Teacher, Writer, Scholar: Lindsey Dolich Felt
By Emily Polk
The coming new year is going to bring a lot of wonderful things for Lindsey Dolich Felt—chief among them a new article, “Cyberpunk’s Other Hackers: The Girls Who Were Plugged In,” slated to be published in a special issue on Crip Technoscience in Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, and Technoscience. The article, much like Lindsey’s brilliant writing and teaching work, interlaces disability studies, STS (Science and Technology Studies), literary scholarship and archival research—in this case, on the history of Bell System’s telephone operators, or “hello girls.”
Lindsey’s essay locates a precursor to the cyberpunk hacker in feminist science fiction, particularly in the work of Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. (For those unfamiliar with her work, science fiction authors often cite Tiptree as foundational to both feminist science fiction and contemporary science fiction.)
“My interest in Sheldon and her writing stems from her portrayal of disability in her 1973 novella, ‘The Girl Who Was Plugged In,’ says Lindsey. “Tiptree’s female protagonist offers a surprisingly complex representation of disability as its female protagonist is ‘plugged in’ to a global information network; her physically disfigured body is hidden away underground while she operates a synthetically “perfect” body owned by a telecommunications corporation.”
Lindsey argues that Tiptree’s story reanimates a little known history of switchboard operators who were debilitated by their work, and thus makes visible the material effects of information networks on women’s bodies.
“Even though Tiptree wrote this story long after switchboard operators had been mostly automated out of existence, her narrative importantly counters Bell System’s ableist accounts of the telephone switchboard operator. (Advertising and training pamphlets often reinforced the ideal of the telephone operator as an attractive, healthy, educated, docile middle-class woman,)” says Lindsey. “Provocatively, Tiptree’s novella positions the disabled female figure as a hacker who can disrupt and manipulate information systems through her body. This portrayal radically revises cultural and literary histories of the hacker as an able-bodied male who draws on his cognitive abilities to hack systems.”
Lindsey’s article, which comes out of her dissertation work and now book project, will be part of collection of essays that offers a new politicized lens for understanding disability in relation to technology, communication and critical design practices. Lindsey’s scholarship is pioneering for the way it maps the evolving relationship between disability and human-machine interfaces from the early Cold War era to global information culture in the twenty-first century. Her book project argues that contemporary literature bears witness to critically overlooked design practices in which people with disabilities actively shaped the way we use and understand communication technologies today.
Along with her book project, Lindsey is also developing a new course “Unruly Bodies: Towards a New Rhetorics of Body Language” that she’ll be teaching in the winter quarter. According to Lindsey, the course was born from a series of conversations she had with PWR colleagues about assessment practices in oral communication.
“I thought to myself, what kinds of communication are we not allowing by privileging the norms of oral communication—eye contact, functional gestures, standing posture, pacing, and so forth?” she says. “What would happen if we explode those conventions? So, this course represents my attempt to grapple with these questions: we will study the place of the body in rhetoric, and how the presence, form and performance of a body and gesture impacts the shape of our arguments.”
Lindsey says she envisions the course as an invitation to study non-normative forms of communication such as stuttering, sign language, stimming, and other unique forms of embodied performance. It will consider how oral language presumes an abled-body, and the consequences and limitations of this perspective. One of her biggest inspirations for the course came from a collection of essays, Bodies in Commotion, edited by Carrie Sandhal and Philip Auslander.
“The chapter on disability’s challenge to the norms of rhetorical delivery by Brenda Jo Brueggemann, a comp rhet scholar who helped establish disability studies, has given me much to think about for next quarter,” she says. “My hope for this course is that it will prompt reflection on alternative communicative repertoires, and encourage students to develop self-aware practice of their own bodily rhetorics.”
Lindsey notes that her teaching and research have always been connected. “I’ve always thought of the relationship between my teaching and research as a positive feedback loop,” she says. “All of my PWR courses have come out of my research interests, and feed right back into this research project as I discover new texts, questions, and ideas alongside students. In that way, teaching has profoundly helped me reframe some of my own research questions and arguments.”
She shares with her students that the research questions for her dissertation actually came out of the first PWR1 course she taught as a graduate student. Through the process of selectively organizing a set of texts and questions around the theme of the cyborg body and disability, she began to frame her project.
An ongoing challenge, as an early career scholar, has been finding mentors, specifically within the disability studies community. “I have some wonderful mentors and advisors from my time here at Stanford, but as a DS scholar and a deaf scholar, this kind of mentorship has been lacking for me,” Lindsey says. “Fortunately, through networking and conferences, I’ve been able to find a small, but robust group of mentors who have helped me navigate the peculiar challenges of working within disability studies and also as an academic with a disability. For these reasons, PWR’s mentorship model of guiding student research has been especially meaningful for me—and my students, I hope.”
She stands in solidarity with all PWR instructors in their quest to figure out a successful work-life balance.
“I try to take it one quarter at a time, giving myself permission to try one new thing in class that I think will return more autonomy to students and create more efficient classroom management,” she says. For example, this quarter she gave all students a one-use only 24-hour time bank so that they can take an extension on a major assignment, no questions asked and the results have been promising. Students are learning to anticipate their schedules and manage their time better, Lindsey says, while also significantly cutting down on extension requests.
She also makes sure to set aside early evenings and weekends as sacred time for family and self-care. This means yoga, running and hiking as ‘me-time’ activities, and time with her 3-year-old son.
“He’s in this phase right now where he is very much into storytelling and playing with the conventions of stories,” she says. “He’ll start ‘Once upon a time’ and then tell this elaborate, nonsensical, meandering story about peacocks and meatballs and a construction site that has this incredible character development but then jumps forward and backward in time and logic. And most of the time he’s telling this story with a sly grin on his face which makes me think he’s being intentionally ironic or absurdist. Then it becomes this collaborative story where he’ll ask me to join in and we’ll take the story in a completely unexpected direction. A child’s mind is just the most astonishing thing, and we should all be doing more of this creative play.”