May 17

“We Aren’t Therapists”: Mental Health in Our Classrooms

(Cross-posted from the Teach@Cuny Project’s Visible Pedagogy site, here)

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.”

Dec 16

Open (Accessible?) Educational Resources

Kaysi Holman and Jennifer Polish

December 2nd, 2016

CUNY IT Conference, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

As the CUNY Humanities Alliance website gets built out, it’s important to point out — especially in the context of conversations about OERs — that it’s difficult to talk about a website being built out in anything but the passive voice. Which erases the forces behind website construction. Which erases the fact that technology, including all the web resources we offer (and don’t offer) our students, is inherently, of course, entrenched in the same dynamics of power, marginalization, and oppression of the society that produced these resources.

Websites and the resources associated therewith are built out by people in the context of unequal, inequitable institutions. Naturally.

So, as we develop the CUNY Humanities Alliance site, we are going to try to reverse the game as much as we can: instead of accepting the design flaws of the current site (inherent in most basic site builds), moving forward we are going to be prioritizing optimal usage for students who do not necessarily have access to the kinds of technology (laptops, home computers) and non-mobile wifi access that make the current design run most efficiently.

Instead, we will be thinking about questions of data usage: how much will downloading a PDF that is ostensibly an OER, ostensibly freely available from the CUNY Humanities Alliance site, cost our students in terms of data plans? Watching a video on the site for homework? Will posting and commenting on extensive threads be doable from mobile phones, the device with which most LaGuardia students work with the internet? How does introducing yet another online platform (wordpress versus digication) further burden students who are already faced with the task of performing mastery of “Standard” (white middle class American) English?

On the other side of the proverbial coin from these questions — which need to be asked of all OERs and course sites — I am also curious moving forward about the way that LaGuardia students re-claim digital spaces, even and especially those that are not designed for them; digital spaces that are designed to neutralize the potential power of their voices, their creativity; digital spaces that instead favor producing a singular image of what community college student work is and should be.

In other words: How do students speak/write/art-as-verb against the power structures implicit in ed tech? How can student work radically redefine what education and access mean and what they do? And how can we make sure that the digitized spaces we encourage our students to use for our classes keep our students safe and supported in this risk-taking work, especially when our students are already so targeted for simply existing?

Earlier this week in first year seminar, a LaGuardia student was talking about career goals. Her entire face lit up when she mentioned the CW’s Supergirl and The Flash, especially after I (and several of her classmates) had a deeply visceral, excited response to her bringing the shows into the conversation. She cited very specific things she’d learned — both emotionally and intellectually — from the shows, and perfectly fit that in to the rest of her life, to the very essence of who she is and who she wants to become.

Another note about this sharp young woman: she has, between her various social media accounts, over 100,000 followers online.

How can this student’s passion and social media expertise work its way into digitized classroom spaces through accessible web design and through making resources available to her that can support, rather than stymie, her enthusiasm for superheroes and being her own superhero?

On the flip, many students’ response to this kind of online interaction is “wait, what’s tumblr again?” How must on and offline resources be arranged to teach both students, and all in between?

It seems to me that what we uphold as an “educational” resource needs to be expanded, and alongside this expansion, how we think about what is “accessible,” too, can be transformed. How can this student’s own framing of her own education in terms of fictional characters redefine what we mean by the term Open? By the term Educational? And by the term Resource? And how can this reflect in our course designs, lesson planning, what kinds of resources we post and what kinds of expectations we have of how students interact with online material?

How much more accessible can OERs truly become — OAERs, perchance — when we let students decide what gifsets, what pieces of writing on tumblr, what youtube sensation, sparks their learning, inspires their creativity, expands the way they understand the power of their own knowledge base?

The way that LaGuardia students use, refuse to use, play with, and create on, the Humanities Alliance site will certainly be telling. Not to mention transformative.

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