Tag Archives: university

A Lesson in Fear

I thought that the next post up on the Headtail Connection would be dance-specific one. In fact I have a dance post, all written out, but I’m waiting on feedback from a collaborator. So very soon you’ll get the next installment of “What Is Fusion.” But in the meantime… it’s been a very trans week. The republican government is attempting to redefine protected identity categories in order to create a legally actionable definition of gender that is indistinguishable from sex-as-assigned-at-birth. The UK government has also been pursuing an update to how it offers Gender Recognition Certificates, involving a lengthy public consultation.

I wasn’t going to bring those issues here. Instead I wrote an extended post on my facebook page about actionable ways to support transgender people, which has had an incredible reach and which I will include at the bottom of this post for those interested. As much of the content of this blog is personal, it’s mostly a geek-oriented and non-partisan space.

But then I read this article by the Reynolds School of Journalism and featured on Medium.com. If you don’t want to click out on the link, the summary of the article is that Republican students on campus feel afraid, and outcast, and think their teachers and peers are acting against them for having certain political views. This seems to fall nicely under my remit as a dancer, geek, pedagogue and blogger, so I’m going to talk a little bit about that fear.

I have republican students in my classroom. I know it. I have students who support Trump, I have students who have never met a queer person, who grew up attending all-white schools, who come to school wearing merchandise featuring Native American mascots, who don’t want to have any involvement in politics, who think dance is an easy A, who don’t want to dance with anyone of the same gender, who… you get my drift. It’s a mixed classroom.

I’m a masc-of-center non-binary queer, who takes they pronouns, and advocates for inclusivity, and wears button-downs and a buzz cut, and lectures about race and gender and sexuality and representation in the arts. While the university asks me to keep my political affiliation quiet, there is NO WAY that students do not know something of how I feel about Trump and republicans and conservatism. And since my students have to write essays in my classes about race, gender, sexuality etc etc… that’s a little bit of a problem. Admittedly not all teachers will have their politics made obvious by their identity in the same way that I do, but the way these teachers frame a discussion around issues of identity and politics will usually make their position fairly obvious.

Talking with my colleagues across the university, it’s clear that not all teachers inspire the same amount of fear in their students. A teacher with a visibly marginalized identity will be seen as “biased,” and will receive treatment and teaching evaluations to that end, while a white cis-male professor can be far more politically active in his content and will be reviewed as impartial. So for someone like me, it’s really important to try and remove the perception of bias from my classroom.

So how do I do that?

At the beginning of every semester I go through the syllabus with my students, and we discuss what it means to create an environment where it is safe for everyone to learn and grow. I promise that I will grade their research on accuracy, not politics, and that I do not have to agree with everything they write for them to get an A. I hold myself to that, taking advice from my colleagues and my rubrics when I think I’m in danger of not being fair.

I make a point of answering questions and opinions from a place of historical evidence/fact rather than from a place of opinion or feeling. People say things in discussions that I absolutely disagree with – about art as much as about identity – but if there is space in the evidence as far as I know it to validate their opinion then I will. If not, “that’s an interesting interpretation and I can see how you got there but in fact…” or “I’m not seeing how you got that, can you explain some more” are good ways to start dealing with difference.

Where I do draw a line is that if a student says or writes something that is to the best of my knowledge inaccurate, it is my job as an educator to correct or clarify for them. That can be difficult to do well. A while ago a student in my class expressed doubt about the existence of white privilege, arguing that white people exist in states of extreme poverty and deprivation, so white people can’t all be privileged. In that case I clarified that yes, white people definitely do live in extremes of inequality, but that I’m talking about white privilege as a structural system that favours whiteness over other races, not making a statement that all white people enjoy the material and social security because of privilege, or aren’t affected by other forms of inequality. This system has been demonstrably proven to exist, even if its manifestations aren’t always clear. We agreed that that was a reasonable basis for discussion.

I hope that in that instance my student didn’t feel like she was pressured into agreeing with me. Since she continues to speak up in class I’m assuming not. Luckily in that case I had three other adults in the room: my TA and two university staff members, one of whom sent me a very nice email saying how much she admired my fair approach to cultural and political discussions. So I feel validated in saying that I try and treat all my students well, even if they disagree with me.

I also think that stepping outside of the white historical canon is a political act. There would be far less dissent (and less critical thinking) in my classroom if I taught canonical dance history, or used white male authors. That choice would be seen by many as politically neutral, and that by mentioning Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, or Frederick Ashton’s desire to be female (at least sometimes), I’m dragging politics in where it doesn’t belong. But these are historically demonstrable statements with a profound effect on how we understand the lives of these artists and the works that they make. If we treat all voices as equal then that means all voices, not just the ones that are easy, and don’t challenge us to confront our bias. It would make me a very bad teacher.

So what about these students who are all feeling afraid? Or other people who feel like they are being “bullied” for holding conservative or controversial views. It’s a hard call to make in academia, because so much of our history is about genius pushing through entrenched and dogmatic opposition, so it’s understandable why people want to cast themselves on the side of the oppressed genius, and keep pushing on with their viewpoint against all the evidence and odds. Both sides tend to believe that their opponents are entrenched, dogmatic, and oblivious to both the facts and the humanity of anyone who disagrees with them. They poke holes in any conflicting evidence, demand an exorbitant standard of proof, and resort to ad hominem attacks and traumatized rage in this desperate struggle to… to do what?

This is a point that I’ll try and make clearly and fairly, but my politics are going to show for a bit. It is now the desired policy of the republican government that trans people do not deserve protection against bias. It is the desired policy of the republican government that homosexual people be denied the right to services, up to and including housing and medical care. It is the official policy of the republican government to separate migrants from their children, and to house those children in brutal, inhumane conditions. It is the desired policy of the republican government that women lose their right to abortion, and to birth control. It is the official position of the republican government that climate change does not exist, and should not be discussed. That these goals and desires exist is supportable by evidence as best as I can find it. So even if they only selectively adhere to republican politics, students voting for a republican government are seeking for these things to happen, and to exacerbate. In contrast I have not seen any desired policy of the democratic party that seeks to deny social or civil rights, or services, to straight, white, or cis people. Or republicans.

There are people out there, and in my classrooms, who would argue that these are good things. That they are backed by logic and sound reasoning. I live on the internet, I have had those arguments. What I have not yet found is any good evidence supporting these policies as successful ways of achieving their intended aims. They rely on fundamental misunderstandings of economics, social sciences, biology, human behaviour, etc etc. It’s like UK austerity politics, they don’t work. We know they don’t work. All the evidence shows they don’t work. They do a huge amount of harm. Just because they sound appealing on paper to a certain subset of the population doesn’t mean that at the end of the day they work. Arguing for them is not lone genius pushing against dogma, it’s an old idea proven wrong by new evidence.

So back to these students.

We have to be able to tell students that they are wrong when they are wrong. We have to tell them when their evidence is flawed, or non-existent. We have to do it without calling them horrible people or blaming them for views they have come to through completely understandable routes. As educators we should be aware of the paucity of information available to some of our students and the bias with which much information is presented. The free availability of absolute garbage, and the algorithms by which it appears to us as truth. A big problem is that the “truth” is now an intensely political quality, and students aren’t willing to believe science and facts any more if they contradict a political ideology. And we return to this idea that students are simply trying to say what they know, in dread of the political bias and mindless adherence to false beliefs by their teachers. It’s really, really sad.

In the linked article students said that they wanted to be known as individuals before they were judged for their politics. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable ask. But I can like a student very much as a human and still desperately want to shift them from a belief that will lead to them growing up to do harm, those aren’t conflicting positions for me. I can still teach the evidence as best I know it to be true. I can still teach my required curriculum – which is about race and gender and representation – and ask students to gain competency in that. I can still follow the rules of the university, which reject bias and prejudice against statistically marginalized identities. I can ask students what they are afraid of, and weigh the potential harm against its risk, and set safeguarding measures in place. I can hold myself accountable every single time I answer a question in class, or grade. What I can’t do is let fear – anyone’s fear – rule my classroom and distort my teaching the best that I know to the best of my ability.

There is a subset or republican and conservative and evangelical and TERF fear that’s about white nationalism and homogeneity. There’s also a subset of republican and conservative fear that’s about social shame and social change. Liberals are not kind to those who they view as actively seeking to take away people’s human rights, and – I speak from experience – believing that someone loathes your very existence, and having them argue that at you like it’s rational, is a powerful disincentive to pleasant conversation. People out there are getting very, very upset about being told they’re factually wrong, because they know that their incorrect opinions are associated with a set of beliefs that are associated with monsters… and also with their parents. And their loved ones. And their churches. And their communities. It can be as dangerous for republican kids to dissent as it can be for gay kids to come out – which is pretty damn dangerous. And if they get that dissent wrong, or not all the way or fast enough, they get a huge amount of hate from both sides. I don’t think I would want to do it.

I’ve talked for a long time, and all my solutions were done a long time ago. When you politicize the truth and you hold up the humanity and life of identity groups as the stakes of that truth there is no easy way to have a debate. I will continue to try and be kind and fair and accurate in my classrooms. I wish the best of luck to anyone trying to do the same.

 

 

As promised, here is my post about supporting trans people:

I see a lot of cis people on facebook urging everyone out there to support the trans community. Thank you. But what does that support look like practically? Here are some ideas!

– Firstly, vote. Vote tactically and get the people who want to make this horrible law the law out of power. Vote.

– Offer to accompany your trans friends to the bathroom if they have to go to the bathroom in public. Don’t assume that a space is safe enough for them, show them that you’ll make spaces safe for them.

– Use the right pronouns and names for people, always and forever. If you can’t get it right, practice on your own time. No excuses any more.

– Introduce yourself with your pronouns. When you assume that everyone knows your pronouns you make non-binary people’s lives incredibly hard. You don’t have to ask people what their pronouns are, but you can offer yours into the space like all pronouns belong there.

– Speak up against sexually essentialist and/or binary language. Stop saying “men and women,” stop conflating genitalia with gender. People of any gender can get pregnant, people of any gender can menstruate. Support this in your conversation.

– Take delight in appropriately gendered language. Find out who among your friends wants to be “one of the boys,” who should be invited on a “girls night out,”who wants to talk to you “man to man.” Affirm people’s gender, even and especially when it creates a discordant image. (caveat: don’t out your friends).

– If you have money, put a little bit of it aside every month and put it towards getting trans people the transitional care they need – especially since it might be taken away soon. (Anyone who wants to give money towards my top surgery, hit me up!)

– Educate yourself, read articles by trans people about their experiences, learn how to make the case that trans people want you to make for their humanity, rather than coming from a medicalised narrative.

– Make sure that any policies you’re in charge of are trans-inclusive. “You are welcome to wear the uniform most concordant with your gender identity”would work WONDERS in the workplace.

– Does your workplace have a gender neutral bathroom? If not, ask why not. Find out where the closest facility is so you can direct people there. Is there a way for folks in the men’s bathroom to dispose of menstrual products? If not, why not? A $5 trashcan in each stall would be an easy blessing. +10 points if you can put some sanitary products in there to use also.

– Do not offer arguments against the humanity, existence, or human rights of trans people the same validation as reasonable debate. “That’s not scientifically true.” “That’s not factually accurate.” “That argument is based in transphobia.” Do not get derailed by folk who would like to pull the level of debate endlessly back to “but are they even real though?” We know the answer to that question and the answer is yes. Move on.

– Vote.

p.s. I’m not a monolith and all the trans people you know will have different ideas about this.

p.p.s. I’d really love it if as well as liking this post my friends would commit to one or more of these things that they’re going to do!

 

 

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Head Connections: Mental Health in the Dance Classroom

It’s the start of the new semester, hoorah!

Time to plan classes, make syllabi, greet new friends and old, and – for a large number of people – it’s time for the awkwardness, anxiety, and general discomfort and threat of getting your accommodation list approved by all your new professors, something that can be particularly difficult for students with invisible needs.

A few years ago statistics showed that in America, for every 1000 students with a disability only 87 would complete an undergraduate degree. That’s appalling. Unpacking those numbers is a complicated process involving cultures of stigma, the medical vs social model of disability, the mind-bending cost of the American healthcare system, the hideous pressure on teachers – adjunct teachers in particular – lack of education about inclusive classrooms… I could go on. In fact I do, I talk about this stuff at conferences and in pedagogy classes and in staff meetings and I co-founded a resources and information network within my own university. But anyway, some more figures:

The Guardian newspaper found that in the UK 87% of first-year university students struggle to cope with the stress of the transition to higher education. 60% say that the main stress is studying, while other issues include isolation, living independently, and financial difficulty. Students with mental health conditions have the highest drop out rate of any disability group in the US – 37%. In 2016 it was found that 78% of British students reported mental health problems over the course of one year, and 33% experienced suicidal thoughts.

Joe Booth, a UK activist, has been gaining support for his Take The Stress Out of Studying (TSOS) campaign, calling for standardized tests to be replaced with “a well-resourced, publicly accountable system, which supports and educates individuals by engaging them rather than pressuring them.” The most recent TSOS blog post, which can also be seen as a close-captioned video here, reports that 48% of 12-year-olds in England feel sad or anxious at least once a week. By the age of 16, 70% report feeling this way at least once a week, and 22% report having negative feelings as often as once a day.

Why all these numbers? Because I’m about to start speaking from personal experience. I know that as soon as someone with a mental health condition starts talking about mental health there’s a strong tendency from people to dismiss them, or to assume that they’re over-exaggerating the problem. I’m not. These numbers are the proof – if you need it – that mental health in our education system is in utter crisis. Now I want to talk to you about some of the things that crisis does.

I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and PTSD. I experience panic-inducing, frequently debilitating flashbacks, which can be accompanied by hyper-vigilance, depression, suicidality, nausea, disassociation, shaking… the list goes on. How often I experience flashbacks can vary from daily to weekly to monthly, and they can easily last a whole day, sometimes more. I started having panic attacks several times a day when I was 17, I have been on and off medication. I do not receive formal accommodations from my university. I am a final year PhD student.

I hid my mental health issues for around decade because I was ashamed of them. One of the main ways I justified this to myself was “I don’t need help because I’m doing fine in school.” If I could submit every assignment, pass every test, get to class… I didn’t need help. I never questioned the COST of submitting every assignment, passing every test, going to every class… because in my mind I could stop having mental health issues if I just worked harder. I could control them, and if I didn’t, it was my fault. But paying that cost every day had – of course – a crushing effect on my mental health. And then I stopped being able to do those things.

Dance valourises physical virtuosity. Dance champions the idea that the body is intelligent, versatile, adaptive, and capable. Dance does not do so well with the idea that your brain can incapacitate your body. Dance thinks of itself as a healing modality, one which you practice to get more healthy, happy, wise and well.

My biggest problem is not with academic or written work – there’s usually enough time given to those assignments that I can find some way to get around them. My biggest problem is that during a flashback I should not dance. Doing so makes my skin crawl, makes me want to vomit, makes me want to curl up on the floor. Dancing forces me to do the opposite of what I need to do, which is stop, listen to my self, and allow myself to come back to a place that I feel safe in again. The pressure from dance as an institution is that dance class IS a safe place, and if I would just try and be present and in tune with my body then the problem would go away. It doesn’t. Interestingly, ballet is slightly easier than other forms because I know what’s coming in a class. I know I CAN get through a class or, in fact, hold down a performing career. But I need to be able to make choices about when to make myself keep going, when to do less, and when to make myself completely stop.

Trying to tell dance teachers about this problem:

“So you have some feelings…”
“No, I have a panic disorder.”
“So you have some big feelings.”

“It doesn’t look from the outside like there’s a problem.”

“Why don’t you just start class, because you’re not injured, and just see how you go?”

“But you seem so happy.”

“I understand, sometimes I feel terrible too, but dancing always helps.”

“If you’re sat on the side you need to be watching and writing and to hand that in at the end so I can see you’re still engaged with the class.”

Sigh

All of these responses are very well intentioned, but all implicitly ask me to accommodate to the class by admitting that I need less.

In contrast, the absolute best response that I have had from a dance teacher whom I went to about this problem was this:

I don’t understand the problem, but I trust you. I will not ask you why you’re sitting out of my classes. You can tell me if you want to. You can answer questions or offer observations from the side or not as you are capable. But I will accept your assessment of what you can and can’t do on the expectation that you will do as much as you can, and that is healthy for you. If you want to walk out of the class at any point and go home, you can do that too.

I can already hear teacher’s hackles rising. I know the argument you want to make: “but what if students just use this as an excuse to get out of class whenever they’re feeling tired or stressed?” “What if what they really need is the encouragement to just try a little harder?” “What if they miss so much class that then they can’t do the work?” “I understand that YOU want to try hard and do everything, but most students, if we give them that option, will start missing class left right and center just because they’re having a bad day, and they’ll never get jobs or graduate.”

To which my answer, frankly, is: then make your classroom one that students want to be in, and your content things that they want to learn. Set clear expectations about what you want every student to know and be able to do, and hold them all to that, rather than their ability to be physically present in the room. If students aren’t doing as much as they can, their grade will drop. That’s not your problem. Your problem is giving everyone the opportunity to learn and the space for their efforts towards learning to be fruitful. If your students are not meeting your expectations, you can instigate a process to ensure they do so, and hold them accountable to that, but first you have to believe in what they say they can and cannot do, and what they need to do the things you want.

It is not a teacher’s job to decide what a student’s internal experience of mental health actually is, or what accommodations they need. This gets us into the dangerous territory of “psychological ownership” – a term coined by Julia Gleich and which we blogged about together a few years ago. In a nutshell it means that while you may have educational authority over a group of students, it does not mean you have authority over their lived experience. Teacher’s set expectations for learning and professionalism, and students work out how to meet those expectations, or if those expectations are unreasonable and need negotiation. Again, I hear the problem “but I don’t have the time to design thirty different classes and thirty different rules for thirty students based on their needs.” So don’t. Design a class that meets a broad range of needs, minds, and bodies upfront, and then only adjust for the unexpected. Mental heath issues should be expected in every single university classroom at this point, and failure to plan for them in the face of the statistics above is just asking for more work later. Build inclusivity into your syllabus and your classes and you benefit everyone, including yourself.

Some specific suggestions: at the beginning of each semester teachers usually set out expectations for what students should do if they are injured or sick. What if they added expectations for a mental health event? I’ve heard of teachers bringing red beanbags to class so that students could signal “don’t call on me today.” You could call one part of the class the quiet corner. Red socks mean, “I’m doing as much as I can, but that’s not everything.” Students who have disclosed a mental health condition can leave, and make up the time in another class, or by submitting a physical practice journal/video. Have an exercise that doesn’t involve touching as a ready backup to partnered touch work. Bring mental health out into to light of your classroom, and kill the stigma faced by individuals who overwhelmingly feel like they’re a burden, and alone.

I know I’ve gone on for a long time, but one more point: I’m a grad student. Grad students also teach. In my institution you are not supposed to cancel classes, and I teach a lecture course, which requires a lot of preparation to sub. That means that I frequently get up and teach while mid-flashback, and let me tell you that is not something you ever want to have to do. Funnily enough some of my best performance reviews come from my worst days because I’m so in control of my breathing, my affect, my pacing etc. Mental health issues have taught me to be a better, and sought-after instructor. Teachers have mental health issues too, and I am not trying to set up a binary or an opposition with this post. But when it comes to teachers I don’t really have any answers for how to tackle the problem at a cultural or institutional level, and I think that changing the culture for students might lead to some.

In the end I want more people to be able to be in more classrooms, learning what they love. I want more people to be able to talk about the mental health crisis in academia and how it affects them. I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to pay the dreadful costs of hiding and silence until they can’t pay anymore. I want dancers and dance teachers to value excellence and professionalism as personal qualities, not as scripted performances. I want everyone reaching out to be seen as an authority on their own experience, without feeling like they have to play down their needs, or like they have to play their needs up in order to deserve help.

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

P.s. A note on responses.

This blog has a lot of readers, who give me both support and backlash. I always appreciate both as long as they’re considerate of the fact that there’s a human being on this end of the keyboard.

I just disclosed a lot of mental health stuff that I don’t usually talk about. I am aware of the risks of doing that just as I go on the job market! I hope that people will employ me for my skills and abilities as a dancer and teacher, and – like I said – trust my capacity to do any job that I apply for. I am not unique for what I can do with these conditions – I am just one voice of a very common problem. I have amazing friends, I go to therapy, I have the support I need to make my voice heard, and I hope it chips away at the walls in front of other people.

Image from the Guardian’s series of sketches inspired by the university mental health crisis.