Tuesday, 26 June 2018

‘Not What I Paid For’: Ableism, Evaluations and the Academic Life

Written by Aparna Nair

It was that time of year again.

The semester drew to an end and the university sent us enthusiastic email reminders to get students to evaluate our courses. ‘Evaluate NOW’, screamed the emails and signs posted all over campus. This semester, I caught myself instantly deleting that first notification as well as the later more urgent reminders. It was a futile gesture, since I nonetheless made sure to get my classes to fill in the evaluations. But for the first time in my academic career, I was genuinely anxious about the impending possibility of reading an evaluation report. Admittedly, 2017 was uniquely rough. A stressful year teaching seven courses was complicated by personal losses and the low hum of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, making it one of the most difficult of my life. I spent most of the year in a haze of auras, as my epilepsy had become rather recalcitrant.

And then I got these comments in my student evaluations:

I know she is sick. I know that she needs to sometimes bring her support dog into the class. I get it. But she missed classes. I know her TA took over, and that she caught up when she returned. But that is not what I paid for.

I expect more.

I don't want to hear about her illness. She gets paid to do this. WE are paying her to do this. She just needs to stop talking about it.


Even as I type the words, the shame rolls over me.

Evaluations like these raise the question of how academics who openly lay claim to disabled or chronically ill identities should respond when students demonstrate open, almost casual - certainly deliberate - ableism in evaluations. There is nothing in the faculty handbooks, endless trainings and workshops about being confronted with such blatant ableism.

I have lived with epilepsy for a very long time--I was diagnosed at the age of 11. In the deeply traditional and conservative South Asian cultures where I grew up, difference was neither encouraged nor tolerated and conformity was consistently rewarded. As a result of my illness, I experienced isolation, marginalization, derision, stigma and violence. After nearly two decades of concealment, I made a conscious decision to stop pretending that epilepsy was not a serious part of my life. Why, I thought, should I deny something that impinged on my every waking hour in ways that people rarely comprehended? Why did I need to pretend I was ‘normal’ (which my family had desperately wanted me to be) when I knew how illness marked me as different?

So, I ticked off the ‘Yes, I have a disability’ box when I applied for the position I have now, nervous and uncertain as to whether it made me just too marginal for a deeply conservative public university. I lay open claim to an epileptic identity as being part of the reason for my research agenda on disability studies and disability histories in South Asia. I design and conduct workshops on disability in university settings with a wonderful collaborator, and discuss what it means to be a chronically ill faculty member and how to ensure that our classrooms are accommodating and welcoming to disabled and chronically ill students. I publish autoethnographies on epilepsy in South India.

And every semester, my hands still shake when I tell students that I am epileptic in that first introductory session of every course. I strive for a matter-of-fact tone, and tell the classes that while this is not something I would usually share, there may be some times in the semester that my illness becomes uncontrollable and I might need to cancel a class. I then reassure them that this is factored into their syllabus and semester planning and that they will not lose out in terms of learning. Interestingly enough, my disclosure has consistently impelled students to share their own chronic illnesses or disabilities with me in private and I am very grateful for this, since it means I can make accommodations for them and design the class around their needs as well. But I have also come to realise that my initial fears about this act of public disclosure were not unwarranted.

For most of my teaching life, evaluations have always been the space where students expressed themselves anonymously and openly about their professors, without fear of reprisals. Evaluations can be funny and frivolous; trite and tough. Most of us who teach have been embarrassed at some point or the other by what seems to us sometimes unfair, occasionally inapposite ‘bon mots’—from comments on our sartorial choices (‘I loved his t-shirts’ to ‘He wore the same shoes all semester long’) to condemnations of our general affects (‘She is very opinionated! And expects you to agree with her’) to the student’s pondering what on earth we were doing in our chosen professions (‘I don’t know why he is teaching, clearly he is happier in the lab’). But evaluations can also be serious and help us adapt our teaching styles, our evaluation methods, our reading assignments and other pedagogical choices. I learnt that students liked blogging, but that they did not think that they had enough time to work on their exercises in class. I learnt that students will always have mixed opinions about group work, but that it is nonetheless useful. I learnt how the complicated courses I taught on race and empire and disability were received emotively and intellectually, and those responses were profoundly important in developing my courses in certain directions. So I had accustomed myself to opening my evaluations with the certainty that I would find useful information on my course design and assessments along with the more frivolous comments.

But I am at a loss as to how to respond to the casual ableism in my student evaluations, ableism which will become a part of every job application, every promotion and tenure application. It will be misinterpreted and decontextualised by committees and administrations and will eat into my teaching accomplishments or my research portfolio. For many people who see these comments, my epilepsy will circumscribe my abilities and skills.

How then do we respond to ableism in evaluations? I must admit, I am left only with questions. One option is to mention nothing of epilepsy at all in my classes. But it feels dishonest and just wrong.

So I can tell you how I have learnt to cope. I try to focus on the students with whom I seem to be connecting, the ones whose work is wonderful, who challenge me in class and whose presence in my classes is a true joy. And there are many of them. I have begun conducting my own evaluations in class, asking students what worked and what did not—and these are often more detailed feedback for adapting my pedagogical approach in different classes.

My methods do not always work. I sometimes feel like Sisyphus, and wonder if there is any point. I wonder if the affective (and physical) toll of being ‘out of the closet’ in academia is worth it at all.

And, in the meantime, it is more than a month since my evaluation reports were published. I still have not clicked on the link that takes me to the report.

Maybe next month? Or maybe not.

About the Author

Aparna Nair currently works as Assistant Professor in History of Science at the University of Oklahoma-Norman. She teaches on disability, race, empire, medicine and public health and her research explores colonialism and disability in British India as well as the meanings of chronic illness in modern south India. She blogs at http://disabilitystories.com.