By Jennifer Polish

Too often, we encounter the refrain that “professors are not therapists.” This is generally true, and a reminder of the importance of healthy boundaries and self-care. At the same time, this refrain is also too frequently  used as an (unintentionally) ableist excuse for not making our classrooms more welcoming for students with dis/abilities, particularly mental health issues.

Because the implication of phrases like “we’re not therapists” and “I don’t know how to have that conversation” is that students’ emotions—especially the ones that keep them (and us) awake at night, the ones that prevent them from coming to class, or inspire them to cry in class or in our offices—are inappropriate, burdensome, “too much.”

In other words, when instructors say “we’re not therapists,” it implies that both students and professors—especially those of us who are mentally dis/abled—must check our emotions, our bodies, our struggles, our triumphs, at the door. That we must suppress our self-harm scars and our sleep-deprived pain and our traumas and our rapidly drowning hearts for the sake of academic intellectualism, civility, collegiality, and dispassionate, disembodied “analysis.”

Of course, no analysis—no intellect—is ever truly disembodied. But it portrays itself as such when the emotions and bodies behind it are socially accepted as “normal”, as “reasonable”, as “rational.”

So where does this leave us in our classrooms? Because, truth: we cannot be what we are not for our students. How, then, do we navigate classroom dynamics and student interactions that get emotionally sticky?

It starts with the understanding—discussed in the first post of this series—that environment shapes what we define as dis/ability, and which emotional and bodily expressions are considered non-normative and therefore “bad.” For instance, the American premium on “productivity” often translates into policies that penalize students who might appear to an outsider to not be “contributing” anything to  class.

If this is the case—if structural constraints shape how dis/ability is defined and therefore, how it feels and is responded to—then our first response to mental health issues in our classroom should not be “we’re not therapists”, but rather “we can design our classrooms to accommodate and affirm a wider variety of student needs, thereby alleviating the uneven pressure on students with mental health issues from day one.”

How do we go about this? The rest of this series will be dedicated to sharing practical strategies for improving the accessibility of your classroom, with posts on topics like constructing anti-ableist assignments  and practicing anti-ableist assessment. But for now, let’s think about day one—and especially, the syllabus. If the word “Accessibility” is even on our syllabi, it’s usually stuck somewhere deep in the back: a one-line entry, perhaps, that includes the room number and email address of the Office of Students with Dis/abilities at our campus, or some boilerplate provided by our department.

What would happen if we structured our syllabus to foreground accessibility, rather than tuck it away? If discussions about accessibility, broadly defined, occurred on day one, and therefore framed the way that students experienced our classrooms? Instead of proclaiming that “we are not therapists,” and therefore that we can’t touch dis/ability with a ten-foot pole, what would happen if instructors normalized dis/ability, because—whether we know it or not—dis/abilities are everywhere in our classrooms, anyway?

I would never claim to have a perfect model — there is no such thing!— but by means of take-away, I offer the current Accessibility section of my English 102 course at LaGuardia Community College. It’s the second section in my syllabus, and it has its own page on our course website.

This language will change, guaranteed. In fact, it’s designed to;  language highlighting accessibility as a fundamental structural component of our work space is integrated throughout the syllabus, on which students are encouraged to comment, ask questions, and offer suggestions. Because we don’t need to be therapists to welcome all of our students, mental dis/abilities and all, into our course design and classroom space.

Jennifer Polish is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a Humanities Alliance Teaching Fellow.  This is the second in a series of posts  they are contributing to Visible Pedagogy on “Anti-Ableist Pedagogies.”