Reflective Practice

Professional Development and Academic Life (When You’re Mentally Dis/abled)

Photo by René Gademann:

By Jenn Polish

For the final installment of this series on mental health in college classrooms, I’d like to shift the focus to ourselves as instructors, and consider how those of us with dis/abilities navigate both the classroom and the professional spaces surrounding it. I want to examine the overarching context in which we teach, and the ways that the academy as an institution is structured in a deeply ableist way. I’ve found that having language for naming exactly what is ableist has been helpful, but this post will also discuss, of course, different ways to circumvent and cope with the various obstacles folks with mental dis/abilities might encounter in our (academic) jobs and professional lives.

As an institution, academia can be overtly hostile not only to students with dis/abilities, but also professors with dis/abilities. Expected to not only perform in the classroom — which requires a huge energy expenditure — but also online, in scholarly journals, at conferences, and at department meetings, instructors are additionally (and perhaps most problematically) expected to perform “collegiality.” (In fact, it’s a quality that can factor into hiring or promotion decisions.) Like assessment, discussed in the previous post in this series, “collegiality” is a concept that is riddled with racist and ableist assumptions about what kinds of interactions are acceptable and which are not.

The norms of collegiality—as Margaret Price has argued in her must-read book Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life —are stifling to faculty members (or potential faculty members) whose bodies and minds do not allow them (us) to sufficiently perform white civility for the sake of white comfort, to perform post-conference drinking duties and neurotypical patterns of social interaction. Those of us who cannot drink at the bar after conferences because of histories with addiction or because of histories with human interaction are often doomed to miss out on collaborative project proposals, lecture opportunities, academic book deals. Those of us who cannot sustain the energetic-but-not-too-over-the-top-and-don’t-forget-to-smile presence required during campus interviews — or, those of us who can perform this successfully, but who will inevitably break down both before and after the fact —are often barred from tenure-track positions. Ditto, those of us whose depression, for example, does not allow us to produce, produce, produce at the pace required by promotion and tenure committees.

To cope with these institutional barriers, we need to constantly be navigating not only the care of our mentally dis/abled students, but care of ourselves, as well. There are pockets of academic communities—largely in the dis/ability studies world —that can assure us, if even just online, that we are not alone in the academy. Joining listservs for different committees at different conferences can sometimes provide a respite from the need to both stay connected and stay away from the sensory overload of the conference circuit. Writing our own experiences into being, when we are comfortable and safe enough to do so, can help us to process our feelings, connect with others, spread important knowledges, and forge important bridges.

As for the day-to-day business of teaching, we need to give ourselves the care and latitude to design courses that balance our own mental health needs with those of our students. To that end, we should ask ourselves questions similar to ones we might encourage students to answer for us in the beginning of term, and craft our classes and lesson plans and office hours around the answers. Some of these questions might include:

  • What do I need to function best when I’m in front of a classroom? Do I need silence? For students to not be looking at their phones? To sit down? To pace with frequency to let out a rush of energy?
  • How am I comfortable communicating these needs to students so that my boundaries are respected, but without making students feel as though they are pathologized?

For example, can you explain to students why you would strongly prefer them not to be on their phones during class (possibly because of your own OCD) instead of implying that they’re “bad students” if they feel the desire or need to check them? What compromises might you come to in this regard so that both your needs and student needs can be met?

  • Do I prefer to offer students outside-of-class assistance during in-person office hour sessions? Or is it better for my mental health to host online office hours? Can I conference one-on-one with students when they have big projects due, or would I prefer to have more ongoing email interactions with them? How do my needs align with or counter student needs? What compromises can be made?
  • What is my plan for the days when I am extremely low-energy, or extremely high-energy? What is my plan for the days when I simply cannot grade? What degree of transparency with my students is most conducive to a healthy classroom environment in this situation? Do I include in our class grading contract (if applicable) a note that sometimes I, like my students, will need understanding and latitude?

Within the next month or so, I will be pulling together a (necessarily incomplete) guide to all the topics covered in this blog series: anti-ableist syllabus creation; assignment design; assessment strategies; professional life- navigation mechanisms. It is my hope that this guide will begin rather than end conversations, and encourage further reflection and communication about mental health — both yours and your students’ — in your classrooms.

Jenn Polish is a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a Humanities Alliance Teaching Fellow. This is the final post in their series on Anti-Ableist Pedagogies.


1 Comment

  1. SR

    Thank you so much for this post. Mental health is something I have been grappling with this semester in particular, to the extent that it feels daunting to go into class each day, utterly disabling me from teaching as effectively or as passionately as I have always been prone to doing.

    To read this is not only a relief to realize I am not the only one, but this is fascinating on various levels. Mainly, the idea that the default structure and nature, and ethos of “collegiality” in academia does not necessarily have to be default. To destabilize the very foundation upon which this supposedly irrevocable, concrete definition of an academic exists is essential to de-limiting who an academic is supposed to be or expected to be. Redefining the norms is essential to incorporating the variegated community that exists within academia, and in society. This has really enabled me to think differently about the context of mental illness in academia, so again, thank you.

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