In the book "Mama, Ph.D.," my essay that tells of the very nonlinear path I took into academia and parenthood, begins with the phrase “I woke up on the first day of classes, at my first tenure track job, and I didn’t know where I was.” I recall vividly the thought process I then went through, and can even picture the poster I looked at on the wall as I did so. I knew instinctively that I could not let anyone at my new job know that I was obviously losing my mind (although several students have since told me of having similar experiences after nights of intense celebrating.) I also knew that I needed to figure out where I was, and that my disorientation was more than my unfamiliarity with my new apartment. In a process of what economists would call “thinking on the margin”, where I weighed the costs and benefits of reaching out for help. I eventually decided to call my parents several states away, where my sister told me where I was and what I was doing there. “Oh, yah. I don’t teach today, do I?” was all I could say to her. I was lucky, since I did not need to teach that day, the day my brain tumor decided to make its presence known.
I thought of that experience when I read a recent essay in Inside Higher Ed, along with its responses. The essay notes that academia is particularly unforgiving for those with mental or neurological illnesses. Much of our hiring process is based on situations that demand language and social skills that may be particularly challenging to very intelligent people with these conditions. A lively debate unfolded in the comments section of that article, with some saying that such interactions were a part of academia, and those without social skills should not expect entrance into that world. Others countered that academia is changing, and that these skills are less important than they were in the past. I wanted to add my “two cents” into the discussion, as both a parent who believes that every parent has the job of helping their children discover their own giftedness and as a person whose brain was temporarily assaulted by outside forces.
My colleagues in the Biology department tell me that diversity is important for the survival of a species. This is because we cannot always assume that the world will not change, or that characteristics that are advantageous today will also be advantageous tomorrow. This particularly applies to academia, which is changing rapidly with the advent of on-line courses and different delivery systems. In the midst of this evolution, we don’t know what skills will be necessary in the future, and which will not be. To dismiss a subset of people as not being suited for this evolving world is to limit ourselves to the way things are in the present, without regard for how different the future might be. Perhaps the university of the future will be especially suited for people with the kind of skills that are currently classified as “disabilities.”
I also want to point out that, with the help of health insurance (that started four days before the tumor was diagnosed) and an excellent hospital, I was able to recover from the run-in with a brain tumor, and, despite needing to take some anti-seizure medicine, live a very typical life (I have not gotten lost in my own home anytime since.) Although I was clearly not going to earn tenure at that first job, I found another job that in many ways is more suited for me. Also, as some in the discussion have alluded to, the status of being “disabled” is a very fluid one, one that can change from day to day. Many of us who think of ourselves as being healthy (as I did, all through grad school, as a tumor the size of an orange grew in my head) are only a thin line away from being in the ranks of the disabled, while those who are disabled (as I was, for quite some time as I recovered) are capable of someday being very productive.
I recall one theology professor from college saying something along the lines of “it is the nature of the beast not to make it.” In the end, we will all be disabled, in some way, and in the end, there will be a final disability that will draw our lives to a close. When thought of that way, the line between (healthy) “us” and (disabled) ”them” is only a temporary one, and not worthy of much thought. What IS worthy of thought, however, is the question of how academia can create a just world for all its stakeholders, students as well as faculty, administrators and staff, where we can all productively pursue the goal of uncovering and passing on knowledge.
And what kind of world should that be? I propose that, in the tradition of the philosopher Rawls, it is a world that we would like to see our children grow up in, without knowing, ahead of time, just who they will be or what we will discover their particular giftedness to be.