Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Heightism in literature and popular culture

When I was a junior in college, I worked on an independent study project.  For my research, I studied the way short people and short things were portrayed in literature and popular culture, and I analyzed the use of adjectives that indicate shortness and smallness.  In terms of the adjectives, I tried to answer the question, "Are the adjectives generally used to describe something that is negative or something that is positive?"  I titled the paper, "Height in literature and popular culture." 

The project was a very good experience.  I was able to develop my own curriculum, which meant I could study a lot of books which otherwise I would never have the chance to read.  Perhaps more important, the project paved the way for my coming out as a person with dwarfism.  Obviously, I knew I was a person of short stature and others knew I was a person of short stature. And it wasn't that I never spoke openly to others about how dwarfism impacted my life in positive and negative way.  Yet, even as a junior in college, I hadn't fully embraced short stature as a positive component that played a part in determining my character, personality and behavior.  Looking back on the experience, I think the independent study opened the door that allowed my to start identifying with that part of myself. 

The semester of independent study culminated in a Student Symposium Day.  On that day, all of the students on campus who pursued independent study projects delivered a public presentation that was open to the entire student body.  The symposiums started in the morning and went all day.  Three different venues on campus hosted presentations simultaneously throughout the day.  My presentation was scheduled for the afternoon in the science lecture hall.  I vividly remember standing in one of the hallways in the science building about half an hour before I was scheduled to present.  The two students who were scheduled to present in the two different locations at the same time as me were in the hallway with me.  I don't know how it happened, but we all would up in the hallway together.  We stood there waiting, growing more nervous as every minute passed, telling each other that, if it weren't for our own presentations, we'd want to hear what the other had to say. 

When I finally took the stage and presented for twenty minutes about my research, the door that I mention above opened up a little bit.  Although I never said it directly during the presentation, I knew, and most of the people in the audience probably knew, that I was talking about myself.  The language that impacted the characters in the literature and impacted how others thought of the characters, also impacted me and how others thought of me. 

Though the Student Symposium Day was a success for me, one of the other significant memories of that day was my failure to respond well to a comment made by someone in the audience.  At some point during the question and answer session, an English Professor asked a question about one of the points I tried to make in my presentation.  I think he asked the question because he didn't completely buy into my point.  He wanted to, but he needed more information.  That's why he asked the question.  I answered his question and elaborated on my point.  He asked a follow up question.  Again, I answered and elaborated.  I don't know how long the exchange went on, but at some point, a student interrupted.  He said something to the affect of, "I am not uncomfortable with this line of questioning.  I think Gary did a great job and we should give him a big hand."  At that point, there was applause and my presentation was finished. 

The student had good intentions, but his comment was infantalizing.  The point of the presentation was to present information, and to be prepared to back up the research with more information.  I was at an academic institution.  The point of academics is to drill down beneath the surface of information to find out what supports the information. The English Professor was engaging my work in an intellectual way. And that was the point.  My research found that characters and individuals who are shorter are not treated the same way as others and by and large this manifests itself in a negative way.  Yet, characters and individuals who are shorter deserve to be treated as others.  Standing up there delivering my research, I wanted to be treated like everyone else. The English Professor asked me questions just as he would ask anyone else challenging questions.  The student however, treated my work with kid gloves, as if I was a child who couldn't be subjected to scrutiny.  Perhaps he treated everyone this way, but considering the subject of my research, it was unappreciated by me. Nevertheless, I didn't respond to the student. I nodded, thanked everyone, and left the stage.  There are many things that happen over the course of a lifetime that we wish we could redo.  For me, responding to that student in a different way is just one. 

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