Personal Life

Being the Professor I Needed

As an adjunct professor, I have a few guidelines for myself that aren’t in any university handbook. They include

  1. Never be the horror story professor students remember for the rest of their lives.
  2. Be the professor young me needed as an undergrad (even if I didn’t know it).
  3. Institutional/systematic change begins in the classroom.

The first one is probably slightly selfish on my part as I like being well-liked, but number one trickles down to the next two. While I know not every student is going to like my class or me, the goal is to teach them as best I can, support their learning, and have them leave my classroom knowing more or feeling better than when they went in. Will students sleep through my class or play on their phones the entire time? Absolutely. But in regards to my third guideline, I’m no longer calling those students out, and I’m doing my best to continually learn, grow, and create a less ableist classroom for my students.

I’m neurodivergent, but I’m [generally] the kind of neurodivergent teachers like. I hyperfocus, I’m type A with my classwork, I ask questions and participate if I’m comfortable, and I have been the kid who is “a pleasure to have in class.” My partner is also neurodivergent and spent his entire school career with unmedicated ADHD. No matter how hard he tried, he struggled to pay attention or take notes, he fell asleep in class (due to struggling to sleep), and his ability to memorize things despite trying to hours was abysmal. He couldn’t help it. I watched him struggle, and I watched professors get frustrated with him or treat him like a terrible student who didn’t want to be there, a student unworthy of college. This was hammered home by coming from poverty, being Latinx, and not fitting traditional masculine standards for someone AMAB. One of my favorite teachers (now a friend and mentor) helped him a lot in her class, and I never forgot how much he appreciated her help and compassion. She could see he was trying when others wrote him off.

When I graduated with my MFA and started adjunct teaching, I decided I wanted to be a professor like my friend/mentor. I wanted to be the professor students looked forward to like I did her classes. The problem is, it’s easy to fall into hard-ass mode. Students are human. They’re obnoxious, they push your buttons, they don’t pay attention, and it was easy to see them as just trying to make my life difficult by not doing what they’re supposed to do. I took it personally when they didn’t do their work, especially when I knew they were fully capable of doing the work and turning it in. It was an incredibly stupid way to look at it, and I didn’t see it until I was sitting at an adjunct meeting at the one university I worked at and heard the older adjuncts talk about their students. I hated how badly they talked about their students, how they automatically assumed they were all trying to pull a fast one on them, but especially how no one seemed to care about the ones who were trying.

There are two things that changed my attitude real quick: how they spoke about international/non-native English speaking students and how they spoke about neurodivergent students.

I had a class that was 75% international students, and to this day, they were one of my absolute favorite classes. I stopped knitpicking their grammar flubs. I corrected them, but I didn’t take points off or factor it into their grades. These eighteen year olds had been in the US for like two weeks and were expected to write essays in perfect English. It was an absurd standard, so I didn’t hold them to it. Toward the end of the semester, one of my students mentioned how they were glad they didn’t have to stress so much in my class because other professors were taking points off for every mistake. These bright, wonderful students I bantered with and were proud of were being penalized for not being native English speakers. Then and there, I decided I would never take off points for grammar or spelling. There’s a difference between careless typos and other language-isms if you’re willing to pay attention. Besides, big picture essay issues are far more useful to correct than knitpicky grammar checking.

When we began to suspect my partner had ADHD, I dove into research for how to better support him and myself. We’re a neurodivergent couple, so what works for us doesn’t work for neurotypical people. After doing more research on autism and ADHD, I started to notice that a lot of what other professors complained about like not paying attention, doodling, having earbuds in, etc. are often neurodivergent coping mechanisms. Often ND people are paying attention, but they aren’t performing listening or focus in a way that NT people recognize. When I was a college student, I spent a lot of my time with my head down, but because I was taking copious notes, my professors didn’t criticize me for it. My doodling partner got in trouble. While I couldn’t easily listen to background noise back when I was in school, nowadays, I probably would have headphones in. I stopped bothering students when I thought they weren’t paying attention or they appeared to be multitasking. At this point, I say to myself they are adults; if they are just f-ing around instead of doing something to help focus, that’s on them.

The pandemic and moving online made me reevaluate if the policies in my classes were ableist or cruel or absurd. As an undergrad, I dragged my half-dead corpse to class when I was ill because we were docked points if we were absent too much and professors wouldn’t provide notes if you missed class. In my junior or senior year, my grandma got brain cancer and died not long before finals. I was spending all my free time at the hospital and not missing class because I was afraid my professors would think I was making stuff up (the joke was that grandmothers died a lot during 8 AM classes). Thinking back on it, I hate that I had to worry my professors thought I was a liar and not that I was young adult going through shit I never asked for or could have foreseen. I didn’t want students to go through that in my classes. I’ve made it my policy that you can basically miss as much class as you need as long as you stay active in regards to doing your work (which feels like the basic consequence of your actions). If a student asks for an extension, I give it. If a student who was otherwise active in class disappears, I reach out to see if they’re okay. The demographic of students in college classes is changing. It isn’t mostly upper middle class white kids with no job apart from school. A lot of my students are taking care of their siblings, their children, their disabled relatives, or their working full-time jobs (or the equivalent of). On top of that, some of my students have chronic illnesses. I have my own inflammatory issues where I have flare ups, and I know how to feels to have anxiety that makes leaving the house feel impossible. My policy has become put your health and well-being first, and we’ll figure it out if you need to catch up.

The worst thing is that I feel like what I’m doing is the bare minimum. There are things I know I could do that would make my classes more accessible, but I haven’t had the time or spoons to do it yet (like recording all my classes again and posting them on Youtube or somewhere else). I can’t make universities more accessible on a whole to those who aren’t native English speaking, neurotypical, or those unaffected by illness. Academia is notoriously ableist, and while some universities are trying to be less racist, they are sorely behind in making academia accessible as the student body changes. My hope is that if enough of us start to enact policies that support our students, we will bring about structural change within academia that helps not only the students but professors who need those same accommodations but aren’t comfortable to ask.

Personal Life

My Blind Dog

This post was inspired by a Twitter post about ableism in veterinary medicine and how people treat disabled animals, so CWs for discussions of ableism, medical treatments of a pet, eyeballs.

picture of a black dog with a grey muzzle. His tongue is out and his eyes are a little asymmetrical as the right one is cloudy and a little smaller than the left eye

For a little background, my dog Finn developed uveitis sometime between 2019 and 2020. Uveitis is inflammation of the interior chambers of the eye, and for most pets who develop it, there’s no known cause. At first we thought maybe he had allergies because his eye looked red. Then, we realized his eye was bulging, so we took him to our vet, who sent us to a veterinary ophthalmologist. He got drops, but they weren’t enough and the uveitis progressed into secondary glaucoma, which is basically high internal pressure inside the eyeball due to the eye not draining properly. Glaucoma can be very painful, and the vet gave us the option of removing Finn’s eye or trying to get it under control with drops. Finn is pretty old. He’s a rescue, so we aren’t really sure how old he is. He’s probably older than Edgar, who is now twelve, and we were hesitant for him to be under anesthesia if we could help it. I decided I would try the eye drop routine, and if it didn’t work, then we would discuss removing his affected eye. This kicked off the several month journey of sixteen eye drops a day. The only good thing about this was it happened during Covid, so I was home and able to give him drop four times a day and have them be fairly evenly spaced.

It was a lot of work. I understand why some people would have opted for the eye removal from the start, and I don’t begrudge them for that. I was lucky in that Finn is very cooperative about getting his eye drops (apart from flopping back to sleep mid drop), I was willing to shell out the money for all the drops and vet trips, and my job is such that I could do his eye drops on a regular basis. After many months and many not cheap trips to the ophthalmologist, Finn’s glaucoma went into remission and his uveitis is stable. He only gets steroid drops twice a day and we no longer need to visit the vet unless something changes (knock on wood it doesn’t).

What weirded me out the most during all of these vet trips is that during one of the final trips before the vet said we didn’t have to come back, he emphatically pointed out that Finn’s eye would never be normal. My partner and I were like, “Yes?? Okay.” An eyeball that’s been swollen with fluid to the point of losing some of its traditional structure isn’t going to magically fix itself. The vet repeated that his eye would never look normal and reminded us he would always be blind. The vet obviously doesn’t know that I have a degree in biology, so we just nodded along looking confused as to why this needed to be stressed to us.

In the car on the way home, my partner and I started talking about how weird it was. How many people were thoroughly convinced their dog’s eye would magically return to normal or that their sight would return after internal damage was done? How many people were mad that their dog’s eye was no longer perfect? Frankly, neither of us could care less what Finn’s eye looks like as long as it isn’t causing him pain. He’s totally blind in his right eye, and it looks a little recessed in the socket and cloudy as if he has cataracts. But he isn’t in pain, he’s happy, and he’s a (knock on wood) healthy senior dog, albeit toothless. I imagined our vet getting angry calls from pet owners who were now “stuck” with disabled or non-aesthetically pleasing pets due to various eye ailments. Looking at my sweet boy, I cannot imagine being mad or loving him less because his eye is a little messed up. It’s part of him, it adds character. As someone who has been an “unsightly” chronically ill person, it strikes a cord with me that people even think this way about their pets. So much so that people will actually get prosthetic eyes put into their dog’s sockets after an eye removal. Your dog doesn’t care it’s missing an eye. The other dogs don’t care. The only one who is upset is the owner, and that feels like something one should spend some time examining.

On top of all this, Finn is blind. His right eye is completely blind and his left eye has limited vision. We are fairly certain he can see about 2-3 feet in front of him, and he sees better when the sun is of middling brightness or not at a direct angle into his eye. Too bright or too dark and he can’t see well. Because of this, he bumps into stuff. He bounces off of things outside, he overshoots the patio and gets lost, he sits on his siblings, much to Katie’s dismay. To us, it isn’t a big deal. We always go out in the yard with the dogs, so someone always keeps an eye on Finn to make sure he doesn’t get hurt. We carry him down the deck stairs and follow him up them to make sure he doesn’t fall. Every accommodation we make for Finn to keep him safe is minimal effort on our parts. The scariest thing is going down the stairs with him when it’s icy because we’re always afraid of potentially falling and hurting him, so we go down on our butts with him in our lap. Once again, not a big deal.

It’s upsetting for me to think of how many people would think any of the minor accommodations we make for Finn are a burden or too much to deal with. He’s my dog, and when we got him, there was the implicit understanding that I would do everything in my power to keep him safe, happy, and healthy for as long as I could. Pets end up in the dubious category of living being and property, which I think is what leads to this weird brand of ableism with owners being upset that their pet is “defective” or not aesthetically pleasing. If my pet isn’t picture perfect, people will assume I’m a bad owner or that I don’t take care of them or that I bought a dog that was “defective.” I friggin hate the word defective. My dog has a medical condition. He isn’t defective because he’s blind in one eye, his eye isn’t a source of embarrassment or shame, and his smooshy little face has been and always will be Instagram worthy. Your disabled pet doesn’t have a design flaw and should never have the same language applied to them that you would a broken TV or ripped pair of pants.

In the back of my head, I always wonder what people who say these things about their pets would say about other people to their faces or behind their backs. If you call a creature who loves you unconditionally defective because they’re disabled, what do you say about disabled people or how would you treat people you know if they suddenly became disabled? The worst part is knowing that vets also perpetuate this language and attitude. I don’t think my vet brought it up for any reason other than to temper our expectations, but in the post I mentioned at the very beginning of the blog, this person’s vet said cruel things about their disabled cat and treated the non-disabled cat better. Vets and pet owners need to do better. The chronically ill and disabled people in your life hear what you say when you don’t think there’s anyone around to get offended, but not all issues are visible and we hear you.

Personal Life

On Classroom Accommodations

A post online the other day brought up something that hits on two major intersections in my life: teaching and being neurodivergent. The post talked about how professors/teachers need to stop treating students’ accommodations as charity they allow them to have and something that allows a marginalized person to participate more fully in the class/discussion/college community.

If you don’t know what accommodations are, they’re often things like giving a student with ADHD more time in class for tests or allowing a diabetic student to eat in class if their blood sugar is low. In order for students to receive accommodations in class, there are often a lot of hoops they have to jump through, such as having a diagnosis, getting a doctor to write up the accommodation, having the school approve it, having it passed out to the professors and signed off on, AND the professor still can sort of shrug it off. The student can always complain to academic affairs or whatever office deals with IEPs/accommodations, but that requires energy and cooperation from the office with no promise that the professor will ultimately cooperate or not hold it against the student for pushing back.

Something I instituted in my class this semester is a self-diagnosis policy. Often students who are autistic or have ADHD struggle to get a diagnosis as an adult or find getting a diagnosis could actually work against them (I have avoided an official autism diagnosis because you can be denied organ transplants among other things. Look it up; it’s an awful, ableist policy centered around “quality of life”). Since my classes are writing-focused, there aren’t tests, which makes allowing for extra time or other accommodations easier (no dealing with the Academic Support Center, etc.), but I have had students with anxiety, migraines, stomach issues, etc. who end up missing class more than the average student. My policy is now that as long as you keep up with your work and give me a heads-up, we’re good.

There’s some professor out there who is going, “But if I let one do that, they’ll all do that!” Shockingly, they don’t. They really, really don’t. I have had students reach out to me due to extenuating circumstances or medical issues, and so far, they always keep up with their work. The rest of the class continues on as is. Those who need it, use it. Those who don’t, don’t. If you’re not sure why this matters for quality of life, let me tell you the story of why I stopped going to a professional to get my hair cut.

As a little background, I have eczema crop up all over my body. In the past, before I started taking a biologic, it was severe, and it’s aggravated by chemicals, fragrances, etc. to the point that I only use one kind of shampoo. I also have sensory problems where things most people take for granted REALLY bother me. People touching my head or face is not a fun experience. The hair dryer is hell as it is hot, loud, but the stop and start of it just frays my nerves after while. Even a hairbrush running across my scalp bothers me if I’m stressed enough.

My aunt was going to one hairdresser who was younger and very nice. I asked my aunt to ask her if I could come to the salon with a wet head, so she didn’t have to wash my hair (aka avoid the shampoo and copious head touching). She agreed, and I went. Everything went great. My hair looked nice, and she even asked if I wanted my hair dried or left damp the second time I visited her, and from then on, we just left it damp to dry naturally. I have straight hair that dries quickly, so it looks fine after. Avoiding having my hair washed and dried made getting a haircut far less stressful. I actually didn’t hate it, though the talking throughout was less than ideal but doable.

The problem came up with my preferred hairdresser switched days and salons, and I couldn’t see her. I was desperate for a haircut before the semester started that year, so I booked an appointment with someone my other aunt used in the same salon. Big mistake. She ran roughshod over my needs. I came with a wet head, and she made me get my hair washed. I protested, and she just ushered me over the shampoo girl anyway. It caught me by such surprise that I just sort of blanked instead of fighting it further. Everything went downhill from there. My head already was itching. I told her what I wanted and showed her pictures, and she went rogue because a different length would “look better with my face.” I asked if she could not blow dry my hair, and she ignored me again. By the time I left, I was ready to cry. I was angry and frustrated that she ignored things she could have easily accommodated and completely overstimulated me. It’s been several years, and I haven’t gone back to get my hair professionally cut for fear that any accommodation I ask for will be treated like I’m being dramatic.

I keep this trip to the salon in mind when students tell me they’re struggling with something or need something to help them succeed. It isn’t “special” treatment, it’s creating equity in the classroom by leveling the playing field and removing barriers that would hinder a students’ ability to function. By ignoring an accommodation, at best, you’re making things harder than they have to be. At worst, you are actively harming your student. The hairdryer made me more overstimulated, making it harder to get through the haircut experience. The shampoo full of fragrances I didn’t want them to use actively harmed my skin, and I got an eczema flare on my scalp and neck the next day.

Something other teachers might want to consider when a students asks for an official or unofficial accommodation is that not every disability or illness is visible or consistent. I have IBS. Luckily it’s IBS-C, which doesn’t interfere too much with my life. Imagine having IBS-D and telling your professor you can’t come to a workshop class because you’re in the middle of a flare (aka frequent bathroom trips) but you will send in your feedback to your groupmates in hopes of getting credit. And your professor fires back, you look fine most of the time and to get credit, you have to be present bodily. Should your student have to disclose that they are worried about shitting themselves in class in order for you to let them do their work remotely? On the neurodivergent side of things, I don’t tell everyone I’m neurodivergent because people have some weird assumptions they will apply to you. If you say you’re autistic, people will treat you differently if they don’t know you and what you’re capable of. Students shouldn’t have to make themselves vulnerable and open to potential ridicule or ableism by disclosing specifics.

As we head into the middle of the semester, I want you to think about what your reaction to reading this was. My fear is always that someone says, “If they can’t handle it, they shouldn’t be here.” Why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t an autistic student or a chronically ill student be at school? What about their condition precludes them from accessing a good education? What makes their education less worthy than that of their neurotypical or non-chronically ill peer? The bootstrap attitude is ableist bullshit, and if you’re reaction was to question the student’s value or fitness, I hope you will seek out chronically ill or neurodivergent authors to work on yourself because you really don’t belong in a classroom if you’re going to actively hinder your students. To those who want to better support their students, I hope you will allow for unofficial accommodations in your future classrooms.