The English department is looking to build a stronger cadre of professors in disability studies – a relatively new field that looks at how people with disabilities perceive and are perceived in society.
The English department will hire an associate or full-time professor in for the cross-disciplinary field that spans several departments, including education, law, literature and public policy. Disability studies has taken root in the English department over the last few years, though it is not yet offered as a major or minor.
That could change soon, department chair Robert McRuer said. He added that he hopes another speciality hire will build momentum for disability studies at GW and entice more graduate students to the program.
He said that while there are other professors who are interested in disability studies, he is targeting a top scholar to lift the department above its competitors.
“It will make us really one of the two English departments in the country that are known for that kind of interdisciplinary work on disability – impairment of the body,” McRuer, who specializes in disability studies, said. “It’s kind of difficult to understand how important that will be in terms of our national profile in that field, which is a really emerging field. It’s also one that students tend to love.”
The field is akin to feminism, and it looks to dig deeper than common stereotypes and metaphors about disabilities in history and literature, McRuer said.
Jeffrey Cohen, an English professor, said the department, which has several scholars on disability studies, has put a lot of energy into the cultural field.
“A way to think about this is for those of us who were not born disabled – if we live long enough, there will come a time in our lives where we become disabled. It’s not that a disability sets a person off in one particular way,” he said. “It’s a part of the human experience.”
Disability studies gained momentum at GW six years ago with its first cross-discipline symposium. The next conference, which will likely take place next spring, is in the planning stages.
GW is currently one of the only English departments in the country with a teaching slot for disability studies. Other universities that have shown interest in the field include Emory, University of Chicago, Georgetown and Corcoran College of Art and Design.
It could become a minor at GW “down the road,” McRuer said, tying into the University’s interdisciplinary focus, highlighted in the strategic plan and evidenced by new minors like sustainability.
Columbian College of Arts and Sciences has had two students graduate with majors in disability studies in recent years because they were able to create their own interdisciplinary degree, McRuer said.
Mary Ellen McIntire contributed to this report.