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Well, It’s Been A Year™: On Listening and Student Leadership

From consent-based pedagogical practices to assigning fan fiction in my first-year composition class, this has been a year of delving deep into what anti-ableist pedagogy means to me, and how emotional health needs to shape this conversation.

More importantly, though, this was a year about listening.

Listening to the five brilliant student leaders we worked with on this project, and fighting for their voices to be prioritized rather than fetishized, decision-makers rather than props.

Because I had the privilege of meeting weekly throughout the year with our D4A student leaders, I think my experience with this project was fairly unique. Not quite a professor (I teach, of course, but I’m not a full-time faculty member and don’t, career-wise, want to be) but not quite a student (I’m defending my dissertation in November, but I haven’t been an undergrad for some time now), my position was an exhilarating one.

The students and I cried together, laughed together, ate guacamole together, and developed an array of inside jokes that kept us going amidst emotional breakdowns, horrific discrimination, and anxiety attacks. The bond we developed was, I think, the most generative part of this project; because it’s that bond, and consent-based project creation and activism rather than strict agendas and one-sided lectures, that made D4A something that will stretch beyond the realm of funding situations. It’s the ownership the students had over the direction of the project that ensures that it will last; because they want it to, and together, we’ve been developing the tools all year to continue this advocacy as a healthful lifestyle rather than an anxiety-inducing obligation.

Because the students were given completely free-reign to choose their own projects during the second part of the D4A year, they came up with totally different projects that all reflect their personalities, experiences, passions, and immense intellect. Individually (one project per student), our student leaders:

  • analyzed professors’ behaviors in relation to student feelings of safety in class participation (and, sure enough, the preliminary survey data we’ve accumulated suggests that professors’ attitudes are the biggest factor in student engagement);
  • interviewed employees in the Office for Students with Disabilities to determine holes in services and best practices for getting students what they need;
  • interviewed his fellow LaGuardia students to uncover the emotional impacts on motivation that required classes have on the student body;
  • developed a proposal for integrating high school students in special education programs into college life to ease their transition; and
  • recognizing his privilege as not, himself, identifying with having a dis/ability, our final student documented his fellow leaders’ efforts in a video project introducing D4A, a trailer for the project, of sorts.

(These projects will be featured on our website soon!)

From the magnificent range of methodologies and presentation styles and topics our five student leaders generated, it was a huge takeaway for me that giving students free reign to investigate what they think needs to be investigated and presenting it in a style that works best for their learning style is tremendously important.

We can’t in good faith call students student leaders if we structure our programs to actually allow students to lead. The humility required to genuinely take this approach is a massively important part of anti-ableist pedagogy, and it’s one of the biggest things I learned from this year.

However, the student leaders were also very quick to assert what they needed (which I was thrilled with them for!) when I was loopy with giving specific guidelines for their projects. Giving students clear, bulleted lists of tasks to be accomplished, and specific dates and criteria, is hugely important in alleviating student anxiety. So, finding a balance between empowering students with consent-based project choices and also alleviating anxiety by being clear and consistent with expectations was a priority this year.

I find these realizations to be a huge part of anti-ableist pedagogy, since our student leaders were constantly emphasizing how the methodologies we were using in meetings — always allowing ample time for settling in and emotionally checking in, while having a clear and consistent structure for the rest of the meeting — were important to the ways they need to exist in learning/working spaces.

From these thoughts emerge my biggest “coulda-woulda-shoulda” from this year’s D4A work: sure, there was everything from massive scheduling issues to meetings-to-plan-meetings that interfered with efficiency, but those things seem to be part of the structural culture of LaGuardia. Therefore, those struggles, for me, sort of blend into the background.

More specific to our mission and our project, though? The entire D4A faculty coulda-shoulda-woulda been much more involved with the students and their projects. The insights that our students offered, consistently and brilliantly, throughout every aspect of this project, cannot just be conveyed by one (part-time!) professor to other (wonderful, full-time) professors. It set up a dynamic of relaying information from those most marginalized in school structures (students of color, most of whom identify as having dis/abilities) through me (a white, trans, part-time faculty member with mental dis/abilities) to the other D4A faculty members. It worked fine in a pinch, but structuring in deeper levels of contact with students — and I emphasize structured in, because our faculty did often contact/work with our students, but more on their own time than what was structured into the program — for all project faculty is the main thing I would recommend for future iterations of this project.

These projects — indeed, all projects of this sort — need to be led by students. We did a good job at this: our students (with the dedicated and powerful help from Justin Brown and Priscilla Stadler) created our survey (data and report forthcoming!), and they created brilliant projects that will shape how we talk about D4A moving forward. However, weaving formative interactions into more of the everyday structure of the project for all faculty and staff involved would be even better.

It’s been A Year™ indeed.

And thanks to our brilliant student leaders, I wouldn’t have it any other way!