Academic Discomfort: An Autistic Trait?

Many of the comments I receive regarding the blog are sent to me directly. For some blog posts, the majority of comments are not posted to this blog, though some might appear on Facebook or via Twitter. I have wondered why some topics lead to fewer public replies. Last night, a question asked concerned my previous post on being uncomfortable among writing and rhetoric professors at a conference.

Did I believe the discomfort was related to autism? Is it an autistic trait to be uncomfortable in some academic situations?

That's a good question. I know my personality and I know what autistic adults told me during my doctoral research: I do fit the stereotype of preferring academic subjects that are "apolitical" and "objective" in nature; the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects are comfortable. I'd add to that list business, architecture, film production, and similar fields that stress applied knowledge over theory.

Though I am a writer, and I'd like to believe I'm a decent writer, people focused on fields with "studies" affixed to their disciplines don't think in the same manner I do. I include the soft "social sciences" in the studies group. These fields are often more interested in advocacy politics than rigorous scientific research methods. This is openly admitted in "writing studies" and its related network of disciplines.

At the conference I attended, the "pedagogies" (teaching theories) were "grounded in social justice" and "embrace[d] the pragmatism of Cornel West, Alinsky, and Dewey." I'm sorry, but the "scholars" listed are not scientific, objective thinkers. This approach to teaching embraces a political ideology first, and then seeks to find ways to implement that ideology. That's not educational research in my mind, but instead something entirely different.

I'm not a social conservative, but I do not like the fact an academic discipline is anything but disciplined and rigorous.

Every conference I've attended on writing instruction has had the same deficiency. I've never sat through a presentation or panel that included something like the following statement: "Our methods improved writing and reading comprehension by X based on the standardized measure Y." I have heard statements like this: "My students seemed to like writing more at the end of the semester." One of the stranger things I've heard, "I know my students care more for each other at the end of the writing course." Neither of these conclusions is a quantifiable statement based on rigorous measures.

I want to learn how we can teach writing skills most effectively to students with autism and other different ways of perceiving and relating to the world. My goal is straightforward. After using method X, does a student demonstrate improved writing skills? I can't relate to the goal of teaching "social justice" and "tolerance" in the writing class because I don't think that way. I want to be able to express myself, using words. I assume the parents and students with whom I work want the same thing: the ability to communicate.

When I attend a conference at which at least half of the sessions address practical, evidence-based ways to teach language to students with special needs, then I will be impressed and feel like I'm part of a serious academic discipline. Instead, I've heard about teaching a lot of beliefs to students, and beliefs are not related directly to writing. Politically motivated instruction risks overlooking the role we play in education: preparing students to write.

I had a colleague talk to me about his new writing class. He was excited to include a long list of progressive political theorists in the course. The course was "College Writing and Research" — not "The Progressive Era." I asked him, bluntly, "How do the assignments address writing skills?" He looked at me and said, earnestly, "I'm teaching the students to think. Writing will just happen when they are inspired to call for change."

And we wonder why our disciplines aren't taken seriously? Too many of our students don't learn to write. I know my colleagues would challenge that, but ask employers and their instructors in other disciplines if the writing skills are acceptable.

Maybe it is my "autistic" nature, but I want writing instruction research that is practical. I want to be a better writing teacher. Why can't being a great teacher be the sum total of my "activism" in the classroom? Trust me, knowing how to write will change the lives of my students.

I know I'be more comfortable in a scientific field, but I want to teach writing. So, I have to learn to navigate around the current state of my chosen field. It isn't easy, trust me, because when I ask about instructional methods and research, I'm accused of not caring about social justice. My colleagues have confused their desired outcome (social change) with the best way to achieve that outcome for some student populations (teaching writing skills).

Helping adults with autism realize their goals of independent living and success is my activism. I do that by focusing on skills. No, that's not "critical thinking" that leads to an oddly homogeneous worldview. It is skills and I'm not ashamed to call what I do skills development. Thinking has to be built on a foundation, and my students are still working on that foundation.

Last week, a colleague said, "We should grade thoughts, not writing." But I'm a writing specialist! I need to grade writing to help the student improve his or her writing. I asked how students would improve their writing without grades, which do motivate young adults more than intrinsic idealism does. "Good people think clearly and write better."

I've always taken the opposite view: learning to write, like learning to solve math problems, helps develop clear thought and reasoning skills. Silly me, I believe you learn skills before you can apply the skills creatively. I had to learn the notes and play other people's music before I could improvise on the clarinet. Skills come first.

Maybe I won't last in academia, at least not within a writing or English discipline. Maybe I belong somewhere else that uses more "scientific" methods to test instructional theories. A discipline in which "theory" doesn't mean "critical theory" or "social justice."

I don't know. Clearly, my goals are not exciting and political enough for some in my field.


  1. I think there are many thing things going on in what you are saying.

    I think your autistic brain compartmentalizes much better than the average brain. In your mind, the task is writing, we are teaching writing, not anything else. Only writing outcomes should be measured.

    With other people, subjects and tasks bleed into each other much more easily. Everything is connected in our minds. I can do this to an extreme.

    I have learned to respect and appreciate the ability to compartmentalize. There is also value to what I do -- I see how everything is connected and related.

    However, if I understand what you are saying, "writing" often isn't even the priority in writing classes. It sounds like professors are using the classes to preach their personal (or departmental or of that of their discipline) ideological agenda, and that this agenda is not advertised up front as part of the course description. That this would happen to a degree is understandable, but it sounds like its going so far as to leak into the way that class is evaluated and that the original purpose is being lost, that of writing. I find this disturbing and even false advertising.

    But there is also the issue of what an English department is. It's not just the writing process, it's literature and more often about literature of the creative type with emphasis on personal interpretation rather than technical scientific literature which we would hope everyone would understand the same way. Literature fits much better with the "everything is related" way of thinking than the compartmentalization way of thinking. Its going to attract that kind of brain. Creative writing is going to attract that kind of brain, a brain that means multiple things when writing one sentence, a brain that means multiple things when teaching one class.

    I am assuming you are not teaching creative writing but something more like technical writing. While it can be taught in the English discipline you are going to have to tolerate the coexistence of the other kind of brain, weaknesses and all. Your presence might help them to become a little more centered, but I wouldn't expect to totally change them.

  2. Ruby:

    I am a creative writer — I write screenplays and short stories — but most of the classes we teach and our assigned "role" at the university is to teach "college composition" (academic writing) to prepare all freshman students to write reports and other documents within their majors. Most universities require a "first-year composition" course (some test out), with the goal being students with the ability to craft APA/MLA papers in their chosen fields.

    The field of has become so enamored with "radical pedagogy" that we fail at our primary task. That's inexcusable.

    If you take a creative writing class from me, then you can expect me to talk about history, politics, and the evolution of various creative forms. You cannot discuss novels of the 20th century without mentioning the early progressives or the 1950s philosophical movements. But, those histories are not part of what a science major needs while trying to master APA style for his or her academic success.

    At another institution — not my present employer — I was told that we must help student become activists. I asked a colleague what about other departments complaining to administrators that our students cannot write? I was told by this colleague, "Other majors don't seem to care about being good people."

    Right. Medical schools definitely don't care. Those fools insisting on APA formatting and decent grammar. How heartless.

  3. Totally freaky.

    I agree totally that college composition should teach college composition. I wonder how what you are describing came into being? I can imagine it happening somewhere, but how did it become a common English department characteristic? Any ideas?

    I think we would all agree that being a good person is important, but unless its a religious institution, one doesn't expect "goodness" to be part of the English department teachings. When did English teacher decide they had a religious purpose?


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