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Youth at the Intersections of Dis/ability, Other Markers of Identity and Emotionality: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Student Knowledge, Emotion, Feeling, Affect and Being

by David I. Hernández-Saca - 2019

This chapter concerns dis/ability, emotion, affect, and feelings and how persons with a single or multiple dis/abilities are dis/enfranchised through multiple, intersectional categories in which they are located and provided services in schools. In other words, the author highlights how dis/ability can function together with emotion and affect to exclude people from and/or include them in social, economic, and educational life. The author explores the relationships among assimilation’s intersectional qualities, deficit thinking and ideologies, and the affect and epistemology that foreground teachers’ discourses and emotional connections to their students and profession. This work comes at an urgent historical moment, when low-income students and Black and Brown students with dis/abilities have become the majority population in our nation’s public schools, despite our nation’s teachers remaining largely non-disabled, White, middle class, and monolingual. This lack of change in the demographics of teachers has brought up an important question of how to go beyond the technicalities of teaching to enable a pedagogy of dis/ability at the intersections of emotion and affect. To this end, the author outlines a critical pedagogy of student knowledge, emotion, feeling, affect, and being to assist teachers in critically examining their own emotions, affects, and beliefs within school systems to work toward enfranchisement with historically marginalized youth with dis/abilities and their families.


How can we as educators develop a critical pedagogy within an educational system and culture that perpetuate deficit thinking about children’s lives and mental capacities? I ask this question and engage in this chapter having experienced disability oppression at various intersections in my schooling. I begin with a narrative of my learning disability (LD) to highlight my position as a person and a social-science educational researcher who has experienced the labeling processes of Special Education as the result of an auditory learning disability. I do this to engage with master narratives (Bamberg, 2004; Lyotard, 1979) about my intersections of dis/ability. The dash(/) in dis/ability highlights the historical, sociocultural, and emotional political constructions of both “ability” and “disability,” as opposed to the traditional ways “disability” has been defined: as a deficit and a medical-psychological phenomenon, and with a separation between the body and the brain (Hammack & Toolis, 2014). By situating my story in a critical pedagogy of student knowledge, emotion, feeling, and affect for historically marginalized youth, my narrative can lead to emotional and social justice, liberation, and hope for other persons.

I grapple constantly with feelings of not being “good enough.” Many persons like myself have experienced trauma relating to labels imposed on them by institutions and those within them within particular historical and sociocultural contexts. My intersections include being gay and Latino of mixed ethnicity—El Salvadorean and Palestinian. When I was two years old, my family immigrated to the United States after a civil war in El Salvador. From an early age, I had experienced convulsions and seizures, which eventually led to the diagnosis of an auditory learning disability and school placement in Special Education. This history lives inside me, and I bring it to my work. We each have a story, narrative, and history that informs who we are today and our hopes for tomorrow. In a medical-psychological model of disability, my low self-esteem is due to my neurology, and I would be labeled with LD (see Bryan, Burstein, & Ergul, 2004).

I do not remember the first time that I was bullied due to my perceived differences. However, that trauma is equal to the pain that placement in Special Education and being labeled with an LD inflicted on my psyche (Boskovich & Hernández-Saca, 2019; Hernández-Saca, 2016, 2017; Hernández-Saca & Cannon, 2019; Nusbaum, Cowley, Petersen, Smith, & Hernández-Saca, 2019). As I write, I sense the fear and anger inside me, telling me to stop writing and surrender to the oppressive nature of an LD label (see Connor & Ferri, 2010; Sleeter, 2010; Varenne & McDermott, 1998). The contradiction between who I am and how others have labeled me has damaged me psychologically. It is hard for me to write this, given that, from another perspective, I have benefitted from the LD label via the accommodations that were granted to me under my Individualized Education Program (IEP). The hegemony of LD at the ideational, relational, material, and systemic levels, however, is one that I must navigate in order to move toward a more positive sense of self.

At the bottom of my LD oppression is the fear that I live with on a daily basis, caused by the psychological damage that I have experienced due to the master narratives of dis/ability and LD. The social and emotional dimensions of LD would have it that this is a symptom of LD, not necessarily LD oppression. I argue that such oppression exists due not only to the impairments that children and adults with LD have, but also to the responses of others to those impairments. For example, when I was an undergraduate majoring in U.S. history, I shared with my graduate teaching assistant that I wanted to become a professor of history. He replied to me with the following disability microaggression (Dávila, 2011): “How are you going to be a professor if you have a learning disability?” I felt his presumption of my incompetence in that moment. I was hurt and have continued to be hurt by his words about my perceived incompetence and lack of ability. In that moment, I felt that he failed to see my humanity; rather, he saw me as my label. However, we know that we do not experience systems of power, privilege, and oppression in single-identity ways. What was it about me that cause him not to see me as becoming a professor? What are the master narratives about those who take up the intellectual life of being a professor, which, in his eyes, I was not cut out for? Was it my ethnicity? Was it my race? Was it the way I communicate? An intersectional analysis of identity would take seriously how I was vulnerable to discrimination and oppression, not only as a student with an LD, but as a working-class, first-generation Latino with LD who speaks Spanish and English and for whom English is not my dominant language within higher education. Today, however, I am an assistant professor of Special Education and attempting to work within that system in order to transform the ableist, heteronormative, homonormative, upper-middle-class, and racist intersectional and interlocking logic that undergirds the American educational system and mainstream society. Hence, the topic and purpose of this paper come from my own personal experiences.


There are several reasons that it is important for teachers to engage with the topics, relationships, and themes that my story highlights. First, despite decades of research illuminating the importance of positive teacher-student relationships in the classroom, many students continue to feel alienated as their aspirations, behaviors, emotions, feelings, and identities are perceived as learning deficits based on stereotypes (Luke, 1986; Steele, 2010; Valencia, 2010; Weinstein, 2002). Second, part of the source of such alienation is assumptions made by some educators about students’ identities that are associated with fixed social categories, and thus predictors of academic success (Steele, 2010) or the lack of it. As a result, teachers’ belief systems may cause them to misinterpret the perceived barriers and lack of achievement that students experience in the classroom (Howard, 2003). These stereotypes appear detrimental to teachers' understanding and taking responsibility for the needs of students. Third, too few studies have discussed how these negative expectations affect students’ emotions, feelings, and lives from their own perspectives. Research fails to consider how students' emotional states trigger particular responses to and interactions with negative practices associated with deficit thinking. Additionally, research has also underestimated the importance of students’ ways of knowing along with self-perceptions in a world that imposes a set of norms on their feelings and emotions (LeFrançois, 2015; Solano-Flores & Nelson-Barber, 2001). Consequently, this chapter explores the intersection of how student knowledge and feelings inform their acceptance or rejection of stereotypes of dis/ability and the norms that shape dis/ability within education.


Wetherell (2012) asserted that emotions exist “in the flow of everyday cultural life” (p. 43):

What can be found in actual life, Harre notes, are not anger and fear per se but "angry people, upsetting scenes, sentimental episodes, grieving families and funerals, anxious parents pacing at midnights, and so on." In other words, body states are always situated and always taking place in the midst of some activity, and the medium in which they are situated is culturally and socially constituted. (p. 42)

Emotions are entrenched in situations, contexts, or a sociocultural milieu. By emotions, I mean the sociological ways in which emotion is culturally and socially situated. Contrasting medical-psychological conceptions of emotion that foreground emotion as phenomena that are biological, neurological, and within the body, as opposed to enacted in social practices (Wetherell, 2012), I approach emotion from what Moir (2005) called a “discourse of emotionality.”

Emotion and language are two sides of this same coin within socially and culturally situated activity systems and how they are laced with social representation (Gómez & González Rey, 2005; González Rey, 2008). According to González Rey (2008):

The different emotionality with which individuals engage in relationships within the spaces of social representations in their everyday practices are organized will be inseparable from subjective senses in which these practices occur; these senses [have] a decisive influence on the emotional value of a field of social representation. The emotional significance of social representations takes different forms in the fields of action that are around them. It is impossible to attribute an inherent emotionality social representation outside the relationship field defined on it. If we did that we would run the risk of turning representation in a depersonalized and [de-subjective] entity. (p. 16)

Given this perspective that social representation is a sensory experience, humans accumulate knowledge that is informed by the senses (González Rey, 2008), or what Ong (1967) called one’s “sensorium”—that is, the sum of a human being’s perception apparatus, which includes all of one’s senses In effect, the multiplicities of identities within situated spaces, such as the contested classroom space, are both affective and epistemological in nature. In these foundational definitions of emotion, epistemology, and affect and their interrelationships lie the conceptual understandings to identify and disrupt deficit ideologies in teachers' work.


This theoretical discussion recognizes student voice (Gonzalez, Hernández-Saca, & Artiles, 2016) as a central emerging framework to counter imposed norms and expectations that have influenced students in the past and have resulted in the development of stereotypical viewpoints. I hope this discussion will assist all educators in becoming aware of their own practices that may trigger deficit effects and affects. By paying closer attention to the power of affect, I hope educators will develop a critical pedagogy that is based upon student knowledge and informed by student beliefs, feelings, emotions, and affects in critically examining their own knowledge, beliefs, feelings, emotions, and affects in their work with historically marginalized youth with dis/abilities and their families (Artiles & Kozleski, 2007; Crenshaw, 1989, 1991; Hammack & Toolis, 2014; Zembylas, 2012). In other words, coupling critical reflection and feeling while in the process of decision-making is crucial for educators at intersections of knowledge and feeling as they relate to students and families. By intersectionality, or intersectional, I mean the ways students at the intersections of social-identity markers, such as dis/ability, race, and/or gender, are vulnerable to discrimination at the personal (psychological), structural (institutional), and political (representation and civil rights) levels (Artiles, Dorn, & Bal, 2016; Crenshaw, 1989, 1991; Hernández-Saca, Kahn, & Cannon, 2018).


With the “affective turn” in the social sciences (Clough & Halley, 2007), there has been an increasing volume of interdisciplinary scholarship focused on the political, sociocultural, and historical nature of affect. Further, alongside this affective turn has been knowledge construction that takes seriously the role of affect in the discursive and material nature of human history in practice (Athanasiou, Hantzaroula, & Yannakopoulos, 2009). Similarly, Michalinos Zembylas’s body of work (e.g., Zembylas, 2012; 2005; 2003) unpacked emotion and teacher self and identity beyond purely mental entities to include historical and sociocultural power relations and contexts. Zembylas did this through a Foucaultian discourse framework. What would it look, sound, and feel like if we took on the affective turn within educational discourse and practice? Theoretical scholarly undertakings have produced from this affective turn what Athanasiou et al. (2009) called a “new epistemology” (a new study of knowledge). It is critical that we as educators consider interdisciplinary constructs within education in order to rethink and reframe our pedagogies: the art and science of what we do in education for all. This might be accomplished by thinking about critical pedagogy as praxis—the coupling of critical issues along social-identity markers to inform action within classroom practice (Artiles & Kozleski, 2007; Freire, 1973; hooks, 1994). In addition, following Zembylas’s work, we need a critical emotion praxis—that is, the coupling of not only reflectivity, but also feeling, emotions, and affect, before we act and as we are acting within educational contexts for equity and teacher learning. What types of epistemologies—ways of thinking, constructing, performing, and studying and self-studying knowledge—inform our praxis, especially when working with historically marginalized youth with dis/abilities at their intersections and their families? What is and has been the relationship between affect and epistemology within this affective turn in education?

The “Affective Turn” Within Education

Within educational discourse and practice, a medical-psychological model of emotion and affect has been the dominant norm (Kenway & Youdell, 2013). Emotion is not formally part of education, its philosophical underpinnings, its policy and curriculum imperatives, or, often, even its day-to-day enactments (Kenway & Youdell, 2013). When emotion is allowed in, it is understood through the filter of educational psychology and designations of proper—or, more often, “improper”—student development (Kenway & Youdell, 2013). For example, “the maladjusted student, the out of control student, the aberrant student, the student with ‘social, emotional or behavioral difficulties or disturbances’” (cited by Kenway & Youdell, 2013, p. 132). These diagnoses and designations serve to identify, sort, sift, and separate the "abnormal," emotional student from the "normal," rational student (Kenway & Youdell, 2013). How are we considering the way affect influences our relationships with our students, specifically with those who are from historically marginalized communities, where issues of power are played out within the classroom on a daily basis (Delpit, 1988)?

From a historical perspective, the affective turn draws from the humanities and social sciences theoretical and epistemological trends—such as “psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity and subjection, theories of the body and embodiment, poststructuralist feminist theory, [and] queer theorization of melancholy and trauma,” among others—to theorize about the relationship between affect and epistemology (Athanasiou et al., 2009, p.5). Key findings have been that the natures of emotion, feeling, and affect are distinct and exist beyond people’s bodies. Historically, emotion has only been considered a biological entity, but the notion of emotional labor (Hochschild, 1983) grounds ideologies with emotion. Hochschild (1983) showed how employees are socialized to regulate certain emotions, while displaying others. In addition, this scholarship rejects binaries in which emotion and reason are polar opposites and instead posits that emotion is epistemological and related to power relations (e.g., Benesch, 2013). Given that emotion and affect are a part of teachers’ and students’ lives within learning contexts and practices, it is important to theorize how they are working through us—and in doing so to consider both their agentive and oppressive qualities, since, like power, emotion is not only oppressive but also productive (Gannon & Davis, 2012). In addition, emotion’s affective power is that “affect is never wholly owned, [it is] always intersecting and interacting” (Wetherell, 2012, p. 24).

Understanding affect involves understanding emotion. Emotion both affords and constrains people’s actions; it is part of who we are, were, and will be, as evidenced in the memories and narratives that circulate about different intersectional social-identity markers (Ahmed, 2004) and in our development of self and cultural selves (see Quinn & Mathews, 2016). It is critical for teachers to interrogate their own emotions, feelings, and affect—the expression of their emotions and feelings (Reddy, 1998)—within schooling contexts, since they have the power to afford and/or constrain students’ opportunities to learn as well as to construct social reality and influence students' educational trajectories in school systems. Further, teachers’ emotions and affect are filtered not only through their personal and professional belief systems, expectations, and habits, but also through deficit-oriented, cultural master narratives (Bamberg, 2004; Lyotard, 1979) about historically marginalized communities.

The affective turn asserts that emotions do not live solely inside of persons. According to Ahmed (2004), emotions are not private matters; rather, emotions move through and between bodies and objects, “surfacing” our “individual and collective bodies through the way in which [they] circulate between bodies and signs” (p. 117). Emotions are often structured problematically within the discourse of schooling due to the assumptions teachers make about students’ emotions, which have been historically interpreted through the myopic lens of educational-psychological and White, upper-middle-class norms. This further explicates the link between how normative values—linked to power and privilege—operate within the broader American society and how difference and diversity are interpreted as “problematic.” These normative values, as they appear across and within social-identity markers such as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, dis/ability, age, and immigration status, are intersectional in nature, as well as emotion-, feeling-, and affect-laden (Ahmed, 2004; Wetherell, 2012). Deficit-oriented ideologies are the result of histories of violence and oppression between dominant groups and those who have been positioned as less powerful and have experienced historical and transgenerational traumas (Gabriel, 2010) due to nativism, sexism, heterosexism, eugenics, psycho-emotional disablism, racism, and anti-immigrant laws and policies (Artiles et al., 2016; Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014; Hall, 1997; Petersen, 2009). The “contested classroom space” (Connor, 2008) is not devoid of these “isms”; thus, thinking about how affect and emotion are working, epistemologically, for both students and teachers is of critical importance, particularly as more current deficit-oriented ideologies (e.g., conservative, post-racial, and neoliberal ideologies such as individualism and meritocracy) in society and in education affect the opportunities and/or educational debits (Ladson-Billings, 2006) that historically marginalized youth and communities have to learn (Gándara & Hopkins, 2010; Macedo, Dendrinos, & Gounari, 2003; Million, 2008; Morales, 1998; Powers, 2013, 2014; Tyack, 1974; Young, 1996). Understanding that emotions and affect are sociocultural, historical, and political in nature is imperative to reframing the assumptions that exist within the discourse of schooling, and in particular to the social construction of hegemonic intersectional dis/ability discourses that are emotionally laden (Hernández-Saca et al., 2018).


Critical theory is concerned with both systemic and individual transformation. Freire’s (2000) work on the power of dialogue in reading and writing both the word and the world presented to us the idea of students’ knowledge and experience as culturally legitimate. According to Freire (1998), all human beings—including both teachers and students—are cultural beings and knowledge producers. Pedagogically, it is critical for teachers to reflect about themselves and others within the contexts of their diverse, contested classroom spaces and to take mindful actions as a result. Such reflection is of significance given that classroom spaces are not devoid of academic, social, emotional, feeling. and affective identification processes (Heise, 1989; Wortham, 2006). Although research on the social and academic identities of students has been robust (e.g., McCready, 2010; Nasir, 2011; Wortham, 2006), this body of scholarship has yet to be discussed in conjunction with the literature on teachers’ knowledge and the affective and emotive dimensions of the student-teacher relationship. A knowledge-affective relationship with students is critical for both students with dis/abilities and their teachers because it can lead to trust, caring, and high expectations in the classroom (Benard, 1995).

Additionally, teachers’ sense of optimism about students’ academic success should not be predicated upon students’ socioeconomic conditions or based on the hegemonic discourses of emotion and stereotypes about students’ intersectional lives and identities. Teachers must be cognizant of students’ funds of knowledge (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & González, 1992) that are connected to their multidimensional and intersectional identities. Such funds can be leveraged as both "rich knowledge" (epistemological) and "who one is and is becoming" (ontological) sites, where teachers and students can work to humanize the teacher-student relationship—as well as curriculum, learning, and pedagogy—through language and emotion. Such an approach requires teachers to perceive students from a position of possibility, wherein the classroom becomes a tool for liberation instead of a place of confinement that reproduces power relationships based on stereotypes.

A critical pedagogy of student knowledge, feelings, emotions, affects, and being, then, is undergirded by the awareness and practice of a felt theory (Million, 2008) grounded in the recognition (Morales, 1998) of the paralogy (Lyotard, 1979) of students’ voices as sources for justice, knowledge, and emotions through their talk-in-interaction and their affects, as opposed to the current system’s homology (Lyotard, 1979). (See Gonzalez, Hernández-Saca, & Artiles, 2016, for a systematic literature review of the research on student voices in K–12 schooling in the United States.) Knowledge is manifested in many different forms beyond the verbal within the sociocultural milieu we call the classroom and encompasses both students’ own affective experiences and what Lyotard (1979) would term students’ “language games.” Lyotard (1979) reminded us that:

A recognition of the heteromorphous nature of language games is the first step…The second step is the principle that any consensus on the rules defining a game and the “moves” playable within it must be local, in other words, agreed on by its present players and subject to eventual cancellation. The orientation then favors a multiplicity of finite meta-arguments, by which I mean argumentation that concerns metaprescriptives and is limited in space and time. . . . This stretches the outline of a politics that would respect both the desire for justice and the desire for the unknown. (p.334)

Further, how students experience a teacher’s pedagogy is of paramount significance. Teachers' mindfulness of students’ well-being is critical for a healthy co-construction of social, emotional, and academic realities (Coulter, 1987; Dewey, 1933; Stryker, 1991; Vygotsky, 1978). How teachers pay attention to this dimension of the learning activities in which they engage students and how they build community with one another can be informed by a critical pedagogy informed by student knowing, feeling, and being. How teachers critically inform their daily interactions with their students can have a significant effect on their opportunities to learn and how they engage in social, emotional, and academic identity formations throughout their lives— for example, as it relates to their transitioning into adulthood and the “good life,” and what that means to them (e.g., Fleer & Hedegaard 2008; Trainor, 2017).

Students’ voices and histories include the social, emotional, and academic realities and identities that they and their interlocutors have constructed together; teachers can no longer assume that students’ lived experiences exist in neurological vacuums. Paying close attention to the moment-to-moment interactions that teachers engage in with their students and the continuous dialogues that teachers engage in with themselves—their personal trajectories and self-narrativization within the greater discourses of schooling—is at the heart of a critical pedagogy of informed student knowledge, emotions, feelings, and affects and being and becoming. This type of pedagogy is akin to being culturally relevant and responsive to historically marginalized youth; however, it focuses on the emotional valences that both teachers and students experience within educational systems. I posit that these valences exist at the ideational, relational, material, and systemic levels because institutional labels, such as LD, have historically been given more frequently to students of color than to their White and Asian peers (Artiles, 2011, 2013). Given the hegemony and intersectionality of social categories (Connor, Ferri, & Annamma, 2016; Hernández-Saca et al., 2018) and the norms that undergird the myth of “normal” in schools (Annamma, Boelé, Moore, & Klingner, 2013), there is a need for the development of a critical pedagogy informed by student knowledge, emotions, feelings, affect, and being in order to humanize the student-teacher relationship for co-construction of personal, structural, and political narratives and human and identity development on the ground with them.


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1. Both are first authors, given that we worked collaboratively and democratically in our division of labor on the writing.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 13, 2019, p. 1-16
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23007, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 4:00:35 PM

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About the Author
  • David Hernández-Saca
    University of Northern Iowa
    E-mail Author
    DAVID I. HERNÁNDEZ-SACA is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Northern Iowa. His research agenda and lines of inquiry are problematizing the common-sense assumptions of learning disabilities (LD) through 1) investigating the emotional impact of LD labeling, 2) the role of affect and emotion in teacher learning about social justice issues, and 3) transition programming for historically marginalized youth with disabilities and their families.
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