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While our five magnificent DfA student leaders work on designing their bios for our site, as well as the student survey we intend to conduct during Fall II, they’ve given me consent to draft our meeting notes into a public-facing post. During our first few meetings, we focused on developing truly shared expectations, and explored what each of us brings — intellectually, personally, emotionally — to our joint project.
Immediately, our students dove into experiences — both shared and unique, both interpersonal and structural — of learning in classrooms that are not, fundamentally, structured for them. While one student spoke beautifully about the complexity of being able to speak comfortably to a lecture hall full of people, as well as on an intimate one-on-one basis, but not to a group of five people, say — which got vigorous nods and murmurs of agreement from the rest of us — others swapped stories about the power of representation on mainstream television shows and the need for increased humanity in both media portrayals of dis/ability and in classroom interactions.
When we discussed what students wanted to learn throughout our time together, responses ranged from finding more abilities of their own to thrive in classrooms to discovering the specifics of how academic policies are made at LaGuardia, including examples, to provide a possible roadmap for structural change. How, our students wanted to know, can undergrads effectively convey ideas about what they need in classrooms? How can we influence not only what policies are formed, but how they are formed, at the level of our school and beyond? And how, one student asked poignantly, can students tell when professors are truly dedicated to our students?
This struck me as a tremendously important through line in many of the students’ comments: the interpersonal affect and structural impact of, simply, care. How, our student leaders kept asking, can students with various mental dis/abilities be not only accommodated, but welcomed, into classrooms? How can structure and consistency meld with, as one student put it, professors who “let everyone be human”? Pedagogically, students were seeking a balance between clarity and consistency with the empathy and care of flexibility, understanding, and approaching students as human beings.
This, though, was just our first meeting. If the first was a crucial outpouring of ideas and buzzing excitement for where the students are going to lead this project, the second was an emotional breakthrough that left most — if not all — of us in tears.
Students shared stories — stories that are not mine to share for them — of being shamed, of being taunted, of being passive-aggressively targeted, by teachers, by administrators, by classroom and university structures that do not interweave any concept of care into policies, that actively refute the humanity of students with a range of dis/abilities and language experiences. The ways that structures of racism interlock with structures of ableism rang strong throughout their stories, their experiences, my stories, my experiences, our tears and our hopes.
One student spoke extensively and beautifully about shame. He said that shaming people is framed as “a way to help you improve,” when in reality, it’s just a way to make you feel dirty and less than for the way you move in the world.
Another student wanted to make it clear that no one should “have to force [themself] to learn the way other people learn.”
There were silences and there were long bouts of laughter; there were giggles over my veganism and eagerness to eat the cheese of my pizza. (Because yes: there was pizza.)
There was, at the end of the day, the settling of a powerful feeling into our bones. As one of our students brilliantly said, he felt profoundly shaken and sad, telling his stories, sharing them with us; but he also felt, inexplicably, happy. Because he was finally in a room with people whose nods weren’t pitying, but rather empathetic; with people who had stories of our own, and shared them, not to overshadow his, but to make him less lonely in the ways he’s been shamed.
Because we were all in a room, for a purpose, that intends to transform what has been imposed on our students as shame, and transform it into structural changes that will last, that will, as one student put it, teach us how to not apologize for the ways we exist in the world.