Tag Archives: academia

Stop Asking IF Your Students Have Questions!

I asked one of the worst questions of my students last week after I explained an assignment to them: “Does anyone have questions?” How do I know it was a bad question? Because no one answered it. I gave my usual ten seconds of silence before speaking again, and when I did speak, this is what I said: “What can I clarify?” Instead of silence, this time I was greeted with SIX requests for clarification.

While the two questions may appear to be very similar, the dramatic difference in reception indicates that they are actually not that similar at all. Here are some of the differences:

  1. “Does anyone have questions?” is a closed question with only two acceptable answers: yes or no. In contrast, “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, inviting a range of responses.
  2. Because the only acceptable answers to “Does anyone have questions?” are binary, and as with all binary options, one option is privileged over the other, there is actually only one “good” answer to the question. Every student knows “no” is the correct answer. To answer yes either challenges the brilliance of the authority figure posing the question because, using the example of the assignment I had just described to the class, it implies that the assignment wasn’t written clearly, or exposes the student to being perceived as lazy, stupid, not paying attention, or some other negative descriptor. Because “What can I clarify?” is open-ended, there are no obviously privileged answers.
  3. Because the privileged answer to “Does anyone have questions?” is “no,” it silences questions while appearing to invite them. It normalizes not asking questions. “What can I clarify?” is open, so it normalized asking questions.  
  4. Because “Does anyone have questions?” silences people with questions and implies that no questions should be asked, it positions the asker as more powerful. On the other hand, because “What can I clarify?” assumes that clarification is needed, it positions the asker and the answerers as working together to make meaning.

Another terrible question that I find myself asking from time to time is “Does that make sense?” While asking that conversationally with a peer can be somewhat effective, asking it of students in a scenario similar to the one I describe above is likely to meet with the same silence as “Does anyone have questions?”

Faculty know students have questions. I hear faculty wondering sometimes why students don’t ask more questions. Perhaps it has something to do with our own questions.

Noticing Ableist Assumptions about Meeting/Class Discussions

Last week I was in a meeting of about 20 people in which a topic I have very strong opinions about came up. I very much wanted to contribute to the discussion, but other people were jumping in so quickly that I had a hard time really processing what they were saying while simultaneously trying to organize the complex thoughts in my head. Every time I thought I had my thoughts organized enough to articulate them aloud, someone else would start talking and I would need to leave my thoughts aside to listen to the speaker. After about 15 minutes of spirited discussion that I had not contributed to in any discernible way, the discussion slowed down and finally, the person facilitating the meeting asked if there were final thoughts. The following three seconds of silence gave me the opportunity I needed to finally organize my thoughts and I was able to share them.

Had there not been those few seconds of silence, I might have not contributed at all to the discussion. To others in the meeting, it might then have appeared that I was completely disengaged or had no opinion or thoughts on the topic, which was not at all the case.

Unfortunately, this is a fairly common experience for me. I have moments of being able to think quickly enough to jump into a conversation immediately, but it is more common for me to need some time—sometimes just a few seconds, as in the example above, and other times a few minutes—to collect my thoughts and get them ready for prime time. This was true before the exhaustion of being my husband’s caregiver and then unexpectedly a widow kicked in, and it’s gotten more pronounced since then.

While silence during a discussion can appear to be evidence of lack of engagement, there are many other reasons someone might not participate in a discussion:

  • Like me in the example above, they may be a reflective thinker who needs time and/or quiet to process thoughts.
  • They may be a deep listener who actually pays 100% attention to what others are saying, which means they aren’t simultaneously formulating what they will say.
  • They may have a cognitive processing difference that makes it hard for them to make sense of rapid or overlapping speech.
  • They may be tired, undernourished, and/or underhydrated. All of these conditions affect cognitive function.
  • They may be anxious, either about a particular situation in their life or they may have an anxiety condition. Either way, cognitive function could be affected.
  • They may be introverted and despite all of society’s pressures to participate in the type of discussions typical of meetings and classes, that simply may not be the way they are wired.

Despite all these very good reasons for not participating in discussions, I hear colleagues immediately judge students and colleagues who don’t participate in discussions in meeting and classes as “lazy,” “disengaged,” or “in over their heads.” I do it, too; in fact, I’ve noticed that my default is to wonder what is “wrong” with the person. This is an ableist way of looking at the situation, assuming there is something defective about the person who is not responding the way I want. I’ve been working over the last few years to notice myself having that thought and remind myself of all the very good reasons a person may have for not participating in a discussion. To mitigate my own tendencies to make this unfair judgment, I have been working on ways to build some silence and processing time into facilitating discussions.

As a teacher, I begin each class with a five-minute writing prompt designed to help students collect their thoughts for the discussion we’ll have in class. I also use the classic “count to ten in your head” after asking a question before I speak again. As an NCFDD coach, I allow generous silence during conversations to allow folks time to collect thoughts. But I do not typically allow silence in the meetings I facilitate, in part because I have prided myself on running “efficient” meetings and silence does not appear to be “efficient.”  

I have much more work to do on this front as a meeting facilitator. Allowing silence in meetings means sacrificing efficiency; I hate meetings and want to get them done as quickly as possible. But I recognize that getting them done quickly at the expense of restricting fruitful discussion is counter-productive. I am going to start playing with beginning important discussions by asking everyone to take two minutes to jot down their thoughts.

As a meeting participant, I am going to start asking for a moment to collect my thoughts. For example, in the meeting I described at the beginning of this post, I could have said, “I have some thoughts to share but I need a moment to collect them. Please bear with me.” I have never seen anyone do this in a meeting and I suspect other participants who don’t need the time I need to collect thoughts may find it unprofessional or even disrespectful of their time. I have tenure and can afford for people to think less of me, so I am going to try this strategy, but for folks with less privilege than I have, it may not be a viable strategy.

Meeting facilitators could allow folks to continue conversations that begin in meetings by email or on a discussion board for a certain amount of time, which would allow folks who need time to collect their thoughts to do that. In the past, I’ve been criticized for sending email follow ups after discussions in meetings for “dragging on a conversation that is over.” I’ve been told, “Too bad you didn’t bring that point up in the discussion when we could have done something with it.” These responses rely on the assumption that not contributing to the discussion in the moment can only be due to laziness or other negative characteristics.

At the end of chapter two of Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Margaret Price describes many clever ways of making class attendance and participation policies less ableist. Many of the strategies she describes could also be used in meetings.

What can you do to allow time and space for reflection in the discussions you facilitate or participate in?

Supporting Student Wellness beyond “How Are You?”

I’m hopeful that the pandemic has made us a little more compassionate and aware of how stressful the lives of our students are, and I’m happy to see faculty on social media talking about building mechanisms into their classes to check in with students about how they are holding up. My own institution has repeatedly reminded faculty of the resources available to students and urged us to connect students with those resources, but I know from personal experience that it’s a lot more effective to tell students about the specific resources they need than to tell them about a few dozen resources they might need. When someone feels a need, they pay attention.

One of the cleverest check-in tools I’ve seen was created by my amazing friend, Alex Lockett. She wrote an online survey that she will send to her students once a week during the semester to allow her to understand what they are dealing with and how. Depending on the feedback she gets on the survey each week, she can curate the support and types of resources she suggests to the class.

Alex gave me permission to share her survey. I want to highlight that she is generously sharing her work here and asks only that you give her credit if you end up using or modifying her survey, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Here is Alex’s survey.

What I like about this survey:

  • It’s not about making sure students are “doing wellness right.” The survey isn’t used to penalize or shame students who are struggling with self-care. The questions are authentic, caring inquiries into students’ wellbeing. I can imagine asking these questions of individual students during office hours or in the transition time before or after a class meeting. They are conversation openers.
  • Students can opt to complete it anonymously, which further removes any connotation of shame or judgment.
  • The survey is about wellness rather than productivity. So often, wellness and productivity are conflated, with the measure of a person’s wellbeing becoming how many deadlines they met or how many pages they read or some other “how many” metric. Alex’s survey avoids that by focusing on what people did for their wellbeing rather than on how much of something they did or what they did not do.
  • The question that asks students “how are you feeling today?” offers students nine faces to choose from to represent their current state, ranging from a toothy grinning face to a red nearly exploding face. To my mind, this is so much more effective than asking folks to rank themselves on a scale of 1-10 or to choose from likert-type options (good, very good, etc.). It also shows audience awareness—emojis are how our students are more likely to express their moods.
  • The question on different aspects of self-care serve as reminders of what people taking care of themselves should do each day. For example, “Have you eaten in the past 12-24 hours? If you say no, you need to feed yourself. If you don’t feel like cooking, try eating a handful of nuts or some fresh fruit. I highly recommend always keeping some trail mix around because sometimes we get so preoccupied that we neglect a sustainable meal schedule.” The question itself offers concrete suggestions about what self-care looks like and the suggestions are appropriate for college students.

This survey is designed for use in a classroom setting, but I think it could be easily modified by department chairs or managers of non-academic workplaces to check in with folks. I’m going to create a version of it to append to the form tutors in the Writing Center use at the end of each shift to summarize and reflect on the shift.

Thinking About the Needs of Disabled Folks in Classrooms & Workplaces

As someone who teaches rhetoric, I am always noticing how the ways we talk about something shape the ways we think about that thing. I recently discovered The Squeaky Wheelchair, the blog of Kathleen Downes, a woman with cerebral palsy, and found myself nodding emphatically to every sentence of her post “It’s Your Job Too: Dismantling the Myth of Specialness and Making Inclusion a Community Responsibility,” in which she argues against using the word “special” to describe the needs of disabled people.

Downes notes that

Calling our needs special isolates them from the rest of human needs, and in the process shrouds them from the body of general knowledge. When needs become special, they are tucked away in special departments run by special people who specialize in specialness. Disability becomes its own hidden corner of the universe as it is implied that only those with a related job or a family member with a disability should ever bother to explore the issues that come with living a disabled existence. The responsibility to learn about and be aware of our lives is seemingly confined to the world of specialists and people who “have experience with those kind of people.”

https://www.thesqueakywheelchairblog.com/2014/10/its-your-job-too-dismantling-myth-of.html

She goes on to explain that the needs of disabled people are not “particularly special . . . We need to eat, sleep, get dressed, bathe, go to the bathroom, breathe, and a whole bunch of other painfully ordinary things.” As both a disabled person and the caregiver of a disabled person, I can attest that it’s true: our needs are pretty mundane. Most of our needs can be met by almost anyone. For example, I’ve written before about how one of my needs is to have someone read a hotel room number to me—no special training needed, no special skills, nothing special at all.

In academia, we adapt things for able-bodied people all the time. My faculty colleagues often brag in their retention, tenure, and promotion applications about how willing and even enthusiastic they are about meeting the needs of a diverse group of students. But those same colleagues can also often be heard complaining about the “special needs” of students registered with our disabilities services center. When faculty think of students having diverse needs, they take pride in meeting those needs. But when they think of students as having “special needs,” suddenly those needs become above our paygrade.

The truth is, the needs of those students are often the same needs of any other student: being able to read the slides or the assigned reading, being able to hear the professor and peers, being able to sit comfortably in the classroom, having enough time to process instructions and follow them. The needs themselves are not special, and even the ways those needs can be met are not special. Switching from a low contrast to a high contrast slide template isn’t special. Giving everyone in the class two hours to take an exam instead of one isn’t special (your class is only 75 minutes long? Then put fewer questions on the exam).

When I informally polled a class in fall 2019 (pre-pandemic) about their ideal testing situation, more time, a distraction-free environment, and no fluorescent lighting were the top three requests of the students, regardless of disability status. The only request on this list that was the least bit surprising to me is the one about lighting, and I realized that I could easily make a fluorescent lighting-free environment available to my students by making all exams take-home (this is hypothetical—I don’t actually give exams in my classes), allowing students to take the exam outside, at the library, at home, etc. Although these requests are not at all strange or exotic, think about how differently these two sentences strike you:

  • “Susan needs extra time on tests, a distraction-free testing environment, and no fluorescent lighting.”
  •  “Susan has several special needs: extra time on tests, a distraction-free testing environment, and no fluorescent lighting.”

Susan sounds like a fairly typical student in the first sentence, but in the second sentence, she sure sounds high maintenance, doesn’t she? Simply by calling needs “special,” they become more exotic, more inconvenient to provide, and potentially even unreasonable.

We could play further with the sentence. What about this one?

  • “Susan performs best with extra time on tests, a distraction-free testing environment, and no fluorescent lighting.”

Now Susan sounds pretty unremarkable.  

You may be thinking, well, none of this matters much for me, I don’t work with disabled students or colleagues (or students/colleagues with “special needs”). Not so fast. Because of issues I’ve recently discussed, including how exhausting it can be to ask for accommodations and how expensive, difficult, and time-consuming it can be to get documentation of disabilities, you likely have more disabled students in your classes or colleagues in your workplace than you realize. Why wouldn’t you want everyone to be able to perform at their best?

Downes argues that because of the way we talk about (and thus think about) the needs of disabled people as “special,”

the responsibility of people outside of the direct disability community to include and think seriously about access issues is shifted away based on the belief that “special services” will deal with it.

https://www.thesqueakywheelchairblog.com/2014/10/its-your-job-too-dismantling-myth-of.html

But it is actually everyone’s responsibility. And it isn’t difficult most of the time. The suggestions I’ve offered for making classrooms and workplaces accessible aren’t hard to put in place or particularly “special.” For many people, implementing my suggestions simply means being deliberate about things you may already be doing. My suggestions aren’t that you do anything “special” for “special” people with “special” needs, but that you think about making your classroom or workplace accessible. Not special, but accessible. Or even inviting, or responsive. Play with words you like until you find one that resonates with you and your teaching practice and then aim to make your classroom [whatever that word is].

Welcoming Folks with Disabilities versus Allowing Access to Folks with Disabilities

Last weekend, I had an experience that highlighted the difference between accommodating disability to comply with the law and designing for equity in accessibility. Now that we are both vaccinated, my husband and I belatedly celebrated our anniversary by spending a couple nights in a nice hotel and going out to eat in restaurants. Our experiences getting into those two restaurants couldn’t have been more different.

At one restaurant, I pushed his wheelchair up to the entrance and saw only a revolving door which was not wheelchair accessible. I also cannot imagine a person managing it with a cane, walker, or any other type of mobility assistance. I looked all around the entrance and didn’t see any kind of alternative entrance or sign. Finally, I left my husband in his wheelchair in front of the restaurant and went in to speak to a host. The host apologized and said someone would be out shortly to escort us to the accessible entrance. We waited a few minutes, and then the host came out and led us all the way around two sides of the very large building that the restaurant is part of to another entrance that requires a keycard, and then escorted us through the building to the restaurant. The trip around the building might have exhausted someone using a cane or hemi-walker, and with no way to get into the restaurant without assistance, someone alone would have had to knock on the window to get a host’s attention.

At the other end of the accessibility spectrum was our experience at a restaurant that at first seemed completely inaccessible. While we were able to get into the restaurant without a problem because of the wide double doors, from the host stand I could see that all the tables were down a half-flight of stairs from the entrance. We were amazed when the host showed us the open elevator lift just to the side of the stairs—not tucked away in a shadowy corner or down a long hallway, but right there, in view just like the stairs. We took that down to the level with the tables, where we were greeted by another staff member. We were further amazed when our server brought our food and asked my husband, “Is there anything I can do to make your meal more accessible to you?” (Shout out to Denver’s amazing Blue Agave Grill on the Sixteenth Street Mall!)

These two restaurant experiences illustrate the differences between designing to comply with the law and designing for access equity. Although the first restaurant did have a way for us to enter, it was complicated, time-consuming (for us and the employee who had to escort us), frustrating, and inconvenient. It was clear that my husband was not the guest they anticipated. Had we arrived during the dinner rush, I imagine the host would have had to decide whether they were going to seat able-bodied customers already in the restaurant or attend to getting the guy in the wheelchair outside into the restaurant and leaving the host stand unattended for ten minutes, potentially making the host feel resentful toward my husband for putting them in that position.

On the other hand, the second restaurant made us feel warmly welcomed. The placement of the elevator lift right next to the stairs meant that we didn’t have to travel further than any other customer to get to a table, and the fact that the lift was open meant that for once, we weren’t made to feel like using the accessibility option was something to hide or be embarrassed about. No staff member had to spend extra time to get us seated. When we stepped into the elevator lift, I said to my husband, “It’s like they were expecting us.” That kind of reception is rare for folks with disabilities.

I think it’s also important to note that at the second restaurant, folks who don’t need the elevator lift don’t lose anything by its presence. Ableism assumes that providing equitable access for disabled people means able-bodied folks lose something or that something unfair is happening, but the conveniently-placed elevator lift doesn’t deprive folks who can take the stairs of anything. I also want to point out the particularly cruel irony that at the first restaurant, only the people most likely to have limited mobility need to make the long trek around the building.

Academia (and most everything else) is designed like the first restaurant. My husband in his wheelchair can get into the buildings on campus, but it’s complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient. I, with my vision impairment, can get a $35 lamp for my office or a classroom with good lighting, but again, it’s complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient. A student can get extended time on tests or to work on assignments—if they have the proper documentation, and that documentation can be complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient, not to mention expensive, to get.

In architectural terms, the second restaurant is an example of Universal Design (UD). In teaching and learning, that type of integration of accessible elements is called Universal for Learning (UDL). When faculty implement UDL, the student with a disability that requires extended time on tests or to work on assignments wouldn’t need to get documentation of their disability and then explicitly ask for an accommodation; like the second restaurant, accessibility would be baked right into the assignments. Considering that one in four people has a disability, and that people with disabilities show up on campus as students, faculty, staff, and administrators, it would make sense for buildings to be designed according to UD and classes to be designed according to UDL.

The two different restaurant experiences also offer a great illustration of the social model of disability, which recognizes that disability is a fluid concept and that a person using a wheelchair, for example, may be able to get around just fine in a setting designed for them, but they become disabled when their setting is designed ONLY for folks who do not use wheelchairs. You can see the disabling function happening when you compare my husband’s entrances into the two restaurants: same person, same wheelchair, but at one restaurant, he had to put in significantly more time and effort to get in, whereas in the other restaurant, he sailed in and was seated quickly just like anyone else. He was the same person with the same capabilities in both scenarios—the restaurant designs account for the difference. My husband got around just as well as anyone else in the second restaurant but the first restaurant’s inaccessible entrance disabled him.

The social model of disability locates the problem in the setting that is designed to exclude people who are not able-bodied. Using the social model, we can see that if different design choices are made, a space can be made less disabling. The same concept can be applied to course design: if different design choices are made, a course can be less disabling. UDL is all about designing instruction to be less disabling.

Want to learn more about UDL?

  • CAST’s guidelines for UDL design (CAST stands for Center for Applied Special Technology, but they don’t actually ever use the full name anymore and are officially knows simply as CAST)
  • DO-IT’s explanation of Universal Design of Instruction (UDI), a closely related and somewhat overlapping concept (DO-IT is an acronym for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, an office at the University of Washington)
  • MSU Denver’s archive of weekly SIPs (Strong Instructional Practices)

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.