Your Syllabus

Yes, it’s that time of year again: time to revisit your syllabi. My last post before the start of the Fall semester is all about asking your syllabus some hard questions. In it, I discuss how you might productively reflect on your syllabus by considering its tone, the message it sends to students about you, your course, and your field, and what its Accessibility Statement says about your approach to accessibility, equity, and teaching & learning.

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Teaching Depression

H.E.A.R.T.: An Introduction to Human Rights at McMaster

“There are many types of disability,” she explained, “including visible disabilities and invisible ones, like mental illness.”

This was a brilliant, (seriously) amazing, articulate, and engaging Program Officer talking; she works for the office of Human Rights & Equity Services here at McMaster. I had attended a presentation that she and a colleague gave a few years ago. In only an hour or so she was able to engender in her listeners a deep understanding of the difference between accommodation & accessibility, the difference between focusing on accessibility vs. disability, and with both words and body language was able to communicate the important point that rather than being based in fear (of giving offense, or of looking bad or closed-minded), in pity (for people with “problems”), or simply in trying to avoid awkward or tense moments, accessibility is about creating a positive, open culture, wherever you are.

So I emailed her when I knew I had a week to prepare for a workshop I had volunteered to lead, titled, “Creating Safe & Open Discussion Environments in Tutorials.” (Catchy, eh?). I wanted to communicate that sense of positive excitement to workshop participants. I wanted to be able to emphasize that working towards greater inclusion is a positive, creative process, and not just a question of fearfully avoiding exclusion.

Isn’t that nice and warm and fuzzy? The people at Human Rights & Equity Services do the topic better justice than I do. In any case, this is all by way of explanation for my involvement in a discussion of visible and invisible disabilities. Not to mention my response to the statement that opens this entry.

That response was: “Huh.”

With that  sage utterance, my eyes slid from respectful, attentive eye contact until they hit the ceiling–the point at which my eyes could not have gotten any shiftier without rolling right back into my head. So yeah, they kinda just slid to a stop there, staring vacantly at the perforated ceiling tiles.

Let me try to transcribe the incisive analysis that was going on inside my head at that time:

Visible and invisible disabilities. Got it. Check. Mental illness can be seen as a form of disability. Right. Makes sense.

Hey, isn’t depression a mental illness?

Wait. I have depression.

Sitting there slack-jawed and all thoughtful, all I could come up with was:


Protected Grounds

Everything the Program Officer was saying made a lot of sense. She did not offend me. She did not say anything offensive, or exclusionary. In fact, everything she said was helpful, and insightful, and she was able to effectively and carefully communicate that the protected grounds that Ontario & McMaster recognize in their anti-discrimination policies are in many ways limited and limiting.

It’s a familiar catch-22. Recognizing “difference” creates space for those who might otherwise be excluded. But it also implies that there are those who are “normal” or “average,” who are the norm from which all others who are different deviate. Difference becomes deviance. Thinking about difference in this way is problematic because it requires accommodation on the part of so-called normal, healthy, regular people. However, creating labels or categories surrounding identity allows some people to be legally or professionally recognized for who they are, at least in part. It gives people the legal framework by which to assert themselves as whole persons, as legal subjects, as worthy human beings. But, labels are also notoriously ill-fitting.

If I understood the Program Officer at HRES correctly, I think her point was not only that people need to recognize difference and protect it, but that we also need to recognize that difference is everywhere and ever-present; difference can be small or invisible but it can also be noted and stigmatized; that we are different people, even, from one day to the next; and that, finally, difference doesn’t exist so much as ubiquitous diversity does.

So what made me go all strange, then? I did not feel like I was being called a name, or was being forced into a category. I did not chafe at the idea that having depression might be thought of as a disability. Because there are times when I am most certainly disabled by depression. There have been times in my life in the past few years where I have literally been unable to emote. At all. Happiness, anger, interest, gratitude– I recall meetings where eye contact was nearly impossible, and where focus certainly was unattainable. This was the case only last week. In fact, the past few weeks have been a bit difficult. At times in the past few days I’ve felt great. At other times, I feel alien in my own body. When I get feeling like that–foreign to myself–it can be incredibly uncomfortable being with people. I can recognize the people around meke as people I like, and as people I would like to engage with. I can also recognize that I’m in a social or professional environment, which demands certain behaviours from me–smiles, nodding, uh, you know, all those tricky things like verbalization, acting like a human being, whatever. I can recognize these things, but I cannot act on them. My body seems to disconnect from my mind; at the same time, my mind disconnects from my body and the moment it’s living in; it might decide to take a wander or go ’round in squirrely circles much like this.

People with more severe depression may experience it in a way that is much more disruptive to their professional and personal lives than this, to be sure.

So recognizing mental illness as a disability does not irk me. That’s not what threw me off during my meeting at HRES. What got me was that in order to ensure that my depression might not become grounds for discrimination, or feel confident that I can seek accommodation for having a rogue mind or a vacant automaton body at work, it’s not just that I would have to claim a disability–that I might be less or differently-abled than those around me, say–it’s that I would have to first claim to be mentally ill.

Not mentally different. Mentally ill. Unwell. Unhealthy. Mentally not-good.

Teaching Depression

It’s funny for someone with I-dunno-how-many years of formal education to be deemed mentally not-good. Eff you, medical system! But why I’m writing today is because talking with the kind and knowledgeable Program Officer at HRES about accessibility has allowed me to recognize both that I’m excited about the shifting discourse surrounding accessibility and equity in North America,  and that there are aspects of this discourse that make me uncomfortable. I think this is what people in the biz (the teaching biz, of course) call “productive discomfort.” I also think this is whay we might refer to as “good teaching.”

My meeting at HRES reminded me of what a strong, competent teacher is capable. She is able to teach and inform, lead and guide, but she is also able to make that learning process open–open in the sense that it becomes multi-directional and open-ended. The Program Officer at HRES  showed me that a strong teacher has the ability to give you the space and the authority to feel discomfort, and to feel it comfortably, if that makes any sense. I left that meeting ready to explore something that has nagged at my for quite some time: not why being called mentally ill might be problematic (that one’s self-explanatory, I think); but why education projects aimed at destigmatizing mental illness make me feel creeped out, and perhaps a little bit angry.

And that’s the point to which I hope to return next week: how could I possibly be against the destigmatization of mental health disorders?