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Friday, February 11, 2011

Cancer in the Classroom

Yesterday was a first for me--I used my identity as a "cancer" patient (or former cancer patient or cancer survivor--so hard to know which phrase is most apropos for me) to illustrate a point I was making in my Asian American lit and theory course. Right now we're reading NYU Law School professor Kenji Yoshino's Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights (click here for the link to the book's website). One of my students asked for a clarification of the key concept of Yoshino's book, namely how covering differs from passing.

Now, I'm very comfortable with using myself or elements from my life, especially in terms of my ethnicity, race, and gender, to help illuminate aspects of what I'm teaching--particularly when it's in a class on Asian American subjects. So it wasn't unusual for me to draw from my personal identity to clarify a theoretical concept related to race or identitarian issues. But it was DEFINITELY a first for me to draw from my most recent experiences with cancer.

And this is what I said.

If, during the middle of my chemotherapy treatments--the period in which I clearly lost my hair due to this treatment--I wore a wig and found myself at a dinner party with a group of people and I never brought up my cancer diagnosis or on-going chemotherapy treatment--if, in fact, when complimented on my new hairstyle, if I simply said thank you or didn't elaborate on the fact that I was wearing a wig, then I would be passing--I would be deliberately hiding my cancer diagnosis and masking the visible effects of my cancer treatment. I would be "passing" as a healthy person rather than as a cancer patient.

However, if I was open about my cancer diagnosis and my chemotherapy treatment, and the fact that I had lost my hair but then still wore a wig to this dinner party--either to not make others feel uncomfortable from the visible difference I present as a cancer patient or to make myself more comfortable to not be so visibly marked by my cancer--then I'd be "covering"--there is no denial about the fact that I have cancer, but I would also not draw any attention to my status as a cancer patient.

After I gave this example the students nodded their heads, and I moved on with the next phase of my lesson. But it was an odd feeling, realizing that I had just used my cancer as a way to illustrate an intellectual issue in the classroom--that I had so publicly performed my cancer identity for my students. Because what was odd wasn't the insertion of the personal with the professional--as I noted before, I've often used aspects of my identity in making or illustrating a point in the classroom. What was odd was realizing that I had integrated, seemingly seamlessly, the identity of a cancer patient/cancer survivor to the point where I COULD use it as an example in the classroom.

Is this an intellectual leap, for me, to accept and recognize the place of cancer in my life--to my sense of self? Is it now a part of my indelible identity in the same way that I think of my gender and race and ethnicity as immutable (even while, of course, recognizing that intellectually I know that these are also social constructs--can I ever turn off the academic in me)? Will I now be the professor who performs her cancer in the classroom or is this a consequence of time--that this experience being so fresh for me becomes yet another recent experience for me to draw from?