Professor Big Hair at Super-Big-Box University and the Soul Murders of Academic Ableism

This occurred years ago. I’m in the story or it’s the fellow I once was, a dupable man, barely 40. Many disabled have versions of this and while my variant happened at a university it doesn’t require ivory towers. You just have to be a cripple who, miracle of miracles, lands a job.

**

Back then I was naive and imagined a warm reception from my new faculty colleagues. As a creative writing instructor hired into a tenure track job at a large and reputable university I thought I was joining a team. But as I crossed the threshold I knew something was wrong the way one senses the floor in a dilapidated house has weakened and you shouldn’t set foot inside.

**

The blind require assistive technology. Without it we’re at a tremendous disadvantage. As I began my teaching career at Super-Big-Box University my talking laptop and software had yet to be delivered.”That’s OK,” I thought, “people will understand my situation.”

I was wrong.

**

The back story about Super-Big-Box U and my place in it is ugly. It’s funny about ugly employment stories, those involving discrimination, those ones, those those those ones, they don’t unfold slowly. You, Mr. Ms. newly arrived have already been set up.

More of the back story: my mother died the night before I taught my first class.

**

My mother’s death shouldn’t matter though it was horrific and I was charged with telling the doctors to stop their efforts to resuscitate her. She bled to death from botched heart surgery.

I went to class.

**

What I didn’t know but would learn–though not quickly enough if you know what I mean–was the creative writing program hadn’t wanted to hire me in the first place. The larger English Department had a say in the matter and voted heavily in my favor. The CW faculty had a narrative. It went like this: “There must be something wrong with him. He doesn’t know how to teach at our level.”

Forget my best selling memoir and a brand new book of poems from a major press and a long academic resume–the Iowa grad degree–there had to be something wrong, something terribly wrong.

**

Black academics and people of color, women, queer and trans folks know the story. If “intersectionality” has a qualitative spoken pejorative dimension it’s this: “there has to be something wrong.”

The disabled are especially vulnerable to this because in the meritocracy where everyone must run far, jump high, and read fast they’re obviously faking it. We don’t belong in the classrooms, seminars, laboratories, lecture halls–(try to find a lecture hall with a ramp leading to the platform). Higher ed aims to keep people like me at a distance. We have to be fakers. We’re certainly not as smart as we pretend to be.

**

There was a woman on the faculty who was fiercely opposed to my being hired. She had big hair which shouldn’t matter but she’d bring it up in every setting. “I have big hair,” she’d say. And repeat it. Anyway she couldn’t contain herself and during my interview asked: “how can you teach if you’ve been out of the academy?” (One might conceivably reply: “how can people within the academy teach?”)

My publication record and credentials couldn’t defeat the ableist suspicion I was a faker.

**

Another faculty member, a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy asked: “how can you write so clearly about the world if you can’t see?”

It was a creepy question, one of those stuffed potatoes Black folks and People of Color and Women know all too well. It means: “how can you be one of us when you’re just pretending?”

**

In “Helen Keller: A Life” by Dorothy Herrmann the following passage jumps out:

It was largely a lonely triumph. As the twenty-year-old Helen soon discovered, college was not the “romantic lyceum” that she had envisioned. At Radcliffe, which had been forced to accept her as a student, she was more profoundly aware than ever before of her blindness and deafness. Only one of her classmates knew the manual finger language. Another girl had learned to write Braille, copying as a present Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, but Helen never heard from her after graduation. The other students tried to be friendly whenever they saw her at a local lunchroom, and according to Helen, “Miss Sullivan spelled their bright chatter into my hand.” But she was painfully aware of the gulf between them, even though her classmates tried to bridge the gap by such lavish, awkward gestures as buying her a Boston terrier, which she promptly named Phiz. Presumably the dog would compensate her for what they were either too timid or too busy to give and what she secretly longed for: “the warm, living touch of a friendly hand.”

Here’s another revealing passage:

Of Helen’s professors, only one, William Allan Neilson, who later became the president of Smith College, took the time to master the manual finger language so he could communicate directly with her. As Arthur Gilman was closely associated with the college, she and Annie were politely ignored by the rest of the faculty and administration, including the autocratic Agnes Irwin, the dean of Radcliffe, and the august Dr. Charles W. Eliot, the head of Harvard.

The snub did not surprise Annie, who was still furious about the plot at the Cambridge School to separate her from Helen. “I would much prefer to have people despise me as they certainly would if they guessed how full of distrust and contempt my heart is towards my fellow beings,” she wrote to Hitz. “I know it pains you to hear me speak in this way and doubtless it will hurt you still more to have me write it: but I want you to know just how detestable I am. I find people hateful and I hate them. Mr. Gilman seemed to me a fair specimen of our noble race. . . .”

“Radcliffe did not desire Helen Keller as a student,” Dean Irwin later explained to an interviewer. “It was necessary that all instruction should reach her through Miss Sullivan, and this necessity presented difficulties. They were overcome and all went well if not easily.”

Helen was wounded whenever her classmates passed her on the stairs and in the lecture halls without a sign of acknowledgment. Most of her teachers were “impersonal as Victrolas,” she recollected years later, and “the professor is as remote as if he were talking through a telephone.”

**

At far too many colleges faculty and administrators are still “impersonal as Victrolas”. You need only visit the web site LD Online for an overview of the struggles students with learning disabilities face when asking for accommodations. Or you can visit the U.S. Department of Justice page and read about the findings against American colleges including Duke University, Chatham University, The University of Michigan, Swarthmore College, Colorado College, Millikin University, The University of Chicago–on and on.

**

Meanwhile, back at stately Big Box U…

First day, six grad students, no talking computer, I asked people to introduce themselves.

Funny how this works. I said that without my assistive technology I’d need them to help me for a couple of weeks.
They didn’t hear it. For them technology meant game boys and things you type with. That one might need it for reading, well that wasn’t conceivable.

The disabled say things the able bodied people hear in only their own terms.

And so…

I asked the students to read aloud.

One woman, incensed, dropped out of the class.

She reported me to Professor Big Hair.

Big Hair accosted me in a hallway.

(Bigots love hallways and know how to use them.)

“Mandy says you’re making students read aloud. That’s not teaching!”

I explain.

“That’s not teaching!” She repeats herself. “Big hair! Big hair! Not teaching! Not teaching! Not one of us!”

**

Vivian Gornick wrote a brilliant essay some years back called “at the university: little murders of the soul” in which she relates how arid and disappointing it was to be a visiting professor of creative writing:

I once worked in a writing program in the South where another writer working with me was a woman my own age from New York. This department also boasted a Black Mountain poet as well as a novelist who wrote magic realism and a philosophic nature essayist. Before I left New York people said to me, “What a golden company you are fallen among. You’re in for a winter of great conversation.” As it turned out, none of us had very much to say to one another.

Gornick details how the faculty avoided one another and also made themselves unavailable to newcomers.

You can only imagine what happens when the newcomer is blind.

Some other things Big Hair told me:

I’d need a third published book for tenure, and not the two required of other faculty.

I wasn’t hired to teach more than one genre, though of course I was.

And in turn, my recommendations as to which students we should accept were not just ignored, they were scoffed at.

Back to Gornick:

I taught my classes, read, went for long walks, sat at my desk, and spoke nearly every day with someone in New York. Yet, increasingly, I became more and more aware of those around me with whom I did not: talk or walk or eat. “Why doesn’t he want to know me?” I’d find myself thinking as I collected my mail. “Why doesn’t she want to have coffee?” walking across the campus. “Why don’t they invite me to dinner?” in the middle of reading a student paper. The faces of my indifferent colleagues appeared in the air before me, occupying not my thoughts but a space on a field of inner vision. Gradually, these faces appeared so often they made the space shimmer, and then the field itself expanded to accommodate my unhappy concern. New York receded in imagination. My friends became voices on the telephone. Every day now the people who did not speak to me loomed larger than those who did.

**

Imagine teaching classes when the narrative has spread that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Now add the rank and file indifference Gornick describes, a wholesale unwillingness to engage with others, but especially outsiders.

Stir in ableism, the belief that the nondisabled are superior, and voila! You’re got the inertness of bigoted silence.

**

I later discovered the student who disclosed I didn’t know how to teach had been dispatched to my class by Big Hair. She essentially did Big Hair’s bidding, declaring me incompetent. Ableism 101. What’s interesting is this student went on to have an academic  career, one in which she presumably imagines herself exemplifying opposition to normalcy.

Ableism is still on the plate. It’s quite possibly what’s for dinner at the parties I’m not invited to.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

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