header photo

The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Academic/Human: On Learning Failure

Leah Beth Lewis

Table of Contents

Keywords: ableism; queer; borderlands; disability and illness

Categories: Queer Intimacies and Radical Kinship During Isolation; Disability, Illness, and Survival (When the World Doesn’t Want You To)

Content warning: ableism

In 2018, writer and activist Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha published Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. This collection of essays provides a new map for how to live in community and center the leadership of those with disabilities and other historically marginalized identities. Piepzna-Samarasinha describes these maps as “care webs,” or collectives. As an academic and educator, I found in Piepzna-Samarasinha’s work a type of community that was antithetical to the isolation and competitiveness of university life. While reading Care Work for the first time, I was just starting a doctoral fellowship at the University of Arkansas, and knew that failure of any kind—not meeting deadlines, missing a class or meeting, not publishing at the rate of others in my cohort, not maintaining a 4.0 GPA—was unacceptable. I read Care Work with a sort of misty-eyed longing, the kind that says “how nice for them, but that life is not available to me.” I resigned myself to burnout and robotic living. I placed academia before everything else in my life, including my own care. I had to—otherwise, I would fail.

A year prior to beginning my Ph.D. program, I had the privilege to work with a disability justice advocate on a judging panel for the Lambda Literary Awards. At that time—and I feel the cringe from non-millennials already, but there is no other way to say this—I was living my absolute best life. Good physical health, thriving professionally, financially comfortable, and living in the South Texas heat where my lizard soul could breathe. The chair of our Lammy judging panel, however, had been missing meetings and emails, going silent, disappearing for weeks. I did not know about their disabilities at the time, and I certainly did not know my own mental and physical limitations could (and would) become debilitating. After years of academic conditioning combined with the bootstraps mentality that I had from transcending my family’s educational and financial poverty, I simply could not understand why someone would ever miss a deadline, cancel a meeting, or not exceed expectations. With shame I remember the view I had of our chair, as a person who didn’t care about commitments, only to realize later they were simply…a person. A human. But it took my having to confront my own humanness to realize this. 

The next year, I had taken over as a chair for the Lambdas, and: I kept not following through, missing meetings and emails, going silent, disappearing for weeks. I could not get our previous chair out of my mind. There are those years where you are on top of everything and those years when it seems like everything is on top of you. The year I chaired for Lambda, it was the latter, and I began to question the norms academia, and capitalism, had taught me. Finally, after a year spent with everything on top of me, I read Care Work, and my world blew right open. Someone was articulating all the things I had been feeling, all the needs I did not know how to express in academic and professional contexts, and all the ways I saw myself as failing. I regretted my earlier view of my Lambda colleague, and I knew that on their back, at their expense, I learned. It is a debt I will never be able to repay.

In the introduction to Jay T. Dolmage’s 2017 Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, Dolmage opens by citing Ellen Cushman’s “Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change” (1996). Cushman writes that “academia powerfully mandates able-bodiedness and able-mindedness, as well as other forms of social and communicative hyperability”—demands that Cushman and Dolmage frame as antithetical to activism and disability access, respectively (2017). Merriam-Webster defines ableism as “discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities,” and disability as “a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person's ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions” (, 2020). Through analyzing these definitions, one wonders: is there a timeline for the “condition”? What classifies interference? What exactly are “typical daily activities”—who is determining their typicality? What sorts of “interactions” must be interfered with before one is classified as disabled? Both Dolmage and Piepzna-Samarasinha ask us to push beyond official document jargon to more fully understand disability justice and ableism. Piepzna-Samarasinha’s care webs are the antithesis of institutional structure. As the chapter of the same name opens, people ask questions of one another, and the questions pose various configurations of scarcity and plenty that invite the reader to imagine their own, and their community’s, needs: one person has a car but no gas money, another has gas money but no car—they will get nowhere alone (32). Everyone has different access needs, but also access to different resources. This section brought to mind my friend Bonnie Cisneros, who, at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, continually asked those of us in her community, “Is there something you need that I have? Let me know” ( My friends and I ask each other these questions now more than ever. Bonnie is a DJ, her gigs were cancelled, so four other friends and I paid her thirty dollars a month to play sets on Instagram from March to August. My reiki practitioner sewed donation-based ritual bags and sent me dried herbs. We all shared HelloFresh coupon codes, told each other where to find bread and bidets, shared disposable masks and bottles of hand sanitizer if we had extra because we only needed enough, not more. My motherfriend FaceTimed from Virginia and I entertained her daughter through a screen. The daughter’s laugh was the sound that pulled me into a future. We were doing these things before, sharing peas from the garden and pots of leftover soup and rides to the grocery store and that little bit that remains on the Starbucks gift card from your estranged mother, but the pandemic intensified these interactions.

Piepzna-Samarasinha calls it care webs, growing up we called it the queer mafia, San Antonio calls it comunidad and mi gente. I think of it as friends now but that word is not quite right, because they are not always friends. And friends do not always come through in that way, either. Like Piepzna-Samarasinha mentions so many times, if care is dependent on friendship, on liking someone, it is not a stable form of care (44). And, so often, the word care is used as a disguise for the word control.

“This is for everyone who had to run away from accepting care because care meant control—by family members or partners or workers or strangers,” Piepzna-Samarasinha writes (37). At the beginning of the pandemic, strange things happened. People were afraid that the world was ending, so they began to care, and offer gifts of control. My mother wants to know how I am doing, tells me many times that the coronavirus is going to kill her. She keeps asking what I need, offering to buy things I do not want, things she wants me to want. I keep saying that all I need is money. All I need is money. They are in a shelter in place so she cannot make a deposit, Katrina 2.0 minus the water and it is not just them, it is the whole world, but somehow, of course, Louisiana is still winning in the race of who cares for its people the least. (Mi gente.) She cannot send a check, she says, because it would take too long to get here. She does not have Venmo, PayPal, Zelle, and downloading them would be, somehow, too much work. So of course she finally breaks the law to go to the bank, to send me three hundred dollars, which is gone quickly because three hundred dollars is not much when you think your partner is going to be out of work and you are in the middle of moving and your wedding plans are going to shit and you owe everyone thousands of dollars and you never pay your hospital bills because with what? Spunk? And you (I) accepted the money because, I reminded myself, I am an adult, I have a car and a place to live and a wife and a fucking Texas Teachers retirement plan frozen and waiting for me to return. But the c o n t r o l  still snaked its way in via a mother exposing herself to Covid-19 so that she can say she did it for you. And if she dies, you can always remember that. And you know that you will. And she knows that you will. “Autonomous care” feels like an impossibility, though I know in the care webs I described above and the ones Piepzna-Samarasinha describes that it is possible.

Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:

I often needed help with housework—making my bed and doing dishes, chores, and laundry, buying groceries, and cooking food. But as a working-class femme, raised by an ex-waitress mom who taught me to always bus my own table, and as someone who’d cleaned houses for a living, I had a strong working-class ethic about always doing my own housework. I couldn’t imagine asking one of my friends to clean my toilet or do my dishes without feeling like an asshole—even though I regularly and happily did chores for friends when they were sick. (57)

In college, I was best friends with another artist. I lived in the dorms but she had a cute little house close to campus, so I would walk down to see her almost daily. We lived a charmed life together, painting, sewing, drawing, drinking coffee, repeat. She was my actual best friend, not my best friend in the lesbian sense of being obsessively in love but uncommitted and fucking on the dl. I would later think of her always as My Brilliant Friend, after reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (2012-2015).

One day I came over and she was still in bed, said she had gotten her period everywhere and felt miserable and exhausted. I said I could wash her sheets while she showered, get the blood stains out for her, and she was appalled. It did not seem like a weird offer to me, but she was disgusted, not by me but by the thought of me seeing her period sheets. It was what made the most sense—I was already dressed and ready for the brunch we had planned, so I could clean while she showered. Instead, because she would not let me help, we had to wait on her to wash her sheets, shower, then go to brunch. I think about that day so often, the day I felt shame for not being ashamed for her. Even so, it was here, in undergraduate college, where my sense of mutual care was born. As I analyzed Piepzna-Samarasinha’s care webs, I couldn’t get away from the fact that my care web has always involved higher education.

Dolmage writes: “Cash rules everything around modern higher education, and cash rules most effectively when it can be hidden behind values like individual choice and responsibility” (28). In Dolmage’s statement is the echo of Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 “C.R.E.A.M.,” the iconic ode to economic struggle and the mental weight of financial pressure. Dolmage continues, “More simply, higher education is an industry which, beyond the surface, is dominated by economic considerations, but most of the time doesn’t want to be seen as a business,” and nowhere has this been more evident than during the Covid-19 pandemic (28).

In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa introduced her Borderlands Theory (1987). Borderlands are a third country, or space, historically created by layering one country over another through conquest. This circled me back to Dolmage’s statement in Academic Ableism that “this entire map of academia is already superimposed over indigenous land that was stolen, swindled, appropriated” (17). Borderlands are, by nature, beyond definition, but the concept can be explained: borders are often created to maintain hierarchies, and to distinguish what is included and what is excluded in a territory (be it physical, mental, spiritual, or sexual territory), and for those who cannot solely identify with one side of the border, they reside in a third space, the Borderland. Anzaldúa illustrates her concept by discussing first being raised at the geographical border between Texas and Mexico, and then progresses to expand the concept to include the third space of sexuality (her queerness); the third space of gender (including her Shadow side); and the third space of race (that is, having colonized ancestry as a Mestiza woman). By analyzing Care Work through the lens of Borderlands theory, I became cognizant of the illusory borders of dis[ability], access, and the way that both are framed in the academy, which reinforces the abled/disabled and well/unwell binary. As Piepzna-Samarasinha states, “Mainstream ideas of ‘healing’ deeply believe in ableist ideas that you’re either sick or well, fixed or broken, and that nobody would want to be in a disabled or sick or mad bodymind” (103). Piepzna-Samarasinha actually dedicates an entire chapter of Care Work to Anzaldúa, “So Much Time Spent in Bed: A Letter to Gloria Anzaldúa on Chronic Illness, Coatlicue, and Creativity” (180). They write:

It is so difficult to write both what sucks about disability—the pain, the oppression, the impairment—and the joy of this body at the same time. The joy of this body comes from crip community and interdependence, but most of all, of the hard beauty of this life, built around all the time I must spend resting. The bed is the nepantla place of opening…What I know is that Gloria Anzaldúa and I meet in bed. Not like you think. Maybe like you think. Gloria and I meet in bed. It’s sexy. And it’s just life. Gloria and I meet in bed, in the chronically ill sickbed heaped with pillows where we both spend so much time. (181, 182)

Piepzna-Samarasinha also articulates many values associated with Womanism, such as community care and the centering of Black femmes, without labeling them as such. They state that “When disabled people get free, everyone gets free. More access makes everything more accessible for everybody,” echoing Anna Julia Cooper’s 1892 premise that when Black women can enter a space, all can enter (78). Additionally, Piepzna-Samarasinha chose first-person narrative as their mode of address, relying on the lived experiences of others and themself. Womanism and Black feminism are inextricably linked, both historically and contemporarily, and in Sister Citizen, Melissa V. Harris-Perry states:

A basic assumption of black feminist scholarship is that researchers need not be personally removed from the issues we investigate. Black feminist scholarship assumes that experiential knowledge has equal weight with empirical evidence drawn from more traditional sources of social scientific and humanist research. (173)

The juxtaposition of Borderlands theory and Womanist theory was necessary for me to fully understand Care Work because these theoretical positions support and extend one another. Both Womanist and Borderlands theorists advocate for community-centered understandings of care rooted in the cultural traditions of BIPOC, and these understandings are the framework needed to eliminate academic ableism and promote a more caring future for academia.

My research as a doctoral fellow was in the rhetorics of hospitality: of visitation, hosting, welcoming, and thresholds—which indicate that a door can be closed, if the host so desires. Perhaps it was never open to begin with; illusion is a tricky thing. I was welcomed to the University of Arkansas on a cold day in March 2018, a recruiting visit where I went to the campus bagel shop and met current graduate students. I asked them about parking permits, the weather. No one could tell me where to find conchas or breakfast tacos, but I asked anyway, kept asking. As the kids would say: red flag emoji. 

Here is what I should have asked:

  • When I express concerns to the director of graduate studies, will they coldly offer a discrimination reporting link to me, knowing that the kind of micro-aggressions that our department specializes in are not legally articulable, cannot fit into a form written to protect employers?
  • By my second year, will I realize that I cannot recommend this program to anyone who is not a white, cis, straight, able-bodied, mentally stable person? 
  • Will I be unable to attend any of our potential faculty’s job talks and welcoming events because I would only beg them not to come, tell them to run?
  • Will I be the one who always has to mention something, advocate for myself, watch in amazement at the ease with which my fellow graduate students can progress in the program without balancing a marginalized identity and the relentless micro-aggressions our department delivers alongside pedagogy talks and anti-racist book clubs?
  • Will the scholars I came here to learn from leave to work at places where everyone in charge is not a straight, white, cis man? Will I one day wake up and realize that no degree in the world is worth continuing under such a hierarchy?
  • Will I become another statistic, another one who couldn’t make it, another one who lets the status quo remain?

I broke no glass. I burned no buildings. I didn’t even spit on the Fulbright statue. I did tenure-track level work to cover for male colleagues, to achieve some semblance of success in a department where white men can do the bare minimum and still get degrees and tenure. (Are you a white man? Have I hurt your feelings? It was not my intention. We’re doing our best here. DEI is work. Here’s the link for reporting discrimination. Thank you to [I believe this is where I write redacted, though I will never forget their name], the faculty member who italicized work in regard to diversity and inclusion, in case I, the person living in the body being discriminated against and excluded, wasn’t aware how much work it is for “allies” to notice my existence.) 

Here is what I also should have asked:

  • Will you hold me accountable in my whiteness? When I let my students down, when I let my colleagues down, when I am the one oppressing, will you hold me accountable? Or will you think I’m too radical, too negative, for simply noticing that most of us in the department are white?
  • When I tell those in leadership multiple times that I am hungry, actually physically hungry, will I receive links to food pantries every single time, or an actual human response?
  • When I tell those in leadership that I am losing my damn mind because every day at the University of Arkansas is another day of gaslighting, especially in a department that prides itself on its diversity, will they send me another copy-and-paste CAPS paragraph?

These are the questions I should have asked in 2018. These are the questions I am still asking.

In Kate Millet’s 1990 The Loony-Bin Trip, she writes:

So—when you leave them all behind—then what? I’ll tell, somehow, I’ll tell about it...if this is the last time, you must be sure you do not collude again. So you will have to work a new job. You must who will never forget. (248)

The best-life me of 2017 is who I brought to Arkansas the next year, and she thought that in 2022 she would walk across a stage, honoring Cardi B in too-tall, secondhand Louboutin heels and a Razorback red dress, and be called doctor. I planned to walk r e a l  s l o w  for every brokeass southern dyke who never got the chance, every girl with PTSD, every girl who got raped multiple times while simply trying to get an education. I know I have earned that walk. Maybe someday, others will know as well. Maybe I will get a diploma in the mail after I muster the sanity and the money to complete a dissertation that is acceptable to a department that has done nothing but let me down. Maybe I’ll burn it and laugh. But I am tired of colluding. I will have to work a new job. I will have to be one who will never forget. And I will be one who will tell about it.

You were only ever a guest, and the invitation was never genuine. I was raised in southern hospitality. This time, however, I will not be sending a thank-you note. As I revise this essay (a revision which was due in June—it is now almost September), I am working a new job, this time in politics—a job more pressing than any academic deadline could be. On my office wall are photos of women: Frida Kahlo painting in bed, Nina Simone drinking from a teacup—also in bed, Megan Thee Stallion squatting in a Texas Southern University stole. My friend Maricela nursing her baby while typing her dissertation ( Madame Laveau and la Virgen de Guadalupe. Cardi B in a red dress and bloody shoes. Bonnie drinking a sweaty Topo Chico while playing a set. Jennifer Ling Datchuk standing in front of her ceramic sculpture that spells out the fortune “take a deep breath before you roar” (2019; As I work the grueling hours necessary for my job, a job that I accepted in an effort to retain my civil rights—in an effort to be considered human—these women give me strength. I am writing my dissertation every day. I am being a human. I am living my chapters and taking deep breaths. I will know when it is time to roar.



To immerse yourself in the worlds that created this essay, use this bibliography as a map, but forget linear directions, and go in any order you choose. I hope that you, like me, will learn to ask the important questions, and to fail ungracefully. Loudly. Unapologetically. It’s so much better on this side of quitting.

Almánzar, Belcalis Marlenis. “Bodak Yellow.” Invasion of Privacy. Atlantic Records, 2018.

See also: “Energy” and “Break My Soul,” from Renaissance I by Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, 2022; “Montero,” “Industry Baby,” from Montero by Montero Lamar Hill, 2021; “abcdefu,” from a study of the human experience volume one, by Gayle, 2022.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Aunt Lute Books, 2012.

Thank you to Yajaira M. Padilla for her brilliant class. It was the last course I ever took at University of Arkansas. The institution is lucky to have you.

Becerra, Maricela. 2020.

Cisneros, Bonnie. 2020.

Storyteller, careworker, teacher, and the best DJ around. Your layers are endless and beautiful.

Cooper, Anna Julia. A Voice from the South. 1892.

Thank you to Constance Bailey for sharing her knowledge of Womanist theory with me through the years, and for being someone who felt like home when we were stuck in the mountains.

Cushman, Ellen. “Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 47, No. 1. p. 7-28, 1996.

Datchuk, Jennifer Ling. Don’t Tell Me to Smile. 2019.

I wash my dirty laundry while standing on your “Live to Die” mat.

Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press, 2017.

Ferrante, Elena and Ann Goldstein (translation). The Neapolitan Novels. Europa Editions, 2011-2014.

Andrea Foley, renaissance woman: You will always be my brilliant friend.

Harris-Perry, Melissa V. Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Yale University Press, 2013.

Millet, Kate. The Loony-Bin Trip. University of Illinois Press, (1990) 2000.

Pete, Megan Jovan Ruth. 2021.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Carework: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018.

Thank you to Vox Jo Hsu. For everything.

Wu-Tang Clan. “C.R.E.A.M.” Enter the Wu-Tang Clan (36 Chambers). Loud Records, 1994.

To fully experience this essay, listen to the songs cited, or, in the absence of hearing, feel them. They are all heavy on the bass, and they will save your life.



Leah Beth Lewis (she/her) is a doctoral candidate in English-Rhetoric & Composition at the University of Arkansas, and instructor of composition at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. In addition, Lewis worked for Beto O’Rourke’s 2022 gubernatorial campaign. She lives in Houston with her spouse, but considers San Antonio home. You can find her on Instagram @leahbethlewis, and on email at

Table of Contents