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.”

Mar 17

Anti-Ableist Pedagogies and You

Cross-posted from the Teach @ CUNY project Visible Pedagogy, here.

This blog post is coming later than it should be. My BPD (borderline personality dis/order), my depression, my anxiety, hit peak levels during the time I was supposed to be writing this: a perfect storm of mental health cacophony.

When I emailed to say, simply, that I was having a rough week mentally (in the same way that I might to say I have the flu), the response was simple: I’m so sorry you’re having a rough time. Please take care of yourself, and when you’re ready, it would be great if we could get the post up next week. The response was simple, and the response was meta: the response demonstrated the kind of pedagogy I’d like to dedicate this blog series to fleshing out.

Anti-ableist pedagogy: what might that feel like? How does anti-ableist practice in your classroom extend beyond providing alt-text, transcripts, and captions, and leaving space when configuring desks for people with various mobility needs and body types to navigate optimally? How can anti-ableist pedagogies transform your syllabus and seep into your assignments and shape your assessment strategies? How can anti-ableist praxis interact with and bolster your goals to actively practice anti-racist pedagogies? (Because surely—in this country in which white people who shoot people are labeled “mentally ill” and brown people who shoot people are labeled “terrorists”; in this country in which the school-to-prison pipeline and special education systems actively seek out Black and brown children and label them as irreparably less than—racism and ableism cannot be unlinked.)

This post is the first in a series that will explore these questions, both theoretically and very, very practically, by identifying approaches to everything from lesson planning to assignment design and assessment that challenge the dually ableist and racist assumptions that too often shape our classrooms, and that certainly shape our institutions. (If you want to contribute to this conversation, please comment and click the link here for more!)

Before we begin, though, a bit of background.

When I write about dis/ability, I put a slash between “dis” and “ability.” I do this to unsettle the deficit model that defines much of dis/ability discourse (and our classroom pedagogies). The slash reminds us, literally interrupts us, before we assume that people with dis/abilites are defined by what we cannot do; what we struggle with; what we must do differently. But the slash doesn’t completely interrupt the word, because our struggles are, in fact, deeply real. Deeply embodied.

But here’s the thing—and no matter whether we’ve been teaching for twelve years or none, a little Dis/ability 101 is never a bad thing—dis/ability isn’t only in the body. It isn’t a deficit, a problem, something to be uncritically cured (erased, exterminated) or that exists only within individual people. All dis/abilities exist—indeed, are created and defined and therefore given shape and meaning—within broader environmental contexts.

I often ask my students to think about a society in which everyone who needs them has equitable access to glasses. Is short-sightedness, for example, in an imagined society like this considered a dis/ability? Why not? How does access to glasses shape what we define as a dis/ability? More broadly, how do the structural components of the access (the environment of power and oppression and privilege) shape how we define dis/ability? What about a society in which break rooms with minimal noise and soft lights and plenty of space to lay down were commonly available and accepted as a requirement for people simple going about their days? How differently might we interpret social anxiety, or depression, or autism, in such a society?

Environment shapes dis/ability.

And our classrooms are environments. Surely, they exist within broader environmental constraints, but the act of dedication to constructing dually anti-ableist, anti-racist pedagogies (again, can’t build one without the other) can re-constitute dis/ability so that we are not continuing to define our quiet students as problems; not continuing to pathologize students who do not conform to white supremacist norms of classroom communication; not banning depressed, anxious, bipolar (etc.) students from our classrooms when we uncritically demand the same kinds of attendance, the same kinds of participation, the same kinds of presence, from everyone in our classroom.

This blog series will explore how to design our classes for all kinds of learners, not just for able-bodyminded white learners. The thing to keep in mind here is this: once we make the needed perspective changes—once we commit ourselves to becoming aware of our bodymindedness and that of our students in the classroom—anti-ableist pedagogies do not necessarily “create more work” for already exploited laborers.

Instead, fundamentally reshaping our classrooms to be as universally designed and power-aware as possible involves a perspective shift, a literal redesign of our pedagogies. But as committed educators, aren’t we supposed to always be redesigning our pedagogies, anyway?  Just as the response to my late blog post—I’m sorry you’re not doing well. Take care of yourself, and it would be great if we can get the post up by next week—embodied an empathetic, anti-ableist pedagogy that still held all involved to a high standard, it didn’t increase anyone’s workload.

But it sure did increase the health and affirmativeness of the work space.

Committing to doing this with the goal of creating anti-ableist, anti-racist learning spaces seems worth it to me. I’m excited to join you on the next few months of exchanging ideas about how to do exactly that.

Need help with the Commons? Visit our
help page
Send us a message
Skip to toolbar