotional stamina from the very start. On the first day, I asked the students why they had selected our class out of the dozens of options open to them. This is what I heard:
“My aunt had breast cancer.”
“My mother is a breast cancer survivor.”
“I have cancer in my family.”
“My dad has cancer.”
“I was an hiv/aids peer educator in high school.”
“My uncle died of cancer.”
“My grandfather died of aids.”
“My mother recovered from breast cancer.”
“I work with an aids organization.”
“My grandmother had cancer.”
“So did mine.”
“I am a cancer survivor.”
“I have cancer in my family.”
Days into the semester, students told bits of their stories of illness and disability, expanding both beyond the family circle and beyond cancer and aids: stories of friends who had serious physical disabilities, of a community allowing itself to forget a young man dead of aids, of a student living in fear of her family’s history of heart disease, of another student’s battle with anorexia. Over the course of our time together, the onslaught of pain and loss did not subside: that fall, one student lost a close friend, another’s grandmother died, yet another’s father was losing ground to his cancer. And days after the semester ended, one student went home to Florida to learn his mother had just been diagnosed with cervical cancer. [End Page 158]
My students had at some point in their lives each implicitly believed that bodies could be relied upon to function smoothly and to heal quickly and fully in the face of accident or illness. Yet one by one, they had learned, often years before, that bodies—even their own healthy bodies—can falter and do not always recover. These traditional college-age students were drawn to this class out of a desire to make sense out of what they had witnessed, the truths they knew about illness and failing bodies, and the fears and losses they could not articulate. Indeed, they were drawn to it for precisely the same reason I, an ovarian cancer survivor and woman with multiple sclerosis, was initially drawn to these texts and to this field of inquiry years earlier. Stories of pain, disease, and disability are pervasive, leaving few families untouched, forcing each of us to confront our expectations and assumptions regarding being able-bodied. We all have stories to tell. Some students in the class did not yet realize this. Others did not know where to begin.
We began that first day with Marilyn Hacker. I had brought in copies of her poem “Against Elegies,” thinking it a good introduction to a world of loss that I mistakenly expected the students would know little about. Hacker begins:
James has cancer. Catherine has cancer.
Melvin has aids.
Whom will I call, and get no answer?(11)
Although many of the students had already confronted it, they did not know disease in the way that Hacker presents it, as something that happens repeatedly. But, as Ross Chambers argues in laying out the ways we are haunted by atrocity: “Such an atrocity—the same or another—can always happen again…. That is what we need to know and acknowledge…that is why the untimely interventions of testimonials are needed, again and again and again” (xx). My students had not yet imagined how they might break from the varied ghosts that haunt each of us by breaking silence and bearing witness.
I prepared to...