Everyday Survival And Collective Accountability: What We Can Learn from Disabled Workers In Higher Education
University of Utah Disability Studies Lecture, March 23, 2021: Dr. Margaret Price
The pandemic has raised startling questions about everyday life—for example, “How is it possible that I am required to do a full-time job while also providing full-time care for my family?” or “How can I negotiate questions of ‘safety’ with my co-workers, my community, even my closest loved ones?” But these questions were already active topics of conversation in small, interdependent communities of people who are disabled, BIPOC, queer, and marginalized in other ways. In this talk, Margaret Price draws upon data from a survey and interview study with disabled faculty to highlight themes such as “time,” “cost,” “technology,” and “accountability.” These themes not only teach us more about the everyday lives and strategies of disabled faculty members, but also demonstrate that all participants in higher education will benefit from a cultural shift toward shared accountability and interdependent forms of care.
Dr. Margaret Price is an Associate Professor of English and Director of the Disability Studies Program at the Ohio State University. Price’s book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, explores the contested boundaries between disability, illness, and mental illness in the setting of U.S. higher education.
Disabled Faculty Study: https://margaretprice.wordpress.com/disabled-faculty-study/
Transformative Access Project: https://u.osu.edu/transformativeaccess/
Margaret Price, Mark Salzer, Amber M. O’Shea, and Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, “Disclosure of Mental Disability by College and University Faculty: The Negotiation of Accommodations, Supports, and Barriers,” Disability Studies Quarterly 37.2. (2017). http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/5487
Margaret Price, Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, Mark Salzer, and Amber O’Shea, “Promoting Supportive Academic Environments for Faculty with Mental Illnesses,” http://www.tucollaborative.org/sdm_downloads/supportive-academic-environments-for-faculty-with-mental-illnesses/
Cheryl Geisler and Jason Swarts, Coding Streams of Language: Techniques for the Systematic Coding of Text, Talk, and Other Verbal Data. https://wac.colostate.edu/books/practice/codingstreams/
Tara Wood, “Rhetorical Disclosures: The Stake of Disability Identity in Higher Education,” Negotiating Disability: Disclosure and Higher Education, edited by Stephanie Kerschbaum, James Jones, and Laura Eisenman, University of Michigan Press, 2017. (Link to book: https://www.press.umich.edu/9426902/negotiating_disability)
Christa Teston, “Rhetoric, Precarity, and mHealth Technologies,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 46.3 (2016): 251-268. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02773945.2016.1171694
Hello everyone and welcome. I’m going to go ahead and get started.
I would like to welcome everyone to the University of Utah Disability Studies lecture, sponsored by Disability Studies and the School for Cultural and Social Transformation. We are thrilled that tonight’s lecture will be given by Dr. Margaret Price of the Ohio State University.
My name is Angela Smith, and I am the director of Disability Studies at the University of Utah. I use she/her pronouns.
I will give a brief visual description. I am a White woman in my 40s with long straight brown hair, and I’m wearing a patterned dark blue and white shirt and sitting against a background of bookshelves.
I’d like to begin by acknowledging that the land where I am, named for the Ute Tribe, is the traditional and ancestral homeland of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute Tribes. The University of Utah recognizes and respects the enduring relationship that exists between many Indigenous peoples and their traditional homelands. We respect the sovereign relationship between tribes, states, and the federal government, and we affirm the University of Utah’s commitment to a partnership with Native Nations and Urban Indian communities through research, education, and community outreach activities.
This event is a Zoom webinar. We have ASL interpreters, Chanté and Sariah, whose video will remain visible throughout the event. The event is set to gallery view for this purpose. We also have a captioner, Julia. If you click the CC icon at the bottom of the screen, you should receive those live captions or you might need to go to “more” and then CC. After clicking CC, you can select “live transcript” or “show subtitle.” We will also post a link to the full transcript in the chat if you have any issues with the subtitles. Thank you to our interpreters and captioner for their work this evening.
For this event we’re running both a chat and a Q and A. These icons are at the bottom of your screen. You can use the chat to make comments during the event. Please note that everyone can see what’s posted in the chat. But you can also chat to me directly, if you’re having an access issue. You can use the Q and A box to ask a question of Dr. Price. We will collect those and ask as many as we have time for in the Q and A following the lecture.
This event is being recorded and it’ll be posted to the U of U Transform YouTube channel in about seven days. We will also provide a link from the U of U Disability Studies web page which you can find from transform.utah.edu.
Before we start I’d like to offer gratitude to all those who’ve made this event possible. A big thank you goes to the Dean of our School for Cultural and Social Transformation, Dr. Kathryn Stockton, for her constant and continuing support of Disability Studies. Thank you also to those who provided promotional and technical support for the event, especially Kaya Aman and Eunice Contreras from our amazing EDI team here at the U of Utah.
And this event was first imagined and entirely made possible by my fabulous colleague in Disability Studies, Dr. Lezlie Frye. I want to extend a huge thank you to Lezlie for being such an amazing advisor, support, and co-conspirator in Disability Studies here at the U. And I am now going to hand over to Lezlie who will introduce us to tonight’s speaker.
Thank you, Angela. Hi everyone. So, I’m a White queer with glasses, asymmetrical hair, a blue and white checkered shirt, and my friends, the books, behind me.
I’m thrilled to welcome Margaret Price for our annual Disability Studies lecture. She is the director of Disability Studies program, and an associate professor of English at Ohio State University, and co-founder of the Transformative Access project which reimagines access intersectional and collaboratively.
Dr Price is perhaps best known for her groundbreaking research on higher education and mental disability and her book Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, which won the College Composition and Communications Outstanding Book Award among other honors. The book presents a serious inquiry into academic culture interrogating its values of productivity, individualism, independence, and ownership. Dr. Price deftly exposes how higher education presumes abled-mindedness, demanding the performance of normative mental health at every turn. A veritable roadmap for administrators and faculty seeking to transform academic environments, it also offers a generous sum of concrete practices. She envisions alternative arrangements for classroom learning, but also for working conditions that are inclusive, humane, and radically accessible.
Indeed, Dr Price’s ongoing inquiry into the nature of faculty life presents relevant questions for all of us. Based on her study with Stephanie Kerschbaum, she produced the open access guide promoting supportive academic environments for faculty with mental illnesses. Recommended reading. Out of this work, Dr Price theorizes have disability productively troubles our relationship to time and space. She offers timely models for producing a culture of access underscoring collective accountability, rather than individual accommodations or rights.
Dr Price has made incredibly meaningful contributions to the field of disability studies. In particular, she’s put pressure on conceptualizations of disability and illness that remain rooted in visible physical bodily difference. She has theorized mental disability through the lens of rhetoric, unpacking the means of language around mental illness and health and parsing out the political projects of various discourses of disability.
She has raised important questions about reining notions of security or safety in the context of gun violence at school. She has illuminated adaptive research methodologies that anticipate a broad range of body-minds, crucially refiguring the central subjects of research. Finally, her thoughtful attention to questions of care contribute significantly to broader conversations within both disability activism and scholarship about how we might crip or radically reorient to care practices and care relationships.
In addition to her published work, Dr Price has significantly shaped conversations about feminist disability pedagogy, putting into practice a collective commitment to crafting accessible space where learning is not rooted in a singular process or medium, but rather a dynamic flexible set of practices and experimentations.
This makes her work incredibly relevant to the current moment when there’s been a new wave of interest in access online and a nascent awareness of the long haul of wisdom and skill set of disabled students, staff, and faculty who are experienced in navigating ablest institutional environments.
Dr Price’s intellectual inquiries are mirrored in solidarity practices evidenced in part through her commitment to mentorship of disabled and other marginalized students and peers. Having been the beneficiary of such fellowship, I can say that she offers a stellar model of queer collegiality and non-normative support that has sustained me as much as her academic work has, over the last decade, from her fabulous socks to her hand-knitted children’s clothes to many, many, many cups of Tulsi tea.
So, at a juncture when we’re called upon to respond with care to the economic, social and racial inequities exacerbated by the conditions of the pandemic, when we need to consider access in the broadest sense possible, and when the conditions of academic labor become ever more complex, we need critical practitioners embodying that care. This is a moment when we need to be thinking queerly about space and time, when we need robust theoretical and practical responses to the violence of exclusion, extraction, and exploitation that mark academic institutions. So, it is from within the belly of that now, that I welcome Dr Margaret Price.
Hi everyone, this is Margaret Price.
Well, I can see that our wonderful interpreter, I think Chanté, can hear me, and I’m just going to trust that others can see interpreters, see captions, and/or hear me, or that if one of these channels is not working, I will get a text message, and we will all pause.
Let’s see, well, I want to, I’m going out of order already, as I do. I’m so honored to be speaking with you today and I’m very grateful to Angela Smith and Lezlie Frye for making this visit possible through many conversations and lots of helpful guidance. I’m also honored to be part of the work of the School for Cultural and Social Transformation at the University of Utah. I was lucky enough to visit a class as part of this school last year, and now I’m lucky enough to be delivering this lecture for Disability Studies. And it’s clear that there is truly unusual work going on here. I’m inspired to see the possibilities for radical change within academia and also in our overlapping communities. I direct Disability Studies at Ohio State and I’m hoping that we can continue collaborating on ideas, teaching, and various activist approaches to our work.
I’m going to share my slide. Inevitably slowly, because that’s how I do it. And then I’m just going to pause briefly.
This pause now is to just allow us all to resettle, possibly reconfigure our zooms if we need to, and if you are not seeing the full slide you can minimize the gallery view that is possibly on the right hand side of your screen right now, so that you have only a thumbnail, or no images at all, or you can keep the interpreter up if you’re interacting with the interpreter.
The slide that I’ve just put on the screen gives the title of this talk, which is Everyday Survival and Collective Accountability: What We Can Learn from Disabled Workers in Higher Education. The image on this slide is a graphic that I clipped from the Arkansas Times. It’s a comic that shows about 50 people standing in a long winding line. At the head of the line is a person labeled healthcare worker. Near the end of the line are people labeled prisoners, teachers, and young adults, and right in the middle, is a red silhouette labeled “you”. I will return to this graphic in a few minutes.
Now I introduced that first graphic because I wanted it to linger with us a bit, while I was setting some groundwork for the talk today. But I’m now going to take a moment to just talk about where I’m positioned both literally and metaphorically. First, during this talk, I will be doing things that help make me more comfortable, such as drinking my tea. Incidentally, it is Tulsi tea. I may be standing up and sitting down, you might notice me pick up my knitting, although I try to keep it under the level of the camera so it’s not too distracting. Or you might see me, you might notice me making other adjustments that helped me remain as comfortable as possible through our time together.
I want to encourage you to do the same. Do whatever helps make this space and time more accessible for you, so if that involves going in and out, stimming, knitting. I don’t think we have a camera on/off option for this webinar, but, in general, I am hoping that there will be space and time for you to interact with the presentation and then also our question and answer session in a way that’s most accessible for you. And, as Angela mentioned, if you would like to contribute to the chat, to either share an access need that’s coming up, or you want to contribute questions in the Q and A, those are both forms of engagement that are welcome.
I also want to talk a little bit about where I am literally standing right now, as I’m talking to you. I’m standing in Columbus Ohio, in my home. And I’m also using a Zoom interface. This one is actually owned by the University of Utah, or leased, I guess, but the one I usually use is leased by my university, Ohio State. And in all these positions, I’m occupying the ancestral and contemporary territory of the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Delaware, Miami, Peoria, Seneca, Wyandotte, Ojibwe, and Cherokee peoples.
I’m recognizing both these ancestral ties and also, at the same time, recognizing the ongoing work of the tribal nations who are connected to this land. In my everyday life, this includes the work of my colleagues, Dr Christine Ballengee Morris, who is the director of Ohio State’s American Indian Studies Program, and Dr Melissa Beard-Jacob, who is the American and Indigenous Intercultural Specialist at OSU’s Multicultural Center. They have both taught me a great deal about what it means not only to acknowledge land as I inhabit it, but also to work actively with the nations who are inhabiting that land with me.
In the frame from which I’m speaking right now, I’m standing in my home office. There’s some green plants on a shelf off to my left, and behind me, white bookcases. I am a White genderqueer person with gray hair and glasses. I’m also wearing big headphones. And behind me, although not actually in the frame right now, is my very tiny brown chihuahua, Ivy.
Today, my goal is to talk about what it means to achieve well-being in higher education. That’s a question that was already pressing before the advent of COVID-19. And now, of course, it’s even more urgent. My research focuses on disability in higher education, as well as on the spaces, customs, and norms of higher education.
According to my research, individual solutions will never move us closer to sustainable well being. And by individual solutions, I mean, for example, accommodations that are designed to address the quote unquote problem of just one disabled person, or programs that encourage students or employees to alleviate stress through self-care.
Now I do want to emphasize, and I’ll be emphasizing this throughout my talk today, those kinds of individual measures are important. I’m not advocating for getting rid of them. But they also have the effect of kind of digging grooves into the pathways of our already individually oriented system so that they turn our attention away from structures, relations, and accountability. And, so, I also come with a question. Right now, in the research project that I’m trying to work on, this is the question that I’m striving to answer.
But I think I honestly might be working on this question for the rest of my career. The question is simply.
What does it mean to practice accountability? Not just admire it, not just to note its importance, not just to call for it, but to really actually practice it in everyday practical moments?
So, as promised we’re returning to the graphic that was on the cover slide. The one that I described earlier from the Arkansas Times is on the left. This graphic was used to illustrate a report on a tool that was released by the New York Times in early December 2020. The New York Times piece also offered a report about the tool. That piece was headlined “Find your place in the vaccine line.” And, just like the Arkansas Times, it showed a graphic of people in line. In the case of the New York Times report, there were only five people in line, and to my amusement one of them is wearing a large puffer coat.
Now this fill-in-the-blank tool was designed to calculate, in the words of the New York Times writer, where you might fit in that line. However, the author of the tool, and also the author’s editors, seem to miss the fact that that’s not actually how vaccines work. Escaping the devastation of COVID-19 is about epidemiology. It’s not about individual immunity. But even if you believe that the vaccine provides a kind of cloak of invisibility protecting you from all forms of COVID-19 (p.s., not actually the case), there’s a bigger problem with the rhetoric of the line. It creates an unmistakable sense that we are in competition with each other.
Now, this New York Times piece made quite a splash when it came out last December. For the next several days after this article was released, literally dozens of my friends posted on social media about their own places in line. They had plugged in their various demographics in the tool, and it had spit out a number: “You’re number 400 billion thousand,” whatever.
Now, I suspect that the journalists and cartoonists who are creating these images would say that they are critiquing, they are actually critiquing the rhetoric of the line, they’re not trying to bolster it. But as far as I can tell, the effect of this metaphor, and the effect of these images, has been to cause people to post constantly on social media about their efforts to get in line, and then to improve their place in line.
And I’m focusing on this image, not only because the pandemic is of course very much on our minds, but also because it’s how we in higher education tend to think about our fate. Everything tells us to believe that we’re in a line, and so we rarely understand that we are actually in a herd. We literally need each other, but we are convinced that we’re standing in a line, and if somebody is in front of me, then I must be behind them.
Now, for the past eight years I’ve been working on a survey and interview study of disabled faculty members, It’s called, somewhat generically, the Disabled Faculty Study. On the screen now is a slide titled Disabled Faculty Study with a screen cap from the page on my website that’s dedicated to this study.This slide also gives the URL for the study page, which is margaretprice.wordpress.com.
Once you get there, you can just click the tab that says Disabled Faculty Study, and it will take you there to more details about what the survey entailed, how many participants we had, what has been published from the study, so far, who the other co-researchers are, stuff like that.
Now, I did not anticipate that this would be an eight year process, and now it’s obviously going to be longer than eight years. And I’ll talk a little bit more in a minute about what I thought this study was going to be like. But, in fact, the deep study that these data have required for me over the past years has convinced me that a major shift of focus toward shared accountability is the only viable way forward for higher education.
Now, as I mentioned, I didn’t start this study, thinking it would be a long term project. In fact, I started it with a strongly utilitarian aim in mind. I already knew the conditions in higher education for disabled faculty and other workers, including staff and graduate students, were pretty terrible. I knew this because I am disabled myself, and I have a large community of disabled friends in higher education. And we spend a lot of time reaching out to each other about problems with access in our jobs, sometimes to help each other, sometimes just to complain about the latest baffling situation or random atrocity.
Now, when I started this study back in 2012, what I was after were some hard data. I wanted numbers, I wanted statistically significant results that I could provide to help convince administrators and policymakers, to make serious moves toward better access for their disabled employees. I wanted to be persuasive to audiences that tend to be most convinced by numbers.
Now, to some degree, I was successful in that effort, but something else happened along the way. As I have analyzed the hundreds of survey responses and dozens of hours of interviews, I’ve come to realize that this close focus on disabled faculty has also opened up larger themes that concern everyone’s access, indeed, everyone’s survival in academic life. The key themes now shaping the study in the book that I’m writing are the following: time, space, cost, and accompaniment/relationships.
Now, I’m not going to geek out too thoroughly about my analysis and coding process this evening, although I’m happy to say more about it during Q and A, if people are interested. I’ll just mention briefly, because it bears on the rest of the analysis I’ll be sharing, that these four big overarching themes for a qualitative coder would sometimes be called “dimensions.” The book Coding Streams of Language by Cheryl Geisler and Jason Swarts refers to these kinds of large overarching themes as dimensions, and then within each dimension you have a number of codes.
And what I’ll be talking about today are some of the codes within the larger dimension of cost. I’m closely exploring that theme of cost today, because as I’ve been working on the focus writing about the theme of cost, it has helped me think through some of these questions about accountability that have felt so pressing to me. Before 2020, but especially of course during 2020.
And here’s a very quick preview of what’s coming up as I unpack those data for you. First, I talk a little bit about the various meanings of costs in higher education as understood through the experiences of disabled faculty members. I then take a close look at one aspect of cost that is one code within the dimension of cost and that code is distribution, or more colloquially, who pays for what, and then, finally, to conclude I talk about what we might do with this knowledge in order to practice accountability.
So first I’ll talk a bit about disability and cost in higher education. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our events in higher education, so, for example, classes, lectures, tutoring sessions, meetings, these events tended to be designed on the assumption that most of us would be able to interact face to face. In fact, they tended to be designed on the assumption that most of us would do that with ease, might even look forward to doing that.
So, requests by disabled people for aids to interaction, such as interpreters, accessible lighting, or even automatic door openers to get into the place were generally met with suspicion or concern. The concern, of course, was often framed around the question of how much these measures would cost. Cost, in these situations, is generally framed as financial cost, and the amount of money required is deemed high or low based on an array of contextual factors, including not only existing budgets and precedent, but also humiliating metrics, such as whether the disabled person can demonstrate how badly they need the thing.
Of course, the pandemic has turned those tables. Now, “Zoom fatigue” is a familiar phrase, and it seems that the whole world suddenly understands that time can be both difficult and also exhausting to account for.
On the screen now is an image that you may have seen passed around social media. This is a mock calendar page titled Jantembuary 20201. It has 42 days, but actually even more than 42, because we have 13a and a 13b, it has eight days in each week, including two Mondays, semi-Friday, and pizza night. Also, what would ordinarily be Sunday on the calendar is labeled “basically Monday.” I love this image, both because it’s funny and also because it signals widespread recognition that under unbearable stress, time, labor, cognition, and sense itself, they all may begin to twist.
I’m now drinking from my cup of tea, and I invite you to refresh yourself if this would be a good moment to do that.
Disabled academics have written a number of think pieces pointing out that this so called new normal is actually the old normal for a lot of us. And yet, despite all the changes of the past year, fundamental patterns have remained intact. For example, my university set aside funds for internal grants up to $50,000 for projects focusing on COVID and racial justice. However, note that these funds are for additional work and that the grant money is available only through a competitive process. So, those who one might hope would benefit from such research, for instance, people of color disabled people, women, queers, these folks are asked to do yet more work and compete harder in the name of redressing inequity.
Furthermore, in this particular example, faculty applying for the grants were told that the funds could not be used toward release time, only for stuff like materials, research assistants, conference registrations, travel: we were not traveling. So, this rule blatantly overlooked the fact that minoritized faculty especially women of color and other multiply marginalized people already do enormous amounts of extra work in mentoring, in managing discrimination, and other forms of hidden Labor.
Now, the thoughts that I’m sharing here come in part from my experience over the past year, but they’ve also been dramatically influenced by the dozens of hours of faculty interviews that I’ve been analyzing, some of which were conducted as long ago as 2014.
As I mentioned, my coding process ultimately culminated in those four dimensions, time, space, costs, and relationships, and within each dimension, I identified a number of codes.Just to give you an example of how the dimension of cost kind of opens out into codes, I provide a few examples here. Cost actually has, I think, around 15 codes, time has about 20, and I haven’t broken out space and accompaniment relationships in detail yet.
So, under the dimension cost on the slide are listed some sample codes, including distribution (who pays for what), financial cost, emotional cost, negotiation, trade-offs, also known as cost benefit, and use of personal resources. And, as I mentioned, I am fully capable of talking about every single one of these codes, or how I arrived at them for hours on end, until everyone has left the Zoom, and I’m just speaking to myself alone, happy as a clam, discussing coding. But in the interest of finishing in a reasonable amount of time today, I’m just going to be talking in a focused way about one of these codes, which is the code distribution, also called “who pays for what.”
Okay, so first a bit of background about how disabled faculty and other employees actually get accommodations in higher education.
Disabled faculty who receive documented accommodations from their institutions often talk about this problem of who pays for what. It’s common for the cost of the faculty member’s accommodations to be drawn from their own departmental budget, rather than paid for by a larger entity at the school. And by their own, I mean it could be their own research funds in some cases, this often happens with necessary adaptive equipment, or it could be the departmental budget, which, of course, your colleagues also have quite a big stake in. So, if the department is small, that cost can be severely limiting.
One interviewee, whose pseudonym is Iris, a queer White faculty member at a public university in the Midwest, described facing the situation when she started a new job as an assistant professor. Iris initiated the discussion of her needed accommodations as part of her job negotiation overall. That is, the items were discussed at the same time that she was negotiating salary benefits and startup funds. Because she has a mobility impairment, some of her foremost concerns included manual tasks and transportation. In her interview, she elaborated further.
I’m now going to put quotation from Iris’s interview on the slide and read directly from it. Iris stated:
After requesting accommodations, I got this very official signed letter from the Dean, saying here’s the accommodations, and here’s who’s going to be paying for each of them. Which ones would be the department’s responsibility, and which ones the College would pay for. Because the most, the expensive thing I asked for is a graduate assistant to do things like get books from the library, do photocopying, and, you know, just tasks like that. And so, you know, that would have been a lot to ask my department to cover that cost, because it’s a small department.
For those unfamiliar with negotiating for disability accommodations, it might seem foolish to bring up this issue at the same time that factors such as salary are also in play. After all, the institution is legally required to provide accommodation, whereas it is not legally required to pay any particular salary or provide any particular kind of startup package. However, according to this study, and also according to the sparse existing literature on disabled faculty, accommodations are incredibly difficult to come by, despite the fact that they are legally mandated.
Thus, on a practical level, it makes sense to pin down one’s accommodations at the only time one has bargaining power, before the hire is finalized. Unfortunately, very few disabled faculty members realize this at the time of their job negotiations, or, in some cases, they just don’t need accommodations when they get the job, or the accommodations they need when they got the job are different than the accommodations they might need three years later. Only later do many faculty learn just how many barriers may face them when they make what seemed to be quite reasonable requests.
And for those of you who will be part of the reading group on Friday – I’m so excited! – my forthcoming article titled “Time Harms” details some of those stories of exactly what is the trajectory once one makes an accommodation request. Now, back to Iris.
Iris is an unusually savvy negotiator, and when she was hired she was already aware that the burden of cost could be laid on her tiny department. Most faculty I interviewed reported that that came as a surprise. They found themselves in the position of appearing to take money and resources away from their colleagues, or, in some cases, they weren’t even hired yet and they appear to be taking money and resources away from future colleagues, not a comfortable way to start.
Another interviewee, a straight White woman whose pseudonym is Kelly, told a story about having been the last Deaf graduate student in her program. I’m now going to go to a slide with an excerpt from Kelly’s interview and read verbatim from Kelly’s words on the slide. Kelly says,
At the school where I’m now a professor, I’ve talked to Disability Support Services about interpreters, but they have said that the money for that comes from the department. Yeah, so, um, so what DSS has said—and this is something that I’m very sensitive to because I dealt with this in my graduate career—is that there is the department… so, DSS will facilitate the request, right? So DSS will go to the department and say, ‘You have a faculty person who wants, you know, an interpreter. It’s a reasonable accommodation, you need to grant it.’
So, this is Margaret speaking again, let me translate this. The setup at this school goes like this. Disability Support Services will advocate for the faculty member, in the sense that they will say, “Hey, department, you have to pay for these accommodations.” However, the department remains responsible for actually paying for the accommodations.
This puts the faculty member in an extremely awkward position, especially if, like Kelly, they are not tenured. Kelly then went on to explain what she meant by having dealt with this in her graduate career. Kelly said, “In my graduate education – I mean I had my advisor tell me that they weren’t going to take another Deaf student, because having Deaf students was too expensive, you know.” This is Margaret speaking again, So, as the interviewer, I reacted to this statement by saying, “What a horrible thing to say.” At which point, Kelly explained that actually her advisor was her ally. He was commiserating with her about how ableist the department was in general. He, in fact, was a tenured professor, but he still felt helpless to intervene in the structure that was already set up.
I’ll say just one other thing about the distribution/who pays for what code, which is this: when faculty members are in a position to have their accommodations paid for by the institution at large, rather than by a smaller unit, such as their department, unfortunately, that is not always a blessing. For some faculty members in this study, negotiating for accommodations with the institution as a whole meant having the full resources of that institution arrayed against them. When a person representing the entire school, for example, a Human Resources or ADA specialist, is the person in charge of discussing access for a faculty member, the discourse often shifts away from access itself and shifts toward a cost benefit analysis, a legal framework, and a slow process.
One interviewee, whose pseudonym is Miyoko, is a straight woman of color who had tenure at her institution. She asked for accommodations in the spring, giving herself several months lead time for teaching in the fall. She prepared her letter with care and went so far as to check it with the support office ahead of time. And I’m now reading from a slide with Miyoko’s words.
I remember, I took the draft of my letter to show them, and they looked at it, and they were like ‘Oh, this is excellent, like, you’ve written everything down, it seems reasonable. You know, go just go ahead and send the letter.’ So, that’s what I did. I waited almost a month, I think, and I got a letter back from HR, uh, by, what do you call that, certified delivery, where I had to sign that I got it. It was clearly a letter that had been written by a lawyer, saying that they needed medical documentation. And, um, yeah, it was quite a surprise.
So, Miyoko knew that she would be needing accommodations in the fall, therefore, she started the request process in the spring. She gave herself months of lead time. But the discussion of her requests dragged on over the summer. Her school’s HR office insisted on holding the entire negotiation by certified mail, despite the fact that Miyoko offered to use email, telephone, or in-person meetings instead. The process was so slow, that the accommodations had not been granted by the time fall came, and Miyoko, eventually, was simply not able to keep working. She gave up her tenured position seven months after initiating that first request.
The point I want to take away here is that the people involved in this negotiation were calculating costs in a radically different way. Ways that resulted in serious harm to Miyoko. The school, or at least its HR department, was thinking about cost in terms of liability. Miyoko was thinking about cost in terms of the impossible demands being placed on her body. And ultimately, it resulted in a cost to Miyoko which might be almost unimaginable to those who have achieved tenure. She simply gave it up and left academia.
She did it carefully, she did it with consideration. She wrote her colleagues a letter explaining why she had to do it, and she said in her interview, “I knew what I was giving up.” And yet, despite the fact that she had achieved this almost impossible to achieve kind of job within academia, she still simply could not keep working with the structure that had been set up to supposedly grant her accommodations.
I don’t have a prescription for how to improve the system. In a way, this system actually seems to exacerbate unwellness for all of us. I do, though, want to say some words about resistance, strategy, and solidarity, because, for all its flaws, I still believe in higher education as a place of creativity, collaboration, even of love. I believe in higher education as a place where we make each other better, not just intellectually, but in all ways.
So, I sometimes talk about this last part of my lectures as the part where, having made everyone incredibly bummed out, I now attempt to lift us all back up and say, “There is some hope!” And, as I just said, I wouldn’t be spending all this time studying higher education, if I thought it just sucked and needed to be burned to the ground unequivocably. I mean, some days I think that, but a lot of the time I’m thinking, there is so much creativity, so much joy, so much activism, so much that’s already good in higher education, and I genuinely do believe in ways that we could do things differently and more justly.
So, for the last couple of minutes I’ll be talking about some of my thoughts about what it actually might mean to practice accountability with each other in everyday ways.
So, the main thing I want to suggest, is that we need to stop trying to improve ourselves and each other on an individual basis. It doesn’t work. Over the years of this study, it’s become obvious that not only are there rarely individual solutions available, interestingly, there are also rarely individual villains involved. Maybe the occasional mean dean. I know you guys have a great dean, not saying it’s your dean. The occasional mean dean, the occasional cruel chair, the occasional unkind colleague. But the thing is, most people in higher education want to do well by each other, want to practice equity and justice. We are the proverbial well-meaning people. The well-meaning White people, the well-meaning middle-class people, the well-meaning street people, the well-meaning non-disabled people.
The problem, as always, is structure. The problem is discourse. The problem is what accountability really means when we try to put it into practice. We do want things to get better, but we don’t always want to be accountable. The “who pays for what” code exposes a lack of accountability, and we hear the echoes of it everywhere in the discourses of disability cost.
On the slide now are examples of some things that are said that deflect accountability when people are talking about disability and cost. I’m now reading directly off the slide. “I thought HR took care of that.” “Isn’t disability services in charge of that?” “Your department chair can help you with that.” “We can’t get you an automatic door opener, but you can always ask a student to help you with the door.” And then, a couple of old classics. “Mistakes were made.” “Your request has been denied.”
Sometimes a whole crowd of people can practice unaccountability together, almost cooperatively, in a sense, as they uncomfortably watch a colleague struggle to get up on a speaking platform that has only stairs. Or as they fail together to hear the silence of their Deaf colleague who is sitting through a meeting where neither captioning nor interpreting was provided.
Accountability moves will look different in every location. That’s part of the point of collective accountability: there is no set recipe or checklist for achieving it. But at the same time, we can draw on examples, both those cited in published accounts and those drawn from the Disabled Faculty Study. I’ve learned, by paying attention to these interviews, that in higher education spaces, where we do practice accountability, the following things tend to happen.
So, what follows on the next slide is a very partial list of some of the things I’ve noticed that are happening when people are practicing accountability, and another recently a very popular phrase, practicing a culture of care. This is not the talk where I really go off on universities for co-opting the phrase culture of care. That’s a different talk. But I’m happy to say more about that as well in the Q and A.
So, here’s the slide with what I call accountability moves. And I’ll talk, I’ll read the four moves that I have listed so far, and then I’ll talk a little bit about each one. Move number one. Believe an expression of need, without questioning it or asking for evidence. Move number two: make it your problem. Move number three: inquire into impossibility. And move number four: move as a group.
So, in the interest of time, I’m not going to go on and on about each of these, but just offer a quick example. One interviewee, whose pseudonym is Nicola, N-I-C-O-L-A, was a faculty member at a large public University in the Midwest, and Nicola’s disability meant that she could not be in a room for any length of time if the room was warmer than about 80 degrees. It became immediately debilitating for her, she would experience numbness in her extremities, she would experience dizziness, nausea. Eventually, she would pass out and have a seizure. Due to the nature of her disability, these were completely predictable events. That’s, that’s what happened when she was in a hot classroom.
And, as we know, probably most people attending this talk know, higher education institutions are not renowned for their temperature control in buildings. Maybe especially during volatile seasons like spring and fall. So, Nicola had an experience that many of us have had. She walked into the classroom where she was supposed to teach and discovered that it was stiflingly hot.
I will also mention that Nicola at the time was a non-tenure-track faculty member. She was a language teacher, and she was teaching a large introductory class. So, it was not a situation where a tenured faculty member was walking into a small intimate seminar room and saying, “Oh hey you guys, let’s move outside, or let’s go somewhere else, or, I am in a very secure position, how are we going to deal with this?” She was looking at, she didn’t actually specify the number, but I’m guessing probably anywhere between 50 and 100 students, crowded into an extremely hot lecture room. She was effectively isolated in her department due to her position, and she had to figure out what to do next.
So, Nicola turned around, she left the classroom. She went looking for the building manager, she found him, and she said to him, “Will you please turn the temperature down in this building, right now, or else I can’t teach.” And the thing that is extraordinary to me about the story is the building manager just did it. He just, Nicola didn’t recount the actual conversation they had, but he basically just went. Unlike many building managers, he actually had control over the building’s temperature. He turned the temperature down and, after a pause, the classroom cooled off and Nicola was able to teach her class.
The thing that really struck me about this story is how simple the actions required were, and how incredible, how incredibly rare it is to have someone simply believe you when you say “Hey, I need something.” This is an interesting thought experiment to, to practice if you want to kind of try out one of these over the next few days. Stay alert for expressions of need that might be shared with you and imagine what would happen if you simply said “Okay,” instead of saying, “Well, why do you need to miss class?” or “Why is that the particular software that you need,” or “Say more about why this would be the optimal decision.”
And, again, I’m not saying we all should, like, this is not a radical “yes to everything” improv kind of proposition. I’m much too uptight for that. It’s more of just a thought experiment. What would happen if someone told you they needed something, and you just said, “I believe you”?
I now want to talk about the third one, which is to practice unpacking what we mean in higher education when we tell each other things are impossible. For example, “It is impossible to find money for that thing.” “It is impossible to do something for a Person A if we didn’t do it for Person B.” “It is impossible to imagine particular scenarios or situations.” It’s interesting to just, again, as with the notion of just accepting people’s needs, it’s interesting to inquire into what we actually mean when we say something is impossible. Often we don’t mean it’s literally impossible, we mean that there’s not a precedent for it, or we don’t have a budget for it right now, as the budget has been written, or we’re concerned about the possible outcome, we’re concerned about other important values that we hold such as fairness.
But, as a rhetorician, I believe in the importance of unpacking what we think is impossible. And there’s a little anecdote I like to tell about impossibility. The only reason I know this anecdote is because my spouse is an architect. And until I met my spouse, I did not know that pretty much every toilet in the United States, public and private, contains drinkable water. Not just decent, decently clean water, not just water that’s not poison. Water that you could dip up and make pasta, with because it is the same as the water that comes out of your faucet. We also have an incredibly elaborate building code, different for private and public buildings, which is designed to ensure that we protect the safety of this drinkable water in our toilets.
If you know architects, or you have researched indoor plumbing for some reason, you will also know that the US is very unusual in this regard. Most countries don’t put potable water in their toilets. In fact, they think it’s kind of hilarious to put human waste into water that you have spent a lot of time and effort and money making drinkable. Now there are actual reasons to put drinkable water in toilets, and you’ll hear all of them from people who would defend this particular aspect of American plumbing.
The reason I bring it up is it’s a very interesting case study of what we consider to be impossible, and what we do not. Sometimes, when I’m talking about the cost of accommodations or the inconvenience of accommodations with audiences, I will point out our toilets, and I will ask us all to think about the fact that probably the most expensive and the most time-consuming and resource-sucking in terms of labor and inventiveness in the building that we’re standing in together is toilets.
And finally, the last accountability move that I want to suggest is moving as a group. This might mean physically moving as a group. For example, if we ever all walked to a restaurant together after a conference session, and we noticed that some of us are walking faster, some of us are walking slower, some of us are rolling, some of us are accompanied by children or animals, we might consider not splitting into a more strung-out group, where some of the people get to the place first, and the other people just get there later, and it all kinds of happens as it happens. We might decide together, we will move at the pace of the group, instead of stretching into a long line, and just arrive together at the place where we’re going.
And then, of course, metaphorically, there’s a fair amount of precedent in academe for moving as a group. Considering salary agreements and salary adjustments, so you don’t achieve too much of a salary disparity in your department or unit. Thinking about ways that resources can be distributed equitably across groups, instead of competed for and given to the people who probably have just the most time to fill out the grant applications. Those are other ways of moving as a group.
And finally, I want to mention that what happens when you engage in thought experiments or little everyday attempts at these at these accountability moves, it’s likely that your position will come into play as you think about making these moves. For example, were you trained to believe that things didn’t need to be your problem, because you’re White, because you’re a man, because you’re in another protected position? I am a White person from the Midwest and I was explicitly raised, I was explicitly raised to look away when I perceived a problem that I wasn’t personally having. This was part of my training. Now, some people describe that as midwestern shyness or midwestern niceness. But it’s also midwestern Whiteliness, the midwestern ability to say, “If I am needed, someone will probably tell me.” That’s kind of the opposite of what I’m calling collective accountability.
If moving as a group seems difficult or inconvenient or time consuming, take a minute to reflect on what those costs actually are, what is being asked asked of you. It might be something kind of major, it might be hard. And, finally, I think it’s valuable when thinking about the… I think it would be an adjective in this case, when thinking about the word accountability, it can be useful to think about who we consider ourselves accountable to. Who are you accountable to and why?
I’ve been studying higher education for a long time now. I’m honestly not sure what sorts of changes are possible, or at what scale, or when. But I do know this, we must begin moving in ways that assume we’re all vulnerable, and assume we’re all accountable to each other, accountable in immediate ways, accountable in life and death ways. If we haven’t learned that from the past year, then we have learned nothing.
Thank you very much for your time today.
Thank you so much, Margaret that was amazing, and so relevant, and timely, and urgent, and it impacts on so many of the things that I think probably so many of us are grappling with, both contemporarily in relation to COVID, and, as you say, for many people, this has been a kind of lifelong experience of not having their needs believed or met. So, yeah, I have, I have a ton of questions. I won’t take up time, however. I wanted to affirm that as someone who was raised in New Zealand, which is the Midwest of the globe, I think, we definitely, we look away, you know. It’s kind of, it is couched as a kind of politeness, but I think it’s also a White privilege, so I will speak for White New Zealanders here and suggest that that’s something that we have inculcated in us, rather than reaching out to help. So, I really appreciated that moment in your talk.
MARGARET PRICE: Can I interject just quickly. I’m going to go and turn my overhead light on, because it got a little darker here.
ANGELA SMITH: Yeah, you’re ahead of us. I have the sun fully glaring in my face.
ANGELA SMITH: We are going to read some questions from the Q and A, and I’m going to read the first one, for us, and I think, Lezlie is going to attempt to copy and paste it into the chat as well. We’ve had a little difficulty doing that, but I’m hoping that she has figured out something I was not able to.
So, our first question comes from E. Hopf, and the question is:
Is there any data around denying employment if or when people negotiate for accommodations during the hiring process? Did that come up in your study or interviews? Or would that have to come from a larger group of people who want to enter academia, but have not been hired anywhere?
So, a question around whether you have any data or knowledge around people being denied employment when they negotiate for accommodations during hiring.
That’s a really interesting question, and I’m first going to answer the actual question you asked, because that’s the respectful thing to do, and then I’m going to offer a mini rant on the lack of data in this area in general.
Now, there is a fair amount of data about disabled people in workplaces in general, and even a fair amount about disabled people in, disabled workers in higher education. However, it is widely scattered across disciplines and most of the research that can be found is located in journals like, I’m holding up a printed-out article right now, from the Journal of Business and Psychology, and it’s titled “The Participation of People with Disabilities in the Workplace Across the Employment Cycle: Employer Concerns and Research Evidence.”
So, there is quite a bit of research. But, as I mentioned it’s fragmented, it tends to be scattered across disciplines and then, here’s where the rant part comes in, a lot of it is situated in the disciplines of business management and organizational psychology. So, most of the research that I’ve been able to find—I think I have about 30 or 40 articles on hand right now that I’m working my way through—most of them are from the employer’s point of view, and so the arguments that you’ll find in them are things like, “Actually accommodations aren’t that expensive when you break it down, but here are the kinds of disabilities that will cost you the most.” Like, just really, really alarming ways of throwing certain disabled people under the bus.
There’s some research that’s from the point of view of disabled employees or potential employees, but the variables that are included in this research are so disparate, it’s incredibly hard to make any kind of meaningful comparisons. So, sometimes the study will be located in this country, sometimes in that country. Sometimes it’ll be focusing on one type of disability, sometimes another type of disability, sometimes all disabilities. Sometimes, it will be defining disability the way that abnormal psychology would define it. Sometimes it will define disability the way the World Health Organization would define it.
So, the short answer is it’s incredibly difficult to draw any kind of definitive conclusion, including about the very important question you asked which is, do we know what happens if you negotiate during the hiring process. I can say with confidence, we do not know for people negotiating for faculty positions. The dearth of broad scale research on disabled faculty is honestly shocking. There’s a lot of individual accounts and tiny case studies, but almost no wide-scale research.
In the larger workplace, there might be, but my guess would be no, simply because so much of the workplace research in general is from the point of view of the management department and/or the employer, rather than from the point of view of the employee.
LEZLIE FRYE: Thanks for that, Margaret, and thanks so much for your talk. I’m going to put in a next question here, which is from Susie Porter. And she asked…everyone’s saying thank you for your talk, by the way in the chat and the Q and A. People are really enjoying it. Susie says,
I’m struck by similarities between how disability and parenting are treated. The more successful models of parental leave make accommodations automatic unless turned down, are paid for by central administration, are applied broadly and generously. Do you see possibilities for coalition between people who support parental leave and those advocating for disability accommodations? Are there similarities and/or differences between parental leave and disability policies that you find instructive?
MARGARET PRICE: Lezlie, I’m so sorry to say this, but I’m looking for the question and I don’t see it, so I didn’t process it.
LEZLIE FRYE: Yeah, no worries, I put it in the… I’m putting it right now actually, in the chat. I just wrote it to Angela individually, but.
MARGARET PRICE: Oh, thank you. And do you mind vocalizing that again?
LEZLIE FRYE: The more successful models of parental leave make accommodations automatic unless turned down, they are paid for by central administration, they are applied broadly and generously. Do you see possibilities for coalition between folks who support parental leave and those advocating for disability accommodations? Are there similarities or maybe differences between parental leave and disability policies that you find instructive?
MARGARET PRICE: Yes, there absolutely are a lot of parallels here, and I think there are parallels with any position or condition as an employee in higher education that’s considered in some way deviant or outside of the norm. So, this is also true for higher education workers, for example, who have another job in addition to the one they’re doing for the higher education institution. For higher education workers, speaking of US institutions, where the person is not a US citizen.
Essentially, yeah, the parallels are very striking in terms of the fact that creating just policies is, is not that difficult because a lot of the same tenets apply across different minoritized positions. And also, unsurprisingly, people who are disadvantaged in systemic ways, due to being disabled or parents or not US citizens or faculty of color or in various positions, we tend to be isolated from each other, and the ways that our issues are addressed tend to be kind of quietly or ad hoc, you know, deliberately steered away from institutional or systemic levels of change. So, absolutely yes, I think there are very important possibilities for coalition building there.
I also think it’s really important, at the same time, to recognize the complex blend of privilege and oppression that attends pretty much any position one might bring to the table in higher education. So, sometimes what participants reported on when they were describing their situations as disabled workers in higher education, who are also parents, they would describe a situation where they would try to kind of mobilize one set of accommodations that they had in service of another set of accommodations that they needed.
So, for example, one interviewee who works in Canada, actually, said that he explains his need to leave meetings promptly by saying he needs to pick up his kids. That’s the way that he chooses to draw a bright boundary for his colleagues and say it’s non-negotiable, I have to leave at a specific time, I have kids to pick up.
But what he explained in his interview is that also meets another one of his access needs, which is that it’s extremely fatiguing for him to just physically move around spaces in academia. So, this, it gives him kind of a legible way to say, okay, we’ve been going for an hour, that’s my limit, I gotta stop.
The thing is, it’s not that parenting is always subbed in for disability, sometimes disability is subbed in for parenting. Or some other structural benefit will be used to figure out some other access need. And this system of kind of switching things around and surviving as best one can has been given a name. The researcher Tara Wood, in her brilliant article that was… trying to remember where it was published, well, it should be findable if you… Oh, I’m sending these to Lezlie individually: you’re welcome Lezlie.
Tara Wood named a phenomenon that she called selective disclosure. And selective disclosure, as Wood frames it, is a survival skill and a tactic that can be used to mobilize one thing that you know you could count on in service of another thing that you need to achieve. So, parents did talk quite openly about doing that. Parents also, disabled parents in the study also talked about the fact that their institution’s discriminatory practices in both the areas of necessary parental leave and the areas of disability accommodations made their lives all but impossible. So, a number of different configurations were possible according to interviewees.
ANGELA SMITH: Okay, we have a bunch of questions here, so we might not get to all of them, but I’m going to give you this one, and I have just put it into the chat. So, this is from Emily, who asks, who says:
Thank you for this talk, Dr Price. The story from the participant who mentioned their graduate program likely not accepting future Deaf students based on cost of accommodations was powerful. For disabled graduate students who are also teaching instructors in their departments, are there unique accountability moves you recommend based on your research? Any stories that stick out here, maybe in relation to the moving as a group accountability frame?
ANGELA SMITH: And I guess I would expand that: we’ve talked about faculty, but graduate students and staff, you know, have specific situations, so any kind of strategies or ways of adapting those moving-as-a-group accountability frames for those groups?
MARGARET PRICE: Yes, also a really important thing to look into. When I started the Disabled Faculty Study it was called the Disabled Academic Study, and I had a grand plan where all academic employees of all kinds would be included, because there are very distinct concerns for people who were in staff positions, in graduate employee positions, you know, the position where you’re a student and an employee simultaneously, and then also people in research only positions, or lines in universities that are in sort of fuzzy areas, like, “I’m actually a psychiatric counselor working at the University, but I also teach one class,” or, you know, there’s a lot of hybrid type of positions like that.
For graduate students, specifically, one of the major things that I would recommend – I don’t think this is going to come to a shock to any graduate students – is really be wary of urgings that you work for free. I was trying to think of a delicate way to say that, but I just couldn’t.
And this is true, for a variety of reasons, and again here I go back to my my finding that there are very few people trying to screw up other people in academia. You know we’re usually just kind of wandering around burdened with our enormous load of good intentions.
And so, when graduate students are pressed into working for free, it could happen for a variety of reasons. For example, it could happen because a disabled graduate student’s access needs might not be understood or perceived or respected. At my graduate school, when I did my MFA, for example, we showed up every Thursday to something called a tea. Where we would all stand around in a fancy room and drink tea and there would be a visiting author and we would chat. And this was assumed to be, you know, kind of a special treat for us, like, you got to meet somebody famous, and you got, like, tea and cookies, and it was kind of hanging out time.
To be quite honest, it was the kind of thing that I would now enjoy very much as a faculty member but, at the time, being in a much more vulnerable position and not as experienced in how to navigate spaces like that, I just hated it. Felt like the hardest two hours of work I had to do every week. So, that’s, that’s one thing, is to think about what are people calling work, and you don’t necessarily have to use up a lot of energy making sure everybody understands like how hard this is or that is, like, you can, but you can also just sort of, like, when I can opt out, I will. Like, just because somebody tells me something is a special treat or a privilege doesn’t mean I have to think it is.
And then another theme of labor that’s poorly compensated is also familiar to minoritized staff and faculty, which is the sort of presumption that one will do something for the love of it. Provide extra consultation, for example. Hold workshops, take part in extra activities. These, these things I think can be tremendously valuable, but often they’re predicated on an old vision of space and time and academia, in which, frankly, everybody had a lot more space and time.
It is fun to do extra things when you have plenty of, plenty of time and space to do them, and you’re not sort of worrying about getting to your next job or you’re the sole care caretaker for your family. So, another way of moving together as graduate students is to at least remind each other if it’s, if it’s not fruitful to remind those who are supervising you, that the model that’s being presented to you is not necessarily the model that’s real today. And you can set your own standards for what you think is an appropriate way to use your time, an appropriate way to be an academic.
I actually have a lot more to say about this, I advise graduate students and I coach graduate students, every year, who are going on the academic job market, as well as students who are going into other pursuits that are not academic jobs. And I have a very, very strong belief that it’s not only possible, but it’s actually really very feasible, to define what you want your own academic work to be. The old model, we know already, the old model is fully obsolete. But I don’t think we necessarily have to see that as crushing failure. We could also see it is the opportunity not to be roped into basically a whole bunch of extra free work.
Oh, there’s one other thing I do want to say, specifically to graduate students. Because academia encourages us to all feel like we’re standing in line, and you know, probably somebody is, like, too close behind you and kind of breathing on you, and they’re kind of gross, and whoever’s in front of us is also too tall and smells bad and, like, we hate the line. Resist that as much as you can. Again, I think it’s very rare that faculty are on purpose making things awful for graduate students. That’s not why most of us are in this gig. But the structure can make things pretty awful, and it can place graduate students in positions where you may be feeling like you have to compete with each other or you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do vis-a-vis each other.
And I know this sounds pretty idealistic but insofar as possible, beginning to practice collective accountability for each other as graduate students is not only incredibly important during the extremely vulnerable time of graduate school, it’s something you’re going to have to keep doing if you continue in academia. The structure is just one that, as, as I said throughout this talk, just doesn’t really work unless people are practicing collective accountability and caring for one another. So, graduate school is the time to start doing that, recognizing that it’s not made easy.
And again, it’s not always because people are picking on you. Sometimes they are. But the structure doesn’t make it easy. The structure is putting you in a line. So, it does take some effort to remember, we don’t have to be in a line. We can make small moves that help get us out of that line.
ANGELA SMITH: Thank you.
LEZLIE FRYE: Thanks for that generous answer, Margaret, and the next question is actually two questions from anonymous folks and I put them together into one.
Please elaborate on higher education and co-opting of “culture of care” you discussed. Do you see this dynamic also in discussions around work life balance? How can these discussions be meaningful and or transformative, and what is the measure of that?
MARGARET PRICE: Yes, this is where I think I’m going to throw my home institution under the bus a little bit. Sorry, OSU. So, I uncovered, or I started noticing references to collective care and collective accountability, and then the very specific phrase “culture of care,” maybe five or six years ago. I was reading stuff in transformative justice and I was paying attention to different areas and rhetoric that had gotten really interested in the notion of care, what is care, and at the same time, I began to notice that, somewhat alarmingly, for-profit businesses and institutions of higher education were suddenly announcing across the board that they suddenly had a culture of care. Which is, in rhetoric that’s called a performative utterance, when you say you have something, and it makes it true.
Institutions would be, like, “Well, now that we have a culture of care here at such and such university, you know, everything’s okay.” And I started collecting images off of university websites, and exploring this phrase, and thinking about where did this come from, how is it traveling? It was most certainly co-opted from circles that practice cultures of care, including circles in transformative justice and disability justice which are led by queer disabled people of color.
And then the phrase literally came home to me, because Ohio State faced, well, it didn’t face, Ohio State realized it had a mental health crisis on its hand and it responded in a way that I found very disheartening.
About three or four years ago there were… and here I’m going to just start speaking more slowly and say I’m going to talk about people…taking their lives, so if people need to move away, that is, that is what you should do.
At Ohio State three or four years ago, there were some highly noticed, highly publicized incidents where students took their own lives. And there were the usual unacceptable responses and ineffectual ways of trying to address both students and employees at the university after this had happened. And there was unsurprisingly, a sudden announcement that OSU thought it had a mental health crisis.
And, as I mentioned, I don’t think OSU actually developed a mental health crisis the year that this happened, I think that it discovered that there had already been a great deal of mental health distress present among the people at OSU, and now it felt crisis-ridden because of that.
The summer after these events, a task force was convened. And the task force wrote a very long report about what should happen. The report was largely authored by clinical psychologists, medical doctors, there were a couple of undergraduate students on the task force, as far as I could tell. They were not substantially involved in the development of the report. Also, one of the students was the student body President, and another student was similarly extremely highly placed among students, so they weren’t really looking for a broad range of student views.
So, despite my general unhappiness with the whole situation, I read the report with great care. And I, in addition to reminding us many, many times that OSU had a counseling center and a hospital, I discovered toward the end of the report, a paragraph that said faculty and students could help alleviate mental health distress by practicing a culture of care.
I thought, “Oh, there’s that phrase. How is OSU defining culture of care?” And I read the paragraph very carefully, and what culture of care boiled down to in the definition of this report was, faculty and students should reach out to each other and support each other more.
And I was pissed. Like, if you’re in distress, you should work harder. The people who are already unbearably burdened by various events, this would have been around in 2017, well before the pandemic: what you should do is work harder to take care of yourself and the people around you. And honestly, the release of that report was one of the events that was formative for me in realizing we cannot screw around. We can’t pretend we’re being accountable for each other, because not only does it not work, but what I’m reading in this report is just straight up gaslighting. This is the opposite of what helps.
I later discovered that my wonderful colleague Christa Teston had written an article that examined the phrase “culture of care” from a rhetorical point of view. I don’t have the title of her article right on hand, but I’m happy to share it afterwards.
So, that’s my personal story about that phrase and I’m happy to say, there has been some scholarly work unpacking what it means and doesn’t mean.
LEZLIE FRYE: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET PRICE: Oh! And, actually, I’m so sorry, just a very quick addendum. Absolutely, that’s the form of gaslighting that’s occurring when someone encourages you to strike a work-life balance. That’s not my job. Or, rather, I’m already doing it. I’m as balanced as I’m going to get.
LEZLIE FRYE: Thank you for that clarity, Margaret.
MARGARET PRICE: See as the Q and A goes on, I get more and more unbridled.
LEZLIE FRYE: Let’s go. Well, I’ve got one last question for you, before we leave. I wonder if you might talk a little—and I put this into the chat—I wonder—and people are resonating with what you just said in the chat as well:
I wonder if you might talk a little bit more about the racialized feminized labor you theorized when talking about new resource distribution around COVID, that access lever that is normalized for some faculty and staff and not necessarily for others.
MARGARET PRICE: COVID… I’m going to use the… I’m going to say an F bomb. COVID has been such a mindfuck, for me. Because, at the same time that the entire world seem to suddenly understand what it’s like to be chronically ill and literally in danger, literally in fear for my life during flu season, I also discovered that now was the very moment when I was needed to counsel each other, counsel other people about chronic illness, or how to make their freaking website accessible, or especially how to hold their event accessibly.
And 2020 was not a year of moderation, for me, in terms of my attitude. And I got pretty straightforward. Like, you know, I’ve got a lot of Whiteley Midwestern nice in me, and I got pretty blunt with my colleagues about… I did not, I was not going to help anybody make any Zoom event more accessible. Like, I had been asking people to do this for years, and now they suddenly wanted to do it. Well, they could go figure it out. I said it slightly nicer than that, but not super nicely, not, not a whole lot nicer.
And as the director of disability studies, I also sometimes was in my constructive mode, and I was like, “Let us now take advantage of the abundant resources that OSU provides us.” Not a privilege that’s available if you’re not at a wealthy R1 like OSU. Because there is a lot of support at Ohio State, for things like teaching accessibly, presenting accessibly. It wasn’t like the school where I was teaching before, a small liberal arts college, which was also an HBCU for women, were there was a tremendous amount of brilliance and passion, but we did not have a big huge endowment. And we didn’t have literally dozens of people in the, sort of, in the wings all the time, helping us teach our online classes. That’s a resource that OSU has.
So, that was one form of racialized and feminized and disabled and otherwise minoritized labor that I observed, was people who were, like, when the pandemic started, these are the people who were like, you think? Really? You think there are income disparities, employment disparities? You think that the US tends to use public schools as a substitute for sustainable childcare? Did you just notice that? The same people saying we already knew about that were also the people being asked to suddenly become wise counselors, teachers, providers of extra resources, not to mention often extra care for our colleagues, students and families.
I still haven’t really made sense of all that. I basically went through particularly March through about October of 2020 just in a blur of cognitive dissonance. But it definitely was a case where the burdens were really piled disproportionately on particular groups. And we will still be parsing and understanding how bad, not just how bad it was, how bad it still is, for decades to come. Sorry to end on such a downer.
ANGELA SMITH: I think, and as Leslie was saying, I think folks in the chat are resonating with just the sense that other people are struggling with the same things, recognizing the same inequities, and trying to figure out, you know, how to how to keep ourselves well, while we forge ahead.
So, I want to respect everyone’s time, and especially respect your time and energy, Margaret, and say thank you so much for everything you’ve brought to us this evening. I will be thinking about a lot of this for a long time to come. I know that there are a lot of students here who are, have been very engaged with reading your work, and are very excited to hear from you this evening, as well. So just a huge thank you, for all that you’ve given us tonight. I really appreciate it.
MARGARET PRICE: Oh, thank you, and thanks to everyone who attended. I’m deeply grateful.
ANGELA SMITH: That brings our webinar to an end. As I’ve said in the chat, we are hoping to have a video of this event up within seven days. You can check out the University of Utah Transform YouTube channel. We’ll also post a link from the Disability Studies page, which you can find through transform.utah.edu. Thank you all so much for your time.
MARGARET PRICE: Thank you so much.