Academic Ableism: The Expectation that Crips Be More Thankful

A few nights ago, I watched the documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution. The 2020 film follows some disabled teenagers who attended Camp Jened, a camp for disabled kids, together in the ‘70s as they grow up and become disabilities rights activists. Near the end of the film, disability rights activist Judy Heumann, who lost the use of her legs from polio when she was a toddler,  says, “I’m very tired of being thankful for accessible toilets. If I have to be thankful for an accessible bathroom, when am I ever gonna be equal in the community?”

That quotation captures the ableist assumption that disabled folks should be more thankful than nondisabled folks for exactly the same level of access. That is not equity. That is an ableist assumption that access for able-bodied folks is normal and should be expected and even taken for granted, while access for disabled folks is above-and-beyond and disabled folks should grovel in thanks on a regular basis. It ignores the fact that equal access is mandated by the law, but even more importantly, it obscures the truth that disabled folks are humans with the same rights, desires, hopes, and dreams as nondisabled folks.

I talked last week about my own access fatigue and how it contributes to my decision to sometimes not ask for accommodations. Another factor that contributes to my access fatigue is the expectation that I should be thankful for any accommodations I get. I am thankful—for the efforts of people like Heumann and other disability rights activists who fought to get people like me the same kind of access non-disabled folks take for granted. Do I need to also be more thankful for signs I can read than anyone else is for readable signs? Do I need to also be more thankful for presentation slides that use a high contrast color scheme than anyone else in the room is for being able to make out the words on the slides? Do I need to also be more thankful for well-marked curbs and steps than anyone else is for being able to travel around the campus without fear of tripping?

Judging by the attitudes of many people in academia, the answer to these questions is yes. Every semester, I hear faculty colleagues say things like, “I provided the accommodation to the student and didn’t even get a thank you.” These same colleagues don’t expect their able-bodied students to be thankful for desks or exams or films they can access, but they do expect their disabled students to be thankful for desks that they can navigate to in a wheelchair, exams with extended time allowed, and films with closed-captions. These faculty see students’ disabilities as a burden on them, the professors, that must be acknowledged and atoned for by the students. For accommodations that must be given repeatedly, like extended time on exams, those faculty expect to be thanked every time an exam is given. It wears a person down, this regularly expected participation in maintaining an ableist commonplace.

The fact is, most of the time my own students do thank me for providing accommodations, and I suspect this is because they’ve learned that if they don’t, accommodations will be harder to come by in the future. When students do thank me, I tell them that providing accommodations is literally the bare minimum a professor can do to comply with the law and I apologize to them that they feel the need to thank anyone for that. (In the article I mentioned last week, “Access Fatigue: The Rhetorical Work of Disability in Everyday Life,” Annika Konrad identifies as one of the themes in her data the emotional labor of having to regularly show appreciation for access.)

Access Fatigue: Why I Don’t Consistently Ask for Accommodations

I am deeply grateful to Annika Konrad for naming the exhaustion I feel whenever I have to explain to someone what I need in order to access a space or content or an activity: access fatigue. In her brilliant College English article, “Access Fatigue: The Rhetorical Work of Disability in Everyday Life,” she uses the term to describe the work disabled people must constantly do to educate others about their disabilities and needs, to enable others to feel helpful even when they are doing the very barest minimum to make something accessible and/or doing it very grouchily, and to balance the costs of asking for access with the benefits of actually getting it.

Here are just a few stories to illustrate why I feel access fatigue on my campus:

  • Even though I have filed all the proper paperwork with HR to be in an office with natural light, I had to fight for three years to get an office with natural light, and then, I was told that I was “stealing” that office from someone else.
  • In the years before I got the office with natural light, HR told me I could ask my department to buy me better lighting for my office. When I made that request, I was asked did I really need the special lighting, wasn’t it something I could purchase myself, and did I realize that it wasn’t HR paying for it but the department itself and the department budget was very tight? All this over a $35 lamp. Then I still had to fight for six months for the lamp to be ordered, and when it finally arrived, the person who brought it to my office slammed it down on my desk and said, “Here’s your special lamp.”
  • Despite that HR paperwork that is supposed to guarantee that I teach in well-lit classrooms, every semester, I have to fight to make it happen. Every semester and for every class. And because my disability isn’t apparent, nearly every semester I am asked whether I really need to have my classes moved. (Like I would go through this exhausting process if I didn’t have to?!)

Notice the theme? I had to fight for each accommodation, either for prolonged periods or over and over. Not once did the person hearing my request respond with, “Oh, I’d be happy to help.” Every one of them let me know in sometimes explicit ways and other times through microaggressions, that my request was a pain in their ass. These are the experiences of a white, tenured faculty member, so I can only imagine how much more exhausting it is for students who ask for accommodations from faculty, given the power imbalances.

My own experience of living with impaired vision is full of damned-if-I-do-and-damned-if-I-don’t moments. If I do mention it, because my disability is not apparent to most people, it can appear that I am “just looking for attention” or being “high maintenance.” I’ve been accused of “not trying hard enough to see,” of being “lazy,” of “just trying to make a point.” On the other hand, if I don’t mention it, I can find myself in awkward or even dangerous situations, like the time I ended up locked in a stairwell because the sign saying that the door would automatically lock behind me and there was no cell access in the stairwell was yellow text on a white background, or the many, many times I’ve been in meetings where I can’t read the presenter’s slides because there isn’t enough contrast.

Many conference venues, hotels, and office buildings indicate room numbers in some artistic way, such as engraving the number into a piece of metal or wood or using earth tones for both the number and the background. I appreciate that they are lovely, but the numbers are invisible to me. Many times, I’ve stood in front of a room and asked someone entering it what the room number is. I often get a very unhelpful response. People have said to me, “The number is right there,” pointing to the number but never actually telling me what it is. Or people will suggest in unkind ways that I haven’t tried looking: “Look around,” “try looking,” or “read the sign.” Then there are the people who pretend they didn’t hear me.

All of the responses I’ve noted, from being told I was “stealing” an office from someone else to the sarcastic replies to my question about a room number, reveal the ableist assumption that I am making unreasonable demands when I ask for accommodations. The responses are underpinned by a belief that there is nothing wrong with the poorly lit office or the low-contrast sign—that the problem is with me and I should just suck it up.

Sometimes people do respond kindly and wonderfully. After I fell down a flight of concrete steps on my campus because I didn’t see them and their edges weren’t marked in any way, I called our campus facilities office to ask them to mark the steps. The woman who answered the phone spent the first few minutes of our call making sure I wasn’t hurt badly and apologizing that the steps weren’t better marked. I’ve had complete strangers let me hold on to them while I walked down a street or sidewalk that wasn’t well lit at night. I have wonderful friends and family who point out steps, uneven pavement, and other low-contrast obstacles when we walk or hike together. My students are often much more conscientious than my colleagues, asking me before they do presentations if their slides have enough contrast or offering to reprint a paper that was printed at the end of an ink cartridge’s life.

Despite the generous responses I do sometimes get to my requests for accommodations, when I am feeling the least bit depleted, I often decide not to ask for what I need. Konrad notes in her article that “people with disabilities are often encouraged to advocate for their own access without consideration for the mental and emotional labor required to do so” (180). The toll of that mental and emotional labor adds up and my desire to avoid it often causes me to forgo an experience.

Many conference registration forms now ask if registrants will need accommodations. While I appreciate being asked, most of the time I don’t ask for any these days because what I really need—well-marked room numbers and bathrooms, for example, and presentation slides that are high contrast and with a large font—can’t be controlled by the conference organizers. When I have asked for slides to be high contrast and with a large font, as far as I can tell, my request was ignored. (Many presenters mumble something at the beginning of their presentations along the lines of, “I hope everyone can see this ok,” which is absolutely unhelpful—although not as unhelpful as saying, “I don’t need a microphone, I’ll just use my teacher voice.”) And that’s perhaps the most exhausting aspect of asking for accommodations: even more frustrating than having someone argue that I don’t really need the accommodation I’ve asked for or the suggestion that I’m not really trying to see is the ignoring of a request that was invited. While the initial invitation to ask for accommodations may come from a place of generosity, the ignoring of the request amounts to gaslighting. I find myself wondering when a request is ignored, Did I imagine making the request? Am I invisible? Am I wanted here?

Disability and Ableism in Academia: Whose Problem is Access?

I want to tell a few stories about getting to the writing center I direct to illustrate some of the ways ableism is baked into academia.

The main location of the writing center is on the fourth floor of a building on campus. There are two ways to get to the fourth floor:

  • You can take the elevator located on the south side of the building directly up to the fourth floor. This is easy enough if you enter the building from the south side’s main entrance. However, if you enter the building from the north side’s main entrance, you will find no indicators that you need to go all the way through the building to the south side to find the elevator.
  • You can take the stairs, but you’ll likely be confused when the large, prominent staircase on the south side of the building ends on the third floor. Once on the third floor, you’ll need to wander around to find the place, behind doors, where the stairs continue to the fourth floor. Again, you’ll find no indicators to help you. If you have any kind of impaired mobility, you will likely find this experience incredibly frustrating.

If you make it to the fourth floor, you’ll find that you have to get down a hallway that is technically wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair or walker; however, it is lined with large chairs, shrinking its width by a third and adding a jumble of visual clutter. These chairs are often not lined up neatly against the walls, so their corners may be jutting out awkwardly. Or, in some stretches of the hallway, you may find chairs on one side of the hallway and a few feet later, chairs on the other side of the hallway, meaning you can’t just move in a straight line down the hallway but rather need to navigate like a pinball through the gauntlet—easy enough for some, but very complicated for folks who use assistive devices.

As a vision-impaired person, I find the visual clutter of the chairs to be anxiety-producing, but it doesn’t keep me from getting to the writing center. However, employees and clients with mobility challenges have regularly had trouble getting down the hallway. The hallway belongs to the English department, so three years ago, I told the department’s chairperson that the Writing Center would be happy to purchase slim benches to replace the chairs in the hallway, improving accessibility for everyone.

While the department chairperson was very sympathetic about the access issues presented by the chairs, the benches were never ordered. Even with the money being provided by someone else, the department chair said replacing the chairs with benches simply wasn’t a priority. The department manager was actively resistant to replacing the chairs, telling me, “There’s nothing wrong with these chairs.” When I told her the chairs were a problem, she said, “Well, how many people are really affected? Can’t they go to one of your satellites?”  

These stories illustrate some typically ableist ways that academia engages with accessibility:

  • The challenges of finding the elevator or figuring out where the stairs from the third floor to the fourth floor of the building are seen as the problem of the individual with mobility issues. Although I have complained to the facilities department multiple times, no signs have been added. It’s every individual for themselves. I’ve seen this situation replicated on every college campus I’ve ever been on. Buildings may have ramps, but where they are located is often a well-kept secret; how ironic that the least mobile among us must often circle a building multiple times to find the accessible entrance. A simple sign pointing to the ramp would be lovely. Having a ramp instead of stairs would solve the problem completely (for more on stairs leading to academic building entrances, see Jay Dolmage’s discussion in Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education.) These building access issues exist because buildings are designed with only able-bodied people as users in mind, and the lack of signage about accessible features sends the message that people who aren’t able-bodied can enter the building only if they’re willing to make the extra effort to find the accessible entrance.
  • Making spaces accessible is seen as important but not a priority. “Important” here is akin to the “thoughts and prayers” offered by gun rights advocates in the wake of mass shootings—just words. The irony of the department chairperson who does not see making the hallway more accessible as a priority at a university that advertises itself as accessible is interesting. I believe “accessible” here is just a fancy way to say “affordable” and not to be taken to include actual physical accessibility. Even in advertising itself as accessible, the institution imagines only an able-bodied student.
  • The department manager who didn’t understand why perfectly good chairs should be replaced was prioritizing furniture over people. She located the problem in the people who couldn’t navigate the hallway rather than in the hallway crowded with chairs. Rather than getting rid of the chairs, she wanted to get rid of the people, sending them to a satellite. (Considering the difficulties I outlined of simply getting to the fourth floor of the building, I am particularly outraged that someone would suggest that a client who made it that far only to be stymied getting down the hallway should be sent to another building.) The department manager’s assumption is that people who aren’t able-bodied are less important than chairs. Let that sink in: people who aren’t able-bodied are less important than chairs.

To summarize: Access is consistently seen as the problem of the disabled person. Accessibility is “important” but not a priority. Disabled people (and their time and effort) are not important.

In a future entry, I will suggest some actions the average academic can take to push back against this ableism.  

Specific Actions to Change the Way Caregiving is Understood in (Academic) Workplaces

I was both heartened and saddened by the responses I received to my last post on being a caregiver in academia. Many fellow academics and plenty of folks in other fields reached out to me to say that they, too, are caregivers and they wish that part of themselves didn’t have to be so compartmentalized. With that in mind, this post focuses on specific actions we can take to change the way caregiving is understood in academic (and other) workplaces.

Before I get to those recommendations, however, I want to mention a piece on caregiving that the New York Times published just a few days after my post: “The Costly, Painful, Lonely Burden of Care” by Mara Altman. Altman reports that the economic value of caregiving by family members is upward of $470 billion a year, and the bulk of this work is performed by women. This means that women are more likely to suffer the consequences I mentioned last week—stigmatization and professional isolation—as well as burnout, social isolation, financial consequences, and “negative health impacts.” Altman interviews Kate Washington, author of a new book on burnout, Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America, about these costs. I was particularly struck by a statement Washington made on how the economic value of all the free caregiving provided by mostly women is minimized:

There is a narrative that the caregiving work we do is invaluable and the gift of caring is its own reward, but the flip side of something being priceless is that you paradoxically strip it of all its value. It’s so valuable that we can’t put a monetary price on it, which then takes away the economic worth.

Mara Altman, “The Costly, Painful, Lonely Burden of Care”

Because we live in a neoliberal society, we are conditioned to devalue anything without economic worth. You would think that academics, of all people, because so much of the work we do we do for “free” (all that service!), would be sensitive to this, but no, neoliberalism is in the air we breathe and so we are conditioned to not notice these discrepancies.

Which brings me to those specific actions I want to focus on:

  1. Talk about caregiving in your normal voice. Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter highlighted how normal caregiving is when she said, “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.” It is very likely that every one of us will be or need a caregiver in our lifetime. In other words, caregiving is normal, not strange or embarrassing or the result of poor choices. Acknowledge caregiving as a valuable activity. If you are not a caregiver, talk about it in your normal indoor voice rather than a hushed one. Every time you talk about caregiving in a hushed voice, you imply that it’s something that should be kept quiet. If you are a caregiver, and if it feels safe to you to do so, talk about caregiving the same way you talk about your other non-work activities. If the only time we mention that we are caregivers is when we need support, the idea that caregivers are needy drains on productivity is reinforced.
  2. Notice and label ableist tendencies that stigmatize caregiving. These tendencies include bragging about not taking leave, shaming folks who do take leave, and assuming that all time that is not accounted for by time-bounded work activities is “available.” When I catch myself doing these things, I find it helpful to identify the assumptions I’m working from and fact check them, so I might say to myself, “Seeing that colleague as lazy for taking so much leave assumes they don’t work hard when they are not on leave. Is that true?”
  3. Connect with others who are caregivers in academia. This is tough because, as I said last week, we don’t talk about caregiving in academia and folks without tenure and others in vulnerable positions may feel the risk involved in making the caregiver part of their identity visible is too much. When those of us who do have job security and other privilege make the caregiver part of our identity visible, we make it easier for others with less privilege to do it. I’ve added the word caregiver to my twitter profile and website tagline to make that part of my identity more visible and make it easier for other caregivers to find me.
  4. Create workplaces that support caregivers. One of the simplest yet most powerful ways to support caregivers is to talk about caregiving. As I said last week, when we don’t talk about caregiving, it becomes harder to talk about caregiving. The opposite of that is also true: when we talk about caregiving, it becomes easier to talk about caregiving. When it’s easier to talk about caregiving, it’s also easier to identify caregivers in the workplace, and it’s easier for them to ask for the support they need. For faculty, one of the most challenging forms of support we need is teaching coverage; when I became a caregiver, a colleague who is herself a caregiver told me she was available to cover my classes if I needed it. When such a program doesn’t exist, the free labor of caregiving leads to the free labor of kind colleagues who are willing to cover classes. All that free labor tends to be women’s free labor. A formal program to make teaching coverage available to those who need it would go a long way toward supporting caregivers and closing an equity gap in academia.

Being a Caregiver in Academia: Stigma, Loneliness, & Silence

The Caregiver Action Network estimates that 29% of the U.S. population fulfil caregiver roles, spending about 20 hours/week taking care of a chronically ill, disabled, or aging person. That care can include bathing and grooming, dressing, toileting, preparing meals, feeding, housekeeping, managing medications, transporting, accompanying to appointments, functioning as a de facto physical/occupational/speech therapist, advocating, and more. The person may be a child, parent, spouse, or friend. The work can be exhausting and never ending, and/but it is absolutely crucial for the wellbeing of the person being cared for.

Given that 29% of the U.S. population is involved in caregiving, I very likely have many colleagues in academia who are caregivers. I know of only two. We don’t talk about this. We talk about our kids’ accomplishments, our travels, what we’ve read lately . . . but we don’t talk about caregiving. When I look for academics writing about caregiving, I find scholarly research about caregiving and caregivers, but when I try to find blogs and other personal, informal writing about being both an academic and a caregiver, I come up empty. The closest thing I have found is this story about Harvard professor Dr. Arthur Kleinman’s experience being his wife’s caregiver.

As with many things, when we don’t talk about being a caregiver, we have a hard time talking about being a caregiver. In other words, the very fact that caregiving isn’t spoken of much in academia beyond it being the subject of scholarly research is itself a barrier to talking about caregiving. Because, as Jay Dolmage has so eloquently explained, “disability has always been constructed as the inverse or opposite of higher education,” talking about being a caregiver means identifying oneself as being engaged in activities that are stigmatized in academia. Dolmage charges that “the ethic of higher education still encourages students and teachers alike to accentuate ability, valorize perfection, and stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual (or physical) weakness.”  

I shared a story last week about a colleague who took pride in the fact that she hadn’t taken any leave when her mother was in hospice. That colleague was her mother’s caregiver, but didn’t talk about being her mother’s caregiver except to brag that she hadn’t missed work while caregiving. When we brag that we didn’t take leave days to be a caregiver, we perpetuate the idea that caregiving is not a legitimate reason to take leave, which makes it harder (for ourselves and others) to take leave days to be a caregiver.  When we do take leave days for caregiving, we may be reluctant to talk about it, perpetuating the silence around caregiving in academia and further isolating academics who are caregivers.

There are aspects of academia that would seem to lend themselves well to being a caregiver. For example, I have always noted the flexibility of my schedule as an aspect of being an academic that I appreciate. Theoretically, I should be able to easily fit in the hours spent taking care of my husband around the few responsibilities I have as a professor that are time-sensitive. More and more, however, I’ve been noticing how that flexibility is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I often have some say over when I teach and can schedule research, service, and “life,” including caregiving, around classes and office hours as I see fit; on the other hand, I can be seen as on-call during all the times I don’t teach. As a particularly egregious example of this “being on call” mentality, earlier this semester, my entire department was told by the dean and provost that we needed to be available for 60 hours of Friday meetings during the semester and that because none of us taught on Fridays, they knew we were “available.” This assumes that all time not spent teaching is “available” to the University.

Like many caregivers, I find my husband’s needs highly unpredictable. Many of his needs can be scheduled, such as dressing and bathing him. But there are many random things that come up—his left arm, which is paralyzed, may get caught in between the rungs of a chair; he may need something that is out of reach even with his grabber tool; one of our dogs may snag his lunch from his left side, which he is unaware of because of his left neglect, and he suddenly discovers that his food is gone—that I cannot predict. On the other hand, there are times he can go four or five hours without needing me. The unpredictability of his needs can mean that my calendar appears to be open for meetings and other work, but I will not, in actuality, be able to attend a meeting from beginning to end.

The stigmatizing of caregiving and the on-call mentality are both markers of ableism in academia. Ableism assumes that everyone is able-bodied, that disability is a sign of inferiority, and that illness is a result of poor choices. When my calendar appears open but I am in and out of a remote meeting, the assumptions of ableism encourage my colleagues to see my sporadic attendance as a sign of poor planning or unprofessionalism. When I talk about being a caregiver, the lack of familiarity with how to navigate a conversation about caregiving can lead to colleagues being hesitant to even ask me how I’m doing. I recently learned that several colleagues had asked another colleague how I was doing; when she suggested they ask me directly, they indicated that that was too awkward. Ironically, given that nearly 1/3 of the U.S. population is involved in caregiving, it’s likely that one of those colleagues is themselves a caregiver.

I wish I knew who they were, but we don’t talk about these things.

Taking (or Not Taking) Leave in Academia

I want to start with a few stories about taking leave in academia:

Story #1: When I was an adjunct instructor, teaching 6-8 composition courses a semester at two different community colleges to make a living, I had a stroke. My doctors told me to take six weeks off and that I would probably recover slowly over the next year. Luckily I had health insurance, which covered the bulk of my medical expenses, but I was in a panic about how I would earn a living.

When I called the department chair at one of the colleges to let her know about my situation, and before I had mentioned how long my doctor said I would be unable to work, she mused out loud, “I suppose we’ll need to replace you if you’ll be gone more than a couple of weeks.” I immediately assured her I’d be back in two weeks. I needed that job and couldn’t take a chance that they’d replace me for that semester and beyond. My first day back at work, my then-husband accompanied me, holding me up when I couldn’t stand on my own, helping me keep track of time and conversations, which was still challenging for me, and carrying my teaching materials.

Story #2: A few years ago, a colleague on my campus proudly told me that she hadn’t taken a single day of leave when she had cancer or when her own other was dying in hospice. When she told me this, she was chair of her department and expressed frustration that the faculty in her department took leave for every cold and minor illness.

Story #3: When my husband had his stroke in June 2020, I became his caregiver. As a full professor, I have health insurance, access to FMLA job protection, and enough sick and annual leave saved up that I can comfortably take time off from work to care for him without my pay being reduced. Avoiding a pay reduction is important because since his stroke, he’s been unable to work and while disability might be approved for him sometime soon, it hasn’t been yet (we applied in September!), and even if/when it is approved, it will only make up a portion of his lost salary. Since August, I have taken about 6-10 hours/week off from work, with complete support and understanding from my supervisors (as a faculty member with administrative duties outside my department, I have two supervisors: a department chair supervises me in my faculty role and an AVP supervises me in my administrative role). The only sticky point came when my department chair expressed concern that there was no department policy allowing me to reduce my service commitments in the department without it being potentially held against me at my next review. Because I’m already a full professor and have overdone service historically, I’m comfortable taking my chances on having a semester with a lighter service load.

These three stories show how deeply embedded ableism is in policies and practices around faculty leave. When I had a stroke as an adjunct instructor, financial insecurity made me feel the need to place my chair’s concern about having to find another instructor to teach my classes ahead of my own doctors’ advice for my recovery. Going back to work two weeks after my own stroke was dangerous and stressful, but it felt less dangerous and stressful than potentially losing my job. It’s impossible to say what impact going back to work so quickly had on my recovery; I do know that once the idea was put in my head that I would be replaced if I missed too many classes, I never cancelled a class, regardless of how ill or contagious I was.

I’m sure that when my chair mused out loud about having to replace me, she was thinking about students needing to be taught. However, the assumption that an adjunct instructor will not get sick or need time off relies on the idea that being sick or needing time off is not normal. In fact, in this particular situation, it was viewed as cause for being dismissed.

I have a colleague in a non-tenure track full-time teaching position who is a caregiver for a loved one; she does not have the same access to paid leave that I have. She and I are both full-time faculty and we are both caregivers; I can take 6-10 hours/week of leave to care for my husband without taking a pay decrease but she cannot. Why should we have different access to leave when we essentially do the same job? Why does my institution view it as more normal for me to need time off than for her?

Now that I do have access to leave, I’m able to make decisions about taking sick days for myself or to care for my husband without the added stress of worrying about how our finances will be impacted. Without leave, I would quite possibly become resentful about the high level of care my husband needs, or I would be regularly stretched too thin to be a good caregiver or a good professor. As it is, even with leave, I have had moments of burnout. Even with leave, I am judicious about taking it, and I typically bring work with me to my husband’s appointments so I can respond to student papers or plan a class in the few minutes between arriving at an appointment and being called in to see the doctor. I’m still aware that even with leave, there’s a perception at my institution that “good” employees don’t take leave.

This is exactly the attitude that was expressed by my colleague when she bragged that she hadn’t taken leave during her own or her mother’s health crises. She shared that story to highlight her devotion to her job and her professionalism, which she contrasted with the “less professional” attitudes of the faculty in her department who did take days off when they were ill. She did not express compassion for people who got ill, but rather, found fault with them. This is a class ableist thought: people who do not have ideal health are not as worthy as people who do or people who can pass as if they do. My colleague, remember, did not have ideal health and neither did her mother, but she worked hard to pass as if she and her mother did.

In an ableist model, getting ill or taking leave are framed as shameful, unprofessional, indicative of a lack of commitment to a job.

Even in the third story, which is a much happier story than the other two, there is the sticky point about whether a reduced service load while on leave can be negotiated. I am able to take leave, but the expectations for my service are not changed by me working less. In other words, I am still expected to do 100% of my service work, but in less time. Because of the privilege afforded me by being a full professor, I am not particularly worried about repercussions in my next review, but someone without tenure or someone hoping for a promotion would rightly worry.

In this situation, the ableist assumption seems to be something along the lines of, “We’re already giving you time off, now don’t put an unfair burden on your able-bodied colleagues by slacking on service.”

How do we change the culture around faculty leave? Here are my ideas:

  1. Fight for all employees to have access to paid leave. Yes, even adjunct instructors. Start from the assumption that people will get sick rather than from the assumption that they won’t.
  2. If you have access to leave, take it when you need it. The more normalized it becomes for people to take leave, the more normalized it becomes for people to take leave.
  3. When colleagues take leave, be supportive. Don’t question whether they “really” need the leave; assume that they do.
  4. Work to change retention, promotion, tenure, and other review policies to account for employees taking leave. Don’t treat the situation in which a colleague takes leave as an anomaly; plan for it.

A Re-Reboot (or Why I’m Still Pissed Off about the Same Old Things)

I rebooted this blog on April 22, 2020 with the intention of posting every week on resisting hetero-patriarchy, racism, ableism, and other hegemonies in academia and sometimes beyond. I did not intend my June 1, 2020 entry to be my last, but 2020 threw me a little curve and changed my priorities when my amazing husband, Tom, had a massive stroke on June 7.

The stroke was on the right side of his brain. He was left paralyzed on the left side and with a neurological condition called Left Neglect, which means that his brain doesn’t process things that happen on his left, so he doesn’t see things to his left, hear sounds that originate on his left, etc.

It’s been nearly nine months and Tom has worked hard every single day to recover. He spent six weeks in ICU, the hospital, and then rehab learning to swallow, sit up, and take his first few tentative steps. He returned home in late July and has continued to put intense effort into physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech/cognitive therapy. He’s regaining some mobility and strength in his left leg, so he is now able to walk short distances with a walker or cane, mostly in the house. His PT timed him at 1 minute and 53 seconds to get up from a chair, walk 20 feet with a walker, and sit back down in the chair, so it’s not a practical mode of transportation at this time, but it does seem reasonable to think he’ll be able to walk on his own around the house, at least, at some point in the future.

Cognitive issues Tom is struggling with include memory problems, trouble understanding numbers, including time, and complications caused by Left Neglect.

I am on partial leave from work to allow for my caregiving responsibilities now. Tom is unable at this time to dress or bathe himself. I manage his doctor/therapy appointments (at least six appointments every week), insurance issues, and his medications (he’s currently on 16). I am his chief cheerleader, dietician, homework coach (speech therapy involves a ton of homework), and general wrangler.

This experience has given me the opportunity to draw on some of the advice I’ve offered on this blog—saying no, primarily. It’s also deepened my commitments to resisting hetero-patriarchy, racism, ableism, and other hegemonies. I’ve been lucky to have access to FMLA leave at my job to support my reduced work, which I’m both grateful for and pissed off about because my non-full time colleagues don’t have access to the same thing. My awareness of ableism is heightened by the frequent and maddening barriers my husband faces in navigating the world from a wheelchair. Despite all the proclamations of anti-racism in academia in the past year (including at my own university, which declared itself “an anti-racist university” without actually doing anything anti-racist) little has actually changed. These experiences and others since my husband’s stroke have continued to piss me off about the same things I was pissed off about before his stroke.

I’m hereby rebooting this blog again—does that make it a re-reboot?

I’ll continue with the same plan I had when I rebooted last year: to post once a week on issues related to resisting hetero-patriarchy, racism, ableism, and other hegemonies, mostly in academia but sometimes beyond.

Privilege and Saying No

I want to continue my series on saying no in academia by addressing the role that privilege plays in saying no and supporting others who say no.

I have a ton of privilege in academia:

  • I’m white, which means I am never asked, by virtue of my skin color, to represent an entire race of people. I look like the prototypical female academic.
  • I’m a native White English speaker, which means the English I grew up speaking and writing is the English of academia. How lucky for me!
  • I’m tenured, which means my job is safe even if I am perceived as difficult or not a team player.
  • I’m a Full Professor, which means I never have to go through the promotion process again at my institution, so as with being tenured, there are very few material consequences for me if I am perceived as difficult.

All of this means that I don’t have much to lose when I say no to a service request. The decisions I make about how much time and energy to put toward service requests are relatively low stakes for me, and I can make those decisions largely without worrying about how senior colleagues, the chair, the dean, and the provost will judge me. If they judge me negatively because of the decisions I make, I may have to deal with the emotional labor of navigating workplace conflict, and I don’t want to minimize that because it is exhausting, but there is very unlikely to be any significant material impact on my career.

Before I had tenure, I felt pressured to take on every service “opportunity” that was offered to me. A number of factors contributed to that pressure:

  • I was typically invited to participate in service by someone who would ultimately have a say in my tenure bid: a senior colleague, the chair, the dean, or the provost. I was afraid that if I said no, they would vote against me when I went up for tenure.
  • Service was generally presented by these people as a “great opportunity” for me, and I had yet to understand what a load of bullshit that usually is. I trusted that these people had my best career interests in mind. Yes, I was naïve enough to believe that others genuinely wanted me to succeed and would only bring me opportunities they truly thought would help my tenure bid. Just writing that sentence feels absurd, but it is what I thought was true.
  • Because the standard for service work in place when I went up for tenure was very vague, I always felt it was possible for someone to look at my service record and find it lacking. What exactly is “significant service” or “leadership”? If what counts as enough isn’t defined clearly, someone who doesn’t like you can always interpret your record as lacking.

Once I had tenure, I immediately felt the weight of these factors lift. I knew I would still have to go up for promotion and be judged, but I figured that if the service I had done pre-tenure was deemed “enough,” then I could just maintain my current service load and not go beyond it. I’ve talked to many others who had the same experience, and I see regularly that once faculty get tenure, their service work becomes much more focused on what they are actually invested in.

That lifting of pressure to say yes that I felt when I got tenure will NEVER be felt by faculty who aren’t in tenure lines. This means adjunct faculty and folks in non-tenure lines will ALWAYS feel those very real pressures to say yes. For folks whose jobs are up for renewal every semester or every year or every few years, the worry that being perceived as uncooperative or not a team-player could cost them their livelihood NEVER goes away.

I am still asked to do more service than I suspect my male colleagues are—for more on this, see my post, “On Having to Say No Over and Over”—but because of my privilege, I am able to say no without ever worrying that my job is in jeopardy. This is why I feel strongly that those of us with privilege must actively create conditions that protect our colleagues with less privilege from being exploited through service requests.

Unfortunately, I witness many senior faculty taking the attitude that because they were terribly exploited as junior faculty or adjuncts, everyone should have to go through that. I actually was in a meeting one time, before I had tenure, in which a senior colleague said, “Adjunct faculty are used to getting the shaft. Why should we change that?,” as if “giving a colleague the shaft” is a normal, reasonable thing to do in a professional setting. Others in the room laughed at the comment, and when I told the chair about it, they, too, laughed.

I have another colleague who calls this attitude part of the “academic cycle of abuse.” We replicate for others below us the conditions we experienced ourselves. If we had to do ridiculous amounts of service with little or no reward, then damn it, others should, too. It becomes normalized.

I believe those of us with privilege must break this cycle of abuse. I talked in my last post about supporting folks when they say no, but to really break the cycle of abuse, we need to understand that faculty in precarious positions may not ever say no because of the pressures I mentioned above. To break the cycle of abuse then we need to go beyond supporting folks who say no by actually creating fewer “opportunities” for service. There is so much busy work in academia—it doesn’t really all need to get done, and of the work that does need to get done, it doesn’t all need to get done now. With the U.S. facing both a pandemic and a rebellion, perhaps Fall 2020 is the perfect time to re-evaluate priorities and suspend all service that doesn’t actually have to be done during the fall. At my institution, tenure clocks are being paused and sabbaticals are being delayed—it seems perfectly reasonable to me that non-essential service could also be suspended. That would give us an opportunity to think more deliberately about what actually needs to be done and by whom.

We need to think carefully about how our actions shape academic workplaces for others. Exploiting junior faculty will not lessen any exploitation we experienced. Do we want to work in an abusive environment? If not, then if our privilege allows it, we must not engage in abusive practices, be accountable when we do engage in abusive practices, and actively work to end abusive practices for all of our colleagues.

Support Others in Protecting Their Time

At the end of my last post, “The Lie of the Great Service Opportunity,” I listed a few things folks with tenure (or in other positions of relative privilege) can do to push back on the culture of defaulting to yes when it comes to service work. In this post, I want to expand on what we can do to support our colleagues who say no (or would say no if they felt that there was support for such a thing).

If we want a culture in which we feel supported in protecting our own time and energy, then we need to help build that culture by supporting others in protecting their time and energy. There are many subtle ways we undermine people who say no. Sometimes we undermine through what we say to the person saying no:

  • “Are you sure?” This implies that the no-er is making an error in judgment to pass up this opportunity, and implies that the speaker’s judgment (that the no-er should do the thing) is superior to the no-er’s judgment. This is an attempt to make the no-er second-guess their decision.
  • “It won’t take long.” This oversimplifies service to being only about time. In fact, even a service task that can be done quickly increases cognitive load and requires both emotional and intellectual labor. The time involved is only part of the equation.
  • “I trust you to do a good job.” This approach strokes the ego of the no-er, making them feel valuable, appreciated, and special. But there are ways to feel valuable, appreciated, and special through activities that are more recognized as capital in academia, such as scholarship.
  • “If you don’t do it, it might fall to so-and-so.” This is the more sinister cousin of the previous approach. It combines the ego-boosting of the previous approach with a dose of paranoia and tries to put responsibility on the no-er for the potential damage so-and-so might do. But corralling so-and-so is not the no-er’s responsibility.
  • “Why can’t you do this?” This approach challenges the no-er’s notion that they have a right to control how they spend their time and energy. No-ers don’t need to answer this question but often feel compelled to because of its open-endedness.
  • “We could really benefit from your perspective.” This is usually said to a no-er of color who is being pressured to join a committee of all white folks, or it could be said to a no-er with a disability being pressured to join a committee on accessibility that is currently populated by all able-bodied folks. This approach implies that people of color or people with disabilities have a special responsibility—and therefore, extra workload—to diversify campuses.

And sometimes we undermine through what we say about the person saying no:

  • “She’s not a team player.”
  • “She’s selfish.”
  • “She only does things that benefit her.”

The no-er cannot control what others say behind her back. The only people who can control that are the people saying those things, so I will now turn my attention to what we can say in support of people saying no—and supporting people saying no is one key way to create a culture in which it is safe to say no, which benefits all of us:

What to say to someone who said no:

  • “I admire you for setting healthy boundaries.”
  • “Thank you for modeling good self care.”
  • “I appreciate that you considered my request. Thank you.”
  • “This sounds like a good decision for you.”

What to say about someone who said no:

  • “It takes a lot of strength to say no in academia. I admire that she did that.”
  • “I wish more people set clear boundaries like that.”
  • “I want to be more like her!”

Finally, focus any anger you feel about someone saying no away from the no-er and toward the institutionalized patriarchy, racism, and ableism that encourage faculty to undervalue their own time and energy. With COVID-19’s catastrophic impacts on already strained higher education funding, I fear we will be asked to do more service than ever at the same time we are facing salary cuts and furloughs. Our faculty colleagues who say no are not the problem. The expectation that faculty should take on inhumane workloads is a problem; continued underfunding of education is a problem; institutionalized patriarchy, racism, and ableism are problems.

The Lie of the Great Service Opportunity

My last post, On Having to Say No Over and Over, generated a lot of response on Facebook, so I’m going to stick with the theme of saying no for a while. I happen to have a lot to say about it.

Today I want to call bullshit on the idea that service is a “great opportunity” for junior faculty members or grad students or adjuncts or others in precarious academic positions. In my experience, “this is a great opportunity for you” is generally code for

  • I really want this thing to get done, but nobody else wants to do it, and if you don’t do it then I’ll have to.
  • If you don’t do it, it might end up getting done by someone I don’t trust.
  • It would look really great for me or my department if you would do this.

When I was a grad student, an adjunct, and a junior faculty member, I fell for “this is a great opportunity for you” almost every time. I misunderstood “opportunity” as something that would benefit me when I applied for tenure-track jobs or tenure, and I therefore thought the people offering me these great “opportunities” thought I had tenure-potential. In fact, however, my extensive service record never had any bearing on me getting a job or tenure. In my experience, decisions about hiring, retention, tenure, and promotion do not ever hinge on service. The reality is that putting your energy into service is more likely to be held against you in those decisions.

Sometimes service work is legitimately a good opportunity, but that is a judgement that can only be made by the person being asked to take on the service. In evaluating whether something is actually a good opportunity, I ask myself questions like this:

  • Will it allow me to work in my Zone of Genius? (I learned the concept of Zone of Genius from Kerry Ann Rockquemore—your Zone of Genius is what you are uniquely qualified to do; your Zone of Competence is what you are good–maybe even great–at, but so are lots of other folks; and your Zone of Incompetence is exactly what it sounds like.)
  • Will it allow me to develop skills I am interested in developing?
  • Will it allow me to develop relationships with people that I want to develop relationships with?
  • Will it help me move my scholarship forward?

I don’t have to answer yes to all the questions to agree to an opportunity, but answering the questions helps me think through my decision. And if I answer no to all of the questions, saying no becomes very easy.

There is one question that is not on the list that I think works against a lot of academics when trying to evaluate “opportunities”: Am I passionate about this? This question is very deliberately not on the list for two important reasons: 1) Academics tend to use their passion for a subject or cause as a rationale for doing too much and getting burned out, and 2) Other academics know this and use this knowledge to exploit each other.

Here’s how these questions helped me make decisions about some service opportunities in the last year.

  • I was asked to join an advisory board on academic integrity. I decided it was a good opportunity because it intersects with research I am doing on plagiarism.
  • I was asked to join a department-level task force on assessment, which I said no to because my answer to each of the questions above was no. Assessment work is not in my Zone of Genius. Serving on the task force would allow me to develop new skills, but not ones I am interested in developing now. It would allow me to work with people I like working with, but I have plenty of opportunities to work with those same people in other capacities, so no need to join this new task force. And departmental assessment work is unrelated to my scholarship.
  • I was asked to run for treasurer of a national organization and said yes because I wanted the opportunity to work with the people who were already officers.

I did not talk in On Having to Say No Over and Over about the fact that as a tenured professor, there are fewer consequences for me saying no than there might be for someone with less job security. I will devote at least one post in the future to that, so I’m not going to address it in depth here, but I do want to say explicitly here that those of us with tenure need to

  • Stop pretending that the work we don’t want to do is an “opportunity” for someone with less job security.
  • Support our colleagues who say no to “opportunities.” Respect their decision and don’t misdirect your anger about the exploitation of faculty toward your colleagues who say no. They are not the problem.
  • When you are part of a discussion in which someone suggests that the thing no one in the room wants to do is a “great opportunity” for someone else, question whether the thing really needs to be done.
  • Tell the truth. Some things that need to be done aren’t “opportunities” for anyone but they need to be done nonetheless. Instead of farming those things out to people in precarious positions with the fake promise that there is a reward in the future, look for ways to make the work less onerous, or to compensate people in tangible ways for doing it.