Emily Lim Rogers
Flexible final projects in Emily Lim Rogers’ class encourage students to take risks. (John West/Trinity Communications)

Louder Than Words: Student Art Projects Redefine Valuable Bodies

What is a valuable body? In her “Bodies at Work” class, Emily Lim Rogers showed students that the answer depends very much on whom, where and when you ask.

By taking them on a voyage in time and space, the Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology invited students to challenge the modern idea that productivity is inevitably tied to ableness.

Embedded in a system where productivity is often imposed on them from an early age, but challenged by their own disabilities — or empathetic to those around them — students craved such content and filled up her classroom.

Rogers credits the class’s success in part to our contemporary moment in the history of labor. “We're seeing profound shifts in how people work, and students are interested in these changes,” she said. “That's their context, as well as a greater awareness of, and interest in, how mental health relates to productivity.”

But in a class focused on the multiple definitions of productivity, how could Rogers justify evaluating students using a single rubric?

She couldn’t. In lieu of a final exam, Rogers allowed to students to present projects that could vary in format from research papers and literature reviews to art projects.

“There is a resonance between the wide range of the syllabus and the wide range of things that students can do with it,” she said. “It's very open ended.”

Giving students flexibility with regards to their final evaluations allowed them to demonstrate mastery of the concepts and acquisition of a critical language through multiple forms. “I really saw them engaging with some major themes of the class,” Rogers said.

“Teaching is all about learning a skill or a way of thinking rather than about delivering content — although I certainly teach classes like that,” she continued. “The way I love to teach is about helping students not necessarily find answers, but ask better questions. And if I want to see if they're asking better questions, I have to let them show me what questions they are going to ask.”

We spoke with two of Rogers’ students about their experience, and about their decision to create art projects as their final evaluations.

Sabrina Sebastian-San Miguel

Sabrina Sebastian-San Miguel
Sabrina Sebastian-San Miguel is a senior in Cultural Anthropology. (John West/Trinity Communications)

Sabrina Sebastian-San Miguel has data on the lived experience of her disability — or rather part of it — 24 hours a day. Living with Type I diabetes for 14 years, the senior and Cultural Anthropology major wears a glucose monitor, a small apparatus that measures her blood sugar levels continuously, compiles the data in a graph and alerts her in case a measurement deviates too much from a set range.

In Rogers’ class, she was struck by the concept of chrono-normativity. “We feel compelled to live by the 24 h clock and the workday clock, but, in the context of disabilities and chronic illnesses, that's not always possible,” she said. “I can speak from personal experience: things happen when they happen.”

For Sebastian-San Miguel, the artificiality of the 24 h day can have real consequences. “You look at the graph and see it looks like a really neat little packaging, but it doesn’t represent what happened,” she said.

“I wanted to show the continuity of time,” she said. “What if instead of trying to divide, compress, aggregate and make things very small, we go the opposite direction and actually give it volume?”

To represent that, Sebastian-San Miguel picked two weeks of data and strung them together in a three-dimensional wire sculpture painstakingly assembled using around 4000 beads, one for each individual blood sugar measurement taken by her monitor.

The beads are color coded: black means her blood sugar is within range, according to the device. Red means that a measurement was too low. Yellow means a measurement was too high. Clear beads show periods where no measurements were taken. Plastic ornaments hang from crucial points, illustrating the hidden context behind certain measurements: exercise, food, travel, stressful events...

beads of different colors show Sabrina Sebastian-San Miguel's hourly blood sugar measurements.
Beads of different colors give context to Sabrina Sebastian-San Miguel’s hourly blood sugar measurements. Bottom left shows her blood levels returning to normal range (black) with glucose tablets. On the right, a sandwich sends her blood sugar levels from low (red) to high (yellow). (Photo courtesy of Sebastian-San Miguel)

“Sabrina’s work is about self-tracking, and that’s a big theme in terms of self-management, of the things you are supposed to do as a good worker,” said Rogers. “The way that she identified the failure of representing diabetes in a flattened way and brought it to life in a sculpture, with no previous artistic training? It was incredibly impressive, and she wouldn’t have been able to show that in a paper or a traditional exam.”

Sebastian-San Miguel has been involved in disability and disability studies advocacy efforts on campus since her second year at Duke. She had since wanted disability studies to form a larger part of her academic studies, but found few formal curricular opportunities to do so. Rogers’ arrival last Fall gave her a welcome opportunity. “It's a full circle moment as a senior to say, ‘I actually got to take a Duke class focused on disability studies.”

Ben Sperber

Ben Sperber
Ben Sperber is a senior in Program II. (John West/Trinity Communications)

Ben Sperber would like people to stop talking about cures. The senior in Program II, who is currently writing a thesis on the flawed tropes of healing and the human context of suicidality, argues that illness, disability and despair aren’t always things to be simply overcome and cured.

“There is this idea that diseases should be eradicated,” he said. Using eating disorders as a specific example, he continued: “It’s not just something you ‘go through’.”

Eating disorders and their insidious impact were the focus of his final project for Rogers’ class. His inspiration came from a visit to the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where he was shown an art object called Anatomy of Insanity, by Maureen Cummins. Cummins gathered records of male and female patients admitted to a psychiatric hospital between 1819-1843 and assembled them in an oversize book where the handwritten records overlapped with pages of illustrated vellum.

“It struck me how obvious the difference [in diagnoses] between females and males was,” said Sperber. “Females were almost immediately classified as hysteric, while males were seen with much more nuance, and offered more treatments.”

The book’s material was also an inspiration. “The transparency of the vellum and the layering of pages immediately made me think of comorbidities,” he said. “Conditions are interlocked, they never happen in isolation, but often they are treated and perceived as if they did.”

Sperber happened to be a talented artist. For his final project, he built a book not unlike Anatomy of Insanity. In it, vellum pages illustrated with stamps overlap one another, representing the multiple debilitating symptoms of eating disorders and its comorbidities, from body dysmorphia to anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Through his use of stamps, Ben Sperber casted a lens on the individual and societal impacts of eating disorders, their comorbidities and their treatments.
Through his use of stamps, Ben Sperber casted a lens on the individual and societal impacts of eating disorders, their comorbidities and their treatments. (Photos courtesy of Ben Sperber)

“Stamps are work, you have to be engaged with them from start to finish, and once they are done you can’t change them,” he said. “They also have imperfections, a gritty side to them, that just seemed perfect for this project.”

“Plus,” he added with a laugh, “I had a ton of rubber I had to use somehow.”

Rogers was surprised to learn that Ben was a trained artist, and was honored to see him use his skill in his final project. “Professionalization is often about narrowing what you do, and about cutting off parts of yourself, right?,” she said. “I want to provide those moments where students can embrace and utilize all of their mind and all of their skill. I want to create an environment that's safe for students to take risks.”

Like Sebastian-San Miguel, Sperber wasn’t new to the world of disability activism when he entered Rogers’ class. And, like his classmate, he wished more disability studies classes like Rogers’ had been available throughout his tenure at Duke.

“This was the hardest class I ever took,” he said, “but also the most rewarding.”