Engaging Students in Neurodiversity Activism: Q&A with Marion Quirici

“Working with the Library” is an occasional series of stories highlighting collaborations between librarians and the people around campus whose teaching and research we support.

Dr. Marion Quirici is a Lecturing Fellow in the Thompson Writing Program and a faculty advisor for the Duke Disability Alliance. This semester she is teaching Writing 101: Neurodiversity, Narrative, Activism. Her students are working on projects that fight stigma by educating the public about the social contexts of mental and psychiatric disabilities. Kim Duckett, Head of Research and Instructional Services, has been Marion’s course librarian for three semesters.. She recently asked Marion a few questions about how the library has supported her teaching and research in the area of disability studies.


What are your primary goals for your students working on their neurodiversity activism projects?

Student Sydny Long with her graphic novel, “The Lonely Brain.”

The goal is to train students to communicate an impactful message to a broad audience beyond the classroom. Their message should challenge mainstream assumptions and stereotypes about mental disabilities, and generate deeper understanding of the social contexts that make mental differences meaningful. The assignment is flexible in terms of format and medium. Students have a lot of freedom in figuring out what they want to say, how they want to say it, and whom they want to address. Some of their projects may involve more traditional forms of academic writing (articles, blogs, or op-eds), but students can also communicate their message through visual art, film, creative writing, posters, websites, social media campaigns, and dialogic forms of activism such as canvassing and teach-ins. What every project has to do is take the knowledge and skills cultivated in my course and transfer them into real-world situations. Through this assignment, I want students to come to terms with their own power and learn to use their research and writing skills to enact change.

What unique challenges does this assignment present?

Because my courses are situated in the field of disability studies, there are two main challenges that we reckon with as a group when designing these projects. The first is upholding the mantra of the disability rights movement: “nothing about us without us.” In the “disability rights are human rights” conversation, we must center disabled perspectives. While some of my students identify as disabled and incorporate their own experiences into their activism,

Student Laura Benzing with her visual art piece, “Language of Autism.”

the majority identify as nondisabled and neurotypical. It is therefore essential that students rigorously consider the lived experiences of psychiatric consumers, survivors, and ex-patients in order to challenge their own assumptions. In advocacy work and activism, it is important not to place an onus of recovery on the individual. Instead, I ask students to research the social structures and cultural conditions that contribute to the challenges individuals face. To be good allies, students have to resist thinking of “us” and “them” — it’s just “us.”

The second challenge is accessibility. The activism project must be accessible not only to a general audience that is unfamiliar with the neurodiversity paradigm, but also to people with all kinds of disabilities. Students learned to use accessibility software to caption their videos, and create audio descriptions of the visual components of their projects. Some thought about ways to incorporate tactile elements into their artwork, while others created accessible maps and navigational aids to help guide participants to their events. I organized the projects into a website here: tinyurl.com/disabilityart.

How has the library supported your teaching?

The Thompson Writing Program follows a “writing in the disciplines” model, which means that every faculty member designs writing courses within a specific discipline in which they have advanced training and expertise. We each have an assigned course librarian with specialized knowledge of our discipline–you, in my case–who visit our classes once or twice a semester to train students in their research methods. This semester you visited twice: once to discuss non-traditional forms of research for the activism projects, for which students were expected to find first-person perspectives on topics relating to mental health, and a second time to train students to use the library databases to compile and analyze a variety of critical sources for their research papers.

Student work from Dr. Quirici’s class last year featured on the Campus Club wall in Perkins Library.

Duke’s librarians have collaborated on a number of resources that are useful for the teaching of writing, which they organized into a “Library 101 Toolkit.” The toolkit contains worksheets that help students choose a topic, consider their audience by identifying stakeholders, and evaluate their sources. My favorite handout is called “Classifying Sources: The BAAM Method.” It outlines four different ways a student might engage with a source in their writing: Background, Artifact, Argument, and Method. I find that having students organize their sources into these categories during the research process helps them structure their papers, and situate their own ideas alongside the work of others.

A really unique way that the library has supported my teaching has been their willingness to provide opportunities for my students to exhibit their work. Last year, the students who created visual art for their activism projects had their work featured on the Campus Club Wall in Perkins Library for a month, thanks to the help of Meg Brown. This year, librarians in Lilly helped one of my students organize a shelf display of recommended reading for Disability Pride Week and contribute a post to the Libraries’ blog.

How about your research?

The Duke Libraries have an online database called “Disability and the Modern World” that I have found useful for browsing for the kinds of resources I would not have known to search for, including periodicals, film and television sources, and archival materials. Resources are organized by subject, discipline, geographical

Students Jay Patel and Nick Saba with their children’s book, “New Friends.”

location, and people, which always makes for a really generative browsing experience. I was so excited to discover an Australian chat show called “No Limits,” which covers a range of topics on disability representation in the media, and features one of my favorite disability activists, Stella Young.

The Rubenstein Library also has an extensive History of Medicine Collection that has been useful to my research. When I was writing a lecture on Psychiatric Degeneration Theory for the Neurohumanities Research Group this past February, I was able to consult a first edition of Bénédict Morel’s 1857 treatise on the so-called “physical, intellectual, and moral degeneration of the human race,” and study the development of a harmful theory that would later be used to justify eugenics and racial cleansing.

What are three things you think that undergraduates should know about using information and the library?

First, to generate as many questions as possible about your topic before you start searching. It’s important at the beginning of the research process to consider your topic from all angles, and to keep an open mind about what you might argue until you’ve learned what other scholars have already written. The more questions students ask about their topic at the beginning of the process, the more options they will have for taking a unique approach on the subject.

Second, not to be overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. Disability is a topic people initially perceive as marginal, but this is a misconception, and there is scholarship connecting disability to almost anything you can think of. Students can feel daunted by this. But once they take the time to comb through what’s out there by engaging in distant reading, they find more sophisticated ways to articulate what exactly interests them. It can be really exciting to watch them discover the originality of their own ideas.

Third, to be comfortable asking for help. Research should never be done in total isolation. Having a conversation with a librarian, classmate, or professor can help you not only articulate your project to yourself, but also to get feedback on how well others are understanding your ideas. They might raise questions, introduce perspectives you had not considered, and help you define your topic. Think of the librarians as extra professors outside the classroom. They have many years of experience organizing research and gaining access to information, and students should take advantage of all that expertise!

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