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Dr. de Wolfe receives Outstanding Dissertation Award

At the 2013 meetings of the American Anthropological Association,
Juliette de Wolfe (PhD, 2013) received the Outstanding Dissertation
Award given every year by the Council on Anthropology and Education.

Exerpts from one of the nomination letters:

Dr. Juliette de Wolfe's dissertation, tracing the experiences of parents
facing their child's autism, is a ground-breaking document that should
transform the anthropology of education and disability.  Like all good
ethnography, her research provides a glimpse into the lives of people
who would not otherwise be noticed.  Like all good anthropology it shows
the way towards theoretical developments in the field it addresses.

To get to this point, Dr. de Wolfe followed a path many in our field
will recognize.  She started as a dedicated teacher, realized the limits
of the intellectual and pedagogical groundings of her work, discovered
anthropology and found in its approaches and methodologies a route to
develop her mission as an educator.  For several years she taught as a
Special Education teacher in a primary school classroom for children
with multiple disabilities.  She became particularly interested in the
children who were in the process of being labeled as "with autism."
She sensed that the problem was only partly about the symptoms and any
underlying condition.  Just as consequential were the classroom contexts
that made these symptoms stand out as problematic.  She recognized, as
many have before her, that disabilities, to become consequential in the
life of an individual, must be noticed, and then classified, as just
this and not that.  Trying to figure out how this might be led her to
our program in Anthropology and Education at Teachers College, Columbia
University and, eventually to her dissertation work.

It is a distinguishing feature of the programs in anthropology at
Teachers College that they use an apprenticeship model where students
are required to go through a full iteration of the significant moments
in a doctoral student life, and indeed in the life of an academic
researcher, within the first two years of their graduate studies.  Thus,
at the end of her first year, Dr. de Wolfe returned to one of the
classrooms she had known well but in the different position of
ethnographer.  In the classroom she saw again much of what has been
described over the years about the structural constraints in the
relationship between teacher and student that acquire students who move
from being "autisticky" (as one teacher told her) to being "with
autism."  But, as she wrote up the report on this preliminary research
she started to worry that "social construction of disabilities" or
"culture as disabilities" approaches ran the risk of discounting the
phenomenal experience of living with the physical or interactional
symptoms whether one is the person of focus or one is part of the
entourage with direct, though sometimes partial, responsibilities.  And
she realized that the focus on classrooms, while understandable given
the political centrality of schooling, eclipsed the experiences of
everyone else, and particularly the parents.


These considerations led her to propose and conduct a most original
piece of anthropological research at the intersection of education and
disability.  Specifically, she sought parents of labeled children.  She
looked for the settings where she might see them transform their lives
to adapt to the autism of their child as it was constructed by the many
institutions and people whom the child encountered.  In the process, she
demonstrated again the power of ethnography to reveal much that can
remain hidden or that can be discounted.  For example, she immediately
discovered one correlate to the disinstitutionalization of the care of
people with disability: if the state is not to take charge of this care,
then parental privilege, or lack thereof, is going to make a major
difference in the type of care, the relative power of the parents
vis-a-vis different kinds of professionals, etc. (and not always to the
benefit of the child).

Eventually she focused on one set of parents who had grouped themselves
and who had started to use the new technologies for their own education
and advocacy activities.  Tracing the development and work of this group
constitutes the body of the dissertation.  But the research is only
partially about social organization and education.  Above all it is
about the experience of living with autism.

Dr. de Wolfe core analytic step remained facing autism as a physical
event requiring a response from all those surrounding the child.  Her
pages on toilet-training, first menstruation, or responding to the
stares of passers-by are powerful narratives with profound implications.
 Her second step is facing the reality that each child is indeed
different from other children, and also different from the way he or she
might have been earlier in their life.  Her next steps involved
following the settings, institutional as well as less institutional,
from schools to playgrounds and elsewhere, where the parents and their
child cannot escape finding themselves.  Starkly, these keep changing,
just like a child's body changes.  Again and again, diagnostic
categories shift, experts disagree about treatment, social services
become available in certain cases but not in others, resources become
available, and then dry up, etc.

By taking seriously this ever shifting terrain, Dr. de Wolfe is
exploring a dynamic process of encounters that require ongoing
investigation and production of what becomes new conditions for future
action.  The twist here is that she does not treat social or cultural
conditions as "causes" of autism, of its institutionalization, or of the
consequences of this institutionalization.  The conditions, like the
physical manifestations currently classified together as "autism," are
triggers for further cultural production that will make the whole
significant in a new, and still particular, way.  The hope is that,
understanding how autism is made to matter will lead us to find ways to
make it matter less, or to make it matter more positively for all caught
in its webs.

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