A Pedagogy of Falling

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A Pedagogy of Falling

Neurodivergent Teaching 


Preface: The City University of New York Board of Trustees holds meetings at which members of the CUNY community (students, professors, staff, etc) are allowed to testify, either in person or online. The following link offers my  online testimony:

Testimony to the CUNY Board of Trustees

A few weeks ago, after classes, I tripped and fell on uneven cobblestones on the campus where I teach. The fall felt hard and I thought my glasses were broken and my teeth had cracked. Fortunately, they weren’t and they hadn’t. Kind people helped me up and gave me water and ice. I said I was okay; I thought I was. 

Then my knee began to stiffen and, using my phone camera as a mirror, I noticed my swollen lip and bruised chin. Because of this new information, I decided that I needed to head over to the urgent care center in my neighborhood to help me determine if the ER or additional aftercare were in order. 

But I was nearly ten miles and a few highways from my neighborhood and the geography seemed daunting. Usually I take public transit for 60-90 minutes each way, but the commute is less than a half hour by car. To be cautious, I would need to use ride share. 

I am used to requesting accommodations for neurodivergent needs, especially tech-friendly classrooms. However, I now realized, with great humility, that I had taken my mobility completely for granted. Bearing witness to the material reality of long decades of underfunding and austerity in higher education means confronting ADA-unfriendly disrepair. I found that the campus was built like a fortress of inaccessibility: outside staircases with no ramps for people in wheelchairs or those who use canes or walkers, hilly terrain and uneven pavement everywhere, and closed campus gates that prevented easy exit and entrance for rideshare vehicles.

Sign on campus lawn near a classroom building that reads “Not Accessible Trail”Sign on campus lawn near a classroom building that reads “Not Accessible Trail”

 Photo by Susan Bernstein

August 29, 2033

Again, with kind help from others, I managed to leave campus and return to my neighborhood for medical care. While my knee was sprained and swollen with dark purple bruises, and difficult to walk on, there were no broken bones and no torn joints or ligaments. In reading the x-ray results, I felt tears of gratitude well up. It was a humbling experience, the random impact of falling and the privilege of access to health insurance. 

The next week, I cautiously made my way back to campus. In the classroom building, I climbed a few steep stairs (with no ramp) and walked the long hallway to reach the elevator to the floor where my classroom was located. I dreaded that elevator. Even before the pandemic, the elevator was too small to allow access to wheelchairs, and the large crowds that used the elevator during and after classes made social distancing impossible.

But that morning the elevator was almost empty. I reached the classroom early while another class was still in session, but found an empty classroom where I could elevate my knee and meditate on the first day of the second half of the semester. After introducing the second writing project, I checked in with students. I wanted to make sure that we were on the same page with classwork, so I created this survey using google.forms

More importantly, I wanted to know if open-ended writing time was useful for students. The first writing project featured a significant amount of unstructured class time for writing, reading, and consulting with me about progress and process. I asked students the following question:

Some of our class time in English 110 and English 115 is devoted to independent reading and writing. How do you usually spend this class time? Respond in detail with specific examples.

The responses were so descriptive and filled with many helpful ideas, especially for breaking down larger assignments into smaller and more manageable segments. I decided to make a Tips and Hints sheet  based on the surveys to share with the class. I also made a word cloud so that students would have a visual image of their suggestions:

Word cloud with white letters on a back background.Word cloud with white letters on a back background.

Photo by Susan Bernstein

August 29, 2033

Recently, a New York Times columnist wrote an opinion piece about the unexpected aches, pains, and sprains of aging. My post isn’t about that, though I certainly am humbled by both the vulnerability and the potential–but not necessarily assured–resilience of the body, and I am certainly more mindful of how much I take mobility for granted. 

So–what is a Pedagogy of Falling? Falling is a scary experience, and a Pedagogy of Falling doesn’t necessarily imply rising like a phoenix from the ashes. I was reminded that I have a body and that bodies, including students’ bodies, are vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances. A Pedagogy of Falling takes into consideration the individual and collective experiences of bodies, or more simply put, students’ and instructors’ embodied experiences inside and outside of classrooms, before, during, and after a brief semester of first-year writing. 

Take the word cloud as one example. We write together, yet the writing process unfolds differently for each of us.The word cloud reveals the ever-shifting balance of individual and collective experiences of the processes of writing. In other words, I fall alone, but the access to accommodations for mobility is, or ought to be, a collective experience. I write alone, but a community of writers supports, or ought to support, the collective experience of writing classrooms together.

A Pedagogy of Falling remains conscious of the need to cultivate empathy and to emphasize approaches that facilitate writing for individual students and the collective of bodies in writing classrooms. A Pedagogy of Falling is not new; it relies on memories of difficult times and places, and builds on the uncertainty of not knowing ultimate outcomes for concerted efforts. 

Perhaps most significantly, a Pedagogy of Falling does not assume that everyone will heal or recover according to university mandated schedules or semester timetables . Put more simply, in the long wake of the coronavirus, a Pedagogy of Falling is a pedagogy of everyday life. 

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.