we are here (even when we’re not)

Last month I spoke at GENOVATE’s international conference on diversity within research and universities. I am not thrilled about the term “diversity” and find a lot of the discourse around it really problematic, but I do think it’s important to talk about the phenomenon it describes. It’s what happens when reading lists are full of dead white men and the images on the slides never show people like you. It’s what happens when you’re never taught by someone who looks a little like you, when your mentors don’t experience the things that you do and cannot advise you on dealing with it, when you look at the entity that is the university and cannot see yourself reflected back. From my own experiences and from what others have discussed with me, there’s a lurch as you realise that you’re less welcome in this space that you thought you were, or that your fears are confirmed and that this place isn’t meant for people like you.

I drew on Nathaniel Adam Tobias C—‘s “Diversity is a dirty word” to trouble and reject easy ideas about diversity. C— argues that there are four key strands to challenge in diversity: the “what”, the “how”, the “who” and the “where”.

  • The “what” is the Syllabus: the choice of topics, resources, examples or case studies
  • The “how” is the Process: the teaching methods and learning activities
  • The “who” are the Participants: the students, the tutors, and the epistemic authorities on the programme
  • The “where” is the Environment: the rooms and buildings, the signs and statues, and the local area, taking into consideration the accessibility of these spaces, both physically and socially

After my talk, someone asked me a question focusing on the “who”: what if you’re teaching, but your students don’t seem to be “diverse” (meaning, I would argue, that they do not appear to deviate from the straight, white, cis, able-bodied student that we might imagine. The word “appear” is important). I said then that I would teach as if such diverse students were in the room: after all, we cannot assume that they’re not. Here is why.

Students are not obliged to out themselves

Not all identities or experiences are immediately visible. I might be able to guess at some of my students’ LGBTQ, disabled, ethnic or religious identities if my students make them visible. Sometimes, these things are made visible to me by and through university systems; namely, information about disability that affects how a student learns and is assessed. Sometimes, my students have revealed things to me: their mental health issues, a physical disability that is not apparent to an onlooker, their gender identity, their sexual assault. I have then tried to be extra careful about how I talk about these things, extra aware of how the class discussion moves and where it goes.

However, I have certainly taught students who didn’t feel the need to tell me. Given that the NUS has identified that 37% of female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances and the gender makeup of the courses I teach, I am confident that I’m teaching a few women who have had such experiences. They shouldn’t have to explicitly tell me so. Their presence in the room, and my sensitivity to these unspoken experiences should not be contingent in knowing that such students are here.

It sounds obvious, but students should never have to out themselves to be taught in a non-hurtful way. I have heard enough horror stories about lecturers making crass jokes about mental health, disability, sexual assault, gender and sexuality that have had to be confronted by a student saying “look, I’m ____ and that’s really inappropriate” – an especially fraught interaction. I’ve had to challenge a colleague who would always joke before IELTS tests: “fill in the box for male or female – it’s the easiest question you’ll face today!”; for some people (including me), that’s not an easy question.

However, the onus shouldn’t be on students to reveal something that they may consider personal and private in order to challenge us. The onus should be on us to make sure that we aren’t excluding some of our students.

Students are not isolated

Students have families, friends, colleagues, communities. I cannot know whether one of my students’ parents uses a wheelchair, whether one of my students’ brother is gay and their parents have been unsupportive, whether one of my students’ housemates recently came out as transgender, whether one of my students’ step-family is Black, whether one of my students’ friends has autism.

Our students do not shed their relationships at the lecture hall’s door. We never, ever teach people as isolated individuals, plucked out of their community. Our students bring with them their loyalty and their friendships, their sometimes desperate concern and their love with them. I think it’s important to recognise that. For example, teaching that is aware of LGBTQ issues and acknowledges heteronormativity in teaching materials can signal to the student with a queer or trans sibling that this space is an expansive, welcoming one. I would rather create spaces that create room than spaces that exclude.

Students have emerging identities

Inclusive teaching means that there’s space for students to change. I wasn’t even a baby gay when I went to university; I was tentatively working out what “bisexual” meant and whether I was one but I was a very uncertain young queer. Turns out that Catholic schools really don’t give you a lot of help if you aren’t totally heteronormative! I ended up discovering things like non-binary identities and queerness and gender performance and gender fluidity from linguistics. I can point to the exact book in which I first found it, and it was a sort of star to steer by.

I try to remember that sometimes, I’m teaching my students’ future selves. Perhaps my class is filled with the opposite of ghosts, shifting glimmers of lives that could be lived. I’m lucky enough to teach in areas that often explicitly involve identity, and I often wonder what seeds I nourish and what lives my students might be leading in ten or twenty or forty years time.

Some of my students may not be queer or trans or disabled now – but who knows what will happen in the future? I would not want to be the lecturer who contributes to these students’ anticipation of hostility. Instead, I imagine spaces without fear; spaces in which students with diverse backgrounds and experiences are not continuously preparing to flinch; spaces that speak to the uncertain and scared and oppressed.

Ultimately, I am interested in creating and expanding spaces. I don’t shy away from tough issues – my research has examined police brutality, nuclear weapons and violent transphobia – and I expect my students to be able to engage with difficult issues too. I just don’t see the point of shutting out students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and instead aim to create spaces where these students can fully contribute.

Student mental health part 2

Following on from my last post about student mental health, here’s a post from the other side of teaching about making space for “quiet students”. There are some really interesting ideas there and it’s made me reflect on my own teaching practice.

When I was an undergraduate, one of the people I was taught by seemed to have an air of desperation and mute appeal whenever we scrutinised the floor rather than meet his eyes. I found it unbearable; it would make the seminars drag on (dull – I wanted to get to the interesting stuff!) and honestly, I felt kind of sorry for him. So I talked a lot (which I disliked, and disliked myself for not shutting up) but furthermore, I felt I was being forced into the position of the talkative student who risked looking daft just so that the tutor at least had something to build on. I wasn’t a quiet student, but I resented not being given the chance to be one.

When I started teaching, I was determined not to reproduce that dynamic but at the same time, didn’t want to pick on people. I think there’s room for silence as a pedagogical tool but it wasn’t something that I wanted to use on a regular basis. In addition, I knew what access requirements my students had requested; some of these requirements concerned seminar room dynamics.

Instead I got my students to talk in pairs, trios or small groups while I visited each group in turn, listening to what they had to say, encouraging them and making sure they would have something to offer. I then brought the whole seminar group together and elicited something out of each group. I don’t know how obvious it was to my students but everyone got the chance to speak in the seminar and usually did so.

Obviously this tactic wouldn’t work everywhere and in every type of seminar which is why I liked Sarah’s post so much. I also think that strategies for helping quiet students create a better environment for everyone – everyone gets a chance to participate, no one feels vaguely resentful like I did as an undergraduate, and these strategies help make a seminar a supportive environment where students can try out ideas.

Something I didn’t discuss was mental health as specific to PhD students; this isn’t due to me not caring but, rather, it being a bit too personal. Jessica has recently been writing about this – there’s more in the series, but I particularly liked PhD blues: mental health and the PhD student and Having “the chat” with your supervisor: what I talk about when I talk about depression.

I also like this post about the experience of doing a PhD while disabled or chronically ill and the sheer stubbornness it takes: disabled PhD students of the world unite, unite and take over

And yet our inability to show up has no significant bearing on our ability to contribute beautiful original things to the world. We have the experience of working successfully according to our own strategies: we must do, for how else could we be here, now? We have strategies to get around these walls in our world. We need only your support, your belief, and your acknowledgement that the stories here speak to a state of affairs whose days should be numbered.

In other words: we know how to do this. All we need is the right support, the right conditions. In this respect we are no different from any other PhD student, or any student, or any individual embarking on a project of any kind.

Every single PhD student has worked hard to be where they are. Every single disabled PhD student has had to do this work within a context where things may be harder than they are for your average bear. They are not the only ones. Nonetheless, their experiences represent a distinct category of experiences among many. As with so many things it is only by bringing these experiences before the eyes of the world that we can hope that things will ever improve.

Student mental health

I recently read a Time To Change blog post on starting university with a mental health problem and it made me wonder what advice I’d give to a student in that position.

I was an LGBT welfare officer at Nottingham and I considered it part of my role to know as much as possible about structures for student welfare and advice – everything from housing issues to sexual health – all of which stood me in good stead when I began teaching. If a student came to me with a problem, chances were that I’d know where to find information to help them – or at least know where to start looking.

Student mental health is one of the things I care a lot about and it both frustrates and terrifies me that information about student mental health can be so difficult to find on university websites. So with that in mind, here are three things that I’d especially like students to know.

Identify formal sources of support

You’ll probably be assigned a personal tutor who’ll be your first point of contact if you have any problems or issues. If you don’t click with them you can usually swap to someone with whom you’ll get on better. Some departments may have mentorship schemes where you can ask to be matched with a postgraduate researcher and have regular meetings with them.

In my experience, there is support for mental health issues in universities but these aren’t necessarily well signposted. For example, in my university, people who can help with mental health issues include department disability liaison officers (DLOs), the counselling service, the disability advisor based in the student union, the postgraduate disability advisor, the Disabled Students Network, a mental wealth group, HealthyU and a mental health advisor in Occupational Health. Because it’s a university, no one talks to each other and it seems to come as a genuine surprise to some of these that others exist.

I know, it sucks that you have to negotiate this and learn more about the arcane systems of a university than any of your peers, but on the other hand you will gain an unparalleled education in “organisational structures” and will be able to negotiate the shit out of any workplace or organisation you may end up dealing with in the future. Sorry, that’s not really much consolation.

I’d recommend talking to different people, groups and services and working out which of them are useful to you and which are not. If you don’t find a service useful or find that it actively upsets you, then don’t feel compelled to stay with it. Some people find peer support useful; others find counselling useful; others just want to check in with the DLO every so often. Whatever works for you.

Work out what you need to do to be formally recognised as disabled

Unfortunately, this is one of the things that differs between universities. You’ll probably have to contact your university’s disability office or student services to find out about this – in my experience, different departments range from incredibly clued up, helpful and supportive (like my current one) to them going “errr, you what now?” if you try asking (some others I could mention).

In the University of Nottingham, you generally start by disclosing a disability or Specific Learning Difficulty/dyslexia or a long-term medical condition. You’ll probably meet someone to discuss what reasonable adjustments you require to support your studies. Reasonable adjustments include things like getting work to you (for example, providing handouts and slides in advance of the lecture/seminar or in a different format), recording lectures, arrangements about group work, scheduling seminars, and arrangements for assessments and exams. You’ll then end up with a Disability Referral Form, which briefly outlines the nature of the condition and what sort of support you need – these then go to your department and, in turn, your tutors.

It’s a good idea to get one of these even if your mental health is well managed – the last thing you want in the middle of a crisis is someone turning around and saying “sorry, we can’t give you an extension because you’re not on record as having a disability”. Even if you don’t end up requesting different arrangements, they’re useful because they let your department know you exist – and if you ever do need additional support, it’s like a fasttrack ticket to help.

You won’t be alone in having a referral form either; both undergraduates and postgraduates have them, including postgraduates who teach. Your seminar tutor or lecturer could be among them.

Talk to us

Having taught students with mental health issues, nothing worries me like one of them seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth. I’d much rather they let me know they were alright but too anxious to attend seminars, or they’d switched medication and it was making them sleep through their alarms, or they were too depressed to leave their room. These things happen, and if the student lets the department and me know about it, we can do something about it – like move the student to an afternoon seminar group, meet them individually to help them catch up on work, reassure them about coming to a seminar or direct them to better sources of support.

It’s also better to do this sooner rather than later – let us know when there’s a problem developing rather than when you’ve got loads of work to catch up on and are feeling a horrible mixture of guilt and anxiety for missing so much work, making it impossible to approach your tutor. There are things we can do to help.

Ultimately, we want our students to get as much as possible out of university and develop intellectually, creatively and personally. Mental health problems mean that it might not be easy or straightforward, but it’s still possible to do very well – indeed excel – at degree level.

Thanks to Heather and Alex Brett for their much appreciated comments on this post

Student life and pets

I’m currently wading through critical theory but I read this article by a student who was lonely so they bought a kitten and I’m pretty cross.

Rats sleeping in a chicken feeder

Photo by K Gupta

Firstly, I’ve grown up around animals. My parents both grew up with pets and our family got our first dog when I was three. Apart from one horrible week where none of us coped, we have always had at least one dog since. We’ve also had fish, rabbits, guinea pigs, rats, gerbils and stick insects. I’ve worked at a vet’s boarding kennels and cattery, and have also worked a bit with horses.

At the moment I have five rats who live in what my mum has affectionately dubbed “the Rat Palace” and enjoy a life of luxury. I believe that animals are good for us – they provide companionship and entertainment and relaxation.

However, they’re also a commitment and I don’t think the article really addresses this.

Most degrees last between three and four years. Lots of animals live longer than this and in the case of cats, as much as 15-18 years. What’s going to happen to the cat after you graduate? Animal rescues are already full – are you going to contribute to the problem? Bear in mind that if you adopt an animal from a shelter, it may have already experienced upheaval and abandonment.

Pets can be expensive. You can get yourself into a nice routine of budgeting for food and bedding, shopping around for the best deal – but your pet can always get ill or get injured and vet fees are expensive. Somehow, animals always pick the worst possible moment to get sick. You probably won’t be eligible for PDSA vet care. You might choose to get pet insurance but read the terms and conditions carefully – alternatively, some people choose to put away some money every month into a vet fund. If you’re already struggling with money and living off beans and toast, please think very very hard about getting a pet.

Many students will move house at least once during the course of their degrees and finding a landlord who allows pets can be tricky, especially if you have a dog or cat. I’ve always checked if they’re alright with “small caged pets”. Some people just don’t tell their landlord but you’ve got to ask yourself whether it’s worth the stress, hassle and risk of losing your deposit. It can also be difficult if you want to spend the holidays with parents. If they have pets, your animals might have to be carefully introduced and you’ll have to hope that they all get on. Your parents’ house might not be suitable for a dog or cat (on a main road, allergic family members, no garden etc). If you have caged pets, you either have to work out how you’ll transport the cage or set up another, holiday cage at your parent’s home.

Please think very carefully about getting a “house pet”. It’s great if all your housemates are equally enthusiastic but who pays vet bills? who looks after the pet during the holidays? who does the not-very-fun stuff like cleaning out cages or litter trays? what happens to the animal when you stop living together? what happens if you disagree on an aspect of its care?

Student loneliness is a problem – at one point, I had three contact hours a week as an undergraduate – but there’s more to owning a pet than just wanting one. There was no way I could have had a pet when I was an undergraduate; my life was just too unsettled and I couldn’t have cared for it properly. If you’re desperate to have some contact with animals and you have some experience of caring for them, you could always offer dog walking or pet sitting services, volunteer in a shelter or even temporarily foster an animal. There are much better ways of dealing with student loneliness than going out and buying a kitten.

Reminiscing

The other day I bumped into a friend on campus and ended up eating lunch with him and a couple of other friends. Perhaps inevitably, our talk turned to Freshers’ Week – not, perhaps, tales of drunken debauchery but the question of whether any of us had actually enjoyed ours.

Later, I read this piece by a professor in a US university about move-in weekend and found myself nodding along. Marykmac tweeted about a discussion she’d had with colleagues where they’d all hated Freshers’ Week for different reasons.

Personally, I found Freshers’ Week weird. I found the general over-excitement about bar crawls and going out slightly inexplicable, I found the commercialisation at the Freshers’ Fair uncomfortable, I was dismayed by the misogyny and pretty alarmed by the inter-hall rivalries that were already springing up despite us moving in mere days ago. There was a doggedness about having “fun” – that if anyone paused for a moment in the pursuit of fun, they might realise that they weren’t having such a good time after all. Privately, I questioned whether I wanted to be at university at all, whether it was actually right for me or if I had made a terrible mistake.

Happily, Freshers’ Week is only one week. By the end of my third year I’d marched in demos, was involved in student radio and presented a weekly show, had DJed in a few clubs and at events, had done work experience at Xfm, was singing in a choir and had performed Handel’s Messiah and Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, and was living with people who’d rather go to a grubby rock club than student cheese nights. It wasn’t all great but it was much better than I hoped for during Freshers’ Week. I found that, despite my reservations about Freshers’ Week, I enjoyed playing hard as well as working hard.

So the moral of the story is that even if you don’t like Freshers’ Week and feel out of place and unhappy, hang in there. You don’t have to hang around with your hallmates if you don’t have anything in common with them. Find a few societies or clubs you find interesting – whether it’s rock climbing, flair bartending, archery or anime – and try them out. You can try things and if you don’t like it as much as you thought you might, you can join something else. You might discover a life-long passion or the best friends you’ll ever have. Then again, you might not – I met my best friend when we were postgraduates and it’s been a few years since I’ve driven a desk – but it can still be three or four years of exploring things you might not had a chance to otherwise.

Also, as a postgraduate tutor, I’d like to suggest engaging as much as possible in your seminars or tutorials. You’ll get a lot more out of it if you do and it’ll be a much more interesting seminar if people contribute. Sometimes I sneaked into friends’ lectures just to get an idea of other areas – Middle English literature, as one example. Your department might organise lectures from visiting speakers or have an annual open lecture. One of my favourite nerdy things to do was to just wander in P or PE and find books that looked interesting. These are three or four years where you can think deeply and read widely – seize the opportunity.